Harappan / Indus Valley Civilization

Having read about the Stone Age and Copper Age, it becomes important to know about the Bronze Age Civilization i.e. Indus Valley Civilization (IVC). This topic is important for both UPSC Prelims and Mains perspectives. We will try to give a slightly detailed understanding of IVC. Don’t worry if you feel, there’s so much data or facts to remember. As we said before in the previous topic, focus on the general understanding of each sub-topic, try to catch the pattern, and remember few basic points.

The Indus Valley Civilization or Harappan Civilisation (part of Proto-history) was the first urban civilization in South Asia. IVC, Mesopotamian (also called Sumerian (4500-1900 BCE)), and Egyptian (3200-1000 BCE) along with Chinese civilization were the earliest of settlement showing complex societal life. They were called ‘Cradles of Civilization’. For sake of study, IVC has been divided into three phases.

Harappan / Indus Valley Civilization

Harappan / Indus Valley Civilization

There is no completely accepted theory on the origin of Harappan culture but is generally believed to have originated from the Pre-Harappan indigenous village culture.

Rakhigarhi findings: DNA study of skeletal remains found at Rakhigarhi cemetery shows that the people of IVC had an independent origin (previous theory had predicted Harappans originated from Steppe pastoral or Iranian farmer ancestry)

Town PlanningTown PlanningDivision of City


Raised Part (called Citadel): Consisted of housing for rulers and important public buildings such as granaries, workshops. It was mostly situated west of the city.


Lower Part (eastern side of town): Consisted of houses of common citizens (see illustration map)

It shows the presence of social hierarchy and some administrative authority.


Also, the Public and Private sphere was separated as the town was divided into two parts (as is also done in modern town planning)

StreetsIt followed a grid pattern (i.e. streets cut each other at right angles, thus dividing the city into several rectangular blocks)It shows excellent knowledge of measurement and urban planning of Harappan people.
Drainage systemDrains connected all the houses and were made up of mortar, lime, and gypsum and covered with large brick slabs for easy cleaningIt shows Harappan people paid great attention to Health and Sanitation
HousesThey were often of two or more stories, but no window faced the streetsOften the 2nd story was made on 1st when it had subsided. It shows Harappan inhabited the place for a longer time
Building materialsStandardized burnt-bricks of ratio 1:2:4 found in all the sites (no stone was used) (*Egyptian civilization at that time used mud-bricks and stones)It shows the presence of centralized weights and measurement systems.
Division in SocietyHarappan society was an urban society and comprised of at least three distinct social groups: Ruled, rich merchants, and poor laborers who lived in the lower part of the cityIt shows the division of labor and specialization in Harappan society. It also shows that Harappans had well organized administrative machinery
ClothingHarappan people generally wore garments of cotton and woolIt shows advancement in the weaving of cotton and wool and diversification of choices
Food HabitsThe Harappan societies of Sindh and Punjab largely consumed wheat and barley while those of Rangpur and Surkotda consumed rice and millets. Fish and Molluscs eating was also common

Dairy production evidence has been found by the recent molecular study at the Kotada Bhadli (Gujarat)

The urban settlement near river valleys provided fertile ground for a variety of crops to be grown. Harappans were advanced in their agriculture practices.
ReligionHarappan believed in Nature Worship– Gods in the form of trees such as Peepal and animals (bull). Idolatry was prevalent, they also worshipped Mother goddess, Pasupati yogi (lord of cattle), and Phallic symbolsHarappans were called secular society as no temple (except for the great bath) or religion have been found (unlike in other contemporary civilizations)
Script and Languages

Script and LanguagesScript and Languages

  • Harappan Script is Pictographic and Logo syllabic (each symbol stood for a word) – using signs of birds, fish (most repeated), humans, etc.
  • Harappan writing was Boustrophedon (right to left and then left to right in alternate lines)

Harappan script disappeared by 1700 BCE, showing the lack of percolation of the writing of IVC to other civilizations

Recent theories have pointed out the similarity between ancient Tamil and Harappan scripts. But until the Harappan script is deciphered, the conclusion cannot be made
    • Also, The various evidence of a common script points to great cultural integration during IVC
BeliefsHarappans believed in evil forces and ghosts  and used amulets as protection against themThis was true about most of the primitive society
Burial practices

Dead bodies were placed in the North-South direction (extended inhumation) and were accompanied by food, pottery, jewelry, etc. The graveyard was within the settlement. They practiced three types of burial:-
    • Complete burial
    • Fractional burial (burial of bones after exposure of the body to birds and beasts)
    • Cremation followed by burial of the ashes
It shows their strong belief in life after death, which was similar to the belief system of other contemporary civilizations, however; the items kept were not as expensive as other civilizations.


