The story of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Civilization

Humans are cultural beings. Culture is the sum total of the ways of living built up by a group and passed on from one generation to another. Culture includes behavior such as courtship or child-rearing practices; material things such as tools, clothing, and shelter; and ideas, institutions, and beliefs.  First a few words about the historical context of the Indus script. The subcontinent’s earliest literate, urban civilization arose in the valley of the Indus River sometime after 2600 B.C.E. and by about 2300 B.C.E. was trading with Mesopotamia. Known as the Harappan or Indus civilization, it lasted only a few centuries. The region’s second identifiable civilization dates to about 1500 B.C.E. and is known as the Vedic Aryan civilization—after the nomadic Indo-European immigrant people, or Aryans, who founded it, and their holy texts, or Vedas. This civilization endured for nearly 1,000 years without cities or writing, but its religious and social traditions commingled with older traditions in the subcontinent to form the Indian civilization as it has developed over the past 2,500 years.

The Indus or Mature Harappan Civilization was the most extensive urban culture of its time, about 2600–1900 BCE. Its area comprised one million square kilometers, and more than one thousand of its settlements have been identified so far. The story of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization developed gradually. It does not enter the archaeological record until 1924 when Sir John Marshall began excavations at Harappa. Awareness of Harappan remains however, goes back to the nineteenth century. Most notable are Charles Masson and Sir Alexander Cunningham. Best described as a deserter and wanderer, Charles Masson stumbled upon the remains of Harappa in the late 1820s. He had no idea of the significance of what he found but proceeded to record his site observations. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro are the two major examples given when referring to the IVC. These two settlements are located in the north and south respectively. To the northeast in the Punjab and by a former route of the Ravi tributary lies Harappa. Situated on the Indus River flood plain to the west and the Ghaggar-Hakra River, Mohenjo-Daro lies in the Sind province in what is today Pakistan.

The Indus culture covered a huge area, yet it was remarkably homogeneous. City layouts, building construction, weights and measures, seal inscriptions, patterned pottery and figurines, and even the burnt brick used for buildings and flood walls are unusually uniform in all Indus towns, suggesting an integrated economic system and good internal communications. Indus culture was also remarkably constant over time. Because the main cities and towns lay in river lowlands subject to flooding, they were rebuilt often, with each reconstruction closely following the previous pattern. Similarly, the Indus script, known from more than 2,000 stamp seals and apparently using both pictographic and phonetic symbols, shows no evidence of change over time. This evidence of stability, regularity, and traditionalism has led scholars to speculate that a centralized government, perhaps a conservative (priestly) theocracy, controlled this far-flung society. Both Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro apparently had populations of more than 35,000 and were meticulously designed on a similar plan. To the west of each town stood a large, walled citadel on a raised rectangular platform.

The town proper was laid out on a grid of main avenues, some as wide as 30 feet. The “blocks” formed by the main avenues were crisscrossed by small, less rigidly planned lanes, off which opened private houses, sometimes of more than one story. The typical house was built around a central courtyard and presented only blank walls to the lanes or streets outside, an arrangement still common  in many Near Eastern and South Asian cities. Perhaps the most striking feature of these cities was a complex system of covered drains and sewers. Private houses were serviced by wells, bathrooms, and latrines, and the great bath at Mohenjo-Daro was filled from its own large well. The drainage system that served these facilities was an engineering feat unrivaled until the time of the Romans, nearly 2,000 years later. The economy of the Indus state or states was based on agriculture. Wheat and barley were the main crops. The Indus valley people wove cloth from cotton, made metal tools, and used the potter’s wheel. Evidence points to trade between the Indus culture and Mesopotamia. Metals and semiprecious stones were apparently imported into the Indus region from present-day Iran and Afghanistan, as well as from Central Asia, from farther south on the Indian peninsula, and perhaps from Arabia. Similarities in artistic styles suggest that trade contacts resulted in cultural borrowings.

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