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A Brief History of India: Indus Valley

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011

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 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 were included ornaments, personal grooming items such as cosmetics, combs, mirrors, lipstick, etc, utensils, tools, beads, statuettes, seals with animal figurines carved on them, toys, furniture, and weapons, made of clay, terracotta, ceramics, bronze and copper). The township was well planned with a grid-like structure consisting 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 (180 x 108 square feet), and a lot more.

In due course many such excavations were made in and around the region including Chanhudaro in 1931, Sindh, Hyderabad, Jacobabad and the Narmada Valley, leading to a lot of information being amassed about this culture. Today, both Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro towns 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), though a section of scholars believe that the majority were of Dravidian stock.

Aryan Migration

There are many theories about the original inhabitants of the Indus Civilisation, and more about why it might have collapsed.

Following that collapse (and perhaps speeding it up), the Aryan Invasion theory describes Indo-European groups migrating into the region from the north (where they become known as Aryans) and driving out the inhabitants, supposedly Dravidians, forcing them towards the southernmost parts of India. 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 the local inhabitants into the forests and towards the south.

In Depth

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. This version is known as the Aryan migration theory.

Out of India

However these theories are contrasted by another, one which is known as the 'Out of India' theory.

It suggests 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, Iran (and from there onwards to Mesopotamia), Europe, etc.

The main concentration of Aryans was around the River Saraswati. After the river dried up, the 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.

A third theory proposes that the Aryans had coexisted and intermingled with the other inhabitants of the Indus Civilisation and were one of its active contributors.

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 lead us to believe that the people of the Indus worshipped a (Trimukha) three-faced god 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 looking very similar to the linga or the phallic symbol of Shiva were also discovered, which leads one to believe that the inhabitants belonged to 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 by 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 was also venerated in the Indus.

Indus dress

Both men and women wore two-piece clothing. They kept their hair long. The women folk 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. [2] 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.

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 Middle East (Mesopotamia, etc) 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, possibly due to famine, flood and perhaps invasion. However 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 that claim flood or climatic changes as the more likely reason. The inhabitants may then have migrated south.

[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 believe in the Vedas but rather had their own customs and rituals. As already pointed out, as per the Aryan Invasion theory (which is of course contentious), when the Vedic people/Aryans arrived on the scene, they came into contact with the Dravidians and 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 Dravidians that were 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 mainly found in the south, as 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]

The Dravidians probably had their own script, their own laws and customs and were a very evolved lot compared to most of their contemporaries. They were acquainted with agriculture, spinning, weaving, dyeing, pottery, etc. They played games such as dice. Both men and women wore two-piece clothing and at times a headdress. They were adept at making boats and sailing. In war they used weapons including spears, swords, maces, axes, bows, arrows, etc. They had their Gods and built temples for them.

[3] There are still tribes in the Andaman Nicobar Islands and certain parts of southern India that 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.