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Mohenjo-daro Priest King
The Indus Valley civilization is the oldest one known in Asia. Stretching from the Arabian Sea to the Himalayas and from the deserts of India to what is now Iran, it embraced 1,500 or so settlements and covered 280,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Texas, or twice the size of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, June 2000; Santi Menon, Discover magazine, December 1998]

The Indus Valley civilization was founded around 3000 B.C. and flourished from 2600 to 1900 B.C. Regarded as the world’s oldest advanced civic culture, it is believed to have been a collection of states. Much about it is unknown because the civilization’s written language has not been deciphered and no other culture with written languages described them (there was no mention of them in the Bible or the Vedas, which date back to 1500 B.C.). What is known has been determined from archeological excavations.

The Indus Valley civilization was centered around Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, two city-state civilizations that emerged around 3300 B.C. and endured until around 1500 B.C. Anthropologists regarded the Indus Valley cultures as one of the world's first civilizations along with Mesopotamia (founded in 3300 B.C), Egypt (founded in 3100 BC), and Yellow River Culture of northern China (founded shortly after 2000 BC). The Indus culture existed at the same time as these other cultures. Although trade existed between them. They appear to have developed independently and didn’t have much influence on one another.

The Indus Valley civilization was bound together by a common art and written language, and possibly by religion and trade as well. The Indus Valley civilization cities were linked by the Indus river. The Indus River flows south from Karakoram and Himalayan Mountains through present-day Kashmir and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. In the north it flows along the Pakistan-India border. Although the Indus Valley civilization was scattered over a large area it was not large in terms of population. At its its height it was home to perhaps 400,000 people.

Book: Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Cultures By Charles Higham

Early Indus History

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Exactly when and where the Indus Valley civilization began and took root is still a matter of debate. Large and old settlements have been found in the Quetta, Loralai and the Zhob valleys in Baluchistan. Studies of these places seems to indicate that the people that lived in these places were semi-nomadic. The first permanent settlements are found closer to the flood plains of the great Indus River system.

Evidence of agriculture and urbanism dated to 7000 B.C.”older than Mesopotamia---has been found at a site at Mehrgarth, an ancient settlement between the upland valleys of Baluchistan and the Indus flood plains. The settlement covered six hectares in 7000 B.C. and grew by 6000 B.C. to 12 hectares and had a population of maybe 3,000 people. The people that lived there raised wheat and barely and used domesticated cattle and water buffalo and hunted wild sheep, goats and deer. The dead were ritually buried, curled up on their sides, with some possessions, including turquoise beads from Turkmenistan,

The people of the Indus valley began trading on a wide scale at an early age. In the first known seafaring voyages, which may have taken place as early as 3500 B.C., Mesopotamians traveled across the Persian Gulf between Persia and India. See Indus and Mesopotamian Trade

Around 3500 B.C., permanent settlements began springing up over a wide area of the Indus River System. They are believed to have been settled by nomads that found advantages to living along rivers. The descendants of the Indus people were described in ancient Sanskrit texts as having dark skin. It is believed they spoke a Dravidian language. If this is true then the Indus Valley civilization is the ancestor the Dravidian civilization in southern India.

The earliest Indus settlements were strongly fortified neolithic villages destroyed by conquest. The people that lived here used copper and stamp seals and worshiped mother goddesses and horned deities. Archeologists date different groups and periods from this era based on different types of pottery. The fact that Indus Valley civilization settlements were built on the ruins of settlements of these cultures suggests that Indus Valley culture was imposed on them.


At least three major urban areas were located in the Indus River Valley:Mohenjo-Daro (also spelled Mohenjo-Daro), Harappa and Dholovira.

Mohenjo-Daro (350 miles from Karachi) was the center of an ancient Indus Valley civilization, and perhaps its capital. The largest of several wealthy cities in the Indus Valley, Mohenjo-Daro covered about one square mile, only a small potion of which has been excavated. A man-made, plateau-like hill, known as the citadel, was on one side of the city. About 300 structures have been excavated there.

Mohenjo-Daro means "Mound of the Dead." The plateau-like citadel is believed to be have been the place where the rulers of the kingdom lived. The common people lived in the flatlands. At its height Mohenjo-Daro was home to maybe 80,000 people.

Founded perhaps 6000 years ago, Mohenjo-Daro flourished between 2500 and 2000 B.C. along the irrigated banks of the Indus River when the climate wasn't as harsh as it is today. Only Egypt can lay claim to a civilization that was as old and as large.

Exposing bricks found at Mohenjo-Daro was halted in the 1960s because the bricks began to crumble when exposed to the air. The problem is that the bricks have been soaked in ground water, leaving behind salt. Exposure to the sun and air draws out the moisture, leaving behind the salt, causing the bricks to crumble.

