4. Indus Valley Civilisation: First Urbanisation Of Indian Subcontinent

Indus Valley Civilisation or Sindhu-Saraswati Civilisation, know everything in one place.
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Indus Valley Civilisation -Tejavalli reddy(1830787), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
2. City - Usman.pg, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Harappa Illustration-Tejavalli reddy(1830787), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
2. City – Usman.pg, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


It was the year 1856; Britishers were doing what they loved the most in the North-Western part of the Raj, making way for faster means of draining the subcontinent of its wealth.

In simpler terms, it was the time when new railway lines were being installed.

There, they came across a mound of high-quality bricks. Like any ignorant fool, they carted off these bricks to the construction site in thousands, destroying the site in the process.

Fast forward seven decades, in the 1920s, it was found out that these mounds of perfectly baked bricks are, in fact, the remains of an ancient civilisation, long-buried in the layers of history. It was named after the place where it was first discovered, which was Harappa and consequently, it was called Harappan civilisation.

Archaeologists began to excavate the sites. At first, they uncovered two of the biggest sites, namely Harappa (1921) and Mohenjo Daro (1922). The scope of discovery gradually extended, and it was realised that they had found one of the most advanced urbanised ancient civilisations or at least its remains.

But, who were these people? Where the vanished? Why does no one know anything about them? Why there were no large structures like the contemporary Great Pyramids of Mesopotamian structures, common characteristics of those times?

These mysteries remained, some even till today.

Some Important contributors to the discovery of the Indus valley civilisation:

1826Charles MassonCame across the site of Harappa.
1853Alexender CunninghamCame across a Harappan seal but didn’t realise its significance.
1921Daya Ram SahaniStarted the excavation of the Harappan site.
1922R. D. BanerjeeExcavated MohenJodaro in Sindh.
1931John MarshallLarge scale excavation of Mohenjodaro began under his supervision.
1946Mortimer WheelerExcavation of Harappa.
Various Discoveries related to IVC

What was Indus Valley Civilisation?


Around 7000 BC, Mehrgarh, a settlement in the Balochistan region, emerged as a settled community of farmers who cultivated wheat and barley. Few other such sites also came into being with time in the Balochistan Coast, Sind, and Punjab’s North-West region.

These were based on food production and had features like the domestication of animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats. They used mud bricks to make permanent habitations. They produced surplus food which they then stored in granaries made for this special purpose. There were some worldly elements, such as the use of clothing, pit burials, pottery, and terracotta figures.

Some of these sites, mainly around the Indus river (an area more prosperous due to the river), developed into early towns. The first urbanisation of the Indian Subcontinent started taking shape. This was known as Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC), based on the river around which the civilisation emerged.

The debate over the name Indus-Saraswati Valley Civilisation: It is believed that the mythical Saraswati river (also known as the Hakra river) used to irrigate the area east of Indus and ultimately drain into the Arabian Sea

Characteristic Features

  1. Cities of IVC were extensively planned urban settlements, indicating some form of town planning departments or administration.
  2. Harappan society was based on trade. The urban character and large cities were supported by extensive trade with nearby as well as far areas such as the Middle-Eastern and the African civilisations of that time.
  3. People of this area were advanced enough to make Bronze by mixing copper and tin, which they get from different places.
  4. Extreme standardisation in 
  • The ratio of sides of fire-baked bricks.
  • Buildings such as granaries, houses, streets, other buildings for administration and rituals etc.
  • Weights and Measures
  • Harappan Script
  • Pottery
  • Seals


Important Indus Valley Civilisation locations
Important Indus Valley Civilisation locations

Based on time, the Harappan period is divided into 3 phases during which various settlements emerged; these are:

Early Harappan (4th C. to 2600 BC)

  • Rehman Dheri
  • Amri
  • Mehrgarh
  • Rana Gundai
  • Coast of Baluchistan etc.

Mature Harappan (2600 to 1900 BC)

  • Harappa
  • Mohenjodaro
  • Chanu Daro
  • Lothal
  • Kalibangan
  • Banwali
  • Rakhi Garhi
  • Surkotada

Later Harappan (1900 to 1750 BC)

