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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


Trade and Transportation

Arts and Craft




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.

Well-planned Cities

The emergence of the civilization lasted from circa 3300 BC until 2800 BC. This saw farming settlements grow into large and sophisticated urban centres.

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 protective walls. Their massive walls were probably designed to protect them as much from floods as from attack.

Most city dwellers were traders or artisans. They lived with others of the same occupation in well-defined neighbourhoods. Although some houses were larger than others, cities of the Indus Valley civilization do not show the kind of gulf between wealthy and poor dwellings that is found in those of the other ancient civilizations of world history. Their society seems to have been egalitarian to a remarkable degree - but perhaps we should not make too much of this until the civilization in understood better, as this seems to contradict so much of what we know about other ancient societies. However, 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).


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

Some modern scholars have wondered whether these symbols actually constituted a proper writing system. Whatever the case, 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. In many ways this is the most mysetrious chapter in ancient India's history. 

Trade and Transportation

Like all pre-modern societies, agriculture would have played the primary role in the Indus Valley economy.  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.

Trade was clearly important too. Materials from distant regions were used in the cities for constructing seals, beads and other objects. Judging from the wide area in which Indus civilization artefacts 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 Indus valley seals show animals presented in a format reminiscent of later Hindu gods Shiva and Rudra. 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 burial urns.

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 Decline of the Indus Valley civilization

It was once widely accepted that Indus Valley cities were the victims of assaults by Aryan (Indo-European) nomadic invaders from central Asia. However, archaeological evidence seems to suggest a gradual decline, during the middle centuries of the 2nd millennium B.C. The later layers of building at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, as well as at other sites, show a marked deterioration in the quality of construction.

The causes of that decline are disputed. It is probable that a combination of factors were involved. Severe flooding may have been a factor. 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 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 also 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 simpler. It was to be a thousand years before cities, writing and organized states came again to the Indian sub-continent.

Next article: The Vedic Age


Map: Ancient India and South Asia in 2500 BC


Further Ancient India links: 

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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