Figurines c. 3000 BCE & c. 2700 BCE

By 2,500 BCE the Indus-Sarasvati or Harappan civilization became the largest civilization of the Ancient world. Extending over more than 386,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) across the plains of the Indus River from the Arabian Sea to the Ganges. In its mature (Integration) phase with an estimated population of over five million people, it was larger than either Egypt or Mesopotamia.

Early states of the world

Civilizations of the Ancient World.

About 50 million years ago the vast tectonic plate we now know as the subcontinent of India crashed into Asia and produced the world’s largest mountain range, the Himalayas – “the abode of snow” in Sanskrit – which separates the Tibetan Plateau from the Indian subcontinent. The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region extends 3,500 km over all or part of eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, affecting air and water circulation systems, and impacting the weather conditions in the region. Today it is the source of ten large Asian river systems – the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (Nu), Mekong (Lancang), Yangtse (Jinsha), Yellow River (Huanghe), and Tarim (Dayan). Drawing warm air from the south, which cooled and precipitated as torrential rainfall, the Himalayas created the monsoons and a fertile area in the Northwest that may well be “the land of seven rivers” described in the Vedas.

Between 7000 and 5000 BCE, pastoral camps and the first village farming communities settled into this fertile region. Over millennia these communities developed and interacted with others, sharing skills and technologies such as pottery, metallurgy, town planning and farming. Hence, by 2500 BCE the region became the largest, if not the greatest civilization of the Ancient world, expanding over one million square kilometers in its mature (Integration) phase with an estimated population of five million people.

Map of the Harappa region

The Indus-Sarasvati region.

Known as the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, its zenith lasted about thirteen centuries and flourished in the basins of the Indus River, one of the major rivers of Asia, and the Sarasvati or Ghaggar-Hakra River, which once flowed through northwest India and eastern Pakistan. The majority of the discovered sites are located either along these major rivers and their tributaries or along trade routes linking larger urban centers.

Known as the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, its zenith lasted about thirteen centuries.

Iran, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent had engaged in seasonal migration and trade for hundreds of years, so the people of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization already had long-standing connections with regions to their West. They also established links with Gulf Coast cultures reaching all the way to southern Mesopotamia and, via intermediaries such as Bahrain’s Dilmun traders, far beyond. They exported gold, copper, timber, ivory and cotton to Mesopotamia and imported bronze, tin, silver, lapis lazuli, and soapstone. To maintain such an extensive trade network they must have possessed advanced skills in ship building, sailing and overland transportation.

“For navigation, compasses carved out of conch shells appear to have been used to measure angles between stars. A voyage from Lothal to Mesopotamia to sell the prized Harappan carnelian beads, which the kings and queens of Ur were so fond of, meant at least 2,500 kilometres of seafaring; of course there would have been halts along the shore on the way, but still, 4,500 years ago this must have ranked among the best sailing abilities,” says Michel Danino, IIT-Madras.

Pipal tree design

Pipal Tree tablet.

Indus-Sarasvati Civilization artifacts such as seals, beads and pottery have been found in Mesopotamia, Oman and Bahrain, indicating trade with distant regions across both land and ocean. Pack animals and carts were used as well as ocean going ships. Smaller trading outposts are found far away from the center of their civilization like the one found at Shortugai in Afghanistan. The recently discovered Jiroft site on the Iranian plateau lies along the path of this trade network and here archeologists have found lapis lazuli (from Afghanistan or western Baluchistan) and carnelian (likely from the Indus Valley) along with artifacts from other regions.

Archaeology has its roots in European imperialism, which has historically meant that certain regions such as Mesopotamia and Egypt have been emphasized over others. Scholars such as Professor Gregory L. Possehl, author of Harappan Civilization, estimate that less than two percent of a probable 2,600 sites have been excavated across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and more may still be found.

It is often referred to as the “Harappan” civilization from Harappa, the first discovered site.

Findings in the Indus-Sarasvati region date from as early as 7000 BCE up to 300 BCE. Most sites appear to be small villages and towns, but others, for example the site of Ganweriwala in the Cholistan region of Pakistan is estimated to cover 80 hectares (197.68 acres), and Rakhigarhi located west of New Delhi is thought to exceed 225 hectares (555.987 acres), making it the largest site discovered to date in India and second largest in the subcontinent, after Mohenjo-Daro which covers 250 hectares (620 acres) in Pakistan. Although threatened by urban development and mismanagement, it is hoped that significant breakthroughs in understanding of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization will come to light in the near future as new sites are unearthed using modern archaeological techniques and DNA research.

