Indus-Sarasvati Civilization





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Indus-Sarasvati Civilization

Indus valley civilization was a bronze age civilization in the North-western parts of the Indian subcontinent. It was the most extensive of contemporary urban civilizations. It laid down the foundations of Indian cultural and religious ideals, which were characterized by several continuities.

Indus-Sarasvati Civilization

Date of rise c. 3300 BCE
Date of decline c. 1300 BCE

The urban culture of the Bronze Age found in Harappa in Pakistani Punjab was a path-breaking discovery. In 1853, A. Cunningham, the British engineer who became a great excavator and explorer, noticed a Harappan seal. Though the seal showed a bull and six written letters, he did not realize its significance. Much later, in 1921, the potentiality of the site of Harappa was appreciated when an Indian archaeologist, Daya Ram Sahni, started excavating it. At about the same time, R.D. Banerjee, a historian, excavated the site of Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh. Both discovered pottery and other antiquities indicative of a developed civilization. In 1924, John Marshall, then Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, announced to the world the discovery of the Indus Civilisation. This was a momentous announcement as it extended back the Indic civilisation's antiquity by many hundreds of years, and the existence of a civilisation contemporaneous with the great Mesopotamian civilisation was in itself remarkable.

Excavations and archaeological activity

Large-scale excavations were carried out at Mohenjo-Daro under the general supervision of Marshall in 1931. Ernst Mackay excavated the same site in 1938. Madho Sarup Vats excavated at Harappa in 1940. In 1946 Mortimer Wheeler excavated Harappa, and the excavation of the pre-Independence and pre-Partition period brought to light important antiquities of the Harappan culture at various sites where bronze was used. In the post-Independence period, archaeologists from both India and Pakistan excavated Harappa and connected sites. Suraj Bhan, M.K. Dhavalikar, J.P. Joshi, B.B. Lal, S.R. Rao, B.K. Thapar, R.S. Bisht, and others worked in Gujarat, Haryana, and Rajasthan. In Pakistan, Kot Diji in the dried Sarasvati Valley also known as Hakra in present times was excavated by F.A. Khan, and great attention was paid to the Hakra and pre-Hakra cultures by M.R. Mughal. A.H. Dani excavated the Gandhara graves in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. American, British, French, and Italian archaeologists also worked at several sites including Harappa. [ref]


The mastery of agriculture and the management of domestication of animals were significant developments in the history of humankind. It involved combined arts of food production and domestication, that induced dramatic changes in human social organisation. The biological changes and developments in the Paleolithic Age that had earlier made Homo Sapiens the pre-eminent species on planet Earth, and endowed it with certain unique abilities. The evolutionary and gradual changes ultimately set the scene for urbanization in South Asia in the particular and the old world in general. A dramatic increase in population was coterminous with significant developments in the realm of agriculture. The potency and vigour inherent in food production and domestication were critical for sustaining the expanding urban population.

There is a link, deep casualty between the development of agriculture, village life, and the rise of urban centres, with a single unbroken narrative involving the development of early villages and pastoral camps and to the transition to urbanization in the Indus-Sarasvati region. However, the issues of origins are always contentious and complex, due to which a number of hypothesis and theories have been given by several scholars over a period of time.

Ideology: Political, Social and Religious Elements

Urbanization and socio-cultural complexity are interrelated and defining features of the Harrapan Civilization. The cities of Mohenjodaro and Harrapa, now including Ganeriwal, Dholavira and Rakhigarhi, symbolize and define the Harrapan civilization. The Indus Civilization was well developed, extending over vast geography and integrating people belonging to different walks of life. However, the socio-cultural complexity of Indus Civilization is distinctive in two important ways: the absence of temples or monumental buildings (that include religious institutions) and the absence of palatial residences for kings/elites. The religious and political institutions of Harrapans, it can be surmised, were significantly different from other Bronze age civilizations like Egypt (known for gigantic Pyramids) and Mesopotamia (known for immaculate Zigguruts).[ref]


The debate on the nature of political organizations of Harrapans has been largely focused on whether a state (political organisation) existed and if so what type of state it was. Many scholars have observed that elements of warfare, conflicts and force were weak in comparison to the contemporary civilization of Egypt and Mesopotamia. However, force and conflict can't be ruled out in such a vast area. Apart from that, the ability to sustain a complex cultural and economic system for over 700 years sheds light on the proficiency of the organisation that remained pre-eminent in those times.

