History Of A Nation: The Indus Valley Civilisation

c. 3300 BC – c. 1700 BC

The final of the three progenitor civilisations of the Old World, and the first civilisation to spring up around the Indus Valley, is the third ‘nation’ (as before, barely a nation, but that’ll continue to be the case for most of these until we’re well into the AD years) I am covering in this series of history. Going from c. 3300 BC to c. 1700 BC, you’ll notice it lasted longer than the Old Kingdom of Egypt, but that does not take into account the Indus people could have had many more political divisions over that time, we just know less about them than we do Egypt. And Egypt as a whole lasted far longer. However, the Indus boasted the largest area of the first civilizations, the people considered part of it living over a widespread area in the Indus Valley.

Time And Location

I’ve just given away the basics of it to you, and for the Indus, the location is in the name. Like Sumer sprang up on the Tigris and the Euphrates and Egypt depended on the Nile to survive, this early civilization, beginning in the middle of the 4th millennium BC, also clustered around a river, the Indus in modern-day Pakistan (with a bit of Western India included). And it is from there that it gets its name.

Now an alternate name for this civilisation is the Harappan civilisation, called after the first site to be excavated, Harappa, revealing this long-dead civilisation to history. So you can call them the Harappans or the Indus, either is acceptable in the academic community. Unlike with Egypt or Sumer, the periodisation is given over to archaeologists and so the dates we have for it are much wider estimates with periods, rather than covering dynasties of rulers, covering centuries of excavation levels as that is the best we know. Much of this will also be true for several more of these ‘nations’ before I get out of antiquity but I love antiquity so I want to stay here for as long as possible. And the Indus were definitely a civilisation rather than a tribe or collection of tribes, we have evidence of social structures and planned cities which stands them above most other peoples at this time, as far as we know. Certainly they were the leaders in their area. For what that counted, there wasn’t really anyone else to challenge them.

As you can see from the map, the culture, at its greatest extent, extended across eastern Pakistan and a small part of north-west India, all centred on the Indus Valley. Much larger than just being confined to the valley itself, their civilisation spread all across the surrounding areas and influenced what was to follow hugely. Like Egypt, they had rich agricultural lands surrounded by harsh terrain, ocean and mountains nearby, desert to the west although not quite as encroaching.

The civilisation is held to have started at the Mehrgarh site, just north of Mohenjo-Daro on that map. By the time the civilisation was in full swing, that settlement was apparently not as important, not being near the Indus, but we can date inhabitance, farming and husbandry at that site much further to many thousands of years before the Indus started here. From there, the Harappan periods begin. Harappa was a major city in this civilisation so the term is fine to use.

The Early periods see the civilisation start to get on its feet, establish trade networks with other cultures and bring together what could have been a shared cultural experience. However, it is what happens next, in the Mature Harappan period, that causes us to see this as a collective people group, with loose evidence of continual cooperation.

Urban planning is the key here, the Indus Valley was responsible for some of the first cities in the area. We have estimates of over a thousand cities and five million people, a huge number for this time in history lived within the rough borders that I have drawn on the map. This includes the first known instances of proper city sanitation and includes early forms of flush toilets, wells and reservoirs. That is quite the huge deal, considering many subsequent nations throughout history would have nothing so sophisticated, I hope you’re all thinking of dirty medieval streets at this point… we’ll get to that… in a few years or so. And this was a large civilisation too, with a lot of people to organise, yet it seems that they had basic health at least down. The Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro is a very interesting structure that we’ve unearthed.

