Indus Valley Civilization

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Stone Age 70,000–7000 BC
Mehrgarh Culture 7000–3300 BCE
Indus Valley Civilization 3300–1700 BCE
Late Harappan Culture 1700–1300 BCE
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The Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300–1300 BC, flowered 2600–1900 BC) was a civilization thriving along the Indus River and the Ghaggar-Hakra River in what is now Pakistan and north-western India. Among other names for this civilization is the Harappan Civilization, in reference to its first excavated city of Harappa.

The Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) was discovered in the 1920s and is known only from archaeological excavations, except, possibly, for Sumerian references to Meluhha, which has been proposed to correspond to the IVC.

An alternative term for the culture is Saraswati-Sindhu Civilization, based on the popular identification of the Ghaggar-Hakra River with the Sarasvati River.

The IVC is a candidate for the locus of Proto-Dravidian.

Discovery and excavation

The ruins of Harappa were first described by Charles Masson in his Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and Punjab, 1826-1838, but its significance was not realized until much later. In 1857, the British authorities used Harappan bricks in the construction of the East Indian Railway line connecting Karachi and Lahore. In 1912, Harappan seals with then unknown symbols were discovered by J. Fleet, which triggered an excavation campaign under Sir John Marshall in 1921/22, resulting in the discovery of a hitherto unknown civilization by Dayaram Sahni. By 1931, much of Mohenjo-Daro was excavated, but minor campaigns continued, such as that led by Mortimer Wheeler in 1950. Following the partition of British India in 1947, the area of the IVC was divided between Pakistan and the Republic of India. Influential in the field were British archaeologist Aurel Stein, Indian archaeologist Nani Gopal Majumdar and German archaeologist Michael Jansen.


The Harappan Civilization proper lasts from ca. 2600–1900 BCE. Including its predecessor and successor cultures, Early Harappan and Late Harappan, the Indus Valley Civilization may be taken to have lasted from roughly the 33rd to the 14th centuries BCE. There are two terminologies for the periodization of the IVC, periodization into Eras or Phases. The Early Harappan, Harappan and Late Harappan periods are described as "Regionalisation", "Integration" and "Localisation" Eras, respectively, the Regionalization Era taken to reach down to the Neolithic Mehrgarh II period:

Date range Phase Era
5500-3300 Mehrgarh II-VI Regionalisation Era
3300-2600 Early Harappan
3300-2800 Harappan 1 (Ravi Phase)
2800-2600 Harappan 2 (Kot Diji Phase, Nausharo I, Mehrgarh VII)
2600-1900 Mature Harappan Integration Era
2600-2450 Harappan 3A (Nausharo II)
2450-2200 Harappan 3B
2200-1900 Harappan 3C
1900-1300 Late Harappan ( Cemetery H) Localisation Era
1900-1700 Harappan 4
1700-1300 Harappan 5


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 took part in the so-called Neolithic Revolution, 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. These early farmers domesticated wheat and a variety of animals, including cattle. In the "Era" terminology, the aceramic Neolithic is known as the "Early Food Producing Era".

Pottery was in use by around 5500 BCE, taken to initiate the "Regionalisation Era". It has been surmised that the inhabitants of Mehrgarh migrated to the fertile Indus river valley as Balochistan became arid due to climatic changes. 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 and Northern India. By 4000 BCE farming communities spread further east to other parts of Balochistan and Lower Sind (Pakistan). Later this culture spread to Upper Sindh, Punjab and the western states of India.

Early Harappan

The development of these farming communities ultimately led to the accretion of larger settlements from the later 4th millennium.

The Early Harappan Ravi Phase, named after the nearby Ravi River, lasted from circa 3300 BCE until 2800 BCE. It is related to the Hakra Phase, identified in the Ghaggar-Hakra River Valley to the west, and predates the Kot Diji Phase (2800-2600 BCE, Harappan 2), named after a site in northern Sindh near Mohenjo Daro. Some of the most important discoveries in the Ravi Phase relate to writing. The earliest examples of the Indus script date from around 3000 BC, placing the origins of writing in South Asia at approximately the same time as those of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The mature phase of earlier village cultures is represented by Rehman Dheri and Amri. Kot Diji (Harappan 2) represents the phase leading up to Mature Harappan, with the citadel representing centralised authority and an increasingly urban quality of life. Another town of this stage was found at Kalibangan in India on the Hakra River.

This distinctive, regional culture which emerged is called Early or Pre-Harappan. 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.

Mature Harappan

By 2500 BCE, the Early Harappan communities had been turned into urban centers. Thus far, six such urban centers have been discovered, including: Harappa, Mohenjo Daro and Dicki in Pakistan, along with Gonorreala, Dokalingam and Mangalore in India. In total, over 1052 cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the general region of the Ghaggar-Florence River and its tributaries.

By 2500 BCE, irrigation had transformed the region.

Late Harappan

Around 1800 BCE, signs of a gradual decline began to emerge, and by around 1700 BCE, most of the cities were abandoned. However, the Indus Valley Civilisation did not disappear suddenly, and many elements of the Indus Civilization can be found in later cultures. Current archaeological data suggests that material culture classified as 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. Archaeologists have emphasised that there was a continuous series of cultural developments that link "the so-called two major phases of urbanisation in South Asia".

