FC12: The Indus River Civilization and the Pattern of India's History


FC12 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #2833.

The Indus River Civilization (c.2500-1700 B.C.E.)

, evolving in modern Pakistan, was the third of history's great civilizations and would be the basis for India's culture. Like Egypt and Mesopotamia, this was a hydraulic civilization based upon highly organized irrigation and flood control projects requiring a strong central authority to govern their construction and maintenance. Although the Harappan civilization (named after one of its main sites, Harappa) had writing, too little has survived to be deciphered. Therefore, we are not even clear whether there was one central government for the entire region or a number of independent city-states.

However, archaeological evidence clearly shows this was a highly organized civilization. The main cities, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, had sophisticated urban planning and were built on immense mounds of earth and rubble as protection against floods. Harappa's citadel mound was forty feet high, reinforced against erosion by a forty-five foot thick brick-facing wall, and topped by strong fortifications. Another, slightly smaller mound probably contained graineries, threshing floors, and furnaces for bronze smelting. Altogether the entire complex of mounds covered an area three miles in circumference. Other towns and cities were almost identical to Harappa in layout, each having a west-facing citadel surrounded by blocks of houses and a north-south grid of main streets. The houses were also of a standard design, having a central courtyard surrounded by smaller rooms and corridors. Even the bricks were of two standard types: oven fired for foundations and public buildings and sun dried for private homes. Possibly the most impressive feature was the sophisticated sewage and drainage systems, with brick drain pipes issuing from each home to city-sewers which led to main sewers.

Harappan trade extended as far as Mesopotamia, exporting jewelry made from clay, gold, silver, and semi-precious stones, cotton fabrics (a product unique to this area then), and ceramic toy wagons and animals. A system of standard weights and measures promoted trade between the cities of the Indus. The weights were based on units of 16, much like India’s present currency, the rupee, which consists of sixteen annans.

Crudely made statuettes suggest a religion devoted to a mother goddess. Stamp seal inscriptions show the Harappans probably revered such animals as the elephant, tiger, rhino, and buffalo. Large brick lined baths indicate that another feature of their religion was ritual bathing. Both this and a reverence for animals are features of present day Hinduism, suggesting its roots extend back to the Harappan civilization.

There are several theories about the end of the Harappans. Two focus on the climate turning more arid, either from deforestation or a shift of the monsoons away from the river valley. Another suggests that too much irrigation raised the water table and salinated the soil, much as happened in Mesopotamia several times. A fourth theory is that the Indus River changed its course, leaving the Harappan cities high and dry. Whatever the reasons, the Harappans abandoned their cities around 1700 B.C.E., being replaced by new settlers producing much cruder artifacts. Then, around 1500 B.C.E. new invaders, the Aryans armed with the horse and chariot, took over. They would gradually expand to the south-east and develop the civilization we call Indian. However, various aspects of Harappan civilization, especially religious, would survive as integral parts of Indian culture.

The pattern of Indian history

India's geography and climate are varied and have largely determined the course of its history. There are five main features of the environment to consider. First, India is hot and humid, breeding many diseases, which both slowed conquest and absorption of India by newcomers and gave people less faith in this life and reason to explore more spiritual paths. Secondly, the Himalaya and Hindu Kush mountains, two of the tallest ranges in the world, cut India cut off from the rest of Asia. Also, India is a huge subcontinent cut into very distinct regions ranging from the mountains in the north through the tropical river valley of the Ganges to the barren deserts of the Deccan. All these factors have made it a very difficult country to conquer. Finally, two other factors, India's position on the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea plus its abundance of spices, gems, and cotton, attracted trade, new peoples, and ideas to its shores.

Together, these factors have made Indian culture and history extremely complex and varied. At the same time it has resisted conquest and attracted new peoples, both keeping them distinct from one another yet absorbing them into the greater unifying fabric of its culture. As a result, Indian history defies treatment as a mere succession of empires, since it has rarely been completely unified by one power. However, there is a certain unity to India's history as seen in its main religion, Hinduism, which has as many variations as India has peoples, yet still maintains a common core that lets us speak about India as a culture that has at once resisted and absorbed a long succession of invaders from Aryans and Greeks to Muslims and the British.