A look at Pakistan’s historical heritage and world UNESCO side Mohenjo Daro

A hundred years ago, some of the world’s most famous archaeologists stood on the same spot and experienced a thrill that you are feeling right now. In 1922, there was nothing remarkable to see around – except a few earthen mounds and a nearby Buddhist stupa. Still, as excavation teams removed mud and silt to expose wall upon wall of red brick, the sense of excitement and wonder in the camp was palpable.

The discoveries these archaeologists made and the theories they put forward to explain their findings paint a vivid picture of what life would have been like in the city below.

An enlarged statue of the fabled Dancing Girl graces the grounds of the Mohenjo-Daro excavation site.
An enlarged statue of the fabled Dancing Girl graces the grounds of the Mohenjo-Daro excavation site.

Imagine standing in the same place at 9 o’clock on a breezy December morning, circa 2500 BC. Half a continent away, the ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom and the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia are beginning to stir from their slumber. However, the city below—a neat grid of mud-covered, red-brick buildings, simple to look at but remarkably organized—must already be bustling with life.

In the distance, charioteers and bullock drivers will be yelling at people to get out of their way as they rumble through the city’s main thoroughfares, the latter bringing fruit and grain from the fertile fields all around.

Merchants, grocers, butchers, and artisans would be hawking their fares from small shops as well as the city’s formal markets, calling out to shoppers in a strange language we’d never heard or understood. will be able to

Children will be playing with terracotta toy animals or running through the streets, buzzing by groups of quiet priests heading for the city’s famous Great Baths or its sprawling monasteries. From the open courtyards of the houses, flames of smoke rose, the smell of baking bread and cooking meat.

At the corner of Metropolis, city administration officials will supervise the repair and construction works.

Municipal authorities will inspect the complex, remarkably sophisticated drain network to ensure that it is functioning properly, and will also ensure that the various public ‘dust bins’ are satisfactorily disposed of. has been cleared.

Terracotta toy bull-cart unearthed from Mohenjo-Daro during excavations, with driver and miniature pots.

There, in the quarters of a large guesthouse, traders from far-flung regions would be exchanging stories as they unwinded from their long journeys across the mighty Sindh or the plains of Sindh and Balochistan.

One of the paths leading out of the fort area led to the city’s noisy docks, where workers unloaded goods while fishermen inspected their catch and prepared their hooks and nets for their onward journey.

In the evening, men and women would gather for dice games, board games, singing, music and dancing. There would also be eateries, buzzing with laughter and activity where “[…] townspeople would probably meet to chat over food and drink, and the latest peccadilloes of the city fathers would no doubt be abundant. Foods were enthusiastically sold. Strong drinks,” as envisioned by Ernest McKay, one of the archaeologists who excavated Mohenjo-daro, in his book The Indus Civilization.

The outgoing year marks a full hundred years since Mohenjo Daro was first excavated in 1922, shortly after its discovery by RD Banerjee, an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India.

The city was excavated in several phases under successive directors of the Archaeological Survey of India in the years following its discovery, but activities eventually slowed due to lack of funds and post-Partition turmoil. Further excavations were finally banned in 1965 due to fears that the structures that archaeologists had already discovered were being eroded by the weather.

Since then, work at the site has focused on curation and conservation. UNESCO and foreign consultants lead much of the effort in collaboration with local archaeological departments and museums.

The most well-known part of Mohenjo Daro is what is known as its fort district. This area, about 60-70 feet above the Lower City District, was the administrative center of the city and contained important city buildings, such as the Great Bath, a building believed to be a college of priests, and what is believed to be This is the grain of the city.

It is identified with the 2nd century Buddhist stupa mentioned earlier, which is believed to have been built over an ancient building of religious significance to the people of Mohenjo-daro. The image of the Stupa taken near the Great Bath is famous on the back of the Pakistani 20 rupee note.

