Living with the past: How Rakhigarhi residents share space with the remains of one of India’s ancient cities
Many of the streets of Rakhigarhi, Haryana, are cobbled or bricked. But it’s often difficult to see the road surface, so covered is it with dried animal dung. As in most rural households in India, animals are a part of nearly every household. Milk is rarely, if ever, bought. Butter is made fresh, at home. And dried dung cakes are used to light fires for warmth through the freezing winters, heat water and often cook. “Even people with gas connections use dried dung cake fires to heat water and to cook. There’s a different flavour to the food, when cooked in an earthen pot over an open flame,” explains Vicky Malik, a Rakhigarhi resident, as he stands on a high mound beyond which stretches fields of wheat and yellow blossoming mustard. Near his feet, as indeed across most of the mound,are scattered round, flattened cakes made of animal dung – in various states of dryness. Beneath the waste lie the remains of the Indian subcontinent’s earliest-known urban culture.
Three years ago, a team of archaeologists working under Vasant Shinde of Pune’s Deccan College, found skeletons in one of the farmlands in the village. The cemetery they uncovered dated back to the Indus Valley Civilisation that had flourished in the subcontinent between 2600-1900 BCE. The locals weren’t surprised. Rakhigarhi’s introduction to its ties with the past had begun years ago.
Finding The Lost Town
The revelation of Rakhigarhi’s links to history was quite accidental, recalls archaeologist Ravindra Singh Bisht, who specialises in the study of the Indus Valley Civilisation – or Harappan Civilisation, as it is often called, after the name of the village in present-day Pakistan, where the first site of that ancient culture was discovered, sometime in the 1920s. “Acharya Bhagwan Dev headed a gurukul in Jhajjar, Haryana. He was also a collector of antiquities. Once, on a trip to Rakhigarhi, he found some old earthenware urns and other things in the soil here, but was unable to identify them,” explains Bisht. Dev invited Suraj Bhan, a professor who was studying the Harappan era, to examine his findings. “It was Bhan who established that these antiquities dated to the Indus Valley Civilisation. This was in the 1960s,” he adds.
Bisht paid his first visit to Rakhigarhi in 1972. Though referred to collectively as Rakhigarhi, the area is made of two small villages – Rakhi Khas and Rakhi Shahpur – each with its own panchayat. The site of the old Harappan Civilisation spreads across both. “Initially I identified five mounds where remains of the Harppan Civilisation could be found,” he says. Later he found two more with remains of a pre Harappan (or early-Harppan as some call it) settlement and recommended that they be all declared as ‘protected monuments’ by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Presently four of the seven mounds are ASI-protected. The others are too thickly populated at present to bring them under protection, says an ASI official. It was the reason why Bisht never did any excavations at Rakhigarhi. “Some of the biggest mounds were under occupation. I felt I could not do justice to the study in such a situation,” says the archaeologist, who has done extensive work in Dholavira, another site of the Harappan Civilization.
The first excavation at Rakhigarhi was carried out between 1997 to 2000 by Amarendra Nath of the ASI. Between 2013-16, Shinde too carried out excavations here. A report on the study of the DNA remains of the skeletons found during the excavations three years back is expected soon, possibly in the next one month.
But Bisht says there in Rakhigarhi that still remains to be studied. “It is the biggest site of the Harappan civilisation found till date,” says Shinde. “The site here is spread across an area of more than 500 hectares. Mohenjo-daro, which was earlier thought to be the biggest Harappan-era site, is only about 300 hectares in size,” he says, adding, “what we are yet to figure out though, is whether this entire area was occupied simultaneously, or gradually brought under occupation.”
Excavations for evidence of the ancient settlement have spilled beyond the four mounds protected by the ASI into private land. Crops now cover the soil under which Shinde had found the ancient cemetery during his work here.
A Shared Space
“I went to see the skeletons when they were found a few years ago,” says Rina, a young Rakhigarhi resident. There is none of the fear or sense of foreboding that one often associates with such findings in the people here. “We always knew this to be the site of an ancient culture,” says 74-year-old Ram Kala, a farmer, in explanation. “Our elders always said there used to be an old village here, popularly referred to as Kolapaltan. But we didn’t know how old it was before the excavations started.” Some excavations have been done in his fields too.
Most residents have at some point or the other found bits of broken pottery and beads in their fields and grounds. Especially after the monsoon when the soil is soft. Many have in their homes bits and pieces of ancient history, collected over the years. One such, with a more extensive collection than others, is 52-year-old Ramesh Chandra, a teacher at the government school here. “I got interested after I found a pot in my fields,” he says showing his collection of urns, broken pots and what look like seals and bits and pieces of terracotta jewellery. “I have shown it to visiting historians and archaeologists and they have confirmed it is from ancient times,” he says.
