UPSC History The Harappan Civilization NCERT Extracts - The Harappan Culture History

NCERT Extracts - The Harappan Culture History

Category : UPSC

Terms, Places, Times


  • The Indus valley civilisation is also called the Harappan culture.
  • Archaeologists use the term "culture" for a group of objects, distinctive in style, that are usually  found together within a specific geographical area and period of time.
  • In the case of the Harappan culture, these distinctive objects include seals, beads, weights, stone blades and even baked bricks.
  • These objects were found from areas as far apart as Afghanistan, Jammu, Baluchistan (Pakistan) and Gujarat.
  • Named after Harappa, the first site where this unique culture was discovered, the civilisation is dated between c. 2600 and 1900 BCE. There were earlier and later cultures, often called Early Harappan and Late Harappan, in the same area.
  • The Harappan civilisation is sometimes called the Mature Harappan culture to distinguish it from these cultures.
  • In 1924, John Marshall, Director-General of the ASI, announced the discovery of a new civilisation in the Indus valley to the world.


Geographical Extent


  • The Harappan culture arose in the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent.
  • It is called Harappan civilization because this civilization was discovered first in 1921 at the modem site of Harappa situated in the province of West Punjab in Pakistan.
  • Many sites in Sind formed the central zone of the pre-Harappan culture.
  • This culture developed and matured into an urban civilization which emerged in Sindh and Punjab. The central zone of this mature Harappan culture lay in Sind and Punjab. It is from here that it spread southwards and eastwards.
  • In this way, the Harappan culture covered parts of Punjab, Haryana, Sindh, Baluchistan, Gujarat, Rajasthan and the fringes of western Uttar Pradesh.
  • It extended from Jammu in the north to the Narmada estuary in the south, and from the Makran coast of Baluchistan in the west of Meerut in the north-east.t
  • The area formed a triangle and accounted for about 12,99,600 square kilometres.
  • Nearly 1500 Harappan sites are known so far in the subcontinent.
  • Most of them are late Harappan, post-urban sites.
  • The two most important cities were Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.
  • Situated at a distance of 483 kilometres they were linked together by the Indus.
  • Mohenjo-daro literally means the mound of the dead.__
  • A third city lay at Chanhu-daro about 130 km south of Mohenjo-daro in Sindh, and a fourth at Lothal in Gujarat at the head of the Gulf of Cambay.




  • Kalibangan is situated in northern Rajasthan (Kalibangan means black bangles)
  • Banawali is situated in Hissar district in Haryana.
  • This culture is noticeable in its mature and flourishing stage at all these six places.
  • It is also found in its mature phase in the coastal cities of Sutkagendor and Surkotada.
  • The later Harappan phase is found in Rangpur and Rojdi in the Kathiawar peninsula.
  • Dholavira lying in the Kutch area of Gujarat shows Harappan fortification.
  • Rakhigarhi is situated on the Ghaggar in Haryana and is much bigger than Dholavira.


Town Planning and Structures

  • The Harappan culture was distinguished by its system of town planning.
  • Harappa and Mohenjo-daro each had its own citadel or acropolis, which was possibly occupied by members of the ruling class.
  • Below the citadel in each city lay a lower town containing brick houses, which were inhabited by the common people.
  • The remarkable thing about the arrangement of the houses in the cities is that they followed the grid system.
  • According to it, roads cut across one another almost at right angles, and the city was divided into so many blocks. This is true of almost all Indus settlements.
  • Big buildings distinguished both Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.
  • Mohenjo-daro was extremely rich in structures.
  • The most important public place of Mohenjo-daro seems to be the Great Bath, comprising the tank. It is an example of beautiful brickwork.
  • It measures 11.88 x 7.01 metres and 2.43 metres deep.
  • It is suggested that the Great Bath served ritual bathing.
  • In Mohenjo-daro the largest building is a granary which is 45.71 metres long and 15.23 metres wide. But in the citadel of Harappa we find as many as six granaries.
  • Harappa also shows two-roomed barracks, which possibly accommodated labourers.
  • Granaries constituted an important part of the Harappan cities.
  • The use of burnt bricks in the Harappan cities is remarkable, because in the contemporary buildings of Egypt mainly dried bricks were used.
  • The drainage system of Mohenjo-daro was very impressive.
  • In almost all cities every big or small house had its own courtyard and bathroom.
  • In Kalibangan many houses had their wells.
  • Water flowed from the house to the streets which had drains
  • Sometimes these drains were covered with bricks and sometimes with stone slabs.
  • The street drains were equipped with manholes.
  • The drainage system of Harappa is almost unique.
  • Drainage systems were not unique to the larger cities, but were found in smaller settlements as well. At Lothal for example, while houses were built of mud bricks, drains were made of burnt bricks.
  • Citadels
  • Whole most Harappan settlements have a small high western part and a larger lower eastern section, there are variations. At sites such as Dholavira and Lothal (Gujarat), the entire settlement was fortified, and sections within the town were also separated by walls. The Citadel within Lothal was not walled off, but was built at a height.


