Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on April 14, 2013.
Animals do not build settlements. Yes, the bees have hives and ants have hills but it is part of their involuntary instinct. Humans do not have to create settlement; these are created voluntarily to satisfy human desires with the aid of human inventions and innovations.
Hunter-gatherers have simple settlements — caves and camps marked by a central place where fire is kept. In fact, human settlement began when humans realized they could control fire and by controlling fire they could control nature: burn vegetation, frighten animals, create tools. Humans gathered around fire every night to keep themselves warm and safe. This was the first home, and the first yagna-shala.
Nomadic cattle herding communities had mobile homes that came up only at night when camping. Agricultural communities on the other hand had permanent homes near their farms. But these were villages, not cities.
The Vedic culture is rooted to the yagna ritual, which is a mobile ritual. It does not need a fixed place and so seems the ritual of nomadic people who did not stay in one place, not quite an urban ritual, but the Veda does mention purs, which can mean either citadel or city. Were these enclosures to keep cattle or protection for granaries?
We have heard of the Indus/Saraswati valley cities that stood four thousand years ago. It shows planning — sewage systems laid down with roads before the house, unlike 21st century Gurgaon where I have heard there are many towers but no sewage systems. To build an organized city like this indicates a central authority, someone who plans and ensures systematic implementation. It assumes the people needed to stay in one place for a long time. Climatic changes made these cities, which thrived for at least 500 years, unsustainable, and people went back to villages, a migratory pattern seen throughout Indian history.
We hear of cities in the Ramayan and Mahabharat: there is Lanka built by Kubera and Indraprastha built for Pandavas by the asura architect, Maya. Puranas mention cities of the devas, Amravati, and nagas, Bhogavati, and yakshas, Alakapuri and asuras, Hiranyapura. What prompted this need for a city? What does it provide that a village cannot?
And the only answer that seems to crop up is — the marketplace. A city is where farmers and herdsmen and craftsmen can gather to exchange goods, either directly or via traders.
But India has markets without cities — the melas, the fairs where people gather to sell their cows, horses, elephants and camels. Kumbha-mela is an example of a mobile market city, appearing and disappearing every twelve years. Likewise there are many such mobile cities that rise and fall every month, every season, every year. We do not need cities if one has mobile markets. So why the city?
Cities can be divided into two types — centres that exist to exploit villages and centres that exist to support villages. The former variety is a feudal centre where wealth of villages funds the luxuries of the king’s court. The latter variety is a temple centre where the temple creates an ecosystem for exchange of resources between various communities, not letting any one group dominate. In India, the latter variety seemed to have thrived giving rise to Deva-nagari, city of the gods, or the famous temple cities such as those at Tanjore and Puri.