Decline of Indus Civilization and Vedic Upheaval (Chapter-4)

Shamsuzzoha Manik
Articles & Essays, History
Decline of Indus Civilization and Vedic Upheaval (Chapter-4)

Publishers note: The series Article written by Shamsuzzoha Manik and Shamsul Alam Chanchal ]


Dam-based Irrigation System in the Indus Civilization


The huge number of Harappan sites distributed throughout the Indus-Saraswati Valley must have sustained large number of population in this region compared to any other contemporary civilizations.

Aurel Stein and others have discovered dams built across the mountain streams in Baluchistan estimated to have been built during neolithic-calcholithic period for irrigation of lands. Wheeler also mentioned the existence of such dams in Baluchistan which are known locally as gabarband. These had been strongly built by stone rubble, even up to height of 10 to 15 feet, to hold sufficient silt and water.[i] Walter A. Fairservis also mentioned such evidence of dams in Las Bela discovered near an Amri site on the Upper Hab River that were built to catch the small annual overflow from the surrounding mountains and by storing it to render it available to normally arid silt tracts which the position of the site indicates were cultivated.[ii] He also refers to the presence of bund agriculture in southwest Sind mentioned by O.H.K. Spate and earlier by the residents of a Harappan village on the edge of the Malir oasis. All these evidences indicate that these dams were constructed as a rather desperate attempt to store the available water from small rivers and utilize for agriculture. Such bund or dam based agriculture was not unknown in the ancient world as mentioned by some authors. R.S. Bisht has also mentioned the existence of dams at three places that were raised across the Manhar and at two places across the Mansar, both the storm water runnels were embraced the site Dholavira.[iii] The purpose of damming was to harvest water for filling the reservoir in the urban site of Dholavira. At Mehrgarh although no dam was reported, it is mentioned that there is possible evidence for the construction of irrigation ditches, which may have been helpful to agricultural intensification and, eventually population growth.[iv]

C. Benveniste and L. Renou first mentioned Vṛitra from purely philological consideration to mean “obstacle,” “barrage,” or “bloquage,” not a demon, with which D.D. Kosambi also agreed.[v] Kosambi had the same view that Indra’s breaking up dams is related to the breaking of prehistoric dams, called “Gebr-band” and are still found on many water-courses in the western parts of this region. M.K. Dhavalikar mentions the connection on gabarbands to the Vṛitra whom Indra slew, burst the cloud, broke the strongholds and drove the floods.[vi] He mentions “This interpretation is more plausible because it prevents the water flowing down where the Aryans were living in the Indus plains.”

On this ground it can be suggested that artificial irrigation based on building dams on rivers was employed in the Indus Civilization to increase the agricultural production which was essential for the subsistence of the huge number of the people living in the Indus-Saraswati Valley in so many settlements distributed throughout the vast region. Till now there is no intensive study conducted on the river based irrigation system of the Harappan people which is related to the subsistence agriculture. It can be assumed that the Harappan people built dams on the rivers to impound water and then sent them to distant places through cannels to irrigate agricultural lands. It can also be surmised that there were sluicegates at the dams to control the river waters as required for the irrigation purpose to distribute water to different communities of people. Sluicegates were not unknown to the Harappan people as its existence is mentioned from dockyard of Lothal where there was an arrangement of sliding wooden door in the recesses of the spill-way to control water level at the dock[vii] and the wooden sluicegate or grill at the drains of Harappa[viii]. The water management for the irrigation system was solely controlled by the Harappan state, which was a very sensitive task and requires some kind of control and authority over the whole population living under its jurisdiction

After examination of several skeletons from Harappan Civilization physical anthropologists found that there was less differences in patterns of nutritional stress among higher and subordinate social status, which is not found in other urban civilizations of ancient world.[ix] This observation reflects a society with considerable prosperity at all levels of hierarchy of people. Archaeologists have reported that even relatively small settlements have yielded a wide range of “elite” Harappan artifacts. Examples are Allahdino, Balakot, Amri, Kot Diji and Nausharo, all of which are between two to five hectares in size.[x]  All these indicate that the Harappan society and state was relatively prosperous and there was less difference in the wealth in the cities and even among the cities and towns. As mentioned earlier this affluence no doubt was achieved by the surplus food production by organizing the dam-based artificial irrigation of vast land. However, this relatively equal distribution of wealth among the cities, towns and people paint before our eyes not only the picture of a prosperous society but also the picture of a civilization that was based on the principle of relative equality of all members of society and democracy in the statecraft on which we will try to shed some lights later.

