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To Mehrgarh and back: A journey through clay

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Hassan Tahir Latif

Author's Note: This fortnight I will be continuing my theme of exploring memory and archiving. The first piece is an essay on remembering the ancient past through its own techniques; my archival selection from The Aleph Review will be Tapu Javeri's essay and photos on abandoned Karachi buildings; my curated piece will be a photo essay of celebrated artist Jamila Masud's work that captured buildings on the brink of destruction.

In the corner of the courtyard at Lahore’s famous Shahi Hammam is a small structure that at first looks like a souvenir shop. You do not pay much attention to it until a tour guide suggests stepping inside. Crossing the threshold, expecting to be forced to buy an overpriced item, you are surprised at coming across a dimly lit stairwell. Following your guide, you go down and look over a railing at a point some a few feet below—the original embankments of Lahore, from roughly a thousand years ago (or at least that is what the guide tells you)—and you begin to wonder about the many lives that have been lived since then that make up the ten feet, up to your vantage point.

The past lives of our cities always held me in thrall. I remember even as a child thinking about the land my house is built on, wondering what manner of souls lurked there. But these cerebrations took on a different meaning for me ever since that day four years ago at the Hammam. Looking at my own city’s roots, so to speak, or where they used to be, I wondered about the earth that continues to hold secrets of generations that have walked that very place, building upon, quite literally, on the lives of the ones before us. Standing on that tiny viewing platform, I felt strangely connected to my ancestors from a thousand years ago—the bare brick, now excavated and preserved, a tangible link between us.

It is quite unfortunate that many of us break off our connection with our land the moment parallels to our modern life begin to fade. We cannot fathom the lives of our ancestors when their histories become the stuff of myths and legends. When the people who came before us are sufficiently removed from our present surroundings, we stop to think about them altogether as people who can be directly linked to us. Our minds take a giant leap from the earliest form of ‘modern human’ and land in the dark caves of millennia ago, wiping out entire civilisations that came in between, forgetting the many thriving peoples that roamed the land, the ones lost to the sands of time and indeed to the sand itself. Ancient civilisations thus are relegated to a small group of people: to archaeologists, specialised historians and (tragically) to movie producers with big budgets that never get spent on due research.

My encounter with Lahore’s old embankments rekindled my longing for the past, specifically the ancient past, and prompted me to continue travelling back in time. With old Lahore as my focal point, I embarked upon a journey that took me through my photographs of old towns of Europe from my erstwhile travels, to childhood scrapbooks on Ancient Egypt, to voraciously pouring over Greek texts and devouring every version of the founding of Athens, further back to the mythical cities lost under the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula (and whispers of their findings), back to Ancient Mesopotamia (involving insane plans of teaching myself Sumerian), till I eventually arrived in my own backyard. I might have stopped at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, forever wondering how and why the mighty Indus Civilisation stopped existing and how they managed a sophisticated cityscape an unimaginably long time ago, if it had not been for a serendipitous exchange I overheard at a ceramics class.

Tucked away in a grove of ancient trees is the studio of Pakistan’s famed ceramicist, Sheherezade Alam. An oasis of wonderment, the studio runs small classes under the aegis of Jahan e Jahanra—pottery being one of them. Earlier this year, I took a course that introduced me to the many ancient techniques of pottery that are still alive today, taught by the dynamic Syeda Rabia Khalid. At the outset we were told that the class was going to be a therapeutic experience, learning to create with our bare hands, the wildest figments of our imagination being realised from wet clay. “Clay is the mother of the universe”, proclaimed Sheherezade Apa, as she’s affectionately called around the studio, joining us occasionally for a chat, commanding attention with her serene demeanour and a depth of knowledge in her eyes and experience firmly embedded in her able hands. She refers to creation myths that place clay at the centre of mankind’s creation. Even the Greeks had their own Promethean creation of man based on clay.

While trying to ensure my ball of clay was centred properly on my potter’s wheel, I felt the connection again with those who came before me. Thousands of years have passed and the basics of ceramics remain the same. It felt bizarre to be sitting in a spot smack in the middle of a densely populated 21st century city, moulding clay the way our ancestors did millennia ago. Turns out, I was not the only one who thought so.

