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2.6: Indus Valley – Harappan and Mohenjo-Daro (3300 BCE – 1900 BCE)

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    The people of the Indus Valley were known for their advanced urban planning, elaborate sewer systems, kiln-baked brick homes, and water reserve systems. They also had clusters of urban government buildings, making them substantially more advanced than other civilizations. Additionally, they developed metallurgy techniques for producing bronze, lead, tin, and copper.

    The Indus Valley is a geographical region encompassing a significant portion of modern-day Pakistan, Western India, and Northwestern Afghanistan (2.6.1). This area boasts fertile farmlands that are bordered by towering deserts and oceans that facilitate convenient travel. The Indus River originates from the lofty Himalayan Mountains and deposits nutrient-rich soil into the adjacent valleys. This allowed the Neolithic Mehrgarh community to establish small hamlets around 5000 BCE. Over time, this fecund terrain paved the way for developing well-planned cities, including Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. By 2600 BCE, these modest settlements had blossomed into bustling urban centers that boasted clean water and an innovative septic system, which efficiently flushed away contaminated water.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Indus Valley map (Avantiputra7CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The Indus Valley civilization was among the most extensive and influential ancient societies in the Neolithic Age. Their flourishing trade routes with Egypt and Mesopotamia enabled them to trade rare raw materials not found in their own region, such as lapis lazuli, a rich blue metamorphic rock exclusively found in northeastern Afghanistan. To this day, lapis lazuli remains highly coveted and valuable, as it is ground into a fine powder and utilized in various applications.

    The Indus Valley region was initially explored by archaeologists in the 1920s, with the Harappa site as the starting point. In the years since, over 500 additional Harappan sites have been uncovered. Shortly after the Harappa excavation, Mohenjo-Daro was also discovered. Out of the 1056 settlements that have been identified, 96 have been excavated. These sites had been concealed by silt accumulation caused by monsoons and flooding for centuries, which preserved them intact.


    During ancient times, major cities were often split into two primary sections: the Citadel, situated above the flood plains and commonly referred to as the upper town, and the lower town, a residential district for the general population. The dimensions of the residences within the city depended upon the inhabitants' financial status. Typically, these homes contained a central courtyard and were built with two levels to maintain consistent temperatures on the lower floor. Constructed from baked bricks, the dwellings were generously sized and included amenities such as a well, bathing facilities, and a kitchen. The ruins (2.6.2) at Mohenjo-Daro demonstrate the use of mud bricks made from the material found in excavated settlements. The view shows how villages were constructed with lower levels and rising upwards for more important structures.

    a city of mud bricks build on a hill
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Ruins (UNESCOCC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
    In Search of Meluhha: The Story of Mohenjodaro

    In Search of Meluhha frames the Indus Valley Civilization within the current context of South Asia. Recent Indus floods have highlighted the precarious nature of the Indus River Delta. New research has shown that the Indus Civilization existed at a ‘Goldilocks moment.’ With the thawing of tensions between India and Pakistan, In Search of Meluhha is the kind of Goldilocks project presenting a pre-history view irrespective of nationalist or religious identity.


    In ancient cities, the granaries (2.6.3) held great importance as they served as the primary storage facilities for food. Typically, each town had a minimum of 5-6 of these large structures situated within the citadel area, safeguarding the food from potential floods and invasions. These granaries were substantial, measuring 45 meters by 45 meters, and boasted six rooms arranged along a central pathway that was 7 meters wide. Made of baked mud bricks, the granaries featured a wooden roof with triangular vents allowing proper air circulation.

    ruins of a city of mud bricks
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Ruins of granary (Hassan NasirCC BY-SA)

    The great baths (2.6.4) stand as one of the most remarkable structures of ancient times. These baths served as a venue for festivals and religious ceremonies, and remarkably, they remain waterproof even to this day. Measuring 11 meters in length and 7 meters in width, with a depth of 2.5 meters, the walls were crafted using purpose-made bricks that were then covered with gypsum plaster, ensuring their waterproof quality. To further cater to the guests, changing rooms were provided, and entrance stairs were located at both ends of the bath. The ancient city's sewage system was constructed using large stones and baked bricks. Bricks created a channel to prevent contaminated water from permeating, and obstructions were easily removed by lifting a stone. These pioneering drainage systems were designed to flow to the city's outskirts, where the water was treated and repurposed for composting. The Great Baths (2.6.5) is a digital restoration based on the brick foundation and the locations of various pipes.