The locals are oddly at home with the history in their midst. “The fact that this was the site of one of the India’s oldest cities is a matter of pride for us. Excavations have been carried out in private lands and owners have been happy to give their lands for free for the work. Others are happy to host the visiting scholars in their homes,” says Dinesh Sheoran, a former sarpanch of Rakhi Shahpur, who takes a deep interest in the work and is somewhat of a go-to person for most visiting scholars.
But the acceptance of heritage, doesn’t bring with it a sense of awe, and often not even an awareness of the need for its protection. The ASI has put up metal fences around the four ‘protected’ mounds. Once the excavations were completed, the soil cover was replaced, to protect the antiquities below. But two wheelers zip through gaps in the fences using the path through the mounds as a thoroughfare. People come and go as they please, using it as a vacant plot to dry dung cakes. Animals roam freely. Today, much of the site of one of India’s oldest cities looks like a garbage dump.
“It was so even when I had identified them,” says Bisht. “The ASI protection should have improved the condition. But then, the ASI is so short-funded and short-staffed that it is a challenge,” he adds. An ASI official says the organisation has one person posted at Rakhigarhi to ensure protection of the mounds. “But it is too much for one person to take care of. We have also conducted awareness-building sessions with the locals to explain to them the need to protect the site. But it hasn’t helped.” Littering is better, says Shinde, than taking soil from the sites to build and repair homes – which also the villagers would do once – but have stopped now, thanks to the efforts of locals like Sheoran. “That would expose the remains to weathering and also cause us to lose data,” he explains.
The littering may not damage the historical data buried beneath, but the mess is definitely a put-off for visitors.
The neglect of the mounds dismays Wazir Chand Sirohi. A local with a passion for the archaeological data found in his village, he maintains copies of reports on the finds at Rakhigarhi, and has trained himself to become somewhat of a local guide around the digs sites. For most locals, however, pride in their history is at odds with the practical concerns of present-day living. Land is a sore point for many.
One of the ASI-protected mounds in the village – site five – has been built over. For years the ASI has been trying to get the area vacated. A row of two-room brick structures, funded by the state government, have been built in the village to rehabilitate those shifted away from the site. More are under construction. Some have already made the shift to the government quarters. But many are not in the mood to move. The situation is precarious for those whose houses are built on land that is not registered in their names but is formally owned by the panchayat. They may be the first to face forced eviction.
“Those living in smaller houses have agreed to move, but how can those living in bigger spaces agree to shift to those cramped quarters. Where will be keep our animals?” asks 31-year-old Anil Kumar, a farmer by profession.
Most of the houses in the village have a big open courtyard –where the animals are kept – surrounded by rooms, a design Shinde says the modern village shares with the Harappan times. The government-built accommodations don’t have that kind of space.
Fifty-four-year-old Jaivir, a retired army employee, had worked as a labourer when the ASI first started excavation here. He dimly understands the importance of the site, as do most other villagers, but questions, “isn’t it unfair to disrupt the lives of people in the present to know about the past?”
The question plays on the minds of many of those facing displacement, even as the state government plans to promote and preserve it as a site of heritage tourism. A seven-galleried museum is under construction. “We are also planning a library and souvenir shop,” explains Banani Bhattacharyya, deputy director, department of archaeology and museums, Haryana. Expected to be completed sometime in the next year, the complex will also have a hostel for tourists and visiting scholars. “There are also plans to improve the connectivity to Rakhigarhi,” she says.
The infrastructural development and expected economic growth accompanying the coming of tourists will, Bhattacharyya hopes, also make the villagers more protective of Rakhigarhi’s heritage sites.
Shinde too hopes to return, to work on the conservation of the site. “The problem in opening the site at Rakhigarhi for public viewing is that unlike in Mohenjo-daro, where the Harappan structures are made of burnt brick, here they are made of dried brick and therefore more vulnerable to weathering. We need to strengthen the structures and erect some sort of a protective cover,” he explains.
And he plans to involve the locals in the project for regional know-how often works better than technology learnt from abroad which are more suitable to conditions there. “The knowledge got passed down the ages,” he says. Under the dirt and surface presence of the present, says Shinde, is a village that retains its ancient roots. “The way the village is laid out is similar to the Harrapan settlements. Often when I walk the streets of Rakhigarhi, I feel I am in a Harappan village,” he says.