But a time came when the golden time of an ancient civilization with so much magnanimity and brilliance was nearing its end. It can be suggested that building dams across the river was the main reason for drying up of rivers like Saraswati and changes of many other river courses at the end of the Mature Harappan Phase. Many traces of palaeo-channels have been identified by satellite image. L.S. Leshnik mentions regarding the ancient irrigation canals as: “… The present Indus hydrography hardly holds out much promise in this regard, for traces of ancient irrigation canals, still partially visible in the last century are now wholly erased. The sole exception seems to be in the South Punjab where Sir Aurel Stein observed a linear alignment of Harappan settlements along the course of a canal traversing Bahawalpur and Bikaner districts.”[xi] The satellite imagery has provided much help in tracing the palaeo-channels. Several sinuous shades of grey represent palaeo-channels or abandoned channels in Sindh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat.[xii] Riverine character of the Indus civilization is mentioned by the archaeologists long before, as settlement pattern shows that except in Saurashtra, Harappan culture is essentially a riverine culture, flourishing in the valleys of the Himalayan rivers whose flood plains are annually inundated by monsoon floods which spread fresh silt and provide adequate subsoil moisture for agricultural crops.[xiii]

Evidence of flooding is mentioned by the archaeologists at some of the Harappan sites, as it occurred due to dams. There are evidences of devastated flooding at least five times at Mohenjo-daro. Moreover, sites south of Mohenjo-daro, such as Amri and Chanhu-daro found abundant evidence of flooding.[xiv] There happened also aridity resulted from drying up of rivers or changes of river courses.

The Ṛigveda supports the view that all major river flows were stopped due to Vṛitra or Ahi, that were allowed to flow by Indra, as in the following hymns:

“He, who having destroyed Ahi, set free the seven rivers; who recovered the cows detained by Bala; who generated fire in the clouds; who is invincible in battle; he, men, is Indra” (II/12/3)

“He, the seven-rayed, the showerer, the powerful, who let loose the seven rivers to flow; who, armed with the thunderbolt, crushed Rauhiṇa when scaling heaven; he, men, is Indra.” (II/12/12)

The priests used metaphors in the hymns. It can be noted in ‘the cloud was within the belly of Vṛitra’, ‘encompassed by the cloud’, etc. to mean metaphorically the water impounded and stored by the dams and ‘recovered the cows’, ‘release of cows’, etc. to mean metaphorically the flow of impounded water after the destruction of dams. The Vedic term gávo is used as in Sanskrit and its meaning was cow, herd of milk, rays of light, water, the earth, etc.[xv]

That the rivers were disconnected from their tributaries and branches due to dams and resulting siltation is also metaphorically mentioned in the Ṛigveda, as:

“When the cows were separated from their calves, they wandered about hither and thither; but when the well-offered libations had exhilarated him, then Indra, with his vigorous (Maruts), reunited them (with their calves).” (V/30/10)

From some allegorical narratives we can visualize the existence of sluicegates at dams:

  1. (Thou art) that Brahmaṇaspati who, by his might, has humbled those who deserved humiliation; who in his wrath rent the clouds asunder; who sent down the undescending (waters); and made way into the mountain (cave), opulent (in cattle).
  2. That was the exploit, (performed) for the most divine of the gods, by which the firm (shut gates) were thrown open, the strong (barriers) were relaxed, (by him) who set the cows at liberty: who, by the (force of the) sacred prayer, destroyed Bala: who dispersed the darkness and displayed the light.
  3. That stone-like, solid, down-hanging, water-laden (cloud), which Brahmaṇaspati has with his strength divided, the universal solar rays have drunk up; but they have again shed together the showering and water-spreading (rain). (II/24/2 – 4)

In the above hymns ‘set the cows at liberty’ and ‘the rescue of the cows’ are meant to express release of river water which was stopped due to dams. More examples of hymns are mentioned below:

Through that friendship, Soma, which has united thee with thy (friend) Indra, he has made the waters flow for man; he has slain Ahi; he has sent forth the seven rivers, and has opened the shut-up sources (of the streams). (IV/28/1)

Thou, Indra, hast rent the cloud asunder, thou hast set open the flood-gates, thou hast liberated the obstructed streams, thou hast opened the vast cloud, and hast given vent to the showers, having slain the Dánava. (V/32/1)

  1. Reciting sincere praise, reflecting correctly, the Angirasas, the pious sons of the brilliant and powerful (Agni), upholding the intelligent base, the supporter of the sacrifice, praise from the beginning.
  2. With his friends (the Maruts) clamouring like geese, throwing open the (Asuras’) cattle-folds made of stone, Bṛihaspati calling aloud (desires to carry off) the cows; knowing all things he praises (the gods), and chants (their laudation).
  3. Bṛihaspati purposing to bring light into the darkness drove out the cows standing in the cave in the place of darkness below by two (ways), and those above by one (way); he opened the three (doors of the Asuras);
  4. Resting near it, demolishing the western city, Bṛihaspati wrested at once from Vala the three, dawn, the sun, the cow; thundering like the heaven, he proclaimed the adorable (sun).
  5. Indra with his voice as with an (armed) hand clove Vala the defender of the milch kine; desirous of the mixture (of milk and Soma) he with (the Maruts), who were shining with perspiration, destroyed Paṇi and liberated the cows.
  6. Together with his true brilliant wealth-winning friendly (Maruts) he destroyed the detainer of the cows; Brahmaṇaspati, with the showerers (of benefits), the conveyers of desirable (water), the frequenters of sacrifice, acquired wealth. (X/67/2 – 7)

