Rediscovering the magic of Mohenjo-Daro
Standing atop the highest brick platform in Mohenjo-daro’s Citadel district, just a few steps from a second-century Buddhist stupa, it is impossible not to feel awe as you take in the sheer scale and complexity of the prehistoric city around you. It takes a moment for one to come to terms with the fact that what you behold is more than 4,500 years old, one of the earliest — if not the earliest — known settlements in the entire history of humankind.
A hundred years ago, some of the most renowned archaeologists in the world stood in this same place and experienced a thrill very similar to what you feel at this moment. In 1922, there would have been nothing remarkable to see all around — save a few mounds of earth and the Buddhist stupa nearby. Yet, as the excavation teams scraped away mud and silt to uncover wall upon wall of red brick, the excitement and sense of wonder would have been palpable in the camp.
The discoveries those archaeologists made and the theories they came up with to explain their findings paint a vivid picture of what life would once have been like in the city below.
Imagine standing on that same spot at 9am on a breezy December morning, around 2,500 BCE. Half a continent away, the ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom and the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia are starting to stir from their sleep. However, the city below — a neat grid of mud-plastered, red-brick buildings, plain to the sight but remarkably well-organised — would already be bustling with life.
In the distance, chariot riders and bull-cart drivers would be shouting for people to get out of their way as they rumbled through the city’s main thoroughfares, the latter bringing fruit and grain from the fertile farmlands all around.
A hundred years after its discovery, Dawn takes you on a brief trip through the history of Mohenjodaro — a historical wonder that is possibly older than the pyramids of ancient Egypt and matches their grand scale with the amazing sophistication of its civil engineering, millennia ahead of its time
Traders, grocers, butchers and artisans would be hawking their fares from small shops as well as the city’s formal markets, calling out loudly for buyers in a strange language we will never hear and may never understand.
Children would be playing with terracotta toy animals or running through the streets, winding noisily through groups of sombre priests headed for the city’s iconic Great Bath or its sprawling monastery. Wisps of smoke would rise from the open-air courtyards of the houses, carrying the smell of baking bread and cooking meat.
In a corner of the metropolis, officials from the city administration would be supervising repair and construction works.
Municipal officials would be inspecting the complex, remarkably sophisticated drain network to make sure it was functioning well, and also making sure the various public ‘dustbins’ had been cleaned out satisfactorily.
There, in the quarters of a large guest house, visiting traders from far-off lands would be exchanging tales as they unwound from their long journeys over the mighty Indus or the plains of Sindh and Balochistan.
One of the paths out of the Citadel area would have led to the city’s noisy docks, where labourers would be unloading goods while fisherfolk inspected their catch and prepared their hooks and nets for their next trip.
In the evening, men and women would congregate for games of dice, board games, song, music and dance. There would be eateries, too, buzzing with laughter and activity where “[…] the inhabitants of the city probably met to combine gossip with eating and drinking, and the latest peccadilloes of the city fathers were doubtless retailed with gusto over rich food and the stronger kinds of drink,” as imagined by Ernest Mackay, one of the archaeologists who excavated Mohenjo-daro, in his book The Indus Civilization.
Uncovering the city
The outgoing year marked a full hundred years since Mohenjo-daro was first excavated in 1922, shortly after its discovery by R.D. Banerji, an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India.
The city was excavated in multiple phases under subsequent directors of the Archaeological Survey of India in the years following its discovery, but activities eventually slowed down due to a shortage of funds and the tumult that followed Partition. Further excavations were eventually banned in 1965 due to fears that the structures that had already been uncovered by archaeologists were being lost due to weathering.
Since then, work on the site has remained focused on curation and conservation. Unesco and foreign consultants lead most of the efforts in collaboration with the local department of archaeology and museums.
The most familiar section of Mohenjo-daro is what is known as its Citadel district. Lying on an elevation of about 60-70 feet from the Lower City district, this area was the city’s administrative centre and housed the important buildings of the city, such as the Great Bath, a building believed to be a college for priests, and what is believed to be the city granary.
