Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization, 2800 BC1800 BC, was an ancient civilization thriving along the Indus River and the Ghaggar-Hakra river in what is now Pakistan. The Indus Valley Civilization is also sometimes referred to as the Harappa or Harappan Civilization of the Indus Valley, in reference to its first excavated city of Harappa.



Map of the Indus Valley Civilization
Map of the Indus Valley Civilization
History of South Asia
Indus Valley Civilization
Vedic civilization
Middle kingdoms
Islamic empires
Mughal era
Company rule
British Raj
History of India
History of Pakistan
History of Bangladesh

The Indus Civilization peaked around 2,500 BC in the western part of South Asia. Geographically, it was spread over an area of some 1,250,000 km², comprising the whole of modern day Pakistan and parts of modern-day India and Afghanistan. The Indus Civilization is among the world's earliest civilizations, contemporary to the great Bronze Age empires of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. It declined during the mid 2nd millennium BC and was forgotten until its rediscovery in the 1920s.

To date, over 1,052 cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the general region of the Indus River in Pakistan.

Additionally, there is some evidence indicative of another large river, now long dried up, running parallel and to the east of the Indus. The dried-up river beds overlap with the Hakra channel in Pakistan, and the seasonal Ghaggar river in India. Some scholars, including Hindu Nationalists, argue that this was a major river during the third and fourth millennia BC, and believe that it may have been the Vedic Sarasvati River of the Rig Veda. Some of the scholars who accept this hypothesis advocate changing the name of the culture to the "Saraswati Valley Civilization". Some archeologists dispute this view, arguing that the old river is of the mesolithic age at the latest, and was reduced to a seasonal stream thousands of years before the Vedic period. Over 140 ancient towns and cities have been discovered along its course.

There were Indus Civilization settlements spread as far south as Mumbai, or Bombay, as far east as Delhi, as far west as the Iranian border, and as far north as the Himalayas. Among the settlements were the major urban centers of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, as well as Dholavira, Ganweriwala, Lothal, and Rakhigarhi. At its peak, the Indus Civilization may have had a population of well over five million.

Its native name may be preserved in Sumerian Me-lah-ha, which Asko Parpola, editor of the Indus script corpus, identifies with the Dravidian Met-akam "high abode/country". He further suggets that Sanskrit mleccha, "foreigner, barbarian, non-Aryan" may be derived from the name.

For all its achievements, the Indus civilization is still poorly understood. Its very existence was forgotten until the 20th century. Its writing system, Indus script, remains undeciphered, and it is not known whether it gave birth to the later Brahmi script. Currently this is thought to be unlikely. Among the Indus civilization's mysteries are fundamental questions, including its means of subsistence and the causes of its sudden disappearance, beginning around 1900 BC. We do not know what language the people spoke. We do not know what they called themselves. All of these facts stand in stark contrast to what is known about its contemporaries, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.


The Indus civilization was predated by the first farming cultures in south Asia, which emerged in the hills of what is now called Balochistan, Pakistan, to the west of the Indus Valley. The best-known site of this culture is Mehrgarh, established around 6500 BC. These early farmers domesticated wheat and a variety of animals, including cattle. Pottery was in use by around 5500 BC. The Indus civilization grew out of this culture's technological base, as well as its geographic expansion into the alluvial plains of what are now the provinces of Sindh and Punjab in contemporary Pakistan.

By 4000 BC, a distinctive, regional culture, called pre-Harappan, had emerged in this area. (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 seed, 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.

Emergence of civilization

By 2600 BC, some pre-Harappan settlements grew into cities containing thousands of people who were not primarily engaged in agriculture. Subsequently, a unified culture emerged throughout the area, bringing into conformity settlements that were separated by as much as 1,000 km and muting regional differences. So sudden was this culture's emergence that early scholars thought that it must have resulted from external conquest or migration. Yet archaeologists have demonstrated that this culture did, in fact, arise from its pre-Harappan predecessor. The culture's sudden appearance appears to have been the result of planned, deliberate effort. For example, some settlements appear to have been deliberately rearranged to conform to a conscious, well-developed plan. For this reason, the Indus civilization is recognized to be the first to develop urban planning.


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 a perfect grid pattern, comparable to that of present-day New York. The houses were protected from noise, odors, and thieves.

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 India and Pakistan 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 a matter of debate. 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, indeed, 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" are 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 made were beautiful beads made of glazed stone. The seals have images of animals, gods, etc., and inscriptions. Some of the seals were used to stamp clay on trade goods, but they probably had other uses. Although some houses were larger than others, Indus civilization cities were remarkable for their apparent egalitarianism. For example, all houses had access to water and drainage facilities. One gets the impression of a vast middle-class society.


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 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, they evolved new techniques in metallurgy, and produced copper, bronze, lead, and tin. The engineering skill of the Harappans, especially in building docks after a careful study of tides, waves, and currents, is remarkable for their age.

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


The people of Indus were great lovers of the fine arts, and especially dancing, painting, and sculpture. Various sculptures, seals, pottery, gold jewelry, terracotta figures, and other interesting works of art indicate that they had fine artistic sensibilities. Their art is highly realistic. The anatomical detail of much of their art is unique, and terracotta art is also noted for its extremely careful modeling of animal figures. Sir John Marshall once reacted with surprise when he saw the famous Indus bronze statuette of the 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."

Bronze, terracotta, and stone sculptures in dancing poses also reveal much about their art of dancing. Similarly, a harp-like instrument depicted on an Indus seal and two shell objects from Lothal confirm that stringed musical instruments were in use in the ancient Indus Valley civilization. Today, much of the Indus art is considered advanced for their time period.


