Harappan Civilization: The Ancient Indus Civilization – Toppr


The Harappan Civilization was a Bronze Age civilization (3300–1300 BCE; mature period 2600–1600 BCE) mainly in the northwestern regions of South Asia, extending from what today is northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwest India. Along with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was one of three early civilisations of the Old World, and of the three, the most widespread.

About the Harappan Civilization

The Harappan Civilization flourished in the basins of the Indus River, which flows through the length of Pakistan, and along a system of perennial, mostly monsoon-fed, rivers that once coursed in the vicinity of the seasonal Ghaggar-Hakra river in northwest India and eastern Pakistan. Aridification of this region during the 3rd millennium BCE may have been the initial spur for the urbanisation associated with the civilization, but eventually also reduced the water supply enough to cause the civilization’s demise, and to scatter its population eastward.

The Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), also known as the Bronze Age civilization (3300-1300 BCE; mature period 2600-1900 BCE). It was one of three earliest civilizations of the Old World along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The IVC flourished on the banks of the Indus River, which is one of the major rivers of Asia, and the Ghaggar-Hakra River, which used to once flow through northwest India and eastern Pakistan.

When the Harappan Civilization was at its peak, it had a massive population of over five million. The residents of the ancient Indus river valley also knew new techniques in handicraft like carnelian products, seal carving and metallurgy (bronze, copper, lead, and tin). All the Indus cities consisted of urban planning, complex drainage systems, baked brick houses, water supply systems, and clusters of large non-residential buildings.

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harappan civilization
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-Daro, Sindh province, Pakistan, showing the Great Bath in the foreground.

It is also named as the Harappan Civilisation, after Harappa, the first of its sites to be excavated in the 1920s, in what was then the Punjab province of British India, and now is Pakistan. The discovery of Harappa, and soon afterwards, Mohenjo-Daro, was the culmination of work beginning in 1861 with the founding of the Archaeological Survey of India in the British Raj. Excavation of Harappan sites has been ongoing since 1920, with important breakthroughs occurring as recently as 1999. This Harappan civilization is sometimes called the Mature Harappan culture to distinguish it from the cultures immediately preceding and following it. Of these, the earlier is often called the Early Harappan culture, while the latter one may be referred to as the Late Harappan, both of which existed in the same area as the Mature Harappan Civilisation.

Even today, the Indus Valley Civilization remains one of most enigmatic eras of human history. Even in olden times, the civilization revealed some important inventions that were a stepping stone for progress.

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Indus Valley pottery, 2500–1900 BCE
Indus Valley pottery, 2500–1900 BCE
  • In the late 1820s, Charles Masson, a British explorer in India, came across puzzling ruins and brick mounds. They were actually the first evidence of the lost city of Harappa. Almost 30 years later, in 1856, engineers discovered more bricks, which were carted off before carrying on the railway construction. Finally, in the 1920s, archaeologists started excavating and uncovering the sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. This is how the long-forgotten Indus Valley civilization had, at last, been discovered. The ruins of Harappa were first described in 1842 by Charles Masson in his Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, and the Punjab, where locals talked of an ancient city extending “thirteen cosses” (about 25 miles), but no archaeological interest would attach to this for nearly a century.
  • 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. Visiting the city, John 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.
  • In 1872–75, Alexander Cunningham published the first Harappan seal (with an erroneous identification as Brahmi letters). It was half a century later, in 1912, that more Harappan seals were discovered by J. Fleet, prompting an excavation campaign under Sir John Hubert Marshall in 1921–22 and resulting in the discovery of the civilisation at Harappa.
  • Following independence, the bulk of the archaeological finds were inherited by Pakistan where most of the IVC was based, and excavations from this time include those led by Wheeler in 1949, archaeological adviser to the Government of Pakistan.

Oldest in the World

Did you know that scientists from IIT-Kharagpur and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have now got evidence that the Indus Valley civilization is at least 8,000 years old and not 5,500 years old as assumed earlier? This discovery was also published in the esteemed Nature journal on May 25, 2016. The civilization is not just older than the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations but also the oldest in the world!


