Rakhigarhi- A Monument to Continuity

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Rakhigarhi- A Monument to Continuity


Author: Pratul Agarwal is a history major from Ashoka University. He is very passionate about proto-Indian history, particularly the Harappan civilization.


Overview
In the center of the Ghaggar-Hakra basin, Hisar district, Haryana, lies perhaps the most significant archaeological site of the subcontinent. Spread over an area of approximately 400 hectares (Shinde et al. 2012, 48), Rakhigarhi is the largest Harappan site that has ever been discovered, exceeding in size even Mohenjodaro (45).1 Rakhigarhi was subjected to minimal excavations under Dr. Amarendra Nath during three seasons, between 1997-98, 1998-99, and 1999-2000 (Nath 57). Nath identified a total of seven closely integrated mounds labeled RGR1-7. Of these seven mounds, RGR1-5 form the core area which measures about 60 hectares. Preliminary results suggest that the site extends to about 2.5 kilometers from this core area (Shinde et al. 2012, 48). Nath also reports two other Harappan sites in the vicinity, namely Arada and Rakhi-Khas (Nath 7-8), which could be a part of the extended Rakhigarhi metropolis.2

A look from atop mound 3. Two more mounds, awaiting excavation, lie in this general direction

I have personally visited Rakhigarhi on two separate occasions; once in January of this year and again in March. During my first visit, I was lucky enough to witness the commencement of the new season of excavations at the site. I was in town to attend the annual Rakhigarhi Mahotsav, where I had the chance to interact with stalwarts of the field such as Dr. Vasant Shinde and Dr. Sanjay Manjul. My second visit was in collaboration with the History Society of my college. This time around, I was able to observe the meticulous ways in which archaeological data is collected and classified. I am writing this paper as a culmination of my experiences at the site and my interactions with Professor Shinde. I shall also use existing archaeological data wherever necessary to delve into topics of cultural and historical continuity in the context of the Harappan civilization.

Bhoomi Poojan being done by Dr. Sanjay Manjul (Joint Director General, ASI) to commemorate the beginning of the latest season of excavations

A 21st-Century Harappan Village

Ram Sharan Sharma writes in his “Identity of the Indus Culture”:
“Rakhigarhi…. its known remains, lag far behind those from the two Indus cities” (Ram Sharan Sharma 35).3 However, one look at the site and its antiquities completely nullifies this statement. Apart from the sprawling mounds, Rakhigarhi also boasts a highly developed drainage system, a fortified citadel, fire altars, and typical Harappan pottery and sculptures (Dikshit 25-26). The RGR2 is said to have been a production center, as is evidenced by the high concentration of carnelian debitage on the northwest slope of the mound. One can only imagine the abundance of the material culture at Rakhigarhi since a vast number of pot shards and bangles can be found strewn on the surface across the expanse of the site.

A look at the northwestern slope of RGR 2. Notice the debitage on the surface

Perhaps the only thing that can come close to the site in terms of inspiring fascination is the modern village of Rakhigarhi. Imagine taking a time machine back to 2400 BCE when the Harappan civilization was at the peak of urbanization, and you will stumble upon a scene not very dissimilar to what you can observe today, almost four millennia later. The village is laid out in the typical Harappan grid pattern, with streets crisscrossing each other at 90-degree angles. However, such is the irony of time, the town planning of the Harappans was probably far more sophisticated than the one on display in the village today. You might also stumble upon Harappan grinding stones and saddle querns being used in several households. Even the drainage system that is currently employed in the village bears a striking resemblance to the Harappan drainage systems, albeit it is much worse both in its construction and maintenance.

A street in the present-day village of Rakhigarhi with an uncovered drain running down the middle and a partially covered drain in another part of town. I have a feeling the Harappans would not approve of this!

However, nothing can take away from the fact that the villagers are well and truly the primary and major stakeholders of the land of their far ancestors. All year round, they take care of the site, preserving it for the world to see. They show a very keen interest in the history behind it, following diligently the orders of the ASI officials working at the site. A lot of credit behind this mutual relationship goes to Dr. Vasant Shinde, who has worked tirelessly to make the villagers aware of the site and its importance, as well as to keep the work being done at the site as transparent as possible. The general apathy of the government has not been able to cumber the villagers’ spirits and their devotion to their pitras or ancestors.

A look at the desolate and borderline uninhabitable houses built by the government in an effort to relocate the villagers living on Mounds 4 and 5

It is only fitting that a female skeleton from Rakhigarhi was the first to provide us with ancient Harappan DNA, thus bridging the existing gap in our knowledge of the genetic composition of the subcontinent’s population. This find is also putting to rest the age-old question of whether agriculture and subsequently civilization, was brought to India or developed indigenously. The report suggests that “in South Asia as in Europe, the advent of farming was not mediated directly by descendants of the world’s first farmers who lived in the fertile crescent. Instead, populations of hunter-gatherers…. began farming without large-scale movement of people into these regions” (Shinde et al. 2019, 5). Further research could very well establish that agriculture and civilization resulted from indigenous developments and not foreign interventions.