Agricultural Technologies

  • Its prosperous villages and towns show that it was fertile in ancient times.
  • In earlier times the Indus region possessed more natural vegetation which attracted more rainfall.
  • Just as the Nile created Egypt and supported its people, so also the Indus created Sindh and fed its people.
  • The Harappan villages, mostly situated near the flood plains, produced sufficient foodgrains not only to feed themselves but also the town people.
  • The Indus people produced wheat, barley, rai, peas, sesame, lentil, chickpea and mustard.
  • Millets are found from sites in Gujarat. Finds of rice are relatively rare.
  • The Harappans ate a wide range of plant and animal products, including fish.
  • The people of Lothal used rice whose remains have been found                    
  • Foodgrains were stored in granaries in Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and in Kalibangan.
  • The Indus people were the earliest people to produce cotton.
  • Because cotton was first produced in this area the Greeks called it sindon, which is derived from Sindh.
  • While the prevalence of agriculture is indicated by finds of grain, it is more difficult to reconstruct actual agricultural practices.
  • Representations on seals and terracotta sculpture indicate that the bull was known, and archaeologists extrapolate from this that oxen were used for ploughing.
  • Terracotta models of the plough have been found at sites in Cholistan and at Banawali.
  • Archaeologists have also found evidence of a ploughed field at Kalibangan (Rajasthan), associated with Early Harappan levels.
  • The field had two sets of furrows at right angles to each other, suggesting that two different crops were grown together.
  • Most Harappan sites are located in semi-arid lands, where irrigation was probably required for agriculture.
  • Traces of canals have been found at the Harappan site of Shortughai in Afghanistan, but not in Punjab or Sind. It is possible that ancient canals silted up long ago.
  • It is also likely that water drawn from wells was used for irrigation. Besides, water reservoirs found in Dholavira (Gujarat) may have been used to store water for agriculture.


Domestication of Animals

  • Although the Harappans practised agriculture, animals were kept on a large scale.
  • The humped bulls were favoured by the Harappans.
  • Evidence of the horse comes from a superficial level of Mohenjo-daro and from a doubtful terracotta figurine from Lothal.
  • The remains of the horse are reported from Surkotada.
  • In any case the Harappan culture was not horse centred.
  • The Harappan people in Gujarat produced rice and domesticated elephants.
  • Animal bones found at Harappan sites include those of cattle, sheep, goat, buffalo and pig. Studies done by archaeo-zoologists or zooarchaeologists indicate that these animals were domesticated. Bones of wild species such as boar, deer and gharial are also found.
  • We do not know whether the Harappans hunted these animals themselves or obtained meat from other hunting communities. Bones of fish and fowl are also found.


Technology and Crafts

  • The Harappan culture belongs to the Bronze Age.
  • The Harappans were very well acquainted with the manufacture and use of Bronze.
  • These two metals were not easily available to the Harappans.
  • Copper was obtained from the khetri copper mines of Rajasthan.
  • Tin was possibly brought with difficulty from Afghanistan
  • A piece of woven cotton has been recovered from mohenjo-daro.
  • Textile impressions have been found on several objects.
  • Huge brick structure suggest that brick- laying was an important craft.
  • They also attest the existence of a class of masons.
  • The Harappans also practised boat-making.
  • Seal-making and terracotta manufacture were also important crafts.
  • The goldsmiths made jewellery of silver, gold and precious stones.
  • The Harappans were also experts in bead-making.
  • The potter's wheel was in full use, and the Harappans produced their own characteristic pottery, which was made glossy and shining.



  • The importance of trade in the life of the Indus people is attested by the presence of numerous seals, uniform script and regulated weights and measures in a wide area. The Harappans carried on considerable trade in stone, metal, shell, etc.
  • They did not use metal money. They carried on all exchanges through barter.
  • They practised navigation on the coast of the Arabian Sea. They knew the use of wheel.
  • They had set up a trading colony in northern Afghanistan which evidently facilitated trade with Central Asia.
  • Their cities also carried commerce with those in the land of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
  • The Harappans carried on long distance trade in lapis lazuli; lapis may have contributed to the social prestige of the ruling class.