Map of the Sarasvati river changes

Among the Most Advanced Civilizations

Harappan weights (blocks)

Harappan weights.

Traditionally, early civilizations have been ranked in order of importance according to degrees of sophistication in the development and usage of script, agriculture, urbanization, architecture and trade. By all these measures the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization must be ranked as among the most advanced. This mercantile civilization had many progressive features like drainage, sewers and baths. They invented a system of measurement, which may be the first example of a decimal system. Town planning made use of geometry. Their weights, used in trade, show a geometrical progression with regular increases in ratios.

By all these measures the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization must be ranked as among the most advanced.

An ivory scale discovered at Lothal is engraved with close to thirty divisions regularly spaced every 1.704 mm. The Indian archaeologist Dr. Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao states in Dawn and Devolution of the Indus Civilization: “It is the smallest division ever recorded on a scale of the Bronze Age. The width of the wall of the Lothal dock is 1.78 m [i.e. 1,000 such divisions … and] the length of the east-west wall of the dock is twenty times its width. Obviously the Harappan engineers followed the decimal division of measurement for all practical purposes…”

A collection of Indus-Sarasvati seals

A collection of Indus-Sarasvati seals. Over 3,000 have been found to date and seem to have served various purposes: some commercial, to identify consignments and ownership, and some possibly used for ritual purposes to invoke deities, perhaps to safeguard items. Indus seals have been found at Mesopotamian archeological sites as well.

Since the Indus script has as yet not been deciphered there is a lot we don’t know about the structure of society in villages or towns, or across the greater civilization. We don’t know if there was a central government, a ruler or standing army, but indications are that there were not. It may have been a loose confederation of merchant cities; cities that sprang up as a result of unique, favorable environmental conditions that initially led to agricultural surpluses and subsequently to productivity surfeits, trade and specialization.

Dates BCE
Phase Era
7000–5500
Mehrgarh I (aceramic Neolithic) Early Food-Producing Era
5500–3300
Mehrgarh II – VI (ceramic Neolithic) Regionalisation Era
3300–2600
Early Harappan
3300–2800
Harappan 1 (Ravi Phase)
2800–2600
Harappan 2 (Kot Diji Phase, Nausharo I, Mehrgarh VII)
2600–1900
Mature Harappan (Indus Valley Civilization) Integration Era
2600–2450
Harappan 3A (Nausharo II)
2450–2200
Harappan 3B
2200–1900
Harappan 3C
1900–1300
Late Harappan (Cemetery H); Ochre Colored Pottery Localisation Era
1900–1700
Harappan 4
1700–1300
Harappan 5
1300–300
Painted Gray Ware, Northern Black Polished Ware (Iron Age) Indo-Gangetic Tradition

Mehrgarh 7000–2000 BCE

walls of ancient farming village

Early farming village in Mehrgarh, ca 7000 BCE.

The Neolithic site of Mehrgarh is located to the west of the Indus-Sarasvati flood plain, in Baluchistan east of the mountain city of Quetta in Pakistan at the foot of the Bolan Pass, one of the major communication routes between the Iranian Plateau, Central Asia and the Indus Valley. According to the lead excavator, the French archaeologist Jean-François Jarrige, “The site covers an area of about 500 acres [200 hectares] with only pre-Harappan remains” and shows “evidence of continuous occupation for more than three millennia prior to the Harappan civilization.”

Nine thousand years ago this was a small farming village consisting of hunters, farmers and herders. Excavated in the 1970s, the French team in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology of Pakistan, found houses of mud brick, some with external walls painted and all built in a similar rectangular design, grouped together, sharing walls and oriented north-south and east-west. There is no sign of doorways so it appears that, in common with Çatalhüyük and Neolithic sites of the Fertile Crescent, entrances and exists must have been through rooftops; there is no evidence of what these roofs were made of, however.

The team also excavated about 360 tombs in Mehrgarh where the dead, sometimes buried with tarred baskets at their feet, had funerary effects including not only utilitarian objects, but also skillfully crafted ornaments. These ornaments used materials such as seashells, lapis lazuli, and turquoise that would have had to have been brought in from quite a long distance.

One study of objects from Mehrgarh found evidence of what may be the first use of cotton in the Old World:  “The metallurgical analysis of a copper bead from a Neolithic burial (6th millennium BCE) at Mehrgarh, Pakistan, allowed the recovery of several threads, preserved by mineralization. They were characterized according to new procedure, combining the use of a reflected-light microscope and a scanning electron microscope, and identified as cotton (Gossypium sp.). The Mehrgarh fibres constitute the earliest known example of cotton in the Old World and put the date of the first use of this textile plant back by more than a millennium. Even though it is not possible to ascertain that the fibres came from an already domesticated species, the evidence suggests an early origin, possibly in the Kachi Plain, of one of the Old World cottons.”

