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A brief history of the Indus Valley Civilization, the first urban society of ancient India and Pakistan who built magnificent planned cities.

Among the earliest and most extensive of the world’s pristine civilizations, the Indus Valley civilization was also the largest one, covering about 1.5 million sq. km (0.9 million sq. miles), which now comprises modern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

The Indus civilization, also called the Indus Valley civilization or Harappan civilization, was a Bronze Age society that lasted from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE and was in its mature form from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. Around 3000 BCE, it represented the first signs of urban society in the Indian subcontinent.

This article focuses on the complete history of the culture and civilization of the Indus Valley — ranging from its cultural practices and societal structure to its foreign technological achievements and lasting geographic influence, and how they completely vanished from recorded history.

Who Are the Indus Valley (Harappan) People?

Both the ethnic and linguistic identity of the Indus Valley population remains a subject of open debate. Because they were one of the earliest people to independently establish a civilization, no ancestral culture can be pointed to from which they grew out of. Likewise, since the writing is undeciphered and emerged independently, their language (written or spoken) cannot be linked to any other group with certainty. 

In lieu of the undeciphered writing, the main forensic evidence that archaeologists have to use is the skeletons found in and around the cities. To date, skeletal forensics hasn’t linked the remains to any particular ethnic group. However, the more recent genetic studies present more promising potential results, though the work is still ongoing.

There are three main schools of thought on the ethnic origins of the Indus populations. 

  1. The Harappans are related to the ancestors of the Dravidian ethnic groups of southern India. There is also an otherwise-isolated pocket of this ethnic group found in an area west of the Indus River Valley, forming the assumption that the proto-Dravidians migrated in both directions following the decline of the Indus Civilization.
  2. The Harappans are related to the ancestors of Northern Indians and the Proto-Indo-Europeans. This would possibly lead to them being the ancestors of the Sanskrit- and Hindi- speakers that would later be found in North India.
  3. The Harappans are a different ethnolinguistic group entirely unrelated to either of these previously-mentioned ethnic groups.

Origins of the Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization

Gate to the citadel of Dholavira
Gate to the citadel of Dholavira

The Indus civilization was one of the world’s six earliest civilizations, also called the “Pristine Civilizations” among archaeologists. These are the civilizations that arose into urban cultures independently rather than through outside influence. The other five Pristine Civilizations were located in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Central America, and the Andean coast of South America. These early cultures are often named after the geographical location they arose in, in this case, the Indus Valley. 

Evidence suggests that the Indus Valley culture evolved from several neighboring villages, which helped form the urban society and its practices, with some of the earliest signs originating from Mehrgarh in modern Pakistan. Similarities have been found between diverse agricultural communities that resided in the Indus Valley, making archaeologists believe that all their individual traditions were fused to form one great tradition. 

With the invention of new irrigation methods, agriculture flourished in the spacious and fertile Indus Valley, where the new civilization was well-nourished and increasing in population. 

Studies have shown evidence of religious practices taking place here from 5500 BCE. It is believed that farming and settlements began around 4000 BCE, and by 2600 BCE dozens of towns, villages, and cities had been built. The Indus Valley Civilization was at its peak between 2500 and 1900 BCE.

Indus Valley (Harappan) Name Origins

The Indus Valley civilization is named after the Indus River on whose plains the remains of the civilization were first identified and excavated in 1921. However, it is also known as the Harappan culture, named after the first ancient city discovered in 1921. This was near the modern town of Harappa, found in the province of West Punjab in Pakistan. 

There are some activists attempting to rebrand the civilization as “Sarasvati culture” or “Indus-Sarasvati Culture” due to the majority of settlements based along the Ghaggar-Hakra River, which is believed to be the same as the traditional Sarasvati River. 

Culture and Beliefs of the Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization

The Indus communities were some of the first to develop irrigation and farming systems. Human figurines, pottery, petroglyphs, sewage and drainage systems, hydraulic engineering, public and private baths, were all part of the urbanized lives of the mature Indus civilization. Apart from these developments, the civilization also developed trade and transportation, authority and governance, steatite steals, different languages, and a writing system.