It felt bizarre to be sitting in a spot smack in the middle of a densely populated 21st century city, moulding clay the way our ancestors did millennia ago

During one of the lessons, our instructor Rabia showed us photographs of clay figurines she was making as part of an archival project meant to shed light on one of the most ancient sites found in Pakistan, Mehrgarh.

Ruins of Mehrgarh (Corbis/VCG / Getty Images)

Mehrgarh is a distant relative of the Indus Valley Civilisation and there is evidence to support that trade existed towards the end of the former and the start of the latter. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s website, Mehrgarh is a Neolithic era site that is dated circa 7000 BCE to circa 2500/2000 BCE. Located near the Bolan Pass on the Kachi plain of Baluchistan, it is the earliest known Neolithic site in the northwest Indian Subcontinent. Evidence of farming and metallurgy has been uncovered that makes the former dwellers of Mehrgarh a civilisation in their own right. No longer cave dwellers or hunter-gatherers, the denizens of Mehrgarh lived in abodes they constructed themselves, with domesticated livestock. Through my research I was made aware of the importance of ceramics and clay works when analysing the past. The dating of archaeological sites includes an era called ‘aceramic neolithic’, which means either the pottery did not exist at that time, or whatever did has not survived. This signifies that the advent of ceramics began a new era in our ancient histories. And so is the case with Mehrgarh, a civilisation so old that it even has an aceramic era in its history; however, once the art of ceramics found its way to Mehrgarh, it began narrating a riveting tale.

Rabia is captivated by one specific aspect of ceramics from this ancient society: clay figurines. Swiping through her phone’s camera roll she showed us images of several objects excavated from Mehrgarh, including models of the female body. She then informed us of how she has undertaken a project to create replicas of Merhgarh’s ceramics, using the techniques they would have used and the sort of clay they would have moulded, in order to preserve the knowledge of this very ancient civilisation.

Naturally, my interest was piqued and I sat down with Rabia to excavate more of the past. “I’ve always had an affinity to the past,” she says, “I’d watch films and documentaries about ancient civilisations and was mesmerised by what I found. It’s quite interesting to me, even now, to learn about the daily life of those that lived millennia ago. Personally, I’ve always wondered how they performed simple, daily tasks. How were their lives different than ours? Teaching at the National College of Arts in Lahore, this affinity grew, as I relayed theories and our conjectures about the ancient world’s ceramics practice to my students. As a ceramicist, naturally, I wondered how my ceramics practice differed to that of the ancients.”

Syeda Rabia Khalid during a ceramics workshop

The next step for her was obvious: the Indus Valley Civilisation. However, like me, she might have just remained there had it not been for a chance encounter of her own. Three years ago she started working at the Sheherezade Alam’s studio and expressed her interest in the ancient world. It was then that she was introduced to Mehrgarh.

“Someone has to work on this,” Sheherezade said to her three years ago.

As is the case with many of our heritage sites, Mehrgarh remained a project of foreign expeditions for quite some time. The site was discovered in 1974 by French archaeologists Jean-François Jarrige and Catherine Jarrige. The former subsequently led a massive continuous excavation effort from 1975 to 1986 for the French Archaeological Mission, in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology of Pakistan. Another dig took place from 1996 to 2000. Jarrige’s discoveries were profound and placed Mehrgarh as a civilisation with an independent origin, and not just as a backwater of later Neolithic cultures of the Near East and South Asia. I recommend going through the footnotes and suggested readings to gain a deeper understanding of the excavations and their place in our cultural heritage.

Understanding the significance of Mehrgarh, Rabia immersed herself in this ancient world. During our conversation she excitedly shares with me the field reports from the first eleven seasons of excavations (the name of the compiled version is in the footnotes) and regales me with the stories that Sheherzade passed down to her. I am told that a local potter near Harappa, named Nawaz (who has now passed away), was commissioned by an expatriate archaeologist to replicate found ceramics from Harappa, Mohenjo-daro and Mehrgarh. In fact, many of Nawaz’s pieces are still displayed in the studio. I pick them up (tiny statuettes of humans and animals) and can hardly believe they are replicas; they belong in a museum behind a glass box.

