Mandala Of Indic Traditions
Review: The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Possehl,
G.L. 2003. Oxford: Altamira. Pp. 276. Figures 188. Price not mentioned.
by D.P. Agrawal
Possehl is a very familiar name in Indian Archaeology. He has been working
here for decades now. Though he has not excavated any major Harappan site, he
has developed a formidable expertise in the Indus Civilization studies and has
produced several volumes on Indus Civilization and related subjects. His works
are always marked by an astounding documentation and data presentation, and
thus clearly betray his almost perfect data storage and retrieval systems. He
has also access to expert draftsmen of the University Museum. His books therefore
are always full of well-organised data and excellent illustrations. The Indus
Civilization, though relatively small in size, carries about 200 illustrations.
In this book he also gives a fair historical account of the major scholars
whose efforts have produced what we know today about the Harappans. He does
not believe that the transition between Early and Mature Harappan is well understood
so far. He does not think that this transition was simple and smooth; perhaps
it was accompanied by violence.
He has been successful in showing a continuous development in the north-west
of the continent from the Mesolithic to the Urban economies. He deliberately
demolishes, and successfully too, the generally held view that the Harappan
phenomena was an abrupt emergence. He is also aware of the marked contrast between
the glamour and wealth of Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Indus Civilization,
which was something of a faceless sociocultural system where even prominent
individuals did not emerge from the archaeological data.
Unlike his earlier writings, this book belongs to a different genre. It is
marked by a rare insight and breadth of vision. It appears as if he has mastered
the language through which the Harappan artefacts speak, even though the Indus
script is still undeciphered. His interpretations and reconstructions of the
data make one feel that he has developed an intimacy and rapport with the Harappans.
His deep involvement with the Harappans seems to have given him a divyadrsihti,
which allows him to visualise their life and society. The author makes one feel
that his reconstructions are just natural.
He has taken up the formidable challenge of defining the Harappan ideology
and I would say that he has largely succeeded in delineating even such a nebulous
concept. He explains, "But the configuration of the book, and the presentation
of Ancient India's earliest urban landscape, is new, especially in my attempts
to begin to deal with the ideology of the Indus peoples."
Thus in this book the author emerges as a cultural anthropologist who is more
concerned about the humans and their society, rather than as an artefact-morphology
obsessed archaeologist. The author however is fair in giving different views.
Whatever type of data one is looking for be it human sculptures or settlement
sizes he produces exhaustive tables and figures. Of course it is supposed
to be a book aimed at layman but there is ample material for everyone, from
layman to a scholar. Towards the end he also tries to shock the reader with
his startling observations and conclusions in complete contrast to the received
wisdom about the Harappans. For example, he emphatically says that priest kings
did not rule the Indus Civilization; the cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa were
not twin capitals of a vast empire; their high mounds were not citadels; there
was no granary; the Indus cities were not planned with a grid layout etc. Though,
I am afraid, his own assertions sometimes contradict him. His beloved city of
Mohenjodaro itself was laid out on a virgin soil in a planned manner.
He gives due attention to the socio-economy of the people and thinks that the
Indus peoples mostly were farmers and herders. Most Indus agricultural activities
took place during the winter rabi season. The active floodplains and
the areas directly adjacent to them were most intensely cultivated during the
rabi season. Whether rice was a cultivar of significance during the Mature
Harappan has yet to be determined. Barley seems to have been the principal food
grain. They grew dates and grapes and collected the Indian jujube (ber).
African millets appear in the Indus Civilization. The plants, with their Hindi-Urdu
names, are sorghum or jowar, pearl millet or bajra, and finger
millet or ragi. The importance of these plants is that they are summer
grasses that prosper during the southwest monsoon; wheat and barley, which are
winter grasses, thrive as monsoon crops. The millets thus led to or year-round
cropping and were important additions to the prehistoric food supply. Indus
peoples apparently grew cotton for its fibre and perhaps for its oil. There
is good evidence of the use of cotton cloth at Mohenjodaro. Fibres were found
in four contexts there.
