Ancient Indus Valley Civilization

A vast ancient civilization developed along the valley of the River Indus in modern-day India and Pakistan. For a while, in about 2500 BCE, it was one of the greatest civilizations of the world. It covered more than 386,000 square miles, even bigger than the civilizations of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia combined.

The Indus Valley Civilization was an ancient civilization located in what is Pakistan and northwest India today, on the fertile flood plain of the Indus River and its vicinity. Little is understood about the Indus script, and as a result, little is knoripwn about the Indus River Valley Civilization’s institutions and systems of governance. Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were thought to be the two great cities of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Important innovations of this civilization include standardized weights and measures, seal carving, and metallurgy with copper, bronze, lead, and tin. They are also noted for their baked brick houses, elaborate drainage systems, water supply systems, and clusters of large, nonresidential buildings.

Evidence of religious practices in this area date back approximately to 5500 BCE. Farming settlements began around 4000 BCE and around 3000 BCE there appeared the first signs of urbanization. By 2600 BCE, dozens of towns and cities had been established, and between 2500 and 2000 BCE the Indus Valley Civilization was at its peak. The civilization likely ended due to climate change.

Map of indus Valley Civilization
Indus Valley Civilization in the Mature Harappan Phase (2600-1900 BCE). Image Wikimedia

The Indus Valley Civilization was one of the three “Ancient East” societies that are considered to be the cradles of civilization of the old world of man, and are among the most widespread; the other two “Ancient East” societies are Mesopotamia and Pharonic Egypt.

Ancient India during the Harappan era had one of the largest populations in the ancient world, far greater than the Middle East or Europe. It had the largest number of cities of any region of the time. Its urban culture spread over a larger area than any contemporary civilisation, being greater in size than Mesopotamia and Egypt put together, extending from what is now the coast of Iran to Mumbai, and from the Amu Darya River in Afghanistan to the West to the Ganga in India to the East. 

The Indus Valley Civilization is often separated into three phases: the Early Harappan Phase from 3300 to 2600 BCE, the Mature Harappan Phase from 2600 to 1900 BCE, and the Late Harappan Phase from 1900 to 1300 BCE.

Map of Indus Valley Civilization
Image by DK FInd Out

Urban infrastructure and architecture

By 2600 BCE, small Early Harappan communities had developed into large urban centers. These cities include Harappa, Ganeriwala, and Mohenjo-daro in modern-day Pakistan and Dholavira, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Rupar, and Lothal in modern-day India. In total, more than 1,052 cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the general region of the Indus River and its tributaries.


Mohenjo-daro is thought to have been built in the twenty-sixth century BCE; it became not only the largest city of the Indus Valley Civilization but one of the world’s earliest major urban centers. Located west of the Indus River in the Larkana District, Mohenjo-daro was one of the most sophisticated cities of the period, with advanced engineering and urban planning.

 Indus Valley Civilization in the Mature Harappan Phase (2600-1900 BCE).
A 2.4m deep, 12m long, and 7m wide pool known as “The Great Bath” at Mohenjo-Daro; Image wikipedia


Harappa was a fortified city in modern-day Pakistan that is believed to have been home to as many as 23,500 residents living in sculpted houses with flat roofs made of red sand and clay. The city spread over 150 hectares—370 acres—and had fortified administrative and religious centers of the same type used in Mohenjo-daro.Both cities had similar organization and featured citadels, central areas in a city that were heavily fortified—protected with defensive military structures. Additionally, both cities were situated along the Indus River. This structure would have allowed those at the higher levels of the buildings in either city to look down the river and see into the distance.


Recent archaeological findings and scientific data have indicated that Rakhigarhi had been the more important centre of the Indus Valley Civilisation than the townships of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. Located in the Hisar district of Haryana, Rakhigarhi is known to be a site of pre-Harappan Civilisation settlement, and later a part of the ancient civilisation itself, between 2600-1900 BCE. Over the last decade-and-a-half, the name has become a staple of school textbooks, tourism pamphlets and journalism-invoked as the largest Harappan/Indus Valley site in India. In fact, since 2014, it has been regularly cited as ‘even larger than Mohenjo-Daro.

