What Was The Indus Valley Civilisation?

Indus valley civilisation Indus valley civilisation river valley civilizations sanitation of the Indus valley civilisation sites of Indus valley civilisation Indus valley civilisation town planning Indus valley civilisation architecture

Indus Valley Civilization | History of Mohenjo-Daro

What Was The Indus Valley Civilisation?

Indus Valley Civilization | History of Mohenjo-Daro

It’s British India in the 1920’s and over the last few decades these odd stone seals keep popping up at ruins near Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro along the Indus river valley. They baffle everyone, with their inscriptions in a never before seen written language. Archaeologists, intrigued by this, started excavating these previously ignored sites.

They soon uncovered a 4,500-year-old civilization. A civilsation completely absent in the historical record. One of the earliest urban civilizations in human history. It flourished alongside Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China around 3300-1900BCE but was bigger than all of them.

A civilsation that built wonders not to gods or kings but to sanitation. A civilsation without war. Made up of massive planned cities built in brick. Masters of bronze and sculpture. They created their own writing system, traded across the vast sea and possibly invented the world’s first indoor toilets and then vanished for reasons still not understood.

So what was this civilsation in the Indus Valley, what did they achieve, and what does it have to do with rubber duckies? 

Well let’s find out.

Historical Context and Geography

The Indus Civilization existed from 3300BCE to around 1300BCE give or take. But they really prospered around 4,500 years ago between 2600-1900BCE. It covered an area of one million square kilometers. That’s about 1 Bolivia, or 2 Spains, or even better 6250 Liechtenstein. It had the largest population and territory of the Bronze Age civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China.

Indus Valley Civilization, Late Phase (1900-1300 BCE)

Geographical range Basins of the Indus River, Pakistan and the seasonal Ghaggar-Hakra river, northwest India and eastern Pakistan
Period Bronze Age South Asia
Dates c. 3300 – c. 1300 BCE
Type site Harappa
Major sites Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira, and Rakhigarhi
Preceded by Mehrgarh
Followed by Painted Grey Ware culture
Cemetery H culture

