Category Archives: b. The Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization

The ancient civilization of the Indus Valley is arguably one of the oldest and largest ancient civilizations discovered in the world today. With its roots buried deep some 4 millennia ago (2500BCE) and covering an area of over 1.3 million km2, this civilization prospered greatly in Pakistan and the north west of the Indian Subcontinent (see Rodrigues 8 and Chattopadhyay 32). It was essentially a culture of the plains; reaching but never crossing the sub-Himalayan foothills. The number of people living here is nearly impossible to tell but scholars have maintained that the sites had at least 250 000 inhabitants (see Habib 22). The main excavation sites of the Indus Valley were two large and complex cities; Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Harappa; the oldest city was discovered in the 1820’s by British settlers. Because it is the oldest city, the people indigenous to the Indus Valley area were designated, “The Harappans” (see Hawkes 263-64).

In 1922 the ruins of another large city center, Mohenjodaro, was discovered by an Indian archeologist. Within this compound they found pottery, seals, and weights; all similar to those found in Harappa (see Rodrigues 8). Also, there were most likely ports involved with trade along the Persian Gulf (see Hawkes 265-68). There were seals with images of river vessels further increasing the likelihood of over-sea trade. The seals found in the Indus Valley cities have been found in Persian cites (see Habib 32). The bricks that were used within the confines of the city are cast in the same ways as those found in modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Within Mohenjodaro, a large bathing tank has been excavated, looking much like the Hindu bathing tanks of today, exemplifying the ancient Harappans had a definite knowledge or ritualized practice of religion advanced for their time. On many seals excavated from both sites, there is a horned, ithyphallic creature in a seemingly yoga-looking posture, which; though it has not been confirmed, some scholars think may be a type of proto-Siva icon (see Chattopadhyay 32-38).

Along with this seeming proto-Siva, archeologists have uncovered what some suggest to be male linga and female yoni stones; symbols traditionally representative of Siva (see Rodrigues 11). The Harappans had a talent for animal art. Models of terracotta monkeys and other animals were carefully crafted. Even finer were the carvings of sacred animals such as the bull on some of their seals. As masterfully crafted as they are, there is seemingly no distinct style of the times as one would normally expect of sculptors at the time (see Hawkes 277).

The City of Mohenjodaro had impressive infrastructure, complete with a citadel raised 40 feet in the air for protection against invaders. Buildings were raised above ground level on mud platforms to protect from seasonal flooding. It was complete with a full drainage system and docks accessible to shipping and sailing up the Gulf of Cambay. The regularity of the plans for the Indus cities and towns is a strong indicator that each was built as a whole by some type of authority; perhaps some sort of early origins of government (see Hawkes 273). Massive walls, bastions and towers most likely needed soldiers to protect them, giving evidence that whoever this authority was had some type of military or force. Within the citadel there is what looks like an early grain elevator in which the townspeople would store grain products, giving the impression that the people of the time sustained each other in an organized fashion as opposed to an every man for himself mentality (see Hawkes 278).

Indus Valley Artefacts (Musee Guimet, Paris)

The discovery of the grain elevator has shed some light on one of the crucial questions of the Harappans: what did they eat? Findings related to the grain elevator indicate that for the city of Harappa, the main crops were wheat, barley, peas and sesame. The many streams and rivers flowing from the plateaus and mountains made water accessible to grow these types of crops. At Mohenjodaro, the only crops for which there is certain evidence are different types of wheat. There was most likely trade going on between the cities, but it is inconclusive as of now (see Aris and Phillips 206-207).

Although the origins of the Indus Valley Civilization, along with its religion are obscure, there are many theories as to what lead to the rich and diverse culture.

One theory; coined the Aryan Migration Thesis, believed a group called the Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent from the Caucasus Mountains sometime during the Vedic period (1500-500BCE). They brought many things such as the chariot, the wheel and iron. Among these things was also the Vedas. Over time, the Aryans mixed with the elite Dravidians (southerners) and out of this emerged the present day caste system of India. Within this mix, the practice of the Aryan Vedic religion mingled with the Dravidian tribal practices thus creating modern Hinduism (see Rodrigues 12-13 and Kapoor 2002:1357-1364). In support of this thesis, north Indian languages are mostly based on Sanskrit and belong to the Indo-European family of language which includes English. South Indian languages by contrast are Dravidian languages most likely some type or form of Tamil (see Rodrigues 13).

Another theory fewer scholars believe that may have occurred is called, the Cultural Diffusion Hypothesis. This theory states that the Aryans had a sacred Sanskrit language, lived near the Harappans, and the Vedas were conceived near the Indus Valley Civilization. The rich and sophisticated culture created between the Aryans and Harappans eventually diffused into neighboring lands (see Rodrigues 14).

It is important to note however, the Aryans were not as civilized as compared to the urban cultures which they attacked and often ruined. There is no characteristically Aryan pottery or special Aryan tools to describe an Aryan culture. What gave these people importance in history was their nomadic style of herding cattle and their mobility by the use of the chariot (see Kosambi 76-77). In the Indus region however, a ploughed field has been found, along with a terracotta plow and some simple harvesting tools. The Harappans were also the first known civilization to secure underground water via wells (see Habib 24).

