Indus River Valley Civilizations

The Indus Valley

And The Genesis Of South Asian Civilization

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi


Like Sumer, Egypt, and other early civilizations in the Middle East,

civilizations first developed in East and South Asia in the vicinity of great

river systems. When irrigated by the massive spring floods of the Yellow

River, the rich soil of the North China plain proved a superb basis for what

has been the largest and most enduring civilization in human history.

Civilization first developed in the Indus River valley in present-day Pakistan

in the middle of the 3d millennium B.C., more than a thousand years earlier

than it did in China. In fact, the civilization of the Indus valley, usually

called Harappan after its chief city, rivals Sumer and Egypt as humanity's

oldest. But like Sumer and its successor civilizations in the Middle East,

Harappan civilization was unable to survive natural catastrophes and nomadic

invasions. In contrast to the civilization of the Shang rulers in China around

1500 B.C., Harappa vanished from history. Until the mid-19th century it was

"lost" or forgotten, even by the peoples who lived in the vicinity of its

sand-covered ruins. Important elements of Harappan society were transmitted to

later civilizations in the Indian subcontinent. But unlike the Shang kingdom,

Harappa did not survive to be the core and geographical center from which a

unified and continuous civilization developed like that found in China. The

difference in the fate of these two great civilizations provides one of the

key questions in dealing with the history of civilized societies: What factors

permitted some civilizations to endure for millennia while others rose and

fell within a few centuries?

Between about 1500 and 1000 B.C., as the great cities of the Indus region

crumbled into ruins, nomadic Aryan invaders from central Asia moved into the

fertile Indus plains and pushed into the Ganges River valleys to the east. It

took these unruly, warlike peoples many centuries to build a civilization that

rivaled that of the Harappans. The Aryans concentrated on assaulting Harappan

settlements and different Aryan tribal groups. As peoples who depended

primarily on great herds of cattle to provide their subsistence, they had

little use for the great irrigation works and advanced agricultural technology

of the Indus valley peoples. Though they conserved some Harappan beliefs and

symbols, the Aryan invaders did little to restore or replace the great cities

and engineering systems of the peoples they had supplanted.

Eventually, however, many of the Aryan groups began to settle down, and

increasingly they relied on farming to support their communities. By about 700

B.C., their priests had begun to orally record the sacred hymns and ritual

incantations that had long been central to Aryan culture. In the following

centuries, strong warrior leaders built tribunal units into larger kingdoms.

The emergence of priestly and warrior elites signaled the beginning of a new

pattern of civilization in South Asia. By the 6th century B.C., the renewal of

civilized life in India was marked by the emergence of great world religions,

such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and a renewal of trade, urban life, and

splendid artistic and architectural achievements.

The early development of civilization in China combined the successive

phases of advancement of Mesopotamian history with the continuity of Egyptian

civilization. Civilization in China coalesced around 1500 B.C. Chinese

civilization emerged gradually out of Neolithic farming and potterymaking

cultures that had long been present in the Yellow River region of East Asia.

The establishment of the Shang kingdom at this point in time gave political

expression to a combination of civilizing trends. The appearance of a

distinctive and increasingly specialized elite supported by the peasant

majority of the Chinese people, the growth of towns and the first cities, the

spread of trade, and the formulation of a written language all indicated that

a major civilization was emerging in China.

Though the political dominance of the Shang came to an end in 1122 under

the new royal house of the Zhou, civilized development in China was enriched

and extended as the Chinese people migrated east and south from their original

Yellow River heartland. By the end of the Zhou era, which would last

officially until 256 B.C., many of the central elements in Chinese

civilization, one of humankind's oldest, were firmly established. Some of

those elements have persisted to the present day.