Agricultural economyMain crops were Wheat, Barley, Rice (found in Lothal and Rangpur only), Dates, Mustard, Cotton (1st in the world)It shows the advancement of Harappans in agriculture technology – used wooden plowshare, Well irrigation (Alladinho), Dams, and irrigation canals  (Dholavira)
  • Terracotta: figurines of animals, humans (more female figurines than male figurines), Bangles, seals
  • Art of Bead-making (Chanhudaro and Lothal), jewelry- gold and silver jewelry
    • g. at Allahdino a lot of necklaces made of gold, silver, and semi-precious stones have been found
  • Harappans did not use Iron but used Copper, bronze, silver, and gold
    • The number of pure copper artifacts was found in far greater number than alloyed bronze ones
  • Harappans were the first to use silver in the world
  • A large number of terracotta articles show that it was used by common people.
  • Also, Harappans were good at metallurgy and producing alloys.
  • There was specialization of tasks- Goldsmiths, bronze-smiths, brick-makers
  • More copper artifacts don’t mean technological backwardness but it was their cultural preference in all likelihood.


The Harappans used Red and Black pottery (Redware painted with black designs) and also knew the use of Potter’s wheel with easeIt shows the expertise of Harappans in pottery making e.g. Glazed pottery (Harappa), incised pottery, perforated pottery, etc.

Harappans had trade with Mesopotamia (Sumeria), Central Asia, Persia, Afghanistan Makan (Oman), and Dilmun (Bahrain). Trade was through the barter system.
    • Export items: Teak ( obtained from Gujrat), Amazonite (Hirapuri, GJ), Slate (Kangra), Lead (Kashmir and South India), Copper (from Baluchistan and RJ(Khetri mines))
    • Import Items: Jade (from Central Asia); Turquoise (from Khorasan); Lapis Lazuli, Gold, Silver, Tin ( from Afghanistan) (Gold was also obtained from Iran and Kolar mines in Karnataka); Steatite (Iran)
It shows the advanced trade relation of Harappan civilization with other parts of India as well as also with other contemporary civilizations.
    • Harappan seal found at Susa, Ur, and Nippur (Mesopotamia), Failaka, and Bahrain (Persian Gulf).
    • Mesopotamian three-cylinder seals have been found in Mohenjo-Daro
Weights and Measures

  • Weights followed a binary system — 1, 2, 8, 16, 32 to 64, 160, 320, 640, 1600, 3200, and so on.
  • Weights were made of chert, limestone, and steatite and were generally cubical

The measure of length was based upon a foot of 37.6cm and a cubit

The standardization and accuracy of weights and measures throughout the IVC were remarkable.

  • Harappan seals are made up of Steatite (soft stone)
  • Size- half an inch to 2.5 inch
  • Shape-generally Square and Rectangular seals with carved animal and inscription was used

Humpless bull is the most used animal in seals

Harappan seals are the greatest artistic creation and were used to mark ownership of property and in trade

IVC declined after 1900 BCE, however, reasons for the decline are still disputed. There are various theories for its decline such as – (* No need to remember all these names, just glance at it)

Drying of Ghaggar river and increasing aridityD.P Agrawal and Sood
FloodMacay and S R Rao
Low RainfallDales, Vatsa and Lambricks
Ecological DisturbanceFairchild
Aryan InvasionWheeler and Gordon
EarthquakeRaikes and Dales
Natural CalamityK.A.R Kennedy

A recent finding titled Neoglacial climate anomalies and the Harappan metamorphosis’, done by an international team of scientists has suggested climate change as the possible reason for the decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Changes in temperature and precipitation led to the decline of monsoon and drying up of the Ghaggar-Hakra River. This led to a decline in crop and urban Harappan society turning rural.

Harappa (on Ravi River)

Special features of some Important Harappan SitesSpecial features of some Important Harappan Sites

  • 1st Indus site to be discovered
  • Two rows of six granaries
  • The largest number of wheat grains
  • Red sandstone torso of nude male
  • Evidence of Coffin burial
  • Two types of burial practice- R37type and cemetery H type

Special features of some Important Harappan SitesSpecial features of some Important Harappan Sites

Mohenjo-Daro (Indus river) (mounds of Dead)

Special features of some Important Harappan SitesSpecial features of some Important Harappan Sites