To its northeast, a jumble of red-brick walls of varying heights, laid out in an orderly grid, marks the site of a large-scale excavation. It is the D area of the lower town of Mohenjodaro. It comprises the largest excavated area of the residential district, where people lived in multi-storied houses.

It was here that the Priest King – a small statue of an important-looking, bearded man in a robe – was found by the Indian archaeologist Kashinath Narayan Dixit in 1925-26. This sculpture has become one of the most enduring symbols of the Indus Valley Civilization over the past century.

Replica of the ‘Priest-King’ statue displayed at the on-site museum at Mohenjo-Daro.

In the middle is the VS area, where some sophisticated residential buildings, numerous interesting artifacts, pottery kilns, and human and animal remains have been found. Looking to the extreme right, on a slight rise, is another large excavation – the HR area, excavated by archaeologist Ernest McKay, who oversaw the site from 1926-31.

This is where, in 1926, Mr. McKay found the Dancing Girl. A treasure which is now in the possession of the National Museum, New Delhi, was ‘allocated’ to India at the time of partition.

It’s also where, according to my accompanying guide, Mohenjo Daro’s most potters and metalworkers seem to be.

Walking through its streets, you can still see remnants of their work — pottery sheds and broken terracotta bangles — littering the plains.

Qasim Ali Qasim – former Director of Archaeology, now retired, points out that the excavations in total constitute only 10% of the original city of Mohenjo-daro.

“In 2014-15, I oversaw a dry-core drilling study that determined that Mohenjo-daro is much larger than we thought. It extends to the banks of the Indus River as well as “Also beyond the [Mohenjodaro] airport,” he recalls during our conversation.

Wonder what new treasures and wonders are still buried beneath its sands.

The ancient city was known simply as Mohenjo Daro – ‘Mound of Death’ – for several thousand years after its fall. It’s an unfortunate misnomer, considering the city was once a living jewel, the pinnacle of an ancient civilization whose people apparently lived simply but well.

Mohenjo-daro was, by all accounts, a peaceful, cosmopolitan city that seemed to be primarily concerned with trade. Scholars do not believe that the inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro were a warrior people, as no significant cache of weapons has yet been found, and the few weapons that have been discovered were good only for hunting purposes.

It seems that in sharing their prosperity, people were able to avoid conflict for most of their history. This society, which is believed to have consisted of several ethnic and racial groups, is considered egalitarian, even proto-democratic, as no great temples or palaces were ever found during its excavations.

It is believed to have been ruled by a priest-king or governor appointed by a council of elders elected by the community or by some other higher authority in the Indus Valley Civilization.

A terracotta jar with detailed plant design and other motifs, housed in the Mohenjo-Daro Museum.

Be it in their arts and crafts or their municipal sophistication, the people of Mohenjo Daro were way ahead of their time. Some of the sculptures and figures unearthed in the early years of excavation made archaeologists wonder at the feats of these people.

For example, The Dancing Girl continues to delight people thousands of years later when it was cast by a coppersmith from Mohenjo-daro. It is amazing not only for its aesthetic value but also for its craftsmanship. The people of Mohenjo-daro also seem to have made elaborate toys and elaborate ornaments, paying particular attention to both form and function in their handicrafts.

The city’s utilitarian planning, construction and complex drainage system are certainly no less than art. It has been said that instead of displaying their civilizational achievements through megaliths and ornate architecture, they planned their settlements to maximize their utility for the inhabitants.

Pottery sherds showing the different decorative motifs used to beautify terracotta vessels.

From the abundant water supply, to the uniformity of proportions in the baked clay bricks that they built, the layout of the residential areas, the orientation of the streets, to the wide drains that allowed residents to work on their upper floors. Bathrooms were also available. Houses – The entire city of Mohenjo Daro is a marvel of civil engineering.

It is fascinating to wonder what their philosophy might have been: why they saw fit to devote so much energy to making their people’s lives as comfortable as possible, even as another contemporary civilization was devoting its energies to building the pyramids. was

Cleanliness appears to have been a fundamental principle of their lifestyle, if not integral to their belief system, and the scant excavations so far have uncovered at least 700 freshwater wells. There are springs that once irrigated the houses and public facilities of the city. .