In the above hymns there is mention of opening of three doors of Asuras which ‘liberated the cows,’ can be conceived as a metaphorical representation of sluice gate with three doors, its opening liberated impounded river water. It is assumed that the destruction of sluicegates is easier than the destruction of dams, as it might be made of wood with frames made of stones. So, most of the hymns regarding slaying of Vṛitra should mean allegorical representation of the destruction of sluicegates. We assume that dams with sluicegates had been constructed at the upstream of every major river and their tributaries at the beginning and distributed part of river water for irrigation to the agricultural fields by several canals. Then resulting flow at the downstream of the large rivers was much less and made it possible to build dams with sluice gates across them.

There are some hymns which indicate multiplicity of Vṛitra, i.e., Vṛitras (I/84/13, VII/22/2, IX/88/4, etc.), which also indicates the existence of dams across several rivers. Sometimes it is called that Indra “didst discover the nine-and-ninety flowing rivers” (X/104/8).

One thing should be clear from the Ṛigveda that by the term Vṛitra it meant dam or embankment which was built across the river, as   “…  (Vṛitra) increased, in the midst of the navigable (rivers): ….” (I/33/11), not along the rivers.

We should take another consequence of frequent changes of river-course and drying up of rivers into consideration. That is the frequent displacement and rehabilitation of populations. When rivers dried or changed their old courses, the surrounding population had to move to the new river basins abandoning the old settlements. It can be realized that the drying up of once mighty river Saraswati caused how much sufferings to a vast number of the population and how much effect it might have on the society. Some hundreds of years later the dam-based irrigation system that distributed river waters to distant lands through irrigation cannels should have caused salinity of the soil also resulting adverse effect on the crop production. All these contributed to discontent of people against the dam-based irrigation system.

In such situations particularly the displaced and water deprived population should have organized revolts against the Indus state authority. The ruling class of the Indus state who was the developer and builder of the dams across the rivers and architect of the prosperous civilization, is metaphorically expressed by the Vedic priest in the Ṛigveda, as: “Decorated with gold and jewels, they were spreading over the circuit of the earth; but, mighty as they were, they triumphed not over Indra: he dispersed them with the (rising) sun.” (I/33/8).

After the destruction of dams, i.e., Vṛitras, and more specifically the sluicegates of the dams, the Vedic faction won in the civil war. But the civilization could not continue as dam-based irrigation system collapsed with the destruction of dams, which also forced to change the agricultural subsistence economy. Many writers claim that climatic change occurred which caused aridity at the beginning of the second millennium BC made the civilization collapse.[xvi] Recently a high resolution oxygen isotope (d18O) record of animal teeth-bone phosphates from an archaeological trench at Bhirrana, North-West India, suggests that other cause like change in subsistence strategy by shifting crop patterns rather than climate changes was responsible for Harappan collapse.[xvii] We assume that this change in crop patterns is associated with the change in mode of cultivation shifted due to change from artificial irrigation to the mode of natural cultivation depending on rain and moisture in the soil.

Many mythical elements, which had been prevailing and were popular in the Indus society, have been incorporated in the Ṛigveda, which normally happens in any religious literature, like that happened in the Quaran, the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. As mentioned above the central issue of destruction of Vṛitra or slaying of Ahi is not a mythical corroboration here. Metaphors were being used to mean the dam, the impounded water or the flow of river water after destruction of sluice gates of the dams or the dams itself.

The question should arise why these metaphors were used instead of directly mentioning the dams or sluicegates. The answer lies in the fact that as the dams or embankments and sluicegates were deified in the existing religion, they had different deities or gods. Rivers were gods or defied natural forces in the eyes of the people. So, in order to justify the acts of controlling rivers by dams or embankments and sluicegates to the common people the religion permitted by the rulers of the Indus Civilization had to deify also these artificial objects. Thus along as well as accross the rivers the objects which had been built to control the water-flow of the rivers had also gods or spirits to the common people.

We can assume that when the Vedic priests started organizing the movements against the dams or sluicegates, they had to find different metaphorical names for them so that the religious sentiment of the people would not get hurt. The priests were also a part of the old religion. So, they also could not go directly against the old religious tradition.