The Hrappans were also great fish eaters, exploiting the rivers and lakes,
especially in Sindh. Large fish vertebrae have been found at some Kutch Harappan
sites. Salted and/or dried fish were traded over large distances during the
Mature Harappan as documented by the presence of a marine species of catfish
at Harappa. In the Suarashtra region, the people were cattle keepers par excellence
who also raised goats, sheep, water buffalo, and a variety of crops. Cattle
remains are consistently one-half or more of the faunal remains from Indus sites.
Pigs may not have been domesticated, but pig remains and figurines document
their use. The Indus peoples domesticated the chicken and kept several breeds
of dogs and possibly house cats. Camels may also have been domesticated. Camel
remains that have been found may be either the dromedary or Bactrian species.
The horse is quite a polemical topic because of the politics of Aryans. Possehl
declares, "As far as I can tell, there are lots of asses documented at
Indus settlements, but no domestic horses (Equus caballus)."
His main inferences about the Indus peoples thus are: The first, and perhaps
most important, conclusion would be that the Indus peoples, as well as their
immediate predecessors in the long pre-urban period of gestation, have features
that physical anthropologists associate with food-producing peoples. This includes
a general reduction in tooth size, a high incidence of dental caries, as well
as the loss of significant prognathism. He also thinks that the Harappans and
their predecessors represent a population, or populations, that are quite stable.
He gives an important message for archaeologists: Whatever the racial origins
of the Harappans may have been, they were a relatively stable population inhabiting
the northern and north-western sectors of the Subcontinent for several millennia
prior to their climactic moment of urbanization.
Thus he shows a complementarity of settled agriculture and pastoralism in the
lives of the Indus peoples.
The chapter on technology however is rather weak, though the author does recognize
its importance in the Harappan society. He says,
"One of the most interesting features of the Indus Civilization is the
range of new technologies associated with it. The craft specialists of the Indus
Civilization were technological virtuosos. There was, for example, a significant
increase in the ability of these peoples to control heat and direct it to pyrotechnology.
This is best exemplified in their metal work and the development of bronze.
But it is also apparent in the advancements they made with faience and stoneware,
clear steps upward on the pyrotechnological ladder. Other significant technologies
associated with the Indus are as follows:
- City planning and the construction of large buildings from baked brick
- The technology needed for the excavation of brick-lined wells
- Urban drainage systems
- Manufacture of very long, hard stone beads, including the sophisticated
- Spectacular pyrotechnological achievement along a number of fronts
- Mastery of maritime sailing
He gives brief glimpses of the various technologies of the Indus peoples.
Glass/Fayence: There is no true glass from the Indus Age, but there is much
faience. Faience technology, which implies an ability to reach a controlled
temperature of 1200 degrees Celsius, begins in the Early Harappan, as
Pottery: Regarding the ceramic techniques, Possehl says that during the Early
and Mature Harappan periods the pots have unmistakable signs that they were
formed on a wheel. Some of the Mature Harappan pots are quite large: a meter
or so tall and about that diameter. Mackay noted that these pots were made in
sections he called "coiled strips of clay." R. Wright tells us that
they were made in three separate parts: the base, the body, and the rim. The
base was made in a chuck. There are no fully developed glazes of the Indus Age.
One ceramic generally called Reserved Slipped Ware does have a kind of crypto-glaze.
There is a variety of painted wares and motifs at Mature Harappan sites. Some
of these seem to be intrusive, clearly having been made elsewhere and transported
to a new "home." The occasional Kulli-style sherd has been found in
the Indus Valley, even at Mohenjodaro. There was also a great deal of line painting
on pots during the Mature Harappan. Slips on the pottery were also common, almost
always red. Slips are a kind of paint used to cover all or virtually all of
the visible surface of the pot. Possehl informs us that the pottery painting
style of the Indus Civilization is found as a high proportion of the total pottery
assemblage. The only site in Sindh where statistics are available is Allahdino,
where it is 3 or 4 percent of the total inventory. Red-slipped pottery is about
a quarter of the inventory there.
