December 1, 2013

Sibipura, Ancient Shorkot


The rather unremarkable town of Shorkot is usually associated with the nearby Rafiqui Air Base.  Many an Air Force officer has had a heartburn on hearing of posting to a place that is sizzling hot, off the beaten track, and has little to show except a rustic landscape interspersed with odd groves of date palms. Shorkot stands as a last outpost of fertile Punjab, west of which lies the cheerless Thal Desert. The two contrasting eco-regions are separated by the Chenab River which meanders a few miles west of the town.  Except for the roar of supersonic fighters flying overhead, life seems slow as the bullock carts steadily wend their way past an eroding mound, around which Shorkot town sprawls today.  Rising 80-odd feet above the adjacent buildings and surrounding fields, the lofty mound known locally as a bhir, is square in shape, testifying to obvious human intervention in what was once a massive natural outcrop of mud-rock. What remains of the mound after erosion by elements and encroachment by land-grabbers, measures about 11 hectares in area.  When I first saw the mound many years ago, my query as to what the structure might be was promptly answered by a passer-by, “Sikander-i-Azam ka qil’a”. Always a little sceptical of Alexander’s overblown exploits – at least in what is now Pakistan – I decided to dig deeper, so to speak.
 
An appointment with a local school teacher, the late Mr Jamil Bhatti, saw me at his house at the foot of the mound. An amateur collector of artefacts from the mound, Bhatti had become an authority of sorts on Shorkot’s antiquity. Since the mound is not an officially protected monument, Bhatti thought it proper to collect various items that surfaced after rains, which would otherwise have been pillaged by the locals – a practice that continues, nonetheless. He had converted his living room into a little museum, in which were displayed several copper and bronze utensils, numerous coins, a large quantity of beads and the usual terra cotta potsherds.  His collection (now displayed at the newly constructed, private Lyallpur Museum) has been a convenient source for determining the chronology of the site, at least at the upper levels of occupation.  

Archaeologist and anthropologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, the premier authority on the Indus Valley Civilisation, has had a look at Bhatti’s collection.  In his book, The Ancient South Asian World, Kenoyer postulates that agate and carnelian prayer beads with painted stripes similar to the ones shown by Bhatti, became common in Northern India around 600 BC. Similarly, he thinks that the multi-coloured glass beads found at the Shorkot mound are similar to the ones found in Greece and the Mediterranean area; these may have been brought in by Persian traders as well as Greek mercenaries hired by Persians when Cyrus the Great conquered parts of Afghanistan, northern Indus Valley and the Punjab between 558-529 BC.  Greek figurines and coins found at the site indicate that some Greek soldiers may even have settled at the site.  The next time you spot an olive-skinned and hazel-eyed local from Shorkot, you wouldn’t be wrong in assigning him a Mediterranean pedigree!

Much later in 326 BC, Alexander is said to have passed by Shorkot on his way out of India, along the Indus River. His army would, however, have been too fatigued and in much of a haste to tarry longer than a few days. After all, his incessant campaigns had lasted several years and had taken their toll. This was evidenced by a mutiny of his exhausted troops when Alexander was prevented from campaigning in the Indian heartland, after hitting Beas River. It is, therefore, unlikely for these later Greeks to have left behind any enduring biological or material vestiges during their fleeting passage out of India.

In 1906, some men digging the foundations of a house near the mound, chanced upon a number of copper and iron utensils of considerable antiquity and uncommon design. The artefacts were acquired by Lahore Museum, and were catalogued and properly cleaned.  It was only noticed then, that a mid-sized copper cauldron (not too different from our ‘degs’) measuring 21” in height and 22” in diameter had a Sanskrit inscription on its shoulder.  Written in Brahmi script, it reads: “The Year 83, (the month of) Magha, the bright fifth day, dedicated by the administrator Buddha-daso-thapita (Buddha’s appointed slave) to the community of monks of the universal Sarvastivadi Order belonging to the Radhika Monastery in Holy Sibipura”.  The Gupta year mentioned corresponds to 403 AD which was the peak of the Golden Age of Guptas. A similar copper vessel found in a monastery near Tarbela in 2000 attests to a Gupta cultural imprint, as far as the Gandhara domains centered around Taxila-Tarbela area.

The citadel of Shorkot housing the monastery thus marks an important religious, and possibly the political centre of Sibi country, Sibi being a prominent tribe often mentioned in Sanskrit literature.  Sibi people (also written as Sivi) are mentioned in Rigveda.  A Jat clan by the name of Sibia, still exists in India today.

While the Ayodhya-based Guptas had overrun much of central India, present day Punjab, Sindh and Rajasthan remained feudal tributaries.  To keep the annual tribute from the Sibis flowing, as also to keep an eye on possible Persian forays, a frontier garrison at the western-most limit of Gupta influence was in order. The Shorkot citadel may, thus, have been the handiwork of any of the first three Gupta Kings under whose rule, the Gupta Empire continued to expand. Evidence of this citadel appears as a baked brick circular bastion, besides other brick structures towards the north-western side that have been exposed by rain erosion, as well as earth removal by the locals.

As Bhatti took me for a walk around the mound, he confided that he owed part of his collection to his school children. “They are allowed to go off from classes and hunt for coins and other artefacts that wash down whenever it rains.  You have seen the results”, he continued, almost urging me for an endorsement of his unusual methods. I did agree that the interest of the youngsters in archaeology must have increased manifold with such field research!
 
According to Bhatti, the Shorkot mound had been disgorging artefacts from times immemorial, and his hunch was that his city represented the continuing Harappan tradition after the functional order of the Indus Valley cities had broken down. He hoped that more organised archaeological work could be undertaken at his cherished site.
 
The erudite Kenoyer (who interestingly, speaks Urdu and Punjabi with relish) explains that the social and political state of affairs of the Indus Valley Civilisation started to ‘transform’ after about 1900 BC, known as the Late Harappan Era. This was due to complex processes of change, including overextension of economic and political networks and changing river patterns along with periodic floods, that disrupted the agricultural base of its major centres of production. This transition from an integrated and centralised political structure of the Mature Harappan Era (2600-1900 BC), to numerous competing local polities continued till about 600 BC, when various Indian and foreign dynasties started to take hold.  In Kenoyer’s words, these were ‘multiple centres of influence’ compared to the earlier ‘integrated’ order.  Shorkot, like over 200 similar sites in Pakistani Punjab that are marked by prehistoric mounds, attests to this localisation of the Harappan tradition.  We will have to wait for the Department of Archaeology to organise a digging project in earnest, to be sure about Shorkot mound being rooted deep in the Late Harappan Era.

This brief Sibipura narrative would have remained incomplete if I hadn’t seen and described the copper vessel that was supposed to be lying at the Lahore Museum. I was, however, disappointed to learn that there was no trace of it and the senior staff told me that, “it must have been transferred to India in 1947”!  Quite obviously something was badly amiss, since I had read a research paper written in 2004 by Harry Falk of the Institute of Indian Philology at the University of Berlin, in which he says this about the vessel: “Today it is on display in the Lahore Museum”. To me, it was more than just an empty cooking cauldron that was dedicated to the monks of Radhika Monastery.  I would like to think that it contained a lavishly cooked offering for religious purposes; perhaps it was saffron coloured rice sweetened with brown sugar (‘gurr’) – complete with a garnish of coconut slivers and luscious raisins – which the monks had partied on. Would not that event in Sibipura make it one of the oldest recorded instances of ‘deg charrhana’, I wondered?
 
 
© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

 
This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 1 Dec, 2013 under the title Walking Around an Ancient Mound.