ancient civilizations of pakistan

Written by Muhammad Bilal Farooq 12:52 pm

A Glimpse of History: Ancient Civilizations of Pakistan

The author, Muhammad Bilal Farooq, thinks back on the words of Rudyard Kipling, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” In view of this quote, he traces the civilizations that were before us — the Mehrgarh, the Harappa and Mohenjodaro, the Vedic, the Gandhara, and the Indo-Greek.
Gul Seema
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Mr. Bilal is an agronomist student at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He has been writing blogs on national and international politics and international relations since 2017.

Indus Valley Civilization

Mehrgarh Civilization (7000BC-3300BC)

Before the Ancient Greeks came up with democracy, before the Mayan Civilization thrived in astronomy, and even thousands of years before the Egyptians had built pyramids, there was Mehrgarh. In Pakistan, 130km east of Quetta, near the Bolan river, lies the remains of one of the ancient civilizations with origins going back to 7000 BC. 

“Mehrgarh is one of the ancient civilizations of the world, dating back 11,000 years,” claimed Shah Muhammad Marri, a Baloch historian. Spreading over 450 acres (2km²), it was discovered in 1974 by French Archeologist Jean-François Jarrige.

This Neolithic era farming village and cradle of Indus Valley Civilization from the stone age was found to have been involved in the metallurgy of copper, hence putting the foundations of later bronze age Harappan civilization, with doorless rectangular buildings of sun-dried brick while also providing references to the first known dentists in human history, from a mass grave found with 300 drilled human molars.

Harappa & Mohenjo-Daro Civilization (3300-2000BC)

ancient civilizations of pakistan: mohenjo-daro
Stupa at Mohenjo-Daro” by Omair Anwer is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Rising to its peak in the mature Harappan era (2700-1900 BC), the Indus Valley Civilization had expanded over more than 1000 cities, 8000 square miles, and a five million population which makes it one of the most extensive civilizations of its time, with Harappa & Mohenjo-Daro as main centers of urbanizations along with other sites located in present India like Lothal, Ganeriwala, and Dholavira.

Brought to light in the 1920s while the British were building railways and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980, its discovery demolished the theory that Indo-Aryans were the first inhabitants of Indus. The inhabitants of the Indus Valley used to worship the mother goddess wearing a fan-shaped dress, the three-faced male god ‘Shiva’, sacred considered trees like peepal, sun, water, fire, and in animals they worshipped bull, buffalo, and tiger.

These people were way ahead of their time as they had a precise measuring system of standard binary weights from 0.856 grams to 13.7 grams in the 16th ratio, and rulers were divided into units of 1.32 inches with astonishing accuracy of up to 0.005 of an inch with sub-decimal markings. While Egyptians and Mesopotamians were constructing temples to worship gods, they had a great swimming bath similar to Romans.

These people were also the pioneers and inventors of the first recorded urban sanitation, the step-well. Moreover, trade seals and identifiers imply that Harappa was a part of an extensive trading network with the Mesopotamian and Persian Empires; recovered cylindrical Mesopotamian seals from Harappa prove that. This era left thousands of short inscriptions that are still nowhere near being deciphered.

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In addition to the dispute among scholars over decipherments, some scholars even deny the existence of proper language. Researchers often get death threats too as decoding these scripts can jeopardize the very foundations of Hinduism. Initially, the fall of the Indus Civilization was attributed to the Indo-European invasion by Central Asian tribes known as ‘Aryans’, but modern research revealed that a prolonged drought period persisting for over 900 years gradually tore down its irrigation system and hence the civilization.

Vedic Civilization (1750-600 BC)

‘Veda’ means knowledge and ‘Vedas’ are among the oldest religious works believed to have existed since the beginning, passed from generation to generation, and recognized by the orthodox Hindus as the most note-worthy spiritual authority. This era from the late bronze age and early Iron age holds the origins of ‘Aryan Brahmanism’ which later developed into Hinduism, the third biggest religion in the world practiced by 1.2 billion souls worldwide.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Indus civilization, Indo-Aryan tribes from the Caucasus and the Black Sea region migrated and inhabited north-western India, and unlike urban Indus civilization, they had rural communities and rural social order. They worshipped gods entirely different from today’s India like Indra (Highest god), Agni (god of fire), and Soma (both a god & substance source of physical strength) of which god Indra is referred to as ‘King of Gods’ in Vedic mythology with minute differences in Buddhism & Jainism.

Agni, only second to Indra, is the acceptor of sacrifices and the God of divine knowledge, while Soma supervises the sacrifices, relates with the moon and believes to bring fortune and wealth. Rigveda, one of the four available Vedas, has used the word ‘Ayas’ to describe iron along with the process of extraction of iron. Iron-made nails, hooks, bars, spikes, knives, spoons, saucepans, axes, chisels, daggers, arrowheads, bowls, tongs, and door fittings have been found in various archaeological sites.

Apart from Rigveda, later Vedic scriptures mention tin, lead, and silver as well. References can be observed in seed processing, food prepared from cereals, and storage of grains in large jars. Along with agricultural practices, rearing cattle, goats, horses, and sheep for both milk and meat was important for the economy. Outdoor games like chariot racing, military games, racing, archery swimming, wrestling, and hunting were common.

