Mysterious Mohenjo-Daro

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Ahmad Faruqui reminisces about his travels to the major Indus Valley site that remains elusive in so many ways and is now an endangered part of world heritage.

In 1962 we moved to Sukkur from Hyderabad where I had grown up. Sukkur was situated in upper Sind where the summers were intensely hot. The surrounding areas were entirely rural and our house in Barrage Colony was made of adobe bricks to keep it cool. We would sleep outside in the courtyard to escape from the heat and often fall asleep while counting the stars in the Milky Way or listening to the bullock-drawn vehicles returning from the fields with produce.

The wooden wheels made a creaking sound that could be heard from a mile away in the quiet of the night. Little did I know that the wheels and the axles were essentially using the same design as the bullock-drawn carts which had plied the streets thousands of years ago.

There was not much to get excited about in Sukkur. Sensing our disappointment, my father took us on a drive one Sunday to an ancient city that he said was built around the same time as the pyramids in Egypt. It was part of the Bronze Age, he said.

We drove along the banks of the Rice Canal which emanated from the enormous Sukkur Barrage that lay just a mile or so from our house. We drove through Larkana and Abba pointed out a house which he said was the family residence of the serving foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

And then we arrived at Mohenjo-Daro, “mound of the dead” in the vernacular. Even for a ten-year old it was a sight to behold. There were dried up wells that loomed like towers in the distance since the soil had settled across the millennia. The biggest structure was a “Great Bath.” Decades later I would visit the Roman Bath in the town of the same name in England which was built in the first century AD. Recently I came to know that the Great Bath built in 2,500 BC was larger.

The Great Bath was an engineering marvel built of bricks that were connected to each other without any mortar. But somehow the water did not leak out of the bath.

The streets in the city were laid out in a square grid, something we encounter in modern cities such as New York. How did people in the Bronze Age devise this configuration without the benefits of computers and engineers? A system of underground tunnels transported sewage hygienically, another engineering marvel that was millennia ahead of its time.

The ruins of the city are located at two levels, with the citadel on top and the town on the lower level. There are no palaces, temples or monuments. There are no fortified structures or walls around the city which occupied 300 hectares of land. There is no evidence to suggest that the city with a probable population of 40,000 was governed by priests or royals.

It’s conceivable that that an egalitarian code of conduct governed the city and the rulers may have been elected. The city may have had no gods. But cleanliness was built into its design. According to the National Geographic website, “pottery and tools of copper and stone were standardized. Seals and weights suggest a system of tightly controlled trade. The city’s wealth and stature is evident in artifacts such as ivory, lapis, carnelian, and gold beads, as the baked-brick city structures themselves. Wells were found throughout the city, and nearly every house contained a bathing area and draining system.”

A small museum stood nearby. It housed statues and toys that looked like they were made of clay. There was a picture on the wall of the statue of a nude dancing girl. A sign told us the statue was stored in a museum in New Delhi. There were also pictures of a dozen skeletons that were found among the ruins. A sign told us they were stored in a museum in Calcutta.

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We lived for three years in Sukkur and every visiting family member was given a tour of Mohenjo-Daro. In 1965 we moved to Karachi when my father retired from WAPDA. Two years later we were bound once again for Mohenjo-Daro. This time we were accompanied by visiting family from Switzerland and flying in on a PIA Fokker Friendship F-27 into the newly built airport of Mohenjo-Daro.

We saw the ruins from the air. On the ground, they looked exactly the same. As self-styled local experts, we felt duly empowered to act as their informal tour guides. The visitors were fascinated. Sadly, this was going to be my last visit to the ruins. I left for the US in 1974 but could not keep away from reading about the place. I was horrified to see a story in the Wall Street Journal that the local official accompanying the reporter was callously spitting out betel nuts which he had chewed onto the ruins.

The ruins of Mohenjo-Daro were discovered in the 1920s. Later, the city was found to be a part of a Bronze Age civilization which also included Harappa, which lay further north along the Indus River in Punjab. The two cities were part of the Indus Valley or Harappan civilization. There was some evidence that the civilization, home to perhaps five million people, had engaged in trade with Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.

The Harappan civilization had originated in 2,500 BC and lasted for seven hundred years. What explained its sudden disappearance? Despite years and years of research, no one had been able to decode that mystery. Hypotheses continued to multiply as the decades passed. Was it attacked and laid waste by marauding tribes? Was it a group of Aryans from the north who descended on it? Was it overwhelmed by the Indus when it flooded during the rainy season? Was it wiped out by a pandemic? None of these hypotheses could be rejected or accepted.

The other enduring mystery has been an inability to read the city’s language which is imprinted on the seals that have been dug up from the ruins and are now stored in the museum. Its “Rosetta stone” has yet to be found. Mohenjo-Daro does not speak to us.

While everyone knows the pyramids of Egypt, very few have heard of Mohenjo-Daro. It remains in the domain of archaeologists. Much can be done to promote tourism once the pandemic has abated. In the meantime, every effort should be done to preserve the ruins from the waterlogging and salinity that is rampant in the region.