  • 2nd Indus site to be discovered
  • Great granary (the largest building)
  • Pasupati seals
  • Bronze dancing girl
  • Steatite image of bearded men said to be the priest
  • 3 cylindrical seals of Mesopotamia
  • Great Bath
  • Hordes of Skeletons found on stairs (indicating warfare)
  • Multi-pillar assembly halls
  • Mohenjo-Daro has no cemeteries and 5 tragic sites

Bronze mirror, needle, saw, and the Bronze statue of the bull

Special features of some Important Harappan SitesSpecial features of some Important Harappan Sites

Lothal (Bhogava River, Gujarat) (also means ‘mounds of dead’ like Mohenjo-Daro)

Special features of some Important Harappan SitesSpecial features of some Important Harappan Sites

  • Artificial dockyard (world’s 1st tidal port)
  • Evidence of double burial (male and female)
  • Cultivation of rice (at Lothal and Rangpur)
  • Beadmaker’s shop (also exported)
  • Terracotta model of boats
  • Ivory scale
  • Known for cotton trade (Manchester of Harappan Civilization)
  • Circular button seal (also called Persian Gulf seal)
  • Two terracotta models of Egyptian Mummies (shows trade relation with Nile valley civilization)
  • Painted story on Earthen jar resembling story of cunning fox in Panchtantra

Sacrificial Altar (at Lothal and Kalibagan)- Shows medical and surgical skills

Special features of some Important Harappan SitesSpecial features of some Important Harappan Sites

Dholavira (Khadir bet island in the Kutch Desert Wildlife

Special features of some Important Harappan SitesSpecial features of some Important Harappan Sites

  • Inscription of 10 alphabet signboard
  • Megalith burial
  • Warehousing settlement
  • Gold rings (also at Mandi and Daimabad)
  • Shows all three phases of Harappan culture
  • Located on Tropic of Cancer
  • Use of Sandstone and bricks
  • Evidence of dams, irrigation, water reservoir, water harvesting system and embankments
  • The town is divided into three parts (Upper, Middle, and lower). It was a walled city with heavy fortification
  • An important center of maritime trade (Dholavira declined with the decline of Mesopotamian civilization, showing the integration of the Trade economy)
  • Dholavira has been named as the UNESCO World Heritage Site(India’s 40th )

Special features of some Important Harappan SitesSpecial features of some Important Harappan Sites

Rakhigarhi (on Ghaggar –Hakra river, Haryana)

Special features of some Important Harappan SitesSpecial features of some Important Harappan Sites

  • Largest IVC site in India ( also claimed to be largest IVC site)
  • Evidence of Domestication of Dog
  • Manufacturing center of terracotta (Idly shaped terracotta)
  • Painted potteries in large numbers (show rich and dominant people lived)
  • Recent findings show Rakhigarhi doesn’t have the last phase of IVC ( earlier it was known to have all three phases of IVC)
  • DNA finding of Skeletal remains of a woman
  • Rakhigarhi’s sudden demise can be explained by the drying up of the Saraswati in 2000 BC

Government (2021-22 budget) will fund on-site museums (also at Hastinapur (UP), Shivsagar (Assam), Dholavira (Gujarat), and Adichanallur (TN)

Chanhudaro (on Indus river)
  • Known for cotton textile (Lancashire of IVC)
  • No Citadel (only IVC city)
  • The largest number of copper tools found
Kalibangan (on Ghaggar river, RJ) (means ‘Black Bangles’)
  • Wells found in every house
  • Evidence of mixed cropping
  • The earliest ploughed field in India

Fire altars (shows cult of sacrifice)

Bhirrana (Haryana)Now considered to be Oldest discovered IVC site dating back to 7500 BCE (earlier Mehargarh (Pak) was considered to be Oldest )

Special features of some Important Harappan Sites

Differences between IVC and that of Egyptian and Mesopotamian Civilization:

Urban PlanningPlanned towns with a grid-like patternTowns show haphazard growth
ScriptInvented their own typical pictographic scriptMesopotamia has a cuneiform script and the Egyptian script is known as hieroglyphics. Both scripts have been deciphered
Writing MaterialThe majority of the Script has been found on the sealsThe majority of the Mesopotamian script has been found on the clay tablets while Egyptians wrote on papyrus sheets made of reeds.
Extent of CivilizationSpread was 20 times that of   Mesopotamian and Egyptian CivilizationLess area as compared to IVC
Building MaterialBurnt BricksEgyptians used Dried Bricks, whereas Mesopotamians used Baked Bricks
ReligionNo temples or religious structures have been foundHad elaborate religious practices, magic spells, and dominance of priest
WeaponsNo clear evidence of war or weaponsClear evidence of wars and expedition in other two civilizations
Decline of CivilizationDeclined after 1900 BCEBoth the civilization continued to exist even after 1900 BCE.