The amount of burial goods decreased over time, becoming limited to ornaments and with more goods left with the female dead. Separate cemeteries near houses were created for children who died between birth and three or four years of age. Their corpses were placed in a flexed position, in the early period facing south with their heads toward the east and feet toward the west, and at a later period a change in the orientation of skeletons was found with heads towards the southeast and feet towards the northeast. Evidence of proto-dentistry was found in Mehrgarh: using flint tips, eleven drilled molar crowns from nine adults were discovered that date from 7,500 to 9,000 years ago.

Evidence of proto-dentistry was found in Mehrgarh: using flint tips eleven drilled molar crowns from nine adults were discovered that date from 7,500 to 9,000 years ago.

Barley and wheat remains at the site, plus an uncovered part of a room or a yard with two intact storage jars surrounded by several grinding stones and pestles, lead archeologists to conclude that people were dependent on the cultivation of these grains. They may well have substituted hunted meat such as gazelle and wild sheep, with the meat of domesticated goats and Indian zebu (Bos indicus) which became more common than its wild counterpart. By approximately 5000 BCE simple farming and hunting had been superseded by cattle, sheep and goat herding.

Female figurines from later period Mehrgarh

Figurines from late period Mehrgarh, ca 3000 BCE (Musée Guimet, Paris)

Technologies included stone and copper drills, updraft kilns, large pit kilns and copper melting crucibles. From about 5500 BCE ceramic pottery was manufactured, with motifs on Mehrgarh pottery ranging from woven vines and leaves to simple animal figures. Later periods feature sacred fig or Pipal leaf designs. The Sacred fig, or “Ficus Religiosa,” is also known as Bo-Tree (Sanskrit; Bodhi or “wisdom”). Glazed faience beads were produced and terracotta figurines became more detailed. Figurines of females were decorated with paint and had diverse hairstyles and ornaments.

Male figurines from c. 2700 BCE

Male terracotta figurines approximately 2700 BCE.

pottery bowls and cups

Togau ware; black designs on red pottery approximately 3800 BCE.

Around 4300 BCE small-scale agricultural settlements began to proliferate. From Kandahar in Afghanistan, to Baluchistan in Pakistan, we see widespread, well-organized sites like Mehrgarh cultivating barley and wheat, and engaging in cattle domestication and craft production. The pottery being produced, called Togau, shows a similarity of signs and motifs across the region and beyond, as far as Iran and Turkmenistan. The style was characterized by geometric shapes and stylized animal figures; one particular characteristic is a band of hooks or ‘S’ shapes, one after another, that look something like wavy grass.

Togau phase pottery shard illustration

Togau phase pottery shard illustration, showing band of ‘hooks’ or ‘S’ shapes.

By about 4000 BCE we begin to see early signs of urbanization. Earliest examples are Kot Diji in the Rohri Hills of Khairpur province in Pakistan, and Rehman Dheri on the west bank of the Indus River in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. The latter grew from a farming settlement to become home to over 10,000 people, showing clear signs of the urban planning typically found from then on. The city was built inside large walls—which would have protected against both floods and people. Spacious streets were laid out on a grid, oriented from north to south and east to west dividing settlements into blocks further sub-divided by lanes that provided access to homes. The site was situated on a rectangular mound covering about 55 acres.

Very little is known about the agricultural methods of farmers who supported these cities. Some of them undoubtedly made use of the fertile alluvial soil from the various rivers flooding, but scholars don’t think this would have produced enough food to support the larger city populations. There’s no evidence of irrigation, but this may well have been completely destroyed.

Rehman Dheri on the west bank of the Indus River in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province … grew from a farming settlement to become home to over 10,000 people.

Keep in mind that throughout Asia to this day, generations of rice farmers produce significant agricultural surpluses from terraced, hillside rice paddies. Relying on monsoon weather patterns in which the bulk of a year’s rainfall occurs in a four-month period, the Indus-Sarasvati people may well have had similar farmlands and they certainly harvested rainfall: archeologists have excavated massive reservoirs hewn from solid rock that were designed to do so.

About this same time we see the beginning of the migratory push eastward from across the Indus River and into the Indus-Sarasvati plains, and a new form of pottery begins to emerge known as Hakra ware.  Mehrgarh remained continuously occupied until 2600–2000 BCE – about 5,000 years, after which it seems to have been abandoned, the inhabitants most likely also migrating to the fertile plains as Baluchistan became more arid, some likely joining those already settled at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.

