Harking Back: The urgent need to excavate Lahore and Sialkot

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, May 17, 2015

An amazing new proposition about the origins of Lahore and Sialkot is slowly emerging among academic scholars, and that being that these two are ancient cities of the ‘Late Mature Harappa’ site? Though it is too early to suggest any such proposition, new evidence certainly does point in this direction.

It is certainly enticing for those interested in the history of Lahore and Sialkot to propagate an ‘imagined past’, which is firmly in the realm of fiction. What is needed is research grounded in verifiable facts. That is the way serious academics work. For them what is critically important is the availability of concrete evidence, verifiable evidence, based on research carried out in a scientific manner. This is important if we are to explain our existing understanding of how life emerged in the Punjab, starting, if possible, from the melting of the ices on the northern mountains as it flows towards the sea.

On a wider plain this should merge with our (current) understanding of life as it unfolded in the subcontinent, as also the world around us. The academic world of historiography has seen the emergence of ‘World History’ becoming increasingly important. We have transcended to the ‘whole picture’ way of thinking, where the people, rather than kings, are critical in the understanding of change.

Three major happenings determine our current understanding of Lahore and Sialkot as ancient cities. Firstly, we know that much before the Aryans began to slowly migrate eastwards (there never was any invasion) beginning 5,500 years ago right up to 500 BC, the Dravidians, or Mediterranean-Australoid, (Read B.. Edwin, 2001, ‘The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate’, Oxford, pp76-107) had begun to move towards the subcontinent almost 20,000 years ago via the Baluchistan coast and along the coasts of the subcontinent and beyond. New research places them earlier (RC Majumdar, Dravidians in Ancient India, Motilal, pp18). The earliest composed verses of the ‘Rig Veda’, clearly the Punjab’s earliest recorded work, clearly mention their genetic features. The linguistic evidence of this is the Brahui people of Baluchistan. The excavations of Mehrgarh (10,000 BC to 7,000 BC) are currently known as the beginning of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

As these people moved up the Indus and its tributaries, along the way came Mohenjo-Daro, then Harappa, then Taxila and Swat in Pakistan. There was a similar drift towards eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan. With the coming of the Aryans and the evolution of caste-based Hinduism saw the population drift further eastwards. The Gangetic civilisation was coming about. The recent Rakshigarhi excavation (still ongoing) in Haryana seem to date that Harappan city as being 2,500 BC to 1,500 BC old.

This ties in amazing well with the classic work, ‘Ashtadhyayi’, of that great Sanskrit grammarian Rishi Panini of Taxila University, who mapped the linguistic parameters of the subcontinent. His finding, based solely on linguistic parameters, led him to draw an amazing line almost the same as the current Pakistan-India border, though a little eastwards.

To these historic shifts if we, secondly, add the results of the 1956 Lahore Fort excavations and the recent Lahore’s Mohallah Maullian pottery findings carbon-dating readings as being 4,000-3,500 years old, the logical conclusion seems obvious that Punjab cities like Lahore and Sialkot were the bridgehead to the Harappan Age move eastwards.

Here a massive anomaly faces us in Pakistan. Over the last 30 years there have been over 1,127 excavation sites on the Indian side of the Harappa Civilisation region (which comprises only 18% of the total area) and only 21 excavation sites on the Pakistani side (which comprises 73% of the total area).

At world forums the Indians actively dissuade foreign archaeologists and scientists from visiting Pakistan because of ‘security threats’, which we cannot deny, and should not in all honesty. Add to this a dearth of Pakistani scholars in this field of any standing and we are left high and dry.

This brings us back to Lahore and Sialkot as a ‘Late Mature Harappan’ sites. A recent study of the shifting River Ravi over the ages, ironically by an Indian scholar at Oxford University, shows that the river has over the last 5,000 years flowed by and near the city of Lahore, curling around its seven high mounds. These flows and the course of the annual monsoon floods, has clearly shown the ‘safe areas’ of Lahore. A similar explanation of high ground has been put forward for Sialkot. It makes sense that both these ancient cities could have been inhabited well over 5,000 years ago. The safe mounds of both Lahore and Sialkot provide the finest ‘resting places’ for humans and animals when floods run over the plains.

Mind you just as a measure of a half-way point in time, we know that Alexander the Great passed Lahore almost 326 BC or almost 2,350 years ago. He, however, razed Sialkot (‘Sagala’) to the ground as mentioned by Arrien the historian of Alexander. He calls them both ‘ancient cities’. It makes sense to assume that even then they were considered ‘ancient’ cities.

Based on these currently available ‘verifiable’ evidence, it seems reasonable to assume that both Lahore and Sialkot were ‘Late Mature Harappan’ cities, both serving as bridgeheads to people moving towards founding the Gangetic Civilisation. That is why it is important that both these cities, at least the old portions of them, be declared ‘areas of archaeological interest’. It is important, and I would say very important, that basic archaeological work be undertaken in at least five sites each in both cities. The demolition of historic buildings must be effectively, not only in law, be stopped and commercialism be pushed back.

Here I must repeat my own experience at Mohallah Maullian inside Lohari Gate in Lahore almost three years ago. As I passed a building site (a historic building demolished to be replaced by a concrete godown) I noticed that 12 feet deep in the dug pit emerged the arches of an older building. A shopkeeper told me that this was the norm. It struck me that we had an older city below the present one.

To add to the evidence the interested reader should visit sites inside Delhi Gate, especially the Shahi Hammam and the Mosque of Wazir Khan. At both these sites experts of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture have found the original floors (relatively recently from the days of Akbar the Great) to be eight to 12 feet below the present top surface. Mind you this space was outside the original old walled city before Emperor Akbar expanded the mud-brick walls of Lahore with burnt-brick walls, which sadly no longer exist.

The question now is that will we make an earnest effort to push back the timelines of our history to suit the reality as they really were? Will we recognise that there is an urgent need for research and archaeological excavations inside the walled city of Lahore? The manner in which we approach these important issues is how the world will imagine us in the future. This is what the current generation owes to our future generations. But then do we really care?



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