As far as rulers go, we don’t really know much, even through legend, which unfortunately doesn’t give me much to talk about with regards to personalities. There’s very little in the archaeological record indicating the details for a centralised system of governance for the people of the Indus, but we are fairly sure there was one. Because all of the cities are so uniform in design and clearly planned out in an efficient manner, down to the pottery of personal households, it’s clear that there was some sort of central authority. Wiki says that this is citation needed so I’m not sure if I’m just repeating to you whispers, but it boils down to three theories of a completely egalitarian society, different rulers with similar ideas, or a whole state under one ruler. I subscribe to the last theory, simply because that is so common throughout history especially at this time. An egalitarian society would have trouble organising to the degree of uniformity shown and different rulers would likely have drummed up competition. That isn’t to say neither of those did not exist during this time period as a millennium and more is a long time for societal changes to kick in and for rebellions or splinter factions or separatists to stand alone but a single state makes sense to me as it does for Egypt. The only problem is that the Indus’ area is far wider than Egypt so local governors would have had to have huge degrees of autonomy, so much so that maybe, urban planning aside, they were almost different states. All just speculation of course.

Life and culture in the Indus Valley

Many lovely bits of pottery, terracotta, bronze and statues indicate a good systems of arts and crafts in the culture of the Indus. They had a developed system of weights for mathematical purposes and obviously had access to a wide range of metals for the millennium they lived in, copper, tin, lead. Gold jewellery is found as well and they used wheeled transports, perhaps the first civilisation to do so.

The language is not strictly attested but could have been an early form of a Dravidian language, a language group also including Tamil, that language group mostly having migrated south-east in the interim. Inscriptions we find could have been a system of writing but this is quite disputed among Indologists, as unlike with hieroglyphics, we do not have a Rosetta Stone to decode them accurately and the language they belong to is unknown.

Religion bears many resemblances to an early form of Hinduism, itself mostly considered to be the oldest major world religion, but that is largely due to how little we know about it that the best guess is something resembling the religion that followed. Some depictions of figures could be early forms of Hindu gods, but it’s hard to say anything for definite given the specificity needed to confidently say that x figure is a Hindu god. I don’t want to upset any Hindus – or anyone else for that matter – unnecessarily.

Despite the great cities, there is a conspicuous lack of great monuments, even though the Indus people would surely have known how to build them given what we know them to have built and given that Egypt and Mesopotamia certainly did not shy away from doing so, perhaps religion was a more personal experience for the Indus, and certainly there seems to have been no cults of ruler worship that the Egyptians tended to employ.

Military, foreign policy and decline

Trade with nations to the West seemed to play a large factor in the economy of the Indus Valley, definitely reaching as far as the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and some trade from the Indus even as far as Egypt and the Mediterranean. Docks were built at Lothal that could have been home to some early sailing vessels, allowing trade to reach further across the seas. These starting civilisations certainly knew of each other even if they were incredibly distant lands to them.

Very little war would have broken out, as far as we could tell. Harappan cities had large walls and this could have dissauded them. Very little information is available on soldiers or anything of that sort so it’s likely that the Indus mostly lived in peace, at the most, with the protection of watchmen.

Around 1800 BC, the civilisation starts to decline and there are indications that many of the great cities that once dominated this local landscape began to be abandoned. Some, Sir Mortimer Wheeler for one, theorise that Aryan tribes began to invade and destroy it but the current consensus is a severe drought and increase in diseases that eventually wiped out this once sanitary civilisation, as well as a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia, both experiencing their own troubles. Disease has certainly brought down many a nation in the past, it could have scattered whatever government this had into a host of new ones as the Iron Age began to take hold in India.

The frustrating thing about the Indus is that although we know there was a huge, monumental civilisation there in ancient Pakistan/India, we have very little that we can say for certain about it other than… they built incredible cities for 3000-2000 BC. If you look at the Wiki article, the whole thing reads like a huge argument between scholars and archaeologists over what is likely rather than what is definite – and I’ve tried to cut a lot of that out and where I can, give my thoughts for those trying to learn the basics of the Indus. It’s not history’s easiest civilisation to understand but conversely, that makes it one of the most mysterious.

We will probably never know for sure what happened back then, although Indian and Pakistani popular culture seems to have certainly given it a try, with a critically panned film (presumably for filling in the gaps with fanciful ideas) called Mohanjo-Daro that was released this very year. That’s the challenge of history, the uncertainty, and the Indus certainly gives us a lot of that uncertainty.





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