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The Indus was the earliest civilization of South Asia, contemporaneous with Bronze Age Sumer, Egypt, and China. The Indus participated in what is now called the Third Millennium Middle Asian Interaction Sphere, which linked its people to the Mediterranean and from Central Asia to the Arabian Gulf in an important trading network. Scholars today debate the reasons why most Indus cities were abandoned by 1900 BCE.
The earliest civilization of South Asia is called the Indus, or Harappan, civilization. This ancient culture arose on the plains and in the mountains of the greater Indus Valley of Pakistan and northwestern India in the middle of the third millennium BCE (c. 2500–1900 BCE). The Indus civilization takes its place in world history as the first of ancient India’s cities and was contemporaneous with those of the Bronze Age peoples of Sumer, dynastic Egypt, and China.
The Indus peoples were for the most part farmers, herders, craftsmen, and traders. They inhabited at least five cities, the best known of which are Mohenjo Daro and Harappa but which also include Dholavira, Ganweriwala, and Rakhigarhi. Mohenjo Daro and Harappa are the largest of the cities, each being about 100 hectares. (The other cities are slightly smaller; between 65 and 80 hectares.) Archaeologists believe that Mohenjo Daro and Harappa each had a population of about twenty thousand people.
The Indus civilization was by far the largest of the Bronze Age civilizations of Asia. It covered about a million square kilometers, extending from the present-day Pakistan-Iran border in the west to the coast of southern Gujarat in the east. The northern limit for the principal habitations is the Siwalik Range of the Punjab, although there is an outlying Indus site (Shortughai) in northern Afghanistan, on the Amu Dar’ya River. In an effort to deal with the cultural geography of the Indus civilization, scholars have divided their territory into domains (geographical and cultural subregions) that may possibly have political significance.
Early Harappan Period and Urban Transformation
The beginnings of the Indus civilization are still not well understood. During an early Harappan period (c. 3200–2600 BCE) there were four roughly contemporaneous archaeological cultures (Kot Dijian, Amri- Nal, Damb Sadaat, and Sothi-Siswal) without large settlements or strong signs of social stratification. No remarkable degree of craft specialization existed during this period. At about 2600–2500 BCE a transitional stage occurred between the early Harappan and Indus civilization, during which most of the complex sociocultural institutions of the Indus civilization came together.
The urbanization that characterizes these peoples developed rather suddenly, over a period of about a hundred years. After a long period of gradual growth and change, the peoples of the greater Indus Valley created cities, a writing system, and a class-stratified society. Of course, some parts of older traditions of the greater Indus region survived. It is clear that there was little change in subsistence and the sociocultural, economic, and political balance between farmers and pastoralists, for example. This was also the time during which the Indus ideology, or world view, began to emerge. It had a rather strong sense of nihilism to it. (Nihilism can be a negative philosophy, as it is often, but not always, associated with violence.) Some scholars suggest that the nihilism of the Indus civilization was in many ways a new beginning for its peoples, that they had turned aside many of their roots. Thus the Indus civilization can be said to represent a renaissance of sorts. (See Possehl 2002, 55–61 for more on this theme in Indus archaeology.) Water and cleanliness were powerful forces in the Indus ideology, such that the society valued both the physical property of water to remove dirt and oils from the skin but also the symbolic act of washing and generalized purity as well.
The ancient cities of the Indus were built in riverine settings: on the lower Indus River (Mohenjo Daro), the Ravi River in the Punjab (Harappa), and the Ghaggar-Hakra River (Ganweriwala and Rakhigarhi). Dholavira may be an exception to this; today it is on an island in what is called the Rann of Kachchh, a large salt marsh above the Gulf of Kachchh. We do not know if the shallow Rann of today was an arm of the sea in the third millennium, but the Rann most certainly would have been fed in part by the waters of the Indus, so in a sense Dholavira too can be said to have a riverine setting.
The land was quite different in the third millennium, when the now-dry Ghaggar-Hakra was larger and the rolling uplands between the rivers of the Punjab were unirrigated scrub grasslands. Tree and grass cover were also probably better. But there were also constants—the summer monsoon, for example. The wheat and barley crops of the Punjab, Sind, and Baluchistan benefited from the winter rainfall coming across the Iranian Plateau from the Mediterranean, just as they do today.
The Cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa
Mohenjo Daro is a splendidly preserved ancient city. It was planned from the start, and was, at least for the most part, built in the middle centuries of the third millennium. It is constructed from baked brick, which is why it has survived so well. There are two parts to the city. A small, elevated artificial mound was situated on the west. This is now called the Mound of the Great Bath, because of the presence of a ritual bathing tank at just about its geographical center. The Lower Town, where most of the people lived and worked, was laid out in a grid, with major thoroughfares running north-south and east-west. Multiroom buildings that were probably also multistoried lined these streets. The private houses were generally provided with bathing facilities that were connected to a civic drainage system. These were specifically bathing facilities; they were not privies.
Harappa is located in the West Punjab, in Pakistan, on the southern bank of the Ravi River 650 kilometers northeast of Mohenjo Daro. Harappa is the name of the modern village adjacent to the mounds, and is not the city’s ancient name. Unlike Mohenjo Daro, Harappa was a well-established settlement before the advent of the Indus civilization. There were villages there as early as 4000–3200 BCE as well as during the early Harappan period. Harappa is also a place where the transition from early Harappan to mature Harappan civilization can be documented, so it is a very important site for archaeologists. There is also a small post-Indus settlement and cemetery there, of the so-called Cemetery H culture.
Harappa has been divided into several areas. The AB Mound, also called the High Mound, is somewhat like the Mound of the Great Bath at Mohenjo Daro, but lacks a bath, as far as archaeologists can tell. Mound F to the north has a large building that may well be a warehouse. It is near threshing and husking facilities for the processing of food grains. The southern part of the site is known as Mound E, with the adjacent ET area, an area of habitation and craft activities. Harappa also has the largest of the cemeteries known from the Indus civilization.
Indus Technologies and Lifeways
The Indus peoples had a writing system, which was rendered in pictographic form on a range of objects. The best known of these are the Indus stamp seals with writing and an animal device. The Indus script remains undeciphered, in spite of many claims to the contrary.
Farming and herding were important occupations for the Indus peoples. The principal food grains were barley and wheat. They also cultivated at least two forms of leguminous seed (the chickpea and the field pea), mustard, sesame, cotton, grapes, and dates. The evidence for the cultivation of rice during the Indus civilization is ambiguous, but it is possible that Indus peoples cultivated rice. Indus peoples were cattle keepers, and the remains of the zebu, the humped Indian breed, are consistently above 50 percent of the bones found in an archaeological excavation. Cattle imagery is also prominent; it is clear that cattle were the most important animals in the culture and probably the principal form of wealth. The Indus also kept water buffalo, sheep, goats, and pigs. Fish, both marine and freshwater, were traded over wide areas.
The Indus peoples were skilled craftsmen and applied themselves to their trades with great vigor. They were technological innovators, inventing processes that allowed them to etch and drill long, hard stones such as carnelian, to make stoneware and ceramics, and to smelt, refine, and process a variety of metals. Their pottery was fashioned using a number of forming techniques, often in multiple parts that were welded together prior to firing. They were skilled at bead making, with their long, barrel-shaped carnelian beads a specialty. Shells, especially the maritime conch, were made into bangles, ladles, and other objects, and were inlaid in objects for decoration.
Cultural Interaction across Afro-Eurasia
World history has been enriched by the Indus peoples, who participated in what has come to be called the Third Millennium Middle Asian Interaction Sphere, which linked peoples from the Indus to the Mediterranean and from Central Asia to the Arabian Gulf in an important trading network. This interaction has deep historical roots and began much earlier than the Indus civilization, but was at its peak during the second half of the third millennium. Sea trade with Mesopotamia through the Arabian Gulf was a part of this network and can be documented in both written and archaeological records. According to Mesopotamian cuneiform texts, the products that the Indus peoples supplied to Mesopotamia were carnelian, lapis lazuli, pearls, various exotic woods, fresh dates, copper, and gold. Not clearly documented are the products traded to the Indus, but they may have been perishables such as food products, oils, and cloth.
Two themes that appear on Indus seals have parallels in Sumerian mythology. The first is shown on a seal from Mohenjo Daro with a half-human female, half-bull, monster attacking a horned tiger. This is widely interpreted as portraying the story of the Mesopotamian goddess Aruru, who created the monster to do combat with the hero Gilgamesh, though the monster ultimately became Gilgamesh’s ally and fought with Gilgamesh against wild animals. The second motif is a well-documented Mesopotamian combat scene, with Gilgamesh fighting off rampant animals on either side.