  • Rangpur
  • Rojdi
  • Dholavira

Town Planning & Structures of Indus Valley Civilisation

City - Usman.pg, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
City – Usman.pg, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Urban Planning: Indus Valley Civilisation is known for its Civic and Urban Planning. By observing the layout of cities, it is evident that all the buildings, drainage systems and streets were extensively planned before construction, which shows a very high knowledge of architecture. Many modern era architects take inspiration from these ancient cities even today.
  2. Bifurcation of City: IVC cities and towns were usually divided into two sections (3 in rare cases) based on the functionality and the work.
    1. Citadel: It was the part of town with all important buildings related to administration, trade, and other necessary purposes. It was generally built upon a platform made up of brunt bricks and was usually enclosed with walls.
    2. Lower Town: It was the part of the town where commoners used to live and work.
  3. Building Material: Normally, fire-baked bricks were used for all construction purposes. Throughout the whole IVC, the ratio of the dimensions of these bricks was the same, which shows a high degree of standardisation. In rare cases, such as in the case of Dholavira, the use of stone as a building material can also be seen.
  4. Drainage System: People in IVC were very conscious of cleanliness and hygiene. Perhaps, they were the first ones to develop an extensive drainage system, which connected every building and house in the city. These drains were covered. A high level of engineering to plan such a precise system shows the technical advancement of this culture.
  5. Streets: All the streets used to criss-cross each other at right angles. These also included covered drains. Modern cities also follow these patterns.
  6. Houses: Flat roof houses with many rooms were built around the courtyard. Multiple rooms open to the courtyard, with a bathing area, and a well all connected to the drainage system. These houses used to have windows on the inner side of the houses. Houses in Northern India still follow the same pattern.
  7. Important Buildings:  IVC used to have some common buildings, which can be seen in all major towns and cities, these are:
Citadel- Encyclopædia Britannica. (2022). Mohenjo-daro ruins [Image]. https://www.britannica.com/place/India/The-Indus-civilization#/media/1/285248/95462
Citadel- Encyclopædia Britannica. (2022). Mohenjo-daro ruins [Image]. https://www.britannica.com/place/India/The-Indus-civilization#/media/1/285248/95462
  1. Granaries and Storehouses: Used to store the surplus food, maybe as tax or for emergencies. For example, Mohenjodaro used to have a large granary, whereas Harappa used to have six small granaries.
  2. Large Tanks: In some towns, such as Dholavira, huge tanks were built to store freshwater, which was later used for various purposes.
  3. Great Bath: Used for various rituals, large baths were part of the city life. The Great Bath of Mohenjodaro was 11.88×7.01 meters in length and width, and it was 2.43 meters deep. It was surrounded by changing rooms. The floor was made of fire-baked bricks.
  4. Dockyard: We see a large dockyard type structure in Lothal, which used to be a coastal town in those times.
The Great Bath - Encyclopædia Britannica. (2022a). Mohenjo-daro: Great Bath [Image]. https://www.britannica.com/place/India/The-Indus-civilization#/media/1/285248/204252
The Great Bath – Encyclopædia Britannica. (2022a). Mohenjo-daro: Great Bath [Image]. https://www.britannica.com/place/India/The-Indus-civilization#/media/1/285248/204252

Food Production

  1. These cities and towns were supported by surplus from the countryside, but, as the population increased, nearby forests were cleared for cultivation. This may have led to large scale deforestation and resulting ecological problems.
  2. Crops: Wheat and Barley are believed to be the staple diet, but rice and millets were not unknown. In Lothal, evidence of rice had been found. They also cultivated other crops such as sesamum, mustard, cotton etc.
  3. Ploughing was done either by stone tools or the wooden plough; not much is known. In Kalibanagan, we found evidence of furrows.
  4. Irrigation: Maybe, they used small scale bunds and canals for the purpose of irrigation. IVC area is mostly confined around the Indus river as well as the Hakra river system, and these rivers mostly made the area fertile by providing fertile soils and water. It is also believed that the amount of rainfall in those times was significantly higher, as compared to the present. In Dholavira, large water tanks were made to store fresh water, which may have been used for irrigation also.
  5. Animal Husbandry:  They domesticated various animals such as oxen, buffaloes, goats and sheep, pigs, camels, etc. IVC was not a horse based society. The horse came later, although, in Surkotada, we had found a bone which is believed to be of the horse.

