The City of Gods and Ancient Indus Craft Traditions

Original post on the TwoRains Blog.

Hi again – it is Alessandro. I am currently writing from India, more specifically from Varanasi, an exceptional city in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India.

You might say, “Wait a second – there is no Indus settlement in Varanasi! What are you doing there?” The answer is simple: I am studying ceramic artefacts – of course! – at one of the largest universities of India and Asia. For a few months, I have been working at BHU, Banaras Hindu University, where archives of excavations undertaken by the Land, Water and Settlement project (see here) and TwoRains project (see here) are kept.

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Sunset by the Ganges, Varanasi (5:15am)

In the first part of this blog post, I would like to introduce you to the fascinating location that is hosting me (the ‘City of Gods’); then, I will take you back to the Indus Civilisation, providing an overview of my work here.

Varanasi is like a vision of India rising out of your most fervid imagination. It is one of the most ancient living cities of the Subcontinent, and grows on the shores of the river Ganges. It is home to more than 20,000 temples, which rise like spiritual bastions emerging from the daily pandemonium of crowded streets. Children, merchants, rickshaws, monkeys, cows and water buffalos seem to be everywhere; locals and pilgrims offer flowers and floating candles to the river-goddess Ganga, while fire rituals take place all around. This is the richness of Varanasi.

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Ganga Arti, Assi Ghat, Varanasi.

Besides being a major centre of research, arts and designs, due to its spiritual and religious magnetism, people from all over Asia have visited Varanasi for more than two millennia. For Hindu devotees, this is a place for the living, for knowledge and prayers, but also a place for death. The well-known ‘Burning’ Ghats host funerary pyres, which are often seen as the physical threshold to the afterlife and salvation. However, Varanasi is not just one of the holiest cities in Hinduism (Kāśī, City of Light); it is also strongly connected to the development of Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Islam in India. Influential individuals belonging to several sects are believed to have sat on these riverbanks, including the Buddha (Buddhism); Suparshvanatha (Jainism); Kabir, Ravidas, Tulsidas and Meera Bai (Sant Mat, Kabir panth, Bhakti and Sufi movements); Adi Shankaracharya (Advaita Vedanta); Guru Nanak (Sikhism); Anandamayi Ma and Lahiri Mahasaya (modern Yoga). These are just a few examples for the inter-cultural and inter-religious ancestries of this unique city, but what strikes the most is how these diverse spiritual landscapes harmoniously interlock and overlap. Borrowing Vivekananda-ji’s words (1893), Varanasi is an example of how India can teach “the world both tolerance and universal acceptance”. I have previously lived in South Asia for a few years, but it still feels like a privilege to be exposed to such a rich melting pot of ancient traditions.

Speaking of which, pots and ancient traditions are part of my daily duties here. I spend my days in the laboratories of the Department of AIHC (Ancient Indian History Culture) and Archaeology at Banaras Hindu University. You might remember when, back in Cambridge, I assembled a portable laboratory for petrographic and scientific analysis of ceramics (see here). I am currently putting it through its paces, and it works just perfectly. Even though my research focuses mainly on the transition from the Indus Urban (Mature Harappan, c. 2500-1900 BC) to the Post-Urban (Late Harappan, c. 1900-1400 BC) period, the material that I am currently looking at comes from different contexts, ranging from the so-called Pre-Urban (or Early Harappan) to the Post-Indus period and beyond. Such substantial assemblage of artefacts requires a systematic study. While I have been here, I have analysed and documented pottery sherds from Indus sites in present-day Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, produced thin-sections for petrographic analysis, and collected powders samples for geochemical analysis, as well as producing new illustrations that will soon be digitised.

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The BHU Team

Every morning, I open the door of the laboratory, and it is c. 40° Celsius. Bags or boxes of pottery wait on the table ready to be studied. I put the fan on. I look at each pottery sherd, and silently ask questions about ancient skills and technologies, “How?” and “Why?”.  Each sherd holds precious information about its maker(s) and the village(s) where it was crafted.  They are not just fired pieces of clay, but the physical manifestation of the intimate relationship between makers and materials.

As already mentioned in a previous blog post (see here), the combination of traditional and scientific studies of ceramic artefacts from Indus sites gives us a new understanding of ancient craft traditions in this specific region. I am particularly interested in how ancient communities, and especially crafters, lived in and engaged the Indus world, how ancient traditions were transmitted through generations, and interacted with changing social and physical environments.

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The BHU Team

The first part of my research trip is about to come to an end. I will be back to Europe for just couple weeks, when I will present preliminary results in Zurich, Switzerland (EAAA Conference, 24 August 2017) and Bordeaux, France (EMAC, 6 September 2017). Then, I will be back to India with the TwoRains team for the second part of the trip: the excavation of a new Indus site in Haryana.

I could have not achieved such results without the help of the BHU team of archaeologists. I am personally very grateful to Professor Ravindra Nath Singh, Mr Arun Kumar Pandey and Dr Dheerendra Pratap Singh, who supervise my work here. I am also thankful to the PhD students at BHU for their assistance, especially Aftab Alam, Amit Ranjan, Sudarshan Chakradhari, Arti Chowdhary, Sagorika Chakraborti, Sunil Singh, and Swtantra Singh.


Alessandro Ceccarelli


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