Indus Valley Civilization

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Extent and major sites of the Indus Valley Civilization
(modern state boundaries shown in red).
See [1] for a more detailed map.

The Indus Valley Civilization (3000–1500 BCE) was an ancient civilization thriving along the Indus River and the Ghaggar-Hakra River
in what is now Pakistan and Northern India. Among other names for this civilization is the Harappan Civilization, in reference to its first excavated city of Harappa.


The Indus Civilization was predated by the first farming cultures in South Asia, which emerged in the hills of what is now called Balochistan, to the west of the Indus Valley. North Eastern Balochistan is connected to Afghanistan by passes over the Toba Kakar Range. Valleys on the Makran coast are open towards the Arabian Sea. Through these routes Balochistan was in contact with West Asia and , which took place in the Fertile Crescent around 9000 to 6000 BCE. The earliest evidence of sedentary lifestyle in South Asia was discovered at Mehrgarh in the foothills of the Brahui Hills. This settlement is dated 7000 BCE and was located on the west bank of the Bolan River, about 30 kilometres from the town of Sibi.

Regionalization Era or Early Harappan or Indus Valley Civilization.

By 4000 BCE farming communities spread further east to other parts of Balochistan and Lower Sind. Later this culture spread to Upper Sind, Punjab and the western states of India. The development of these farming communities ultimately led to urbanization. The mature phase of earlier village cultures is represented by Rehman Dheri and Amri. Kot Diji represents an intermediate phase of the Indus Civilization, where the citadel represented centralized authority and a complexity of life which is evident by the scattered ruins of the city. Another town of this stage was found at Kalibangan in India on the Hakra River. This distinctive, regional culture which emerged is called Pre-Harappan. (It is called Pre-Harappan because remains of this widespread culture are found in the early strata of Indus Civilization cities.) Trade networks linked this culture with related regional cultures and distant sources of raw materials, including lapis lazuli and other materials for bead-making. Villagers had, by this time, domesticated numerous crops, including peas, sesame seeds, dates and cotton, as well as a wide range of domestic animals, including the water buffalo, an animal that remains essential to intensive agricultural production throughout Asia today.

Coastal settlements extended from Sutkagan Dor at the Iranian border to Lothal in Gujarat. Besides the western states of India, the Indus Valley Civilization encompassed most of modern-day Pakistan.
An Indus Valley site has been found on the Oxus river at Shortughai in northern Afghanistan, Stone tools of the Stone Age Soan Culture have been discovered in Pothohar.

In ancient Gandhara, the home of earlier Aryans, evidence of cave dwellers dating to 15000 years ago has been discovered at Mardan. The Village Culture and then Harappan Culture did not penetrate into Pothohar or Gandhara. Settlements of the Gandhara grave culture of early Indo-Aryans flourished in this part of Pakistan from 1700 to 600 BCE, when Mohenjo Daro and Harappa had already been abandoned.

The Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization existed along the Indus River, Sarasvati River, Ghaggar-Hakra River, and their tributaries.
The Indus Valley Civilization

Harappan culture grew out of earlier village cultures. By 3300 BCE, hundreds of farming settlements had sprung up in the Indus Valley. Helped by the annual flooding of the Indus and its tributaries, communities grew many different crops in the rich soil. The result was more advanced urban centers than the pre-Harappa towns. By 2500 BC, these communities had been turned into urban centers. Thus far, six such urban centers have been discovered: Harappa, Mohenjo Daro, Ganeriwala in Pakistan, and Rakhigarhi, Dholavira, and Lothal in India. By 2500 BC, irrigation had transformed the region.

The first appearance of the Indus Valley Civilization was the early Harappan Ravi Phase, from circa 3500 or 3300 BCE until 2800 BCE. It is related to the Hakra Phase and predates the Kot Diji Phase (2800-2600 BCE). Some of the most important discoveries in the Ravi Phase relate to writing. The earliest examples of the Indus script date from this period, placing the origins of writing in South Asia at approximately the same time as those of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.[5]. By 2600 BCE, it had risen to become a complex civilization.


