The Indus Valley Civilisation: Lost and found after 5000 years

The Indus Valley Civilization was one of the oldest known cultures that flourished in the Indian Subcontinent between c. 3300- c. 1300 BCE. Mentioned first in Vedic Sources, this ancient civilisation is often referred to as The Indus Saraswathi Civilization or the Harappan Civilisation due to its situation along the Indus and Saraswathi rivers and the city of Harappa. Previously, Ancient Indian literature had alluded to the existence of an Ancient Indian society. Still, concerted attempts had not been made to find out more about the origins of these societies.

This changed in 1920 when British officials accidentally stumbled upon Harappa after 5000 years. During this time, India was under British administrative rule. The British had decided to begin constructing the Indian railways along the Sindh region. Construction, however, was obstructed when engineers encountered unexpected mounds of brick and sand structures. Interaction with villagers suggested that these mounds had been there for extremely long, yet few knew about the origins of these structures; little did they know that these were the millennia-old remains from Harappa. Today, over 1000 Harappan sites have been discovered, including Harappa, Mohenjo Daro, and Dholavira. During its peak, with a population of over 5 million, the Indus Valley Civilization spread over nearly 1500 km and extended to parts of present-day Pakistan, India, near borders of Afghanistan and Nepal. It is today presumed that Harappa acted as the urban focal point for the Upper Indus area while Mohenjo Daro did the same for the lower Indus area.

City planning:
The excavations and studies have led archaeologists to believe that the civilisation was a culturally and politically advanced society. The remnants of the cities showed extensive evidence of progressive and elaborate city planning. Broad avenues with grid-like structures were found in several areas, comparable to designs in modern-day cities. Constructions were undertaken with uniform kiln burnt bricks: single-storey and multistorey. The unearthed ruins also suggested that sanitation was an essential factor considered during Harappan City planning. Covered drains and underground sewers were functional to ensure effective waste disposal throughout the city. Additionally, clean water wells were connected to homes as a source of drinking water.

With time as archaeologists delved deeper into exploring the remains, they encountered evidence of a flourishing civilisation. Several artefacts were excavated that revealed the progressive nature of Harappan Culture, including jewellery, pottery, clay toys, and stones. Furthermore, they were acclaimed for developing concepts of weights, measures, decimal systems and negative numbers. Recently in the year 2001, archaeologists have also learned about Harappan expertise in the field of proto dentistry.

Several Harappan artefacts and seals portray god-like figures, but there is little clarity about the religion that was followed. The Great Bath, for instance, a prominent step-well that once held great significance to the civilisation, was believed to be a tank used for ritual bathing, much like the ones at Hindu temples; many, therefore, attribute the Indus civilisation to the foundation of Hinduism.

The discovery of seals, in particular, has also become a notable symbol of Harappa; these rectangular seals, made of steatite, were famed for their creative depictions of animals, the lives of civilians and symbolic representations of events. These seals also often had a line of text describing the art. Some speculate that seals were used to trade goods in ancient times due to their discovery in regions as far as Mesopotamia. Experts presume that goods such as jewels, textiles and pottery were exported, while precious stones and metals were imported. However, much of our knowledge on trade-in Harappa is derived from mere interpretations of the art on these seals.

Then around 1500 BCE, evidence began to suggest the disintegration of the civilisation. Historians attribute this decline to several possible reasons. Some believe it was caused due to a change in the course of the Indus or the drying up of the Gagghar tributary. Others attribute it to factors such as possible natural disasters or the entrance of the warlike and Nomadic Aryan tribes into India. Given that the Harappans were considered peaceful people, suggested by the notable absence of advanced weapons on the excavation sites, this appears to be the most logical explanation for the civilisation’s disintegration.

Today much remains to be known about the Harappan civilisation; nearly 500 language symbols have been found from remnants and relics of this collection of ancient cities, but despite archaeologists’ best efforts, attempts to decode the Harappan language have been unsuccessful, leaving a number of questions unanswered.

This great civilisation did not leave us with monumental structures but have helped shape the modern world that we live in today. The discovery of Harappa largely consolidated the previously fragmented evidence we had on Ancient India. Now, decoding the mysterious Harappan language appears to be the last remaining step to breaking down the puzzle of Indian ancestry.