Archaeological Ruins at Moenjodaro

The ruins of the huge city of Moenjodaro – built entirely of unbaked brick in the 3rd millennium B.C. – lie in the Indus valley. The acropolis, set on high embankments, the ramparts, and the lower town, which is laid out according to strict rules, provide evidence of an early system of town planning. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Mohenjodaro is the most ancient and best-preserved urban ruin on the Indian subcontinent, dating back to the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, and exercised a considerable influence on the subsequent development of urbanization on the Indian peninsula.

The archaeological site is located on the right bank of the Indus River, 400 km from Karachi, in Pakistan's Sind Province. It flourished for about 800 years during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Centre of the Indus Valley civilization, one of the largest in the Old World, this 5,000-year-old city is the earliest manifestation of urbanization in South Asia. Its urban planning surpasses that of many other sites of the oriental civilizations that were to follow.

Of massive proportions, Mohenjodaro comprises two sectors: a stupa mound that rises in the western sector and, to the east, the lower city ruins spread out along the banks of the Indus. The acropolis, set on high embankments, the ramparts, and the lower town, which is laid out according to strict rules, provide evidence of an early system of town planning.

The stupa mound, built on a massive platform of mud brick, is composed of the ruins of several major structures - Great Bath, Great Granary, College Square and Pillared Hall - as well as a number of private homes. The extensive lower city is a complex of private and public houses, wells, shops and commercial buildings. These buildings are laid out along streets intersecting each other at right angles, in a highly orderly form of city planning that also incorporated important systems of sanitation and drainage.


Of this vast urban ruin of Moenjodaro, only about one-third has been reveal by excavation since 1922. The foundations of the site are threatened by saline action due to a rise of the water table of the Indus River. This was the subject of a UNESCO international campaign in the 1970s, which partially mitigated the attack on the prehistoric mud-brick buildings.

Websites: Moenjodaro: Complete Guide to the Indus Valley civilization (; International Campaign for Moenjodaro (UNESCO Division of the Physical Heritage); Videos: Archaeological Ruins at Moenjodaro (UNESCO/NHK), NHK World Heritage 100 Series [Windows Media required]


Harappa (127 miles south of Lahore) was another large Indus city. It may have been a twin capital with Mohenjo-Daro. Named after a nearby town and 400 miles from its sister city, Mohenjo-Daro, it extended over an area of 1.25 square kilometers (400 acres) and was home to 20,000 or more people and probably controlled a New-York-size area covering about 50,000 square miles.

Harappa was located along the Rawa River, a tributary of the Indus, in a fertile flood plain. A reliable source of food helped the city take care of its own needs. Its location at the crossroads of important trade routes helped it prosper.

The Indus Valley civilization is sometimes called the Harappan civilization because the first evidence of the Indus culture was found there. Archeologists have found remains of a village dating back to 3300 B.C. at Harappa. Potsherds found there have symbols that are similar to the Indus script. By 2200 B.C. Harappa covered 370 acres and was home to about 80,000 people, making it roughly equivalent on side to Ur in Mesopotamia.

Harappa was discovered in 1921 and Mohenjo-daro was found a year later by Sir John Marshall. The sites have been continually excavated since then. British railroad workers scavenged large numbers of bricks from Harappa in the 1850s for ballast for their new tracks.


Dholovira (30 miles from the Pakistan border) is another 5000-year-old city in the desolate Rann area of Kutch in far western India that once stood on an island in a marsh, periodically flooded by the Arabian Sea.

Dholavira was occupied between 2900 and 1500 B.C. with evidence of decline around 2100 B.C. Around 2000 B.C. the site was abandoned and the reinhabited around 1500 B.C. Tokens, seals and figurines that have been unearthed that are like those found at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa.

Scholars believe that Dholavira may have supplied salt to the Indus area and was once connected to the Arabian Sea by a channel or canal though no evidence of such a waterway has been found. Other large Indus settlements include Lurewala in the central Indus valley, Ganweriawala in the Cholistan desert and Kalibangan and Lothal in India. Some have suggested that this were independent city states. Other have argued they were provincial capitals under Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.


Indus Government and Military

Explaining why a lack of grand temples and tombs was a good thing, Kenoyer told Discover, "When you take gold and put it in the ground, it’s bad for the economy. When you waste money on huge monuments instead of shipping, it's bad for the economy. The Indus Valley started out with a very different basis and made South Asia the center of economic interactions in the ancient world."

In may places in modern Pakistan a barter system is used rather than a cash economy. A pot maker might supply farmers for an entire year with pots, urns and cooking vessels. At harvest time he is paid with wheat, which he in turn sells to townspeople. Some scholars suggest a similar system was used in Harappa, which had no currency.

While ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia relied heavily on slaves and forced labor, the Indus Valley civilization appears to have relied more on craftsmen and trade. Standardized weights enabled traders to make fair trades. The weights may have been used by officials to levy taxes.

The Indus people of Mohenja-Daro and Harappan had a system of measurements. They smelted, cast and used copper and bronze. Harappa kilns produced millions of bricks. The Indus people used the wheel for transportation.

Indus pottery was mostly plain with a red slip and painted black decorations. It was not very good in quality and was mass produced. Potters produced vessels with similar designs. They fashioned bowls, pots, urns, cooking vessels and churns with a potter's wheel and packed 200 or so items at a time in kiln fired by animal dung. The vessels are left in the smoldering fire for about three days. Modern potter use the same technique. The Indus people are believed to have turned pottery wheels. No potters wheels have been found but archaeologists believed they were used based on how perfectly rounded their vessels were.

Jim Shaffer of Case Western Reserve told U.S. News and World Report, "In the absence of a political elite, or a standing army, one is left with the symbolic---a system of beliefs.

Uniform weights found at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro have been offered as evidence that government used standardized measurements to ensure fair trade and possibly to levy taxes. Some scholars have speculated the entire region may have been rules by one dynasty. See Indus City Gates, Taxes and Trade

No evidence of battles or military damage has been found in the cities. Skeletons show no evidence of violence. So few weapons have been found, some archeologist wonder whether the Indus cultures even had a military. No scenes of battles or prisoners or fighting, like this found in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, have been found in the Indus Valley. See City Walls

Indus Trade

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The Indus trade network stretched from India to Syria. The Indus people imported raw materials like lapis lazuli from Afghanistan; clam and conch shells from the Arabian Sea; timber from the Himalayas; silver, jade and gold from Central Asia; and tin, copper and green amozite, perhaps from Rajasthan or the Gujarat area of India. Evidence of maritime trade with Mesopotamia (about 1,500 miles form the Indus area) includes ivory, pearls, beads, timber and grain from the Indus area found in Mesopotamian tombs. Similarities between pottery in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley is further evidence of trade between the two regions.

The presence of a standardized weight and measurement system shows that the trade system was sophisticated, extensive and organized. Certain towns became known for specialized crafts: for example, Lothal for carnelian beads; Balakot for bangles, and the Rohri Hills for flint blades and tools. Some large brick-making and pottery making factories were located in the Cholistan desert. At Shortugai in Afghanistan, the Harappans established a colony to mine lapis lazuli.

Products brought from Mesopotamia, Iran and Central Asia were traded for raw material and precious metals. Based on its location on trade routes, Kenoyer told Discover, Harappa "was a mercantile base for rapid growth and expansion...The way I envision it. If you had entrepreneurial go-get-'em, and you had a new recourse, you could make a million in Harappa." There are number of archeological sites near Karachi that were probably used as ports. See Indus City Gates

There is no so sign of great rulers, large palaces, grand monuments or elaborate tombs. Even so, some scholars believe Dholavivia required a strong ruler to coerce workers to do all the work that was done there.

Indus and Mesopotamian Trade

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The Sumerians established trade links with cultures in Anatolia, Syria, Persia and the Indus Valley. Similarities between pottery in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley indicate that trade probably occurred between the two regions. During the reign of the pharaoh Pepi I (2332 to 2283 B.C.) Egypt traded with Mesopotamian cities as far north as Ebla in Syria near the border of present-day Turkey.

The Sumerians traded for gold and silver from Indus Valley, Egypt, Nubia and Turkey; ivory from Africa and the Indus Valley; agate, carnelian, wood from Iran; obsidian and copper from Turkey; diorite, silver and copper from Oman and coast of Arabian Sea; carved beads from the Indus valley; translucent stone from Oran and Turkmenistan; seashell from the Gulf of Oman. Raw blocks of lapis lazuli are thought to have been brought from Afghanistan by donkey and on foot. Tin may have come from as far away as Malaysia but most likely came from Turkey or Europe.

Many goods that traveled through the Persian Gulf went through the island of Bahrain. There was an early Bronze Age trade network between Mesopotamia, Dilmun (Bahrain), Elam (southwestern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan) and the Indus Valley. Dillum was a city-state on the island of Bahrain thrived from around 3200 B.C. to 1200 B.C. and described in Sumerian literature as the city of the gods. Archeologists have found temples and settlements on Dillum, dated to 2200 B.C. The earliest settlements in the Persian Gulf date back to the 4th millennium B.C. The are usually associated with the Umm an-Nar culture, which was centered in the present-day United Arab Emirates. Little is known about them.

