In a series of semi-fictional books, orthopaedic surgeon Shankar Kashyap brings to light for the first time the life and culture of an ancient Indian civilisation. He talks to Sarah Foster

‘THE Queen Puabi was majestic even in death. She was wearing a purple velvet tunic covered in carnelian beads and gold threads. She had a head dress made of gold leaves, ribbons and strands of lapis lazuli and carnelian. The wealth of the city of Ur was on display at the death ceremony. Her attendants, who were walking on either side of her, were wearing similar, but slightly less ostentatious clothes. The Lugal of Ur was sitting upright on his white stallion in the front of the cortege along with a retinue of his bodyguards. I had never seen such mourning before.’

This passage, with its vivid description of life in a Bronze Age Indian city, is from Harappa 2: The Fall of Shuruppak, the second in a series of books by Shankar Kashyap. The first in the Harappa series, The Lure of Soma, was launched a year ago, and focuses on the importance of Soma, an ancient ritual drink. The Fall of Shuruppak, just released, takes the trading links between Harappa, an Indian city of around 5,000 years ago, and Mesopotamia, as its subject matter; while the third book in the series, The Battle of Ten Kings, concerns conflicts and shifts in power.

The world portrayed is one of mythology mixed with fact, resulting in stories that are both epic and colourful. They are inspired by ancient Hindu Vedic scripture, yet, while painstakingly researched, bear little resemblance to academic writing on the subject. This is because Shankar, who is originally from Bangalore but who now lives in Newcastle, wanted to breathe life into the ancient texts.

“History books can be boring to read – after the first page, you’re falling asleep,” says the 60-year-old. “There’s a chap called Christian Jacq who has written about Egyptian civilisation and Rome in a storybook form, and it makes it easier to read and very interesting, and at the same time you learn history. What I have done is brought the stories to life in these cities.”

While the histories of places like ancient Egypt and Greece are well-documented, surprisingly little is known about Harappa, which is also known as the Indus Valley. During extensive research carried out over 15 years, Shankar has learned of a highly civilised people which occupied an area of more than 1.5m square kilometres, encompassing India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most fascinating has been discovering details of everyday life.

“They have excavated around 2,600 sites, but they have barely scratched the surface,” says Shankar. “They have probably only dug about five to ten per cent of the potential excavations. Nobody really knows who lived in these ruins, but they’ve found lots of evidence of people living in big cities in an extremely ordered civilisation. There are no massive temples or pyramids, but the roads were fully paved, the drains were undercover and every house had a water supply, drainage and a toilet. That, to me, is much more amazing than looking at a pyramid.”

The Harappan civilisation had its own language, discovered on thousands of seals (stone impressions) unearthed in the region. It has yet to be deciphered – but Shankar believes that it was the Harappans, and not Aryan invaders from Russia, as is commonly thought, who wrote the Vedic scriptures. “There is new evidence coming out that probably the people living in these ruins composed the hymns,” he says. “Until recently, they were considered mythological and written in praise of God, but if you look in detail, they’re in Sanskrit, which is an ancient language similar to Latin. A lot of archaeologists are now coming round to my view.”

Such is the level of respect for Shankar’s knowledge that he was invited to launch his latest book at Durham’s Oriental Museum, which houses a collection of Harappan artefacts, along with photographs taken by the 19th Century archaeologist John Marshall. One of the few places to embrace the civilisation, the museum is keen to work with Shankar to acquire further knowledge of it.

“Durham was one of the first Oriental schools in the country so they needed the photographs,” he says. “They are going to be put online. The museum has also been sending excavation teams to India.”

Already halfway through the third novel in the series, Shankar hopes to launch it this time next year. He manages to fit writing and research around working full-time as an orthopaedic surgeon at Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital – driven, he says, by his fascination with both the Harappan era and history in general.

“I’ve always been interested in history, but I was pushed into medicine by my parents,” he laughs. “I have a full-time job and don’t get much time to sit and read, but I do like reading. I always thought we’ve got history, but there’s nothing about Indian history – only dry books meant for university professors.”

With a publisher based in India, Shankar first launched the series there, before releasing it, less formally, in the UK. He says that, so far, the response has been positive. “Critically, it has been well accepted, and friends – I don’t know whether they’re telling the truth or not – love it,” laughs Shankar.

If he has a target audience, it is those who have little or no idea of the true nature of Harappa – including the vast majority of Indians. “If you ask any Indian, probably one or two would be able to tell you at least half of what I’ve said,” says Shankar. “I want to spread the word globally so that people come to know about it.”

Always thinking of the next challenge, he has already set his sights on another project – a purely factual book called A Brief History of Time in India. When asked if he is trying to challenge Stephen Hawking’s similarly-titled book, he laughs. “I suppose people might think that, but this is nothing like it,” he says.

With retirement in his sights, Shankar hopes to have more time to devote to his other job as a historian. “Hopefully, in five years’ time, I will retire, and then take this full-time,” he says. “It’s a project that could go on for a while. Once you start, it’s a bit difficult to stop. It’s an addiction.”

Harappa 2: The Fall of Shuruppak (Alchemy, £7.95)