Indus Valley Civilization

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The Indus Valley Civilization was a Bronze Age civilisation in the northwest Indian subcontinent encompassing most of modern-day Pakistan and some regions in northwest India and northeast Afghanistan. The civilisation flourished in the basins of the Indus River wherefore it derives its name. Although some scholars speculate that since the civilisation also existed in the basins of the now dried up Sarasvati River, it should be aptly called the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, while some call it the Harappan Civilization after Harappa, the first of its sites to be excavated in the 1920s. Archaeologists have since discovered more than 1052 sites.

It was one of the three early civilisations of the Old World alongside Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and was also the largest and most widespread of the three with an area covering an expanse of 1.25 million km2. Although its mature phase came around 2600–1900 BCE, archaeologists have discovered that the Harappan people had well-established trade links with Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians as early as 3500 BCE.

Discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization

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The Harappan legend

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In the late 1820s, a British East India Company soldier and explorer, James Lewis, visited the small village of Harappa of which he later wrote an account of in the book Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, & Kalat written under his pseudonym Charles Masson. Therein, he described seeing a “ruinous brick castle”.[1] He recalled a local tradition affirming the existence of a considerably large city that was brought down by providence due to “the lust and crimes of [its] sovereign”.[2] Lewis drew a sketch of the fortified ruins at Harappa which was lost while “the paper was handed from one to the other”.[3]

Lost to the railroad

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Some years later in 1856, Sir Alexander Cunningham visited Harappa but the ruins had been knocked down and all that was left was huge mound of stone and rubble. Cunningham, who later became the director general of the archaeological survey of northern India, was told about Harappa by two British engineers John and William Brunton who were laying the East Indian Railway Company line connecting the cities of Karachi and Lahore. John wrote: “I was much exercised in my mind how we were to get ballast for the line of the railway”. They were told of an ancient ruined city near the lines, called Brahminabad. Visiting the city, he found it full of hard well-burnt bricks, and, “convinced that there was a grand quarry for the ballast I wanted”, the city of Brahminabad was reduced to ballast.[4] A few months later, further north, John's brother William Brunton's “section of the line ran near another ruined city, bricks from which had already been used by villagers in the nearby village of Harappa at the same site. These bricks now provided ballast along 93 miles (150 km) of the railroad track running from Karachi to Lahore”.[4]

Harappan people

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The Harappans were a peaceful people. Most city dwellers appear to have been traders or artisans, who lived with others pursuing the same occupation in well-defined neighbourhoods.


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The Harappan language is not directly attested and its affiliation is uncertain since the Indus script is still undeciphered. A relationship with the Dravidian or Elamo-Dravidian language family is favoured by a section of scholars, while others suggest an Austroasiatic language related to Munda.

Urban culture and architecture

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The Indus Valley Civilization had some of the most sophisticated and technologically advanced urban centres in ancient history. The quality of municipal town planning is evident from the various excavated cities which show that the Harappans had considerable knowledge of urban planning and efficient municipal governments which placed a high priority on hygiene.

In the excavated cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the urban plan included building structures lined along perpendicular streets and had the world’s first known urban sanitation systems. Within the city, individual homes or groups of homes obtained water from wells. From a room that appears to have been set aside for bathing, waste water was directed to covered drains, which lined the major streets. Houses opened only to inner courtyards and smaller lanes.

The sewerage and drainage systems developed and used in ancient Indus cities were far more advanced than any found in contemporary urban sites in the Middle East or Europe, and even more efficient than those in many areas of Pakistan and India today. The Harappan architecture also incorporate impressive dockyards, granaries, warehouses, brick platforms, and protective walls. The massive walls of Indus cities most likely protected the Harappans from floods and may have dissuaded military conflicts.


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Materials from distant regions were used in the cities for constructing seals, beads and other objects. Among the artefacts discovered were glazed faïence beads. Steatite seals have images of animals, people (perhaps gods), and other types of inscriptions, including the yet undeciphered writing system of the Indus Valley Civilization. Some of the seals were used to stamp clay on trade goods and most probably had other uses as well.


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  1. Masson (1844, p. 452) A long march preceeded our arrival at Haripah, through jangal of the closest description... When I joined the camp I found it in front of the village and ruinous brick castle.
  2. Masson (1844, p. 453) Tradition affirms the existence here of a city, so considerable that it extended to Chicha Watni, thirteen cosses (about 25 miles) distant, and that it was destroyed by a particular visitation of Providence, brought down by the lust and crimes of the sovereign.
  3. Masson (1844, p. 457) When at Haripah I had also sketched the old fort. The paper was handed from one to the other, and I have now to regret its loss.
  4. a b Davreau, Robert (1976). "Indus Valley". In Reader's Digest (ed.). World's Last Mysteries.


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