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Indus Valley civilization

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The Indus Valley civilization is also known as the Harappan Civilization after the village named Harappa, in what is now Pakistan, where the civilization was first discovered. It is also known as the Indus Civilization because two of its best-known cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, are situated along the banks of the Indus River. This name is inaccurate. Most of the civilization's settlements were situated along the equally massive Ghaggar-Hakra river system, which is now largely extinct. The Indus Valley civilization extended over a large region of present-day Pakistan and western India. It flourished between 2600 and 1900 BC.

Forgotten to history prior to its rediscovery in the 1920s, the Indus civilization -- as it is more commonly (if inaccurately) called -- ranks with its contemporaries, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, as one of the three earliest of all human civilizations, as defined by the emergence of cities and writing.

The Indus civilization was not the earliest human civilization; Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt developed cities slightly before the Indus civilization did. Nevertheless, the Indus civilization was by far the most geographically extensive of the three earliest civilizations. Over 1000 settlements have been found, the majority along the path of the extinct Ghaggar-Hakra river, which once flowed -- like the Indus -- through what is now known as the Indus Valley. (It is due to the Ghaggar-Hakra's prominence that some scholars, with justification, prefer to speak of the Indus Valley civilization rather than the Indus civilization; for the sake of brevity, this article will use the older nomenclature.)

Other Indus civilization settlements were situated along the Indus and its tributaries or spread as widely as Mumbai (Bombay) to the south, Delhi to the east, the Iranian border to the west and the Himalayas to the north. Among the settlements are numerous cities, including Dholavira[?], Ganeriwala[?], Harappa, Lothal, Mohenjo-daro and Rakhigarhi[?]. At its peak, its population may have exceeded five million people. In constant, close communication were towns and cities separated by distances of 1000 km.

For all its achievements, the Indus civilization is poorly understood. Its very existence was forgotten until the 20th century. Its writing system remains undeciphered. Among the Indus civilization's mysteries are fundamental questions, including its means of subsistence and the causes of its sudden, dramatic disappearance, beginning around 1900 BC. We do not know what language Indus civilization 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.

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The Indus civilization was predated by the first farming cultures in south Asia, which emerged in the hills Baluchistan, 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 civilisation 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.


The Indus civilization's penchant for urban planning is evident in the larger settlements and cities. Typically, the city is divided into two sections. The first area includes a raised, earthen platform (dubbed the "Citadel" by early archaeologists). The second area (called the "lower city") contains tightly packed homes and shops, as well as well-defined streets that were laid out to a precise plan. A system of uniform weights and measures was in use, and streets and alleys are of rigidly uniform width in virtually all Harappan sites. The main building material was brick, both fired and sun-baked, of a rigorously standardized size. The largest cities as many as 30,000 people.

As seen in Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, the best-known (and possibly the largest) cities, 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. Although the well-engineered system drained waste water from the city, it seems clear that the streets were far from fragrant. Houses opened only to inner courtyards and smaller lanes.

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 (called faience[?]. 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 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: recently, archaeologists have discovered a massive, dredged canal and docking facility at a coastal city.

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. A Sumerian inscription appears to use the name Meluhha to refer to the Indus civilization. If so, it is the only evidence we possess that might suggest what Indus civilization people called themselves.


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 disconfirm the Oriental Despotism[?] hypothesis, which is concerned with 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 irrigation -- and what is more, 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.

The nature of the Indus civilization's agricultural system is still largely a matter of conjecture. But the matter is important. It is possible that this civilization teaches an important lesson. By means of collective social action and harmonious integration with the natural environment, human beings may have once created considerable economic prosperity without social inequality or political oppression. If this is indeed the Indus civilization's achievement, it is among the most noble in all human history.


The Indus civilization remains mysterious in another way: Despite numerous attempts, scholars have not been able to decipher the Indus script. One problem is the lack of evidence. Most of the known inscriptions have been found on seals or ceramic pots, and are no more than 4 or 5 characters in length; the longest is 26 characters. There is no evidence of a body of literature. A complicating factor: No one knows which language Indus civilization people spoke; likely candidates are the Dravidian language family, the Munda, the Indo-Aryan, and Sumerian. Were it known which language was spoken by Indus civilization people, scholars might gain clues that could help them decipher the script. But no one knows.

Because the inscriptions are so short, some scholars wonder whether the Indus script fell short of a true writing system; it has been suggested that the system amounted to little more than a means of recording identity in economic transactions. Still, it is possible that longer texts were written in perishable media. Morever, there is one, small piece of evidence suggesting that the script embodies a well-known, widespread, and complex communication system. At a recently discovered Indus civilization city in Western India, evidence has been found that appears to be the remnants of a large sign that was mounted above the gate to the city. Perhaps it was designed to inform travelers (who would have been numerous) of the city's name, analogous to the welcome signs seen today along highways leading to major cities.