Not only this, the aforementioned drain network that runs through the city was carefully covered and designed in such a way that it does not cause any inconvenience to the residents of the city.

Many houses also seem to have had their own latrines and bathing areas, some even on their first floor, which were carefully drained to outside drains through terracotta pipes and water drains.

The language used by the people of the Indus Valley Civilization has generally puzzled historians and remains a mystery to this day. The only artifacts that have been collected are seals and amulets, which appear to have been widely owned.

Most of these seals depict various animals, human figures and even deities in what is known as the Indus Valley script. Some simply depict inscriptions.

The animals depicted on these seals are varied and numerous, including the so-called ‘unicorn’ – a mysterious creature that appears very frequently and seems to have been of great importance to the people of the Indus Valley. Is. Other animals include two different types of bull, rhinoceros, tiger, rabbit, gharial, elephant, deer and buffalo.

There is evidence that the people believed in a very early form of Hinduism, one of the deities represented in these seals resembling Lord Shiva, and others in the later modern Hindu belief system. Looks similar to the gods.

The centenary commemoration of the discovery of Mohenjo Daro is a reminder of why the ancient settlement was abandoned.

The monsoon season of 2022 caused widespread flooding in the area around Mohenjo Daro. The site itself was damaged in the rain. The widespread flooding of the region wreaked havoc on local communities, leaving many people homeless and destroying crops all around.

Even in early December, many months after the last rains, many surrounding fields remain under water. Due to the extremely high water table, it is difficult, if not impossible, to extract them.

It is interesting to note here what the archaeologists who excavated Mohenjo Daro said about the decline of the ancient city. Writing in his book, The Indus Civilization, Ernest McKay noted: “The collapse of the walls and wells on two separate levels of the city, far below each other, proves that Mohenjo was flooded early in its history. . Daro and that started his downfall […]

Mr. Mackay explained that while Mohenjo Daro itself was never significantly flooded because it was significantly higher than the surrounding plains due to constant reconstruction, “[…] water probably spread for miles, and stopped all trade and commerce for many. months. It would be a disaster for the people, because of the character of its buildings, not less than the fact that it traded with other countries. , proves that their city was a flourishing trading center.”

This would have led to the eventual collapse of Mohenjo Daro’s economy, triggering the eventual exodus of its people from the area, who would have dispersed in search of new, safer homes.

One of the many wells of Mohenjo-daro, with remains of the city in the backdrop.

Mohenjo Daro faces another age-old threat: the region’s saline soils, the result of once-well-watered lands, have become increasingly fertile over time.

Salts in soil dissolve in water and then travel to the surface through porous materials such as silt or clay bricks. When water evaporates, it leaves behind a coating of salt crystals. These crystals are extremely destructive and will crumble the bricks that are formed on them.

Writing after the initial excavations, Mr. Mackay noted, “Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, which are built almost entirely of burnt brick, are so heavily stained with salt that even to this day, a glimpse of rain is an enormous quantity. Produces I. Crystals that crush the newly exposed wall surfaces.

The same happens during rare frosts in Sindh. The subsidence of the dunes is slowly but surely reducing their height, while their area is correspondingly increased by debris carried down from above. Masonry a foot or so below the surface is certainly not affected […]”

“When wind, rain, or an excavator’s speed removes the surface layer of dust and exposes fresh masonry, it gradually wears away,” he observed.

Mr Qasim, former Director of Archaeology, explains that the once towering walls of Mohenjo Daro have reduced in height over time due to this trend. The challenge gets worse during winter. He recalls that in 2001 a national fund was set up for Mohenjo Daro to combat the effects of climate on the cultural heritage.

An SOP was created under the supervision of UNESCO for maintenance and conservation in all four seasons. Unfortunately, after the 18th amendment, all archeological sites were given to the provinces.