The Indus people devised their methods to grow and prosper over a vast domain, seemingly peacefully and avoiding religious and social warfare.

Harappan Planned Cities

Artist's interpretation of the Harappan port city Lothal, on display at the Lothal Museum
Artist’s interpretation of the Harappan port city Lothal, on display at the Lothal Museum

From the earliest excavations, the most notable aspect of the Harappans is that their cities were all highly planned out. All cities include a high city (citadel) and a lower city, both of which were built on artificial mounds made of standardized bricks. 

The walls surrounding these layers of the city are generally thought to have been for protection against the seasonal flooding of the rivers, rather than defense. However, as archaeologist Stefan Milo points out, many of these walls also had battlements at the corners of the walls.

Harappan cities were laid out on a north-south, east-west plan, with their main streets following this grid and alleys curving off to access private homes. Along these streets are examples of benches located under trees, and even halfway sunken pots that could be removed and acted as trash bins.

Beneath the streets was a sewer and water system more complicated than those that would be found in subsequent cultures for several thousand more years. Individual homes each had a sealed bathing room with an inclined floor which drained into these sewers, as well as a toilet.

The citadel mound of Dholavira
The citadel mound of Dholavira

Perhaps more impressive than the city planning is the city pre-planning. The mound of every Harappan city’s high and low cities was built prior to habitation. In the case of Mohenjo Dario, 700 wells were dug before the construction of the city, and noma single one dug after the city was finished.

Harappan Religion

Conspicuously absent from all Indus Valley cities are obvious religious structures of any kind. Unlike The Sumerians or Egyptians, there were no large-scale temples or tombs in any settlement, which brings up the curious question as to whether the Harappans had any organized religious institution at all. 

Photo of a simple burial from the Lothal Museum
Photo of a simple burial from the Lothal Museum

The lack of temples and the relatively egalitarian nature of the homes would seem to weigh against the notion of any priestly or royal class, and even tombs were not vastly varied between individuals, perhaps only housing a different number of ceramic jars.

A few possible solutions to this problem have been proposed —

  1. The religious beliefs existed, but took place in more mundane settings such as a street shrine or in private homes.
  2. Religious activities occurred outside of the cities, perhaps involving or even being based around nature and/or water.

There are some seals and other artwork that are proposed to portray religious figures or deities, including some which may even be prototypes of Hindu gods, such as Shiva. However, there is no agreement or consensus on this.

The sole monument that points to some organized ritual is the Great Bath located in the citadel of Mohenjo Daro. This 2.4-meter-deep bath is unique to Mohenjo Daro and is proposed to have played a role in ritual bathing and purification in a similar way to ghats of historic and modern India.

Harappan Artwork

Harappan animal figurines in the Lothal Museum
Harappan animal figurines in the Lothal Museum

The artwork of the Indus Valley is difficult to categorize largely in part due to not portraying themes common in other contemporary cultures. In Egypt, Mesopotamia, and even China, for example, very large amounts of their artwork portrayed religious themes or warfare. Neither of these appears in Harappan artifacts that have been found.

Then again, as pointed out about, some of these objects may be religious in nature and we are simply not aware of it. 

Typical artifacts unearthed art ceramic depictions of animals, people, and a large variety of jewelry. These may be made from terracotta, stones, shells, or precious metals like gold, silver, and copper.

Harappan Seals

Seals at the Dholavira Museum
Seals at the Dholavira Museum

The Harappan seals are easily the most recognizable artifact found from the Indus Civilization. These small stone squares measure about 1 inch on each side and usually depict an animal with writing above. On the rear side is usually a loop that a handle, ring, or string might have been put through. 

The accepted purpose of these seals is to impress a mark into clay or wax. However, these were also made of extremely soft stone, so doing this repeatedly would have damaged the seals after a while. 

