Civilization Overview: Indus Valley
The first great civilization of South Asia was the Indus Valley Civilization
Indus Valley Civilization Map (click to see in atlas)
The Indus Valley Civilization was a Bronze Age civilization that was located in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent. Flourishing around the Indus River basin, the civilization primarily centered along the Indus and the Punjab region.
The Indus Valley is one of the world's earliest urban civilizations, along with its contemporaries, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. At its peak, the Indus Civilization may have had a population of well over five million. Inhabitants of the ancient Indus River valley, developed new techniques in metallurgy and handicraft, and produced copper, bronze, lead, and tin. The civilization is noted for its cities built of brick, their roadside drainage system, and multistoried houses.
The mature phase of this civilization is known as the Harappan Civilization, as the first of its cities to be unearthed was the one at Harappa, excavated in the 1920s in what was at the time the Punjab province of British India (now in Pakistan). Excavation of Harappan sites have been ongoing since 1920, with important breakthroughs occurring as recently as 1999. To date, over 1,052 cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the general region of the Ghaggar-Hakra River and its tributaries.
The Indus Valley Civilization encompassed most of Pakistan, and extending into modern day Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab. The geography of the Indus Valley put the civilizations that arose there in a highly similar situation to those in Egypt and Peru, with rich agricultural lands being surrounded by highlands, desert, and ocean. Recently, Indus sites have been discovered in Pakistan's northwestern Frontier Province as well. Other colonies have be found in Afghanistan while smaller isolated colonies can be found as far away as Turkmenistan.
There is evidence of dry river beds overlapping with the Hakra channel in Pakistan and the seasonal Ghaggar River in India. Many Indus Valley (or Harappan) sites have been discovered along the Ghaggar-Hakra beds.
The Early Harappan Ravi Phase, named after the nearby Ravi River, lasted from circa 3300 BCE until 2800 BCE. By this date the Early Harappan communities had been turned into large urban centers. Such urban centers include Harappa, Ganeriwala, Mohenjo-daro in modern day Pakistan, and Dholavira, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Rupar, and Lothal in modern day India.
A sophisticated and technologically advanced urban culture is evident in the Indus Valley Civilization making them the first urban centers in the region. The quality of municipal town planning suggests the knowledge of urban planning and efficient municipal governments which placed a high priority on hygiene, and accessibility to the means of religious ritual.
As seen in Harappa and Mohenjo-daro this urban plan included the world's first known 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 region were far more advanced than any found in contemporary urban sites in the Middle East and even more efficient than those in many 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 walls of Indus cities most likely protected the Harappans from floods and may have dissuaded military conflicts.
Most city dwellers were 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 glazed beads. Steatite seals have images of animals, people (perhaps gods), and other types of inscriptions, including the yet indecipherable writing system of the Indus River Valley. Some of the seals were used to stamp clay on trade goods and most probably had other uses as well.
Although some houses were larger than others, Indus Civilization cities were remarkable for their apparent, if relative, egalitarianism. All the houses had access to water and drainage facilities. This gives the impression of a society with relatively low wealth concentration, though clear social leveling is seen in personal adornments.
The Indus civilization's economy appears to have depended significantly on trade, which was facilitated by major advances in transport technology. It may have been the first civilization to use wheeled transport. These advances may have included bullock 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 seagoing craft. Archaeologists have discovered a dredged canal and what they regard as a docking facility at the coastal city of Lothal in Western India. An extensive canal network, used for irrigation, has however also been discovered.
Judging from the dispersal of Indus civilization artifacts, their trade networks encompassed a vast area, including portions of Afghanistan, the coastal regions of Persia, northern and western India, and Mesopotamia. There is some evidence that trade contacts extended to Crete and possibly to Egypt.
There was an extensive maritime trade network operating between the Harappan and Mesopotamian civilizations as early as the middle Harappan Phase. 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.
Various sculptures, seals, pottery, gold jewelry, and anatomically detailed figurines in terra-cotta, bronze, and steatite have been found at excavation sites. A number of gold, terra-cotta and stone figurines of girls in dancing poses reveal the presence of some dance form. These figurines included cows, bears, monkeys, and dogs. The animal depicted on a majority of seals at sites of the mature period has not been clearly identified. Part bull, part zebra, with a majestic horn, it has been a source of speculation. Their prevalence suggests that they do have some religious connotation, but substantial evidence to confirm this is yet to be found.