Art: The best the Indus Civilization sculptures are the red jasper torso from
Harappa and the bronze dancing girl from HR Area of Mohenjodaro. In terms of
its artistic merit, the jasper torso is comparable to the achievements made
on the seals.
The differences between Harappa and Mohenjodaro in terms of the sculpture in
the round is worthy of note. The red jasper torso and gray stone torso are the
only pieces of note from Harappa, and there is nothing that is very much like
them from Mohenjodaro. The two bronze dancing girls and the eleven other major
pieces that have been found at Mohenjodaro are vastly larger in terms of number
and once again do not have parallels at Harappa. The two cities that we know
best are simply very different in terms of the corpus of sculpture in the round.
There are many pieces in this repertoire of Harappan terra-cotta art that are
alive with a sense of humour. These objects offer the most human face of the
Indus Civilization, a sociocultural system that can often appear to be quite
The author points out that there seems to be a great disparity between the
very best of the art of the Mature Harappan and the rest. While the seals are
numerous and demonstrate without doubt that there was widespread appreciation
of art high-quality craftsmanship, the rest of the material by and large is
of distinctly lesser merit.
Architecture: Possehl explains the enigmatic yet ubiquitous Harappan platforms.
First, they elevated settlements as protection against floods. At, other times
they served as solid, level foundations for buildings. These platforms, one
side of which might be tens of meters long, also served the purpose of protecting
one edge of a settled area from general erosion and of forming a manmade boundary,
segregating a particular settled area from those around it. Finally, some of
the platforms were substructures that elevated large sections of a settlement,
as in the case of the Mound of the Great Bath. Massive platforms emerge at Mohenjodaro
during the Mature Harappan as one of fundamental architectural principles on
which the city was built.
Possehl points out that there are three oft-repeated misconceptions about the
Indus architecture. These deal with the use of baked brick, the presence of
a common pattern of civic organization, and the importance of grid town planning
and design. The Indus settlement most like Mohenjodaro in layout is Kalibangan,
but that is the only one with such close similarities. Thus, out of some 1,050
Mature Harappan sites there are two that are proved to conform to the pattern
said to be typical of the civilization as a whole. The best example of Mature
Harappan grid town planning is found at Mohenjodaro, although Kalibangan and
Nausharo also provide good evidence for this practice.
Possehl however does not believe that the Indus Civilization was a state. "There
are no clear signs of kingship in the form of sculpture or palaces. There is
no evidence for a state bureaucracy or the other trappings of 'stateness.' Nor
is there evidence for a state religion in the form of large temples or other
monumental public works
It is clear that the Indus Civilization is an example
of archaic sociocultural complexity, just as complex in its own way as the archaic
civilizations of Mesopotamia and Dynastic Egypt or the Maya and Inca of the
New World. But the Indus Civilization was not organized as a state, if by state
we adhere to the criteria previously outlined."
The author recognises the sociocultural complexity of the Indus Civilization.
It expresses itself in the absence of the temples and other monumental buildings
either for kings or priests. In fact, the religious and political institutions
of the Indus Civilization express themselves in significantly different ways
from all other civilizations of the ancient world.
He thinks that the Indus peoples tended to build new settlements, on fresh
soil, abandoning their past in the form of the places that were home to their
ancestors. The rate for the founding of Indus new settlements is significantly
greater than that for the other stages of the Indus Age! He thinks that this
kind of behaviour as "nihilistic," a concept with many connotations.
The one used here is as an ideology that espouses great, even revolutionary,
change, in a sociocultural system whose past has come to be seen as vacuous,
baseless, even corrupt, or perhaps just wrong. Nihilists are those who attempt
to deny their heritage and replace it with a new order, or ideology. He draws
a significant inference, "This resonates with my strong sense that the
Indus Civilization brings with it a sense of originality, something new and
fresh. Nihilistic movements mayor may not be associated with violence. This
is not the predominant theme that I see in the origins of the Indus Civilization,
but I have already I noted that the Early Harappan-Mature Harappan Transition
was a period of unusual conflagrations, and that may be telltale of the fact
that Indus nihilism was not free of aggression."