Mother Goddess ca. 3000-2500 BC (Public Domain/The Met)

Rabia’s work focuses specifically on the figures of the female body. Excavations from Mehrgarh unearthed a multitude of clay female figures. In fact, these are some of the oldest ceramic figurines found in South Asia and were prevalent even before the appearance of pottery, with most of them depicting females; male figurines of Mehrgarh appeared much later.

“Mehrgarh’s female figurines are endowed with prominent breasts and elaborate headdresses. Research shows that women were deified in their culture. The large breasts and the curvy bodies showing wide hips were not meant to sexualise the female body, but to revere it,” explains Rabia. “It clearly is a representation of motherhood and the creation of life that is attached to a woman, since many recovered figurines are seen to be cradling babies. My goal is to re-create these figurines so more people can be made aware of this civilisation that existed eons ago and imparted upon women the respect that we have somehow forgotten about. As a woman, this aspect of Mehrgarh’s neolithic culture appealed to me immediately and the fact that this is the oldest representation of such a concept in the history of our world region (and perhaps of the world at large) held particular weight for me.” It is not entirely certain whether Mehrgarh had a monotheistic religion or not or whether all these figurines are symbolic of one Mother Goddess, what is certain is that there was an almost cult-like glorification of the female.

(Replicas of female figurines from Mehrgarh by Syeda Rabia Khalid; photos courtesy the artist)

As an aside she chuckles about the objections raised by the studio’s support staff on these figures. “I had to explain to them how uncovering the past and revering it for what it was, for the place it holds in our shared cultural heritage, doesn’t negate my own (or their) faith, but is a way of keeping the lessons of the past alive.” The lessons alluded to include the technique of creating figurines using just one ball of clay, which seemed to be prevalent in Mehrgarh. The ceramicist Nawaz was making his own pieces using the same technique, which, as Rabia emphasises, informs us of how ancient teachings continued to be passed down through thousands of generations. She herself has been learning these techniques and recreating Mehrgarh figurines accordingly.

Since Nawaz’s passing, Sheherezade Alam’s studio has been working with his son, Allah Ditta, on similar projects. Coincidentally, I have been collecting pieces of Allah Ditta’s work every time he displays them at one of the Daachi Foundation’s arts and crafts exhibitions in Lahore. A small man, he sits unassumingly behind an impressive array of ceramic human figures, animals, carts, mini tablets and other paraphernalia representing the Indus Valley and Harappa civilisations, every time the exhibition rolls into town. When I began my pottery and ceramics workshop, I was told that clay calls to each of us in its own way. Perhaps, there is truth to that and clay is after all imbued with magic; years after collecting Allah Ditta’s work, I ended up learning how to mould clay at the same studio where his father’s legacy is displayed. Allah Ditta’s own delicate objects are scattered around my room and every time I used to pick one up I mused at their crudeness. Not the crudeness of Allah Ditta’s work, but of the original that they mirrored.

That is perhaps our greatest conceit as modern day humans. Anything that seems simple to us receives condescension and even derision. We forget that despite millennia having passed, these simple artefacts have survived. Whether they are small bricks representing old embankments, ceramic water vessels or petroglyphs, we consider them to be part of a crude culture, relegating them to a time and place with no direct bearing upon us. If my ceramics workshop and subsequent enlightenment of Mehrgarh have taught me anything, it is that this thinking is an egregious misconception of our place in the world.

Indulge my brief digression and contemplate for a moment about the concept of posterity, something that has been on my mind of late. Posterity not in an immediately generational sense, but the grander scheme of the world. If humanity is to survive another ten thousand years, our own vain efforts will be ridiculed by the future the same way. I do wonder what will survive. The art of ceramics has done so for thousands of years and the craft of creating bricks or using potters’ wheels has largely remained in line with what it was used to be. The very fact that the introduction of ceramics demarcates a different archaeological era points to its importance. “From the point of view of Sirius, Goethe’s works in ten thousand years will be dust and his name forgotten. Perhaps a handful of archaeologists will look for ‘evidence’ as to our era. That idea has always contained a lesson,” says Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. While he uses this as a jumping point to expound other ideas, these lines have stayed with me. Our most ground-breaking work will be just a mote of dust for posterity. Our space-faring descendants will most likely go through our surviving lines of code with the same derision. It is a humbling thought if one meditates upon it properly.

