Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and the Civilizations of the Indus Valley


Back in 1856, two Brit brother engineers, John and Robert Brunton, were constructing a railway to connect the then British-Indian cities of Lahore and Multan (in present-day Pakistan). The two were in need of stone to complete their railway, but being in a predominantly agricultural region, little of this was to be found. Their fortunes changed as they came upon the small village of Harappa. It was here that they discovered old (ancient really) mud-bricks that could be used for their railway project. And so they put these bricks to use, laying down nearly 100 miles of track upon the ancient bricks. What they didn’t realize is that the source of their bricks was more significant that anyone could have imagined at the time. Indeed, they discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization that went back over 4,000 years!
Though preliminary excavations had been carried out, it was really in 1921 under Sir John Marshall that excavation of the Harappa site began in earnest. A year later, Marshall’s excavation led him to a second site at a nearby railway station called Mohenjo-Daro, meaning “Hill of the Dead.” 1 These were the first of several discoveries of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations.

Ruins of Harappa - photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
Ruins of Harappa – photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Citadel Cities of the Indus Valley

The earliest settlements in the Indus Valley seem to date back nearly 6,000 years ago. Around 2700 BCE, what were perhaps tiny villages began to conglomerate and expand into larger urban areas. Archaeological evidence indicates that centralized planning had occurred with streets paved in a grid formation and city walls constructed for protection against marauders. Terraced houses were built with several staircases and constructed around an inner courtyard. These cities also seem to have had indoor plumbing and drainage systems.

An ancient Indus valley house
An ancient Indus valley house

Of all of the cities that have been found in northwestern India and southeastern Pakistan, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro are two of the more well-known.

The citadel at Harappa was built on a manmade mound and enclosed an area of nearly eight football fields. The residents of the citadel seemed to have lived a more spartan-type of life. While there were houses, religious buildings, workshops, granaries and large public baths, there seem to have been no palaces or ostentatious displays of wealth.

Though the area was hot and dry, nearby rivers made farming and fishing possible. The more common crops that were grown included wheat, barley, cotton and peas. Other staples of Indus civilization diet included chickens, sheep, goats and possibly even cattle (practicing an early form of Hinduism, it is not known if the cow was considered sacred at this time and discouraged from being eaten).

The Decline of the Indus Valley Civilizations and the arrival of the Aryans

Other than what’s been described above, not much else is known about the Indus Valley civilizations. Though these cities did have a form of writing, it is currently indecipherable to historians. Overall though it appears that the ancient Indus valley city dwellers were rather peaceful and intellectually sophisticated people. However around 1800 BCE, these civilizations by and large seem to have started to greatly decline. Whatever writing was used began to disappear and trade and technological use seems to have fallen precipitously. In fact, many cities seem to have been outright abandoned for reasons that are still unclear. Perhaps it could have been a massive drought and the drying up of the Saraswati river. There could also have been various epidemics that decreased the population and forced people to flee.

Another reason may be due to the advent of new peoples who entered the scene. Sometime around 1500 BCE, a group of nomads known as the Aryans crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and arrived into the region from what are now the steppes of Central Asia. Perhaps they conquered the area, though again, there is not much conclusive evidence to support this theory.

What likely happened is that Aryan civilization was technologically superior and gradually began to be adopted by many of the Indus Valley peoples. Evidence of greater use of Indo-European languages is present in the historical record of the time as well as the adoption of many Aryan customs and religious beliefs. Many customs and traditions of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations morphed with those of the Aryans and created the foundations of the Indian civilization that we know today.

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