The Indus Valley And The Genesis Of South Asian Civilization

Great torrents of water from the world's highest mountain range, the

Himalayas, carved out the vast Indus River system that was to nurture the

first civilization in the Indian subcontinent. As the rapidly running mountain

streams reached the plains of the Indus valley, they branched out into seven

great rivers, of which five remain today. These rivers in turn converge midway

down the valley to form the Indus River, which runs for hundreds of miles to

the southwest and empties into the Arabian Sea. The streams that flow from

high in the Himalayas are fed by monsoon rains. Rain clouds are carried from

the seas surrounding the Indian subcontinent by monsoons - seasonal winds -

across the lowlands to the mountains where, cooled and trapped, they release

their life-giving waters. These "summer" or wet monsoons, which blow toward

central Asia from the sea, are also a critical source of moisture for the

plains and valleys they cross before they reach the mountain barriers. The

streams from the mountains also carry prodigious amounts of rich soil to these

plains, constantly enlarging them and giving them the potential for extensive

cultivation and dense human habitation. The Indus is only one of many river

systems in the Indian subcontinent formed by melting snow and monsoon rains,

but it was the first to nurture a civilization.

The lower Indus plains were a very different place in the 3d millennium

B.C. than they are today. Most of the region is now arid and desolate,

crisscrossed by dried-up riverbeds and virtually devoid of forests. In

Harappan times, it was green and heavily forested. Game animals and pasturage

for domesticated animals were plentiful. Long before the first settlements

associated with the Harappan complex appeared, the plains were dotted with the settlements of sedentary agriculturists. By at least 3000 B.C., these pre-Harappan peoples cultivated wheat and barley, and had developed

sophistacated agricultural implements and cropping techniques.

The pre-Harappan peoples knew how to make bronze weapons, tools, and

mirrors, and they had mastered the art of potterymaking. Recurring motifs,

such as bulls and long-horned cattle on elaborately decorated bowls and

storage urns, suggest links to early agricultural communities in the Middle

East, while fish designs indicate a preoccupation with what was probably a

major source of food. The long-horned bull was a central image in the Harappan

culture and remains important in Indian iconography, the art of pictorial

representation. Pre-Harappan peoples in the Indus valley also carved large

numbers of small figurines of women. These statuettes differ from those found

in many other early cultures in the detailed attention given to hairstyles and

jewelry. Early village sites also contained tiny carts with clay wheels that

may be the earliest children's toys yet discovered.

The Discovery And Mystery Of Harappa

In the late 1850s, the British were directing the building of railway

lines through the Indus valley. In need of bricks for the railway bed, the

engineers allowed the construction workers to plunder those bricks found in

the dirt mounds of long-abandoned cities in the valley. A British general

named Cunningham, who would later be the head of the Indian Archeological

Survey, visited one of these sites in 1856. While there, he was given a number

of artifacts including several soapstone seals imprinted with various

carvings, including the figure of a bull and what were apparently letters in a

script. Cunningham was convinced that the artifacts were of ancient origin and

was intrigued by the strange script, which bore little resemblance to that of

any of the languages then in use in various parts of India. As head of the

archeological survey, Cunningham took steps to ensure the full-scale

excavation of what came to be recognized as one of the earliest and most

mysterious of all human civilizations.

Today the script still has not been deciphered and much of the original

mystery remains. But decades of extensive excavation at the original site and

hundreds of other sites throughout the Indus valley have uncovered a huge

complex of cities and villages that made up the first civilization in South

Asia. The evidence found so far indicates that Harappan civilization developed

quite rapidly in the middle centuries of the 3d millennium B.C. There are

sharp divergences from the village cultures that preceded it in levels of

material culture, scale, and organization. Equally notable is the lack of

strong resemblances to other early civilizations to the west of Mesopotamia,

which indicates that Harappa was not a colony. Skeletal remains, however, show that the dominant human type of the peoples who built the civilization was a tall, long faced, dark-haired strain much like those from the Mediterranean


The civilization was anchored on two cities: Harappa in the north on one

of the five great rivers that forms the Indus, and Mohenjo-daro, 400 miles to

the south on the banks of the Indus proper. These cities formed the town

capitals of a complex of smaller urban centers and villages that covered an

area four times the size of Sumer and twice the size of Egypt during the Old

Kingdom. That the many sites associated with the Harappan complex were part of one civilization has been established due to excavations of layer after layer of cities and towns rebuilt in the same way, with the same proportions, at the same locations.

