COMMUNITIES WITHOUT STATES

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.

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