Banavali by the Sarasvati

By: Dr S Srinivasan
Abandoned by 1900 BCE with the drying up of Sarasvati, excavations at Banavali show the classical chessboard pattern of the Harappan era.

The legendary river Sarasvati, flowing over 1600 km from Mt. Kailash and joined by tributaries arising from Swargarohini peak in the Banderpoonch massif and passing through Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat made the region lush.  Quest for the elusive River has been on my mind for some time now and this October I planned to do the Har ki Dun trek to the Banderpoonch Range. Unprecedented rains played spoilsport and I had to settle for a trip to Haryana where the river is said to have disappeared (in Sirsa District) around 1900 BC. We learnt from the Delhi office of the Archeological Survey of India that several excavations had been carried out in the past to unearth evidence of pre and proto Harappan civilization along the banks of the River and its tributaries in Banavali, Rakhi Garhi, Agroha, etc. The onsite exibit is available only at Banavali while the artefacts recovered from the other sites have been moved to Kurukshetra for safe keeping.

On the 8th of October we set off for Hissar at 6 am. We were advised to avoid Bahadurgarh and Rohtak due to heavy traffic and so we chose to drive to Jhajjhar from Najafgarh (via Dujana, Beri Khas, Kahanaur and Kalanaur), then to Meham, Hansi and finally to Hissar. There were many water bodies along this route starting with the Najafgarh nala, and we had a leisurely drive spotting birds both resident and migrant. Among others we could identify Grebe and spot-billed ducks, pond herons, grey herons, green bee-eaters, a variety of kingfishers, lapwings, doves, drongos, stilts, egrets and a lone marsh harrier. The road could have been less bumpy, but the lack of traffic helped us to arrive at a teashop by the side of standing crop of millets at Kalanaur by 9 am. We polished off the packed food we had carried and downed it with some hot milky chai. At Meham we joined the highway (NH 10). An hour later we found ourselves by the Amty Tank at Hansi overlooking the Fort.

The city of Hansi has five entry gates – Delhi (East), Hissar (West), Gosain (North-west), Barsi (South) and Umra Gate (South west). Said to be that of Great King Prithvi Raj Chauhan, the Fort extends over an area of 30 acres, square in shape and has security posts in all the four corners. Later, son of King Anangpal, Drupad established a sword manufacturing factory in this Fort, hence it is also called ‘Asigarh’. We ascended a large mound and crossed the dry moat to enter the gate which looked quite plain. Inside we visited the ‘baradhari’, mosque and water tank. A large hoard of Jaina bronzes was accidentally discovered at Hansi in February 1982 with few idols dating back to the Gupta period, while most belonged to 7-8th century. They were apparently buried underground before the impending attack by Masud in 1037 CE.

It was blazing hot by now and as we made it to Hissar, 25 kilometres away. Following an elaborate lunch at cousin Nishi’s house (which is a century old Haveli built by the famous lawyer turned Chief Minister (late) Thakurdasji Bhargava) and much needed siesta we set about exploring the city and making plans for visiting Banavali the next morning.

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A quick morning tea and traditional breakfast in the bazaar set the mood for the day. Close to noon we set off on the road to Fatehabad, 45-odd kilometres away on NH-10. The road was smooth and it was fun driving down this arrow-straight green canopied route. We passed Agroha enroute and arrived at the dusty town of Fatehabad by 1pm. On enquiry at the market we learnt there were two villages named Banavali. Confounded by the revelation we sought the police – who came to our rescue by directing us to the village (Banavali Sottar) where excavations had taken place years ago. So we veered off the highway onto a narrow village road that ran through green cropped fields. Fifteen kilometres later a lone grocer, manning a tiny ensemble of varied food stuff, pointed out the little blue sign board a little distance away that simply said, ‘Ancient Place’! We climbed the elevated path that appeared to be a ‘bund’ and drove along for a kilometre or so, flanked by fields of cotton. At last we were able to spot the mound on the right announced by a larger blue board!

Banavali mound, previously called Vanawali, lies on the right bank of the Rangoi Nullah. The ancient mound, now covered with rubble and pottery pieces spreads over an area of one square kilometre and is raised to a height of ten metres due to successive settlements over earlier rubble. Banavali seems to have been abandoned by 1900 BCE with the drying up of the Sarasvati. While the pre-Harappan culture was still young, a new set of people occupied Banavali. They soon built a well planned and fortified township in the classical chess board pattern. The broad arterial streets, running from north to south, have been found straight and uninterrupted, whereas those running from east to west were usually narrow and staggered.  This planning perhaps protected the township from blistering winds of the west and severe monsoon rains of the south west. Planned mud brick houses with several rooms, kitchen and toilet were found built on either side of roads and lanes. Their sanitary arrangements depended on the use of sanitary pottery jars which served as wash basins. Structures were usually made of sun-baked bricks meticulously moulded into various shapes. The Harappan seals recovered here depict rhinoceros, ibex, wild goat, unicorn, and the cubical and gamesman type of weights made of stones and ivory or bone reveal a great degree of precision and superb craftsmanship. Gold, copper and bronze pieces found here indicate that they had a profound knowledge of metallurgy.

A brilliant blue Indian Roller positioned itself on the large blue ‘caution alert’ board and welcomed us to the site. We parked the car, walked over the mound and located the Harappan well under an awning. The mud house indicating the keepers establishment was empty. A well meaning farmer by the pumpset informed us that the keeper was away to town to pick up medicines. We drove into the village, met his family, and subsequently made a phone call, to be doubly disappointed as he told us that there was no onsite exhibition and all the artefacts had been moved to Kurukshetra. He advised us to have a look at the excavation in Agroha on our return journey.

So we made our way back to Fatehabad and on to Agroha, with an air of dejection, to say the least. One of the young enthusiasts of the group blurted ‘Did we have to come all this distance just to see a well?’ As we approached Agroha we spotted the blue board announcing the site just before the Agrasen temple. A huge lock hung at the gate and we were about to retreat, when a young man opened the gate and let us in. The ruins of nearly five temples have been preserved here, and we drove about a kilometre and half up the steep path to reach it. We walked down to the ruins of the Buddha Vihara and in the backdrop we caught a glimpse of the modern day spires of the Agrasen temple and the colourful statue of Hanuman. We drove back to Delhi next afternoon, modern day traffic jams and electioneering frenzy overriding any thoughts of ancient civilisations from our minds!

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