Indus Valley Seals. The first one shows a Swastika
Indus Valley Seals. The first one shows a Swastika

A possible natural reason for the IVC's decline is connected with climate change: The Indus valley climate grew significantly cooler and drier from about 1800 BCE. A 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. Although this particular factor is speculative, and not generally accepted, the decline of the IVC, as with any other civilisation, will have been due to a combination of various reasons.

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. The Swat culture of northern Pakistan is a likely candidate for the first settlements of Indo-Aryans in the subcontinent. It is in this context of the aftermath of a civilisation'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 hypothesised 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 of the Cemetery H people (likely Dravidians) and Indo-Aryans rather than invasion.


Extent and major sites of the Indus Valley Civilization (modern state boundaries shown in red). See [2] for a more detailed map.
Extent and major sites of the Indus Valley Civilization (modern state boundaries shown in red). See for a more detailed map.

The Indus Valley Civilization extended from Balochistan to Gujarat, with an upward reach to Punjab from east of the river Jhelum to Rupar on the upper Sutlej. Coastal settlements extended from Sutkagan Dor in Western Baluchistan to Lothal in Gujarat. Besides the western states of India, the Indus Valley Civilization encompassed most of Pakistan. An Indus Valley site has been found on the Oxus river at Shortughai in northern Afghanistan , at Sutkagen dor (Western Baluchistan, Pakistan), at Mandu on the Beas River near Jammu, and at Alamgirpur on the Hindon River, only 28 km from Delhi . Indus Valley sites have been found most often on rivers, but also on lakes, the ancient sea-coast and on islands.

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. 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, odours, 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 sewerage 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 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 society with low wealth concentration.


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 1.704 mm, 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.

The weights and measures of Kautilya's Arthashastra are the same as those used in Lothal.

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.

In 2001, archaeologists studying the remains of two men from Mehrgarh, Pakistan made the startling discovery that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation, even from the early Harappan periods, had knowledge of 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.
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.

Seals have been found at Mohenjo-daro depicting a figure standing on its head, and one sitting cross-legged; perhaps the earliest indication, at least illustration, of the practice of yoga. A horned figure in an advanced yogic pose (see image, Pashupati, below right) has been interpreted as one of the earliest depictions of the Lord Shiva.

Trade and transportation

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.

 Computer-aided reconstruction of Harappan coastal settlement at Sokhta Koh near Pasni on the western-most outreaches of the civilization
Computer-aided reconstruction of Harappan coastal settlement at Sokhta Koh near Pasni on the western-most outreaches of the civilization

Judging from the dispersal of Indus civilisation 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 civilisations 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). 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.

Several coastal settlements like Sotkagen-dor (Dasht River, north of Jiwani), Sokhta Koh (Shadi River, north of Pasni) and Balakot (near Sonmiani) in Pakistan alongwith Lothal in India testify to their role as Harappan trading outposts. Shallow harbours located at the estuary of rivers opening into the sea, allowed brisk maritime trade with Mesopotamian cities.


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

Earlier studies (prior to 1980) often assumed that food production was imported to the Indus Valley by a single linguistic group ("Aryans") and/or from a single area. But recent studies indicate that food production was largely indigenous to the Indus Valley. Already the Mehrgarh people used domesticated wheats and barley and the major cultivated cereal crop was naked six-row barley, a crop derived from two-row barley (see Shaffer and Liechtenstein 1995, 1999). Archaeologist Jim G. Shaffer (1999: 245) writes that the Mehrgarh site "demonstrates that food production was an indigenous South Asian phenomenon" and that the data support interpretation of "the prehistoric urbanization and complex social organization in South Asia as based on indigenous, but not isolated, cultural developments."

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 civilisation appears to contradict the hydraulic despotism hypothesis of the origin of urban civilization and the state. According to this hypothesis, all early, large-scale civilizations arose as a by-product of irrigation systems capable of generating massive agricultural surpluses.

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 labour investments. It should be noted that Indus Civilisation people built their lives around the monsoon, a weather pattern in which the bulk of a year's rainfall occurs in a four-month.

Writing or symbol system

An Indus Valley seal with the seated figure termed pashupati.
An Indus Valley seal with the seated figure termed pashupati.

Well over 400 distinct 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) has a length of 26 symbols.

While the Indus Valley Civilization is often characterized as a "literate society" on the evidence of these inscriptions, this description has been challenged on linguistic and archaeological grounds: it has been pointed out that the brevity of the inscriptions is unparalleled in any known premodern literate society. Based partly on this evidence, a controversial paper by Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel (2004), 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.

In the course of the 2nd millennium BCE, remnants of the IVC's culture would (the so-called Cemetery H culture) amalgamated with that of other peoples, likely contributing to what eventually resulted in the rise of Vedic culture and eventually historical Hinduism. Judging from the abundant figurines, which may depict female fertility, that they left behind, IVC people worshipped a Mother goddess (compare Shakti and Kali). However, there is no firm agreement among experts as to whether or not these figurines actually depict female fertility, or if they depict something else. Also these people ate beef and buried their dead. 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.

In the aftermath of the Indus Civilization's collapse, regional cultures emerged, to varying degrees showing the influence of the Indus Civilisation. 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. The Cemetery H culture has the earliest evidence for cremation, a practice dominant in Hinduism until today.

The late IVC is a likely candidate for a Proto-Dravidian culture, and the Brahui people of Pakistan and Balochistan are possibly a linguistic remnant that remained in the area.

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