The Great Cities

Though hundreds of miles apart, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were remarkably similar in layout and construction. Both were built on a square grid pattern that was divided by main thoroughfares into 12 smaller and precisely measured grids. Each of the cities was surrounded by walls, which extended one mile from east to west and one-half mile from north to south. The buildings of the cities and the surrounding walls were made of standardized kiln-dried bricks. Controlled building on such a massive scale would have required an autocratic government with the capacity to organize and supervise the daily tasks of large numbers of laborers. This control appears to have extended to the

Harappans' domestic lives as well.

The existence of a strong ruling class is also indicated by the presence

of large and well-fortified citadels in each of the capital cities. These

citadels served as sanctuaries for the cities' populations in times of attack

and as community centers in times of peace. The citadel at Mohenjo-daro

included a very large building that may have been a palace. Both citadels

contained what are believed to have been audience and assembly halls or places

of worship, and bathing tanks for public use. The elaborately decorated bath

at Mohenjo-daro was surrounded by a cloister, which opened onto many small

rooms that may have housed priests of the city's cults. Large granaries were

located near each of the citadels, which suggest that the state stored grain

for ceremonial purposes, times of shortage, and possibly the regulatation of

grain production and sale.

Though the main avenues of the cities were straight and about 30 feet

wide, the lanes and paths in the cities' quarters were narrow and twisting.

Brick houses of one to three stories were jumbled together in these areas,

which must have been densely populated at the height of Harappan civilization.

The layout of the houses was strikingly uniform in that each consisted of a

courtyard surrounded by rooms for sleeping, cooking, and, in the larger homes,

receiving visitors. Entrance to the houses was gained through a long

passageway from the street, which in combination with few windows reflects a

concern for security. The lack of ornamentation on the houses and the

dun-colored brick walls must have given the cities a very drab appearance.

Each of the homes had a bathing area and drains that emptied into a covered,

citywide sewage system, which was the best in the ancient world. The Harappans apparently bathed standing up by pouring pitchers of water over their bodies.

Some scholars believe that bathing was related to religious rituals rather

than hygiene.

Harappan Culture And Society

The great cities and many towns of the Harappan complex were supported by a rather advanced agricultural system based on the cultivation of wheat, rye,

peas, and possibly rice. Cotton was widely cultivated and numerous

domesticated animals were reared. It is likely that irrigation systems were

built to catch and control waters from the monsoon and the rivers, and that

fish caught in the rivers provided an additional dietary staple.

The cities of Harappa were major trading centers. The mysterious seals

from the Indus civilization have been found in urban ruins as far away as

Sumer in Mesopotamia. Jade from present-day China and precious jewels from

what is now Burma have been unearthed at various Indus sites. Despite these

overseas contacts, Harappan peoples appear to have been intensely conservative

and highly resistant to innovations introduced from the outside. They cast

tools and weapons in bronze, but most of their tools were inferior to those of

Mesopotamian peoples with whom they had contacts, and their weapons were even more primitive. They lacked swords, tipped their spears with bronze points so thin that they would crumble on contact, and used stone for their arrowheads.

These shortcomings may have proven fatal to the survival of the Harappan


Harappan society was dominated by a powerful priestly class that ruled

from the citadel of each of the capitals. Though there may have been

specialized warriors, the priests appear to have been the main coordinators of

fortress construction and preparation for defense. The location of granaries

and artisan dwellings near the citadels indicates that the priests may have

also overseen handicraft production and supervised both regional and

long-distance trade.