    ruins of swimming pool city of mud bricks
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Great baths (Saqib QayyumCC BY-SA 3.0)
    recreation of the swimming pool with surrounding buildingsFigure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Digital Reconstruction of the Great baths (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


    The pottery discovered in the Indus Valley was carefully crafted to fit its designated purpose. It was observed that the taller and cylindrical vessels (2.6.6) were likely intended for liquid storage, while the shorter and rounder vessels (2.6.7) were used for preserving grains. The vessels were characterized by their stunning red finish, and some were adorned with intricate black designs. The people of Mohenjo-Daro were known for their unadorned pottery, while the Harappans utilized monochrome paint to create a signature design featuring intersecting circles. The pieces were fired in a kiln and could be found either glazed or unglazed.

    clay vessel with decorative ink
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Serviceware Terracotta with black paint (49.53 x 25.4 cm) (Los Angeles County Museum of ArtPublic Domain)
    a clay vessel with decorate ink
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Bowl with painted decoration (Public Domain)

    Archaeological evidence suggests that the Indus script originated in Mohenjo-Daro roughly around 3,000 BCE. The script comprised of a series of symbols etched onto clay tablets. As part of the Indus River civilization, it was important for the people to document the goods they traded with other civilizations. As a result, they created clay seals that served as a form of identification, bills of sale, and to signify the goods available for trade. These seals were adorned with images of animals, humans, and scripts, often in profile, similar to the Egyptians. Many seals featured a buffalo and incense burner (2.6.8), as well as cuneiform symbols that held specific meanings for the owner. During excavation, thousands of square-shaped seals were discovered, most of which date back to 2600 BCE.

    two small clay squares with symbols imprinted
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Stamp seal and modern impression: unicorn and incense burner (Public Domain)
    closeup of clay square with a king imprinted
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Pashupati Seal (Public Domain)

    The Pashupati Seal (2.6.9) is a remarkable archaeological find that dates back to 2300 BCE. It was discovered during an excavation at Mohenjo-Daro after being buried in mud for centuries, and its remarkable features were finally revealed in 1928. The seal depicts a captivating, seated figure adorned with a striking horned headdress and three heads that closely resemble the Hindu deity Shiva. With arms resting on its knees, the figure suggests a meditative position, and the design is further enriched by an impressive collection of animals surrounding it, including an elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, and buffalo. The top of the seal features inscribed text, making it one of the most intriguing and talked-about archaeological discoveries to date.

    The Indus Valley houses numerous sculptures, including the Indus Priest/King statue (2.6.11), carved from soapstone and measuring 17.5 cm in height. Despite its appellation, no historical evidence has been uncovered to substantiate the existence of a ruling monarch in the valley. The sculptors responsible for fashioning this piece demonstrated their artistry through the exquisite trefoil design of the cloak and the meticulous beard incisions.

    bronze statue of a girl with pieces of jewelry
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro; (2300-1750 BC; bronze; height: 10.8 cm)  (CC0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Indus Priest/King Statue. (17.5 cm high and carved from steatite) (, CC BY-SA 1.0)

    Regarded as a remarkable discovery in the Indus Valley, the Dancing Girl (2.6.10) bronze sculpture is renowned for its exceptional craftsmanship. Dating back to approximately 2500 BCE, this statue depicts a young girl in a poised dance stance characterized by stylized proportions. Notably, this sculpture represents the earliest known instance of contrapposto, an artistic technique that balances the arms and shoulders with the hips and legs for a lifelike appearance. Impressively, this technique predates the Renaissance. Standing at a modest height of 10.5 cm, the Dancing Girl statue boasts stunning bangles on her arms, exquisite jewelry pendants around her neck, and a perfectly coiffed bun. Crafted with the lost wax casting technique, this figurine is a testament to the Indus Valley's mastery of metallurgy. Researchers have uncovered a plethora of clay, stone, and gold figurines striking dance poses, a clear indication of the society's deep admiration for the art of dance.

    The archeologist, Sir John Marshall, was surprised to see the Dancing Girl figurine and said: 

    “When I first saw them I found it difficult to believe that they were prehistoric; they seemed to completely upset all established ideas about early art and culture. Modeling such as this was unknown in the ancient world up to the Hellenistic age of Greece, and I thought, therefore, that some mistake must surely have been made; that these figures had found their way into levels some 3000 years older than those to which they properly belonged .... Now, in these statuettes, it is just this anatomical truth which is so startling; that makes us wonder whether, in this all-important matter, Greek artistry could possibly have been anticipated by the sculptors of a far-off age on the banks of the Indus.”[1]  


    [1]  Keay, J. (1988). India Discovered. Harper Collins.