 A photo of burial associated with the Indus Valley Civilisation grave goods. (Courtesy  VASANT SHINDE )
A photo of burial associated with the Indus Valley Civilisation grave goods. (Courtesy VASANT SHINDE )


More than 4000 years ago, Dholavira was one of the largest cities of its time. It was also one of the oldest, in continuous occupation for over 1200 years. First discovered by archaeologist JP Joshi in 1956, excavations at Dholavira started only 35 years later in 1990 under RS Bisht of the Archaeological Survey of India. Like most other cities of the period, Mohenjo-Daro, Rakhigarhi and Harappa (city), Dholavira also had monumental structures, a sophisticated drainage system and gateways. It was a well-planned town and its layout has given archaeologists great insight into the life and times of the Harappan people. At the height of its habitation the city was surrounded by enormous walls measuring 15-18 mts in thickness.

The remains of the Indus Valley Civilization cities indicate remarkable organization; there were well-ordered wastewater drainage and trash collection systems and possibly even public baths and granaries, which are storehouses for grain. Most city-dwellers were artisans and merchants grouped together in distinct neighborhoods. The quality of urban planning suggests efficient municipal governments that placed a high priority on hygiene or religious ritual.

Harappans demonstrated advanced architecture with dockyards, granaries, warehouses, brick platforms, and protective walls. These massive walls likely protected the Harappans from floods and may have deterred military conflicts. Unlike Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, the inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization did not build large, monumental structures. There is no conclusive evidence of palaces or temples—or even of kings, armies, or priests—and the largest structures may be granaries. The city of Mohenjo-daro contains the Great Bath, which may have been a large, public bathing and social area.

Innovation and exchange

The people of the Indus River Valley Civilization achieved many notable advances in technology, including great accuracy in their systems and tools for measuring length and mass. Fire-baked bricks—which were uniform in size and moisture-resistant—were important in building baths and sewage structures and are evidence that Harappans were among the first to develop a system of standardized weights and measures. The consistency of brick size across cities also suggests unity across the various urban areas, which is evidence of a broader civilization.

Archaeological dig of a water reservoir at Dholavira.
Archaeological dig of a water reservoir at Dholavira. Image wikipedia

Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, and the recently partially-excavated Rakhigarhi demonstrate the world’s first known urban sanitation systems. The ancient Indus systems of sewage and drainage 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. Individual homes drew water from wells, while wastewater was directed to covered drains on the main streets. Houses opened only to inner courtyards and smaller lanes, and even the smallest homes on the city outskirts were believed to have been connected to the system, further supporting the conclusion that cleanliness was a matter of great importance.

Harappans are known for seal carving— the cutting of patterns into the bottom face of a seal, a small, carved object used for stamping. Seals—decorated with animal figures, such as elephants, tigers, and water buffalos—have been one of the most commonly discovered artifacts in Indus Valley cities.

Mold of a seal from the Indus Valley civilization.
Mold of a seal from the Indus Valley civilization. Image Wikimedia

The Indus River Valley Civilization is considered a Bronze Age society; inhabitants of the ancient Indus River Valley developed new techniques in metallurgy—the science of working with copper, bronze, lead, and tin. Harappans also performed intricate handicraft using products made of the semi-precious gemstone Carnelian.

Evidence shows Harappans participated in a vast maritime—sea—trade network extending from Central Asia to the Middle East. The Harappan Civilization may have been the first to use wheeled transport, in the form of oxcarts that are identical to those seen throughout South Asia today. It also appears they built boats and watercraft—a claim supported by archaeological discoveries of a massive, dredged canal, and what is regarded as a docking facility at the coastal city of Lothal. Harappans also engaged in shellworking, and shells used in their crafts have origins from as far away as the coast of modern-day Oman.