But this is one side of the problem. There is another side of it. Like any other great or epoch making social movements the Vedic priests also had to take a considerably long time to organize the movement for the destruction of dams. Since the state authority could not remain idle in the face of any move that was directed against the very foundation of their existence, the Vedic priests had to be very tactful to find effective cover for their movement, which would help them to avoid attack by the state as long as possible and would give them necessary time for the consolidation of the movement at the initial stage.

Under these circumstances, they had to invent new ways or means to discard the existing gods that had been associated directly with the river control system and they had to use metaphors to mean impounded water or rivers, etc. In this process the term Vṛitra or Ahi was invented to indicate dams or embankments and, at least in many cases, ‘gávo‘ or cow was used to mean water or river. Vṛitra was used to mean obstacle built in the course of the flowing river. Ahi means serpent or snake. Ahi is a perfect allegorical representation of the embankment which runs along a river in a zigzag course. The main feat of the chief Vedic god Indra is the killing of Vṛitra or Ahi or destroying dams and thereby freeing `cows’ or impounded rivers.

[i] Sir Mortimer Wheeler, The Indus Civilization, Cambridge University Press, 1968, Third Edition, pp.10-11.

[ii] Walter A. Fairservis, “The Harappan Civilization – New Evidence and More Theory,” in, American Museum Novitates, Published by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, No. 2055, 1961, p. 5. (Available from internet)

[iii] R.S. Bisht, “Dholavira and Banawali: Two Different Paradigms of the Harappan Urbis Forma,” in, Puratattva, No. 29, 1999, pp. 26-28.

[iv] Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, “Households and Neighborhoods of the Indus Tradition: An Overview,” in, eds, Bradley J. Parker and Catherine P. Foster, New Perspectives on Household Archaeology, Eisenbrauns, Indiana, 2012, p. 381. (Available from internet)

[v] Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, First Published 1956, Revised Second Edition 1975, Reprinted 1985, pp. 74, 75.

[vi] M.K. Dhavalikar, The Aryans: Myth and Archaeology, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2007, pp. 100,101.

[vii] S.R. Rao, (1979), Lothal: A Harappan Port Town (1955-62), Volume I, Published by the Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi, 1979, p.126.

[viii] Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, 1998, p. 61.

[ix] Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, “Skulls, Aryans and Flowing Drains: The Interface of Archaeology and Skeletal Biology in the Study of the Harappan Civilization,” in, ed, Gregory L. Possehl, Harappan Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective, Oxford & IBH Publishing Co, New Delhi, 1982, p. 290.

[x] Jonathan Mark Kenoyer and Richard H. Meadow, “Harappa: New Discoveries on its Origins and Growth,” in, Lahore Museum Bulletin, Vol. XII, No. 1, 1999, p. 5. (Available from internet)

[xi] L.S. Leshnik, “Land Use and ecological factors in prehistoric North-West India,” in, ed, Norman Hammond, South Asian Archaeology, Papers from the First International Conference of South Asian Archaeologists held in the University of Cambridge, Published by Gerald Duckworth & Company Ltd., London, 1973, p. 70.

[xii] Prem Kishore Saint, “Paleohydrology of the Sindhu-Sarasvatī Civilization River Systems,” in, ed, Nalini Rao, Sindhu-Sarasvatī Civilization: New Perspectives, A Volume in Memory of Dr. Shikaripur Ranganatha Rao, Nalanda International, Los Angeles and D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd., New Delhi, 2014, pp. 542-543.

[xiii] V.N. Misra, “Climate, a Factor in the Rise and Fall of the Indus Civilization – Evidence from Rajasthan and Beyond,” in, eds, B.B. Lal and S.P. Gupta, Frontiers of the Indus Civilization, Sir Mortimer Wheeler Commemoration Volume, Published by Books and Books, New Delhi, on behalf of Indian Archaeological Society jointly with Indian History & Culture Society, 1984, p. 483.

[xiv] George F. Dales, “The Decline of the Harappans,” in, ed, Gegory L. Possehl, Ancient Cities of the Indus, Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1979, p. 309.

[xv] Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi, Reprint 1995, p. 363.

[xvi] Michel Danino discussed different views of different writers on the climate change. See: Michel Danino, “Revisiting the Role of Climate Change in the Collapse of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization,” in, Puratattva, No. 38, 2008, pp. 159-169.

[xvii] Anindya Sarkar, Arati Deshpande Mukherjee, M.K. Bera, B. Das, Navin Juyal, P. Morthekai, R.D. Deshpande, V.S. Shinde, and L.S. Rao, “Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization,” in, Nature, 2016, p. 1. (Available from internet)

Shamsuzzoha Manik. He is a Bangladeshi translator, writer, editor, and publisher who was arrested on February 15, 2016 after a religious extremist group warned of violent protests over one of his books. The police shut down Manik’s stall at the...

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