A male deity, usually shown with bull or water buffalo horns, is central in Indus religion. He is paired with a number of different female images. The plant and animal imagery of the Indus civilization can be seen as representing specific aspects of this great heaven-earth, male-female duality. There are many portrayals of composite animals, some with three heads on one body, human torsos on four legged bodies, men with bull’s heads (like the Minoan Minotaur), tigers with horns, unicorns with elephant trunks, and unicorns growing out of trees. There is no good evidence for fire worship, as seen in later Vedic India.
A seal from the Indus site of Chanhu Daro, just south of Mohenjo Daro, has a representation of a bull sexually ravishing a prostrate human female. The archaeologist F. R. Allchin interprets this as representing the duality of heaven (the bull) and earth (the female), a theme that can be understood by reference to the creation myths found in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda. This is perhaps our best evidence for a connection between the Indus civilization and later, historical, India.
The Transformation of Indus Civilization
What happened to the ancient cities and peoples of the Indus? Mohenjo Daro was largely abandoned by 1900 BCE. The same is true for the other four Indus cities, although a small settlement remained at Harappa—the so-called Cemetery H people. Older theories, which hold that the cities and civilization were destroyed by invading Aryan tribes (as depicted in the Rig Veda), make very little sense since there is no evidence for the sacking of any of the Indus settlements. Also, the date of the transformation of the Indus civilization around 2100–1900 BCE and the date of the Vedic texts (c. 1000 BCE) don’t agree. The proposition that a natural dam formed across the Indus River in Sind and flooded out the civilization has been widely critiqued and is not viable.
It is apparent from the excavations at urban centers as well as from regional surveys that at the opening of the second millennium Indus settlements in Sind and Baluchistan had been widely abandoned. Table 1 provides a summary by region of the substantive data comparing Indus civilization and the period following the transformation, generally called the Indus post-urban civilization.
The figures in table 1 would seem to indicate that it is still viable to speak of the “eclipse of the Indus civilization” in Sind and Baluchistan, but in other regions, notably in the East and to a lesser degree in Saurashtra (present-day Gujarat), the history of the culture change was different. In these areas there were strong lines of continuity through the early centuries of the second millennium with little, if any, of the trauma that affected Sind and Baluchistan. The stark image of Baluchistan in the second millennium represents a clear challenge for field archaeology, because it does not seem reasonable to presume that the entire area was deserted at that time.
Scholars have proposed that the process responsible for transforming this once grand civilization involved changes in the Indus ideology, possibly its abandonment. For example, one of the clearer loci of culture change was in the cities, those settlements and institutions most closely associated with sociocultural complexity. There, craftsmen’s technological virtuosity was severely compromised, and the obvious traces of the symbolic uses of water disappear. But in some places the transformation of Indus civilization was not a traumatic event. Scholars speculate on the reasons for this possible abandonment of Indus ideology, but no consensus has yet been reached.
Urban life in the subcontinent begins with the Indus civilization, and this is its most obvious contribution to world history. Some suggestion of continuities between the Indus civilization and later historical times exist, but these are not yet well defined. The famous Proto-Shiva seal from Mohenjo Daro shows us that yoga, or ritual discipline, has its roots in the Indus. There is also strong continuity in farming and herding, and the seasonal pattern of life. It is clear that the special, and important, role of cattle in ancient Indian society has its roots in the Indus too. Large-scale interregional trade (by both land and sea) had its beginnings in the Indus civilization. The Indus peoples in that sense anticipated the later Silk Roads with the Third Millennium Middle Asian Interaction Sphere.
- Allchin, F. R. (1985). The interpretation of a seal from Chanhu-daro and its significance for the religion of the Indus Valley. In J. Schotsmans & M. Taddei (Eds.), South Asian Archaeology (pp. 369–384) (Series Minor 23). Naples, Italy: Instituto Universitario Orientale, Dipartimento di Studi Asiatici.
- Possehl, G. L. (1996). Indus age: The writing system. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Possehl, G. L. (1999). Indus age: The beginnings. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Possehl, G. L. (2002). The Indus civilization: A contemporary perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.
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