Dates Phase Era
7000–5500 BCE Pre-Harappan Mehrgarh I (aceramic Neolithic) Early Food Producing Era
5500–3300 BCE Mehrgarh II-VI (ceramic Neolithic) Regionalisation Era
c.4000-2500/2300 BCE (Shaffer)[45]
c.5000-3200 BCE (Coningham & Young)[46]
3300–2800 BCE Early Harappan Harappan 1 (Ravi Phase; Hakra Ware)
2800–2600 BCE Harappan 2 (Kot Diji Phase, Nausharo I, Mehrgarh VII)
2600–2450 BCE Mature Harappan (Indus Valley Civilisation) Harappan 3A (Nausharo II) Integration Era
2450–2200 BCE Harappan 3B
2200–1900 BCE Harappan 3C
1900–1700 BCE Late Harappan (Cemetery H);
Ochre Coloured Pottery
Harappan 4 Localisation Era
1700–1300 BCE Harappan 5
1300–300 BCE Post-Harappan Painted Grey Ware
Northern Black Polished Ware (Iron Age)
Iron Age India
Vedic period
Second urbanisation

Life in Harappan Civilization

Two cities, in particular, have been excavated at the sites of Mohenjo-Daro on the lower Indus, and at Harappa, further upstream. The evidence suggests they had a highly developed city life; many houses had wells and bathrooms as well as an elaborate underground drainage system. The social conditions of the citizens were comparable to those in Sumeria and superior to the contemporary Babylonians and Egyptians. These cities display a well-planned urbanization system.

The Indus Civilization had a writing system which today still remains a mystery: all attempts to decipher it have failed. This is one of the reasons why the Indus Valley Civilization is one of the least known of the important early civilizations of antiquity. Examples of this writing system have been found in pottery, amulets, carved stamp seals, and even in weights and copper tablets.

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Existence of Fashion

It’s interesting to know that the most commonly found artifact in the Indus Valley civilization is jewellery. It was used by both men and women and made from feasible material right from precious metals and gemstones to baked clay and bone. The dyeing facilities that were excavated indicate that cotton was perhaps dyed in a range of colours. Also, things like cinnabar, collyrium and vermillion were used as cosmetics then.

Trade Practices without Money

Seals and weights found from the ruins of numerous Harappan cities indicate that there was a system of tightly controlled trade. The trade practices happened through barter (not money) and Indus civilization’s key trading partner was Mesopotamia. There is also enough proof that people in Mesopotamian cities owned unique Harappan luxury goods like pottery, beads, weapons and miniature carved bones.

Discovery of Figurines

A multitude of terracotta, metal, and steatite of women in dancing poses indicate the presence of some form of dance in that era. The most fascinating and illustrious figurines excavated from the Indus Valley excavations are the bronze Dancing Girl, the terracotta Wheel Cart and steatite Bearded Priest-King.


By 1800 BCE, the Indus Valley Civilization saw the beginning of their decline: Writing started to disappear, standardized weights and measures used for trade and taxation purposes fell out of use, the connection with the Near East was interrupted, and some cities were gradually abandoned. The reasons for this decline are not entirely clear, but it is believed that the drying up of the Saraswati River, a process which had begun around 1900 BCE, was the main cause. Other experts speak of a great flood in the area. Either event would have had catastrophic effects on agricultural activity, making the economy no longer sustainable and breaking the civic order of the cities.

Indus Valley Seals
Indus Valley Seals

Around 1500 BCE, a large group of nomadic cattle-herders, the Aryans, migrated into the region from central Asia. The Aryans crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and came in contact with the Harappan Civilization. This was a large migration and used to be seen as an invasion, which was thought to be the reason for the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization, but this hypothesis is not unanimously accepted today.


The granaries, dockyard, warehouses, and brick platforms,  that Harappans built were advanced and way ahead of their time. The walls built by the Harappans were large which shows to have protected the cities from natural disasters like floods. It also possibly saved them from military attacks. There is no proof of large monuments and structures in the cities. The city of Mohenjo-daro has a “great bath” which is one of the earliest public water tanks in the ancient world.


The excavators of the site have proposed the following chronology of Harappa’s occupation:

  1. Ravi Aspect of the Hakra phase, c. 3300 – 2800 BC.
  2. Kot Dijian (Early Harappan) phase, c. 2800 – 2600 BC.
  3. Harappan Phase, c. 2600 – 1900 BC.
  4. Transitional Phase, c. 1900 – 1800 BC.
  5. Late Harappan Phase, c. 1800 – 1300 BC.

Cities of Indus Valley Civilisation

  • Sarai Khola
  • Jalilpur
  • Harappa
  • Nausharo
  • Mohenjo-daro
  • Kot-Diji
  • Balakot
  • Lothal
  • Desalpur
  • Rangpur
  • Kalibangan
  • Banawali

Thus, the Indus Valley Civilization came to an end. Over the course of several centuries, the Aryans gradually settled down and took up agriculture. The language brought by the Aryans gained supremacy over the local languages: the origin of the most widely spoken languages today in South Asia goes back to the Aryans, who introduced the Indo-European languages into the Indian subcontinent.

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