To date, over 1052 cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the general region of the Ghaggar-Hakra River and its tributaries.There is some disputed evidence of another large river, now dried up, running parallel to the Indus River to the east. Dry river beds overlap with the Hakra channel in Pakistan and the seasonal Ghaggar River in India. Over 500 ancient sites belonging to the Indus Valley Civilization have been discovered along the Ghaggar-Hakra River and its tributaries (S.P. Gupta 1995: 183). By contrast, only about 100 of the known Indus Valley sites have been discovered on the Indus and its tributaries. [3] Certain scholars propose that this was a major river during the third and fourth millennia BCE, and suggest that it may have been the Sarasvati River of the Rigveda. Some advocate designating the Indus Valley culture the "Sarasvati-Sindhu Civilization," Sindhu being the ancient name of the Indus River. Most archeologists dispute this view, arguing that the old river disappeared during the Mesolithic age at the latest, and was only a seasonal stream during the Vedic period when the text was collected


A sophisticated and technologically advanced urban culture is evident in the Indus Valley Civilization. The quality of municipal town planning suggests knowledge of urban planning and efficient municipal governments which placed a high priority on hygiene. The streets of major cities such as Mohenjo-daro or Harappa were laid out in perfect grid patterns. The houses were protected from noise, odors, and thieves.

A computer-generated reconstruction has brought a small area of Mohenjo-daro back to life. (Lost Civilizations by Austen Atkinson, p. 179 - 188)
A computer-generated reconstruction has brought a small area of Mohenjo-daro back to life. (Lost Civilizations by Austen Atkinson, p. 179 - 188)

As seen in Harappa, Mohenjo-daro and the recently discovered Rakhigarhi, this urban plan included the world's first urban sanitation systems. Within the city, individual homes or groups of homes obtained water from wells. From a room that appears to have been set aside for bathing, waste water was directed to covered drains, which lined the major streets. Houses opened only to inner courtyards and smaller lanes.

The ancient Indus systems of sewage and drainage that were developed and used in cities throughout the Indus Empire, were far more advanced than any found in contemporary urban sites in the Middle East and even more efficient than those in some areas of modern Pakistan and India today. The advanced architecture of the Harappans is shown by their impressive dockyards, granaries, warehouses, brick platforms and protective walls. The massive citadels of Indus cities that protected the Harappans from floods and attackers were larger than most Mesopotamian ziggurats.

The purpose of the citadel remains debated. In sharp contrast to this civilization's contemporaries, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, no large monumental structures were built. There is no conclusive evidence of palaces or temples - or of kings, armies, or priests. Some structures are thought to have been granaries. Found at one city is an enormous well-built bath, which may have been a public bath. Although the citadels were walled, it is far from clear that these structures were defensive. They may have been built to divert flood waters.

Most city dwellers appear to have been traders or artisans, who lived with others pursuing the same occupation in well-defined neighborhoods. Materials from distant regions were used in the cities for constructing seals, beads and other objects. Among the artifacts discovered were beautiful beads of glazed stone called faïence. The seals have images of animals, gods and other types of inscriptions. Some of the seals were used to stamp clay on trade goods and most probably had other uses.

Although some houses were larger than others, Indus Civilization cities were remarkable for their apparent egalitarianism. All the houses had access to water and drainage facilities. This gives the impression of a vast middle-class society.


Further information: Harappan mathematics

The people of the Indus Civilization achieved great accuracy in measuring length, mass and time. They were among the first to develop a system of uniform weights and measures. Their measurements were extremely precise. Their smallest division, which is marked on an ivory scale found in Lothal, was approximately 1.704mm, the smallest division ever recorded on a scale of the Bronze Age. Harappan engineers followed the decimal division of measurement for all practical purposes, including the measurement of mass as revealed by their hexahedron weights.

Brick sizes were in a perfect ratio of 4:2:1 and the decimal system was used. Weights were based on units of 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500, with each unit weighing approximately 28 grams, similar to the English Imperial ounce or Greek uncia, and smaller objects were weighed in similar ratios with the units of 0.871.

Unique Harappan inventions include an instrument which was used to measure whole sections of the horizon and the tidal dock. In addition, Harappans evolved new techniques in metallurgy and produced copper, bronze, lead and tin. The engineering skill of the Harappans was remarkable, especially in building docks after a careful study of tides, waves and currents.

