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Civilization Overview: Indus Valley Civilization

The first great chapter in the history of ancient India was the Indus Valley civilization

Overview of the Indus Valley Civilization

Geography of the Indus Valley



Well-planned cities


Farming, trade and transportation

Arts and crafts




The End of the Civilization

History Maps


indus valley civilization map

Indus Valley Civilization Map (click to see in atlas)


The Indus Valley civilization of ancient India was one of the earliest civilizations in world history. It was located in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent, and its rise and fall form the first great chapter in the history of ancient India.

The Indus Valley is contemporary with the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. The civilization is famous for its large and well-planned cities. Over 1,052 cities and settlements have been found. Most of these are small, but amongst them are some of the largest cities of their time, especially Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.


The Indus Valley civilization covered most of what is today Pakistan and the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab. Settlements which were closely related to the core civilization - and may have been colonies of it - have been found in Afghanistan and central Asia.

The huge Indus river system waters a rich agricultural landscape. The Indus plain is surrounded by high mountains, desert and ocean, and at that time there were dense forests and swamps to the east.


Prior to 6500 BC, the Indian sub-continent was home to hunter-gatherers (as in the rest of the world, bas some regions in the Middle East, where farming had been spreading since 8000 BC).


The earliest remains of Neolithic communities have been found in western Pakistan. This is the closest area in South Asia to the Middle East; this, along with the fact that their staple crops, wheat and barley, were those grown to the west, makes it a natural inference that farming peoples arrived here from outside the region, ultimately from the Middle East. 


There are some contrary indications to this idea, however. There is evidence for continuity from earlier, hunter-gatherer times in the style of stone tools found; and the type of cattle here were smaller than those found in the Middle East, suggesting that local Zebu cattle had been domesticated. It seems therefore that farming was not simply brought in to South Asia by colonists from further west, bringing with them their “package” of crops and animals. It looks as though hunter-gatherers already established in the region either developed farming practices completely independently from those in the Middle East, or at the least adapted the “package” to the extent of domesticating local animals rather than using alien species. 


In any event, small farming and pastoral villages spread across the northwest of the subcontinent. The earliest of these had no pottery (to use the jargon, theirs was an aceramic culture); but by c. 5000 BC they made pottery, as well as shell- and stone artifacts, There is evidence of trade links with peoples to north, south and west.


By the start of the 4th millennium farming communities dotted the flood plain of the river Indus; and from the mid-4th millennium, proto-urban settlements had appeared which shared traits which would later appear in Indus Valley cities: rigid city planning, massive brick walls and bull motifs in their art. Trade networks expanded, particularly with the west. Craft manufacture became more specialized and sophisticated. Wheel-thrown ceramics appeared from c. 3300 BC, a sure sign of mass production, and hence of increased wealth.


Finally, around 2600 BC, the mature, fully urban phase of Indus civilization appeared.


Well-planned cities


The quality of municipal town planning indicates that these communities were controlled by efficient governments. These clearly placed a high priority on accessibility to water. Modern scholars tend to see in this the influence of a religion which places a string emphasis on ritual washing - much like modern Hinduism.

Hygiene was also important to the inhabitants. The urban planning included the world's first known urban sanitation systems. Within the city, people obtained water from wells. Within their homes, some rooms had facilities in which waste water was directed to covered drains. These lined the major streets. These ancient Indus sewerage and drainage systems were far in advance of anything found in contemporary urban sites in the Middle East.

The advanced architecture and construction techniques of the Indus cities is shown by their impressive dockyards, granaries, warehouses, brick platforms, and massive protective walls.

Most city dwellers were traders or artisans. They lived with others of the same occupation in well-defined neighbourhoods. All the houses had access to water and drainage facilities, which gives the impression of a society where even the poor had a decent standard of living (though there may have been extensive "shanty towns" outside the walls, which have left scant archaeological remains).

