Love actually | Ancient couple found in Harappan grave

A few days ago, I read an interesting news that archaeologists have made a first of its kind discovery of a rare couple’s grave — the skeletal remains of a young man and woman, interred with his face turned towards her — has been excavated at the Harappan settlement at Rakhigarhi in Haryana, about 150km from Delhi. Rakhigarhi is the site of a pre-Indus Valley Civilisation settlement going back to about 6500 BCE.

About 4,500 years ago, a man and a woman, believed to be married, were buried intimately in a grave together in a sprawling cemetery on the outskirts of a thriving settlement of the Harappans, one of the world’s earliest urban civilisations.

The skeleton of the couple (Source: BBC)
The skeleton of the ancient couple (Source: BBC)

Vasant Shinde, the archeologist who led the team, reported to CNN that the couple must have been married “because, had they been in an illicit relationship, the community would not have [given] them a proper ceremonial burial.”

In the paper, the scientists ruled out the possibility that the woman, believed to be in her early 20s, took her own life shortly after the death of her husband, who was between 35 and 40 years old. Remains of pots and stone-bead jewellery found close to the burial site of the couple point to the possibility of a ceremonial burial with rituals. These remains also suggest they belonged to a middle-class family. The researchers said more studies of Harappan graves are needed to solve the mystery, “as joint burials are important for inferring historical family structures and the broader society they represent.”

In 2016, archaeologists and scientists from India and South Korea found these two “very rare” skeletons in Rakhigarhi. At Rakhigarhi, archaeologists have discovered 70 graves in the cemetery, barely a kilometre away from the settlement, and excavated 40 of them. But this single grave of the “mystery couple” has turned to be most fascinating of all. For two years, they researched the “chronology” and possible reasons behind the deaths; and the findings have now been published in a peer-reviewed international journal.

harappan couple in a grave
Well preserved skeletal remains were found in a supine position with arms and legs extended inside the pit where one of the graves was unearthed at Rakhigarhi in Haryana. (Image: Vasant Shinde/Indian Express)

Joint burial is not rare in other civilizations. Most famous are the Hasanlu Lovers, intertwined skeletons discovered in 1972 in Iran. However, it turned out that the female skeleton could actually be male, and anyway, the grave is a monument to war rather than love. Its inmates were killed during the destruction of the Teppe Hasanlu citadel ca. 800 BCE. The Neolithic Lovers of Valdaro, discovered near Mantua in 2007, are the oldest couple dated as approximately 6,000 years old, but their gender is open to speculation, too.

The discovery of a couple buried together in the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi, has brought forth the suggestion that marriage as an institution could have originated in India. This could be an excessive claim, but it is reasonable to posit that the culture appreciated the bonds of romantic love.

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