Bowl: Hakra Ware approximately 3300 BCE

Mehrgarh, Hakra Ware approximately 3300 BCE.

Each site appears to have had a controlled water supply and elaborate drainage system with reservoirs for rainfall collection and storage, as well as sewage and waste systems.

While many areas saw continuous occupation and growth, the five major regional urban centers which have been identified to date from the civilization’s mature phase are: Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro both on the banks of the Indus, Ganweriwala and Rakhigarhi in the area where the Sarasvati once flowed, and Dholavira in the Indian state of Gujarat. Again, the quality and similarity of municipal town planning indicates that these communities had some method of coordinated administration, but we have no idea what form this took. Their streets were laid out like modern towns, all on a similar rectangular grid pattern. Mud bricks were used to build houses on either side of streets, usually on a stone foundation. Although some houses were larger than others, Indus-Sarasvati cities do not show the kind of massive gulf between wealthy and poor dwellings that is found in other ancient civilizations.

Each site appears to have had a controlled water supply and elaborate drainage system with reservoirs for rainfall collection and storage, as well as sewage and waste systems; homes had access to water, many had baths, with drains leading into underground sewers or septic jars, some of which had inspection holes for maintenance. We are left with the impression of a society where even the poor had a decent standard of living – though of course there may have been more fragile facilities for the less fortunate of which there is now no trace. Public baths have also been found, such as the now famous one at Mohenjo-Daro.

Harappa 3500–1900 BCE

In 1856, General Alexander Cunningham, later director general of the archaeological survey of northern India, visited Harappa where the British engineers John and William Brunton 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. 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.” writes Robert Davreau in The World’s Last Mysteries.

Damage under Colonial rule and looting by local people likely set back our knowledge of Harappa, yet the trajectory of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization can be still be traced in the layers of its rubble. By 3500 to 3300 BCE settlement at Harappa, situated on a tributary to the Indus River in Pakistan, had begun. Known as the Ravi Phase after the river of its name, this phase saw small communities of hunters, fishermen and farmers.

strings of beads

Ravi phase terracotta (center) and hard stone beads made from carnelian, amazonite, and lapis lazuli. Materials may well have been brought to the site from 300 to 800 kilometers away.

By approximately 3000 BCE there appears to have been an increase in the food surpluses produced by these early farming communities, which led to trade expansion and to the establishment of outposts.

Harappa grew into a bustling urban center of over 20,000 people. What prompted such growth? The original impetus may have been a gradual shift from hunting to farming and herding, subsequently combined with unusually favorable changes in climate, creating a window of opportunity.

female figurine

Early Harappan female figurine with painted features.

The aforementioned decline in monsoon rains that stimulated migration from the now too-arid region of Baluchistan and regions in the West caused a reduced amount of flooding in the Indus Sarasvati valleys. The Himalayan-fed Indus became less wild and the Sarasvati flooding became predictable, stimulating prolific farming along its banks and immigration to the region. Conditions became ideal: irrigation was manageable and stable, stimulating intensive agriculture, for over a thousand years. Food abundance – a granary at Harappa has been excavated that measured 169 ft x 135 ft – led to a degree of specialization, which created a feedback loop of even greater surpluses. It is worth noting that, unlike other ancient civilizations of Egypt or Mesopotamia, all this seems to have been accomplished without any form of forced labor or slavery.

Harappan pottery fragment and dish

Harappan pottery fragments and dish from the Ravi Phase (3300–2800 BCE).

Pottery of the early period was handmade, not wheel made, with fairly plain decorations of leaves, geometric shapes and simple animals.

painted bowl

Southern Baluchistan, Harappan pottery, 2500–1900 BCE.

Excavations reveal a clear continuity of skills and technology between the earlier pastoral settlements like Mehrgarh and the later urban settlements like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro further down the Indus river.

Both the Ravi and Hakra Ware found at Harappa show similarities with earlier styles found in Baluchistan, which is not surprising. What really distinguishes this new urban phase is increased specialization and productivity, creating an economic surplus. It’s very likely that at least some people for the first time experienced what it was like to have disposable income and the leisure to use it.

The Kot-Diji or second phase at Harappa (2800 to 2600 BCE) shows an increasing complexity and sophistication in crafts and pottery. Most pottery of the period was wheel made not handmade. There is evidence of the manufacture of faience (glazed) beads in a variety of shapes, all of a unique high-quality. Fired at extremely high temperatures, these were not manufactured in either Egypt or Mesopotamia, which most likely led to demand from those far-off regions for Indus-Sarasvati beadwork. Decorated terracota bangles, and gold sequins have also been found from this period.