Although some houses were larger than others, what seems to be missing from the Indus cities are elite buildings such as palaces and mansions. It seems highly improbable that there was no class of rulers and officials (if so, the Indus civilization was unique amongst advanced societies). However, a key feature of Indus cities was a large walled citadel, and it is possible that some kind of ruling group lived in these, separated from the rest of the population.


For an historian's point of view, the most frustrating thing about this civilization is that the script has not been deciphered. Over 400 distinct symbols (some say 600) have been recovered from th sites of Indus Valley cities, on seals, small tablets, or ceramic pots, and on over a dozen other materials. This compares with many thousands of texts from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt; and typical inscriptions are no more than four or five characters in length, most of which are tiny.

Ten Indus Signs, dubbed Dholavira Signboard
Ten Indus Signs, dubbed Dholavira Signboard. Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

Clearly, the Indus civilization scribes committed most of their writing to perishable materials which have not survived. The lack of decipherable texts means that we can gain no real insight into many of the details of Indus society, and virtually none about its government and politics. Was it a unified state - or was it numerous kingdoms and city-states? Or perhaps both, at different times? Was it ruled by priests or warriors? We simply do not know.

Agriculture, trade and transportation

Like all pre-modern societies, agriculture would have played the primary role in the Indus Valley economy. Key staples were wheat and barley, pulses and millet. Melons, cucumbers, squashes, rice (the growing of which had probably arrived from East Asia) and flax were also grown.

For meat, hides and wool, cattle, water buffalo, goat and sheep were kept.

An extensive canal network, used for irrigation, has been discovered in the vicinity of the city of Lothal, near the coast of western India; and it is almost certain, given the vast floods that the Indus river can inflict, that other cities would have had extensive water control systems. Indeed, the massive walls which are a key feature of their urban planning may well have been as much against floods as against human enemies.

Trade was very important. The fact that the Indus civilization was located on a floodplain meant that there was poor availability of raw materials resources nearby. Trade routes linked urban centres with their hinterlands, sources of materials such as lapis Lazuli, carnelian, steatite, tin, copper and gold. The presence of manufactured goods such as copper tools and drilled beads in areas away from the cities suggest that rural populations, even hunter-gatherers, exchanged raw materials for finished products.

Materials from more distant regions were used in the cities for manufacturing seals, beads and other objects. Judging from the wide area in which Indus civilization artifacts have been found, their trade networks reached out as far as Afghanistan, the coastal regions of Persia, northern and western India, and Mesopotamia. Many of the (as yet) indecipherable Indus texts were on clay seals on what look like trade goods.

Trade would have been facilitated by a major advance in transport technology. The Indus Valley civilization may have been the first in world history to use wheeled transport. These were bullock carts identical to those seen throughout India and Pakistan today.

Most of the boats were probably river craft, small, flat-bottomed boats perhaps with a sail, similar to those plying the Indus River today. The Indus people clearly also had seagoing craft as well. There was an extensive maritime trade with Mesopotamia. Archaeologists have discovered a dredged canal and what they regard as a docking facility at the coastal city of Lothal in Western India. 


Reconstructing Indus Valley religion is impossible, but there are intriguing indications of continuity between the religion of this civilization and the later religions of ancient India. Some Indus Valley seals show swastikas, which are also found in Hinduism and its offshoots, Buddhism and Jainism. Many seals also show animals presented in a format reminiscent of later Hindu gods such as Shiva and Indra. The large number of figurines found in the Indus Valley have led some scholars to argue that the Indus people worshipped a Mother Goddess symbolizing fertility, a common practice among rural Hindus even today. All these pieces of evidence point to the Indus Valley religion having a large measure of influence on the beliefs and practices of the Aryan peoples who came after them.