Like almost all early civilizations the Indus Civilization developed around dank river valleys. Their farmers were able to grow a massive food surplus along the banks of the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra rivers. 
Today the Indus is still a powerful river but the Ghaggar-Hakra has almost completely dried up. Back then the Ghaggar-Hakra river may have been even more productive than the Indus. We’ve found much more settlements along the Ghaggar-Hakra than the Indus.
Since the Ghaggar-Hakra River was much more powerful in the past people think it may be the ancient lost Saraswati river of Hindu literature.
Since this civilization wasn’t just based on the Indus and since Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation is a bit of a mouthful the term Harappan Civilisation is often used since Harappa was the first city of theirs we discovered. 
So I’ll use that for the rest of the video No State Religion, Warfare, Or Kings The Harappans weren’t like other Bronze Age Civilisations. The other ancient states like Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China all had the following ingredients.
A strict hierarchy of classes. State monopolized use of violence Power focussed on individual leaders, like kings and pharaohs. Centralized state-controlled economies Monumental religious and political structures.
A powerful religious institution with its own hierarchy Strong sense of elitism and exclusivity But we have no evidence of Kings or Priests or Priest-Kings for the Harappans. There are no royal tombs or palaces. No evidence for a state religion. No temples, pyramids, or ziggurats. No signs of an army, weapons, slaves, or a powerful political capital.
Now the Harappans weren’t some peaceful utopia, a State can’t exist without violence. But it seems they had no natural enemies and they themselves seemed more interested in trade than conquest. All Harappan citizens seem to have lived relatively equal lives too.
Rather than building palaces and temples, the Harappans seemed to focus on building public baths and sewage systems. We have no idea how the Harappan government worked. But the Harappan Civilisation may have been split up into many different Domains each governed by a major city. 
Rather than kings, there may have been village, town, city, and then regional councils, all overseen by a supreme “Harappan Council ”. So rather than a Harappan Empire or Kingdom, it was probably a Harappan Federation, which makes it sound very futuristic.
One of the defining features of Harappan culture is how well planned their cities and towns were. They tended to focus on 3 main aspects like:
  1. Water
Water, drainage, and bathing held an almost religious significance in Harappan city planning. Every Harappan home had a dedicated bathing room, used daily. Built with watertight brick floors. These floors sloped towards a small drain usually cut into the house wall. This drain brought dirty water out of the house and into a brick-lined sewage system underneath the main streets and channeled water out of the city.
Some bathing rooms had a small staircase so someone else could pour water over the bather like a kind of proto-shower. Excavations at Harappa have uncovered toilets in almost every house. They were usually big pots sunk into the floor. Although some at Mohenjo-Daro had seats. Waste from the toilets was directed into the drains and out of the city or into large jars sunk into the ground outside the home like an early septic tank.
The Harappans had multistoried buildings. When the water had to be drained from upstairs, drains were often built inside or along the walls. This safely brought water and waste from higher floors down to street level drains without soaking people below. Which would have been a hazard the citizens of cities like Rome dealt with.
We’ve found quite a few ceramic toys in Harappan drains. It seems that Harappan children may have been the first to bring toys into the bath with them. This could be the earliest prototype of the rubber ducky. Other toys like puppets and carts along with miniature cooking tools and other toy furniture have also been found.
Amongst all the ruins of the Harappans, The Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro stands out. Nothing like it has been found in any other Harappan site.
The Great Bath seems to be the only Harappan building with some sort of religious significance. This public bath is an impressive building, multistoried with a 2.4m deep bathing pool in the center. The pool is made from precisely fitted burnt bricks coated with a layer of tar. Making this one of the earliest examples of waterproofing in history.
Here you can see the well and drain used to fill and empty the pool.
We have no idea who used the Great Bath or why, but ritual bathing seems to be our best guess. The dedication put towards building such an impressive structure and its symbolic location in the largest Harappan city speaks volumes to the importance of water and bathing in Harappan society.
Other impressive feats of water control include Dholavira’s massive 16 man-made water reservoirs that surrounded the city and make it appear to float. And Lothals dock and canal system.
2. Standardisation
Harappan cities were usually hundreds of km apart compared to Mesopotamian cities which were on average just 20km apart. The Harappan state-maintained almost complete uniformity over these massive distances.
Uniformity like standardized bricks. At every single Harappan site we’ve found bricks that follow the exact same ratio, 1:2:4. This guaranteed good building standards across the Harappan world. Standardization extended to units of weight. Cubical stone weights across big Harappan cities down to small farming villages. The smallest weight was 0.856g and the average weight was 13.7g.
3. City Planning
The main streets of Harappan cities were usually oriented north-south and east-west. These generally divided Harappan settlements into blocks. Narrow and often crooked lanes ran off the main streets, so the cities were not built in an exact grid pattern. Access to the houses was from these lanes, avoiding the dust and noise of the main streets.
Walls usually surrounded Harappan settlements. There was usually a separately walled area built on a man-made mound known as a “citadel”. Here you would find most of the important buildings, like warehouses, granaries, and at Mohenjo-Daro, the Great Bath. These citadels seem to have been built as a defense against floods rather than armies though.
For example, Mohenjo-Daro was built on two massive mounds that raised the city above the Indus River’s floodplain. The walls supported the mounds and added extra flood defense.
Mohenjo-Daro’s higher western mound was the Citadel; it’s about 12m above the plain. While a lower eastern mound held the Lower Town. This Lower Town housed between 40-80,000 people. Buildings these mounds was a huge investment. It is estimated to have taken 10,000 workers about 400 days to complete. All that work just to put the “foundations” of Mohenjo-Daro down.
When the city was founded about 700 brick-lined wells were built to provide drinking water. No new wells were built over the many centuries of the city’s existence. So the city’s founders took the growth of the city into account when they built all 700.
In some Harappan cities, we’ve found the remains of brick platforms and trees planted alongside streets to provide public seating and shade. And we’ve even found large jars half sunk into the ground into which rubbish could be thrown. Which would then be brought to a nearby dump.

Behistun Inscription

Without the Rosetta Stone or Behistun Inscriptions, we never would have deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs or Mesopotamian Cuneiform. Which has given us a wealth of information on both of those civilizations. We have nothing that useful to decipher Harappan writing and so it remains undeciphered to this day.
All we have to work with is the short inscriptions they left behind on these tiny stone seals. Every seal has an image usually of an animal and an inscription.
The most common image on the seals seems to be this chunky unicorn, those are archeologists’ words, not mine. Calling this a unicorn is a bit of a stretch!
We’ve found thousands of Harappan seals. They seem to have had about 450 signs and the script is logo-syllabic, like Chinese or Ancient Maya, which means each symbol stood for a word or syllable. It seems to have been written from right-to-left as we can see from seeing this scribe run out of space on the left side. The seals could have been used like stamps but it seems that they were more often used like identity cards or passports.
Any Harappan writing on paper or papyrus has been destroyed by the passage of time. This may be why we’ve only found about 450 mostly repetitive signs. There could be a bias towards what kinds of words were written on seals, such as names or jobs, and if we found a written document on paper much more common words and so more signs would appear. Imagine if people tried to reconstruct the English language using only the words that appeared on passports.

