March 2

The Harappan Civilization. - A Golden period

Discovered in 1921, it is called Harappan because this civilization was first discovered at the modern site of Harappa situated in modern day Pakistan. It was perhaps the first urban civilization of India, covered a large area, and introduced a number of new features in the Indian society. It made India stand at par with the civilizations of other countries and was one of the most advanced settlements of that period.


In 1853, A. Cunningham, the British engineer and excavator noticed a Harappan seal. However, its significance was realised much later in 1921 when an Indian archaeologist Daya Ram Sahni started excavating it. At about the same time R.D. Banerjee excavated the site of Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh.

In 1946 Mortimer Wheeler excavated Harappa and brought to light a very advanced civilization that lied buried in the dust for a long time. In the post-independence period, archaeologists from both India and Pakistan excavated the Harappan and connected sites. Around 2800 sites have been identified so far relating to the early, mature, and later phases. The two most important cities were Harappa in Punjab and Mohenjo-Daro (meaning the mound of the dead) in Sindh. Both of them now lie in Pakistan. 

A third city lay at Chanhu-Daro and a fourth at Lothal in Gujarat. A fifth city lay at Kalibangan, meaning black bangles, in Rajasthan, and a sixth at Banawali in Haryana. There were two coastal cities of Sutkagendor and Surkotada. In addition, there was the city of Dholavira in Gujarat and Rakhigarhi in Haryana.

Geographically, this civilization extended from Sutkagendor (Baluchistan) in the West to Alamgirpur (Western UP) in the East and from Mandu (Jammu) in the North to Daimabad (Maharashtra) in the South. Some sites have also been found as far away as Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.


Both Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro had a citadel or acropolis meaning upper town on the Western side. It was smaller but higher, possibly meant for the ruling class

The Harappan culture was distinguished by its system of town planning. Both Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro had a citadel or acropolis meaning upper town on the Western side. It was smaller but higher, possibly meant for the ruling class. On the Eastern side there was a larger but lower mound known as the lower town, possibly meant for the common people. The remarkable thing about the arrangement of the cities is that they followed a grid system with roads cutting across each other at right angles. In villages, houses were mostly made of mud bricks with the additional use of mud and reeds. Buildings in towns and cities were made of sundried and burnt bricks.

People lived in houses of different sizes, mostly consisting of rooms arranged around a central courtyard. Doorways and windows generally faced the side lanes and rarely opened onto the main streets. Floors were usually made of hard packed earth, often re-plastered or covered with sand. The doors and windows of the houses were made of wood and mats. Many houses or groups of houses had separate bathing areas and toilets. The floor of the bathing area was usually made of tightly fitted bricks to make a carefully sloped watertight surface. A small drain led from here, cut through the house wall and went out into the street, connecting ultimately into a large sewage drain.

The Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro is an excellent example of beautiful craftwork. It is a rectangular tank with flights of steps at either end leading to the surface, and there are side rooms for changing clothes. The floor of the bath is made of burnt bricks. Water was drawn from a large well in an adjacent room and an outlet from the corner of the bath led to a drain. The bath was perhaps primarily intended for ritual bathing. Another similar tank found at Dholavira was also probably used for the same purpose.

Across the street from the Great Bath are the remains of a large, imposing building consisting of several rooms, a courtyard and three verandahs. It has been identified as the house of priest due to its similarity with the Great Bath. On the western edge, raised on a tapered brick platform is a structure identified as the Great Granary. On the southern part there is a large building labelled as an assembly hall. It is roughly square in shape and is divided into five aisles by rows of rectangle brick piers.

Harappan Civilization
Indus Valley Civilisation

Source: Avantiputra7, CC BY-SA 3.0


The Harappan civilization covered an enormous area within which there was great ecological variety- alluvial plains, mountains, plateaus, and seacoasts. There was dense natural vegetation that contributed to rainfall. As a result of the wide area covered by the civilization, there were regional variations in the plants grown by farmers. Wheat has been found at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, barley at Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, and Kalibangan, and sesamum at Harappa. There are also evidence of watermelon seeds, peas, and dates. Rice has been found at Harappa, Lothal, and Rangpur and millets at Harappa, Surkotada, and Shortughai. Grapes and henna were known, and cotton was also probably cultivated.