Scriptures also state that Lord Krishna had played ‘iti danda’ or also termed as ‘Gulli danda’ along the banks of the Yamuna river. Aryans had conflicts withdasas or ‘dasyus’ people which scholars believe had connections to Iranian tribes and had arrived in the Ganges plain earlier than Vedic Aryans with an altogether different culture. These terms have been used in Vedas with disdain, and evidence states that a unique culture along the Ganges, also known as Greater Magadha wasn’t completely brahmanized.

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Indo-Aryan tribes themselves weren’t united and fought several wars with each other, the most famous of them is the ‘Battle of Ten Kings’ in Volume VII of Rigveda in which Sudas, the chief of the tribe Bharatas, defeated ten different tribes.

Gandhara Civilization (1500 BC-500 AD)

Rig-veda mentions a land as ‘Gandhara’ meaning ‘the land of fragrance’, the great Buddhist Kingdom that existed in present-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. This region also had the oldest university on earth, Takshashilla, located 50km west of Rawalpindi and used to host 10,500 students from across the globe, teaching them science, mathematics, warfare, medicine, and even astronomy and philosophy.

It remained under several rules throughout history with one the Persian Achaemenid Empire (600-400 BC), then the Greeks (325-320 BC) after the Invasion of Alexander The Great, Mauryan (320 BC-180BC), and Kushan Empires (75 AD-450 AD) with some other less prominent kingdoms as well. Buddhism thrived here for more than 1000 years with hundreds of monasteries and stupas built during the reigns of Ashoka and  Kanishka particularly.

Ashoka’s missionary program to spread Buddhism is believed to be the biggest of its kind in recorded history when he built around 84000 stupas, monasteries, and shrines in his empire. Takshasila (Taxila), Swat, and Pushkalawati (modern-day Charsadda) were the main administrative and cultural centers of the Buddhist Gandhara Kingdom. Taxila, one of the most important archaeological sites in Asia, located in Rawalpindi, Punjab also has been on the UNESCO world heritage list since 1980 along with Mohenjo-Daro.

Taxila holds the remains of a Mesolithic cave and four settlements from the Gandhara age, Bhir, Saraikala (Saraikohla), Sirkap, and Sirsukh. Bhir is the oldest city of Taxila and consists of asymmetrical narrow streets and housing blocks made of mud bricks, timber, and stone and an ancient temple ‘the pillared hall’, where it is believed that Mahabharata was recited for the very first time. Saraikohla, located four km southwest of the Taxila Museum, revealed the late neolithic settlements and gave archaeologists chest blades, terra cotta pots, beads, and terracotta figurines of mother goddesses.

Sirkap refers to a mythological demon who lived here and was believed to kill a hero Rasalu. When Kushans captured Gandhara in 80 AD, their king Kanishka shifted the capital from Sirkap to Sirsukh, the fourth settlement, which is famous for its fortifications. The inner part of this ancient site hasn’t been investigated completely as ruins are buried at unreachable depths.

Swat Valley has also been the center of Buddhism for ages with a huge number of stupas, monasteries, and shrines. Faxian, a Chinese monk, visited the valley around the 5th century A.D reporting 6000 Buddhist monasteries in the valley. Swat had also been recognized by The Guardian as a top tourist of Pakistan.

Gandhara art has been recognized as one of the finest arts in the world with sculptures making their way into museums and art galleries not just in Pakistan but across the Far East, Europe, America, and Australia. The Buddhist heritage of Pakistan had been ruined by Muslim invaders who came afterward, and recently when the Taliban terrorized the northern parts of Pakistan, they also damaged the shrines, temples, and carvings just like they did in Afghanistan.

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Indo-Greek Civilization

A substantial portion of the Greek army, after coming with Alexander, never left, not even after the death of their great king. In 184 BC, the Greek king, Demetrius of Bactria (North Afghanistan) gained control of Gandhara and combined the Greek and Indian linguistics and symbols to develop an Indo-Greek culture that influenced the Gandhara kingdom as well as art & sculptures for centuries to come even after the collapse of Indo-greek empire which lasted for two centuries.

“A vast hoard of coins, with a mixture of Greek profiles and Indian symbols, along with interesting sculptures and some monumental remains from Taxila, Sirkap, and Sirsukh, point to a rich fusion of Indian and Hellenistic influences,” wrote Burjor Avari in his book India: The Ancient Past. The merger of Buddhist and Hellenic art gave Gandhara a particular currency as well, with shapes of kings, years of mining, Greek language, and legends carved on coins.

Coins in the north of Hindu Kush were of gold, silver, copper, and nickel with carvings of Apollo, Zeus, and Athena on the back, while those distributed in the south had bilingual inscriptions in Greek and Kharosthi (ancient Ghandhari script) with royal portraits and religious symbols. This Indo-Greek Kingdom put together even the religious rituals of Buddhism and Hinduism, developing a religious and cultural tolerance of another level.

It was the Greek cultural influence that the first human representations of Buddha started to appear in history because the great religious leaders were represented just symbolically before that. Sculptures were inspired by Greek mythology where Buddha was cast like Apollo, the Greek God of the Sun. Besides influencing the Buddhist iconography, Greeks also incorporated their carvings and sculptures like cupids, friezes, and Corinthian columns in the Buddhist art schools of Gandhara.

“By the second century BC, Taxila had become a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious society, where Greeks, Indians, Bactrians, and Western Iranians lived together,” mentioned Brig. (R) Agha Ahmad Gul, former Vice-Chancellor of Balochistan University


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