It continues to be identified with the second-century Buddhist stupa mentioned earlier, which itself is believed to have been built upon an ancient building of religious importance for the Mohenjo-daro people. A picture of the stupa taken from near the Great Bath famously features on the back of the Pakistani 20-rupee note.
To its northeast, a clutter of red-bricked walls of varying heights, laid out in orderly grids, mark a massive excavation site. This is the DK area of Mohenjo-daro’s Lower City. It comprises the largest excavated area in the residential district, where people resided in multistoried homes.
It is here that the Priest King — a small sculpture of an important-looking, bearded man in a robe — was found in 1925-26 by Indian archaeologist Kashinath Narayan Dikshit. This sculpture has, over the last century, become one of the most enduring symbols of the Indus Valley Civilization.
In the middle lies the VS area, where some sophisticated residential buildings, numerous interesting artefacts, pottery kilns as well as human and animal remains were found. Looking to the extreme right, on a slight elevation, there is another large excavation — the HR area, excavated by archaeologist Ernest Mackay, who supervised the site from 1926-31.
This is where, in 1926, Mr Mackay found the fabled Dancing Girl; a treasure which is currently in possession of the National Museum, New Delhi, having been ‘allocated’ to India at the time of Partition.
It is also where, according to the guide who accompanies me, most of the potters and metal-workers of Mohenjo-daro seem to have resided.
On a walk through its streets, you can still spot remnants of their work — pottery sherds and broken terracotta bangles — littering the grounds.
Qasim Ali Qasim — a former director of archaeology, now retired — explains that these excavations collectively account for only about 10 per cent of the actual city of Mohenjo-daro.
“In 2014-15, I oversaw a dry-core drilling study which determined that Mohenjo-daro is much larger than what we thought it to be. It stretches as far as into the Indus riverbed, as well as beyond the [Mohenjo-daro] airport,” he recalls during our conversation.
One wonders what new treasures and wonders still lie buried underneath its sands.
A cosmopolitan marvel
The ancient city only came to be known as Mohenjo-daro — ‘Mound of the Dead’ — many millennia after its fall. It is an unfortunate misnomer, considering the city was once a living jewel, the apogee of an ancient civilisation whose people seem to have lived simply but lived well.
Mohenjo-daro was, by all accounts, a peaceful, cosmopolitan city which seems to have concerned itself primarily with trade. Scholars do not believe the Mohenjo-daro residents to have been a warring people, as no significant weapons caches have yet been found, and the few weapons that have been discovered seem to have been good only for hunting purposes.
It would appear that in sharing their prosperity, the people were able to avoid conflict for most of their history. The society, believed to have comprised multiple ethnic and racial groups, is considered to have been egalitarian, even proto-democratic, given no great temples or palaces were ever found during its excavations.
It is believed it may have been ruled by a council of elders elected from society or a priest-king or governor appointed by a higher authority elsewhere in the Indus Valley Civilization.
Be it in their arts and crafts or their municipal sophistication, the people of Mohenjo-daro were well ahead of their time. Some of the sculptures and figures uncovered in the early years of excavation left archaeologists in awe of what these people accomplished.
The Dancing Girl, for example, continues to delight people thousands of years after it was cast by a Mohenjodaro coppersmith. It is a wonder not just for its aesthetic value, but also for its craftsmanship. The Mohenjodaro people also seem to have created very elaborate toys and refined jewellery, paying particular attention to both form and function in their crafts.
The city’s utilitarian planning, construction and complex drainage system is, of course, nothing short of art itself. It has been said that these people, instead of expressing their civilizational attainment through megaliths and ornate architecture, did it by meticulously planning their settlements to maximise their utility for residents.
From plentiful water supply, to uniformity of proportion in the baked clay bricks they used to build, to the layout of residential areas, to the orientation of the streets, to the elaborate drains that allowed residents to even have functioning bathrooms on the upper floor of their houses — the entire city of Mohenjo-daro is a marvel of civil engineering.
It is fascinating to contemplate what their philosophy would have been: why did they think it worthwhile to spend so much energy into making their people’s lives as comfortable as possible, even as another contemporary civilization was putting its energies into building the pyramids?