Support for this proposition of ethnic diversity also can be obtained from
the human skeletal record, which indicates some degree of biological diversity.
One can also look to the representations of people in the figurines of the Mature
Harappan. There is a good deal of diversity in dress, headgear, and hairstyles all
of which can be used as indicators of ethnicity.
He thus makes a very interesting observation that the Indus Civilization was
an organisation of diversity: diversity of cultures, peoples and geography.
Possehl however is conscious of the problems. He says, "The forces of intercommunication,
diffusion, homogenisation, and regional unity are in constant, dynamic tension
with local forces of parochialism and the need for group identity and solidarity.
All of these forces are real and in some ways contradictory. Over the long duree
of the Indus Age, they led to a kind of "unity of diversity" from
the Mediterranean to the Indus. They also make telling the story of the Indus
Age a difficult task, as one tries to seek and explain the roles of autochthonous
and interregional culture processes."
The author has given a new meaning and importance to the Transition stage between
the Early and Mature Harappan phases. He thinks that there may be some possible
sociocultural implications of this transition as a link between the simple regional
clans and lineages of the Early Harappan and the greater complexity of the Mature
Harappan. He however concedes, "None of this should be elevated to the
level of theory. The investigation of the Early Harappan-Mature Harappan Transition
has only begun, and we know very little about it. But setting up models, proposing
hypotheses, and anticipating data, enables progress in archaeology and other
sciences to speculate on what might be found and then "digging" for
it. The archaeological record does not speak for itself and little in it is
He also briefly describes the nature of the major settlements like Mohenjodaro,
Harappa, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi etc. Of course Mohenjodaro is his special love.
Possehl declares, "For me, Mohenjodaro is the epitome of all Mature Harappan
settlements. It is about 100 hectares in size and I suspect that it was founded
in the Early Harappan-Mature Harappan Transition by a group of Harappan "true
believers." The activities occurring at Mohenjodaro were the essence of
Harappan life and ideology. While each Mature Harappan settlement has its own
character as a settlement or an urban centre, Mohenjodaro symbolically represents
a good deal of what it meant to be Harappan
This is the largest Bronze
Age city in the world where one can walk down streets well defined by the high
walls of homes and other buildings, climb the stairways used in antiquity, peer
down ancient wells, and stand in bathing rooms used over 4,000 years ago. One
feels a sense of being in a living community; Mohenjodaro is an extraordinary,
Jansen believes that the location of the wells throughout the city was also
planned from the beginning. Water and the management of water have been proposed
to have been central to the ideology of the Indus peoples. This is most fully
expressed at Mohenjodaro, but is also found at many other Indus sites, most
In SD Area of Mohenjodaro there are some drains where the bottom was
made of gypsum and lime plaster with sides of baked brick.
The thickness of the walls of the houses at Mohenjodaro and the presence of
stairways leading up (to open sky today) seem to imply that many, perhaps most,
of these buildings had an upper story. The stairs could have led to the roof,
but the thickness of the walls argues against this, at least as the general
Following Jansen, a strong case can be made that Mohenjodaro was the quintessential
Indus city. This position rests on three observations:
First, Mohenjodaro seems to have been a founder's city, built within the Transitional
Stage, or early in the Mature Harappan. It is therefore reasonable to suggest
that it is in some ways a complex reflection of practical day-to-day life and
an expression of the ideology of the Mature Harappan. Second, the planning and
investment made in Mohenjodaro over a protracted period of time. Interestingly
enough, Mohenjodaro does not compare well with Harappa or most other Mature
Harappan settlements in the very extensive use of baked brick, the Great Bath,
town planning, and the like. Finally, Mohenjodaro was a place of wealth, more
wealth than is apparent at any other Indus settlement. This wealth is expressed
in terms of the continuity of civic planning and investment in urban facilities,
in the high quality of architecture almost to the end, the extensive use of
baked bricks, and the rich assemblage of artefacts.
