Indus Valley Civilization Begins in South Asia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Indus Valley civilization was the first great culture of the Indian subcontinent. Contemporary with ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, the Indus Valley, or Harappān, civilization was the largest of the world’s ancient riverine civilizations.

Summary of Event

Sir John Marshall conducted the first excavation of an Indus Valley site at Mohenjo-Daro in Sind, India, in the 1920’s. He uncovered one of several ancient cities located along the Indus River that were part of the Indian subcontinent’s earliest civilization. The archaeological material that he uncovered provided evidence of a highly sophisticated and complex culture. Later surveys and excavations have revealed the scope of the culture that extended from Baluchistan (in Pakistan) in the west to the desert of Rajasthan in the east and from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the Gulf of Kutch in the south. Large cities with populations of several thousand people, small townships, and villages were linked by rivers, seaports, and overland routes. Later surveys reveal numerous settlements along the Hakra-Ghaggar Rivers that indicate that the culture was more widespread and dense than originally thought. Specialists now have a picture of an extensive, complex web of settlements that supported an economy based on agriculture, various industries, and trade.

The ancient Indus Valley culture had its roots in the Neolithic settlements of northwest Pakistan and India. The earliest settlement, Mehrgarh in Baluchistan, dated to c. 7000 b.c.e., consisted of mud huts with hearths. The occupants cultivated wheat and barley and herded cattle, sheep, and goats. Kot Diji and Amri were the early settlements in the Indus River plain. In addition to engaging in rudimentary farming practices, the inhabitants created fine painted pottery with pipal leaf motifs and fish designs. Many of the characteristics of the neolithic settlements persisted into the later Indus Valley culture. In the Chalcolithic phase, the smelting of raw metals led to the crafting of metal artifacts, although people continued to use stone tools. With the increasing spread of settlements in the late Chalcolithic period, a gradual shift toward urbanization is noticeable in the archaeological finds. It is important to appreciate the continuous habitation of sites and continuity in patterns of living that persisted virtually from the dawn of time well into the mature phase of Indus culture. This protohistoric phase can be dated from c. 3500 until around 2700 b.c.e., at which time, a sophisticated and complex culture can be recognized.

The mature phase of Harappān culture (c. 2700-1900 b.c.e.) gives evidence of advanced technologies, systematic standards of weights and measures, complex social organization, large cities, and writing skills. The complex culture was formulated around a number of large cities, which received many of the necessities for living from outlying feeder villages. The layout of the cities was surprisingly consistent in that they were organized on a grid system that was oriented to the cardinal directions. The larger urban centers demonstrated an astute concern for sanitation and had extensive systems of sewers and drains fashioned from terra-cotta conduits. Many houses had a separate room for bathing, with a drain connected to outside sewer lines; some houses had dustbins located against the outer walls. Also public dustbins were provided throughout the cities. Sanitation was a paramount interest.

The rather mysterious Indus culture poses many questions for archaeologists. Each of the cities had an acropolis (an area raised above the level of general habitation). Some specialists have referred to the acropolis as a citadel because some of the raised precincts have what might be called defense walls, but it is not certain if military defense was the intention of the builders. Many regard the raised sections of the city as ritual centers; however, there are no structures at any site that can be identified definitively as having a sacred function. It seems logical to assume that the bath at Mohenjo-Daro, constructed on the acropolis of tightly fitted bricks reinforced with bitumen for waterproofing, fulfilled some ritual requirements, but its function is still not clearly known. No building in any city can be identified as a palace. However, the obviously well-governed and strictly organized cities suggest a paramount authority acting as overseer. Some specialists suggest that political and religious functions were combined in the office of the rulers, who used their sacral functions to create a social distance between rulers and ruled in order to legitimize power and privilege. Although the assumption seems likely, the lack of identifiable royal structures or any physical evidence renders the theory tenuous. Generally, however, early states are societies in which rulers and ruled are distinguished in their access to basic resources and the accumulation of luxury products. The cities demonstrate a concentration of wealth but, surprisingly, do not show any accumulation or display of wealth by any one group or individual, either living or dead.

There is little in the Indus Valley cities to indicate social stratification. Certainly some domestic structures are larger than others, but overall, the plans were similar, with rooms arranged around a central courtyard. Some of the houses with many rooms may have served a dual function, providing living quarters as well as spaces for business or manufacturing. All buildings were constructed of bricks of precise and uniform measures. In fact, the bricks used in even the smallest and most remote settlements of the Indus region were of identical size and weight, a fact that points to a strong central authority. The central authority devised a system of graded weights and measuring rods that enforced uniform weights and measures. Such uniformity also indicates strong control of the labor force throughout the region.

