13 Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization was a cultural and political entity which flourished in the northern region of the Indian subcontinent between c. 7000 – c. 600 BCE. Its modern name derives from its location in the valley of the Indus River, but it is also commonly referred to as the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization (after the Sarasvati River mentioned in Vedic sources which flowed adjacent to the Indus) and the Harappan Civilization (after the ancient city of Harappa in the region, the first one found in the modern era). None of these names derive from any ancient texts because, although scholars generally believe the people of this civilization developed a writing system (known as Indus Script or Harappan Script) it has not yet been deciphered.

The two best-known excavated cities of this culture are Harappa and Mohenjo-daro (located in modern-day Pakistan), both of which are thought to have once had populations of between 40,000-50,000 people, which is stunning when one realizes that most ancient cities had on average 10,000 people living in them. The total population of the civilization is thought to have been upward of 5 million, and its territory stretched over 900 miles (1,500 km) along the banks of the Indus River and then in all directions outward. Indus Valley Civilization sites have been found near the border of Nepal, in Afghanistan, on the coasts of India, and around Delhi, to name only a few locations.(14)

Harappa & Mohenjo-daro

Archaeological site of Harappa in modern-day Pakistan, one of the best-known cities of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Archaeological Site of Harappa in modern-day Pakistan
Muhammad Bin Naveed | CC BY-SA 3.0

The Hindu texts known as the Vedas, as well as other great works of Indian tradition such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, were already well known to Western scholars but they did not know what culture had created them. Systemic racism of the time prevented them from attributing the works to the people of India, and the same, at first, led archaeologists to conclude that Harappa was a colony of the Sumerians of Mesopotamia or perhaps an Egyptian outpost.

Harappa did not conform to either Egyptian or Mesopotamian architecture, however, as there was no evidence of temples, palaces, or monumental structures, no names of kings or queens or stelae or royal statuary. The city spread over 370 acres (150 hectares) of small, brick houses with flat roofs made of clay. There was a citadel, walls, the streets were laid out in a grid pattern clearly demonstrating a high degree of skill in urban planning and, in comparing the two sites, it was apparent to the excavators that they were dealing with a highly advanced culture.

Houses in both cities had flush toilets, a sewer system, and fixtures on either side of the streets were part of an elaborate drainage system, which was more advanced even than that of the early Romans. Devices known from Persia as “wind catchers” were attached to the roofs of some buildings which provided air conditioning for the home or administrative office and, at Mohenjo-daro, there was a great public bath, surrounded by a courtyard, with steps leading down into it.

As other sites were unearthed, the same degree of sophistication and skill came to light as well as the understanding that all of these cities had been pre-planned. Unlike those of other cultures which usually developed from smaller, rural communities, the cities of the Indus Valley Civilization had been thought out, a site chosen, and purposefully constructed prior to full habitation. Further, they all exhibited conformity to a single vision which further suggested a strong central government with an efficient bureaucracy that could plan, fund, and build such cities.(14)

Aspects of Culture

The people seem to have been primarily artisans, farmers, and merchants. There is no evidence of a standing army, no palaces, and no temples. The Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro is believed to have been used for ritual purification rites related to religious belief but this is conjecture; it could as easily have been a public pool for recreation.

Among the thousands of artifacts discovered at the various sites are small, soapstone seals a little over an inch (3 cm) in diameter which archaeologists interpret to have been used for personal identification in trade. Like the cylinder seals of Mesopotamia, these seals are thought to have been used to sign contracts, authorize land sales, and authenticate point-of-origin, shipment, and receipt of goods in trade long distance.

Mohenjo-daro is one of the best-known cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. In the city, there was a great public bath, surrounded by a courtyard, with steps leading down into it.

Great Bath, Mohenjo-daro
Benny Lin | CC BY-NC 4.0

The people had developed the wheel, carts drawn by cattle, flat-bottomed boats wide enough to transport trade goods, and may have also developed the sail. In agriculture, they understood and made use of irrigation techniques and canals, various farming implements, and established different areas for cattle grazing and crops. Fertility rituals may have been observed for a full harvest as well as pregnancies of women as evidenced by a number of figurines, amulets, and statuettes in female form. It is thought that the people may have worshipped a Mother Goddess deity and, possibly, a male consort depicted as a horned figure in the company of wild animals. The religious beliefs of the culture, however, are unknown and any suggestions must be speculative.

A particularly interesting aspect of the artwork is the appearance of what seems to be a unicorn on over 60 percent of the personal seals. There are many different images on these seals but, as Keay (2010, as cited in Mark, 2020) notes, the unicorn appears on “1156 seals and sealings out of a total of 1755 found at Mature Harappan sites”.(16) He also notes that the seals, no matter what image appears on them, also have markings which have been interpreted as Indus Script, suggesting that the “writing” conveys a meaning different from the image. The “unicorn” could possibly have represented an individual’s family, clan, city, or political affiliation and the “writing” one’s personal information.(14)

Review a graphic of Unicorn Seal with Indus Script by Mukul Nanerjee.

Decline & Aryan Invasion Theory

Between c. 1900 – c. 1500 BCE, the civilization began to decline for unknown reasons. In the early 20th century CE, this was thought to have been caused by an invasion of light-skinned peoples from the north known as Aryans who conquered a dark-skinned people defined by Western scholars as Dravidians. This claim, known as the Aryan Invasion Theory, has been discredited. The Aryans—whose ethnicity is associated with the Iranian Persians – are now believed to have migrated to the region peacefully and blended their culture with that of the indigenous people while the term Dravidian is understood now to refer to anyone, of any ethnicity, who speaks one of the Dravidian languages.

Why the Indus Valley Civilization declined and fell is unknown, but scholars believe it may have had to do with climate change, the drying up of the Sarasvati River, an alteration in the path of the monsoon which watered crops, overpopulation of the cities, a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia, or a combination of any of the above. In the present day, excavations continue at many of the sites found thus far and some future find may provide more information on the history and decline of the culture.(14)


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