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A Brief History of India: Indus Valley

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011. Updated 24 July 2019

The Indus Valley culture, also known in India as the 'Sindhu Civilisation', prospered along the banks of the Indus (the River Sindhu). Another name by which it is also known is the Harappan civilisation, thanks to this site being the first location of discovery for any artefacts from this period (now in Pakistan).

Historians have tried to provide a chronology for the Harappan period by dividing it into sections; Pre-Harappan (7000-3000 BC), Early Harappan (3000-2600 BC), Mature Harappan (2600-1900 BC), and Late Harappan (1900-1300 BC).

The Early Harappan period occupies the Bronze Age. It was first discovered and reported by a British East India Company army man by the name of Charles Masson in 1842. In 1922, Rakhaldas Bandopadhyay, an archaeologist who was connected to the ASI, excavated another city, that of Mohenjo-Daro in the vicinity of Harappa.

Between 1922-1923, the explorers Sir John Marshall, Rai Bahadur Dayaram Sahni, and Madho Swarup Vats conducted digs at Harappa and unearthed a fairly sophisticated urban civilisation. Objects discovered in these towns included ornaments, personal grooming items such as cosmetics, combs, mirrors, and lipstick, plus utensils, tools, beads, statuettes, seals with animal figurines carved on them, toys, furniture, and weapons, all made using clay, terracotta, ceramics, bronze, or copper.

The township was well planned with a grid-like structure which consisted of roads, lampposts every few metres, multi-storey brick houses, a drainage system, dustbins, granaries, tanks, public baths (such as the great bath discovered at Mohenjo-Daro which is 54.8 x 33 metres square), and a lot more.

In due course many such excavations were made in and around the region including those at Chanhudaro in 1931, Sindh, Hyderabad, Jacobabad, and the Narmada Valley, leading to a great deal of information being amassed about this culture. Today, both Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro lie in the Punjab region of Pakistan.

The civilisation had its own illegible script (pictorial) which remains undeciphered to this day.

The cities seemed to have been home to people of different races (deduced on the basis of skeletal remains), although a section of scholars believe that the majority were of Dravidian stock.

Indo-Aryan Migration

There are a good many theories about the original inhabitants of the Indus civilisation, and many more about why it may have collapsed. The most widely -accepted theory involves climate change and the loss of crop production which would cripple any ancient city. The Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) or Oxus civilisation was ended in the same way at approximately the same time.

Apparently making the most of that collapse (and perhaps speeding up its final end), the Indo-Aryan invasion theory describes Indo-European groups migrating into the region from the north and driving out the inhabitants, supposedly Dravidians, forcing them towards the southernmost parts of India. These people were known to themselves as Aryans, although the term was devalued by misuse during the Second World War. Amongst the earliest proponents of this theory was Max Mueller, a German Orientalist and author based in Britain. He proposed that the origins of the Aryans lay in Central Asia, from where branches migrated to Europe and Iran. From Iran, branches further diverged towards Mesopotamia and the Indian subcontinent. There they pushed local inhabitants into forests and towards the south.

Of course, today many have concluded that it wasn't an invasion at all in the typical sense as there are no traces of any mass killings (put forward by Sir Mortimer Wheeler on the basis of skeletons found). Hence it is assumed that the Aryan tribes migrated in small numbers and gradually mingled with the local inhabitants (although certainly as a new cultural elite to dominate the natives). This version is known as the Aryan migration theory.

Out of India

However these theories are contrasted by another, the largely discredited 'Out of India' theory.

This suggested that the Indus region was in fact the cradle of civilisation for the Aryan or Vedic civilisation, whereas the Dravidians were mainly people who dominated the southern parts of India. It was from the Indus region that Aryans further branched out, into Bactria, Central Asia, Europe, and Iran (and from there onwards to Mesopotamia).

The main concentration of Aryans was around the River Saraswati. After the river dried up, those Aryans who remained in India began to migrate southwards. Many settled in the Gangetic basin, while some proceeded towards the east and the south. In the south they came into contact with the Dravidians who already occupied the region.

Amongst the early proponents of the Out of India theory were Voltaire, the French writer philosopher, German philosopher Immanuel Kant, German poet Karl Wilheim Friedrich Schlegel, and theosophists such as Colonel Olcott, the retired American army officer and first president of the Theosophical Society. The theory has generally been discredited by archaeological finds and linguistic analysis which firmly places the Indo-European/Aryan homeland to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

A third theory proposes that the Indo-Europeans (Aryans) had coexisted and intermingled with the other inhabitants of the Indus civilisation and were one of its active contributors. In some ways this carries with it some possibility of truth - Indo-Europeans certainly infiltrated into the BMAC in its later years and, although this probably served as a temporary barrier to further expansion southwards, there is still the possibility of Indo-European involvement in the last century or two of the existence of the Indus civilisation.

