Against `state' theory
On the one hand this book is a storehouse of important details... on the other, it inspires renewed conviction about the logical strength of the theory of the Harappan state(s).
THIS is a comprehensive book on the Indus civilisation, perhaps more useful to teachers and researchers than to college students. It has 14 chapters. After the introductory one and a chapter on the beginnings, there is a third chapter that covers ideology; technological innovation; deities; the diversity of the various provinces of this culture; settlement patterns and subsistence; followed by individual descriptions of some excavated sites. Then come chapters on technology; architecture; art; script; religion; burial customs and biological characteristics; gender; the city of Mohenjo-daro; cultures to the west and north-west of the Indus world; the end of the Harappan culture; and a peroration, respectively.
The book is a storehouse of finer points about the "Priest King" sculpture, individual houses in Mohenjo-daro; the water harvesting facilities at Dholavira; how a large pot would have been shaped; and scores of other important details. The overall conception, however, is not without contradictions. For instance, the first chapter describes, in about nine page,s the pioneers of Harappan archaeology and their ideas, but only half a page follows on work since the 1950s, with no reference to any ideas produced by scholars since then. With no systematic survey of anthropological theory or of published views on the Harappan state (and the author's assessment of them), Possehl's major thesis (Chapter 3) about Harappan society being urban but lacking a state, lacks a historiographic perspective.
Possehl takes the period from 6000 to 1000 BC to be the "Indus Age". This is not itself problematic, except in that he refers (pp.3, 5) to the "long duree" of that period. Longue duree was originally used to refer to imperceptibly slow change and enduring structures in man-land relationships. It is of doubtful relevance to a period of 5000 years in which, the book says, there were repeated settlement disruptions and population movements, a relatively short period representing the formative stage of the civilisation, and, most important, the drying up of one of the major rivers of the Indus system that was densely settled up to 1900 BC.
It is argued that the civilisation is unique in its ideology and in that its urban economy functioned in the absence of a state. Giving importance to the fact that most Harappan settlements were founded on new sites, with evidence of destruction by fire of some villages of the earlier period (not an original observation), the author says (p.55) the Harappan people were "nihilists who sought to bring a new sociocultural order to the...region". There were, besides, many innovations in material culture and a new maritime technology, all tantamount to a system with "immense differences" with the culture(s) of the previous period. By "nihilism" Possehl means not so much skepticism about imposed values, or a conviction that there are no absolutes nor values with an objective existence, but instead (p. 56) an "ideology that espouses great, even revolutionary, change in a sociocultural system whose past [is] seen as vacuous, baseless, even corrupt." To make his idea more convincing, Possehl could have indicated his interpretation of the ideology of the previous period. Besides, a more straightforward explanation of the great changes may be in terms of Childe's "urban revolution" the latter, unlike a theory that posits the negation by a prehistoric population of its past, being one refutable by reference to archaeological evidence.
Where evidence is concerned, the author's contention that the celebration of the splendour of water was a major component of Harappan ideology rests on the bathing places in the houses, the street drains, and the Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro. While one certainly agrees that the Bath would have had a ritual function, there are at Harappan sites no temples or ritual caches at springs or wells, as in the case of Barbar and Umm se-Sujjur in Bahrain in that period.
The abrupt transition from the earlier period to the urban (Harappan) period also seems to contradict Possehl's "no state" argument. He sees one criterion of the state as rule by force. While no early state would have worked on force alone, does not the evidence of the burning and abandonment of settlements carry a hint of violence/destruction? Possehl believes bureaucracies, too, to be a component of early states, an assumption that has been contested, in the Harappan context, more than a decade ago. As for the hierarchy of classes that, according to the author, goes with states (a gulf between rulers and ruled may be more accurate for this period), he himself says about the layout of Mohenjo-daro (p.195) that the separateness and elevation of the high mound suggest "exclusivity" and "dominance" (which has been said before) from its height "the elites could look down upon the workings of the city and the lower and middle classes that were the warp and weft of their society." So too in the context of the downtown housing (p.211) are references to "the upper classes" and the "servant class".
On the one hand this book is a storehouse of important details and corrections to some of our old misconceptions. On the other, it inspires renewed conviction about the logical strength of the theory of the Harappan state(s).
The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective, G.L. Possehl, Vistaar Publications, 2002, p, 276. Rs. 495.
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