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Rakhigarhi, the village that treads on history

P Anima | Updated on September 13, 2019 Published on September 13, 2019

Link road: The Rakhigarhi site showcases continuity from the Harappan age 5,000 years ago - Kamal Narang   -  BusinessLine

Rakhigarhi hit the headlines when the DNA extracted from a woman who lived in the village around 4,500 years ago yielded clues to the ancestry of ancient Indians. Being a hub of ancient history, though, has come at a cost to this Indus Valley Civilisation site

Charan Singh’s field is lush with bajra (pearl millet) and cotton crops — and dotted with shards of ancient history. The Haryana farmer walks past the neat rows of bajra, stopping every now and then to pick up broken bits of terracotta — the mouth of a jar, base of a pot or a piece of bone thousands of years old.

At Rakhigarhi, one of the largest sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC), history is everywhere. You find the ancient past in the fields or courtyards, in puddles of mud, or in trenches dug up to raise the foundation of a house.

The village, about 150 km from Delhi in neighbouring Haryana, hit the headlines across the world last week when the DNA extracted from a woman who lived there around 4,500 years ago yielded clues to the much-debated ancestry of ancient Indians. The study, published in the science journal Cell, is the end result of a five-year-long excavation in Rakhigarhi by a team of researchers led by Vasant Shinde, vice-chancellor of Pune’s Deccan Postgraduate and Research Institute.

The DNA samples extracted from the ancient Rakhigarhi inhabitant showed that she belonged to a population now known to be the ancestors of most South Asians. The studies showed that she was not of Aryan descent — her DNA did not have the Steppe pastoralist ancestry — highlighting that the Aryan migration to the region happened after the IVC declined. The studies also showed a genetic continuity from the ancient hunter-gatherers to the present-day South Asians.

Rakhigarhi is used to all the academic and media attention. The villagers, who live among millennia-old remnants, alert curious visitors to the continuation of ancient practices in the 21st-century village.

“When we cremate the dead today, the head is placed to the north and feet to the south, just like the Harappans,” says Vicky Malik, a village youngster who has been closely following Shinde’s work. He points out that the village’s small, brick-lined drainage system is similar to that of the Harappans. Measurements of the lanes in the Harappan era and present-day Rakhigarhi are exactly the same, points out Shinde.

Rakhigarhi became an archaeological hotspot when Amarendra Nath, former director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), undertook excavations at the site in 1997. The ASI team unearthed a fire altar, parts of a city wall, drainage structures as well as a hoard of semi-precious beads.

Villagers subsequently began to see the significance of the terracotta shards that littered Rakhigarhi. “When we were small, we would find beads and seals, which we would give away to outsiders for one or two paise,” recalls 55-year-old Karan Singh. Homemaker Darsan found large earthen pots when land was dug up to lay the foundation for her house some 30 years ago. “We discarded it, not knowing what it meant,” she says.

Pick me up: Shards of ancient history are littered around Rakhigarhi; villagers routinely find terracotta beads, pieces of bone, broken terracotta bangles and jars in their fields and courtyards - Kamal Narang   -  BusinessLine

 

Every spell of rain in Rakhigarhi brings new traces of history to the surface. Pieces of terracotta bangles, for instance, are strewn in the courtyard of Darsan’s house.

The ASI excavations continued till 2000, when a CBI investigation into alleged financial irregularities brought work to a halt.

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The past nestles with the present in Rakhigarhi, which comprises two segments — Rakhi Shahpur and Rakhi Khas. The archaeological sites extend across nine mounds, of which two — mounds four and five — are thickly populated.

“It is a 5,000-year-old site that showcases continuity from the Harappan age to the present times. The village also has havelis that are a couple of hundred years old,” Shinde points out.

Over the years, growing archaeological attention has heightened the need to conserve Rakhigarhi, where two adjacent lanes often tell tales that are millennia apart.

However, Rakhigarhi’s rise as a site of ancient curiosity has disrupted the villager’s life to an extent. At the end of a decade-long legal feud between the ASI and the village gram panchayat over present-day settlements in parts of the area, the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruled in favour of the ASI in 2009 and ordered the removal of encroachments from the protected site.

Almost a decade later, the process of rehabilitating around 200 households living on the mounds is yet to begin. The state government has built housing units for the displaced people within the village. “Thirty five houses have already been built in Rakhi Shahpur and others are being constructed in Rakhi Khas. People will have to move eventually,” says Dinesh Sheoran, former sarpanch.