Harappan beads

“Harappan

Horned figure on pottery. Kot-Diji phase. Kashmir.

a single brick

Indus-Sarasvati brick 2500 – 1900 BCE, Chanhu Daro, Pakistan Houses were almost always built with mud bricks (sometimes fired in kilns), which followed a standard ratio of 4:2:1, though the actual sizes varied : bricks for houses, for instance, might be 28 x 14 x 7 cm, while for fortification walls they could be 36 x 18 x 9 cm or even bigger.

2800–2600 BCE marks the beginning of what is known as the third Mature or Integration phase: the true urbanization of Harappa. Streets are now laid out along the cardinal directions (North to South and East to West). Houses are laid out in an organized fashion along the streets and built from bricks of a standard size, following the dimensions 1:2:4. Two huge surrounding walls were built around two separate raised mounds upon which the settlement is located. Most likely the walls were primarily built to guard against flooding, and of course for protection.

Harappan Jewelry

Harappan beadwork necklaces, bracelets, bangles, gold headband & brooches.

The making of various types of distinctive seals show increased sophistication with the use of soapstone and steatite carved into squares and inscribed with script, shapes and figures. Pottery and tools of copper and stone were standardized. These and standardized weights suggest a system of tightly controlled trade. At this time terracotta figurines depicting people and animals were common and almost all pottery is now wheel made featuring red slip with black painted motifs.

Harappan toy of ox pulling a cart

Toys were fashioned with great care. This ox- or water buffalo-drawn cart with driver may well have been a toy. Several styles of carts as well as wheels made of terracotta have been found at Harappa. These were probably originally held together by wooden components that have not survived. The Harappans also made games, among them cubical dice (with one to six holes on their faces), which were found in sites like Mohenjo-Daro; an ancestor of the game of chess, made in terracotta, was found at Lothal.

Harappan female figurine

Harrapan female figurine (Mature phase) with fan-shaped headdress. See more examples of statues and figurines from Harappa.

The types and varieties of beads, copper and bronze objects increased in the period and since we know that cotton and silk were cultivated we can hypothesize that clothing and furnishings also became more diverse and were perhaps sold by specialist dressmakers.

“Harappan

Storage jar, ca 2700–2000 BCE. Mature Harappan period. Chanhudaro. Pakistan. National Museum, New Delhi.

As already mentioned, by 2600 BCE many of the earlier settlements in the West appear to have been hastily abandoned as their inhabitants migrated Eastwards. In some regions like Cholistan only about 10% remained continuously occupied. Harappa continued to expand and other major settlements like Mohenjo-Daro were established. Platforms for buildings can be found throughout the region from this period. Presumably these clay and mud brick platforms served the same function that they are believed to have served at well excavated Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa: to place both living quarters and storage out of reach of the constant threat of flooding. At Kalibangan, another important Indus-Sarasvati site, we find a number of separate platforms from this period, one of which held what appear to be seven fire altars, or “ritual hearths” which have also been noted in Lothal and Amri. [Rao and Thapar]. Other scholars suggest that these could have been fire pits used for cooking or baking.

Mohenjo-Daro 2600–1900 BCE

Mohenjo-Daro excavation site made from bricks

The Mohenjo-Daro excavation site. The DK-G Area where the Pashupati seal was found lies north-east of the Great Bath seen in the foreground. It is 180 feet by 108 feet, with the actual pool 39 feet by 23 feet and 8 feet in depth.

There is no evidence of palaces, temples, or monuments, no obvious central seat of government or evidence of king or queen.

Mohenjo-Daro was located between the two vast river valleys of the Indus and the Sarasvati in the province of Sindh, Pakistan. Constructed on the build up of occupation debris and massive mud brick platforms, the settlement grew to monumental proportions, with high mounds reaching as high as 12 meters above the modern plain level, and probably much higher above the ancient plain. Its design is similar to other Indus-Sarasvati city sites with streets running in a grid pattern. They vary from 9 feet to 34 feet wide, suitable for wheeled traffic. Larger multi-roomed buildings, often two or three storied were situated on either side of the main streets and may have been for administrative or collective functions, with the smaller two-roomed rectangular dwellings on either side of what might be viewed as lanes. There is no evidence of palaces, temples, or monuments, no obvious central seat of government or evidence of king or queen.