The priests derived their impressive control over city and town dwellers

from their role as the intermediaries between the Harappan populace and a

number of gods and goddesses, whose provision of fertility was of paramount

concern. Several of the gods are depicted on the undeciphered seals that are

dominated by a naked male figure with a horned head and a fierce facial

expression. On some of the seals he is pictured in a crossed-legged posture of

meditation similar to that which was later known as the lotus position.

Numerous figurines of females, also naked except for a great deal of jewelry,

have been found. These "mother goddesses" appear to have been objects of

worship for the common people, while the horned god was apparently favored by the priests and upper classes.

The obsession with fertility was also reflected in the veneration of

sacred animals, especially bulls, and by the large quantity of phallic-shaped

objects that have been found at Harappan sites. Along with a handful of

superbly carved figurines of male notables, dancing girls, and animals, these

cult objects represent the pinnacle of artistic expression for the rather

unimaginative and practical-minded peoples of Harappa.

The control exhibited by the uniformity and rigid ordering of Harappan

culture would not have been possible without an extensive administrative class

serving the priests. It is probable that members of this class and possibly

wealthy mercantile families lived in the large two- and three-story houses.

Characteristically, size - not decoration - set their dwellings off from the

artisans, laborers, and slaves that made up the rest of the urban population.

Outside of the two great cities, the subjects of the priest-rulers were

agriculturists, whose surplus production was essential to urban life and the

maintenance of very vulnerable defenses against natural calamities and human


The Slow Demise Of Harappan Civilization

It was once widely accepted that Harappan civilization was the victim of

assaults by nomadic invaders eager to claim the rich Indus valley as

pasturelands for their herds of cattle. A dramatic vision of a wave of

"barbarian" invaders smashing town dwellers' skulls made for good storytelling

but bad history. Archeological investigations carried out in recent decades

demonstrate rather conclusively that Harappa declined gradually in the middle

centuries of the 2d millennium B.C. The precise causes of that decline remain

a matter of dispute. The later layers of building at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro

as well as at other sites show a clear deterioration in the quality of

construction and building materials. There also are a few smashed skulls, but

these have been dated somewhat earlier than the period when the civilization

disappears from history.

It is likely that a combination of factors led to Harappa's demise. There

is evidence of severe flooding at Mohenjo-daro and other sites. Short-term

natural disasters may have compounded the adverse effects of long-term

climatic changes. Shifts in the monsoon pattern and changes in temperature may

have begun the process of desertification that eventually transformed the

region into the arid steppe that it has remained for most of recorded history.

Rapid changes in types of pottery suggest a series of sudden waves of migrants

into the region. It is possible that the Harappans were too weak militarily to

prevent these incoming peoples from settling in or taking over their towns and


The marked decline in the quality of building and town planning indicates

that the priestly elite was losing control. Some of the migrants probably were

bands of Aryan herders who entered the Indus region over an extended period of time, rather than in militant waves. But the Aryan pastoralists may have consciously destroyed or neglected the dikes and canals on which the agrarian

life of the Harappan peoples depended. Extensive cattle raising would then

have replaced intensive crop cultivation, further undermining the economic

basis of the civilization. That there was a good deal of violent conflict in

this transition cannot be ruled out. Groups of skeletons in postures of flight

have been found on the stairways at some sites. There is evidence of

burned-out settlements and the flight of refugees through the passes into the

Himalayas to the north. Thus, a combination of factors brought an end to

India's first civilization. These factors also gave rise to an extended

transition period, dominated increasingly by the nomadic Aryan invaders.

Analysis: The Legacy Of Asia's First Civilizations

In their size, complexity, and longevity, the first civilizations to

develop in South Asia and China match and in some respects surpass the

earliest civilizations that arose in Mesopotamia and Egypt. But the long-term

impact of the Harappan civilization of the Indus basin and the Shang-Zhou

civilization in north China was strikingly different. The loess zone and north

China plain where the Shang and Zhou empires took hold became the center of a

continuous civilization that was to last into the 20th century A.D., and, many

historians would argue, to the present day. Though regions farther south, such

as the Yangtze basin, would in some time periods enjoy political, economic,

and cultural predominance within China, the capital and center of Chinese

civilization repeatedly returned to the Yellow River area and the north China

plain. The Indus valley proved capable of nurturing a civilization that

endured for over a thousand years. But when Harappa collapsed, the plains of

the Indus were bypassed in favor of the far more lush and extensive lands in

the basin of the Ganges River network to the east. Though the Indus would

later serve, for much shorter time spans, as the seat of empires, the core

areas of successive Indian civilization were far to the east and south.

