Harappa Civilization

Until a century ago, nothing was known about the ancient civilization whose remnants were buried deep inside the earth.  When inquisitive archaeologists started digging, what emerged was to change the history of the entire Indian subcontinent.

The pioneer archaeologists like John Marshall, and his colleagues DR Sahni, RD Banerji, MS Vats and KN Dikshit, unearthed the initial sites of Mohenjodaro and Harrapa, along the former river courses of Indus and Ravi, respectively. Both the sites are in present day Pakistan.  After these major excavations, archaeologists went on to discover sites in other parts of India that highlighted the reach of Harappan civilization from Afghanistan to Gujarat in India. The other sites excavated in India were Rakhigrahi, Lothal, Ropar, Banawali, and Dholavira.  Though, much has been written and debated about the art and culture, and the highly developed architecture of the Harappan people, but the lack of decipherment of Indus script continues to confounds the historians.

According to historians, the mature phase of the Harappan civilization lasted from c. 2600 to 1900 BCE.  The discoveries at Mehrgarh, Pakistan, were to further push the primitive Harappa to 6,000 BC. Eminent Pakistani archaeologist, Ahmad Hasan Dani said, “Discoveries at Mehrgarh changed the entire concept of the Indus civilization.”

According to the finds, historians have been able to piece together broad features of their art, though debate rages on different perspectives that keep tumbling out. But without doubt, the discoveries at Indus valley sites, and excavation of different sites are sufficient to astonish the modern day scholars and students alike on the advancement made by these people, and their ultimate mysterious demise.

Some of the iconic art pieces discovered at Harappan sites include seals, jewelry, painted pottery, metal and terracotta figurines, toys, highlight the urban culture of these people.  Various types of household articles and utensils have been discovered from the ruins of Mahenjodaro and Harappa. These articles and utensils are made of clay, stone and of metals like bronze and copper.

Articles of domestic use of the Indus valley people included needle, razor, daggers and mirrors. The discovery of the toys like whistles rattles and dolls refers to the fact that the children were fond of toys.

J M Kenoyer, a leading expert on Indus Valley, says, “Crafts became most important for reinforcing social and ritual status. These were efficiently controlled by new elites and powerful merchants of the Indus cities. While the knowledge of specific craft technologies were probably passed on from one generation to the next through kin networks and various forms of ritual practice, the access to specific materials could have been carefully regulated by controlling trade. At both Harappa and Nausharo, the building of massive mud brick walls around the settlements would have been the most effective way to control the access to raw materials. The walls and gateways would also have allowed for control of the export trade in finished commodities.”

The art of these people can be understood after individually studying various art objects.

Over 400 seals have been excavated. The seals are made soapstone (steatite) have motives of animals, Indus script, male figures. Historians say the seals were either used in the trade, or had religious purpose.  These seals were used to stamp the authority of the elite in the Indus civilization.  The seals are squate tablest 1.5 to 30 inches high used as stamp of ownership on goods. Each seal had an emblem cut into it in reverse relief.

One of the most important seal is that of Yogi, or proto Shiva. A man wearing a headgear is sitting in yogic posture, with an erect phallus. Animals figures surround him. According to many art historians, this could be the earliest representation of Shiva, and also shows the knowledge of yoga. Seals and terracotta figurines believed to be portray various yogic postures.

As seals, and animal figurines have been found, it shows domesticated animals included humped bulls, cows, buffaloes, sheeps, elephants and camels. However, they did not know the use of horse, as no evidence of horse has been found.

The Harappans had developed their own process of writing, which is evident from the discovery of seals at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa.

Among the other interesting finds have been the female figures that have been termed as Mother Goddess, thus showing the existence of fertility cult. These terracotta figures have headgear, pellet like breasts, jewelry. The female figurines with prominent busts are usually bejeweled, and are shown wearing a peculiar kind of head-dress. Their number suggests that they were cult objects.  Terracota toys include miniature bulls with movable heads carts with tiny solid wheels drawn by a pair of bullocks such as we still find in reality with slight change in the design of wheels trundling along the dusty tracks in the countryside around Moenjodaro.

