Perched atop the tallest brick structure in Mohenjo-daro’s Citadel district and just a stone’s throw away from a second-century Buddhist stupa, it’s impossible not to be awestruck by the sheer magnitude and intricacy of the ancient city sprawling beneath you. Taking a moment to process that what you’re witnessing is over 4,500 years old, and perhaps one of the earliest settlements in human history, is mind-boggling.
A century ago, esteemed archaeologists stood in the same spot and experienced the same sense of wonder that you are feeling now. In 1922, the landscape would have been unremarkable, save for a few mounds of earth and the nearby Buddhist stupa. Yet as excavation teams carefully unearthed wall after wall of red brick, the excitement and anticipation among the researchers must have been palpable.
The discoveries and theories put forth by those pioneering archaeologists provide a vivid glimpse into the daily life of the city that once bustled below.
Envision yourself standing in the same spot at 9am on a breezy December morning in 2500 BCE. While the ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom and the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia begin to stir half a continent away, the city below you is already teeming with activity. The neat grid of mud-plastered, red-brick buildings, unremarkable in appearance but exceptionally well-organized, is a sight to behold.
In the distance, the clamor of chariot riders and bull-cart drivers echoes through the city’s bustling thoroughfares as they make their way through the streets. The latter are transporting fruits and grains from the lush farmlands that surround the city, while the former shout for people to make way.
Merchants, grocers, butchers, and craftsmen would be loudly advertising their wares from small shops and formal markets throughout the city in a language we will never hear and may never understand.
Children would be running through the streets, playing with terracotta toy animals or dashing past somber priests on their way to the city’s iconic Great Bath or sprawling monastery. The scent of freshly baked bread and cooking meat would waft through the air from the open-air courtyards of the houses.
In one corner of the metropolis, officials from the city administration would be overseeing construction and repair work. Municipal officials would be inspecting the intricate and remarkably sophisticated drainage network to ensure its proper functioning and making certain that various public “dustbins” were cleaned satisfactorily.
In the quarters of a large guest house, visiting traders from far-off lands would be swapping tales after their long journeys over the mighty Indus or the plains of Sindh and Balochistan.
One of the paths leading out of the Citadel area would take you to the bustling docks, where laborers would be unloading goods while fisherfolk inspected their catch and prepared their hooks and nets for their next trip.
As night fell, men and women would gather for games of dice, board games, song, music, and dance. Eateries would also be bustling with activity and laughter, where, as Ernest Mackay imagined in his book The Indus Civilization, “[…] 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.”
A century has passed since the first excavation of Mohenjo-daro in 1922, which occurred shortly after its discovery by R.D. Banerji, an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India.
Over the years, the city was excavated in multiple phases under subsequent directors of the Archaeological Survey of India, but activities eventually slowed down due to a shortage of funds and the tumultuous events following Partition. Further excavations were banned in 1965 due to concerns that the structures already uncovered by archaeologists were deteriorating due to weathering.
Since then, efforts at the site have focused on curation and conservation, with Unesco and foreign consultants leading most of the initiatives in collaboration with the local department of archaeology and museums.
In the center of the site is the VS area, which yielded some remarkable residential structures, intriguing artifacts, pottery kilns, and animal and human remains. To the far right, on a slight rise, is the HR area, which was excavated by archaeologist Ernest Mackay from 1926 to 1931. Mackay’s excavation yielded the famous Dancing Girl statue in 1926, which currently resides in the National Museum in New Delhi and was allocated to India during the Partition.
According to my guide, this area was also the residence of most of Mohenjo-daro’s potters and metalworkers.
As one walks through the streets of Mohenjo-daro, remnants of the city’s past can still be spotted in the form of pottery shards and broken terracotta bangles scattered on the ground. However, according to Qasim Ali Qasim, a former director of archaeology who oversaw a dry-core drilling study in 2014-15, these excavations only represent about 10% of the actual size of the city. Mohenjo-daro stretches as far as into the Indus riverbed and beyond the airport, leaving one to wonder what other treasures are buried beneath the sands.
Despite the unfortunate name “Mound of the Dead,” Mohenjo-daro was once a thriving, cosmopolitan city that focused primarily on trade rather than war. It is believed to 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. The society, comprised of multiple ethnic and racial groups, is considered to have been egalitarian and even proto-democratic, with no great temples or palaces found during excavations.
The people of Mohenjo-daro were ahead of their time in arts and crafts and municipal sophistication. Their elaborate toys and refined jewelry, along with their utilitarian planning, construction, and complex drainage system, are marvels of civil engineering. Cleanliness was a core tenet of their way of life, as evidenced by the carefully designed freshwater wells and drain network that ran through the city, allowing residents to even have functioning bathrooms on the upper floor of their houses.
The language used by the people of the Indus Valley Civilization remains a mystery, as the only samples collected are from seals and amulets with pictographic inscriptions known as the Indus Valley script. Many of these seals depict various animals, human figures, and even deities, with evidence suggesting that the people may have believed in a very early form of Hinduism. One of the deities represented in these seals is believed to resemble Lord Shiva, and others seem to correspond to later deities in the modern Hindu belief system.
The discovery of Mohenjo-daro, an ancient settlement, occurred 100 years ago, and it recently experienced severe damage due to flooding during the 2022 monsoon season. Ernest Mackay, an archaeologist who excavated the site, wrote that the city experienced floods twice, which caused its decline. The floods could have destroyed its economy, leading to the eventual exodus of its people.
In addition to flooding, the saline soil in the area caused by the increasingly arid climate has also threatened the ancient city, resulting in the collapse of its structures over time. There have been efforts to preserve the site, but devolution and lack of understanding of the site’s behavior during seasonal changes have resulted in insufficient maintenance and preservation. Ali Haider Gadhi, a conservation engineer working to protect the site, stated that the heavy rains this year have weakened the structures, making them susceptible to further damage.
Therefore, the staff and tour guides are keeping a wary eye to protect the site from visitors. The top concern now is to implement a drainage plan to prevent further damage.
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