'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Wells of Mohenjo Daro

I have been looking thru a set of (very) slim volumes by (primarily) the eminent historian Irfan Habib, titled 'A People's History of India'.

The second volume of the series 'The Indus Civilization' has an interesting cover. It shows a water well from Mohanjo Daro, the (excavated and exposed) brick walls of which are over over 20 feet tall, making it look like a cylindrical tower! Inside, there is another well-photo from the same place, showing a smart piece of ancient brickwork. These pictures reminded me of the time when I asked Pop: "Can the wells overflow their walls if there is heavy rain?"

(There is much stuff at wikipedia, if one starts the search with 'water well'; there are articles on 'aquifer', 'water table', Artesian well' and so on. It is quite a trip! And wikipedia seems to indicate that Habib's claim that the Indus culture was the first to use wells is a bit suspect)

Wonder why these wells were ROUND. The Indus people seem to have used specially crafted, wedge-shaped bricks to give very neat circular rims for the wells, rather than simply use their standardized rectangular bricks (yes, in this ancient culture, they had standards for almost everything) to make square walls around them.

I guess there are deep village wells in the drier regions of India which are not necessarily circular - the ornate and centuries-old 'stepped wells' in Gujarat are probably rectangular. The 'kokkarni' of laterite regions of Kerala is somewhere between a well and a deep swimming pool - it has steep steps leading you to the water and no walls above ground level; and it is usually, again, rectangular. So why the Mohanjo Darans took the trouble to make their wells so neatly rounded is a bit of a mystery.

It can be argued that they had found out (maybe the hard way!) that the circularly aligned brickwork resists collapse better - the same principle as that of the structural arch. But then that begs a further question. The Indus people had the basic idea of the arch and they also used bitumen and gypsum as concrete (very advanced for their time; I quote from the same book), then why did they NOT make proper arches (maybe they did and the trick was 'lost')? Indeed why did India (have to) wait for so long (until around 1000 AD(*)) to adopt the arch? And how does one explain the vast gap (over a thousand years) between the decline of Indus and the next oldest 'pukka' architecture in India?

Note (*) -the arch and the vault appear prominently as decorative elements in the 'caves' at Karla, Bhaja and other places slightly before Christ. But they are not 'structural' - not formed by cut stones put together properly.


  • At 12:43 PM, Blogger Sunil said…

    quite perceptive...and good questions.

    Can a circular wall be compared to a true arch?

    I, ofcourse, have no idea.....but am very curious to know what you find out.

  • At 1:49 AM, Blogger Sumesh said…

    Interesting post!

    You are right that circularly arranged brickwork has more strength, but there is one very important point to note. Circular arches are strong only when pressure is applied from 'outside' the arch (that is from the convex side). If you apply pressure from 'inside', it crumbles without any effort.

    Take the shape of an egg, for example. It takes quite some effort to break an egg-shell by applying pressure to it from outside. But a hatching chick needs a small fragile push from inside to break it.

    So while arches are able to support large ceilings because the pressure on them is from the convex side, the same is not the case in a well. In fact, there is no need for any strength in the brick walls of a well. There is plenty of mud and earth outside the wall to provide strength (assuming water in the well isn't above ground level).

    My reasoning for the circular shape of the wells - less consumption of bricks. For a given area, a circular shape is the one that has the smallest perimeter.

    So it is possible that the Indus people did not have the basic idea of the arch at all. Whatever arches they made were probably for decorative purposes.

  • At 1:04 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks. sumesh has given his take on the point you raised - whether a well and a proper arc can be compared. and he has expressed serious reservations about driving the wells-arches connection too far. i see the point all right although i am, in a vague sense, uncomfortable with the 'smallest perimeter- largest area' argument!

    i also now am beginning to have reservations of a slightly different kind - regarding how 'indian', this indus valley thing really was. one can demonstrate a certain amount of continuity from the rig-veda (1500 bc, say experts) to the present indian cultural and linguistic formations. it is this kind of continuity that seems largely absent even between the indus culture which is said to have waned shortly after 2000 bc and the 'vedists' (there are very few provable references to the cities of the indus valley in the vedas and whatever the vedists and their descendents actually built (or did not build) has no correspondence with the indus architecture. seeing vedic and later 'hindu' deities in the seals etc. of mohenjo daro is at best dicey as many experts have pointed out. even the postulated dravidian nature of indus civilization can be doubted!

    the indus civilization might have just existed for some time and withered away, leaving no *real* continuous succession of cultures, like
    the mayan culture or the builders of tivanaco (a mysterious ruined city in south america).

    incidentally, i have heard of a modern malayalam novel set in mohenjo daro of 2500 bc. it assumes the dravidian model. characters talk of 'visitors from harappa (although that was not the THEN name of that so-called sister city)' and 'caravans from babylon' etc.. and have 'proper' dravidian names like 'azhagan', 'selvan' and so on!

  • At 11:59 AM, Blogger Sunil said…

    the indus civilization might have just existed for some time and withered away, leaving no *real* continuous succession of cultures, like
    the mayan culture or the builders of tivanaco (a mysterious ruined city in south america).

    Actually, a parallel example might be the Anasazi ruins all over New Mexico and Arizona. These people built small "cities", in condominium type buildings (i've visited a number of them, various "anasazi" and Pueblo ruins). These disappeared in the 12th-13th century....and the later native american races (like the Navajo) talk of them as the "old people" or ancestors, but their own habitations did not resemble (or reach the sophistry of) the anasazi.

  • At 9:27 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks sunil.

    i guess the example you provided is a more apt one than the mayas.

    indeed the case of indus might be an even more extreme case of a forgotten civilization. as you say, the navajo at least had preserved memories of their ancestors and their sites were known (and visible) to them. as far as i can make out, except for some rigvedic denunciations of dasyus and their 'pura's, there is nothing in later (proper?) indian culture that seem to have anything to do with the indus people.

    (i am thinking of making a new post out of this exchange)


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