The experts working on them were also distributed among the provinces and since then there has been a constant shortage of trained personnel.

“The subsequent organizers of Mohenjo Daro never fully understood the place. You really need to know how the site behaves during the year. In some seasons, the day and night temperatures are 10 The degree can fluctuate, which can make a huge difference in conservation efforts if not managed properly.”

“Maintenance and conservation are very technical. They have to be done on schedule and before the weather changes. If they are left, disaster ensues. This is what we saw this year, when the place was hit by monsoon rains. 20 to 25 years of conservation efforts have been wasted due to failure to stick to SOPs,” he said.

discovered at Mohenjo-Daro

One Hundred Years of Decline

At Mohenjo Daro, Ali Hyder Gadhi, one of the conservation engineers working to protect the site, takes me through his responsibilities, which have taken on more urgency this year after the monsoons.

During a stop in the fort area, he points out a Buddhist stupa to point out some of the damage done to the site by the monsoon rains.

“Now you can see the geotextile we used to protect the original wall of the stupa. It is exposed. We built another mud wall over it to act as the sacrificial layer. was washed away by the rains.” has been terminated.

Since the structures are in a rather fragile state since this year’s monsoon, staff and tour guides are keeping a watchful eye. They give an immediate warning if they see someone trying to scale a wall or walking past someone.

Unfortunately, most visitors do not feel the safety of this place. Additional measures, such as complete closure of the site on gazetted holidays, have also been taken to restrict the movement of people to the site.

A drainage plan for the site is currently the first concern of those working to protect it. In some of the excavated buildings, especially in the D area, rainwater accumulated in large quantities during monsoons, damaging the integrity of their excavated walls.

Later the ground level in the area had to be raised with dirt to force the water out.

Concrete pipes have already been poured into the foundations of some walls in areas where natural drainage has proven difficult. As we discuss these additions later, it suggests to me that some of Mohenjo Daro’s 4,500-year-old drains are still functioning and carry considerable amounts of water away from the site. The one that drains the great bath has been particularly helpful.

Mr. Gadhi emphasized that the biggest problem facing the conservatives is the lack of political interest in Mohenjo Daro. “A lot of money is spent on conferences and workshops where experts from all over come to tell us things we already know.

For example, we know how to use clay mortar to protect exposed walls: people in the villages around here have been doing it for centuries. What’s the point of spending funds to train our people on something they already know?

Instead, we should be given more resources so that we can arrange the materials and manpower needed to do the job.

However, this will never happen if our politicians do not take an active interest in Mohenjo Daro and its needs.

Upon request, Mr. Gadhi leads me to a hitherto unexcavated area where new ruins have been exposed after heavy rains have washed away the topsoil. It is an unremarkable corner a short distance behind the Mohenjo Daro Museum.

As we explore the area, he points to several patches on the ground to show me where a vague rectangular shape of red brick is starting to peek out. He traces the curved edge of what he believes to be a well with his foot, noting that nothing is growing where the walls of the well would be, but his exact There are bushes in the middle.

We also stumble upon ancient pottery shards and a broken terracotta bangle, likely deposited after the area was drained. “None of this was here before the rain,” he tells me.

The emergence of ruins tells Mr. Gadhi that it was a mistake to allow a primary school to be built nearby.

“We allowed this school to be built thinking that there would be nothing under the ground. Now I think there will be ruins too and we have given away that land.

Asked if the builders of the school ever told their team if they found anything while breaking ground, Mr. Gadhi says that even if they did, they did not inform anyone because it would have meant The project will be closed. “Then how did they get the money?” he asks.

Telling the story

Reconstructed jewellery, including terracotta bangles, believed to be in the fashion of what was worn by Indus Valley women many millennia ago.

Later, as we walk over to the on-site museum, some staff members narrate anecdotes of public apathy and politicians’ disinterest in the place. They speak sadly as they recount how foreign visitors have sometimes offered money for its prehistoric bricks.

