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Trail of the Indus

August 07, 2016


‘The Priest King’ sculpture that was found at Mohenjo-Daro. — National Museum Karachi
‘The Priest King’ sculpture that was found at Mohenjo-Daro. — National Museum Karachi

The Indus, a hardback volume in the Lost Civilisations series published by Reaktion Books Ltd, is a compact edition straddling the two broad disciplines of history and archaeology. Written in a highly engaging manner, the author, Andrew Robinson, cleverly weaves a rich and intricate tapestry of life in the third millennium BC. This is a timely contribution, as the Harappans have been trending lately. In recent years, Indus culture has captivated the attention of popular media, particularly in the form of video documentaries for television and the internet. These short productions have been mostly concerned with dramatic effects accompanied by indiscriminate narratives for a lay audience. At first glance, The Indus also deals with the usual topics, but it is far from a superficial rendering. While Robinson’s book is for a general readership, it has considerable academic value.

With the same ancient bricks, Robinson is successful in reconstructing the whole Indus paradigm on sturdier foundations. His critical reappraisal of literature produced on the Indus Valley Civilisation makes him an interpreter of this published material as he traces important developments and delineates trajectories and perspectives which have emerged in the field. In providing a comprehensive account of Indus society, Robinson’s chief concern is to simultaneously lay out the problematics in studying this proto-historic period.

‘An Enigmatic World’, the introductory chapter, whets the appetite of the reader and sets the tone for the book. In the following chapters, the archaeological evidence is contextualised to ground the reader securely in both facts and discourse. We are familiarised with Indus metropoles, urban planning, pastoral settings, industrial and craft technologies, trading networks and global interactions with contemporaneous cultures in the Middle East and the Arabian littoral. The strong flavour of intrigue and mystery surrounding the Indus culture’s origins and its disappearance, its undeciphered texts and its connection with modern Hindu culture sustains the reader’s attention until the very end.

In his latest book, Andrew Robinson dissects the evidence in scholarly literature on the Indus Valley Civilisation, to distinguish between fact, fiction and fallacy

Earthenware jar dating to the Harappan Phase. — Royal Ontario Museum
Earthenware jar dating to the Harappan Phase. — Royal Ontario Museum

Clearly, Robinson’s forte is ancient languages and scripts, a subject on which he has already published an authoritative volume. He makes accessible the controversial debate amongst scholars on two elusive aspects of script and language in Indus epigraphy by revealing underlying assumptions and inherent motivations. The weakness of several propositions is attributed to cultural preconceptions, flawed reasoning and subjective biases with little supporting evidence. Moreover, we get a sense that disagreement is rife on this topic. No consensus has been reached on the total number of signs in the Indus writing system and on the issue of language of the Indus script; current research is divided between the possibility of Vedic Sanskrit and indigenous Dravidian dialects.

Attempts to decode the Indus script began as early as 1925, but in the absence of a bilingual text which includes the Indus script and a known writing system, these efforts remain tentative. Against the mass of confusing techniques and linguistic acrobatics employed by diverse scholars attempting to decipher the Indus script, the author singles out the works of Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan for their sound approach. Recognising the limitations imposed by the extant remains, the detailed statistical analyses of inscriptions on seals carried out in these works have drawn out certain structural and compositional qualities inherent in Indus letter signs and in their sequences. Robinson’s own inclination towards classifying the Indus script as a “partial writing system” arises out of the brevity of surviving inscriptions and from a paucity of Indus texts as compared to the copious cuneiform tablets that record exhaustive details of contemporary Mesopotamian religious mythology and mercantile activities. Although a remarkable overview of the advancements made on the Indus script, the linguistic vocabulary in this section needs further definition, and the comparison with the Mayan script requires clearer relevance. Nonetheless, Robinson’s synthesis of the disparate and inchoate arguments and theories into a coherent discussion provides invaluable material for further research.

Terracotta seals with the Indus script on them, such as these seen above, are among the relics unearthed at Indus Valley sites.
Terracotta seals with the Indus script on them, such as these seen above, are among the relics unearthed at Indus Valley sites.

“Indus trade networks carried a product to places far from its source. Marine fish from the south coast in Gujarat reached Harappa, ... Carnelian from northern Maharashtra has been found in Chanhu-daro, Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and as far north as Shortugai on the northern border of Afghanistan — and, of course, in Mesopotamia. The fact that many raw materials, such as copper, steatite and shell, came from not just one but several sources encouraged the networks to develop and expand, stimulating economic competition and growth. It is difficult to contemplate the challenges and discomforts these anonymous traders must have faced four to five thousand years ago, as they voyaged across major rivers, mountains, deserts and even the ocean.” —Excerpt from the book

In grappling with the contentious issue of Indus society as progenitor of Vedic culture or the converse, Robinson offers an insightful and logical explanation that helps us reframe this problem. He sees major elements of classical Hinduism having offshoots in both Indus iconographic remains as well as in the mythology of Vedic hymns. Thus, the worship of goddesses, trees, reverence for certain animals, and sacred visual references of Shiva and the swastika are an Indus inheritance — whereas the distinct pantheon of the lesser Hindu gods is chiefly a Vedic legacy, as is the practice of cremation. In making evident the stark differences between the material cultures of the Indus and that portrayed in the Rigveda, Robinson effectively circumvents all Hindu nationalist narratives that claim direct diffusion of one into the other. He does not, however, discount the existence of palpable similarities. For instance, he brings in the case of the game of chess for which we have both Indus artefactual evidence and Vedic literary reference. The one citation missing in this broader analysis is Michel Danino’s The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, which deals with such influences and links in great depth.

At first glance, The Indus also deals with the usual topics, but it is far from a superficial rendering. While Robinson’s book is for a general readership, it has considerable academic value.

Some readers may find that the black and white images and illustrations lack the glamour and forcefulness of colour reproductions. However, this monochromatic effect is in keeping with the mood of the book, subtly conveying the antiquity of this civilisation. All images in the book are of high quality. The few maps included are simple to understand and effectively communicate the civilisation’s geographical influence and cultural zones of interaction. The images enhance both context and perspective. For example, the four different views of the so-called ‘Priest King’ allow us to understand the author’s assessment that this iconic sculpture is more a “deified portrait” than a realistic representation of an individual. Robinson also treats his readers to a new and unusual set of photographs that he has dug out from various archival collections: in a rare instance, we see a group photograph from 1925 of John Marshall and his wife, seated among his staff of the Archaeological Survey of India, soon after the discovery of the Harappan civilisation.

All aspects of the discourse on the Indus world, whether secular-mundane or religious-sacred, are subjected to Robinson’s penetrative analysis and intellectual rigour. His style is succinct yet fills the missing gaps of information with which he skilfully brings out the more nuanced and complex meanings inherent in this sophisticated civilisation. Robinson’s contribution lies in his incisive yet balanced cross-examination of sources, concepts, theories and evidence — all condensed into an eloquent account of a robust civilisation whose tremendous achievements we have come to deeply respect.

The reviewer is an art historian teaching at Lums. She also works as a consultant at the Lahore Museum where she recently curated a major special exhibition called ‘Rediscovering Harappa: Through the Five Elements’.

The Indus: Lost Civilisations
By Andrew Robinson
Reaktion Books Ltd, UK
ISBN: 978-1780235028

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 7th, 2016