Some archeological evidence has led some historians to believe that the civilization used a base 8 numeral system and possessed knowledge of the ratio of the length of the circumference of the circle and its diameter, and thus the approximate value of π.

In 2001, archaeologists studying the remains of two men from Mehrgarh, Pakistan made the startling discovery that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization, even from the early Harappan periods, had knowledge of medicine and dentistry. The physical anthropologist who carried out the examinations, Professor Andrea Cucina from the University of Missouri-Columbia, made the discovery while he was cleaning the teeth from one set of remains.

Arts and culture

A statuette of a female figure.

Various sculptures, seals, pottery, gold jewelry and anatomically detailed figurines in terracotta, bronze and steatite have been found at the excavation sites.

A number of bronze, terracotta and stone figurines of girls in dancing poses reveal the presence of some dance form. Sir John Marshall is known to have reacted with surprise when he saw the famous Indus bronze statuette of a slender-limbed "dancing girl" in Mohenjo-daro:

"… When I first saw them I found it difficult to believe that they were prehistoric; they seemed to completely upset all established ideas about early art. Modeling such as this was unknown in the ancient world up to the Hellenistic age of Greece, and I thought, therefore, that some mistake must surely have been made; that these figures had found their way into levels some 3000 years older than those to which they properly belonged. … Now, in these statuettes, it is just this anatomical truth which is so startling; that makes us wonder whether, in this all-important matter, Greek artistry could possibly have been anticipated by the sculptors of a far-off age on the banks of the Indus."

A harp-like instrument depicted on an Indus seal and two shell objects found at Lothal indicate the use of stringed musical instruments.

An Indus Valley seal with the seated figure
Seals have been found at Mohenjo-daro
depicting a figure standing on its head, and one sitting cross-legged;


Trade and transportation

Ancient Lothal as envisaged by the Archaeological Survey of India. [3]
Ancient Lothal as envisaged by the Archaeological Survey of India. [3]
Further information: Lothal

The Indus civilization's economy appears to have depended significantly on trade, which was facilitated by major advances in transport technology. These advances included bullock-driven carts that are identical to those seen throughout South Asia today, as well as boats. Most of these boats were probably small, flat-bottomed craft, perhaps driven by sail, similar to those one can see on the Indus River today; however, there is secondary evidence of sea-going craft. Archaeologists have discovered a massive, dredged canal and docking facility at the coastal city of Lothal.

Judging from the dispersal of Indus civilization artifacts, the trade networks, economically, integrated a huge area, including portions of Afghanistan, the coastal regions of Persia, northern and central India, and Mesopotamia.

There was an extensive maritime trade network operating between the Harappan and Mesopotamian civilizations as early as the middle Harappan Phase, with much commerce being handled by "middlemen merchants from Dilmun" (modern Bahrain and Failaka located in the Persian Gulf). [5] Such long-distance sea-trade became feasible with the innovative development of plank-built watercraft, equipped with a single central mast supporting a sail of woven rushes or cloth.


Writing or symbol system

Main article: Indus script.

Early fragments of Indus Valley symbols found on pottery in Harappa are about 5,500 years old. [4]

Well over 400 Indus symbols have been found on seals or ceramic pots and over a dozen other materials, including a 'signboard' that apparently once hung over the gate of the inner citadel of the Indus city of Dholavira. Typical Indus inscriptions are no more than four or five characters in length, most of which (aside from the Dholavira 'signboard') are exquisitely tiny; the longest on a single surface, which is less than 1 inch (2.54 cm) square, is 17 signs long; the longest on any object (found on three different faces of a mass-produced object) carries only 26 symbols.

While most scholars believe that the Indus Valley was the home of a literate civilization, this view has recently been challenged by a few scholars, on linguistic and archaeological grounds. It has been recently pointed out that the brevity of the inscriptions is unparalleled in any known premodern literate society, including those that wrote extensively on leaves, bark, wood, cloth, wax, animal skins, and other perishable materials. Based partly on this evidence, a controversial recent paper by Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel (2004)[6], argues that the Indus system did not encode language, but was related instead to a variety of non-linguistic sign systems used extensively in the Near East. It has also been claimed on occasion that the symbols were exclusively used for economic transactions, but this claim leaves unexplained the appearance of Indus symbols on many ritual objects, many of which were mass produced in molds. No parallels to these mass-produced inscriptions are known in any other early ancient civilizations.