Robed male figure,
from Mohenjo-daro

Stones also have been used for various sculptures like the excavated male nude torso, male busts. Susan Huntington says, “a vast variety of stones were used, suggesting materials were used because of their inherent beauty, and not because they were widely available in northwest India and Pakistan.”

Interestingly, the discovery of these sculptures has led to contradictory traditions in the Harappan civilization. The male bust, also sometimes called priest head (now in National Museum Karachi) clearly has Hellenistic influences. Some have even opined that this does not have an Harappan origin. Huntington says the trefoil has western Asiatic association. He even has eyes half closed as if meditating.  However, he has no reference in later Indic arts. 

Red Sandstone Nude Male Torso, Harappa

IN contrast to this sculpture, the male nude torso is abound in naturalism. Though, the reasons for his nudity are not clear. It may or not portray some sexual practices, but his references are found in later day Indic arts, like the similar nude male torso, belonging to the Gupta period, found in Lohanipur, Uttar Pradesh.

From the archaeological remains it is clear that industry and trade developed considerably in the Indus valley. Traders and merchants of this valley established their commercial relations with Sumer, Egypt and Crete.

The Indus valley people used a kind of weights and measure. The unit of weight was equal to 1750 grams.

One of the other iconic statues found in Mohenjodaro is that of ‘Dancing Girl’. A 10.8 centimeter high bronze statuette, sculpted using the lost wax method around 2500 BC, and excavated in 1926. Historian Partha Mitter poetically describes her. “There is something endearing about this bronze nude, which captures the artless pose of an awkward adolescent.”

Mortimer Wheeler said about her. “There is her little Baluchi-style face with pouting lips and insolent look in the eye. She’s about fifteen years old I should think, not more, but she stands there with bangles all the way up her arm and nothing else on. A girl perfectly, for the moment, perfectly confident of herself and the world. There’s nothing like her, I think, in the world.”


A number of intact and broken pieces of pottery have been receovered from various Harappan sites suggesting they were well versed with baking and terracotta arts. “The modes of pottery decoration are smooth or matt surfaces, often polished with red or cream slip. Pottery painted with black or brown tints is characterized by geometrical designs. blended with vegetation, animals, birds and human forms.

Their exuberance and richness bear the stamp of a naturalistic style. The chequered patterns and wavy lines suggest cultivated fields and flowing water, while plant motifs, ears of corn,  birds, fish, stylized figures of homed animals, and the sun symbols bespeak of an obvious delight in the bounties of nature,” says Khurshid Hasan Shaikh and Syed M. Ashfaque (UNESCO). 


From excavated remains, it is clear that the Indus Valley civilization possessed a flourishing urban architecture. The major cities associated with the civilization – notably Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, and Kalibangan – were laid out on a grid pattern and had provisions for an advanced drainage system. The residential buildings, which were serviceable enough, were mainly brick and consisted of an open patio flanked by rooms. For monumental architecture, the evidence is slight, the most important being a “sacred” tank (thought to be for ritual ablution) and associated structures. Corbel vaulting (arches supported by brackets projecting from the wall) was known, and, to a limited extent, timber was used together with brick; whatever architectural ornamentation existed must have been of brick or plaster (Britannia Encyclopedia).

The striking feature of these cities was raised citadel, standing some 40 to 50 feet above the rest of the city.  The houses had their own bathrooms, but each city also had a public bath. These may have been water tanks to catch monsoon rains, but most importantly used for ritualistic or community bathing.

Archaeologists have often been astonished to find the advance stage of city building attained by the Harappa civilization residents.

The builders of Mohenjo-Daro aligned their buildings along a grid system with straight streets. Burnt brick about the same size as bricks today was the major material used to build vertical walls whose inner faces were covered with clay plaster or brought to a fine finish by rubbing down the bricks.

