The Harappan Civilization flourished around 2,500 B.C. in the western part of South Asia, in what today is Pakistan and western India.The Indus or the Harappan civilisation belongs to the Chalcolithic or Bronze Age since the objects of copper and stone were found at the various sites of this civilisation. Nearly, 1,400 Harappan sites are known so far in the sub-continent.
They belong to early, mature and late phases of the Harappan culture. However, the number of the sites belonging to the mature phase is limited, and of them, only half a dozen can be regarded as cities.
Some of the noteworthy sites which have been excavated are Harappa (1921) by Daya Ram Sahni, Mohenjodaro (1922) by R.D. Banerjee, Dholavira (1967-68) by J.P. Joshi and (1990-91) by R.S. Bisht, Kalibangan by Dr. A. Ghosh, Lothal (1955-63), Chanhu-daro, Banawali (1975-77), etc.
Origins of Harappan Civilization
Mehrgarh gives us an archaeological record with a sequence of occupations. Archaeological research over the decades has established a continuous sequence of strata, showing the gradual development to the high standard of the full-fledged Indus civilisation. By reviewing the main elements of the rural cultures of the Indian sub-continent, the origin of the Indus civilisation can be traced. Any Pre-Harappan culture claiming ancestry to the Indus civilisation must satisfy two conditions.
- It must not only precede but also overlap the Indus culture.
- The second is that the essential elements of the Indus culture must have been anticipated by the Proto-Harappan (Indus) culture in its material aspects, viz, the rudiments of town planning, provision of minimum sanitary facilities, knowledge of pictographic writing, the introduction of trade mechanisms, the knowledge of metallurgy and the prevalence of ceramic traditions.
The different stages of the indigenous evolution of the Indus can be documented by an analysis of four sites, which reflect the sequence of the four important stages or phases in the pre-history and proto-history of the Indus valley region.
The sequence begins with the transition of nomadic herdsmen to settled agricultural communities as per the evidence found at the first site i.e. Mehrgarh near the Bolan Pass. It continues with the growth of large villages and the rise of towns in the second stage exemplified at Amri.
The Amri people did not possess any knowledge of town planning or of writing.
The third stage in the sequence leads to the emergence of the great cities as in Kalibangan and finally ends with their decline, which is the fourth stage and exemplified by Lothal.
Amri, Kotdiji and Kalibangan cultures are stratigraphically pre-Harappan.
Pre H Cultures
The pre-Harappan culture of Kalibangan in Rajasthan is termed as Sothi culture by Amalananda Ghosh, its excavator. The Harappan owed certain elements such as the fish scale and pipal leaf to the Sothi ware.
The four Baluchi cultures, viz, Zhob, Quetta, Nal and Kulli, undoubtedly pre-Harappan, also have some minor common features with the Indus civilisation but are not full-fledged proto-Harappan cultures.
The culture of Northern Baluchistan is termed as ‘Zhob’ culture after the sites in the Zhob valley, the chief among them being Rana Ghundai. This culture is characterised by black and red ware and terracotta female figurines.
Nal culture is characterised by the use of white-clipped ware with attractive polychrome paintings and the observance of fractional burial.
The characteristic pottery of the Quetta culture is the buff-ware, painted in black pigment and decorated with geometrical designs.
Apart from the painted motifs such as the pipal leaf and sacred brazier, some pottery shapes are common to the Harappan and Kulli cultures.
All these pre-Harappan habitations preceding the phase of the Harappan civilization shows evidences of people living in houses of stone and mud-brick.
There are many similarities in the cultural traditions of the diverse agricultural communities living in the Indus region in the ‘early Indus period’.
During the urban phase, these little traditions were fused into one great tradition. However, even in the ‘early Indus period’, use of similar kinds of pottery terracotta mother goddess, representation of the horned deity in many sites show the way to the emergence of a homogenous tradition in the entire area.