The contrast between the fate of the original geographical centers of

Indian and Chinese civilizations is paralleled by the legacy of the

civilizations themselves. Harappa was destroyed and it disappeared from

history for thousands of years. Though the peoples who built the Indus complex

left their mark on subsequent Indian culture, they did not pass on the

fundamental patterns of civilized life that had evolved. Their mother goddess

and the dancing god of fertility endured, and some of their symbols, such as

the swastika and lingam (usually stone, phallic images), were prominent in

later artistic and religious traditions. Harappan tanks or public bathing

ponds remain a centralefeature of Indian cities, particularly in the south.

Their techniques of growing rice and cotton were preserved by cultivating

peoples fleeing nomadic invaders, and were later taken up by the newly arrived

Indo-Aryan tribes.

Virtually everything else was lost. In contrast to the civilizations of

Mesopotamia, which fell but were replaced by new civilizations that preserved

and built on the achievements of their predecessors, much of what the Harappan

peoples had accomplished had to be redone by later civilized peoples. The

cities of the Indus civilization were destroyed and comparable urban centers

did not reappear in South Asia for hundreds or, by some scholars' reckoning,

thousands of years. Their remarkably advanced standards for the measurement of

distance and weight ceased to be used. Their system of writing was forgotten,

and when rediscovered, it was celebrated as an intriguing but very dead

language from the past. Harappan skills in community planning, sewage control,

and engineering were meaningless to the nomadic peoples who took control of

their homelands. The Harappan penchant for standardization, discipline, and

state control was profoundly challenged by the brawling, independent-minded

warriors who supplanted them as masters of the Indian subcontinent.

In contrast to the civilization of the Indus valley, the original

civilization of China has survived nomadic incursions and natural catastrophes

and profoundly influenced the course of all Chinese history. Shang irrigation

and dike systems and millet and wheat cultivation provided the basis upon

which subsequent dynasties innovated and expanded. Shang and Zhou walled towns

and villages surrounded with stamped earth have persisted as the predominant

patterns of settlement throughout Chinese history. The founders of the Shang

and Zhou dynasty have been revered by scholar and peasant alike as

philosopher-kings who ought to be emulated by leaders at all levels. The Shang

and Zhou worship of Heaven and their ancestral veneration have remained

central to Chinese religious belief and practice for thousands of years. The

concept of the Mandate of Heaven has been pivotal in Chinese political

thinking and organization.

Above all, the system of writing that developed in connection with Shang

oracles developed into the key means of communication between the elites of

the many peoples who lived in the core regions of Chinese civilization. The

scholar-bureaucrats who both developed this written language and profited the

most from it soon emerged as the dominant force in Chinese culture and

society. Chinese characters provided the basis for the educational system and

bureaucracy that were to hold Chinese civilization together through thousands

of years of invasions and political crises. In contrast to India, many of the

key ingredients of China's early civilizations have remained central

throughout Chinese history. This persistence has made for a continuity of

identity that is unique to the Chinese people.

It has also meant that China, like the early civilizations of

Mesopotamia, was one of the great sources of civilizing influences in human

history as a whole. Though the area affected by ideas and institutions

developed in China was less extensive than that to which the peoples of

Mesopotamia bequeathed writing, law, and their other great achievements,

contacts with the Chinese led to the spread of civilization to Japan, Korea,

and Vietnam. Writing and political organization were two areas in which the

earliest formulations of Chinese civilization vitally affected other peoples.

