Ancient IndiaHarappa and the Indus River

   Although agriculture seems to have come late to India, arriving sometime around 5000 BC, India was one of the first regions to give birth to civilization. Only a few centuries after the first Mesopotamian cities sprang up, a people living along the northern reaches of the Indus River overnight discovered urbanization, metalwork, and writing. It is a mysterious civilization and one with no discernible continuity, for it thrived for several centuries and then disappeared. The Indo-European immigrants who settled the region did not adopt most of the aspects of this civilization, and what they did adopt is difficult to ascertain. So while Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Yellow River civilizations lasted for millenia and left their mark on all subsequent cultures, the Indus River civilization seems to have been a false start.

   For the overwhelming majority of human history, this early culture was truly a lost civilization. The mounds which stood where great cities had thrived excited interest in observers, but no one in their wildest dreams could have imagined that beneath those large mounds lay cities that had been lost to human memory.

   In the 1920's, excavations began on one of these mounds in Harappa in Pakistan. While the archaeologists expected to find something, they did not imagine that a city lay beneath the earth. Archaeologists would later discover another large city to the south at Mohenjo-Daro, and the twentieth century would see the recovery of at least eighty villages and towns related to this newly discovered civilization. They named it Harappan after the first city they discovered, but it is more commonly called the Indus River civilization. While we have stones and tools and fragments and bones, we really have no-one's voice or experience from the bustling days of the great Harappan cities. We don't know who the people were who built and lived there. We don't know, either, when they first built their cities; some scholars argue that Harappan civilization arises around 2250 BC, while others argue that it can be dated back to 2500 BC or earlier.

   Like the civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece, Harappa grew on the floodplains of a rich and life-giving river, the Indus. The original cities and many of the towns seemed to have been put right near the shores of the river. The Indus, however, is destructive and unpredictable in its floods, and the cities were frequently levelled by the forces of nature. Mohenjo-Daro in the south, where the flooding can be fairly brutal, was rebuilt six times that we know about; Harappa in the north was rebuilt five times.

   The Harappans were an agricultural people whose economy was almost entirely dominated by horticulture. Massive granaries were built at each city, and there most certainly was an elaborate bureaucracy to distribute this wealth of food. The Indus River valley is relatively dry now, but apparently it was quite wet when the Harappans thrived there. We know this because the bricks that they built their cities with were fired bricks; since sun-dried bricks are cheaper and easier to make, we can only assume that over-abundant humidity and precipitation prevented them from taking the cheaper way out. In addition, many of the Harappan seals have pictures of animals that imply a wet and marshy environment, such as rhinoceroses, elephants, and tigers. The Harappans also had a wide variety of domesticated animals: camels, cats, dogs, goats, sheep, and buffalo.

   Their cities were carefully planned and laid out; they are, in fact, the first peoples to plan the building of their cities. Whenever they rebuilt their cities, they laid them out precisely in the same way the destroyed city had been built. The pathways within the city are laid out in a perpendicular criss-cross fashion; most of the city was made up of residences.

   Life in the Harappan cities was apparently quite good. Although living quarters were cramped, which is typical of ancient cities, they nevertheless had drains, sewers, and even latrines. There is no question that they had an active trade with cultures to the west. Several Harappan seals have been found in excavations of Sumerian cities, as well as the discovery of pictures of animals that in no way could have existed in Mesopotamia, such as tigers. There is not, however, a wealth of Mesopotamian artifacts in Harappan cities.

   We know nothing of the religion of the Harappans. Unlike in Mesopotamia or Egypt, we have discovered no building that so much as hints that it might be a temple of some sort or involve any kind of public worship. The bulk of public buildings in the city seemed to be solely oriented around the economy and around making life comfortable for the Harappans. We do, however, have a number of tantalizing figures on various seals and statues. What we gather from these figures (and we can not gather much), is that the Harappans probably exercised some sort of goddess worship. There is, however, some sort of male god (maybe) that has the head of a man with the horns of a bull. In addition, we believe from various artifacts that the Harappans also may have worshipped natural objects or animistic forces, but the circumstances of this worship can only be guessed at.

   We know that the Harappans were eventually supplanted by waves of migrations of Indo-Europeans. These new peoples, however, did not seem to adopt the religious practices of the Harappans, so it is not possible to reconstruct Harappan religion through the religion of the Vedic peoples, that is, the Indo-Europeans who constructed the rudimentary Indian religion represented by the Vedas.

   Right at the heart of the mystery, like a person speaking through sound-proof glass, are the numerous writings all over the artifacts we have unearthed. The Harappan writing was a pictographic script, or at least seems to be; as of yet, however, no-one has figured out how to decipher it or even what language it might be rendering. The logical candidate is that the Harappans spoke a Dravidian language, but that conclusion, which may not be true, has not helped anybody decipher the script. Like the rest of Harappan civilization, the writing was lost to human memory after the disappearance of the Harappans.

   And finally they disappeared. And they disappeared without a trace. Some believe that they were overrun by the war-like Aryans, the Indo-Europeans who, like a storm, rushed in from Euro-Asia and overran Persia and northern India. Some believe that the periodic and frequently destructive flooding of the Indus finally took its toll on the economic health of the civilization. It is possible that the periodic changes of course that the Indus undergoes also contributed to its decline. All we know is that somewhere between 1800 and 1700 BC, the Harappan cities and towns were abandoned and finally reclaimed by the rich soil they had grown up from.


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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-9-97