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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 1 January 6, 2024

A Marvel that Indian Cities Once Were | M.R. Narayan Swamy 

Friday 5 January 2024, by M R Narayan Swamy



Indian Cities: Ancient and Medieval
by Raghavan Srinivasan

Hachette India
Pages: xi + 180; Price: Rs 399
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9357312501
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9357312509

It is a matter of immense pity that Indians do not build and maintain their cities the way their ancestors did during the Harappan Civilization. 

The baths in houses, public wells, bathing areas and high-quality drainage were among the most startling discoveries that archaeologists made when they began uncovering the Harappan cities. The findings spoke highly of the importance given to water and sanitation. It is something that modern city administrators, says author Raghavan Srinivasan, can learn from.

Mohenjo-daro, uncovered about a year after Harappa, was an engineering marvel. Its streets, houses and buildings display a measure of considerable engineering skills. In its Great Bath, a thick layer of bitumen along the sides made the tank water-tight. This was one of the earliest specimens of waterproofing in the world. In what might shock today’s Indians who mostly live in unplanned urban spaces, Mohenjo-daro had a properly laid-out street and side-lane system. It was clear that construction technology had reached an admirably professional level.

Dholavira, located in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, had developed an efficient system of conservation, harvesting and storage of water – a tribute to its advanced hydraulic engineering. Indeed, the city’s sophisticated water conservation system of channels and reservoirs built of stone is the earliest found anywhere in the world.

Once the Harappan cities declined, it took a long time until the sixth century BCE for urban revival in north India. Unfortunately, there is much less archaeological data available on the cities of this period than those of the Harappan ones due to the continued existence of these cities till today, making excavations near impossible. Two major cities of this period were Mathura and Hastinapura, both in present day Uttar Pradesh.

The Mauryan Empire (324-187 BCE) saw cities like Pataliputra, Takshashila and Ujjain achieve prominence. Their excavations have revealed cultural layers spanning several centuries. The cities also laid bare an increase in concentration of wealth with the royal family, ministers, administrators and merchants, as well as consolidation of religious institutions. Pataliputra emerged as one of the largest cities of the world.

Archaeological findings in the ancient Sangam cities – ruled by the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras – have shown that urbanization in the south started around the same time as in the Gangetic plains, and not to the contrary as believed earlier. Religious tolerance was one of the hallmarks of the ancient and early medieval cities in the Deccan, with Buddhism and Jainism flourishing along with Vedic practices. The famous Ajanta Caves, in the Deccan region, house the largest repository of ancient Indian paintings.

 In its heyday in the 11th century, the Chola Empire was one of the half-a-dozen greatest empires on earth. This is when large Hindu temples served as corporate entities, also generating demand for goods and employing thousands of people. The city of Tirunelveli, in modern Tamil Nadu, was first believed to be at least 2,000 years old. But subsequent excavations pointed to the existence of a civilization almost as old as the Harappan civilization.

At its peak, Hampi, capital of the Vijayanagara Empire and now in Karnataka, was the world’s second largest medieval-era city after Beijing. It was also the capital of an empire which covered about 140,000 square miles. Although the city was reduced to rubble by the Deccan Sultanates, a surprising inscription found at a magnificent temple of one thousand pillars at Hanamkonda speaks highly of the heroism of a Muhammadan general, Shitab Khan.

It was during the Mughal Empire that India saw a level of urbanization even higher than that in contemporary Europe. During the reign of Akbar, the urban population was an impressive 17 million – which could have been more than the combined population of Europe then. English traveller Ralph Fitch noted that cities like Agra and Fatehpur Sikri were even greater than London. What a fall these cities have had since then! 

Srinivasan makes a telling point: “One would expect that 4,000 years of technological progress would have made modern cities (in India) far superior to the Harappan cities. But unfortunately, our cities are (now) known more for their squalor, overpopulation, unplanned expansion and other such ills rather than their equity, aesthetics and monuments.” 

This book must be read by anyone who wants to know the greatness of our ancestors – and how badly we have tumbled as a people. 

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