Trade focused on importing raw materials to be used in Harappan city workshops, including minerals from Iran and Afghanistan, lead and copper from other parts of India, jade from China, and cedar wood floated down rivers from the Himalayas and Kashmir. Other trade goods included terracotta pots, gold, silver, metals, beads, flints for making tools, seashells, pearls, and colored gemstones, such as lapis lazuli and turquoise.

Archaeological remains of washroom drainage system at Lothal
Archaeological remains of washroom drainage system at Lothal; Image by Wikipedia

One of the ways historians know about the maritime trade network operating between the Harappan and Mesopotamian civilizations is the discovery of Harappan seals and jewelry at archaeological sites in regions of Mesopotamia, which includes most of modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria. Long-distance sea trade over bodies of water—such as the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Persian Gulf—may have become feasible with the development of plank watercraft that were each equipped with a single central mast supporting a sail of woven rushes or cloth.

Historians have also made inferences about networks of exchange based on similarities between artifacts across civilizations. Between 4300 and 3200 BCE—part of the Chalcolithic period, also known as the Copper Age—ceramics from the Indus Valley Civilization area show similarities with southern Turkmenistan and northern Iran. During the Early Harappan period—about 3200 to 2600 BCE—there are cultural similarities in pottery, seals, figurines, and ornaments that document caravan trade with Central Asia and the Iranian plateau.

Religion, language, and culture

Little is known about Harappan religion and language. A collection of written texts on clay and stone tablets unearthed at Harappa—which have been carbon dated 3300-3200 BCE—contain trident-shaped, plant-like markings that appear to be written from right to left. There is considerable debate about whether it was an encoded language at all and whether it is related to Indo-European and South Indian language families. The Indus script remains indecipherable without any comparable symbols, and is thought to have evolved independently of the writing in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. Researchers are using technological advances in computer science in order to attempt to decipher it.

Harappan inscription found near the north gate of the citadel in Dholavira.
Harappan inscription found near the north gate of the citadel in Dholavira. Image Wikipedia

The Harappan religion also remains a topic of speculation. It has been widely suggested that the Harappans worshipped a mother goddess who symbolized fertility. In contrast to Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization seems to have lacked any temples or palaces that would give clear evidence of religious rites or specific deities.

Many Indus Valley seals include the forms of animals; some depict the animals being carried in processions, while others show mythological creations like unicorns, leading scholars to speculate about the role of animals in Indus Valley religions.

One seal from Mohenjo-daro shows a half-human, half-buffalo monster attacking a tiger. This may be a reference to the Sumerian myth of a monster created by Aruru—the Sumerian earth and fertility goddess—to fight Gilgamesh, the hero of an ancient Mesopotamian epic poem. This is a further suggestion of international trade in Harappan culture.

Indus Valley excavation sites have revealed a number of distinct examples of the culture’s art. Among the various gold, terracotta, and stone figurines found was a figure of a priest-king displaying a beard and a figurine in bronze, known as the Dancing Girl. In addition to figurines, the Indus River Valley people are believed to have created necklaces, bangles, and other ornaments.

Priest/King statue, Mohenjo-daro (Left). The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro (Right)
Priest/King statue, Mohenjo-daro (Left). The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro (Right); image Wikipedia

Institutions and hierarchies

Archaeological records provide no immediate answers regarding a center of authority or depictions of people in power in Harappan society, and there are few written records to consult. However, Harrapan artifacts display an extraordinary uniformity. Pottery, seals, weights, and bricks with standardized sizes and weights, suggest some form of authority and governance, though it is not clear what that form was exactly.

Though seal inscriptions do seem to have written information, scholars have not been able to decipher the Indus script. As a result, they have had considerable difficulty understanding the nature of the state and religious institutions of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Collection of seals of the Indus Valley Civilization
Collection of seals of the Indus Valley Civilization

Over time, various theories have developed concerning Harappan systems of rule. One theory is that there was a single state encompassing all the communities of the civilization; this theory is supported by the similarity in artifacts, the evidence of planned settlements, the standardized ratio of brick size, and the apparent establishment of settlements near sources of raw material. Another theory posits that there was no single ruler, but rather a number of leaders representing each of the urban centers, including Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, and other communities.