While the state government has built houses for free, the displaced villagers are distressed about leaving behind their old homes. “It is only been three years since we built our house,” says villager Mukesh. Others rue leaving a larger house and assets for a smaller one.

“There is unease among villagers, and also a sense of disruption. For the past 20 years, I have often heard people say, ‘Yeh gaon uddh jayega’ (The village will be evacuated),” Sheoran notes.

As the excavations increase and more sites come under protection, the farmers fear they may lose their land. Charan Singh and his extended family, for instance, have their fields on mound seven, a few feet from where Shinde and his team unearthed Harappan burial sites. “All we have are our fields and home,” Mukesh, Charan Singh’s wife, adds.

Shinde understands their apprehension; the State government, he says, should take the people into confidence, create awareness and assure adequate compensation.

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Shinde’s association with archaeology in Haryana dates back to 2006, when he decided to track down the sites documented decades earlier by archaeologist Katy Nariman Frenchman, also an alumna of Deccan College. “Most of the sites she documented had been destroyed and some had become agricultural land,” says Shinde.

When he arrived in Rakhigarhi in 2010-11, Shinde found that the locals were opposed to excavations there. “They felt they were not taken into confidence when excavations happened. They asked me to have lunch with them and leave,” he recalls.

Shinde ate with them and left — but made it a point to come back, once, twice, thrice. Slowly, the residents came around. He held meetings with the village elders and made them aware of the history beneath their feet. He would not just excavate and disappear, he assured them. “The farmer on whose land I first excavated would keep a close watch when we worked, making sure we didn’t dig anywhere beyond what was allowed by him. We would explain to him each thing we found, and he was hooked,” Shinde tells BLink.

Rakhigarhi’s asset, he insists, is its people. “Re-locating people blindly will not serve any purpose; instead they should be involved in its conservation,” he holds.

Signs of degradation are aplenty in the village. The ASI has cordoned off parts of mound one and four with large iron railings. But a mere marking of boundary does little to protect or conserve a spot.

Crossing the line: Mere marking of a boundary has done little to protect the ancient site; cattle graze freely and cowdung cakes are left to dry in piles - Kamal Narang   -  BusinessLine

 

Heaps of cowdung cakes are left to dry in the protected sites. Cattle graze freely and piles of plastic are dumped on the land. A part of the protected site is being used as a cremation ground. But Shinde points out that this large village has nearly 14,000 people, who need access to public spaces.

Sumita Tayal, convener of conservation body Intach’s Hisar chapter, agrees with Shinde on the need to educate and engage villagers in the conservation efforts. “Their way of life should be preserved,” Tayal says.

She suggests private-public partnerships to tackle issues of waste management, cleanliness and facilities such as a biogas plant since the village has a steady supply of cowdung. Intach Hisar has conducted heritage walks and cleanliness drives in the village. “The village needs more signage. But, more important, its people need to be given a voice, and not forgotten,” Tayal says.

Rakhigarhi at present offers no facilities for the growing entourage of local and international visitors. A museum funded by the state government is coming up in the village. It could be a source of employment for the villagers, points out Shinde.

He suggests forming heritage committees where the villagers are given responsibilities in conservation and are accountable for them. They could be trained to be tour guides, he adds. “Rakhigarhi can be a site of tourism, a showpiece village with ancient history and crafts. Villagers can even be trained in making the craft items found at the site,” Shinde says.

The younger generation of Rakhigarhi has grown up watching the excavations, and has greater awareness and interest in its ancient history. Some even collect the artefacts they find. Experts propose creating small mobile museums that are registered with the ASI or the state archaeology department for such finds.

“The villagers should not give away or sell what they have,” Tayal says. Sheoran suggests on-site museums where parts of a protected excavate site are opened to the public. “Rakhigarhi should be a world heritage city,” he adds.

Experts suggest turning it into a living and thriving heritage village, where ancient history and contemporary life can coexist in harmony. The adoption of a holistic approach will ensure that village people are not a casualty, says Shinde. “Ultimately the benefits should go to the village,” he holds.

The story of Rakhigarhi — along with that of the Harappan era — is still unfurling. Appu Sharan, archaeologist and lecturer at the government senior secondary school in neighbouring Khirilocha, points out that less than one per cent of Rakhigarhi’s history has so far been unearthed.

Rakhigarhi, Shinde adds, is a minefield of history. “It is just the beginning,” he says.

Published on September 13, 2019
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