In later periods Chinese thought and other modes of cultural expression such

as art, architecture, and etiquette also strongly influenced the growth of

civilized life.

China's technological innovation was to have an impact on civilized

development on a global scale comparable to that of early Mesopotamia.

Beginning with the increasingly sophisticated irrigation systems, the Chinese

have devised a remarkable share of humankind's basic machines and engineering

principles. In the Shang-Zhou era they also pioneered key manufacturing

processes such as sericulture - the manufacture of silk cloth through the

domestication of silkworms.

The reasons for the differing legacies of India and China are numerous

and complex. But critical to the disappearance of the first and the resilience

of the second were different patterns of interaction between the sedentary

peoples who built the early civilizations and the nomadic herders who

challenged them. In the Indian case, the nomadic threat was remote, perhaps

nonexistent for centuries. The Harappan peoples were deficient in military

technology and organization. When combined with natural calamities, the waves

of warlike nomads migrating into the Indus region proved too much for the

Harappan peoples to resist or absorb. The gap between the nomads' herding

culture and the urban, agriculture-based Harappan civilization was too great

to be bridged. Conflict between them may well have proven fatal to a

civilization long in decline.

The loess regions of northern China were open to invasions or migrations

on the part of the nomadic herding peoples who lived to the north and west.

Peoples from these areas were moving almost continuously into the core zones

of Chinese civilization. The constant threat the nomads posed forced the

peoples of the north China plain to develop the defenses and military

technology essential to defending against nomadic raids or bids for lasting

conquest. Contrasting cultures and ways of life enhanced the sense of identity

of the cultivating peoples. The obvious nomadic presence prodded these same

peoples to unite under strong rulers against the outsiders who did not share

Chinese culture. Constant interaction with the nomads led the Shang peoples to

develop a culture that was malleable and receptive to outside influences,

social structures, and political systems. Nomadic energies reinvigorated and

enriched the kingdom of the Shang and Zhou, in contrast to India where they

proved catastrophic for the relatively isolated and unprepared peoples of



Beginnings And Transitions

The spread of the Aryan pastoralists into the hills and plains of

northern and eastern India between 1500 and 500 B.C. and the establishment and

decline of the Zhou kingdom in the latter half of the same time span marked

key transition phases in the development of civilization in India and China.

But in each case a very different sort of transition occurred. Like

Mesopotamia, the well-watered Indus valley had given rise to one of

humankind's earliest civilizations. In contrast to the succession of more

limited civilized centers that arose in Mesopotamia, Harappa extended over the

largest territory of any of the first civilizations, and it existed without

interruption for over a millennium. Its longevity invites comparison with

Egypt. But Egypt proved more able than either Harappa or individual

Mesopotamian civilizations to absorb massive invasions of nomadic peoples.

Faced with major climatic shifts, the Harappans proved unable to also

withstand the steady and prolonged pressure of the Aryan incursions. Thus, the

dominance of these invaders in the Harappan core regions and much of the rest

of northern India by 1000 B.C. meant the end of India's first civilization.

The Zhou conquest and later the slow disintegration of the Zhou dynasty

represented a continuation rather than a break in the development of

civilization in China. Though civilization arose later in China than in the

other three original centers in the Eastern Hemisphere, like the others it

emerged independently and resulted in a distinctive pattern of development. In

its capacity to endure, China resembled Egypt more than Mesopotamia or


Perhaps as a result, the Chinese proved the most adept at absorbing and

assimilating outside invaders while preserving their own sense of identity and

their basic beliefs and institutions. The Chinese both originated and

perpetuated these key ingredients for thousands of years. The conquering Zhou

did not destroy Chinese society and culture; they were assimilated by them so

thoroughly that they became Chinese. Thus, though the Zhou period brought

major changes in the nature and direction of civilized development in China,

fundamental themes and patterns persisted from the Shang era, and the Zhou

rulers strove to conserve and build upon the achievements of their


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