During its prime from about 2500 to 1900 BCE Mohenjo-Daro was one of the most important cities of the Indus civilization with as many as 35,000 inhabitants. It spread out over about 250 acres (100 hectares) on a series of mounds, the Great Bath and an associated large building occupied the tallest mound.

female figurine

A “dancing girl,” found at Mohenjo-Daro, 10.8 centimeter high bronze statuette (approximately 2500 BCE). Archeologists have also found evidence of painting, sculpture, and music played on drums and stringed instruments.

Settlements flourished along the coastline of Northwest India in particular in the Gujarat region. Here the town of Lothal was established around 2400 BCE on a former course of the Sabarmati River, which provided nearby access to the Arabian Sea and maritime trade routes. Here we find the first known dockyard in history connected to a substantial wharf, which lead up to a warehouse. The warehouse consisted of 64 rooms, 3.5 m x 3.5 m, with spacious passageways in between. Many seals have been found in the vicinity that were most likely used to label and denote ownership of goods being processed there.

female figurine

This is the famous “Priest King” (2200–1900 BCE) statue, 17.7 cm, Mohenjo-Daro, late Mature Harappan period, National Museum, Karachi, Pakistan.

By about 3900 years ago (1900 BCE) the monsoons had shifted east causing the Sarasvati to gradually change from a perennial to a seasonal river. Populations moved upward and northeast along her banks, forming smaller rural settlements and leaving eventual de-urbanization in their wake.  Many sites were abandoned altogether or show major decline, while Harappa shows signs of overcrowding. But things are falling apart: drains and sewers are no longer maintained, social and trade networks are failing, finely detailed seals become geometric, simple and devoid of script. Pottery also changes, often towards more local, regional styles. Hordes of buried valuables have been found from the period indicating an understandable degree of social instability and fear. Additional catastrophes such as earthquakes and excessive deforestation may well have helped to hasten the demise of this great civilization, but a long drought over the whole region, including West Asia, was pivotal.

Waters continued to flow on Sarasvati’s upper floodplain for a while, but she had already ceased being what the Vedas described as “a mighty River flowing from mountain to ocean.” Eventually, as the monsoon rains diminished she dried up altogether and disappeared into the Thar Desert.

Many scholars believe that severe drought and a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia caused the collapse of the Indus CivilizationThe onset of intensely dry weather did not just impact the Indus-Sarasvati floodplains but also affected Egypt and Mesopotamia, and is now also thought to have caused the end of the Early Bronze Age. The world’s first empire, Akkadian Empire—which stretched 800 miles from the Persian Gulf to the headwaters of the Euphrates in Turkey—is now thought to have collapsed as a result of peak aridification and climate change around 2200 BCE. Excavations in Syria have found a layer of soil, about three feet deep, from 2200 to 1900 BCE, which is absolutely lifeless, where even the earth worms had died, indicating a period of severe drought.

Curse upon Akkade

The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither wine nor syrup,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel’s worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel’s worth of grain was only one-half quart. . . .
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.

Drought is known to have occurred again at the end of the late Bronze Age and to have been a major contributor to its collapse. This time it lasted ca 300 years, from 1200 to 850 BCE, the beginning of the Iron Age.

Who Were They and What Did They Believe?

There are no archaeological or genetic indications that the dissolution of this splendid civilization was brought about abruptly or by an invasion.

The failure to decipher the script has left many important questions unanswered, including the very identity of the Indus people. Their civilization appears to have developed and thrived without warfare or violence, but we don’t know what the power structure looked like in these towns or across the greater civilization. We don’t know if there was a central government or ruler, but indications are that there was not since there are no palaces; and very few structures can be identified that may have had a religious function. Not a single seal depicts a battle, a captive or a victor and there is no evidence anywhere of armies or warfare or slaughter or man-made destruction in any settlement and at any phase of this civilization. Fortifications and the few weapons that have been found can be accounted for by the need for protection against floods as well as perhaps local marauders, and for hunting. Notwithstanding, their civilization seems to have been highly organized, building cities of uniform planning, each producing almost identical artifacts like pottery, seals, weights and bricks, and trading over vast distances from Central Asia to Mesopotamia for centuries.

There are no archaeological or genetic indications that the dissolution of this splendid civilization was brought about abruptly or by an invasion. As the drying period progressed, the Indus too, a glacier fed river, appears to have flooded less reliably. The cumulative impact was not so much a collapse of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization as a gradual return to rural farming centered on smaller settlements and a broad based migration towards the eastern river basins in northern India with its more humid climate. The Indus-Sarasvati floodplains were no longer a major civilization. What is known as the post-Harappan, post-urban or also “localization era,” dated about 1900–1300 BCE, followed: a time of instability and scarcity that eventually transitioned into the first historical states in the Ganga region. In the Yamuna Ganges valleys a new Vedic tradition emerged featuring its own cities, script and religious practices.

