Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
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RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001
Cradles of bygone cultures
The writer teaches Archaeology in the Department of History, Delhi University. She has written several books and articles and is the editor of The Decline and Fall of the Indus Civilisation.
My childhood notion of great civilisations was anchored around rivers, especially those that used to be called the "cradles of civilisation" - the Euphrates-Tigris in Iraq, the Nile in Egypt and the Indus in India. I grew up imagining that the rivers with these incantatory names endowed the great crescents of their alluvial lowlands with such gentle, fertile environments that, across the ages, they had the status of "perennial nuclear regions" or natural bases for human settlements.
Now made wiser by my profession if not my age, I feel at least a tentative awareness of the dangers of imposing such a pattern upon the flux of human existence. For more than 99 per cent of that huge span of time which constitutes the past of humankind, riverine plains were actually areas of relative isolation. During the Stone Age, which ended less than 10,000 years ago, it was the upper reaches of rivers that were pivotal for people and passage. For all the renowned achievements of the Harappan civilisation, the first stone tools of the Indian subcontinent, about two million years old, were produced not in the lower plains of the Indus but in the vicinity of its tributaries in the rugged Siwaliks of north Pakistan.
The beginnings of agriculture too cannot be traced to the great river basins. One of the reasons may be that the wild progenitors of wheat and barley which came to be domesticated, did not exist in the basins of the Nile and the Euphrates-Tigris. In the Gangetic area, wild rice is found in the Belan river valley which constitutes the plateau fringe of that zone. That is where the first communities which domesticated rice lived, rather than around the Ganga. Similarly, it was on the banks of the Bolan on the Baluchistan rim of the Indus valley that the earliest agricultural community of the Indian subcontinent came into being. This community lived and farmed in Mehrgarh and its c.7000 BC pattern of agriculture, based on wheat, barley, cattle and sheep only reached the Indus flood plains after many millennia had elapsed.
Once a certain level of sophistication in agricultural practices had been achieved, riverine lowlands were intensively settled and cultivated. This depended for success on surveying techniques that allowed the prediction of water flow times and enabled river water to be conducted through a system of irrigation channels. Around 3000 BC in Mesopotamia, not only did such irrigated land produce more, but the necessity of co-operation among local farming groups, for example over such simple matters as the equitable distribution of water and the annual cleaning of silted water channels, contributed to creating a level of complexity that leads us to recognise it as the world's first urban civilisation.
Similarly, the large-scale expansion of human settlements in the Indus-Hakra flood plain can be explained by visualising the harnessing of those rivers for agricultural purposes. We know today that the Harappan civilisation began, flourished and collapsed during a time that was marked by an arid climate. A major reason why its large cities could prosper was because the civilisation's agricultural base was sustained through riverine irrigation. The bed of the Indus is higher than the surrounding plain and, as in Mesopotamia, this afforded an easy means of irrigation, by side channels drawn from the central river.
Of course, the rivers which nurtured civilisations frequently caused their desolation and ruin. Apparently Mohenjodaro's inhabitants lived in ever-present dread of the Indus. Towards Gujarat, the scars and debris on the platform where Lothal's acropolis stood, graphically emphasise the scale of riverine devastation there. Over time, the unbridled power of a river in flood came to signify destruction as well as fertility in all kinds of literature. The hymns in the Rg Veda evoke this dual image, where bank-bursting streams with their "never-ceasing currents flowing without a rest for ever onwards" carried away all kinds of creatures including Vrtra, the demon of droughts. A river in flood also became the metaphor for uncontrolled desire and one of the most eloquent of such images about the Ganga comes from an early Tamil poem:
... I do not know, friend,
- Narrinai 369; Matturai Melaik Kataiyattar Nalvellaiyar
There is a mystery about the archaeology of rivers. How, in the first instance, are the civilisational remains around them recognised? What do the archaeological remnants of ancient settlements look like and how are these identified?
For one thing, numerous mounds are found along river banks. Created out of the accumulated debris generated by human activity over hundreds of years, these mounds range from minor elevations to high hills and ridges that dominate the surrounding countryside. Entombed in them are the physical traces of bygone cultures. Explorers have been especially interested in the coins and sculpture that emerge from such ruins. More abundant, however, is old pottery - broken, used or discarded - measurable in tons rather than kilos, as also chewed animal bones, remains of structures, especially those made of brick, necklaces of gold and rare stones, even the skeletons of a few ancient inhabitants, some of whom are buried wearing such exotic ornaments.
Mounds are also frequently places where there has been continuous occupation and modern settlements are often located on them or in their vicinity. Take the case of Harappa. This is a small unremarkable town in Pakistan Punjab whose immediate landscape is marked by two prominent features - an old river course and a stretch of ancient ruins. The dead river is the main branch of the old Ravi while the ruins are in the form of a line of massive mounds, in places as high as 60 feet, with a circuit of more than two miles and scattered with pottery and brick bats, or pieces of ancient brick. It is therefore not surprising that travellers and archaeologists began coming to Harappa, not to the modern settlement, but to those monumental ruins which could be seen on the horizon for miles around.
Of course, the recognition of the mounds of Harappa, by itself, did not lead to the discovery of the Indus civilisation. Throughout the 19th Century, Harappa's impressive ruins were (mis)identified with places mentioned in ancient literature, sometimes with a fortress called Sangala that Alexander the Great is supposed to have stormed, on other occasions with a city ruined by the Arab invader, Muhammad-bin-Kasim. The riddle of their age was finally solved only in 1924 when Harappa's inscribed seals were recognised as being identical to a few found at the city of Susa, belonging to the ancient Elam civilisation of Iran. Susa too is near a river, the Karkheh Kur or Choaspes, and contains deposits which go back to the third millennium BC.
We should not forget that many archaeological sites have never been lost at all. Since the time that Siddhartha Gautama, the historical founder of Buddhism, attained enlightenment on the banks of the Phalgu river in Bihar, the Mahabodhi area has been known to generations of worshippers. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka came to the Phalgu river to construct the first temple commemorating Buddha's enlightenment; if the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang is to be believed, a major phase of temple reconstruction was also undertaken there, many centuries later, by a Hindu Brahmin.
What is little known, though, is that Gautama had apparently looked to a river for guidance at a time when he was unsure about attaining enlightenment. Not far from the river Neranjara, in the 6th Century BC, lived Sujata, the daughter of the chief of Senani village, who had vowed to make a special offering to the deity of a nearby banyan tree if a son was born to her. Sujata's prayer was granted and so, one day, she prepared kheer and sent her maid to make arrangements for the offering. When the maid reached the tree, she found a serene, oblivious Gautama meditating under it. Puzzled about the identity of the stranger, she rushed back excitedly to tell her mistress that the deity himself had appeared to accept the offering. Sujata hurried there and offered Gautama the rice pudding in a gold bowl. Gautama ate it. Suddenly he walked up to the bank of the Neranjara, and placing the bowl in the water, he implored: "If I am to attain enlightenment, may this golden bowl swim upstream; if not, let it go down." The vessel, indeed, began to float against the current, and at last sank.
Many centuries later, the story of Sujata was immortalised by King Devapala (c.9th Century AD). He decorated a stupa in Bakraur, not far from the famous Bodhi temple, with terracotta plaques which showed the Buddha in a meditative posture. The king mentioned in the plaques at the Stupa that he had undertaken the work especially to commemorate the young woman, Sujata, who had fed Gautama.
Such traditions remind us that it is not just teeming populations that have looked to rivers for survival. In much the same way, the most famous wandering mendicant of Indian history, worn down by austerities, depended for spiritual succour on a stream and its prophetic currents.
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