A Civilization Long Past: V J Singam
It was breath-taking—the beautiful, waist-high piles of brick and earth, outlining the walls and courtyards of the ancient, uninhabited city. The relentless sun blazed overhead; a brown landscape of hillocks and mounds before me unfolded gently as far as my shielded gaze could discern. As I held my hand up to my forehead, studying this extraordinary sight, no one could tell how my heart pumped or how the adrenaline coursed through my veins. It was exactly as I had imagined. I was in Mohenjo Daro, the city of my dreams. I was finally home.
The year was 1999. I was lucky enough to visit Mohenjo Daro at a time before 9/11; before restrictions on travel would grip the world in a nightmare of bureaucratic red-tape. But why was I in Mohenjo Daro in the first place?
The Indus Valley civilization had captured my imagination even as a teenager when I had first set eyes on those two iconic pictures in my history textbook—that of the priest-king and the dancing girl. As I listened to my teacher describe it as one of the world’s oldest and most mysterious civilizations, my eyes as big as saucers, I was hooked. Mysterious, because archaeologists still could not decipher its script, nor tell how and why this great civilization had ceased to exist.
The Indus Valley continued to colour my imagination until I left school, and my home in Malaysia to further my education. But it was not before I was in my mid-thirties, and already a mother of three, that I had reason to revisit my fascination for the place. Interestingly, it came after a period of intense spiritual questioning, during which I had the idea of writing a novel tracing the roots of my culture. The question I asked myself was, how much could Hinduism have been influenced by that now vanished, but once-glorious civilization?
It was only after my novel Disorientation and its characters had taken up permanent residence in my imagination that I actually visited Harappa and its sister city, Mohenjo Daro. I booked a customised package tour with a travel agency in Pakistan. My journey started in Islamabad, from whence I flew to Lahore. I intended to traverse the country from top to bottom, stopping on the way at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and several other smaller places like Multan and Sukkur. From Lahore to Karachi I travelled by car, with a wonderful tour guide, who generously pointed out to me the beauty and history associated with the various places we passed. Some part of the way, we even traversed the ancient Silk Road that once ran from China to Europe. We saw beautiful mosques, palaces, gardens, museums, and even a carpet factory, but I admit the trip really began to get interesting for me when we approached one of the archaeological sites.
In Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, no longer having to rely only on my imagination, I witnessed for myself the brilliance of the ancient Harappan town planners and administrators. The way their streets and buildings were aligned in a grid pattern protecting residents from strong winds, and fortifying their acropolis to contain and preserve their important buildings—that was architecture!
Some houses were double-storeyed, with courtyards and staircases and rooftop terraces. All inhabitants enjoyed common conveniences such as bathing tanks and community halls.
The cities had common and private bathing wells, sophisticated drainage, and toilets; in the Mohenjo Daro acropolis, even a complex that might have housed some sort of monastery or a university. An archaeological museum on the Harappa site showcased the jewellery, pots, games, seals, and toys unearthed during various excavations. I marvelled at everything.
After visiting Harappa, and on the way to Mohenjo Daro, we made an overnight stop at Multan. The ancient city is thought to have been a halfway rest stop for traders travelling between Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. Estimated to be over five thousand years old, Multan is also a ‘living city’, a city that has been continuously occupied over the millennia, built and rebuilt by successive generations as its roads and houses fell into disrepair. But historians believe that much treasure of archaeological value may still lie hidden beneath Multan’s upper layers. This city was never abandoned like the others when the Indus Valley Civilization disintegrated, and continued to be occupied by successive rising cultures.
Since it is a living city, no excavations can be carried out in Multan without destroying existing houses and buildings. But the architecture and layout of a city may be just as useful in gauging its history as good, old-fashioned archaeology. To get an idea as to what a typical Indus Valley city would have looked like, my guide took me to the oldest part of Multan—the bazaar. When I saw it, I had to agree, it looked very much like what any marketplace or city centre of the Harappan civilization would have looked like during its mature phase; a large main street lined with buildings, wide enough to accommodate at least two lanes of passing carts or other vehicles, stalls overflowing with merchandise lining the walls, and numerous alleyways leading, in grid-like fashion, off the main street into residential dwelling areas, where people could leave or enter their homes safe from the danger of passing vehicles. Which was the case here, in the bazaar in Multan.
I had the good fortune to look into one of the homes off the main street after my guide obtained permission from a boy who lived there.
I saw a layout that resembled the standard Harappan layout—a few rooms grouped around a courtyard with a well, and a small flight of stairs leading to an upper storey room and then onto a flat rooftop-terrace. Even the front door was a humbler version of the polished Harappan door I had seen the previous day in the archaeological museum. A tiny opening above the door constituted a window, with a lamp niche beside it. It seemed to me little had changed down the millennia as far as building designs went. The area was a faded version of the grand city that would have been Harappa, missing its ingenious sanitation system, straight roads, and edifices with perfect right angles. Although the brilliant town-planning that characterized the Harappan era seemed to have suffered during the intervening centuries, I nonetheless, found it a rare privilege to glimpse the vibrant and colourful place that Harappa must have once been.
The trip, on the whole, moved me not only because of the marvellous sights and the excavations, but also because of the feeling of magical timelessness the region inspired in me. While various invaders and visitors had entered the subcontinent over the millennia, some indelibly leaving their hallmark upon South Asian culture, mostly their presence had been quietly but firmly engulfed by the land. I had the feeling that if ever one of my descendants happened to visit this place at a time far away in the future, he or she would find the same things unchanged. And like me, perhaps be touched by an inexplicable affinity, a sense of ‘coming home’ to this hauntingly beautiful place.
V J Singam was born in Malaysia and spent a career in teaching and counselling before writing her first historical fantasy novel, Disorientation, in the historical fantasy trilogy, The Seer’s Return. In her books, V. J. relies on her love of ancient history and psychology to spin an epic tale of two kingdoms torn apart by deceit and treachery. V. J. is currently working on the second novel in the series, Lucidity, which continues with the saga of Dr Visvanathan on his mind-blowing journey. It will be out next year.