He points out that the lower floors of many of the houses of Mohenjodaro have
small rooms that could have been the abodes of the lower, servant classes. Thus,
rather than establishing regular, independent homes, the servant class may have
occupied the lower floors of their "employers'" residences.
Possehl confesses that no one knows why Mohenjodaro was abandoned, but if the
Indus Civilization was its ideology, then a failure of that ideology would explain
the failure of Mohenjodaro as the quintessential Indus settlement. By about
1900 B.C., based on radiocarbon dates, the city was no longer a functioning
urban centre. A period of civic and social deterioration that was centuries
long took Mohenjodaro and elsewhere.
Possehl makes some interesting observations about the Indus religion. "With
the ethnic and cultural diversity that seems so clearly implied by the Early
and Mature Harappan remains, there is still a chance that there never was a
single Indus religion, but simply the sum of the belief systems of the peoples
we see united within the archaeological context
. However, in the Indus
Civilization, there was a high level of intense communication throughout the
Greater Indus region that would have promoted a corresponding amount of change,
adjustment, synthesis, and sharing of the older, diverse beliefs of the Early
Harappan Stage. The emergence of an Indus religion would not be out of place,
assuming the validity of these observations. It can be seen in the iconography
that the religious aspect of ancient life in the Greater Indus region was exceptionally
He says that the figurines could represent gods or toys. In some cultures they
could be both simultaneously. Or they might be gods at some point, and once
used, could be recycled into the toy arena, perhaps to be resuscitated to divinity
by the uttering of a culturally loaded incantation. He warns that the archaeologist
should therefore be conscious of the fact that human figurines of the type found
at sites of the Indus Age should not be thought of simply as either "religious"
or "toys." Some of the figurines might serve one purpose and others,
He remarks that when the Mehrgarh figurines carry something, it is a small
human. It is not a rabbit, or a dog, or a sheaf of grain; it is a human infant.
This establishes a connection to the gender markers and fertility. This seems
to indicate that the figurines were meant to represent human fertility and reproduction,
possibly "motherhood," in some abstract sense.
The most interesting part of his book is about ideology of the Indus people.
He comes out as a theoretician in this discussion. He says,
"I have a strong sense that the defining characteristic of the Indus Civilization,
as with most peoples, was their ideology. By ideology I am attempting to convey
the notion that the Indus peoples had a well-defined set of concepts about human
life and culture that they used to set themselves apart from other peoples.
This was an Indus institution based on propositions that could be neither affirmed
nor denied that set forth the social, especially political, aspirations of these
. We can be sure that there was an Indus ideology, and this
book gives me a chance to begin to grapple with it. I also want to open a subject
matter that, if not new, is certainly not well developed in the writing on the
Indus Civilization. Who were these Harappan peoples? not biologically, or in
the sense of their geographical home, but what were they like, what made them
tick? He says,
As my thoughts began to deal with the Indus ideology, I wondered what it
could possibly be. I am still not sure, since finding "the" ideology
of the Indus peoples was pretty clearly an impossible goal, at least at the
moment. Therefore, I decided to accept a kind of proxy, or first approximation.
Assuming that the ideology of the Indus peoples would be reflected (approximated)
in the archaeological record, I decided to use as my proxies those traits
of the Indus Civilization that come to mind as the most distinctive Harappan
features the important things I think of when I think of them. These are features
of the Indus Civilization that define the civilization for me, give it character
and substance, set it apart from other complex sociocultural systems of antiquity.
This led me to four aspects of the Indus ideology:
1. The Indus peoples were nihilists who sought to bring a new sociocultural
order to the Greater Indus region.
2. Urbanization and city life were a part of this new ideology.
3. The physical and symbolic aspects of water formed a part of the Indus ideology.
M. Jansen calls it wasserluxus, a term I have integrated into my position
on Indus ideology.
