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The shells of Khirsara and the stories they tell


The story of the Harappan quartz bead industry could be to a large extent the story of the Harappan marine shell working industry as well, but for some major variations. Perhaps the most significant difference is the location of the manufacturing facilities. While in the case of the beads, the raw material was obtained largely from the banks of Narmada and shipped to the manufacturing facilities within the urban domain of Indus-Ghaggar-Hakra basin, it appears that shell working happened closer to the sites from where the shells were harvested. This could be more than a mere geographical detail; it could have implications for the ownership and control in the industry – whether it was controlled by the ksatriya or by the local natives. Whether it was kur or some other people, who inhabited this region, the control of the shell working industry can tell us about the relation that ensued between them and the ksatriya, when the latter entered into the region.

One of the best studied sites of shell working is Khirsara in the Kacch Island, the north-western extension of the Kathiyavad Peninsula in the gulf of Kacch [Nath et al, 2014: Shell Crafting at Khirsara: A Harappan Settlement in Kachchh, Gujarat, in Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology, 2, 658]. Most probably during 4,000 BCE to 3,200 BCE this part of Kathiyavad was indeed an island. It could have been formed by the silt brought down by the Sarasvati (Ghaggar-Hakra) River when it flowed in full force. Presently it is connected to the mainland, with a large expanse of salt water marsh or mud flats called the Rann of Kutch Lake at its north-eastern edge. The location and topography of the Kacch Island is enough evidence of the fact that it was a rich source of shells. Outside the Kacch Island, prehistoric shell working sites have also been found at Lothal, Bagasra, Nagwada, Nageshwar, Kanmer, Padri, Kuntasi, and Surkotada; possibly they lay on a shell rich corridor, which was at a point of time a navigable channel [Deshpande Mukherjee et al, 2014: The Molluscan Shell Assemblage from Khirsara: Evidence for Another Harappan Shell Working Settlement in Gujarat, in Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology, 2, 23].

Khirsara was both a manufacturing location as well as a trading outpost. Interestingly it produced quartz beads as well. An extraordinary feature about Khirsara is that it not only had an outer fortification wall around it, but every complex inside had its own fortification wall, be it the citadel, the warehouse, the factory with its habitation annexe and even the potters’ kiln, which lay outside the outer fortification wall [Nath et al, 2013: Fortified Factory at Harappan Metropolis Khirsara, Gujarat, in Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology, 1, 658]. The dates for the shell working industry in Khirsara have been put at around 2,600 BCE to 2,200 BCE based on the carbon dating of the samples of organic remains [Nath et al, 2017: Khirsara – A Harappan Metropolis in Western Kachchh,Gujarat, India, in Heritage : Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology, 5, 554]. Pokharia confirms the possible decline of Khirsara around 2,200 BCE on account of an extreme arid event, which affected the entire Greater Indus Valley. A significant change in crop-pattern from barley-wheat based agriculture to ‘drought-resistant’ millet based crops at around 2,200 BCE indicates the growing aridity. Though the settlement persisted, the economic condition of the inhabitants seems to have deteriorated significantly, probably leading to out-migration and the breakdown of the urban structure [Pokharia, 2017: Altered Cropping Pattern And Cultural Continuation With Declined Prosperity Following Abrupt And Extreme Arid Event at ~4,200 yrs BP: Evidence From An Indus Archaeological Site Khirsara, Gujarat, Western India]. These dates, however, are not fully consistent with the dates we have arrived at from the Harappan Timeline based on the Gangal study.

It is difficult to say whether Khirsara got its supply of shells from the coast, or whether the entire Kacch Island had rich deposits of shells; given its location and topography, the latter could be true. In which case, it is very probable that shell working started in Khirsara much before 2,600 BCE. The local inhabitants could have taken to the harvesting of molluscs (shell fish) and processing of shells as a means of living, along with fishing. The development of Khirsara as an urban settlement, and particularly its fortified character, indicates some sort of external intervention. Could it be that the ksatriya took control of the trade sometime before 2,600 BCE and developed it into the hub that it eventually became? They could have fortified the settlement to defend themselves against attempts by the natives to recapture the trade. A fortified factory is not something common, and cannot be easily glossed over. With the aridity setting in, the ksatriya could have left Khirsara, leading to the decline of the industry and the breakdown of the urban structure.

That the ksatriya had an interest in shell artifacts is obvious from the fact that ornaments made of sea shell have been found in Mehrgarh as early as 7,000 BCE-5,500 BCE [Kenoyer, 1995: Shell Trade And Shell Working During The Neolithic And Early Chalcolithic At Mehrgarh, Pakistan, in Jarrige et al (ed) Mehrgarh Field Reports 1974-1985 From Neolithic Times To The Indus Civilisation, 566]. However there is no evidence for the manufacture or processing of shell materials at the site; the absence of manufacturing waste suggests that the ornaments were being manufactured elsewhere. It is most likely that the manufacturing took place along the Sindh and Makran coasts, where most of the species were found, whose shells were used [Kenoyer, 1984: Shell working Industries of the Indus Civilisation, in Paléorient, Vol 10, No 1, 51].

Therefore it is reasonable to suppose that sometime before 2,600 BCE some ksatriya moved into Kathiyavad, specifically Kacch, and took control of the rich shell resources there. As they moved from Kachi-Bolan plain into the Ghaggar-Hakra basin, this was a nearer source of shell products; the Sindh and Makran coasts were too far. But, by their bad luck, their sojourn in Kacch could not last long, due to the onset of the aridity.

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