Food and Animals

The Harappan people were mostly farmers and herders. Barley and wheat were the main crops. And we can see the beginnings of South Asia’s spice obsession with the Harappans. Garlic, turmeric, ginger, cumin, and cinnamon, were grown. Luckily only 1 trace of coriander has been found. 
Cattle and water buffalo were the most important domesticated animals. Followed by sheep and goats. Chickens, camels, and even elephants may have been domesticated too.
We’ve found tons of Harappan dog figurines, some wearing collars which suggests that they had doggos. And possibly house cats. Pawprints made by a cat can be seen in a brick at Chanhu-Daro that was drying as a cat ran across, followed by a chasing dog.
In most parts of the world when people settled down to start farming they, to use a historian’s term, super murdered the hunter-gatherer societies around them. The Harappans traded with them instead.
Hunter-Gatherers could collect exotic products like honey, wax, ivory, silk, and wild plants. In exchange, they received Harappan crops and manufactured goods like bronze tools.
The Harappans also used the constantly moving hunter-gatherers and pastoral herders to move goods between their cities, like a Harappan FedEx.
But most Harappan internal trade was conducted along the huge rivers they controlled and foreign trade was mostly done over the sea.


We know that between 2600—1900 BCE the Harappans traded with the Arabian Gulf, Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and Iran. Before we invented radiocarbon dating the only way we could date the Harappan Civilisation was because we found their seals in Mesopotamia. Being able to read Mesopotamian records made it possible to place the Harappans in time.
Around 2600-2300BCE Mesopotamian records began mentioning trade done with a far-off land known as Meluhha. This was their name for the Harappans.
Mesopotamian texts mention the following items as imports from Meluhha: lapis lazuli, gold, silver, copper, timber, ebony, ivory, tortoiseshell, chicken, buffalo, peacock, dog, cat, and monkey apparently.
Harappan merchants seem to have been a common sight in Mesopotamia. But Mesopotamia merchants never seem to have sailed outside of the Gulf. Which suggests that the Harappans were the better merchants and sailors. This along with the fact that they were shipping bulky goods like timber and wild animals also shows us that they had pretty big ships.
Very few Mesopotamian artifacts appear in the Harappan realm, so we have no idea what the Harappans were trading all their goods for. We have discovered a toiletry set with a copper ear scoop and tweezers at Harappa. So luxury or manufactured goods could have been what the Harappans wanted.
Harappan sailors acted a lot like sailors of later times since we’ve discovered ivory dice for games and gambling at sites they visited.
More than 1,000km from Harappa is an isolated Harappan town, Shortugai located in modern Afghanistan. We’ve found Harappan seals there and houses built to Harappan design with bricks using the Harappan ratio. This was a Harappan colony. 
The Harappans used Shortugai to control the nearby Lapis Lazuli mines. This allowed the Harappans to monopolize the ancient world’s supply of lapis lazuli.
Interestingly the Harappans didn’t much care for lapis and used it entirely for export. This trade made the Harappans incredibly rich.


But after 700 years of prosperity, the Harappan Civilisation went into a sudden decline around 1900 BCE.
Cities stopped following strict plans, drains were no longer maintained, the Great Bath filled with rubbish, and the art of writing was forgotten.
But there is no evidence for massacres, battles, or sieges at any Harappan sites. So the Harappans didn’t meet a violent end. Factors such as a reduction in trade, climate change, disease, and civil strife all probably played a role in their collapse. But it seems that the Saraswati river played the biggest role.
As we saw earlier there was a dense cluster of Harappan cities along the Saraswati River. This area was their “breadbasket” Around 1900BCE the river began to dry up for reasons still being studied. Links discussing this are in the description.
As the crops died and cities were starved of water the Harappans along the Saraswati fled their homes in search of greener pastures. Some seem to have moved towards the Ganges, which would become the new center of North Indian Civilisation. Others simply went back to a simpler style of living in small villages. By 1300BCE the entire Harappan system was gone.
The memory of the Harappan Civilisation. Their great cities. Their beliefs, their language, and their writing system disappeared under the earth that once sustained them until they were rediscovered 4,000 years later.
The Harappans were one of the greatest Bronze Age Civilisations. But they weren’t the only ones. The Bronze Age saw the rise of urban societies, vast trading empires, and military powers. From Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia all the way to Ancient China. 
How did this come about, and why did it end? Well, that is all explained in The Bronze Age a 3 part documentary series over on CuriosityStream. Curiosity Stream is a documentary streaming service that will give you access to thousands of documentaries including some featuring top names like David Attenborough and Stephen Hawking, along with exclusive originals. 
So that was a basic overview of the Harappan or Indus Civilisation. It isn’t even close to covering everything. One video simply can’t cover everything. But as always further reading and all the sources used are in the description. If you liked this content please shear.

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