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 (see Meluhha).


The nature of the Indus civilization's agricultural system is still largely a matter of conjecture due to the paucity of information surviving through the ages. Some speculation is possible, however.

Indus civilization agriculture must have been highly productive; after all, it was capable of generating surpluses sufficient to support tens of thousands of urban residents who were not primarily engaged in agriculture. It relied on the considerable technological achievements of the pre-Harappan culture, including the plough. Still, very little is known about the farmers who supported the cities or their agricultural methods. Some of them undoubtedly made use of the fertile alluvial soil left by rivers after the flood season, but this simple method of agriculture is not thought to be productive enough to support cities. There is no evidence of irrigation, but such evidence could have been obliterated by repeated, catastrophic floods.

The Indus civilization appears to contradict the hydraulic despotism hypothesis of the origin of urban civilization and the state. According to this hypothesis, cities could not have arisen without irrigation systems capable of generating massive agricultural surpluses. To build these systems, a despotic, centralized state emerged that was capable of suppressing the social status of thousands of people and harnessing their labor as slaves. It is very difficult to square this hypothesis with what is known about the Indus civilization. There is no evidence of kings, slaves, or forced mobilization of labor.

It is often assumed that intensive agricultural production requires dams and canals. This assumption is easily refuted. Throughout Asia, rice farmers produce significant agricultural surpluses from terraced, hillside rice paddies, which result not from slavery but rather the accumulated labor of many generations of people. Instead of building canals, Indus civilization people may have built water diversion schemes, which—like terrace agriculture—can be elaborated by generations of small-scale labor investments. In addition, it is known that Indus civilization people practiced rainfall harvesting, a powerful technology that was brought to fruition by classical Indian civilization but nearly forgotten in the 20th century. It should be remembered that Indus civilization people, like all peoples in South Asia, built their lives around the monsoon, a weather pattern in which the bulk of a year's rainfall occurs in a four-month period. At a recently discovered Indus civilization city in western India, archaeologists discovered a series of massive reservoirs, hewn from solid rock and designed to collect rainfall, that would have been capable of meeting the city's needs during the dry season.

Writing or Symbol System

Main article: Indus script.

It has long been claimed that the Indus Valley was the home of a literate civilization, but this has recently been challenged on linguistic and archaeological grounds. Well over 4000 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. 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), which has been widely discussed in the world press (see external links), 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.

Decline and collapse

For 700 years, the Indus civilization provided its peoples with prosperity and abundance and its artisans produced goods of surpassing beauty and excellence. But nearly as suddenly as the civilization emerged, it declined and disappeared, contemporaneous with the arrival of nomadic Indo-European speakers in the area.

Around 1900 BC, signs began to emerge of mounting problems. People started to leave the cities. Those who remained were poorly nourished. By around 1800 BC, most of the cities were abandoned. In the centuries to come—and again, in sharp contrast to its contemporaries, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt—recollection of the Indus civilization and its achievements seemed to disappear from the record of human experience. Unlike the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, Indus civilization people built no huge monuments to attest to their existence. One could argue that they could not do so because stone was hard to come by in the Indus Valley alluvium, although this is also true of Mesopotamia. One could also argue that the concept of an enormous, intimidating monument was foreign to their view of the world.

To be sure, the Indus civilization's people did not disappear. In the aftermath of the Indus civilization's collapse, regional cultures emerged, all of which show the lingering influence—to varying degrees—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. Some former Indus civilization people appear to have migrated to the east, toward the Gangetic Plain. What disappeared was not the people, but the civilization: the cities, the writing system, the trade networks, and—ultimately—the ideology that so obviously provided the intellectual foundation for this civilization's integration.

In the early twentieth century, scholars connected the collapse with an "Aryan invasion", comparable with the fall of the advanced Roman Empire at the incursions of relatively primitive peoples during the Migrations Period. These ideas were developed before the discovery of the Indus civilization itself, 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.

Some researchers favour reasons connected with climate change. In 2600 BC, the Indus Valley was verdant, forested, and teeming with wildlife. It was wetter, too; floods were a problem and appear, on more than one occasion, to have overwhelmed certain settlements. As a result, Indus civilization people supplemented their diet with hunting. By 1800 BC, the climate is known to have changed. It became significantly cooler and drier. But this fact alone may not have been sufficient to bring down the Indus civilization.

The crucial factor may have been the disappearance of substantial portions of the Ghaggar-Hakra river system. A tectonic event may have diverted the system's sources toward the Ganges Plain, though there is some uncertainty about the date of this event. Such a statement may seem dubious if one does not realize that the transition between the Indus and Gangetic plains amounts to a matter of inches, and is all but imperceptible. The region in which the river's waters formerly arose is known to be geologically active, and there is evidence of major tectonic events at the time the Indus civilization collapsed. It is apropos that until 1998 the blind Ganges River Dolphin and Indus River Dolphin have been considered two different species, partly because of their apparently discrete distribution. Now the two populations have been identified as belonging to a single species, Platanista gangetica.


The relationship between the Indus civilization and the early Sanskrit language culture that produced the Vedic texts of Hinduism is unclear. Due to language evolution, it seems unlikely that the Indus civilization was Indo-European.

Judging from the abundant figurines depicting female fertility that they left behind, Indus civilization people—like modern Hindus—may have held a special place in their worship for a mother goddess and the life-affirming principles she represents (see Shakti and Kali). Their seals depict animals in a way that seems to suggest veneration, perhaps presaging Hindu convictions regarding the sacredness of cattle. Like Indians today, Indus civilization people seemed to have placed a high value on bathing, personal cleanliness, and residing with one's extended family.

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


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