Pondering posterity myself, I ask Rabia why she has undertaken this task, what she hopes to achieve from it and what is the need for such archival of ancient civilisations in the first place.

“Many of our sites are not easily accessible to the public. Mohenjo-daro is in the heart of Sind and Mehrgarh in the Baluchistan. In fact, while there is a little museum of sorts for Mehrgarh, the political tensions in the region dissuade many from travelling there and most aren’t even aware of it in the first place,” she begins. “But it’s not just about ease-of-access for me. It’s about highlighting an overlooked part of our past. We’re more aware of the histories of the western world than our own, for whatever reason that may be. Places such as Mehrgarh have become the domain of archaeologists and art students, but they never filter down to the common person.”

She continues to talk about finding one’s roots beyond modern conceptions. Mehrgarh exists earlier than the era when the commonly perceived ‘Cradle of Civilisation’ began. Mehrgarh is an antecedent to the Mesopotamian and the Indus Valley regions and delving deeper can only yield more truth about ourselves. Rabia’s focus on female figurines is exactly because of this reason. The current state of women’s affairs finds a diametric opposite in a ten thousand year old civilisation that revered women. Rabia insists that archiving the past through clay can allow us moments of deeper introspection.

The current state of women’s affairs finds a diametric opposite in a ten thousand year old civilisation that revered women

And I agree. The past has always called me to its shores and I am in a continuous struggle to sail back to the present and not be marooned there. Yet, there are lessons to be learnt beyond the initial awe at the existence of ancient civilisations.

I enjoyed my ceramics course and made some wobbly, jagged items that gave me a profound respect for this art. Learning about its history, tracing it back to its millennia old roots has deepened that respect immensely. I spent days endeavouring to create a perfect sphere before pinching it into a bowl and laughing at how uneven it was, yet this very activity defined the arrival of an entire age in our archaeological past, cementing its importance for generations to come. The seemingly innocuous clay has graduated from making water vessels to castles, and has found its place in animation, pharmaceuticals, paper production, absorbents and even cosmetics.

Archiving the past through clay representations, then, makes intuitive sense. The techniques and equipment may have evolved, but any time a person sits at a potter's wheel or picks up a replica of an ancient artefact, they become part of a centuries old tradition. I find a cosmic sense of self and place having learnt how to mould clay in my own hands—clay that has a mind of its own and needs coaxing and cajoling before it surrenders to you completely.

We often look around us hoping for some fantastical connection with the world. We seek the impossible in the stars; we wonder if our ancestors watch over us; we search for magic in the esoteric. Those fabled ties are all around us in the humble clay, as you mould it in your hand or watch it spin on a wheel, waiting for your touch to magically transform itself to your desires. I guess the maxim printed all around the ceramics studio is true: clay truly is the mother of the universe.



Hirst, K. Kris. 2005. "Mehrgarh"

Jarrige, Jean-François, Mehrgarh Neolithic, a paper presented in the International Seminar on the 'First Farmers in Global Perspective', Lucknow, India, 18-20 January, 2006

UNESCO World Heritage. 2004. Archaeological Site of Mehrgarh

Suggested Further Reading:

Jarrige, J. F. (1979). "Excavations at Mehrgarh-Pakistan". In Johanna Engelberta Lohuizen-De Leeuw (ed.). South Asian archaeology 1975: papers from the third International Conference of the Association of South Asian Archaeologists in Western Europe, held in Paris. Brill. pp. 76–. ISBN978-90-04-05996-2.

Mehrgarh Field Reports 1974-1985: From Neolithic Times to the Indus Civilisation. Edited by Catherine Jarrige, Jean-François Jarrige, Richard H. Meadow & Gonzague Quivron. Published by the Department of Culture and Tourism, Government of Sind, Pakistan in collaboration with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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1 Comment

Sana Khalid Chaudhry
Sana Khalid Chaudhry
Jun 07, 2021

It’s very well written and so informative!

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