Another proposed use is a form of identification. That the writing and animal or figure on the seal depicted a name and a type of clan, guild, or social position within the city. However, this has not been proven conclusively.

Harappan Writing

Another hallmark of Harappan culture is its undeciphered writing system, and it remains the last major undeciphered ancient script in the world. There are a number of facets to analyze about the Indus script and its meaning.

Tied into the theories of the ethnic origins of the Harappan people is their written language, which in turn involves sensitive political ramifications. In addition, there are even very staunch parties that claim it is not a written language at all, but more a pictographic system.

LInguistic research has essentially proven that the figures do follow the frequency patterns of language and that it is a logo-syllabic form of writing (each character portrays a word or a syllable). Meanwhile, analysis of the numerous examples of writing on the seals has led to the conclusion that the writing is read right-to-left, since characters seem to be bunched up on the left side as if they ran out of space.

Unfortunately, outside of the seals, there are very few examples of Harappan writing. The longest example that has been found is only 26 characters long. Other instances of shorter texts were found on tools and pottery. In total, around 450 characters have been identified.

Work done by Asko Parpola has preliminary findings that might point to some commonality with Old Dravidian words, however, this still requires much more research.

History of the Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization

At present, the Harappan culture is difficult to outline any historical timeline for, simply for the fact that none of their writing is available. Even their contemporary sources, such as the Mesopotamians, do not mention them in more than a passing line or two. 

The most accurate timeline of events that can currently be constructed is based solely on materials excavated by archaeologists. While these provide insight into changes in artifacts, artwork, and architecture over time, they alone are not a substitute for a written record of events.

The Harappans in Known Historical Record

Their history can be divided into five periods, which are as follows:

  • Pre-Harappan (Mehrgarh I) (7000 – 5500 BCE)
  • Early Harappan (Mehrgarh II-VI) (5500 – 3300 BCE)
  • Early Harappan (Mehrgarh VI) (3300 -2600)
  • Mature Harappan (Indus Valley Civilization) (2600 -1900 BCE)
  • Late Harappan (1900 – 1300)

These five stages are based on the gradual development of civilization. Mehrgarh I was Neolithic and aceramic, as they did not use pottery yet. The earliest farming of wheat and barley had begun during this stage.

Mehrgarh II and III were ceramic Neolithic, using pottery, and later chalcolithic. Terracotta figurines became more detailed in this stage, and evidence of manufacturing activity has been found. These stages also mark the expansion of the settled populations at the western edge of South Asia.

The mature and late Harappan periods marked the advancement and growth of the Indus people’s lifestyle and technology. This was the stage when their civilization became urbanized and flourished. 

Rediscovery of the Indus Valley Civilization in the 20th Century

Despite over 1500 Harappan sites known to exist, they were entirely forgotten from the historical narrative, both within and without India. There are apparently a few scattered mentions of ruins in the area, including from a party of Alexander the Great, but it was not until the 1920s under British rule that culture would re-emerge.

As railroads penetrated further into the continent from the British coastal colonies, small relics of the Harappans began to surface. The random brick or their signature seals that had an unknown language finally garnered enough attention to warrant the first archaeological surveys. These would, in turn, lead to more and more excavations that reintroduced the world to the forgotten Harappan civilization.

Geography of Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization

Not only was the Harappan Civilization the largest of the 4 Pristine Civilizations of the Old World, they were the first known to engage in long-distance international trade. Their reach extended far beyond the traditional river valleys they sprung from. 

Harappan Culture in the Indus River Valley

Standardized bricks on display in the Lothal Museum
Standardized bricks on display in the Lothal Museum

Though the civilization probably started small, it expanded to have more than 1400 towns and cities. The biggest among these were Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. Harappa also happens to be the first site that was discovered and excavated. Additionally, the most famous Indus Valley seal was discovered at this site, bearing the symbol of a unicorn. Though this was the first site to be discovered, only a small fraction of Harappa has actually been excavated

This region is important, as it was one of the first settlements of the civilization. The name means ‘Mound of the Dead’, but Indian epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan who has worked extensively believes it was originally called “Kukkutarma”, which loosely translates to “cockerel”. Curiously, the region is speculated to be one of the earliest places where chickens were domesticated.