Many crafts "such as shell working, ceramics, and agate and glazed steatite bead making" were used in the making of necklaces, bangles, and other ornaments from all phases of Harappan sites and some of these crafts are still practiced in the subcontinent today. Some make-up and toiletry items that were found in Harappan contexts still have similar counterparts in modern India.
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 are said to be extremely precise; however, a comparison of available objects indicates large scale variation across the Indus territories. 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.
These weights were in a perfect ratio of 5:2:1 with weights of 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 units, with each unit weighing approximately 28 grams, similar to the English Imperial ounce or Greek uncia. However, as in other cultures, actual weights were not uniform throughout the area.
Unique Harappan inventions include an instrument which was used to measure whole sections of the horizon and the tidal lock. In addition, Harappans evolved some 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 modern day Pakistan, made the discovery that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation, from the early Harappan periods, had knowledge of proto-dentistry. Later it was announced that the oldest evidence for the drilling of human teeth in vivo (i.e. in a living person) was found in Mehrgarh. Eleven drilled molar crowns from nine adults were discovered in a Neolithic graveyard in Mehrgarh that dates, from 7,500-9,000 years ago.
Over 400 distinct Indus symbols (some say 600) have been found on seals, small tablets, 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 are exquisitely tiny; the longest on a single surface, which is less than 1 inch square, is 17 signs long; the longest on any object has a length of 26 symbols.
While the Indus Valley Civilization is generally characterized as a literate society on the evidence of these inscriptions, this theory has been challenged and some argue that the Indus system did not encode language, but was instead similar to a variety of non-linguistic sign systems used extensively in the Near East and other societies. Others have 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.
Some Indus Valley seals show swastikas, which are found in other religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The earliest evidence for elements of Hinduism are alleged to have been present before and during the early Harappan period.
Many Indus valley seals show animals, one motive shows a horned figure seated in a posture reminiscent of the Lotus position and surrounded by animals was named by early excavators Pashupati (lord of cattle), an epithet of the later Hindu gods Shiva and Rudra. In view of the large number of figurines found in the Indus valley, some scholars believe that the Harappan people worshipped a Mother Goddess symbolizing fertility, a common practice among rural Hindus even today.
In the earlier phases of their culture, the Harappans buried their dead; however, later, they also cremated their dead and buried the ashes in burial urns.
It was once widely accepted that Harappan civilization was the victim of assaults by nomadic invaders eager to claim the rich Indus Valley as pasturelands for their herds of cattle. Archeological investigations carried out in recent decades demonstrate rather conclusively that Harappa declined gradually in the middle centuries of the 2nd millennium B.C. The precise causes of that decline remain a matter of dispute. The later layers of building at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro as well as at other sites show a clear deterioration in the quality of construction and building materials.
It is likely that a combination of factors led to Harappa's demise. There is evidence of severe flooding at Mohenjo-daro and other sites. Short-term natural disasters may have compounded the adverse effects of long-term climatic changes. Shifts in the monsoon pattern and changes in temperature may have initiated the process of desertification that eventually transformed 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 sudden waves of migrants into the region. It is possible that the Harappans were too weak militarily to prevent these peoples from settling or taking over their towns and cities.
The marked decline in the quality of building and town planning indicates that the priestly elite was losing control. Some of the migrants probably were bands of Aryan herders who entered the Indus region over an extended period of time, rather than in militant waves. But the Aryan pastoralists may have consciously destroyed or neglected the dikes and canals on which the agrarian life of the Harappan peoples depended. Extensive cattle raising would then have replaced intensive crop cultivation, further undermining the economic basis of the civilization. That there was violent conflict in this transition cannot be ruled out. Groups of skeletons in postures of flight have been found on the stairways at some sites. There is evidence of burned-out settlements and the flight of refugees through the passes into the Himalayas to the North.
Maps India 2500 BC - TimeMaps of Ancient India