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Questioning Stereotypes

Upinder Singh

By Shereen Ratnagar
2016, Rs. 2195.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 10 October 2016

An enormous amount of scholarly writing exists on the Harappan civilization. Shereen Ratnagar herself has produced a number of important books on the subject. So why another one? For one thing, the information on South Asia’s oldest civilization continues to grow steadily, and new evidence requires rethinking. Further, as Ratnagar tells us in the Preface, it is time ‘to put the pieces together and to conceive of the entirety of Harappan archaeological remains in terms of a mode of cultural organization, a kind of society, and a set of economic patterns, thereby putting some flesh on the bones.’ Ratnagar’s is not a routine overview. Apart from rich empirical detail, a lively critical perspective runs through the book, one which reflects on archaeological method and interpretation in order to question several hypotheses and stereotypes, not only about the Harappan civilization, but also about the larger Indian past. The first part of the book focuses on the backbone of the civilization—agriculture and water. There is a detailed discussion of the ‘dynamic landscape,’ drawing on studies that have detailed shifting river courses and coastlines. But Ratnagar argues that there has been too much focus on riverine floods and rainfall in discussions of Harappan agriculture, and that ground water resources were much more important. She also looks at subsistence activities based on animals and marine life, and extends her discussion to the symbolic and religious spheres, for instance in an excursus on the buffalo and the ‘horned deity’ on the so-called Pashupati seal. Although there is a great deal of discussion of historiography in the book, its second section has an especially strong focus on this. In Chapter 2, the author gives an overview of the discovery of the civilization and the changing presuppositions, interpretations and conclusions about its origins and nature. This includes discussing the well-recognized regional variations as well as the disparities in the regional profiles. For instance, the Saurashtra and Kutch sites are much better understood than the sites in the Sutlej-Yamuna divide. The close relationship between the Early and Mature Harappan phases has been acknowledged for many decades, especially after Rafique Mughal’s work on Cholistan. But Ratnagar disagrees with the ‘gradualist paradigm’ and asserts that there must have been a radical socio-economic transformation that took place at the cusp of the two phases. She also questions the usefulness of the ‘Late Harappan’ label, pointing out that too ...

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