RGR 7- Burial No. 7 of a woman from Rakhigarhi, currently housed at the National Museum, New Delhi

Folklore and Rakhigarhi

Sarasvati drishadvatyodeva nudor yadautaram
Tandeva nimitam-desar Bramhavarttan prachalechate

“That region, made by the gods, which is between the Sarasvati and Drishadvati rivers is called Bramhavartta” (Nath 8). These verses from Manu-Samhita describe the region of the Brahmavartta as being situated between the Sarasvati and Drishadvati rivers. This would span the modern districts of Rohtak, Kurukshetra, and Hissar, wherein lies Rakhigarhi. Interestingly, the site is also positioned between the paleo beds of the Ghaggar-Hakra and Chautang rivers, identified by many scholars as the Rigvedic Sarasvati and Drishadvati (Dikshit 12, Puri 175-191, Nath 11, Oldham 1-27). Other important Harappan sites such as Sothi, Siswal, Mitathal, Balu, and Daulatpur are also situated in the plains of the Chautang or Drishadvati (Nath 11).

The importance of the Sarasvati in the Rig Veda cannot be understated. It is the most praised of all rivers, described as ambitame (the best of mothers), devitame (the best of goddesses), and naditame (the best of rivers) (Nath 10-11). Sir Aurel Stein can be credited with identifying the Ghaggar-Hakra River with the Rigvedic Sarasvati for the first time (Stein 173-182). Stein also discovered almost 50 proto-historic and early historical sites along the banks of this extinct river (Misra 168). We now know that the Sarasvati, so highly exalted in the Rig Veda, reared more Harappan sites than even the Indus (170).

Rijamrksanyane rajatin harayane /
Rathin yuktamasanama susamani // (RV 8.25.22)

The word Uksanyayana used in the above rig vedic hymn denotes the region of Haryana as being suitable for (establishing) a bullpen (Nath 9). Bulls also occur predominantly in Harappan seals (Kenoyer 59) and sculptures (Riya Sharma 750). It should also be noted that bull-driven carts are still in vogue in this part of the country, and the breeds are some of the most sought-after.

An impressive specimen of a bull, with a cart not very different from the ones we can observe in Harappan sculptures

The fire altars of Rakhigarhi further strengthen the notions of continuity at the site. During excavations, Nath reported Yoni-Linga-style fire altars in RGR1. He also discovered vastupuresa and chiti fire altars with Linga-type structures inserted in them (Nath 111-112). It can be inferred from this that the inhabitants of Rakhigarhi were worshiping Fire (Agni), Phallus (Linga), and Yoni almost four and half thousand years before the present. Even the burial practices observed at sites such as Rakhigarhi and Kalibangan including the geographical location of the cemetery, offerings of goat and cattle, and presence of earthen utensils, are extensively comparable to the ones prescribed in texts like the Rigveda, Atharvaveda, and the Satapatha Brahman (130, 132-133, 143, 159-162).

A modern-day mazaar on top of RGR 2. The villagers have a peculiar tradition of depositing cremation ash in earthen pots on this mound

Conclusion:
This paper is an attempt to present a comprehensive picture of cultural continuity in the context of the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi. From daily life to socio-cultural practices and traditions, the past permeates the present in ways that are yet to be fully understood. Sites such as Rakhigarhi are a cornucopia of knowledge about our heritage that should be subject to detailed excavations so that more aspects of our glorious past can be unearthed. This is just a small contribution to the rapidly growing need of studying continuity in a more holistic way and on a much larger scale.


Notes

1 The discovery of two new mounds in the latest season of excavations along with the two more that were unearthed in 2020 can push this area to about 550 hectares, almost twice the size of Mohenjo Daro. However, this data is yet to be published.
2 I have called Rakhigarhi a metropolis in reference to Nath (66-67) where he proclaims that about 23 protohistoric satellite sites existed around Rakhigarhi in a radius of about 10-15 kilometers. He explicitly calls the site a metropolis.
3 The two cities that Ram Sharan Sharma is talking about are Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.

Works Cited

Dikshit, K. N. The Rise of Indian Civilization: Recent Archaeological Evidence from the Plains of ‘Lost’ River Saraswati and Radio-Metric Dates. Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, vol. 72/73, 2012. Accessed 15 June 2023.

Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. Birth of a Civilization. Archaeology, vol. 51, no. 1, 1998. Accessed 15 June 2023.

Misra, V. N. The Role of the Ṛgvedic Sarasvatī in the Rise, Growth and Decline of the Indus Civilization. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol. 82, no. 1/4, 2001. Accessed 15 June 2023.

Nath, Amarendra. Excavations at Rakhigarhi (1997-98 to 1999-2000), Archaeological Survey of India, 2014.

Oldham, C.F., Notes on the Lost River of the Indian Desert, The Calcutta Review, No CXVII, 1874.

Puri, V.K.M. Origin and Course of Vedic Saraswati River in Himalaya- It’s Secular Desiccation Episodes as Deciphered from Palaeo-Glaciation and Geomorphological Signatures, Proceedings of the Symposium on Snow, Ice, and Glaciers, Geological Survey of India Special Publications, Vol 53, 2001.

Sharma, Ram Sharan. Identity of the Indus Culture. East and West, vol. 49, no. 1/4, 1999. Accessed 15 June 2023.

Sharma, Riya. A Study of Terracotta Bull Figurine of Harappan Sites in Rajasthan (Indian Context). Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 79, 2018. Accessed 15 June 2023.

Shinde, Vasant et al. An Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Steppe Pastoralists or Iranian Farmers. Cell vol. 179,3 2019.

Shinde, Vasant, et al. Rakhigarhi and the Harappan Civilization: Recent Work and New Challenges. Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, vol. 72/73, 2012. Accessed 15 June 2023.

Stein, Aurel. A Survey of Ancient Sites along the ‘Lost’ Saraswati River, The Geographical Journal 99 (4), 1942.