The ancient civilization of the Indus Valley is arguably one of the oldest and largest ancient civilizations discovered in the world today. With its roots buried deep some 4 millennia ago (2500BCE) and covering an area of over 1.3 million km2, this civilization prospered greatly in Pakistan and the north west of the Indian Subcontinent (see Rodrigues 8 and Chattopadhyay 32). It was essentially a culture of the plains; reaching but never crossing the sub-Himalayan foothills. The number of people living here is nearly impossible to tell but scholars have maintained that the sites had at least 250 000 inhabitants (see Habib 22). The main excavation sites of the Indus Valley were two large and complex cities; Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Harappa; the oldest city was discovered in the 1820’s by British settlers. Because it is the oldest city, the people indigenous to the Indus Valley area were designated, “The Harappans” (see Hawkes 263-64).
In 1922 the ruins of another large city center, Mohenjodaro, was discovered by an Indian archeologist. Within this compound they found pottery, seals, and weights; all similar to those found in Harappa (see Rodrigues 8). Also, there were most likely ports involved with trade along the Persian Gulf (see Hawkes 265-68). There were seals with images of river vessels further increasing the likelihood of over-sea trade. The seals found in the Indus Valley cities have been found in Persian cites (see Habib 32). The bricks that were used within the confines of the city are cast in the same ways as those found in modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Within Mohenjodaro, a large bathing tank has been excavated, looking much like the Hindu bathing tanks of today, exemplifying the ancient Harappans had a definite knowledge or ritualized practice of religion advanced for their time. On many seals excavated from both sites, there is a horned, ithyphallic creature in a seemingly yoga-looking posture, which; though it has not been confirmed, some scholars think may be a type of proto-Siva icon (see Chattopadhyay 32-38).
Along with this seeming proto-Siva, archeologists have uncovered what some suggest to be male linga and female yoni stones; symbols traditionally representative of Siva (see Rodrigues 11). The Harappans had a talent for animal art. Models of terracotta monkeys and other animals were carefully crafted. Even finer were the carvings of sacred animals such as the bull on some of their seals. As masterfully crafted as they are, there is seemingly no distinct style of the times as one would normally expect of sculptors at the time (see Hawkes 277).
The City of Mohenjodaro had impressive infrastructure, complete with a citadel raised 40 feet in the air for protection against invaders. Buildings were raised above ground level on mud platforms to protect from seasonal flooding. It was complete with a full drainage system and docks accessible to shipping and sailing up the Gulf of Cambay. The regularity of the plans for the Indus cities and towns is a strong indicator that each was built as a whole by some type of authority; perhaps some sort of early origins of government (see Hawkes 273). Massive walls, bastions and towers most likely needed soldiers to protect them, giving evidence that whoever this authority was had some type of military or force. Within the citadel there is what looks like an early grain elevator in which the townspeople would store grain products, giving the impression that the people of the time sustained each other in an organized fashion as opposed to an every man for himself mentality (see Hawkes 278).
- Indus Valley Artefacts (Musee Guimet, Paris)
The discovery of the grain elevator has shed some light on one of the crucial questions of the Harappans: what did they eat? Findings related to the grain elevator indicate that for the city of Harappa, the main crops were wheat, barley, peas and sesame. The many streams and rivers flowing from the plateaus and mountains made water accessible to grow these types of crops. At Mohenjodaro, the only crops for which there is certain evidence are different types of wheat. There was most likely trade going on between the cities, but it is inconclusive as of now (see Aris and Phillips 206-207).
Although the origins of the Indus Valley Civilization, along with its religion are obscure, there are many theories as to what lead to the rich and diverse culture.
One theory; coined the Aryan Migration Thesis, believed a group called the Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent from the Caucasus Mountains sometime during the Vedic period (1500-500BCE). They brought many things such as the chariot, the wheel and iron. Among these things was also the Vedas. Over time, the Aryans mixed with the elite Dravidians (southerners) and out of this emerged the present day caste system of India. Within this mix, the practice of the Aryan Vedic religion mingled with the Dravidian tribal practices thus creating modern Hinduism (see Rodrigues 12-13 and Kapoor 2002:1357-1364). In support of this thesis, north Indian languages are mostly based on Sanskrit and belong to the Indo-European family of language which includes English. South Indian languages by contrast are Dravidian languages most likely some type or form of Tamil (see Rodrigues 13).
Another theory fewer scholars believe that may have occurred is called, the Cultural Diffusion Hypothesis. This theory states that the Aryans had a sacred Sanskrit language, lived near the Harappans, and the Vedas were conceived near the Indus Valley Civilization. The rich and sophisticated culture created between the Aryans and Harappans eventually diffused into neighboring lands (see Rodrigues 14).
It is important to note however, the Aryans were not as civilized as compared to the urban cultures which they attacked and often ruined. There is no characteristically Aryan pottery or special Aryan tools to describe an Aryan culture. What gave these people importance in history was their nomadic style of herding cattle and their mobility by the use of the chariot (see Kosambi 76-77). In the Indus region however, a ploughed field has been found, along with a terracotta plow and some simple harvesting tools. The Harappans were also the first known civilization to secure underground water via wells (see Habib 24).
One of the major achievements of the Indus Valley was the invention of writing. It is one of the worlds 4 earliest known scripts but there is no identification to how it was created or who created it. The Indus logo-syllabic text consists of short inscriptions of about 4 000 in all, each of about five characters on average. They are mainly found on stamp seals and baked into pottery and molds. When the script is decoded and deciphered, we may learn more about their scientific knowledge and if they had any concept of things like mathematics (see Habib 50).
There are still many parts to this complex civilizations that are yet to be uncovered, but the mystery that surrounds these cites is hoped to be soon discovered. From what we do know about this vast civilization with its infrastructure, language, trading posts and economy, we can only hope to uncover more as we wonder and marvel at what they had already accomplished almost 4 500 years ago.
* It is important to note that the Aryan migration and the diffusion theory are just that; a theory. There is some evidence towards both theories, but none conclusive.
* Also, both the genesis and the demise of the civilization are shrouded in mystery; there is not enough evidence to be sure on either account.
References and Further recommended reading
Kosambi, Damodar Dharmanand (1996) The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline. Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.
Aris and Phillips LTD (1982) Harappan Civilization: a Contemporary Perspective. New Delhi: Oxford & IBH publishing Co. in collaboration with American Institute of Indian Studies.
Kapoor, Aubodh (2002) Ancient Hindu Society. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Rodrigues, Hillary Peter (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York, NY: Routledge Press.
Hawkes, Jaquetta. (1973) The First Great Civilizations: Life in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley,and Egypt. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Chattopadhyay, K.P. (1970) Ancient Indian Culture Contacts and Migrations. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta-12.
Habib, Irfan (2002) The Indus Civilization: Including Other Copper Age Cultures and History of Language change until 1500 BC. Shahpur Jat, New Delhi: Tulika Books.
Powell-Price, John Dadwigan (1958) A History of India. Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, LTD.
Khanna, S.K. (1998) Caste in Indian Politics. New Delhi: Ajay Verma at Koshan Offset Printers.
Dr. Sharma, S.P. (1996) History of Ancient India. New Delhi: Mohit Publications.
Rob, Peter (2002) AHistory of India. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press LCC
Wheeler, Mortimer (1968) The Indus Civilization: Third Edition. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
Related topics for further Investigation
Aryan Migration thesis
Cultural diffusion hypothesis
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by Justin Quintin (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.