Harappa: It was the first Indus site to be discovered and excavated in 1921 by Daya Ram Sahni. The site has two large and imposing ruined mounds located some 25 kms. South-west of Montgomery district of Punjab (Pakistan) on the left bank of river Ravi. Charles Masson was the first archaeologist who reported vast mounds at Harappa in 1826. Alexander Cunningham identified Harappa with Po-Fa-to or Po-Fa-to-do visited by Hiuen-Tsang.
- a) The western mound of Harappa, smaller represented the citadel, parallelogram in plan and fortified.
- b) Outside the citadel was the unfortified town having some important structures identified with workers’ quarters, working floors and granaries. The workers’ quarters, 10 in number were of uniform size and space (17×7.5 m). Close to these quarters were 16 furnaces, pear- shaped on plan with cow-dung ash and charcoal.
- c) 12 Granary building of 15.24×6.10 m each, arranged systematically in 2 rows (6 in each row) with central passage 7 m. wide
- d) 891 seals which form 36.32 per cent of the total writing material of the Harappan civilization
- e) Two very important stone figurines (not available at any other site) which include one red stone torso of a naked male figure (the prototype of the Jina or Yaksha Figure) and a female figure in dancing pose.
- f) A crucible used for smelting bronze was also found at a slightly higher level.
- g) Dog attacking deer on a pin
- h) Evidence of the disposal of the dead has been found to the south of the citadel area named as cemetery R-37.
Excavations have also yielded 57 burials of different types. The skeletons were disposed of in the graves along with the grave-goods.
The site of Mohenjo-Daro (Mound of the Dead) situated in the Larkana district of Sind (Pakistan) and 540 km. south of Harappa ,on the right bank of the river Indus.
It also has two mounds, the western being the citadel or acropolis and the eastern extensive mound was enshrining the relics of the buried lower city.
- The most important public place of Mohenjo-Daro seems to be the Great Bath, with a bed made water tight by the use of bitumen and a system of supplying and draining away water. This tank in the citadel mound is an example of beautiful brickwork measuring 11.88×7.01 meters and 2.43 meters deep. Flight of steps at either end lead to the surface. This tank seems to have been used for ritual bathing.
- In Mohenjo-Daro, the largest building is the great granary, which is 45.71 meters long and 15.23 meters wide and lies to the west of the great bath.
- To the northeast of the great bath is a long collegiate building, perhaps meant for the residence of a very high official, possibly the high priest himself, or a college of priests.
- The lower unfortified city displayed all the elements of a planned city. The remarkable thing about the arrangement of the houses in the city is that they followed the grid system with the main streets running north south and east-west dividing the city into many blocks. This is true of almost all Indus settlements regardless of size. The main streets in the lower city are about 9.14 metre wide. The drainage system of Mohenjo-Daro was very impressive. These drains were covered with bricks and sometimes with stone slabs. The street drains were equipped with manholes. Houses were made of kiln-burnt bricks as in Harappa.
- Material remains of Mohenjo-Daro with its richness confirms that it was a great city of the Harappan civilisation. About 1398 seals representing 56.67 percent of the total writing material of Harappan cities throws light on Harappan religion. Important stone images found here includes the torso of a priest made of steatite (19 cm), lime stone male head (14 cm), the seated male of alabaster (29.5 cm), the seated male with the hands placed on knees (21 cm) and a composite animal figure made up of limestone. The bronze dancing girl from Mohenjo-Daro considered a masterpiece (14 cm) is made by cast wax technique.
Situated in Kutch district of Gujarat, Dholavira is the latest and one of the two largest Harappan settlements in India, the other being Rakhigarhi in Haryana. Dr J.P. Joshi first noticed the ancient mounds of Dholavira but R.S. Bisht and his team conducted extensive excavation work at the site in 1990-91. It shares almost all the common features of the Indus cities but its unique feature is that there are three principal divisions (instead of two in other cities), two of which were strongly protected by rectangular fortifications.
The first inner encloser hemmed in the citadel (the acropolis) probably housed the highest authority and second one protected the middle town meant for the close relatives of the administrators and other officials. The existence of this middle town, apart from the lower town, is the unique feature of this settlement. The access to these fortified settlements at Dholavira was provided through an elaborate gate-complex.
