First Explorers: Charles Masson, 1829

First Explorers: Charles Masson, 1829

Charles Masson was an deserter from the East India Company's Bengal Artillery. One day in 1827 he suddenly left his regiment at Agra with a fellow soldier. They headed west, towards the Indus River and lands not yet under British control. During many years of wandering, he stumbled on the ruins at Harappa in 1829, on his way to meet Maharajah Ranjit Singh then in power in Lahore.

Masson became the first European to report Harappa's existence in his book Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and The Panjab (London, Richard Bentley, 1842) and he drew it on the map (above) in his later Narrative of a Journey to Kalat (London, Richard Bentley, 1843). Particularly interesting is his observation below that the whole area was thick with pipal trees.

Masson is best known as a numismatist whose unearthing of various coins provided the first new clues to the Bactrian Greek and Kushan Empires which once ruled Afghanistan and Punjab. His desertion was ultimately forgiven, but "his later years in Afghanistan were not happy ones," writes Possehl (Indus Age: The Beginnings, p. 48). He played some intelligence role until falling out again with his superiors over the conquest of Kalat in Balochistan. Elizabeth Errington describes Charles Masson's colorful life in the Encyclopaedia Iranica.

In March or April 1829, Masson, according to Possehl, "visited the huge mound near an abandoned course of the Ravi River in Sahiwal District (formerly Montgomery District) of the Punjab. Masson travelled in the western borderlands of British India in the 1820s and 1830s [posing] as an antiquarian from the state of Kentucky in America. He had just entered the Punjab from Bahawalpur . . ." The Beginnings, p. 44). This is Masson's entire description of his time at Harappa:


"A long march preceded our arrival at Haripah, through jangal of the closest description. East of the village was an abundance of luxuriant grass, where, along with many others, I went to allow my nag to graze. When I joined the camp I found it in front of the village and ruinous brick castle. Behind us was a large circular mound, or eminence, and to the west was an irregular rocky height, crowned with remains of buildings, in fragments of walls, with niches, after the eastern manner. The latter elevation was undoubtedly a natural object; the former being of earth only, was obviously an artificial one. I examined the remains on the height, and found two circular perforated stones, affirmed to have been used as bangles, or arm-rings, by a faquir of renown. He has also credit for having subsisted on earth, and other unusual substances, and his depraved appetite is instanced in testimony of his sanctity. The entire neighbourhood is embellished with numerous pipal trees, some of them in the last stage of lingering existence; bespeaking a great antiquity, when we remember their longevity. The walls and towers of the castle are remarkably high, though, from having been long deserted, they exhibit in some parts the ravages of time and decay. Between our camp and it extended a deep trench, now overgrown with grass and plants. Tradition affirms the existence here of a city, so considerable that it extended to Chicha Watni, thirteen tosses distant, and that it was destroyed by a particular visitation of Providence, brought down by the lust and crimes of the sovereign.

We were cautioned by the inhabitants, that on the plain we were likely to be assailed by makkahs, or stinging-gnats; and in the evening we ascended the circular mound behind us. There was ample room on the summit to receive the party and horses belonging to it. It was impossible to survey the scene before us, and to look upon the ground on which we stood, without perceiving that every condition of Arrian's Sangala was here fulfilled,—the brick fortress, with a lake, or rather swamp, at the north-eastern angle; the mound, protected by a triple row of chariots, and defended by the Kathi before they suffered themselves to be shut up within their walls ; and the trench between the mound and fortress, by which the circumvallation of the place was completed, and whence engines were directed against it. The data of Arrian are very minute, and can scarcely be misapplied to Haripah, the position of which also perfectly coincides with what, from inference, we must assign to Sangala. I have made public my convictions on this point, but repeat them, as I doubt not they are just; and the identification of Sangala gives a point from which we may safely calculate upon the site of the Celebrated altars of Alexander, which, in all probability, were in the neighbourhood of Pak Pattan, on the Satlej, two marches from Haripah, Alexander having there gained the high road into India, which was afterwards followed by Taimur.

The verification of the site of Sangala is farther important, because, subsequent to its destruction by the Macedonian leader, it again rose into consequence under the name of Euthydemia, clearly referring to a renowned king of Bactria, and which change in its fortunes is supposed to be owing to one of his sons; and we know of no other than Demetrius.

Our precautions were vain against the swarms of our tiny antagonists, the gnats, and at sunset they so annoyed us, and particularly the horses, which became absolutely frantic, that we had no alternative but to decamp, and march throughout the night."

- Charles Masson, Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and The Panjab, 1842, Vol. I, pp. 452-454.

There are few other mentions in the book. He sees a mud fort near Chicha Watni: "It needed not the murmurs of tradition to assert its antiquity, and must have been in the ancient time a remarkably strong fortress. Like Haripah, its destruction is ascribed to the crimes of its rulers" (pp. 455-56).

Most unfortunately, he later adds this note: "When at Haripah I had also sketched the old fort. The paper was handed from one to the other, and I have now to regret its loss" (p. 495). If only that sketch had survived!

1. Map showing "Haripah" from Charles Masson, Narrative of a Journey into Kalat, 1843
2. Cover page of Charles Masson, Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and The Panjab, 1842.