Discovery of a ploughed field at Kalibangan and terracotta models of plough at Bahawalpur and Banawali give evidence of the use of this implement. It was probably made of wood and as a result no actual ploughs have survived. However, toy models of plough have been discovered at various places.

Farmers must have built gabarbandhs (embankments) or nalas of mud or stone to divert river water. Irrigation canals have been found at Shortughai.


Bones of many wild animals have been found at Harappan sites. These include varieties of deer, pig, boar, sheep, goat, ass, and pig. Bones of tortoise and fish have also been found. Elephants and camel bones occur in very small quantities. Tigers, rabbits, peacocks, pigeons, ducks, monkeys, and wild fowl are represented in figurines and paintings on pottery.

Harappan sites have also yielded remains of domesticated animals such as humped and hump less cattle, buffalo, sheep, and goat. They would have been used for meat, milk, wool, and as drought animals. Dog figurines suggest the domestication of this animal.


The rise of towns in the Indus zone was based on agricultural surplus, the making of bronze tools, various other crafts and widespread trade and commerce.

The rise of towns in the Indus zone was based on agricultural surplus, the making of bronze tools, various other crafts and widespread trade and commerce. This is known as the first urbanisation in India and the Harappan urban culture belongs to the Bronze Age. Bronze was made by mixing tin with copper but occasionally arsenic was also mixed with copper. Copper was obtained from the Khetri copper mines of Rajasthan and tin was brought from Afghanistan. Bronze was used to produce images, utensils, tools, and weapons such as axes, saws, knives, and spears. 

Textile craft flourished in Harappan towns. A piece of woven cotton cloth has been found at Mohenjo-Daro and spindle whorls have been discovered. Weavers wove cloth of wool and cotton. Huge brick structures suggest that bricklaying was an important craft. The Harappans also practiced boat making. The goldsmiths made jewelleries of silver, gold, and precious stones; the first two materials may have been obtained from Afghanistan and the last from south India.

The Harappan pottery reflects efficient mass production. The pots were fired in funnel shaped up draft closed kilns. There is a great variety of pottery including black-on-red, grey, buff, and black-and red wares. Most pots were wheel turned. The decorative patterns range from simple horizontal lines to geometric patterns and pictorial motifs. Designs of fish scales, pipal leaves, and intersecting circles are also found although human figures are rare and crude. A burnished grey ware with a dark purplish slip and vitreous glaze represents one of the earliest examples of glazing in the world.

Harappan sites have yielded a number of terracotta products. There are figures of animals such as bulls, buffaloes, monkeys, and dogs. Toy carts with solid wheels and terracotta bangles have also been found. Human figurines include male figurines and numerous female figurines of various types.

Stonework was another important craft. Mass produced chert blades made by the crested guided ridge techniques have been found. They were probably used as sickles and knives for domestic use. Seal making was also prevalent. Most of the seals are square or rectangular but a few cylindrical and round seals have also been found. They were made of steatite, silver, faience, calcite, copper, and sandstone. They had an animal motif and short inscription engraved on them. Goods were packed and clay was applied on the top. The seal was impressed on clay and if the packing reached with the seal intact, the goods were supposed to be delivered safely.

Bead making was prevalent and they were made of steatite, agate, carnelian, lapis lazuli, shell, terracotta, gold, silver, and copper.

The Harappan artists made beautiful images of metal. The best specimen is the image of a woman dancer found at Mohenjo-Daro. She represents a very thin woman standing with her right hand on the back and her left hand on her thigh. Apart from wearing a necklace she is naked. Also prominent are the statues of probably a priest king who has his eyes semi- closed with a robe passing over his left shoulder and under his right arm, a mother goddess, and a male torso made of red sandstone.

Cubical weights have been found at all excavated sites indicating that the Harappans were familiar with the art of standardisation and measurement. They show that in weighing, largely 16 or its multiples were used. Sticks inscribed with measurement marks have been found and one of these is made of bronze. 