One of the major achievements of the Indus Valley was the invention of writing. It is one of the worlds 4 earliest known scripts but there is no identification to how it was created or who created it. The Indus logo-syllabic text consists of short inscriptions of about 4 000 in all, each of about five characters on average. They are mainly found on stamp seals and baked into pottery and molds. When the script is decoded and deciphered, we may learn more about their scientific knowledge and if they had any concept of things like mathematics (see Habib 50).

There are still many parts to this complex civilizations that are yet to be uncovered, but the mystery that surrounds these cites is hoped to be soon discovered. From what we do know about this vast civilization with its infrastructure, language, trading posts and economy, we can only hope to uncover more as we wonder and marvel at what they had already accomplished almost 4 500 years ago.

* It is important to note that the Aryan migration and the diffusion theory are just that; a theory. There is some evidence towards both theories, but none conclusive.

* Also, both the genesis and the demise of the civilization are shrouded in mystery; there is not enough evidence to be sure on either account.

References and Further recommended reading

Kosambi, Damodar Dharmanand (1996) The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline. Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.

Aris and Phillips LTD (1982) Harappan Civilization: a Contemporary Perspective. New Delhi: Oxford & IBH publishing Co. in collaboration with American Institute of Indian Studies.

Kapoor, Aubodh (2002) Ancient Hindu Society. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Rodrigues, Hillary Peter (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York, NY: Routledge Press.

Hawkes, Jaquetta. (1973) The First Great Civilizations: Life in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley,and Egypt. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Chattopadhyay, K.P. (1970) Ancient Indian Culture Contacts and Migrations. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta-12.

Habib, Irfan (2002) The Indus Civilization: Including Other Copper Age Cultures and History of Language change until 1500 BC. Shahpur Jat, New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Powell-Price, John Dadwigan (1958) A History of India. Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, LTD.

Khanna, S.K. (1998) Caste in Indian Politics. New Delhi: Ajay Verma at Koshan Offset Printers.

Dr. Sharma, S.P. (1996) History of Ancient India. New Delhi: Mohit Publications.

Rob, Peter (2002) AHistory of India. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press LCC

Wheeler, Mortimer (1968) The Indus Civilization: Third Edition. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.

Related topics for further Investigation

Aryan Migration thesis
Bathing tanks
Caste System
Caucasus Mountains
Cultural diffusion hypothesis
Indus Valley
Stamp seals
Sub-Himalayan foothills
Vedic Period

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic,M1

Article written by Justin Quintin (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Mohenjodaro and Indus Valley Religion

Mohenjodaro or “heap of the dead” is the largest city excavated of the Indus Valley, or Harappa Civilization. The city flourished between 2600 BCE and 1900 BCE, although the first signs of settlement in the area have been dated to the period of 3500 BCE (Kenoyer 4). Excavation at this level is impossible due to the high water table that makes even simple excavations of Mohenjodaro difficult (Kenoyer 4). The city covers around 200 hectares of land and at its height may have had a population of 85 000 people (Habib 37). The site is located in the modern Larkana district of Sindh province in Pakistan. Mohenjodaro was the largest city in the southern portion of the Indus Valley Civilization and important for trade and governance of this area.

The two largest cities of the Indus Civilization, Harappa and Mohenjodaro, have a similar layout and show signs of civil planning. The Great Mound, or Citadel, dominates the west end of Mohenjodaro. The mound rises 40 feet about the plain at present time; it would have been higher at the time Mohenjodaro was inhabited. The mound runs 400 – 500 yards north to south, and 200 – 300 yards east to west (Habib 41). There is a gap between the mound and the lower city. Because of the large size and separation from the rest of the city, it is thought the mound may have been used for a religious or administrative purpose (Wheeler 47). This hypothesis is strengthened by the architecture found on the top of the mound. The mound at Mohenjodaro consists of two distinct features: the Great Bath and the Granary or Meeting hall. The Great Bath is a sunken tank on the top of the mound, the tank measures 12 meters long, 7 meters wide and is sunk 2.4 meters below the depth of the mud bricks that surround it ( The Great Bath is one of the first aspects of Indus Valley life that can be related to modern Hinduism. The Great Bath may also be related to the concept of River worship, much like the worship of the Ganges today. Mohenjodaro is situated between what use to be two separate rivers it was almost an island. This would have made the rivers a very important resource for the city itself, it would have depended on it for most things: trade, transportation and its way of life. It has been suggested that the people of Mohenjodaro were concerned with ritual purification, much like some Hindus of today. This conclusion draws strength from the existence of the Great Bath on the top of the Citadel and a small stone structure that has been excavated at the top of the great staircase leading to the Citadel. It has been suggested this building was a bathroom for ritual cleansing before you entered the Citadel, as there is a well and drainage system in the building (Wheeler 44).