The ancient Magan culture thrived along the coasts of the Persian Gulf during the early Bronze Age (2500-2000 B.C.) in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Ancient myths from Sumer refer to ships from Magan carrying valued woods, copper and diorite stone. Archeologists refers to people in Magan as the Barbar culture. Based on artifacts found at its archeological site it was involved in trade with Mesopotamia, Iran, Arabia, Afghanistan and the Indus Valley. Objects from the Indus Valley found at Magan sites in Oman include three-sided prism seals and Indus Valley pottery.

Sumerian texts, dated to 2300 B.C., describe Magan ships, with a cargo capacity of 20 tons, sailing up the Gulf of Oman and stopping at Dilum to stock up on fresh water before carrying on to Mesopotamia. The texts also said Magan was south of Sumer and Dillum, was visited by travelers from the Indus Valley, and had high mountains, where diorite, or gabbro, was quarried to use to make black statues.

Book: Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus edited by Joan Aruz and Romlad Wallenfels (Metropolitan Museum/ Yale University Press, 2003). It discusses art in Mesopotamia in its own right and as it relates to art in the Mediterranean region, ancient India and along the Silk Road. It has good sections on technologies such as sculpture production and metal making.

Indus Agriculture and Livestock

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Agriculture was centered around the Indus and its tributaries, which recedes during the summer, leaving behind rich alluvial soil, which can be cultivated to produce a crop the following spring. The Indus people grew barley, two types of wheat, dates, field peas, cotton, sesamum and mustard. Rice husks have been were found at Lothal and Ragpur.

Today, the landscape surrounding Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa is dry and dusty and about the only thing growing there are tamarisk bushes and acacia. But in the time of the Indus Valley civilization there were irrigated fields that produced wheat, barley, peas and sesamum. One of the largest structures at Mohenjo-Daro, a 150 x 75 foot structure, is believed to have been a granary that stored crops from these fields during the winter time.

Archeologists have found bones of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, water buffalo, hens, elephants and camels---all of which are believed to be to have been domesticated---at Indus sites. There were elephants in the Indus area. There is evidence they were hunted for ivory and possibly meat. They may have been domesticated for labor. People in Harappa yoked cattle to plows and carts.

End of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were abandoned between 1900 and 1700 B.C. Trade and writing stopped. The unicorn symbol and the weight system of measurements disappeared. Nobody is sure exactly why the Indus Valley civilization collapsed but most archeologist speculate it was due to climatic change, flooding, invasion and/or disease.

The Indus Valley civilization probably collapsed at least partly as the result of the changing course of channels of the Indus river, which may have flooded some areas and left others high and dry. This may have disrupted agriculture and trade and brought the entire economy to an untimely end.

Flooding is often mentioned as a cause. Archeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer of Wisconsin University told National Geographic, "I think the fluctuations of the Indus had a major impact on Mohenjo-Daro. It whipped back and forth across the plains, causing floods that destroyed the agricultural base of the city. Trade and the economy were disrupted." The same thing may have happened at Harappa. There is some evidence that earthquakes may have shifted the earth’s crust to effectively block the Indus, forcing it to overflow its banks and flood a wide area.

Collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley civilization collapsed for unknown reasons some time after 2000 B.C. The possible reasons for the decline of Harappan civilization have long troubled scholars. Invaders from central and western Asia are considered by some historians to have been the "destroyers" of Harappan cities, but this view is open to reinterpretation. More plausible explanations are recurrent floods caused by tectonic earth movement, soil salinity, and desertification.

Archaeologists once believed that civilization began in the subcontinent along the Indus River valley in what is now Pakistan. It is now known that this great civilization covered a much larger area, about as large as modern Europe (minus Russia), extending from northern Pakistan to the Arabian Sea and along the tributaries of the Indus River in western India and Pakistan. Excavated sites such as the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro reveal a well-organized system of town planning based on a rectangular street grid. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Indus Cities and Aryan Conquest

It was originally thought that Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa and other Indus settlements were conquered by Aryans. The Aryan invasion theory is based on 30 skeletons,, including women and children, found in later period Mohenjo-Daro ruins and descriptions of a "massacre" in the Rig-Veda, the collection of ancient Hindu hymns. The theory goes that the decline of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa made them vulnerable to an invasion of Aryan "barbarian tribes" from Persia and Afghanistan. Indus technology was far superior to that of Aryans in every way except weapons technology.

Many scholars dismiss this theory because no weapons or evidence of an attack have been found. The skeleton could easily of come from people who died of disease. Moreover dating technology seems to indicate that the city fell into decline long before the Aryans arrived.

In any case as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro declined, the Aryans "occupied the best land, cleared the forests, built permanent villages, and found a series of petty kingdoms in which they set themselves up as rulers over the region's indigenous inhabitants" (perhaps the source of the Brahma high caste). In some cases, new settlers dismantled Indus buildings and uses the materials to build new buildings.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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