Technological Developments & Craft of IVC

 Pashupati Seal -Ismoon (talk) 18:08, 21 February 2012 (UTC), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Pashupati Seal -Ismoon (talk) 18:08, 21 February 2012 (UTC), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Weights and Measures
    1. The Indus Valley Culture shows remarkable standardisation in terms of weights and measures. 
    2. They followed the hexahedron system (16 & its multiple) for weights and measures. It was prevalent in India till recently(16 annas make 1 Rupee).
  2. Pottery
    1. The use of a potter’s wheel to make clay pottery and then baking it in a fire was the process used for pottery making.
    2. Usually, these utensils were of red colour.
    3. Motifs such as trees and geometrical shapes were used for making designs on the pottery.
  3. Seals
    1. Indus Valley Civilisation is famous for its extensive use of Seals made of steatite and faience.
    2. The actual purpose for these may have been related to administration, trade & commerce, cultural reasons or as a token of identity.
    3. These seals were found as far as Egypt and Mesopotamia, showing their connectedness.
    4. These seals contained pictographic symbols, images of animals, humans or even flora of the region.
    5. Among these, the most notable seal of Pashupati contains a yogi, surrounded by an elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, buffalo and two deers. This is often believed to be the proto-shiva form.
  4. Terracotta Works
    1. These works included fire-baked clay figurines, commonly known as terracotta figurines.
    2. These were made for different purposes, such as toys for kids like bulls and carts, and for religious purposes, such as the female goddess statue, who is also known as the fertility goddess.
    3. These works show less skill as compared to the seals. Perhaps, these were made by common people for their personal usage. In fact, fire-baked clay toys are used even today in rural parts of the country.
    4. Most notable among these works which show excellent craftsmanship of Harappan culture is the ‘priest-king’ statue. 
  5. StoneWorks
    1. IVC didn’t use stone tools like contemporary chalcolithic cultures. Neither, do they use it for construction purposes in most cases.
    2. But, one case that stands out as an exception is Dholavira. In Dholavira, the use of stone for fortification, houses, and even for burials is the most notable feature of this site. This may be a local innovation or due to its proximity to the megalithic cultures of southern India.
  6. Bronze Works
    1. IVC was the first bronze using civilization in the Indian subcontinent.
    2. Their remarkable knowledge of metallurgy is in stark contrast to contemporary cultures of the subcontinent.
    3. They imported copper from the Khetri mines of Ahar culture, and perhaps tin from Afghanistan or the other nearby regions in exchange for their goods.
    4. The most notable specimen of their bronze work is the dancing girl statue which is famous for its attention to detail.
  7. Beads Making
    1. Bead making was one of the important industries of the Harappan culture.
    2. It was used domestically and was also an important export item.
    3. To make these, usage of gold, copper, shell, semi-precious stones, ivory etc was common.
Dancing Girl- Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Dancing Girl- Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Trade and Commerce in IVC

  1. To foreigners, IVC was known as Meluha, as there is a mention of it in Mesopotamian culture with a region associated with contemporary Harappan culture.
  2. Items for trade were mainly stone & metal made items, shells, laps-lazuli etc.
  3. The system for exchange was a barter system with no proof of concept of money available.
  4. Means of transportation for trade were bullock carts on land and boats in rivers and sea. A dockyard in Lothal and nearby warehouses show that it was a hub of exchange.
  5. The main trading partners of Meluha were chalcolithic cultures of western India such as Kayatha culture, Central Asian regions, and civilisations of Western Asia and Africa.

Society of IVC

Mother Goddess- Ismoon (talk) 21:50, 21 February 2012 (UTC), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Mother Goddess- Ismoon (talk) 21:50, 21 February 2012 (UTC), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Social Organisations
    1. Two parts of every city and town show some kind of social hierarchy.
    2. In rare cases, cities were divided into three parts, which may be evidence of the middle class.
    3. But, not much can be said with enough certainty as there is a lack of information.
    4. But, Family was the basis of society is evident with the large houses and information available.
  2. Polity
    1. Now, it is believed that the culture started as different autonomous city-states, but, with time, maybe, developed into a collectively but centrally governed system. This may not be far from the truth as evident from the standardisation of things.
    2. Citadel used to be the seat of power with granaries as the treasury.
    3. There is no evidence of a standing army. IVC was a culture of traders, at that time, maybe they didn’t see any logic in maintaining a standing army. This may be one of many reasons for their downfall.
    4. The polity of Indus Valley Civilisation was most probably not based on faith and religion.
  3. Faith
    1. They worshipped the mother goddess, often known as the fertility goddess. Terracotta figurines of which are found at various sites.
    2. The Pashupati seal and phallus shapes show a figure compared to Shiva.
    3. In fact, later cultures even mention some natives as phallus worshippers.
    4. In addition to these, they also worshipped animals and trees, maybe an element of animism.
  4. Script
    1. Harappans were the first to use a written language on the Indian subcontinent.
    2. The script they used was somewhat pictographic.
    3. It has not been deciphered yet, so we cannot know much about its content.
    4. It may be a proto-Dravidian language, which is still prevalent in some areas of Baluchistan.
    5. It was written from first right to left and then left to right.
Indus Script- ALFGRN, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Indus Script- ALFGRN, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Disappearance of Indus Valley Civilisation

