The Magnificent Harappan Culture: the Forgotten Indus Civilization

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Between 3000 and 1500 BCE, a thriving civilization dominated the Indus Valley of Southeast Asia, encompassing most of what is modern-day Pakistan, the current western states of India, southeastern Afghanistan, and the easternmost part of Balochistan, Iran

Between 3000 and 1500 BCE, a thriving civilization virtually unknown to scholars until the Twentieth Century, dominated the Indus Valley of Southeast Asia, encompassing most of what is modern-day Pakistan, the current western states of India, southeastern Afghanistan, and the easternmost part of Balochistan, Iran.

Now recognized by archaeologists as the earliest known urbanized culture of the Indian subcontinent, the Harappan Culture (known as the Indus Valley Civilization), had its earliest roots in the Neolithic cultures that founded the site known as Mehrgarh, dating to approximately 6000 BCE.

From these early beginnings the two great Bronze-Age, fortified cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa (Harappa, believed to have had upwards of 25,000 residents), emerged around 2600 BCE along the Indus River Valley in Punjab and Sindhis that are now believed to have been part of a culture (sometimes referred to as the Cemetary H Culture) whose spiritual and sociological influence eventually reached even farther than those of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, or China.


Harappa (image via

While great deposits of pottery, seals, amulets, and other cultural artifacts have been unearthed at these cities and surrounding areas (many displaying early Indus writing), linguists have thus far been unable to decipher Indus script, and therefore, there is relatively little known for certain about this culture.


First recorded in the early 1800's by a British army deserter named James Lewis, who in 1826 was posing as an American engineer, Lewis noticed the presence of mounded ruins at a small town in Punjab called Harappa. Some thirty years later, archaeologist Alexander Cunningham, who led the Archaeological Survey of India, visited this site in 1853 and 1856, seeking a lost city described by Chinese Buddhists.  While Cunningham confirmed the site’s existence, he had no idea of its age or importance.

By 1872, bricks stolen from the site by the British to build houses and a railway bed resulted in virtually destroying the upper layers of the site. Finally, Cunningham conducted a few shovel tests and subsequently discovered a cache of ancient pottery, stone tools, and stone seals, the details of which he published.  And while his finds generated considerable interest by fellow archaeologists and other scholars, it wasn't till 1920 when John Marshall, then the director of Archaeological Survey of India, began formal excavation at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa.

Stone seals

Marshall concluded that a new civilization had indeed been discovered that was older than ever recorded in that part of the world.  Even so, major excavations were not carried out until 1986 when the late George Dales of University of California at Berkeley established the Harappan Archaeological Project, (HARP), a multidisciplinary study consisting of archaeologists, linguists, historians, and physical anthropologists.

Preliminary findings indicated that although Harappa dated to the Third Millennium BCE, it was between 2600 and 1900 BCE that it apparently reached its height of economic expansion and urban growth, proven by Carbon-14 dating and artifact comparison. During this so-called “Golden Age” of Harappa, the cities saw great advances in craft technology and inter-regional trade as urban expansion developed.  And for the first time in the history of the region, there was evidence of people of different ethnic backgrounds and occupations living together.

"Girl of Mohenjo-daro"

Further excavation showed that between 2800 and 2600 BCE, an epoch termed the “Kot Diji” period, Harappa developed into a thriving economic center which then expanded into several substantial sized towns that covered an area of several modern shopping malls. Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, along with the other Indus Valley cities, clearly had a level of architectural planning that was unparalleled in the ancient world.  The city was laid out in a grid-like pattern with the orientation of streets and buildings according to the cardinal directions. And to facilitate access to other neighborhoods as well as designate private from public areas, the city and streets were methodically engineered.

Among the cities’ many technological advances, drinking water wells were distributed throughout the cities, and a highly sophisticated system of waste removal was built.  All Harappan houses were equipped with latrines, bathing houses, and sewage drains which emptied into larger mains and eventually (and cleverly) deposited the fertile sludge on surrounding agricultural fields. Surprising to archaeologists, the site layouts and artifact styles are uniform throughout the Indus region, suggesting that there was uniform economic and social structure within these cities.

Other indicators of this uniformity are that the bricks used to build the Indus cities are all uniform in size, indicating that a "standard" brick was developed and used throughout the entire region, using weights of remarkable accuracy following a binary decimal system: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, up to 12,800 units, where one unit weighs approximately 0.85 grams. Some of the weights are said to be so tiny and precise that they could have been used by jewelers to measure precious metals.

While archaeologists have been unable to identify markers of a ruling body, it appears that the Harappan and other Indus rulers governed through control of trade and religion, not by military. And despite uncovering an extraordinary body of art and sculpture, there are no monuments apparently erected to glorify warfare or conquered enemies as seen in ancient Rome, Greece, or Egypt.

It is speculated that the rulers might have been wealthy merchants or powerful landlords, or perhaps, led through organized spirituality.  But whomever they were, they apparently displayed their power and status through the use of fine jewelry and seals.  In fact, seals are the most commonly discovered artifacts in Harappan cities, most decorated with animal motifs such as elephants, water buffalo, tigers, and most insightful, unicorns. And most significantly, some are inscribed with figures that are prototypes of Hindu religious figures seen today.

For example, seals have been recovered from throughout the Harappan Culture with the repeated motif of a man sitting in a yogic position surrounded by animals. This is very similar to the Hindu god Shiva, who is known to have been the friend of animals and sat in this yogic position. Other images of a male god have been found, thus indicating the beginnings of Shiva worship, a practice which continues in practice today in India. Discovery of this imagery is particularly significant to archaeologists and Indian historians in that it had long been accepted that the Aryan culture had invaded the Indus Valley and replaced the local culture with their own. This seems unlikely, with evidence indicating that Shiva worship has continued for thousands of years without disruption.


 Images via Wikipedia

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