Contact with Distant Lands

  • Recent archaeological finds suggest that copper was also brought from Oman.
  • A distinctive type of vessel, a large Harappan jar coated with a thick layer of black clay has been found at Omani sites.
  • Mesopotamian texts datable to the third millennium BCE refer to copper coming from a region called Magan, perhaps a name for Oman, and interestingly enough copper found at Mesopotamian sites also contains traces of nickel.
  • Mesopotamian texts mention contact with regions named Dilmun (probably the island of Bahrain), Magan and Meluhha, possibly the Harappan region.
  • They mention the products from Meluhha: camelian, lapis lazuli, copper, gold etc.
  • A Mesopotamian myth says of Meluhha: "May your bird be the haja-bird, may its call be heard in the royal palace."
  • Some archaeologists think the haja-bird was the peacock. It is likely that communication with Oman, Bahrain or Mesopotamia was by sea.
  • Mesopotamian texts refer to Meluhha as a land of seafarers. Besides, we find depictions of ships and boats on seals.


Political Organization

  • We have no clear idea about the political organization of the Harappans.
  • No temples have been found at any Harappan site.
  • Therefore it would be wrong to think that priests ruled in Harappa.
  • We have no religious structures of any kind except the Great Bath.
  • Therefore, it would be wrong to think that priests ruled in Harappa, as they did in the cities of Lower Mesopotamia.
  • Perhaps the Harappan rulers were more concerned with commerce than with conquests. Harappa was possibly ruled by a class of merchants.
  • It may be noted that the Harappans were lacking in weapons.
  • Palaces and kings
  • If we look for a centre of power or for depictions of people in power, archaeological records provide no immediate answers.
  • A large building found at Mohenjodaro was labelled as a palace by archaeologists.
  • A stone statue was labelled and continues to be known as the "priest-king".
  • Some archaeologists are of the opinion that Harappan society had no rulers, and that everybody enjoyed equal status.
  • Others feel there was no single ruler but several. Yet others argue that there was a single state, given the similarity in artefacts, the evidence for planned settlements, the standardised ratio of brick size, and the establishment of settlements near sources of raw material.


Religious Practices

  • In Harappa numerous terracotta figurines of women have been found.
  • In one figurine a plant is shown growing out of the embryo of a women.
  • Probably the image represents the goddess of earth, and it was intimately connected with the origin and growth of plants.
  • The Harappans, therefore, looked upon the earth as a fertility goddess and worshipped her in the same manner as the Egyptians worshipped the Nile goddess Isis.
  • The Male Deity in the Indus Valley
  • The male deity is represented on a seal. This god has three homed heads.
  • He is represented in the sitting posture of a yogi, placing one foot on the other.
  • This god is surrounded by an elephant, a tiger, a rhinoceros, and has a buffalo below his throne. At his feet appear two deer.
  • The depicted god is identified as Pushupati Mahadeva. But the identification is doubtful, because homed gods also appear in other ancient civilizations. Numerous symbols of the phallus and female sex organs made of stone have been found.


  • Tree and Animal Worship
  • The people of the Indus region also worshipped trees. The picture of a deity is repreented on a seal in the midst of the branches of the pipal. Animals were also worshipped in Harappan times.
  • The most important of them is the one horned animal unicorn which may be identified with the rhinoceros. Next in importance is the humped bull.
  • Amulets have been found in large numbers. Probably the Harappans believed that ghosts and evil forces were capable of harming them.  



The Harappan Script

  • The Harappans invented the art of writing. Their script has not been deciphered so far, There are nearly 4000 specimens of Harappan writing on stone seals and other objects
  • Unlike the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the Harappans did not write long inscriptions
  • Most inscriptions were recorded on seals, and contain only a few words.
  • Altogether we have about 250 to 400 pictographs, and in the form of a picture each letter stands for some sound, idea or object.
  • The Harappan script is not alphabetical but mainly pictographic.
  • It is the indigenous product of the Indus region, and does not show any connection with scripts of western Asia.


Weights and Measures

  • The urban people of the Indus region also needed and used weights and measurement for trade and other transactions.
  • Numerous articles used for weights have been found. They show that in weighing mosti) 16 or its multiples were used; for instance, 16, 64, 160, 320, and 640.
  • The Harappans also knew the art of measurement.


