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Chapter 3: Birth of Civilizations


Early Harappan (Late Fourth and Early Third Millennia BC)

-Dozens of small towns and villages, each with its own irrigation system
-Agriculture and Subsistence
• The Indus was flooded between June and September.
• Farmers planted wheat and barley as floods receded
• Harvested them the following spring, using the flood borne silts as
natural fertilizer
• Use of plough
-Effects of civilization growing on environment
• Farmers cleared and burned off more and more riverside forest
• Larger herds of cattle grazed on watershed meadow
• Acres of forest burned t bake bricks to build houses
-Trade and exchange
• Ancestors of Indus people interacted constantly with their
neighbours to the north and west.
• Over many centuries, the relationship between lowlands and
highlands was fostered by both regular exchange of food and other
• Development of seaborne trade between the Persian Gulf and the
Indus Valley

Mature Harappan (c. 2500-2050 BC)

-By 2600 BC, the Indus people had mastered the basic problems of irrigation and
flood control, by using fire bricks.
-Cities and Artisans

• Mohenjodaro is by far the largest of the Harappan cities at 296
acres roughly twice the size of Harappa (173 acres). It was rebuilt
at least nine times. It was one of the world’s largest cities with some
35000 citizens and one of the cleanest.
• Citadels protected by huge flood embankments and perimeter walls
found in the major cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro
• No spectacular temples or shrines
• Religious life was centered on great bath
• Well planned streets
• Citizens were expert plumbers
• Standardized houses built to at east five basic designs
• Rich lived in houses that had wells, bathrooms and toilets and were
even multi-storied while. Poor lived in groups of single-roomed
tenements or workshops

-Technology and Trade
• Some areas of Harappa may have served as bazaars or artisans’
quarters, where beadmakers, coppersmiths, cotton weavers and
other specialists piled their trades
• Uniformity of artifact designs and decorative styles over the Indus
Valley region is testimony not to imposed cultural uniformity but to a
high level of intercommunity trade
• Harappan authorities developed a standard weight system. Their
standard weight was close to one half of a modern ounce.
• Harappans even maintained small colonies in Afghanistan, near
strategic sources of raw materials
• Extensive trade in gold, copper and carnelian with central and
southern India
• But the maritime trade routes of the Indian Ocean were of far
greater importance. These linked the Indus with the Persian Gulf,
where Arabian and African products were to be obtained

-Political and Social Organization
• Political organization remains a mystery. We do not know whether
the Indus Valley was ruled by a series of city-states or whether
great rulers presided over a territorial state that covered many
thousands of square miles.
• Those who ruled Harappa and Mohenjodaro remain anonymous.
They left no portraits or grandiose palace walls. One exception is a
limestone figure from Mohenjodaro that depicts a thick-lipped
bearded man in mediation.
• So far, archaeology reveals leadership by rulers, perhaps
merchants, ritual specialists, or people who controlled key
resources or large areas of land. They seem to have led quiet lives
marked by a complete lack of priestly pomp or lavish public display.
• One reason we know so little about the Harappan leaders is
because their script (Pictographic symbols and found on seals) is
still undeciphered. Some authorities believe that the seals served
both as religious symbols and as tags or labels for bundles of
• Everything points to a centralized government and a stratified
society, with the focus on agriculture and trade. It was a
hierarchical, ranked society.
• Both Harappa and Mohenjodaro housed a comfortable and
unpretentious middle class of merchants and officials who lived in
standardized brick houses. They wore finely woven, decorated
cotton robes. Judging from clay figures, the women wore short
skirts and headdresses.
• Artisans such as beadmakers, metalsmiths, potters, seal carvers
and weavers formed another class of Harappan society, as did
minor bureaucrats and priests who were needed to administer the
• However, such people were a minority compared with the mass of
the populace: farmers, laborers, seafarers and menial workers of all
kinds. The commoners lived in simple urban dwellings or more
often in the countryside and wore the simplest of cotton loincloths




Farmers, Laborers, Seafarers (Commoners)