Situated in Ganganagar district of Rajasthan on the southern bank of the Ghaggar river this site was excavated by B.B. Lai and B.K. Thapar (1961-69). This site also has two mounds yielding the remains of a citadel and lower city respectively. Excavations have revealed evidence of pre-Harappan and Harappan culture.
- The citadel and the lower city both were fortified.
- The citadel had mud-brick platforms having seven fire-altars in a row.
- The people of Kalibangan used mud-bricks for the construction of houses, the use of burnt bricks has been found only in wells, drains and pavements.
d.The cylindrical seals found at Kalibangan had an analogy in the Mesopotamian counterpart.
- Excavations at Kalibangan revealed the evidence of the ploughed field.
It was an important trading centre of the Harappan civilization and situated near the bed of the Bhogwa River at the head of the Gulf of Cambay in Gujarat. It was excavated by S R. Rao, which brought to light five period sequences of cultures. It was one rectangular settlement surrounded by a brick wall. Along the eastern side of the town was a brick basin, which has been identified as a dockyard by its excavator.
- a) The house of a wealthy merchant yielded gold beads with axial tubes and sherds of Reserved Slip Ware related to the Sumerian origin indicating that the merchants were engaged in foreign trade.
- b) Metal-workers, shell ornament makers and bead-makers shops have been discovered here.
- c) The discovery of the Persian Gulf seal and the Reserved Slip Ware suggests that Lothal was engaged in the maritime activities.
Situated at a distance of 500 kms to the west of Karachi on the Makran coast it functioned as a trading post of the Harappans. It was originally a port of Harappan according to archaeologist Dales but later cut off from the sea due to coastal uplift. Excavation at the site revealed the two-fold division of the township into ‘citadel’ and ‘Lower city’.
Situated about 270 km. north-west of Ahmedabad in Gujarat the settlement pattern of Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Kalibangan was repeated here.
As at Kalibangan, both the citadel and the lower town were fortified. There was also an inter-communicating gate between the two. In addition to mud- bricks, stone rubble was liberally used for construction. In the last phase of this site, bones of horses, hitherto unknown, have been discovered.
Situated in the Hissar district of Haryana it was on the bank of the river Rangoi, identified with the ancient bed of Sarasvati River. The excavations conducted by R.S. Bisht have yielded two cultural phases, Pre-Harappan and Harappan, similar to that of Kalibangan. The Harappan phase showed significant departure from the established norms of town-planning (chess-board pattern as in Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, etc.). The roads were neither always straight, nor are they cut at right-angles. It lacked systematic drainage system, a noteworthy feature of the Harappan civilisation.
The township of Chanhudaro, situated about 130 km. south of Mohenjodaro, consists of a single mound divided into several parts by erosion. An evidence of material remains clearly shows that it was the major centre of production for the beautiful seals. The hoards of copper and bronze tools, castings, evidence of the crafts like bead making, bone items and seal making suggest that artisans and crafts-men mostly inhabited Chandhudaro. Excavations have also unearthed a furnace with a brick- floor used for glazing steatite beads.
Situated on the left bank of the Indus River about 50 km. east of Mohenjo-Daro, the site of Kot Diji excavated by F.A. Khan Yields two cultural phases’ pre-Harappan and Harappan civilisation. Material remains discovered at the site are terracotta bulls, five figurines of the Mother Goddess and large unbaked cooking brick-lined ovens.
Polity and Society:
There is no clear idea about the political organization of the Harappans. If the Harappan cultural zone is considered identical with the political zone, the sub-continent did not witness such a large political unit until the rise of the Maurya Empire. Probably the Harappans made the first ever experiment to bring about political unity of the divergent geographical units of the civilisation without the use of force. The total absence of internecine wars, religious or political, speaks volumes about the peaceful administration of the Indus state.
It is difficult to believe that priests ruled in Harappa, as they did in the cities of lower Mesopotamia for we have no religions structures of any kind except the Great Bath. There are some indications of the practice of fire cult at Lothal in the later phase, but no temples were used for the purpose.
