The Indus civilization, an ancient civilization in South Asia, existed from about 2700 to 1750 BC. It is sometimes referred to as the Harappan civilization, named for the site of Harappa, one of its major centers. Geographically one of the most extensive early civilizations of the Old World, it stretched from north of the Hindu Kush down the entire length of the Indus and beyond into peninsular India; in the west, outposts that extended almost to the present-day Iranian-Pakistani border have been found along the inhospitable Makran coast.
Unlike the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations, which were largely restricted to river valleys and their alluvial plains, remains of the Indus civilization have been found in diverse environmental settings. Its settlements were, however, remarkably similar in layout and material culture. Origins Because its script remains undeciphered, the Indus civilization is known only from archaeological evidence. Its origins traditionally were viewed as the result of the diffusion of farming and technology from more advanced cultures in Mesopotamia and on the Iranian plateau to Baluchistan and ultimately to the Indus Valley.
Today this theory is seen as largely incorrect. Knowledge about early plant and animal domestication in lands east of the Iranian plateau is still obscure, but the results of excavations at the important site of Mehrgarh, at the foot of the Bolan Pass, indicate that large settlements may have existed as early as the 7th millennium BC. Two thousand or more years later sites in eastern Baluchistan and the Indus Valley were larger and more numerous; at some, like Kot Diji on the east bank of the Indus, archaeologists have found various distinctive ceramic objects, such as terra-cotta toy carts.
From this evidence archaeologists speculate that there took place an early, or pre-Harappan, spread of culture from the Punjab south to the Arabian Sea. Scholars differ as to whether or not these early settlements evolved directly into the urban communities of the mature Indus civilization, but it is clear from archaeological research that by the late 4th millennium (c. 3200 BC) large villages were being formed along the entire course of the Indus River. Major Centers The famous cities of the mature Indus civilization were discovered accidentally in the mid-19th century during the construction of a railroad by British engineers.
Although it was correctly surmised at that time that antiquities from Harappa predated the historical period, true archaeological excavations were not begun until the 1920s. During that decade the so-called twin capitals of Indus civilization, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, were excavated under the direction of Sir John Marshall; other important settlements were surveyed by Sir Aurel Stein and N. G. Majumdar. The existence of a great civilization roughly contemporaneous with that of Sumer and of ancient Egypt soon was confirmed. Hundreds of smaller settlements have since been discovered.
Recent archaeological investigation has been concentrated on documenting the beginnings of urban life in the area, and a variety of different types of sites have been excavated, including fishing villages, trading outposts, and what may have been a port. One of the most important centers of Indus civilization was Mohenjo-daro, situated along the west bank of the Indus River, about 320 km (200 mi) north of Karachi, Pakistan. Like most cities of the Indus civilization, it consisted of two major areas of occupation: a high citadel to the west and a lower city of domestic dwellings to the east.
Careful urban planning is evident in the neat arrangement of the major buildings contained in the citadel, including the placement of a large granary and water tank or bath at right angles to one another. The lower city, which was tightly packed with residential units, was also constructed on a grid pattern consisting of a number of blocks separated by major cross streets. Baked-brick houses faced the street, and domestic life was centered around an enclosed courtyard. Sanitation was provided through an extensive system of covered drains running the length of the main streets and connected by chutes with most residences.
Other important centers include the almost identical city of Harappa, located 640 km (400 mi) northeast of Mohenjo-daro, in the Punjab of India, and the nearby but smaller site of Kalibangan, situated farther east along the banks of the now extinct Ghaggar-Hakra River. Both sites follow the familiar plan of a small, high citadel to the west and a lower city to the east, with the streets arranged in a rectilinear grid pattern. Immediately north of the heavily fortified citadel at Harappa, two sets of barracklike dwellings for laborers were excavated alongside enormous granaries for the city’s food supply.
At Kalibangan excavation has revealed a pre-Harappan settlement that underwent drastic change when the site was incorporated into the expanding Indus civilization. Southwest of Kalibangan along the same bed of the ancient Ghaggar-Hakra River, several more cities have been discovered, indicating that at the height of the Indus civilization multiple regional centers may have been built according to a standard plan. Aspects of Indus Culture The Indus people supported themselves by irrigation-based agriculture.
They grew domesticated rice, wheat, and barley, and they may have cultivated dates and cotton. Among the first people in the world known to have kept chickens, they also had dogs, buffalo, and humped cattle. They may also have domesticated pigs, horses, camels, and, possibly, elephants. Archaeologists have long commented on the uniformity and standardization of the material remains of the Indus civilization. Except in outposts along the Makran coast and in its most remote colonies, Indus cities were all built of baked-brick blocks with a standard proportion of length to width to thickness of 4:2:1.
Pottery forms and designs were also remarkably similar throughout the vast area encompassed by the Indus civilization. Few large works of art or pieces of statuary have been discovered, except for several notable examples from Mohenjo-daro and Harappa (see Indian art and architecture). Spears, knives, and other objects of copper and bronze have been found, but most are of rather poor quality. The most developed craft appears to have been the carving and drilling of square stamp seals that depict various domestic animals, such as humped bulls, rhinoceroses, and elephants.
These seals, numbering in the thousands, are the major source of writings in the pictographic Indus script. Attempts to decipher these symbols have so far been unsuccessful, largely because no major inscriptions have been discovered. This lack of evidence has forced some scholars to conclude that the characters do not represent writing in the same sense as Sumerian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics; instead, they may symbolize elaborate heraldic devices or standards that served to identify families and their properties from others.
Three seals from Mohenjo-daro show a seated horned deity surrounded by wild animals, an image that may foreshadow the portrayal of the Hindu god Shiva in his aspect of Pasupati, the Lord of Beasts. The apparent cult of the bull and the emphasis on washing, or ablutions, that are suggested by the material remains raise the fascinating if unanswerable question of the influence of this early pre-Aryan civilization on Hindu practices in historic India. Decline of Indus Civilization
The Indus civilization appears to have declined rapidly in the early 2d millennium BC. The archaeological evidence indicates that the efficient urban administration of Mohenjo-daro had deteriorated by c. 1750 BC, when the construction of houses markedly declined. Evidence has also been discovered of intermittent and devastating floods from this time, and, intriguingly, the remains of 38 corpses were found apparently left unburied in lanes and houses of the latest level of occupation.
Some scholars have postulated a final massacre, possibly by conquering Aryan peoples whose epics refer to their conquest of walled cities. Others have attributed the decline to an ecological catastrophe that created violent and recurrent flooding along the southern course of the Indus. Still others suggest that the Indus civilization may have overextended itself, resulting in its collapse under the combined onslaught of natural disasters and barbarian incursions.