We know almost nothing of the Indus-Sarasvati people or their religion. Speculations on the meaning of figurines, depictions on seals, etc., are just that. But, since no one has as yet deciphered their writing, we are left in the dark.

During the Late Bronze Age, bull-leaping and bull-taming begun to appear in other parts of the world such as Syria/Turkey, Egypt and Crete. This raises the question: did migrating Indus tribes take this custom to distant lands, after the Indus Valley civilization began to collapse at around 1900 BCE?

Seals from Banawali and Mohenjo-Daro depict bull-leaping

Seals from Banawali and Mohenjo-Daro depict bull-leaping (ca 2300–1700 BCE).

The debate about the nature and the origin of Vedic culture has been contentious and divisive, often informed by bias and politics. Historically there are two opposing theories: the Euro centric “Aryan invasion theory” and the equally one-sided Indo centric “Indigenous origin theory.”

“The language of the Vedas is so close to the Avestan and its cultural assumptions so close to the Gathas that it is almost certainly an Aryan scripture.”

Most scholars today agree that while some Sanskrit-speaking Aryans were creating mayhem on the steppes, others had begun to migrate to the south, travelling in small bands through Afghanistan and finally settling in the Sapta-Sindhu, “The Land of the Seven Rivers.” Given the limited evidence, the scholar Karen Armstrong in her book The Great Transformation puts it best:

“Our only sources of information are the ritual texts, composed in Sanskrit, known as the Vedas (Knowledge). The language of the Vedas is so close to the Avestan and its cultural assumptions so close to the Gathas that it is almost certainly an Aryan scripture. Today most historians accept that during the second millennium, Aryan tribes from the steppes did indeed colonize the Indus Valley. But it was neither a mass movement nor a military invasion. There is no evidence of fighting, resistance, or widespread destruction. Instead there was probably a continuous infiltration of the region by different Aryan groups over a very long time.”

Roughly between 1700-1100 BCE, according to philological and linguistic evidence, those learned enough to do so, began to compile the earliest hymns of the Rig Veda (“Knowledge in Verse”).

As we said earlier, Iran, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent had engaged in seasonal and trade migration for hundreds of years so the people of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization already had long-standing connections with regions to the West.  This infiltration of Aryans may well have heightened in intensity during the severe drought beginning around 2000 BCE, but by this time aspects of both cultures may well have become assimilated. The subsequent dissolution of the great Indian Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, quite likely left a regional power vacuum that the people from the west took over.

Pashupati seal - a man surrounded by animals

The so-called Pashupati seal, showing a seated and possibly ithyphallic (having an erect penis) figure, surrounded by animals. Gregory L. Possehl (1941–2011), who was a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and renowned authority on the Indus Sarasvati Civilisation has concluded that while it would be appropriate to recognize the figure as a deity, regarding it as a proto-Shiva, something which has been done by other researchers, would be going too far.

At times of danger and instability not only is their an urgent need to communicate with the Divine, but people tend to reflect on the possible end of their traditional identity and the possibility of the termination of their most cherished, sacred, beliefs and religious practices.  For example, it was while in exile in Babylon, that Jewish scholars began to collect and redact the memories, stories and events that would create what we know today as the Bible. So it is understandable that, roughly between 1700-1100 BCE, according to philological and linguistic evidence, those learned enough to do so, began to compile the earliest hymns of the Rig Veda (“Knowledge in Verse”). This is considered the most important part of the Vedic scriptures: 1,028 hymns, divided into ten “books.”

The Rig Veda naturally reflects its people’s perennial beliefs, ancient past and their more recent histories and experiences. In the throes of establishing themselves in the Punjab, the Aryans had turned to the God Indra and away from the cult of Varuna. In the Rig Veda Indra became the chief asura (Sanskrit for the Avestan ahura) the Supreme God. Indra in the heavens reflected the time of scarcity and struggle on the earth that developed from two hundred years of drought. Indra, the God of war, was a heroic God with the power to liberate the waters from the demon and enemy of the gods: the “serpent or dragon” (quite possibly glaciers or clouds) that trapped them.

No one has any idea how old the Vedas are: scholars have speculated their origins from as early as 5000–6000 BCE.

The Hymn XII. Indra and other Hymns refer to the land of the seven rivers, and they also include praise of the Sarasvati River – “the best of the rivers” and “which surpasses in majesty and might all other rivers” – the river is mythologized and personified as a goddess, “she who has flow.”

