At an exhibition of Indus Valley Civilisation's food cultures, insight into traditions, ingredients, and a decision to exclude meat

  • After an elaborate menu of samplers for each day and dinner for the weekend was posted online, the National Museum made radical changes the day before the exhibition opened.

  • One of the researchers who worked on the exhibition said that nearly 80 percent of the Indus Valley people's protein intake was meat-based.

  • As an explanation for why meat was excluded, a museum officer cited the museum's rule against serving meat on the premises.

A meal, for which the menu was set over five thousand years ago, and a crash course on the continuity of the food in this menu in South Asian kitchens is the latest offering at the National Museum, New Delhi. Tracing the food culture of the Indus Valley Civilisation (also known as the Harappan Civilisation), an ongoing week-long exhibition titled Historical Gastronomica – The Indus Dining Experience will include a walk and food tasting experience. Serving as an extension of the museum's 8000-unit strong display from the civilisation, it is an attempt to keep up footfalls through innovative offerings for public consumption.

For this, the institution has collaborated with a private start-up company of architects and conservationists, One Station Million Stories (OSMS). While the museum is playing host, the company has set up the exhibits and food stalls based on their research. “The Indus Valley is one of the world’s most ancient civilisations and India’s pride, so we want to raise awareness about it,” said a museum officer overseeing this exhibition (they did not wish to be identified since they’re only filling in for the off-duty press officer).

 At an exhibition of Indus Valley Civilisations food cultures, insight into traditions, ingredients, and a decision to exclude meat

Glimpses from the exhibition. Photographs courtesy of the author and One Station Million Stories

Exhibits in text-heavy panels with academic diagrams and illustrations line the building’s circular courtyard on the ground floor. The English text speaks of the Indus people’s adeptness at agriculture, grain storage and cooking. For non-readers, a table with 15 terracotta bowls with common lentils, pulses, grains and seeds that have been traced back to the Indus period are an interactive draw. These include yellow and green lentils, legumes like chickpea, grains of red rice, wheat, oats, and ragi, and mustard, date, and poppy seeds. A miniature recreation of the era’s kitchen is also displayed on a table.

Standing near the bibliography panel, a visitor was seeking directions in the absence of markings in the circular exhibition area. “Do you know which is the starting point? I wish they’d mentioned it here,” said 27-year-old Kabir Kumar. For a charge, visitors can avail of guided walks in three slots through the day (12 pm, 2 pm, and 4 pm). But on Friday evening, the evening walk didn’t take place, because visitors were few in number.

“We’ve done a grape and jaggery chutney, as well as a caper and amla (Indian gooseberry) chutney,” said Arjun Singh, a trainee chef from a Punjab college, as he took tour walkers through a stall of food.

Remnants of the past lead to future discoveries

It is tough to imagine that the bread we're too full to eat at dinner, or the food that gets deposited on our teeth, can tell of our food habits to people who come millennia after us. But archaeologists use exactly this method to learn stunning facts about civilisations. A piece of 14,000-year-old charred bread discovered at Shubayqa in Jordan in the previous decade hinted at evidence of bread consumption even before agrarian civilisations like the Indus Valley.

A few years before, archaeologist Arunima Kashyap discovered what seemed to be a pod of garlic over 4,000 years old in the Harappan excavation pits at Farmana in Haryana state. Multiple methods of testing confirmed it to be so. She consulted local communities and recreated dishes based on other food items discovered like eggplant, ginger, and turmeric to piece together who the Harappans were from what they ate, even as their Bronze Age-scripts are yet to be decoded.

What Kashyap did in the lab, celebrated chef Sabyasachi Gorai aka Chef Saby is doing in the National Museum’s kitchen. Based on the research that OSMS claims to have gathered from studying 800 research papers and from cooking utensils and implements, he and his team of nearly a dozen people are cooking as the Harappans did.

The meat of the matter

“The museum let me see the pots and pans and kitchen tools,” said Chef Saby about his research. About his technique of devising past cooking styles and recipes, he said, “You can literally put two and two together; if this was the ingredient and this was the pot, you can imagine how they would cook.”

A sampler meal that he’s serving contains a lentil stew, a millet khichdi, an eggplant pickle, a chutney of banana and jaggery (one of the two sweeteners available during that period of history; the other is honey), charred vegetables cooked on a stone bed, a mousse-like ragi halwa with a garnish of melon seeds and pomegranate, leaf parcels containing curdled milk along with almonds and carrot smoked in a charcoal and dung-fired pit, and a baati or baked doughball with a chickpea filling. His cooking technique involved using water at the start instead of oil, as is required when cooking with terracotta, with only a sprinkling of the oils of flaxseed, mustard, grapeseed, or sesame as a finishing touch.

“The flavours are unusual, yet the food is not quite different from what we eat now,” said 42-year-old Alka Jha, while sampling a vegetarian portion of the recreated Indus Valley meal. After an elaborate menu of samplers for each day and dinner for the weekend was posted online, the museum made radical changes the day before the exhibition opened. “Just a day before [the exhibition opened] we were told that non-veg[egtarian food] cannot be served,” said Adarsha Kapoor, the director of OSMS.

Speaking to Firstpost, a museum officer cited the rule against serving meat on the premises as the reason for the change in menu. They said, "There was definitely some gap in communication.” In the resulting confusion, weekend dinners that had been pre-booked online have been cancelled. Willing diners will now be hosted next week at Chef Saby’s restaurant in South Delhi, while others will be offered a refund.

“They [the people of the Indus Valley] had a lot of meat in their diet, which also includes fish since these were river valley civilisations,” said Shinjini Bhattacharyya, a conservation architect at OSMS who leads the guided walks at the exhibition. She said nearly 80 percent of the Harappans’ protein intake was meat-based.

“Almost all the [Indus Valley] sites had faunal remains in animal bones that had cuts or butchering marks,” she said, adding that the most commonly consumed animals were cattle, while lamb, sheep, chicken and goat made up the rest.

The last exhibition panel titled ‘De-population’ speaks of an Eastward and Southward migration of the Indus Valley people around 1300 BCE, due to severe drought caused by possible climate change and the resultant food security concerns. “If they were solely reliant on hunting, they would’ve continued living there, but the civilisation’s de-population means that farming was equally important,” said Bhattacharyya.

Historical Gastronomica – The Indus Dining Experience is an ongoing exhibition till 25 February, from 9 am to 6 pm. Guided walks and food tastings take place between 12 pm and 4 pm. Guided walks cost Rs 300, while samplers meals are priced at Rs 650 per portion.


Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia journalist based in New Delhi.

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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2020 09:41:05 IST