Harappan Culture in Western India (Gujarat)

While the heartland of the Harappan Culture was based in the river valleys north of the Indian Ocean coastline, they maintained several important and well-developed port cities, particularly along the coast of modern Gujarat.

The brick-lined dock of Lothal
The brick-lined dock of Lothal

The Harappan city of Lothal is located south of the modern Gujarat capital of Ahmedabad and is considered as having the first shipping docks in the world. Further west is the city of Dholavira, a city with a very complex irrigation and reservoir system. Dholavira’s water came from its location on an island in a shallow oceanic inlet that has since dried up into salt flats.

In addition to these coastal cities that have been excavated along the ancient coastline, legends also persist of sunken cities off the coast. The most notable of these is Dwarka, a legendary city that was supposedly lost centuries to millennia ago, depending on the version of the story. However, some credence to the legend of Dwarka was given after the tsunamis of 2004, when the coastal waters temporarily receded and revealed potentially artificial structures under the water

Harappan Culture in the Persian Gulf & Mesopotamia

These port cities were not only important for ensuring their local maritime supremacy, but they were also the sources of the earliest-known transoceanic trade. Harappan goods and seals have been found in excavations done in countries like Iraq and Iran.

The more interesting part of this is that the trade seems to have been one-way. There is no evidence of reciprocal voyages made by the Sumerians or other cultures along the Persian Gulf. Two conclusions could be drawn from this; either —

1) The Sumerians and neighboring cultures were not capable of making the journey, either regularly or at all.

2) They were not welcome in the homeland of the Harappans, however, there is no Sumerian text supporting this.

Harappan Culture in Afghanistan

One of the most interesting locations in the entire Harappan domain is Shortugai. This Indus culture city is located on the northern border of modern Afghanistan, over 1100 km from Mohenjo Daro and over 800 km away from Harappa. 

For comparison, Harappa is one of the northernmost inland cities in their territory, and it is ~800km from the coast. Shortugai is double that distance from the coast. 

The purpose of Shortugai was to control the regional lapis lazuli mines. While this blue mineral was not used in Harappan artwork, jewelry, or any other domestic purposes, it was valuable to other cultures that the Harappans interacted with, including the Sumerians. By maintaining a proprietary source of lapis lazuli, the Harappans had a consistent trade good with these cultures.

Due to its distance from the Indus River Valley and Harappan heartland, Shortugai functioned essentially as a colony. That said, the settlement excavated at the site demonstrates all the expected aspects of a town within the Harappan realm. This includes their characteristic seals, houses following the same design, and even the same standardized units for bricks and measurements.

Harappan Culture on Easter Island?

There remains a persisting theory among alternative history proponents (ranging from fringe diffusionists to ancient-alien proponents) that the Harappans had a presence in the far South Pacific, particularly at Easter Island.

The sole premise this theory hinges on is a comparison done between the Harappan writing system and the native pictographic writing system of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) named Rongorongo. In the original paper, de Hevezy presents several charts of numerous Indus script characters side-by-side with characters taken from a wooden Rapa Nui artifact inscribed with Rongorongo, a script the residents of Easter Island can no longer read.

At the time of publication, this comparison was actually given credence and looked into further. However, the more professional linguists looked into the 2 scripts, they found that Guillaume de Hevezy had exaggerated or warped many of the characters from the Indus script in order to make his point. 

Since this piece of evidence is the sole point on which the entire theory revolves, it has since been dismissed following the subsequent research. The general opinion of this comparison is that Guillaume de Hevezy made it with genuine intention, if overly enthusiastic (as is even commented by the author of his foreword), but the alteration made to the characters and the omission of many, many more have made this just a curious footnote in the exploration of the Indus Culture.

What Happened to the Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization?