The importance of trade in the life of the Harappan people is supported by granaries, finds of numerous seals, a uniform script, and regulated weights and measures. They carried out both internal and external trade. They conducted considerable trade in stone, metal, shell, etc. within the Indus culture zone. They did not use metal money and carried out exchange through the barter system. The Harappans had commercial links with Rajasthan and also with Afghanistan and Iran. Their cities also had commercial links with the people of the Tigris and Euphrates basin. Many Harappan seals have been discovered at Mesopotamia. The Harappans carried long distance trade in lapis lazuli. The Mesopotamian records refer to trade relations with Meluha, which was the ancient name given to the Indus region. The texts also speak of two intermediate trading stations called Dilmun and Makan, which lay between Mesopotamia and Meluha. Dilmun is probably identifiable with Bahrain on the Persian Gulf. The dockyard found at Lothal also provides strong evidence about the carrying out of trade- both internal and external.


In Harappa numerous terracotta figures of women have been found. The worship of female goddesses associated with fertility has long been held as one of the major features of Harappan religion. In one figurine, a plant is shown growing out of the embryo of a woman which probably suggests the goddess of earth. The Harappans looked upon the earth as a fertility goddess and worshipped her. Another figurine called female goddess is interpreted as having a religious significance. She is heavily ornamented and apparently has a fan shaped headdress. 

The Harappans also probably worshipped a male god represented on a steatite seal discovered at Mohenjo-Daro usually referred to as Pashupati. This god has three horned heads and is represented in the sitting posture of a yogi. He is surrounded by an elephant, a tiger, a rhinoceros and below his throne is a buffalo and below his feet are two deer. We also encounter the prevalence of phallus worship and numerous symbols of phallus and female sex organs made of stone have been found at Harappa.

The people of the Indus region also worshipped trees and animals. The depiction of a deity represented on a seal amidst branches of pipal and animals surrounding Pashupati indicate this. The most important animal was probably the one-horned unicorn and humped bull was the second in importance.


The earliest specimen of the Harappan script was discovered in 1853 and the complete script by 1923 but it has yet to be deciphered. There are nearly 4000 specimens of Harappan writing on stone seals and other objects. The Harappan script is not alphabetical but largely pictographic. Most of the inscriptions are very short with an average of five signs. The longest inscription was discovered at Dholavira containing 26 signs.


The decline of Harappan cities started in 2200 BCE and the settlement had come to an end by 2000 BCE. Apart from the dates, the pace of decline also varied. Mohenjo-Daro and Dholavira give a picture of gradual decline while at Kalibangan and Banawali, city life ended all of a sudden.

Various reasons have been attributed to the decline of the Harappan civilization. The idea that the civilization was destroyed by Aryan invaders was put forward by Ramprasad Chanda and elaborated on by Mortimer Wheeler. Wheeler argued that references in Rig Veda that point to various kinds of forts, attacks, etc. reflect an Aryan invasion.

Some historians attribute the decline to natural disasters. Several layers of silt at Mohenjo-Daro give evidence of the city being affected by repeated Indus floods. However, many Harappan sites in the Ghaggar-Hakra valley were affected by drought as the rivers might have changed course due to tectonic movements drastically reducing the water flow.

The issue of environmental change can be connected to the ways in which the Harappans were treating their environment. They overexploited it through over-cultivation, over-grazing, and excessive cutting of trees. This would have resulted in decreasing soil fertility, floods, and increasing soil salinity. Fairservis suggests that the civilization declined because the growing population of people and cattle could not be supported from resources within the Harappan culture zone.

There is no clear reason stated yet as to what contributed to the downfall of such a flourishing civilization but what is evident is that the Harappan culture underwent a gradual process of de-urbanisation. The mature Harappan phase was followed by a post-urban phase, known as the late Harappan phase. The Harappan culture was the first urban culture in South Asia. There was cultural homogeneity as well as diversity within the vast Harappan culture zone.

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