Whatever the origins of its people, the religion of the Indus people was probably one of the earliest forms of modern Hinduism. [1]

Gods of the Indus civilisation

The discovery of seals and statuettes leads us to believe that the people of the Indus worshipped a (Trimukha) three-faced god which has been identified as Pashupati, the god of cattle - a figurine depicting the image of a god seated in the lotus position and surrounded by animals was discovered during excavations.

Similarities have been drawn between Pashupati and gods such as Shiva and Rudra. Objects which have looked very similar to the linga or the phallic symbol of Shiva were also discovered, which leads one to believe that the inhabitants were followers of the Shiva/Shaivite cult.

[1] Present day Hinduism is considered to be an amalgamation of basic Vedic concepts, with additions from the non-Vedic religions like that of the Dravidians.

The worship of female energy took place here (Shakti), the yoni (womb) in the form of the mother goddess, and the worship of the sun god was also prevalent, characterised by the swastika symbols found in the dig. There were also the Naga (serpent) worshippers, evident thanks to a figurine with a snake wrapped over the head. Animals such as the bull, one resembling a unicorn, birds such as the dove, and vegetation such as the Pipal tree were also venerated in the Indus region.

Indus dress

Both men and women wore two-piece clothing and, at times, a headdress. They kept their hair long. The women used necklaces, armlets, rings, bangles, hairpins, earrings, and anklets made of gold, silver, copper, and semi-precious stones according to their status.

The Indus Valley culture was focussed on its many cities, the first of which appeared in the fourth millennium BC


The people buried their dead. However in the later period, cremation took over as the most popular form of service for the dead - probably due to latter Vedic influence. The ashes were placed in urns which were in turn buried in tombs. [2]

Diet and trade

The Indus people enjoyed a fulfilling diet of wheat, barley, rice, vegetables, fruits, milk, fish and meat (including beef, mutton, pork, etc).

Indus men were mainly traders and agriculturists. They were also well versed in crafts such as carpentry, pottery, weaving, medicine, etc. They were aware of measurement systems and possessed advanced medical practices including dentistry. Foreign trade existed with Central Asia, the Near East (the city states of Mesopotamia), and the Mediterranean coast (Egypt). The favoured mode of travel was the bullock-hauled cart (open or covered).

The end of the Indus civilisation

The Indus civilisation gradually came to an end, seemingly due to famine, possible flooding, and perhaps invasion (or rather, mass inwards migration - there is no conclusive evidence pointing towards an invasion as such). The prevailing view has of course been the Aryan Invasion theory, but this has been challenged by other theories which claim flood or climatic changes as the more likely reason. In fact it seems all of the above were involved. The majority of the inhabitants then seem to have migrated southwards.

[2] Cremation on a funeral pyre was an Aryan practice.

Dravidians in the south had long since displaced the proto-Australoids and gained hegemony in India. The term Dravidian however is a western term for the word Dravida, which refers to the people of southern India. So it is assumed that this group came to be known as Dravida after they moved south. The name Dravida as such has been derived from the word 'drava' or water, probably symbolising people living near the sea.

Sumerian texts have mentioned the people living around the Indus (read Dravida), calling them the Meluha. Some scholars categorise them as non-Vedic people, those who did not follow the Vedas but rather had their own customs and rituals. When Indo-Aryans arrived on the scene they came into contact with the Dravidians and generally seem to have pushed them southwards. However, a Dravidian group which has been identified from its language still exists in the north in the form of the Brahui tribe in Balochistan (in present-day Pakistan).

The proponents of the 'Aryan Invasion' theory maintain that this group may be remnants of the Dravidian population which may have been driven out, while the 'Out of India' theory proponents maintain that a small Dravidian group probably migrated from the south and made a home in the fertile Indus Valley, coexisting with the Aryan population.

The modern Dravidian stock is found mainly in the south, in places such as Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Andhra, Kerala, Lakshadweep (and to some extent the west, east Kurukh in Bangladesh, and central parts of India).

According to the the Aryan Invasion theory, the Dravidians themselves intermingled with the inhabitants of southern India, the proto-Australoids, and the Negroids. [3]

[3] There are still tribes in the Andaman Nicobar Islands and certain parts of southern India which belong to the same genetic pool as the Negroids and other aborigines which they had displaced earlier from the north.


Main Sources

Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.