Finding Out About Craft Production

  • Chanhudaro is a tiny settlement, almost exclusively devoted to craft production, including bead-making, shell-cutting, metal-working, seal-making and weight-making.
  • The variety of materials used to make beads is remarkable: stones like carnelian (of a beautiful red colour), jasper, crystal, quartz and steatite; metals like copper, bronze and gold; and shell, faience and terracotta or burnt clay.
  • Some beads were made of two or more stones, cemented together, some of stone with gold caps. The shapes were numerous - discshaped, cylindrical, spherical, barrel-shaped, segmented. Some were decorated by incising or painting, and some had designs etched onto them. Steatite, a very soft stone, was easily worked
  • Nageshwar and Balakot both settlements are near the coast. These were specialized centres for making shell objects, including bangles, ladles and inlay.
  • The Harappans established settlements such as Nageshwar and Balakot in areas where shell was available.
  • Other such sites were Shortughai, in far-off Afghanistan, near the best source of lapis lazuli, a blue stone that was apparently very highly valued.
  • Lothal was situated near the sources of carnelian (from Bharuch in Gujarat), steatite (from south Rajasthan and north Gujarat) and metal (from Rajasthan).
  • The Harappans were great experts in the use of potter's wheels.
  • Harappan pots were generally decorated with the designs of trees and circles.
  • The images of men also appear on some pottery fragments.
  • The greatest artistic creations of the Harappan culture are the seals.
  • About 2,000 seals have been found, and of these a great majority carry short inscriptions with pictures of the one-homed bull, the buffalo, the tiger, the rhinoceros, the goat and the elephant.
  • The Harappan artisans made beautiful images of metal.
  • A woman dancer made of bronze is the best specimen.
  • We get a few pieces of Harappan stone sculptures.
  • We get many figurines made of fire-baked earthen clay, commonly called terracotta.
  • These were either used as toys or objects of worship.
  • They represent birds, dogs, sheep, cattle and monkeys. Men and women also find place, and the second outnumber the first.
  • But the terracotta pieces represent unsophisticated artistic works. The contrast between the two sets indicates the gap between the classes which used them.
  • The Harappan culture is poor in artistic works made of stone.
  • We do not come across any massive work of art in stone as we find in the case of sculptures of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.



  • At burials in Harappan sites the dead were generally laid in pits.
  • Some graves contain pottery and ornaments, perhaps indicating a belief that these could be used in the afterlife. Jewellery has been found in burials of both men and women.
  • In fact, in the excavations at the cemetery in Harappa in the mid-1980s, an ornament consisting of three shell rings, a jasper (a kind of semi-precious stone) bead and hundreds of micro beads was found near the skull of a male.
  • In some instances the dead were buried with copper mirrors.
  • But on the whole, it appears that the Harappans did not believe in burying precious things with the dead.


The Plight of Harappa

  • Although Harappa was the first site to be discovered, it was badly destroyed by brick robbers. As early as 1875, Alexander Cunningham, the first Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), often called the father of Indian archaeology, noted that the amount of brick taken from the ancient site was enough to lay bricks for "about 100 miles" of the railway line between Lahore and Multan.


Post-Urban Phase of the Harappan Culture

  • The Harappan culture seems to have flourished until 1900 B.C.
  • Afterwards its urban phase marked by systematic town planning, extensive brick-work, art of writing, standard weights and measures etc. practically disappeared.
  • Its stylistic homogeneity disappeared, and the post-urban Harappan stage was marked by sharp stylistic diversity.
  • The post-urban phase of the Harappan culture is also known as the sub-Indus culture.
  • This culture was earlier considered post-Harappan but now it is more popularly known as the late Harappan culture.
  • The late Harappan cultures are primarily chalcolithic in which tools of stone and copper are used.
  • The chalcolithic people in the later Harappan phase lived in villages subsisting on agriculture, stock raising, hunting and fishing.
  • During the later phase of the Harappan culture some exotic tools and pottery indicate the slow percolation of new people in the Indus basin.
  • A few signs of insecurity and violence appear in the last phase of Mohenjo-daro. Hoards of jewellery were buried at places, and skulls were huddled together at one place.
  • At several sites in Punjab and Haryana, Grey Ware and Painted Grey Ware, generally associated with Vedic people, have been found in conjunction with some late Harappan pottery dated around 1200 B.C.
  • All this can be attributed to the barbarian horse-riding people (i.e. Aryans).
  • But the new peoples did not come in such numbers as to completely overwhelm the Harappan cities in Punjab and Sindh.
  • Although the Rig Vedic Aryans settled down mostly in the land of the Seven Rivers, in which the Harappan culture once flourished, we have no archaeological evidence of any mass-scale confrontation between the mature Harappans and the Aryans.


Timeline - Major developments in Harappan Archaeology


Nineteenth Century

  • 1875          -       Report of Alexander Cunningham on Harappan seal
  • 1921          -       M.S. vats begins excavations at Harappa
  • 1925          -       Excavations begin at Mohenjodaro
  • 1946          -       R.E.M wheeler excavates at Harappa
  • 1955          -       S.R. Rao begins excavations at Lothal
  • 1960          -       B.B Lal and B.K. Thapar begin excavations at kalibangan
  • 1974          -       M.R. Mughal begins explorations in Bahawalpur
  • 1980          -       A team of German and Italian archaeologists begins surface explorations at mohenjodaro
  • 1986          -       American team begins excavations at Harappa
  • 1990          -       R.S. Bisht begins excavations at Dholavira



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