Similarities in IVC and Egyptian / Mesopotamian Civilization:

  • Along river valleys: IVC was along Indus river basin, Sumerian developed between Tigris and Euphrates river basin while Egyptian civilization developed along Nile river basin.
  • Agricultural society: They all developed as an agrarian society with a large agricultural class that was responsible for growing food for large centralized urban populations of the city.
  • Egalitarian society: Women were relatively empowered in these civilizations with IVC showing evidence of mother goddess worship.
      • IVC had a large number of shrines of female deities showing women had a certain degree of independence.
      • Women in Mesopotamia and Egypt could make their own business and trade contracts and own property and could even become a ruler (e.g. female pharaoh Hatshepsut)
  • Developed trade, manufacturing, and Commerce: Being free from the burden of growing food, these civilizations had a large merchant and artisans’ base
  • Highly urbanized: They had sophisticated transport and economic networks. This enabled them to spread to larger areas and support advanced crafts, artistic production, sophisticated religions, technology, and government bureaucracies.
  • Nature worship: Although not much is known about IVC religion, however, other two civilizations had polytheistic religions, consisting of nature worship.
  • Writing and Script: All of them had well-established art of writing and script
  • Burial practices: All three civilizations buried their dead with items needed in the afterlife
  • Harrapan script has yet to be deciphered: reasons for this are:-
    • Most of the other ancient civilizations that have a true writing system show long writings (more than 100 characters) but the longest Harappan script shows less than 30 characters.
    • Rosetta stone inscription was found written in two Egyptian scripts and one in ancient Greek script, and that helped in the language decoding, but no such multi-lingual script has been found for Harappan script.
  • Origin of IVC: Not much is known about IVC people origin, where they came from, what language they spoke, what kind of social organization or rulers they had, or what their names were
  • The extent of IVC: New excavations show:
    • Rakhigarhi was a bigger city than either Mohenjo-Daro or Harrapa, two sites in Pakistan previously considered the center of the Indus civilization.
  • The reason for the decline of IVC is still inconclusive: The IVC declined around 1800 BCE but the actual reasons behind its demise are still debated.
  • Linkage of IVC to southern civilization: Excavations and made from sites in Tamil Nadu over the past two years studies of the Indus Valley script and the Tamil-Brahmi script – the precursor of contemporary Tamil – suggest that there may have there might have been an urban, Bronze age civilization in India’s southern region. It also suggested that after the collapse of the Indus civilization, the remaining members of the civilization migrated south. But the findings are still disputed.
Previous Year Prelims Questions

Q. Which of the following characterizes / characterizes the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation? (2013)

  • (1) They possessed great palaces and temples
  • (2) They worshipped both male and female deities.
  • (3) They employed horse-drawn chariots in warfare.

Select the correct statement/statements using the codes given below.

  • A. 1 and 2 only
  • B. 2 only
  • C. 1, 2, and 3
  • D. None of the above

Q. Regarding the Indus Valley Civilisation, consider the following statements: (2011)

  • (1) It was predominantly a secular civilization and the religious element, though present, did not dominate the scene.
  • (2) During this period, cotton was used for manufacturing textiles in India

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

  • A. I only
  • B. 2 only
  • C. Both 1 and 2
  • D. Neither 1 nor 2

Q. Match List I with List-II and select the correct answer using the codes given below: (2002)

Ancient Site           Finding

(A)Lothal                i. Ploughed Field

(B)Kalibangan       ii. Dockyard

(C)Dholavira          iii. Terracotta replica of a plough

(D)Banawali           IV. An Inscription comprising ten large-sized signs of the Harappan Script


  • Ai; B-ii; C-iii; D-iv
  • A-ii; B-i; C-iv; D-iii
  • A-i; B-ii; C-iv; D-iii
  • A-ii; B-i; C-iii; D-iv

Q. Which of the following animals was not represented in seals and terracotta art of Harappan Sculpture? (2002)

  • A. Cow
  • B. Elephant
  • C. Rhinoceros
  • D. Tiger

Answers: 1. (B), 2. (C), 3. (B), 4. (A)

Mains Questions from last years

The ancient civilisation in the Indian sub-continent differed from those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece in that its culture and traditions have been preserved without a breakdown to the present day. Comment. (2015) (Answer already in Notes)

  1. To what extent has the urban planning and culture of the Indus Valley Civilisation provided inputs to present-day urbanisation? Discuss. (2014) Insights Solution
  2. Write about the chief features of the town planning in Indus Valley Civilisation. (1996) Insights Solution