Most scholars conclude that parts of the Vedas are much, much older, revealed to rishis, the seers of ancient times, they were were absolutely authoritative and divine, having been passed down orally – with exactitude, especially because the precision of each sound was so important for these early peoples – from generation to generation through seven priestly families. As the indispensable and most valuable part of a people’s ancient oral culture these verses would have always travelled with the Aryan or Indian peoples, and keep in mind that no one has any idea how old the Vedas are: scholars have speculated their origins from as early as 5000–6000 BCE.

“There was a vast difference in time between the earliest hymns and the latest in the Rig Veda. Hymns handed down orally during those centuries could hardly have escaped being gradually modified in their diction as the language gradually changed, and when they were at last collected into the canon, their diction would be rather that of the age when the collection was formed than that of the times when they were composed. Hence it is not surprising, if the hymns betray no marked differences of language commensurate with the long Vedic period. They were sacred, but their text would not have attained to fixity and verbal veneration until the canon was completed and closed. Yet even then phonetic changes went on, and the samhita text did not take its final shape till after the completion of the Brahmanas, or about 600 BC”. writes Frederick Eden Pargiter in Ancient Indian Historical Tradition.

One of the most beautiful passages of the Rig Veda is in the tenth book, translated here by the Sanskrit scholar Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900). Professor Müller describes this remarkable poem thus: “We have in this hymn a most sublime conception of the Supreme Being, and while there are many Vedic hymns whose tone is pantheistic and seems to imply that the wild forces of nature are Gods who rule the world, this hymn to the Unknown God is as purely monotheistic as a psalm of David, and shows a spirit of religious awe as profound as any we find in the Hebrew Scriptures.

“…this hymn to the Unknown God is as purely monotheistic as a psalm of David, and shows a spirit of religious awe as profound as any we find in the Hebrew Scriptures.”

We include it here not only for its beauty, but to emphasize that, in common with most ancient religions, the idea of a Supreme Transcendent spirit or god under whatever name has been with us for eons. Karen Armstrong says in The Case for God “We know, for example, that the ancient Aryan tribes, who had lived on the Caucasian steppes since about 4500 BCE, revered an invisible, impersonal force within themselves and all other natural phenomena. Everything was a manifestation of this all-pervading “Spirit” (Sanskrit: manya).

In the beginning there arose the Golden Child.
As soon as he was born he alone was the lord of all that is.
He established the earth and this heaven.
He established the earth and this heaven:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He who gives breath, he who gives strength,
whose command all the bright gods revere,
whose shadow is immortality,
whose shadow is death:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He who through his might
became the sole king
of the breathing and twinkling world,
who governs all this, man and beast:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He through whose might
these snowy mountains are,
and the sea, they say, with the distant river;
he of whom these regions are indeed the two arms:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He through whom the awful heaven
and the earth were made fast,
he through whom the ether was established,
and the firmament;
he who measured the air in the sky:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He to whom heaven and earth,
standing firm by his will,
look up, trembling in their mind;
he over whom the risen sun shines forth:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

When the great waters went everywhere,
holding the germ,
and generating light,
then there arose from them the breath of the gods:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He who by his might
looked even over the waters
which held power and generated the sacrifice,
he who alone is God above all gods:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

May he not hurt us,
he who is the begetter of the earth,
or he, the righteous, who begat the heaven;
he who also begat the bright and mighty waters:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

Pragâpati,
no other than thou embraces all these created things.
May that be ours which we desire
when sacrificing to thee:
may we be lords of wealth!

Rigveda website

The ‘Earliest writing’ found

Dr. David Whitehouse, BBC News

The first known examples of writing may have been unearthed at an archaeological dig in Pakistan.

Rigveda website

The Rig Veda

Ralph T.H. Griffith, Translator

This is the online version of Ralph T.H. Griffith English 1896 translation of the Rig Veda. Each page is cross-linked with the Sanskrit text.

drilling a tooth

Skeletons reveal secrets of 9,000-year-old dentistry

Barbara McMahon, The Guardian

Treatment was carried out in an area of what is now Pakistan, using tiny, flint-tipped wooden drills, that rotated at about 20 times a second.

Harrapan unicorn seal

Harappa.com

Explore the ancient Indus Valley civilization through slideshows, essays and articles from leading scholars from India, Pakistan, US, and Europe.

Related:

Early Civilizations:
Mesopotamia
The Noble Ones
Aegean Civilizations
Archaic Greece
Ancient China

Further Reading

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