The idea of complex communities persisting over an extended period of time and space forced itself upon me some years ago when, in Paris, I visited the superb exhibition devoted to the microlithic site of Mehrgarh, near the Bolan Pass. This site had completely overturned previous beliefs about the pre- and proto-history of the subcontinent. It had long been held that the urban phase in the northwest was preceded by so shallow a pre-urban era that the cities of the Indus – Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa – must have been colonies of Mesopotamian city-states of the third millennium bce. Civilization was thought then to have been introduced into the subcontinent in these western Asian colonies. But Mehrgarh’s carbon-dated evidence of occupation shows that stone-using farmers and pastoralists lived in communities with large mud- brick storage buildings and other public structures, and sustained a variety of ceramic, metallic and textile industries between about 7000 and possibly 2000 bce.
This back-projection of sophisticated community forms discredited and even reversed fundamental beliefs about colonization from Mesopotamia; it was rather the long delay in the development of urban forms that now required explanation. Moreover, Mehrgarh seemed to have been linked to other pre- urban sites in the northwest through pottery types and the signs of extensive trade networks and contact between Central Asia and Baluchistan, which suggested a wholly new sequencing of prehistory.
Among the newer views of scholars of Harappan culture is that complex chieftaincies rather than unified states were the prevailing political form, and that some of the urban places – simultaneously and successively – were actu- ally independently governed ‘gateways’ to agrarian and pastoral hinterlands, trading centres rather than imperial capitals. Furthermore, the Harappan phase is now thought to have initiated a dispersal, beginning around 2000 bce, in which urban centres moved south and west into the farming cultures of the Gangetic plain, Rajasthan and central and peninsular India. These later urban places were agrarian and iron-using chiefdoms that eventually attained quite extensive form in the janapada (clan territories) datable certainly from around 800 bce and possibly earlier.