A reservoir in Dholavira with the dried-out Great Rann of Kutch in the background, which used to connect to the ocean
A reservoir in Dholavira with the dried-out Great Rann of Kutch in the background, which used to connect to the ocean

There are many theories regarding the end of the civilization, but they are still debated due to the lack of concrete evidence to support any assumption. 

However, it is believed that the drying up of the Sarasvati river may have been the cause for the end of the civilization, which occurred around 1900 BCE. Other experts suggest that there may have been a great flood in the area, which would have had a catastrophic effect on agricultural activity, eventually leading to the breaking up of the community.

It is also believed that around 1500 BCE, a large group of nomadic cattle-herders known as the Aryans migrated into the region from central Asia. This large migration could have been an invasion that resulted at the end of the Indus valley civilization. 

Cities of the Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization

Harappa
Punjab, Pakistan
GPS: 37.325, 69.52506

Mohenjo Daro
Sindh, Pakistan
GPS: 37.325, 69.52506

Lothal
Gujarat, India
GPS: 37.325, 69.52506

Dholavira
Gujarat, India
GPS: 37.325, 69.52506

Shortugai
Takhar Province, Afghanistan
GPS: 37.325, 69.52506

Monuments of the Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization

The “Stupa” of Mohenjo Daro
Sindh, Pakistan
GPS: 37.325, 69.52506
*This is actually believed to be a Buddhist monument from a later time period

The Great Bath of Mohenjo Daro
Sindh, Pakistan
GPS: 37.325, 69.52506

Lothal Docks
Gujarat, India
GPS: 37.325, 69.52506

Dholavira Reservoirs
Gujarat, India
GPS: 37.325, 69.52506

Fast Facts

Name: Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization
Origin: Developed independently from local cultures to become one of the world’s 6 Pristine Civilizations.
Language: Unknown
Religion: Unknown
Period/Era: 3300-1300 BCE
Location: Indus and Saraswati River Valleys in modern Pakistan and western India
Capital: Unknown, presumed to be Mohenjo Daro
Decline: Unknown, likely to be climate change the the drying up of the Sarasvati River.

Glossary

Dholavira
Harappan coastal city located in western Gujarat, India that was home to a complex water reservoir system.

Dwarka
A pilgrimage site in Gujarat Province that is associated with the legendary Dwarka Kingdom. Traces of underwater ruins have been reported off the coast.

Harappa
The first city of the Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization that was excavated in the 1920s, located in modern Pakistan.

Indus River
Major river running through modern India and Pakistan and one of the major water sources of the ancient Harappan Civilization

Indus River (Harappan) Civilization
One of the world’s 6 cradles of civilization which existed from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE in the Indus and ancestral Ghaggar-Hakra River Valleys of modern India and Pakistan.

Lothal
Harappan coastal city located in western Gujarat, India that was home to the world’s first recognized shipping docks.

Mehrgarh
Harappan city located in central Pakistan that has produced some of the earliest cultural artifacts.

Mesopotamia
One of the world’s 6 cradles of civilization which existed from 4500 BCE to 1900 BCE in modern Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Mohenjo Daro
The largest city of the Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization that was excavated in the 1920s, located in modern Pakistan. Home to the monumental Great Bath and potentially the Harappan capital or power center.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

2 Comments

  • This article has inspired me to learn more about the Indus Valley civilizations. I visited Gujurat some years ago, including Ahmedabad and the Great Rann of Kutch, but did not have the opportunity to visit any Indus Valley civilization sites.

    • Benjamin says:

      I was actually inspired to make the trip to Dholavira by another blogger I follow on Instagram who commented that it was in my path. Overall, it was a great recommendation, and much more impressive than Lothal. You weren’t too far from it either if you were in the Great Rann of Kutch.

      There’s definitely a handful of other Harappan sites in India worth seeing, but the majority are in Pakistan. While not impossible, that certainly complicates it for most travellers, myself included. They are fascinating to learn about though and I hope you get to see some of their ruins in the future!

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