Photos of many of the thousands of extant inscriptions are published in the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions (1987, 1991), edited by A. Parpola and his colleagues. Publication of a final third volume, which will reportedly republish photos taken in the 20s and 30s of hundreds of lost or stolen inscriptions, along with many discovered in the last few decades, has been announced for several years, but has not yet found its way into print. For now, researchers must supplement the materials in the Corpus by study of the tiny photos in the excavation reports of Marshall (1931), Mackay (1938, 1943), Wheeler (1947), or reproductions in more recent scattered sources.



The Indus Valley was by main rivers, the Indus River. The Himalayas are also located near the Indus Valley, as is the Hindu Kush mountain range.


Localization Era or Late Harappan

Around 1800 BCE, signs of a gradual decline began to emerge. People started to leave the cities. Those who remained were poorly nourished. By around 1700 BCE, most of the cities were abandoned. However, the Indus Valley Civilization did not disappear suddenly, and many elements of the Indus Civilization can be found in later cultures. Current archaeological data suggests that the Late Harappan may have persisted until at least c. 1000-900 BCE, and was partially contemporaneous with the Painted Grey Ware and perhaps early NBP cultures. [6] Archaeologists have emphasized that there was a continuous series of cultural developments that link "the so-called two major phases of urbanization in South Asia". [7]

In the aftermath of the Indus Civilization's collapse, regional cultures emerged, to varying degrees showing the influence of the Indus Civilization. In the formerly great city of Harappa, burials have been found that correspond to a regional culture called the Cemetery H culture. At the same time, the Ochre Coloured Pottery culture expanded from Rajasthan into the Gangetic Plain.

Indus Valley Seals. The first one shows a Swastika, a prominent symbol in Hinduism.
Indus Valley Seals. The first one shows a Swastika, a prominent symbol in Hinduism.

The region lies on the ancient route used by successive waves of migrations from Aryans to Huns, and later by Turks and Mughals to South Asia over the passes in the Hindu Kush. According to the Indo-Aryan migration hypothesis, Gujarat (in western India) and Pakistan were the first settlements for Indo-Aryans. It is in this context of the aftermath of a civilization's collapse that the hypothesis of an Indo-Aryan migration into northern India is discussed. In the early twentieth century, this migration was forwarded in the guise of an "Aryan invasion", and when the civilization was discovered in the 1920s, its collapse at precisely the time of the conjectured invasion was seen as an independent confirmation. In the words of the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, the Indo-Aryan war god Indra "stands accused" of the destruction. It is however far from certain whether the collapse of the IVC is the result of an Indo-Aryan migration, if there was one. It seems rather likely that, on the contrary, the hypothesized Indo-Aryan migration was as a result of the collapse, comparable with the decline of the Roman Empire and the incursions of relatively primitive peoples during the Migrations Period. This makes it seem more likely that the adoption of indo-Aryan languages was the result of cultural mixing and integration with the Central Asian Aryans rather than invasion.

For such a long lived civilization very few burials were found indicating that the people of IVC might have also followed the Vedic practice of cremation.


In the course of the 2nd millennium BCE, remnants of the IVC's culture would have amalgamated with that of other peoples, likely contributing to what eventually resulted in the rise of historical Hinduism. Judging from the abundant figurines depicting female fertility that they left behind, IVC people worshipped a Mother goddess. IVC seals depict animals, perhaps as the objects of veneration, comparable to the zoomorphic aspects of some Hindu gods. Seals resembling Pashupati in a yogic posture have also been discovered. Like Hindus today, Indus Civilization people seemed to have placed a high value on bathing and personal cleanliness. The houses in Mohenjo-Daro usually had a private well and bathing platforms were often near the well (Kenoyer 1998: 58-60).

Unlike other ancient civilizations, the archaeological record of the Indus Civilization provides practically no evidence of armies, kings, slaves, social conflict, prisons and other traits that are traditionally associated with early civilizations, although this could simply be due to the sheer completeness of its collapse and subsequent disappearance.


See also

External links