  1. Timeline of Disappearance:
    1. The mature Harappan phase lasted till 1900 BC. After that, we see a decline in characteristics attributed to the Harappan culture. 
    2. This phase is known as the Later Harappan period which lasted up to 1500 BC in some areas.
  2. Possible reasons for Disappearance:
    1. Environmental & Ecological
      1. In the later period, we see evidence of climate change. Earlier this area used to get a significant amount of rain, which at present remains as one of the driest regions, especially the area of Rajasthan and Sind.
      2. The Hakra-Sarswati river either changed its path or disappeared, which may be due to tectonic movement.
      3. The large scale deforestation around cities may have affected their ecology, which may have contributed to the downfall of cities.
      4. In some cities, constant flooding was a big problem, this may have led to the abandoning of such areas and migration to new areas such as the Ganga plains.
      5. The extensive cultivation in the area may have led to a fertility decline in the soils of these areas.
    2. End of Trade
      1. The rise of Elam, in the present-day Iraq and Iran region, led to the collapse of trade with Western Asia. IVC, being a trade-dependent civilisation faced deurbanisation due to this. Proceeding rural societies for many centuries after the Indus Valley Civilisation may be due to this reason only.
    3. New People
      1. Signs of violence can be seen in some later centuries of civilisation. The heap of bodies in Mohenjodaro indicates violence. This led to the Aryan Invasion Theory. But, in present times, this theory is becoming less and less accepted. It is believed that these bodies may be due to an outbreak of diseases.
      2. Nevertheless, new types of axes and daggers have been excavated, which surely point towards the coming of new people or cultures.

The end of Indus Valley Civilisation may have occurred due to any of these or all of these reasons. For now, we are not sure about the reason for the collapse of such an advanced civilisation. In fact, we may be entirely wrong about the collapse, instead, these people just migrated to new areas which led to the ruralisation of civilisation due to the collapse of trade. Recent genetic studies will surely put some light on the ancestry of these people to the present population of the subcontinent.

Legacy of Indus Valley Civilisation

  1. The hexahedron system of weights and counting is prevalent till the present time in the subcontinent.
  2. Clothing styles of people including cotton dresses, dhotis, and headgears, are still part of Indian culture.
  3. The housing style, a house built around a large courtyard is still prevalent in India.
  4. The mother or the fertility goddess, Pashupati Nath, fire altars, and the swastika, all are integral parts of Santan Dharma.
  5. Tilak, bindi, bangles, waist chains etc are still an important part of women’s jewellery.

Some Significant Places & Artefacts found in Indus Valley Civilisation

PlaceArtefacts Found
HarappaCoffin Burial of a woman
MohenjodaroGreat Bath, Bronze Dancing Girl Statue, Seal of Pashupati, Bearded Priest
KalibanganOldest ploughed field, Fire altars, Charging bull, two kinds of burials (circular and rectangular), Bone of Camel
DholaviraFortification of Citadel, Signboard with Indus Script, 3 levels of the city, Large Tanks
LothalArtificial Dockyard, Rice Husk (also in Rangpur)
Kot DijiDestruction by force or fire, terracotta figurines of bull, and the mother goddess
MittathalWeights of stone, evidence of rice
SurkotdaHorse bone

What happened to Indus Valley Civilisation?

In a straight answer, we don’t know yet. But possible reasons for its collapse are believed to be ecological changes, the collapse of trade, and the entry of new people.

Where did the people of Indus Valley Civilisation come from?

New studies claim that the Harappan culture was not an imported culture, rather it developed in the subcontinent, independently of contemporary Iranian and Central Asian cultures. They invented crop cultivation and all other elements on their own.

Are we related to Harappan people?

A new report published in the Cell, on the genetic study of specimen found in Rakhigarhi, claims that Indus Valley Civilisation is the largest source of South Asian population gene pool. This may change our view of the past, as it is believed that the present population of South India descended from the steppe region of Central Asia.

Has Harappan script been deciphered yet?

No, we haven’t been able to decipher the Indus script yet.

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1. Allchin, F. Raymond (2021, August 11). Indus civilization. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Indus-civilization

2. N.C.E.R.T. (Ed.). (2020). In The Earliest Cities [E-book]. In Our Past Part-1 (pp. 24–34).

3. Sharma, R. S. (2017). Spread of Indus Civilisation. In India’s Ancient Past (pp. 74–93). Oxford University Press.

4. Thapar, R. (2021). Antecedents. In Early India (pp. 69–97). Penguin Random House India.

5. What happened to the Indus civilisation? (2021a, October 29). BBC Bitesize. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zxn3r82/articles/z8b987h#:%7E:text=How%20did%20we%20discover%20the,t%20know%20who%20built%20them.

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