There are a small number of hard facts related to the religion of the Indus Valley Civilization, as their script has not been deciphered, but we do know they were polytheistic. What insights have been gained about their religion come from the thousands of seals that have been found in Indus Valley sites. Mohenjodaro has been a major contributing site for these seals. In 1977, 68% of the seals that had been found had been uncovered in Mohenjodaro itself (Habib 59). The seals show a wide range of subject matter; some have script on them while others have no inscriptions at all. These seals have been found throughout the Indus Valley, yet the script found on the seals shows no regional variation (Habib 60). Although the seals are diverse in subject matter, there does seem to be some dominant themes running through them. Many of the seals show animals. These animals can be divided into three categorizes: mythical, ambiguous, and actual (Goyal 29). The animals even within these categories are varied too. It has been suggested that the animals on the seals represent the zoomorphic forms of deities, much like the gods of Hinduism today. The Hindus’ deities can take animal form when they desire, or at the very least, have an animal that is associated with then (i.e. their mounts) (Habib 54). One interesting fact is that there are no birds depicted on any seals found to date, just on pottery (Goyal 30).

If the seals were to be used to judge what was important in the religion of the Indus people, then the pipal or asvattha tree would have been of great importance. The tree is depicted on a number of seals that have been found (Goyal 29). The depiction of trees is almost as diverse as the depiction of animals. On some seals, the tree is endowed with a human shape, or has a human head in the top foliage (Goyal 29); in some seals, the trees have rails or wall surrounding them, almost like a sanctuary (Goyal 29).

Indus Valley Seals and Imprints (Musee Guimet, Paris)

There are clues that the Indus Valley people may also have worshiped a Mother Goddess. Many terracotta female figures have been found throughout the empire. Most of these figures have been found within what are assumed private homes leading to the assumption that the Goddess may have been the form of divinity worshipped within the home (Goyal 17). Many of these figures are standing figures that are almost nude or depicted as wearing a girdle or band, an elaborate headdress, collar, and necklace (Goyal 17). Feminine figures are also depicted on many of the Indus seals, thus showing the importance of this feminine figure to the Indus Valley Civilization (Goyal 17). Stones that resemble yoni stones of modern Hinduism have also been found (Wheeler 109). Yoni stones are used to represent the female reproductive organ in modern Hinduism, and it is speculated that the stones found at Mohenjodaro may have had the same function, acting as a representation of the female reproductive principle. This interpretation may just be transference from modern Hinduism to the past in the hopes of better understanding the origin of some aspect of Hinduism.

The people of the Indus Valley also appeared to have worshipped a male god. The most important depiction of a speculated modern Hinduism god is seal number 420 in Mackay’s list (Goyal 19). Many other seals have been found depicting the same figure, but not in the same detail as number 420 (Goyal 19). This seal has been interpreted as depicting a proto-Siva type of figure. The deity has three visible faces, and is seated in a yogic position on a throne flanked by two antelope. The deity is wearing a headdress that has horns, the shape being reminiscent of the crescent moon that modern representations of Siva show on his forehead. Animals also surround the deity and Siva is regarded as the Lord of Animals (Goyal 19). The deity is ithyphallic, and what are thought to be linga stones have been found. Linga stones in modern Hinduism are used to represent the erect male phallus or the male reproductive power of the god Siva, but again these stones may be something entirely different from objects of religious worship (Goyal 19). Even today, Siva is worshiped in both a human form and in that of the phallus. The deity sitting in a yoga-like position suggests that yoga may have been a legacy of the very first great culture that occupied India.

All interpretations that are made about the Indus Valley Civilization may one day be proven wrong, if the script of this civilization is ever deciphered. There have been some people who have claimed to have deciphered the script, but none of their systems have gained wide spread acceptance. Since the script shows consistency across the empire, there can be little doubt that it is some kind of language, but until we can decipher and translate it, the great city of Mohenjodaro will remain awash in controversy and speculation.

Reference List and Related Readings

Goyal, S. R (1984) A Religious History of Ancient India (up to c. 1200 A.D.). Meerut: Urvashi Press.

Habib, Irfan (2002) A People’s History of India 2: The Indus Civilization. Delhi: Chaman Enterprises.

Kenoyer, J. M. & Heuston, K. (2005) The Ancient South Asian World. New York, Oxford University Press.

Kenoyer, J. M. (1998) Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Karachi, Oxford University Press.

Kenoyer, J. M. (2005) Mohenjo-daro: An Ancient Indus Valley Civilization Metropolis.

Possehl, G. L. (2002) The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Walnut Creek, AltaMira Press.

Wheeler, Sir. Mortimer (1968) The Indus Civilization: Supplementary Volume to The Cambridge History of India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Indus Valley Civilization

Indus Valley Seals

Indus Valley Script

Goddess Worship


Nature Worship in Modern Hinduism


Pipal or Asvattha tree

River Worship

Yoni and/or Linga stones

Noteworthy Websites Related to Mohenjodaro

Article written by Shaun Fox (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.