Cleanliness seems to have been a core tenet of their way of life, if not integral to their belief system, and what little excavations have been done so far have unveiled no less than 700 freshwater wells that once watered the houses and public utilities of the city.
Not only that, the aforementioned drain network that ran through the city was carefully covered and designed such that it wouldn’t cause the city’s residents any discomfort.
Many of the houses also appear to have had their own latrines and bathing areas, some even on their first floors, which were carefully drained using terracotta pipes and water chutes into sewers outside.
The language used by the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation has generally confounded historians and remains a mystery to this day. The only samples of it that have been collected are from seals and amulets, which appear to have been widely owned.
Most of these seals depict various animals, human figures and even deities, along with pictographic inscriptions that have come to be known as the Indus Valley script. Some depict inscriptions alone.
The animals that have been inscribed on these seals are varied and many, including the fabled ‘unicorn’ — a mysterious creature which appears very frequently and seems to have been of an iconic significance for the Indus Valley People. Other animals include two different kinds of oxen, rhinoceroses, tigers, hares, gharials, elephants, antelopes and buffalos.
There is evidence to suggest that the people may have believed in a very early form of Hinduism, with one of the deities represented in these seals believed to resemble Lord Shiva, and others seeming to correspond to later deities in the modern Hindu belief system.
Present and past
The centenary of Mohenjo-daro’s discovery brought with it a reminder of why this once thriving ancient settlement may have been abandoned.
The 2022 monsoon season brought massive floods to the area around Mohenjo-daro. The site itself was damaged in the rains. Widespread inundation of the area wreaked havoc in local communities, displacing many and ruining crops all around.
Even in early December, months after the last rains fell, many surrounding fields remain submerged in water. It is difficult, if not impossible, to drain them due to the extremely high water table.
It seems of interest to mention here what the archaeologists who excavated Mohenjo-daro said about the ancient city’s fall. Writing in his book, The Indus Civilization, Ernest Mackay noted: “The subsidence of walls and well-linings at two distinct levels of the city, one much lower than the other, proves that a flood took place early in the history of Mohenjo-daro and that another marked the beginning of its decline [...]”
Mr Mackay clarified that while Mohenjo-daro itself was never substantially flooded as it was considerably higher than the surrounding plains due to constant rebuilding, “[…] the water probably extended for miles, and put a stop to all commerce and trade for many months. This would be a disaster for the people, as the character of its buildings, no less than the fact that it traded with other countries, proves that their city was a thriving commercial centre.”
This could have led to the eventual collapse of the Mohenjo-daro economy, which would have sparked an eventual exodus from the area of its people, who would have dispersed in their search for new, safer homes.
Fear in a handful of dust
There is another old threat faced by Mohenjo-daro: the saline soil of the area, a consequence of once well-watered lands growing more arid with time.
Salts present in the soil dissolve in water and then travel up to the surface through porous materials, such as mud or clay bricks. When the water evaporates, it leaves a coating of salt crystals behind. These crystals are extremely destructive and crumble the bricks they form on into dust.
Writing after the earliest excavations were made, Mr Mackay had noted, “Both Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, being built almost entirely of burnt brick, have become so heavily impregnated with salt that, to this day, a shower of rain produces a mass of crystals which crumble the surfaces of newly-exposed walls.
The same thing also occurs during the rare frosts that are experienced in Sind. The denudation of the mounds is slowly but surely reducing their height, while their area is correspondingly increased by the débris carried down from above. The masonry lying a foot or so beneath the surface is, of course, unaffected […]”.
“When wind, rain, or the excavator's spade removes the superficial coating of dust and exposes fresh masonry, this in turn gradually crumbles away,” he observed.
Mr Qasim, the former archaeology director, explains that the once towering walls of Mohenjo-daro have diminished in stature over time due to this phenomenon. The challenge gets worse during the winters. He recalls that in 2001, a national fund was set up for Mohenjo-daro to combat the climate’s effects on the heritage site.
“An SOP was made under Unesco supervision for maintenance and preservation in all four seasons. Unfortunately, due to devolution after the 18th Amendment, all archaeological sites were given to the provinces.