4. The Indus ideology promoted technological prowess and innovation.
Transformation of the Indus Civilization
The author holds that the transformation of the Indus Civilization took place
at its heart, the ideological core: nihilism, urbanization, wasserluxus, technological
Possehl has his own vision of how the Indus Civilization 'ended' he calls
it 'transformation'. He informs us that the Great Bath at Mohenjodaro was abandoned
late in the history of the city, but well before the transformation. This is
a unique structure elevated above and separated from the vulgar life of the
city and is intimately connected with water and the "water ideology"
of the Indus peoples. The abandonment of the Great Bath is therefore a moment
of considerable importance, since it can be seen as the beginning of the end.
Over the next two or three centuries there was a progressive deterioration of
urban life and sociocultural complexity at Mohenjodaro and in the Indus Civilization
generally. The symbolic value of water fades away; brick-lined wells, the metropolitan
drainage system, and bathing platforms are no longer constructed. The iconographic
themes of the ideology of the Indus Civilization are slowly lost: figurines,
pottery, seals, and other glyptic items. Technological innovation comes to a
virtual end, and much of the Mature Harappan high technology is no longer used:
baked-brick architecture, drainage systems, seal cutting, etching carnelian,
drilling of long carnelian bead, stoneware bangles. Some technological innovations
such as bronze and faience survive, but they are in the minority.
He admits however that just as continuities between the Early Harappan and
Mature Harappan are present, so, too, is there a legacy of the Indus Civilization
in the Subcontinent. This is especially seen in the broad range of adaptations
to the natural world: farming, pastoralism, house construction, and so forth.
There may also be some philosophical themes that are ultimately rooted in the
Indus Civilization, especially yoga and the heaven-male/earth-female duality
as it relates to the creation myth of the Vedas.
Possehl discovers that eventually the Indus ideology came to be seen in a terribly
negative light. The Indus ideology ultimately had feet of clay. The zealots,
the "true believers" of the Indus Civilization ultimately lost, perhaps
not everything, but their civilization failed, not as an entire culture but
as a complex society. He thinks that the Indus Civilization emerges as a kind
of experiment in sociocultural organization, and one that was not entirely successful.
But he enters a caveat, "It would be wrong to imply that the Indus Civilization
was a failure from its beginning. The new ideology that these peoples brought
forth made them highly successful for 600 years and spread over a vast expanse
of the Subcontinent. These all tell us of a well-oiled sociocultural system
that had created great social harmony in human relationships and with the environment."
Possehl tells us that early in the second millennium B.C., by about 1900 B.C.,
the city of Harappa and its counterpart in Sindh, Mohenjodaro, were no longer
functioning urban centers. The Indus Civilization came to an end as a complex
sociocultural system. Human life continued on the plains and in the hills and
mountains of Pakistan and northwestern India, but class and occupational specialization
no longer organized the peoples. While there was continuity of life, there was
also much change. The ideology of the Indus Civilization was largely abandoned
and the peoples of the region adopted new customs and beliefs. The change was
not complete; older cultural patterns persisted, especially in the affairs of
these peoples that were closely tied to the natural world, their use of plants
and animals, of the land itself.
He concludes, "We might begin to think of the Indus ideology as being
"too much of a good thing," too perfect, brought into day-to-day sociocultural
reality by true believers who had the answers, at least from their point of
view. There was only one good, legitimate way of doing things and that was according
to the Indus ideology. This would account for the "tightness" and
"sameness" that many researchers on the Indus Civilization have seen.
In the end their ideology made the Indus peoples who they were, but it may have
proved to be their undoing as well."
NO author can have answewrs to all the questions. He does not tell who killed
the Indus ideology, nor how and how. Was it a natural senescence of an old culture,
or something did it in?
In his Overview, the author tries to shake you out of your conventional conceptions
about the Indus peoples, though it sounds a bit jarring in view of the smooth
narrative that he has presented, and which, in the reviewer's view is not marked
so much by a startling novelty but a rare sensitivity and intimacy with the
The book is a fascinating read. It does not leave you with a plethora of confusing
artefacts, but tries to give a closer glimpse to the Indus peoples in all their
glory, weaknesses, and a unique character. Strongly recommended.