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. No one knows why.

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, stone 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. One could also argue that the concept of an enormous, intimidating monument was foreign to their view of the world.

To be sure, Indus civilization 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 past, many scholars argued that the collapse was so sudden that it must have been caused by foreign conquest. In the nineteenth century, some scholars argued that "superior" Aryan invaders, with their horses and chariots, conquered the "primitive," "dark," and "weak" peoples they encountered in ancient South Asia. Subsequently, these "white" invaders intermingled with the indigenous "dark" population, and grew "weak" -- and therefore ripe for repeated conquest. It was part of a larger, mythological narrative that was used to legitimate the English colonization of the "weak" and "dark" peoples of India. These ideas were developed before the discovery of the Indus civilization itself, when it was assumed that the pre-Aryan Indian populations lived primitive lives. When the civilization was discovered in the 1920s, these arguments were adapted to present the Indo-Aryans as energetic barbarian warriors who overthrew a passive or peaceful urban culture. In the words of the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, the Indo-Aryan war god Indra 'stands accused' of the destruction.

Current thinking does not give much credence to the view that the Indo-Aryans were responsible for the collapse of the Indus civilization, or that '"white" invaders displaced or subordinated "dark" natives. Centuries would pass before Central Asian Indo-Aryans appeared in South Asia. Even then, there is no evidence -- an obscure Vedic reference notwithstanding -- that these peoples conquered a civilization. The facts are these: by the time the Central Asian peoples arrived, the Indus civilization had collapsed.

What caused the collapse? It seems undeniable that a major factor was climatic 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. A point in fact: Indus civilization people supplemented their diet with hunting, a fact that is all but inconceivable when one considers today's dessicated, denuded environment. 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. The river's very existence was unknown until the late 20th century, when geologists used satellite photographs to trace its former course through the Indus Valley. If the Ghaggar-Hakra river system dried up when the Indus civilization was at its height, the consequences would have been devastating. Refugees would have flooded the other cities. The "critical mass" needed for economic integration would have collapsed.

The most likely explanation is that the causes were multiple -- and, in their aggregation, catastrophic. In the declining years, Indus civilization people tried to hang on to their old way of life, but in the end, they gave up. By 1600 BC, the cities were deserted. In the 19th century, British engineers discovered that the abundant bricks found in the ruins -- in which they expressed no evident curiosity -- provided excellent raw materials for railway construction. They proceeded to destroy much of the available archaeological evidence.


The relationship between the Indus civilization and the early Sanskrit language culture that produced the Vedic texts of Hinduism is unclear. It is puzzling that the most ancient Vedic texts -- oral traditions that were not written down until long after Central Asians had settled in the Gangetic Plain and intermingled with its indigenous residents -- speak of a beautiful river, the Sarasvati river. They recall a thriving, utopian lifestyle that emerged along its banks. The texts also seem to describe the sad story of the river's disappearance. Still, all the evidence suggests that the supposed authors of the earliest Vedas -- "Aryan" migrants from Central Asia -- did not appear until many centuries after the Indus civilization's collapse.

Are the ancient Vedic references to the Sarasviti River purely mythological? Did they refer to some other river? Did they refer to the Ghaggar-Hakra river? We are in the realm of conjecture. To complicate matters, this subject has been drawn into the conflict that divides India and Pakistan. Still, it is possible Vedic civilization, arising centuries after the Indus civilization's downfall, evolved in a dialogue between Central Asian immigrants and indigenous, village peoples, who may have recalled -- perhaps mythologically -- the Indus civilization's grandeur and its collapse.

This interpretation squares with some of the evidence. The "Aryan" migrants who arrived in India centuries after the Indus civilization's collapse were related to other peoples who migrated to the Middle East and Europe during the same period; all these peoples brought with them a distinctive religion focused on the worship of a sun god. In India, these beliefs soon gave way to a substantially more advanced and sophisticated religious tradition, Hinduism, which looks to the most ancient Vedas as a source of legitimacy but departs from them philosophically in significant ways. It is possible (but nevertheless a matter of conjecture) that the Indus civilization's legacy contributed to Hinduism's development. As several archaeologists have noted, there is something ineffably "Indian" about the Indus valley civilization. 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 Hindus today, Indus civilization people seemed to have placed a high value on bathing, personal cleanliness, and residing with one's extended family.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Indus civilization, if such a legacy exists, was its nonviolence. In astonishing and dramatic contrast to other ancient civilizations, the archaeological record of the Indus civilization provides little or no credible evidence of armies, kings, slaves, social conflict, political oppression, gross social inequalities, prisons, and the other afflictions that we associate with civilization. Did the Indus civilization contribute in some way to the concept of ahimsa (nonviolence), one of the most important of all Hindu beliefs? Perhaps we will never know. But we should remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills."

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