The experts who used to work on them were also divided between the provinces, and there has been a persistent shortage of trained personnel since then.”
“The subsequent administrators of Mohenjo-daro have never fully understood the site. You really need to know how the site behaves over the course of the year. In some seasons, there can be a 10-degree fluctuation in day and night-time temperatures, which can make a huge difference in preservation efforts if not managed appropriately.”
“Maintenance and preservation are very technical tasks. They have to be done on schedule and ahead of weather changes. If they are skipped, destruction follows. That is what we saw this year, when the site was badly ruined by the monsoon rains. Twenty to twenty-five years of preservation effort have been ruined due to a failure to stick to the SOPs,” he said.
One hundred years of decay
At Mohenjo-daro, one of the conservation engineers working to protect the site, Ali Haider Gadhi, takes me through his responsibilities, which have taken on a greater urgency following the monsoon this year.
During a stop in the Citadel area, he gestures to the Buddhist stupa to point out some of the damage caused to the site by the monsoon rains.
“You can now see the geotextile we used to protect the original stupa wall. It is exposed. We had constructed another mud wall over it to act as a sacrificial layer, which has been washed away in the rains.” A little lower, one of the stupa’s walls has also partially collapsed after its bricks were loosened by the heavy rains. In other areas of the site, the water’s flow has visibly eroded the surface.
Because the structures are in considerably weakened condition since this year’s monsoon, the staff and tour guides are keeping a wary eye. They immediately shout out warnings if they see anyone attempting to scale a wall or walk over one.
Unfortunately, most of the visitors do not feel as protective of the place. Additional measures, like completely shutting the site on gazette holidays, have also been taken to limit footfall at the site.
A drainage plan for the site is right now the number one concern for the people working to protect it. Some of the excavated buildings, especially in the DK area, accumulated substantial quantities of rainwater during the monsoon, which damaged the integrity of their excavated walls.
The ground level in the area subsequently had to be raised with dirt in a bid to force the water to flow out.
Concrete pipes have already been inserted into the bases of some walls in areas which have proven difficult to drain out naturally. As we discuss these later additions, it is pointed out to me that some of Mohenjo-daro’s 4,500-year-old drains still work and carry a substantial amount of water away from the site. The one which drains the Great Bath has been particularly helpful.
Mr Gadhi stresses that the biggest issue facing the conservators remains a lack of political interest in Mohenjo-daro. “Too much money is spent on conferences and workshops in which experts from all over come to tell us things we already know.
For example, we know how to use mud slurry to protect exposed walls: the people of the villages around here have been doing it for centuries. What is the point of spending funds training our people about something they already know?
Instead, we should be given more resources so we can arrange the materials and manpower we need to do the job. However, this will never happen if our politicians do not take active interest in Mohenjo-daro and its needs.”
Uncovered by rain
Upon request Mr Gadhi leads me to a hitherto unexcavated area where new ruins have been exposed after heavy rains washed the topsoil away. It is an unremarkable corner at 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 the unmistakable rectangular shape of red bricks has started to peak through. He traces the curved rim of what he believes is a well with his foot, pointing out how nothing seems to be growing where the well’s walls would be, but there are bushes right in its centre.
We also stumble on pieces of ancient pottery and a broken terracotta bangle, likely deposited as the waters drained out of the area. “None of this was here before the rains,” he tells me.
The emergence of the ruins tells Mr Gadhi that it was a mistake to allow a primary school to be built nearby.
“We gave permission for that school to be built thinking there would be nothing underneath the ground. Now I feel there must have been ruins there too and we’ve given that land away.”
When asked if those who constructed the school ever told his team if they found anything when they broke ground, Mr Gadhi explains that even if they did, they would not have informed anyone as that would have meant the project would be shut down. “How would they have gotten their money then?” he asks.
Telling the story
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.
Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2022
Header photo: The Citadel District of the Ancient City of Mohenjo-Daro, as seen from the city’s Granary building. The 2nd Century Buddhist Stupa can be seen in the background. —Photo by author.