Ground-floor rooms, which are the only rooms that have survived at Mohenjo-Daro, received their light and air through doorways and sometimes through slits in the outer walls. Stairways leading to the upper stories of the buildings are universal, writes Sir Marshall, “the treads generally, though not always, being steep and narrow.” Each building had its own well built of brick in the round. Bathrooms were connected to a street drainage system and existed on upper floors as well as the ground floor. Garbage chutes or flues descended to openings on the street where garbage collectors picked up the garbage. Besides private garbage chutes were public garbage cans provided at convenient spots at the sides of the streets. Where did the drainage systems drain? “It is not a little surprising to find that the street drains merely discharged into soak-pits in the open thoroughfares, and that no attempt was made to carry them outside the limits of the town.”

Three categories of buildings at Mohenjo-Daro are dwelling houses, buildings whose purpose has not yet been determined and public baths, which may have had either a religious or secular character. 

Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro

The Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro, astonishingly well preserved and measuring 180 feet north to south and 108 feet east to west, is a “vast hydropathic establishment and the most imposing of all the remains unearthed at Mohenjo-Daro,” opines Sir Marshall.

Talking about this structure’s significance, Huntington says because we know that in later Indic life and religion, bathing is essential for ritual cleansing, it has often been suggested that Great Bath had a religious significance, but there is no direct evidence of it.

The Granary: it is another interesting architectural feature on the Stupa Mound is the podium of the great Granary situated on the western flank.

The Granary Mohenjodaro

The Pillared Hall, also excavated at Mohenjodaro is an important building in the ‘L’ area of the Stupa Mound. The building enclosing a small courtyard probably carried a large roof supported on twenty pillars arranged in rows of five. It might have served as the court of the city magistrate or as a secretariat of the State.

One thing which clearly stands out from observation of these few important architectural remains on the Stupa Mound is that this part of ancient Mohenjo-Daro in its prime was the chief administrative  centre of the city, and probably also of the whole Indus Valley Civilization.

In the later day excavation in Lothal, Gujarat, a dock has been found.  Huntington says, “if this intriguing but controversial structure is  a dock, it would represent an engineering feet of great sophistication. Further, it would provide concrete evidence of means of sea trade between Indus Valley and other civilizations. It might have been a trading port city is further evidenced by the location of the shops of metal smiths, seal makers, ivory workers.”

The architecture reveals the relative stability in the life of its people for over several centuries before they were forced to abandon it.

The matured Harappan sites give evidence of town planning, drainage system, defences and water management of an organised urban society.

At Harappa, the defence phase is marked by the Rampart wall made of mud bricks and externally revetted with burnt bricks and having rectangular towers and a circular gate way on the west. Two rows of workmen quarters, platform with circular depressions, granary having air ducts and ramp with streets cutting at right angles having cart nuts have been found at Harappa.

At Mohenjodaro, the citadel has rectangular bestions and the buildings notably the granary shows the use of timber as a reinforcement material. There is a great similarity in the systematic and elaborate town planning both at Harappa and Mohenjodaro.

In Kalibangan and Banawali, the settlement has houses on both sides of streets, brick on edge platforms, perhaps bathrooms and drains of baked bricks. They also had citadels secured by a fortification on three sides.

Layout of Dholavira
By Nizil Shah at English Wikipedia,

The latest excavations at Dholavira brought to light a rectangular town plan of an Harappan city boldly outlined by a massive fortification which houses in it deep and long open spaces surrounding three principal divisions named as acropolis, “middle town” and “lower town”-the first two of them strongly fortified.  Further, use of highly polished stone-blocks and pillars along the passage-may speak of architectural achievement without parallel at any Indus site so far.

One of the water reservoirs, with steps, at Dholavira
By Rama’s Arrow at the English language Wikipedia

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