By | Devdutt Pattanaik | Indian Author
Indians have an uncomfortable relationship with the sanitary system. We have permitted and even justified manual scavenging. A place where the latrine is not connected to the drainage system and so humans have to come into the back alleys of homes, clear excrement from toilets, and then carry it out of the village. Those who were forced to do this job as part of caste duties and karma were called ‘untouchables’. They were not even given respect for the forced service extracted for the benefit of the community.
It is ironic then that India has the privilege of the oldest and most sophisticated sewer system seen anywhere in the world. The Harappan civilisation thrived in northwest India 4,500 years ago. It had over five major cities, 100 towns and 1,000 villages, with a population of five million. This was 20 per cent of the world’s population, 4,000 years ago. They had a sanitation system. Every house had a bathroom and a toilet. The waste material would be collected through drainpipes. The waste would be taken out of the cities.
Many Hindutva chauvinists argue that Harappan cities were Vedic. They are, however, unable to explain why we chose to remember the Vedic hymns and opted for manual scavenging over sophisticated sewer technology.
Then Hindutva critics argue that the Harappan cities were egalitarian, that this sewage system was destroyed by the arrival of Indo-Aryans who imposed Brahmanical patriarchy and caste system and manual scavenging. But this simplistic narrative falls flat when evidence shows the Harappan cities collapsed 500 years BEFORE Indo-Aryans entered India. Besides, the practise of manual scavenging probably emerged 2,500 years after Indo-Aryan arrival, when women of upper caste families were forced to perform their ablutions within the home, instead of going out, to protect them from invading marauders (Hunas? Turks?). The origins of this practice are obscure and controversial.
Harappa without doubt is a tributary of Hinduism. Unlike Indo-Aryans whose gods existed in the sky above, the Harappans worshipped trees, a practice Hindus continue even today. They valued bangles, sindoor, masala, and had measurement systems we still use today. But not every Harappan contribution may have been positive.
Harappa was a highly standardised society. Cities followed the same measurement and writing systems, though 1,000 km apart. This indicates strong regulation of some kind. And it was not quite egalitarian. Every town had a western ‘citadel’ and an eastern ‘lower town’ indicating a class structure, though everyone was provided with bathrooms, toilets and the benefit of sanitation. The cities had fortifications but no weapons. They did not feel threatened by outsiders. So the walls existed to keep the insiders within. Why?
This falls in line with recent theories that they had evolved an agricultural economy to tax, which enslaved people. It is quite possible that the Harappan cities had an elite class that controlled the population. The famous seals have been found mostly at gates and workshops but were not part of burial indicating they had no religious significance. They were administrative in nature, token to regulate the movement of people within and between cities.
A recent widely discussed paper in Nature.com by Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay speaks about how the arrangement of logographs on seals has patterns similar to modern legal documents like ‘stamp papers’ or ‘passports’. Perhaps because people were not allowed to leave the city, it became necessary to come up with a sanitation system. This allowed them to stay indoors comfortably and work in factories making lucrative bead jewellery that had a great demand in Mesopotamian markets. These are controversial ideas but need to be explored.
What we know of Harappa is that it was an extremely isolated civilisation. It was exposed through sea-trade to the thriving Mesopotamian civilisation at a time when the Akkadian Empire was rising. We have found Harappan seals and objects in Mesopotamia, but we have not found Mesopotamian seals and objects in Harappa. It was exposed to the cuneiform script used for accounting and writing for at least 1,000 years before. Still Harappans did not adopt the cuneiform script. Why?
Why the need for isolation? Why the need for walls? Why the need for regulating movement between highly standardised cities? Did sewers hold a dark memory of bonded labour, which is why that technology was so quickly forgotten? Did Harappa contribute ideas to the development of the caste system later in Indian history?
These are questions that need answering. It is a direction that future archaeologists must take, when exploring the Harappan civilisation, rather than falling prey to glamourising and venerating the past without criticism.