Another important marker of the sophistication of the culture was the increasing occupational specialization. Some people were specialists in writing and engraving seals, others were employed in farming, manufacturing of various crafts, or construction. Specialization implied a certain independence in that anyone with a single livelihood must have had access to and the means by which to procure food, clothing, cooking pots, and other necessities while concentrating on his or her exclusive trade.

There can be no doubt the Indus people were endowed with an entrepreneurial spirit. The enterprising inhabitants conducted trade with other distant peoples; Indus Valley artifacts have been found in cities of the ancient Near East and in settlements along the Persian Gulf. Scholars believe that the Indus Valley may be Meluhha, a place mentioned in ancient Near Eastern records. To keep track of exchange goods, systems of counting and writing were devised. The Indus script was inscribed on thousands of steatite seals; many of the inscriptions must have established ownership and were used to mark trade goods. This writing, however, has yet to be convincingly deciphered. In addition to trading agricultural products and possibly woven fabrics, the Indus inhabitants made and traded beads and jewelry. They used raw materials from diverse sources to fashion beads and jewelry from gold, copper, ivory, cowries and conch shells, steatite, carnelian, crystal, agate, amethyst, mother of pearl, coral, onyx, turquoise, and fuchsite. Beads were made throughout the region. Goods were traded overland by caravan or across water by boats. The port city of Lothal in Gujerat was a coastal trading center that linked the riverine culture with ports around the Persian Gulf; a large building in the dock area was used as a warehouse to store products for shipment. Large buildings with platforms at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappā undoubtedly served as warehouses for grains or manufactured goods.

The religion of the Indus inhabitants is still difficult to determine. In the earlier Neolithic settlements, burials with a few grave goods were standard. In the late post-Harappān phase, the bodies were cremated and the fragments interred in burial urns. The burials of the mature Indus Valley are relatively few, and there is a noticeable lack of burial objects; therefore, that rich source of information on religious beliefs is not available. The paucity of burials and skeletons also makes identifying the racial composition of the Indus Valley very difficult, and identification of the original Indus inhabitants has yet to be determined. The initial excavators and most scholars believe that they were related to India’s Dravidian populations, early inhabitants of the subcontinent who migrated southward to their present home in south India, but it is also reasonable to assume that there was some ethnic diversity, particularly in a civilization that endured for several thousand years. It is possible that a number of diverse groups, varied in cultural heritage or ethnic identity, formed the constituent units of the Indus civilization.

There are few of the usual indicators that inform about religion in the Indus Valley. A few relatively small stone sculptures, seemingly portraits of high-ranking individual men, may suggest an elite ruling class. Two slender female figures of bronze, a costly material, were found at Mohenjo-Daro; their significance or purpose is not clear. Numerous small terra-cotta figurines of mother goddesses were found in houses throughout the region; they perhaps provide evidence of some animistic religious notions centered on the female procreative capacity. Such figures were found at the earliest Neolithic levels of occupation and continued to be produced through the latest phase of the society. The steatite seals carry engraved images; most display animals familiar to the region that may function as a some sort of totemic emblem reduced to a heraldic device representing a kinship group. The most frequent image on the seals, however, is a unicorn-like creature that occurs on 66 percent of the seals. Often shown with a manger or brazier, some scholars have postulated that the animal symbolizes a mark of state authority.

In the late phase of the Indus Valley civilization (c. 1900-1750 b.c.e.), there are signs that the culture was on the wane. The cities were in the process of abandonment. Various theories concerning the desertion of the cities have included continual flooding of the rivers in the region; tectonic shifts caused by earthquakes, resulting in the drying of water resources; and invasion by outsiders, notably the Aryans. Currently, all the theories are being reevaluated. Until the Indus script is definitively deciphered, and many more sites have been excavated and evaluated, the mysteries concerning the religion and particularly the demise of the great civilization will remain unsolved.


One of the world’s earliest civilizations, the highly advanced and complex Indus culture prospered for millennia, seemingly as the result of a strong central authority. Through trade, the populace created a manufacturing and mercantile sphere of influence that transcended its borders. The technologies of the Indus Valley persist to the present; undoubtedly some of the social and religious customs lived on well into later historical periods.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press and the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, 1998. An exhibition catalog that provides a detailed examination of the archaeological finds with interpretive material. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Possehl, Gregory L. Harappān Civilization. Warminster, England: ARIS and Phillips and the American Institute of Indian Studies, 1982. An excellent evaluation of the current information and theories concerning the ancient culture. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ratnagar, Shereen. Enquiries into the Political Organization of Harappān Society. Pune: Ravish Publishers, 1991. A carefully executed study that applies comparative logic to the Indus Valley remnants. Bibliography.

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