Arguments for a centralised state system

There has been intense scholarly debate on the existence (or lack there of) of a centralised political structure in this civilisation. One of the earliest hypotheses was put forward by Stuart Piggot and was supported to some extent by Mortimer Wheeler. According to him, the Harrapan state was a highly centralized empire ruled by autocratic priests from the twin capitals of Harrapa and Mohenjodaro. This view was based on high level of standardization visible across vast areas and the mobilization of specialised labour that would have been required for construction of monumental structures like the 'granaries' at Harrapa and "great bath" of Mohenjodaro.

Arguments for a decentralised state system

This view was critiqued by Walter. A. Fairservis, according to whom the control was exercised by an elaborate village assembly. He pointed to the absence of slaves, standing army and elements of centralised state. S.C Malik described it as the chiefdom stage, transitional between a kinship society and a civil state society. However Shereen Ratnagar in her works concluded unequivocally that it was an empire.

The strongest critique to the theory advocating centralisation came from Jim Sheffer who questioned the level of homogenity and suggested that it could be result of well developed trade network. He underlined the absence of grand tombs and royal palaces and equality of wealth among rural-urban population thus pointing to the prevalence of a decentralised state. The fact that some form of state structure was in existence can't be denied.

Underlining the presence of a state

The absence of marked socio-economic differences in comparison to the Egyptian or Mesopotamian kind does not mean that a state was non-existent, instead a different type of state may have been in order. The complex economy and homogenity clearly indicates existence of state. Bricks from across disparately located sites are found to be of the same proportion (1:2:4), and similar-looking fire-altars and seals too attest to this overarching unity of the civilisation.

Interventions of Possehl

According to Gregory L. Possehl, the Harrapan Civilization was more corporate than exclusionary. The people of Harrapa Civilization formed more of heterarchy (emphasis on shared power and collective management) than hierarchy. It was based on a system that was less centralised, and mechanisms such as joint rule and councils were used to control and govern social order. Thus, unlike civilisations in the western world, this type of society- in Possehl's view- eschews hierarchy.

He further adds 'Indus people were ruled by a series of councils or gatherings of leaders, rather than a king'. There may have been civic councils for individual settlements, regional councils for domains or political units and above civic and possibly an "Indus Council" for the civilization in entirety. Dilip. K. Chakrabati has postulated a theory that advocates regional centres in which he argues for the prevalence of 'multiple kingdoms centred around major settlements of region'.

Kenoyer suggests that the Harrapan state must have comprised many competent classes like merchants and priests that may have managed different spheres of polity. Possehl has also highlighted the highly disciplined corporate element of Harrapan polity. In the past, scholars presumed a highly centralised political structure, whereas now there is greater acceptance of a decentralised state with some sort of unity. On the basis of available archaeological evidence, it has been reasonably concluded the five largest settlements of this civilization namely- Mohenjodaro, Harrapa, Ganeriwala, Rakhigarhi and Dholavira may have been capitals/regional centres of Western, Northern, Central, Eastern, and Southern domains respectively.

However, owing to the paucity of literary evidence, none of these conclusions can lay claim to being set in stone, and ongoing as well as future research shall help us get a more complete picture of the state system that prevailed in the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.


The best and early study of religion was done by John Marshall. Although some aspects of Marshall's interpretations were highly criticized- especially his interpretations of elements of later Hinduism, he succeeded to read important features of the Harrapan religion. Mainly three important cults were categorized- that of Mother Goddess, proto-shiva-male god, and nature worship.

The Mother Goddess: Proto-Shakti cult?

The worship of the great mother goddess was manifested in female figurines and representations. They were associated with maternity, fertility, and female sexuality. Some figurines may have been toys but figurines with short skirts, fan-shaped headdresses, and heavy ornamentation may symbolize a cultic-religious belief. In Marshall's view, this primitive mother worship might have led to the development of the shakti cult in later periods.

Pashupati-Proto-Shiva: The Male God

Marshall also suggested the worship of a male god represented on seal 420 or Pashupati seal. This shows a male figure with a buffalo horn head-dress seated on a dais with his leg bent double under him( Some scholars like BB Lal even interpreted it as the Yogic pose of Padmasana), heels together, toes pointed down. Four wild animals surround the figure: an elephant, rhino, water buffalo, and two ibex/antelope/deers. Marshall thought the figure was three-headed and ithyphallic(with erect penis symbolising fertility) On basis of resemblances  Shiva of later period who is identified as Mahayogi and Pashupati Marshall identified the deity as "Proto-Shiva" or forerunner of a consummate Hindu deity. Some motif with a thin figure with Buffalo headdress in certain potsherds were also identified with some sort of proto-shiva cult as seen from Kot-Diji. Another aspect of Phallus worship is also identified as a fertility cult. Stone icons of Lingas and Yoni are identified by John Marshall. Also a terracotta Linga with a yoni-pitha have been identified from Kalibangan as a proto-shiv linga worship by BB Lal.

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