Inside India #1: The Indus Valley Civilisation – India’s oldest organised society

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

The Indus river begins high up in the Himalayan mountains and flows nearly 3,000 kilometres to the Arabian Sea. In 1826, a British traveller in India stumbled across a series of mysterious brick mounds in the valley carved out by the river as it flows downstream. His name was Charles Masson and he described his find in his publication: Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, and the Punjab

Thirty years later, in 1856, engineers building a railway in the region found more bricks. Unbeknownst to them, these bricks were the first evidence of the lost Indus city of Harappa, one of the twin capitals of what would become known as the Indus Valley civilisation. 

It wasn’t until the 1920s that archaeologists finally began to excavate the sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. In so doing, they uncovered the remains of a civilisation that had settled the Indus Valley at least five millennia earlier. 

Image by By Saqib Qayyum – Own work, Creative Commons 3.0

Today, over one thousand settlements have been identified in the region (with over one hundred now excavated), revealing asophisticated and technologically adept urban culture: city streets laid out in grid patterns, sewage and drainage systems more advanced than any found in contemporary sites in the Middle East, and massive citadels larger than most Mesopotamian ziggurats. The people of the Indus Valley developed pottery, metal working and a rudimentary written script – sadly, yet to be deciphered. They left behind few artefacts. The most telling are several small seals, made of steatite, depicting a variety of animals, both real—such as elephants, tigers, and antelopes—and mythological. Examples of Indus stone sculpture have also been found, representing humans or gods. The people of the Indus were among the first to develop a system of uniform weights and measures. They were primarily farmers, but trade flourished. 

By every measure this was a highly organised and technologically advanced society. 

This ancestral Indian civilisation emerged on the subcontinent in the western margins of the Indus river basin around 3300 BCE, rising to a peak around 2000 BCE. Yet, some three centuries later,most Indus cities had been abandoned and the empire had fallen into ruin. 

How did this apparently peaceful, well-organised civilisation collapse in such a relatively short span? Theories abound.

Some speculate that the cities became overcrowded leading to the spread of disease. In 1953, British archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, proposed that the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization was caused by the invasion of an Indo-European tribe from Central Asia called the “Aryans”. As evidence, he cited a group of thirty-seven skeletons found in various parts of Mohenjo-daro, and passages in ancient Hindu poems called the Rig Veda (dated around 1500 BC) that describe northern invaders conquering Indus Valley cities. Today, many scholars believe that the collapse was triggered by drought and a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia. It has also been suggested that deforestation, floods, or changes in the course of the Indus river may have been contributing factors.

The Indus Valley peoples did not disappear overnight, and many elements that characterised their societies can be found in later cultures. In effect, this ancient civilisation provided the foundation for the long evolution of the Indian culture that we see today. These were the very first Indians.

The Indus Valley Civilisation lay forgotten and undiscovered for thousands of years. Today, it is recognised for its many achievements. Mohenjo-daro was, at its time, probably the greatest city in the world – 4,500 years ago, as many as thirty-five thousand people lived there. The name India is itself derived from Indus, which originates from the Old Persian word Hindu. The latter term stems from the Sanskrit word Sindhu, which was the historical local appellation for the Indus River. Even the ancient Greeks referred to the Indians as Indoi which translates as “The people of the Indus.”

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

2 thoughts on “Inside India #1: The Indus Valley Civilisation – India’s oldest organised society

    • Thank you Subhash, that’s very interesting. I hadn’t come across the Mehgarh site info. Having had a look I am greatly intrigued. One commentator suggests that they might have even migrated to found the Indus Valley civilization. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.


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