Perhaps the Harappan rulers were more concerned with commerce than with conquests, and a class of merchants possibly ruled it.
An important characteristic of the Harappan civilisation was its urban life. The social stratification is reflected in the dwellings and disposition of the dead bodies in the graves. The Harappan men wore robes, which left one shoulder bare, and the garments of the upper classes were often richly patterned. Beards were worn, and men and women alike had long hair.
The elaborate headdresses of the Mother Goddess probably had their counter-parts in the festive attire of the richer women. The women wore a short skirt that reached up to the knee; and a girdle-a string of beads, held it. The coiffures of the women were often elaborate, and pigtails were popular, as in present-day India. Women loved jewellery and wore heavy bangles in profusion, large necklaces, and earrings. Mirrors of bronze were very common. It appears that the ladies at Mohenjo-Daro knew the use of collyrium, face-paint and other cosmetics.
Chanhudaro finds indicate the use of lipsticks. Bronze razors of various types have been found.
Kids played with terracotta toys such as rattles, birds shaped whistle, bulls with movable heads, monkeys with movable arms, figures which ran down strings, the favorite being the baked clay cart. Dice was used in gambling, rich children played marbles of jasper and chert. Hunting and fishing was in vogue. On a few seals, hunting of wild rhino and antelope are shown.
Except for the discovery of fire altars at Kalibangan, we have not found any cult objects, temples at any of the Harappan sites. Based on the material remains discovered at various Harappan sites we can say that the Harappan people had many features of the later Hinduism, such as worship of the Mother Goddess, Pashupati Siva, animal worship, tree-worship, etc.
The inhabitants of the Indus region thus worshipped gods in the form of trees, animals and human beings. The chief female deity was Mother Goddess. In one terracotta figurine found at Harappa, a plant is shown growing out of the embryo of a woman. Probably the image represents the goddess of earth. The Harappans, therefore, looked upon the earth as a fertility goddess and worshipped her.
The most striking deity of the Harappan culture is the horned-deity of the seals. He is depicted on three specimens, in two, seated on a small dais, and in the third on the ground; in all three his posture is cross-legged (sitting posture of a yogi). On the largest of the seals, he is surrounded by four wild animals, an elephant, a tiger, a rhinoceros and a buffalo, and beneath his feet appear two deer. Marshall called this god Proto-Siva. Certainly the horned god has much in common with the Siva of later Hinduism, who is, in his most important aspect a fertility deity, is known as Pasupati, the Lord of Beasts.
Phallic worship was an important element of Harappa religion. Many cone-shaped objects have been found, which almost certainly formalized representation of the phallus. The linga or phallic emblem in later Hinduism is the symbol of the god Siva.
The people of the Indus region also worshipped trees. The picture of a deity is represented on a seal in the midst of the branches of the pipal tree, which continues to be worshipped to this day. They worshipped animals and represented many of them on seals. The most important of them is the humped bull.
Cemeteries excavated at several Indus sites like Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Kalibangan, Lothal and Ropar throws light on the burial practises of the Harappans. Three forms of burials have been found at Mohenjo-Daro, viz., complete burials, (means the burial of the whole body along with the grave goods) fractional burials (burial of some bones after the exposure of the body to wild beasts and birds) and post-cremation burials.
From the Lothal cemetery comes evidence of another burial type with several examples of pairs of skeletons, one male and one female in each case, buried in a single grave. Bodies were always placed in the north-south direction with the head in the north.
The Harappan economy was based on irrigated surplus agriculture, cattle rearing, proficiency in various crafts and brisk trade both internal and external.
The Harappan villages, mostly situated near the flood plains, produced sufficient food grains not only to feed themselves but also the town people. No hoe or ploughshare has been discovered, but the furrows discovered in the pre-Harappan phase at Kalibangan show that the fields were ploughed in Rajasthan in the Harappan period. The Harappans probably used the wooden ploughshare. We do not know whether men or oxen drew the plough. Stone sickles may have been used for harvesting the crops.