Some experts have theorized that the Indus Valley Civilization had no rulers as we understand them, that everyone enjoyed equal status. Some evidence in support of this conclusion is that most Harappan residents seem to have enjoyed relatively equal health and that there were not many elite burials, which archaeologists have discerned through mortuary analysis—the study of graves and deposits containing human remains.

Some scholars point to varying house sizes and varied heights of structures to suggest that different social classes occupied different levels in the cities. Others identify items such as painted pottery, bangles, beaded ornaments, and even location within cities as indicators of wealth.

It is widely believed that the Harappan civilization was a peaceful one that did not engage in any warfare, but there is not conclusive evidence to support this belief, and some archaeologists consider it a pervasive myth. Some scholars argue that Harappans were peaceful primarily because there were no natural enemies due to the geographic location of the major cities. Weapons have been found at sites, but there is debate as to whether they were used in conflict with other groups or as defense against wild animals.

Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Sindh province, Pakistan
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Sindh province, Pakistan; image wikipedia

Decline of Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization declined around 1800 BCE, and scholars debate which factors resulted in the civilization’s demise. One theory suggested that a nomadic, Indo-European tribe called the Aryans invaded and conquered the Indus Valley Civilization, though more recent evidence tends to contradict this claim. Many scholars believe that the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization was caused by climate change. Some experts believe the drying of the Saraswati River, which began around 1900 BCE, was the main cause for climate change, while others conclude that a great flood struck the area.

Another disastrous change in the Harappan climate might have been eastward-moving monsoons, or winds that bring heavy rains. Monsoons can be both helpful and detrimental to a climate, depending on whether they support or destroy vegetation and agriculture.

By 1800 BCE, the Harappans may have migrated toward the Ganges basin in the east, where they could have established villages and isolated farms. These small communities would not have been able to produce the same agricultural surpluses to support large cities. With the reduced production of goods, there would have been a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia. By around 1700 BCE, most of the Indus Valley Civilization cities had been abandoned.

Artistic construction of Dholavira city of ancient Indus Valley Civilisation

Rediscovery of Indus Valley Civilization’s Ruins

In 1856, British engineers John and William Brunton were laying the East Indian Railway Company line connecting the cities of Karachi and Lahore, when their crew discovered hard, well-burnt bricks in the area and used them for ballast for the railroad track, unwittingly dismantling the ruins of the ancient city of Brahminabad.

In 1912, John Faithfull Fleet, an English civil servant working with the Indian Civil Services, discovered several Harappan seals. The first major excavations did not take place until the 1920s. Initially, many archaeologists thought they had found ruins of the ancient Maurya Empire, a large empire which dominated ancient India between c. 322 and 185 BCE. By 1931, much of Mohenjo-Daro had been excavated, while the next director of the Archaeological Survey of India, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, led additional excavations.

The Partition of India, in 1947, divided the country to create the new nation of Pakistan. The bulk of the archaeological finds that followed were inherited by Pakistan. By 1999, over 1,056 cities and settlements had been found, of which 96 have been excavated.

Scholars are still piecing together information about this mysterious civilization, but they have learned a great deal about it since its rediscovery. Its origins seem to lie in a settlement named Mehrgarh in the foothills of a mountain pass in modern-day Balochistan in western Pakistan. There is evidence of settlement in this area as early as 7000 BCE.


Ancient Mesopotamian texts speak of trading with at least two seafaring civilizations – Magan and Meluhha – in the neighborhood of South Asia in the third millennium B.C.E. This trade was conducted with real financial sophistication in amounts that could involve tons of copper. The Mesopotamians speak of Meluhha as a land of exotic commodities. A wide variety of objects produced in the Indus region have been found at sites in Mesopotamia. Its identification remains an open question, but most scholars associate it with the Indus Valley Civilization.

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