“It’s only them who seem to have any care about this site,” one says. I am told a shocking anecdote about how the scions of a powerful political family once allegedly took priceless artefacts home from the Mohenjo-daro museum, and it was only after extensive pleading and praying that they were returned back.

As I walk around the considerably modest museum, there is an inescapable realisation that a major national and global heritage is being grossly neglected and squandered. Museum labels are missing from the displays, so visitors cannot really understand the significance of the many millennia-old artefacts.

I am reminded of the museum at Harappa, which seems in comparison to have been considerably better equipped, stocked and presented than the one here.

Mr Qasim regrets how Mohenjo-daro is gradually falling into disrepair. “This was not just a site of national importance but a global one. A World Heritage Site, as designated by Unesco.

“Forget global; after the 18th Amendment it seems it is no longer considered important even on the national level. The provincial government has turned it into a prop for its political narratives around Sindhi nationalism, even though the Indus Valley Civilization was much larger than any of this.”

It is tragic that we may never get to uncover more of Mohenjo-daro. “Even the 10pc that has been excavated is something we have not been able to protect,” notes Mr Qasim.

“Most of the superstructures have been built anew. This is not archaeology. You are supposed to protect what you have uncovered, not add to it or rebuild it.”

“If you excavate further without the means to save it, you will destroy what remains of this heritage. It’s much better to leave what is in the ground buried. Unless we find new technologies or methods to protect the site, what is already there is all we will get to see,” he says.

The museum and archaeological site’s shortcomings are also symptomatic of a larger problem: for a place that offers so much promise, adventure and mystery, its administrators have been woefully unable to tell its story right.

The wells, streets and drains of Mohenjo-daro are remarkable, no doubt, but they quickly become monotonous for the younger visitors. It is deeply disappointing that apart from the few plain signboards marking the site of an important discovery or the larger boards explaining the basic features of each excavation area, there is nothing else that can help visitors navigate the city while interacting more closely with it.

There are no visual aids on the excavation grounds that can help an ordinary visitor imagine how the city, its inhabitants and their everyday life must have looked like; no model or scaled recreation of any of the important buildings that it may be more fully admired.

It is left entirely to the visitor’s imagination to make of the place what they may, and it is not surprising that after the novelty vanishes, many seek to entertain themselves by climbing and tinkering with its architectural features.

The two murals that do attempt to show what the city may have looked like once are now both faded. In any case, they lack much detail. Despite the museum hosting an interesting array of artefacts, even if the collection is modest, there has been no attempt to demonstrate how these objects may once have been used.

They lie there on glass plates, lacking any significance for the ordinary visitor apart from the fact that they are very old. This is a grave injustice.

There are at least two other Pakistani museums that come to mind that, relatively speaking, do a much better job engaging visitors. One is the Lok Virsa Museum in Islamabad, which has recreated many different village scenes to better portray Pakistani culture and also to depict our history in an interactive form.

The other is the Army Museum in Lahore, which is flashier and does an even better job with its visually striking scale models and recreations of important historical moments, even if the intellectual enrichment it offers is nothing compared to what a similar effort at Mohenjo-daro could do.

Even the Mohenjo-daro souvenir shops lack appeal, selling wares that seem bereft of aesthetic quality. In fact, the tacky imitations of Indus Valley artefacts they are selling only reinforce the impression that we seem to be holistically doing much worse than the people who lived here more than 4,000 years ago.

This needs to change. The Sindh government is sitting on a tourist goldmine if it gets its act together and pays its heritage some attention. With the northern areas the go-to destination for holiday getaways, Sindh must capitalise on the rich history of its land if it wants to tap the growing domestic tourism market.

Larkana is no longer a backwater — it is well-connected with good roads and within a very manageable distance from the country’s largest city. However, it will remain cut off from the traveller’s imagination as long as it fails to capture it and engage it.

With Mohenjo-daro, the Sindh government has all that it needs to make a big mark. It is sad that it seems to be so lacking in imagination that it does not know what to make of a place that otherwise should be on every traveller’s itinerary.

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