Gabarbands or nalas enclosed by dams for storing water were a feature in parts of Baluchistan and Afghanistan, but channel or canal irrigation seems to have been absent. The Indus people produced wheat, barley, rai, peas, etc. They produced two types of wheat and barley. A good quantity of barley was discovered at Banawali. In addition to this, they produced sesamum, mustard, dates and varieties of leguminous plants. At Lothal and Rangpur, rice and spikelet were found embedded in clay and pottery.
The Indus people were the earliest people to produce cotton. Because cotton was first produced in this area, the Greeks called it Sindon, which is derived from Sindh.
Domestication of Animals:
Although the Harappans practised agriculture, animals were kept on a large scale. Oxen, buffaloes, goats, sheeps and pigs were domesticated. The Harappans favoured the humped bulls. From the very beginning, dogs were regarded as pets. Cats were also domesticated. Asses and camels were used as beasts of burden. Camel bones are reported at Kalibangan. Evidence of horse are also reported from Surkotada. Elephants and rhinoceros were well known to the Harappans.
Technology and Crafts:
The people of Harappa used many tools and implements of stone, but they were very well acquainted with the manufacture and use of bronze. The smiths made bronze by mixing tin with copper. Numerous tools and weapons recovered from the Harappan sites suggest that the bronzesmiths constituted an important group of artisans in the Harappan society. Objects of gold are reasonably common, silver makes its earliest appearance in the Indus civilization and was relatively more common than gold. The Harappan people also used lead, arsenic, antimony and nickel.The axes, chisels, knives, spearheads, etc., were made of bronze and stone. They seem to have been produced on a mass-scale in place like Sukkur. Two short copper swords found in Mohenjodaro are of the slashing type and not cutting type.
As for craft specialization, the towns of Chanhudaro and Lothal have yielded evidence of the presence of workshops of bead-makers. Balakot, Lothal and Chanhudaro were centres for shell working and bangle- making. Apart from them the evidences indicate the presence of potters, stone masons, brick makers, seal cutters, traders, priests, etc. The Harappans also practised boat making. Weavers wove cloth of wool and cotton. Spindle whorls were used for spinning. The potter’s wheel was in full use, and the Harappans produced their own characteristic pottery, which was made glossy and shining. Most of the time it means the use of a pinkish pottery with bright red slip and standard representation of trees, birds, animals and geometric motifs, in black.
No human figure is depicted on the pottery from Mohenjo-Daro but a few pottery pieces discovered from Harappa portray a man and a child. The greatest artistic creations of the Harappans are the seals. About 2000 seals have been found, made of stealite, these seals range in size from 1 cm to 5 cm. Two main types are seen. First, square with a carved animal and inscription and second, rectangular with an inscription only.
Stone sculptures and terracotta figurines have been reported from various sites. Figurines made of fire-baked clay, commonly called terracotta, which were used as either toys or objects of worship. Mainly the common people used it and it represented sophisticated artistic works.
The importance of trade in the life of the Indus people is attested not only by granaries found at Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Lothal but also by the presence of numerous seals, uniform script and regulated weights and measures in a wide area. They did not use metal money. Most probably, they carried on all exchanges through barter. In return for finished goods and possibly food grains, they procured metals from the neighbouring areas by boats and bullock-carts. Inter-regional trade was carried on with Rajasthan, Saurashtra, Maharashtra, parts of western Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Foreign trade was conducted mainly with Mesopotamia or Sumeria (modern Iraq) and Iran. Their cities also carried commerce with Mesopotamia.
Discovery of many Indus seals in Mesopotamia and evidence of imitation by the Harappans of some cosmetics used by the urban people of Mesopotamia suggests that some of the Harappan merchants must have resided or visited Mesopotamia.
About two dozen Indus type seals were also discovered from different cities of Mesopotamia like, Ur, Susa, Lagash, Kish and Tell Asmar. Reciprocal evidence comes from the Indus cities also-discovery of a circular button seals, which belongs to a class of Persian Gulf seals, several bun-shaped copper ingots of Mesopotamian origin and the ‘Reserved Slip Ware’ of the Mesopotamian type at Lothal. All these provide conclusive proof of trade links between the two civilisations.