Possible Hierarchy of the Harappan Society

- Religious Beliefs
• The Harappans lived in an environment that they modified for their
own protection, one in which annual floods meant a renewal of life
and food for the coming year.
• Speculations that the roots of South Asian religion may have been
age old fertility cults.
• Such cults provide an assurance that life will continue, that the
endless cycle of planting and harvest would be renewed.
• Only clues that we have to the origins of the Harappan religion
come from minute seal impressions and small clay figurines that
depict a female diety
• A seal from Mohenjodaro bears a three-headed figure who sits in
the yogic posture. He is surrounded by a tiger, an elephant, a
rhinoceros, a water buffalo and a deer. Some Harappan experts
think that the seal represents forerunner of the great Hindu God
Shiva in the his role as the Lord of the Beasts.

Collapse of Harappan Civilization (c. 2000 B.C)

-Harappan civilization reached its peak around 2000 B.C. Three centuries later,
Harappa and Mohenjodaro were in decline and soon abandoned.
-Their urban populations dispersed into smaller settlements over an enormous
area as the volume of long distance trade declined dramatically.
-Reasons for decline:
• British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler found a few skeletons in the
upper levels of Mohenjodaro and speculated that the Harappan
cities were overthrown by foreign, Indo-Aryan speaking invaders.
However his evidence is simply too inadequate and the Indo-
Aryans arrived only centuries later. Furthermore, recent research
has shown that the skeletons concerned seem to have been victims
of disease.
• Robert Raikes and other believed that the collapse may have been
due to a variety of factors, among them catastrophic flooding along
the Indus, shifts in Mesopotamian trading patterns, and changes in
subsistence farming to dry agriculture and from major urban
centres to a more rural settlement pattern was a result of major
shifts in trading activities throughout the Indus region and the
neighbouring areas.
• More compelling is the evidence that the all important Saraswati
River disappeared as a result of geological disturbances nears its
mountainous source, causing the river to dry up and some
tributaries diverted.

Indo-Aryans (c. 1500 BC)

-The second millennium B.C was a period of vital importance in South Asian
History, for it was during these centuries, sometimes called the Vedic period, that
Indo-Aryan speaking people spread into the sub-continent, an event described in
the Samhita, a compilation of the hymns (Veda) of the Rigveda.
-Many scholars believe that Indo-European speaking people spread across the
Iranian plateau into South Asia during the second millennium BC, where they
intermarried with indigenous groups. Thus were born the Indo-Aryan, Sanskritic
languages spoken through South Asia today.
-The Rigveda and other Vedas tell us that the newcomers considered horses
and stockbreeding of great importance. They used bronze, wheeled carts and
chariots and were organized n tribal groups headed by chiefs, who vied with one
another for power and prestige.

Ganges Civilizations (600-150 BC)

- City life in the Ganges valley marked the beginning of the classic period of
South Asia Civilization
- New cities become economic powerhouses and centers of great intellectual and
religious ferment.
-Brahmanism was the dominant religion, a form of Hinduism that placed great
emphasis on ritual and sacrifice.
-But revolutionary philosophers of the sixth century BC like Buddha challenged
Brahmanism with revolutionary doctrines that militated against sacrifice.
-Meanwhile, outside powers eyed the riches of the subcontinent. King Darius of
Persia invaded the northwest in 516 BC and incorporated the Indus Valley into
the Persian Empire.
-Two centuries later, Alexander the Great ventured into the Indus River and
brought Greek culture into the area.
-In the northeast, the leaders of the Ganges Kingdoms had fought constantly until
the sixth century B.C when the kingdom of Magadha began to grow at the
expense of its neighbours.
-The Great Ruler Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha benefited from the power
vacuum following Alexander the Great’s conquests and carved out a huge
empire. His grandson, Asoka presided over the empire at its height between
269and 232 B.C.

Created by: Mr. Leslie Tay
Ancient Civilizations, Scarre Fagan, Chapter 5: South Asia: Harappan and Later Civilization

Further Readings

Fall of the Indus Civilization