Elephant seal of Indus Valley, Indian Museum
Elephant seal of Indus Valley, Indian Museum. Reproduced under Creative Commons 4.0 

In the earlier phases of their culture, the Indus people buried their dead; later, they also cremated them and buried the ashes in urns. The lack of weapons and armour in the graves gave rise to the common idea that the Indus civilization was inherently peaceful, but this is probably faulty. Other civilizations originally thought to have been peaceful, like the Minoans and Maya, have, on futher investigation, turned out to be anything but. The lack of any weapons is simply a function of the fact that no elite goods at all have been found in Indus graves.


Arts and Crafts


All kinds of artefacts have been found in the Indus Valley cities: seals, glazed beads, pottery, gold jewellery, and anatomically detailed figurines in terra-cotta, bronze, and soapstone. Various gold, terra-cotta and stone figurines have also been discovered, of dancing girls, men (perhaps gods?), animals (cows, bears, monkeys, and dogs) and a mythical beast (part bull, part zebra, with a huge horn). Shell, ceramic, agate and soapstone beads were used in making necklaces, bangles, and other ornaments. All these show that these cities housed a busy and highly refined craft industry.


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, although, as in other civilizations of the time, actual weights were not uniform from city to city. 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. The weights were in a perfect ratio of 5:2:1, on a scale very similar to the English Imperial ounce or Greek uncia.

The engineering skills of the Indus Valley people were of a very high order. This can be seen in the large buildings and water-management systems on evidence at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. It is also clear from the fact that harbour buildings were constructed to take maximum advantage of tides and currents. This would have involved very careful measurement and design.

Computer-aided reconstruction of coastal Harappan settlement at Sokhta Koh near Pasni, Pakistan 
Computer-aided reconstruction of coastal Harappan settlement
at Sokhta Koh near Pasni, Pakistan. Reproduced under Creative Commons 2.5

The End of the Indus Valley civilization

After c. 1900 BC, all the major Indus Valley cities were abandoned. They were replaced by fewer and smaller settlements, without planning, monumental buildings or writing. The core areas of the civilization clearly experienced catastrophic population decline.

It was once widely thought that the Indus Valley cities were the victims of assaults by Aryan (Indo-European) nomadic invaders from central Asia. This is no longer accepted, but the causes of decline are disputed. It is probable that a combination of factors were involved. Some modern scholars suggest long-term changes in the climate. Shifts in the monsoon pattern and changes in temperature may have begun to transform the region into the arid steppe that it has remained for most of recorded history. Rapid changes in types of pottery suggest a series of migrations into the region, which may have been highly disruptive for the Indus Valley cities.

Storage jar. C. 2700-2000 BC. Mature Harappan period
Storage jar. C. 2700-2000 BC. Mature Harappan period

These migrants had strong links to central Asia, and they were probably groups of Aryan herders entering the Indus region over an extended period of time, rather than as a single militant conquest. As cattle herders, they may have destroyed or neglected the dikes and canals on which the agrarian life of the Indus peoples depended. There is some evidence of violent conflict: groups of skeletons in postures of flight have been found on the stairways at some sites, and traces of burned-out settlements have also been uncovered.

Whatever the explanation, the brilliant achievements of the Indus Valley civilization gave way to a new chapter in the history of ancient India. Large, well-planned cities vanished, and the material culture of the people of northern India declined sharply as society became less complex. It was to be a thousand years before cities, writing and organized states would come again to the Indian sub-continent.

Next article: The Vedic Age


Map: Ancient India and South Asia in 2500 BC


See also:

The Coming of Farming

The Origins of Civilization

Articles on Ancient India:

Ancient India - an overview of the civilization of Ancient India

The Vedic Age of Ancient India

The Classical Age of Ancient India

The Mauryan empire

History maps of Ancient India:

Ancient India and South Asia in 3500 BC: Prehistory

Ancient India and South Asia in 2500 BC: Indus Valley Civilization

Ancient India and South Asia in 1500 BC: The Aryan Migrations

Ancient India and South Asia in 1000 BC: The Vedic Age

Ancient India and South Asia in 500 BC: The India of the Buddha

Ancient India and South Asia in 200 BC: The Mauryan empire



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