The Mesopotamian records from about 2350 B.C. onwards refer to trade relations with Meluha, which was the ancient name given to the Indus region, and they also speak of two intermediate stations called ‘Dilmun’ (identified with Bahrain on the Persian Gulf) and Makan (Makran Coast). Shortughai located near Badakhsan in northeast Afghanistan was one of the Harappan-trading outpost, beyond the high passes of the Hindukush.
The Harappan cities did not possess the necessary raw material for the commodities they produced and hence depended upon the products imported from distant places.
Main imports consisted of precious metals like gold (from North Karnataka), silver (probably from Afghanistan or Iran), Copper (from Khetri copper mines of Rajasthan, Baluchistan and Arabia), lead (East and South India), tin (Afghanistan and Hazaribagh in Bihar), and several semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli (Badakshan in North-East Afghanistan), turquoise (central Asia and Iran), amethyst (Maharashtra), agate (Saurashtra), jade (central Asia), and chalcedonies and carnelians (from Saurashtra and west India).
Main exports were several agricultural products and a variety of finished products such as cotton goods, carnelian beads, pottery, shell and bone inlays etc.
Weights and Measures:
The knowledge of script must have helped the recording of private property and accounts keeping. Numerous articles used for weights have been found. They show that in weighting mostly 16 or its multiples were used; for instance, 16, 64, 160, 320 and 640. The Harappans also knew the art of measurement. The measures of length were based upon a foot of 13.2 inches and a cubit of 20.6 inches. Several sticks inscribed with measure marks, one of these made of bronze have been discovered.
Script and Language
The Harappans invented the art of writing like the people of ancient Mesopotamia. Although the earliest specimen of Harappan script was noticed in 1853 and the complete script discovered by 1923, it has not been deciphered so far. Unlike the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the Harappan did not write long inscriptions. Most inscriptions were recorded on seals, and contain only a few words.
Propertied people to mark and identify their private property may have used these seals. Altogether, there are about 250 to 400 pictographs, and in the form of picture, each letter stands for some sound idea or object.
The Harappan script is not alphabetical but mainly pictographic since its sign represent birds, fish, varieties of the human form, etc. There are two main arguments as to the nature of the language; that it belongs to the Indo- European or even Indo-Aryan family, or that it belongs to the Dravidian family. Parpola and his Scandinavian colleagues gave a hypothesis that the language was Dravidian.
Theories of the Decline of Harappan Civilization
In the absence of any written material or historical evidence, scholars have made various speculations regarding the causes for the decline of the Harappan culture. Cities like Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa and Kalibangan saw a gradual decline in urban planning. Later on some of the settlements like Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa etc. were abandoned. However, in most other sites people continued to live. Some important features associated with the Harappan civilization, writing, uniform weights, pottery and architectural style disappeared.
Wheeler believed that the Aryan invaders destroyed the Indus civilization. It has been pointed out that in the late phases of Mohenjo-Daro there are evidences of a massacre. However, it has been pointed out that Mohenjo-Daro was abandoned by about 1800 B.C., Aryans on the other hand are said to have come to India around 1500 B.C. Thus, this theory of sudden death cannot explain the decline. Several scholars support the gradual death theory.
Raikes, a hydrologist, has set forth a theory that due to tectonic activity, the flood plains of the lower Indus river were raised which led to prolonged submergence of cities like Mohenjo-Daro and Chanhudaro and hence their abandonment. However, the cause for the decline of some of the other Indus cities like Kalibangan and Banawali seems to be not the floods but the drying up of rivers.
W.A. Fairservis have tried to explain the decay of the Harappan civilization in terms of the problems of ecology. He believes that the Harappans degraded their delicate environment. A growing population of men and animals confronted by falling resources wore out the landscape, which resulted into more floods and droughts. These stresses in the end led to the collapse of the urban culture.