The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization

Indus-Sarasvati civilization is the largest civilization in the ancient world developed in the Indus Valley of India over 12,000 years ago. The Indus and Sarasvati river valleys of Bharatvarsha (present India and Pakistan) were the home to the ancient civilization of Indus-Sarasvati.

The early cities of India developed along the Indus and Sarasvati rivers was the largest and most advanced civilization in the ancient world.

The Range of Indus Valley Civilization

There are 2,600 known Indus sites, from enormous urban cities like Mohenjo Daro and Mehrgarh to small villages like Nausharo. The cities of the Indus Valley Civilization were well-organised and solidly built out of brick and stone. Their drainage systems, wells and water storage systems were the most sophisticated in the ancient world. They also developed systems of weights and trade. They made jewellery and game pieces and toys for their children. From looking at the structures and objects which survive we are able to learn about the people who lived and worked in these cities so long ago.

But the mighty Sarasvati River dried up, and what was once a fertile area became a desert. The people of the region moved to other parts of India and beyond. By 2000 bce the civilization had entered a period of decline.

Ancient Indus Valley Metropolis


Mohenjo Daro is by far the largest of the Indus cities, extending over 250 hectares with widespread mounds and outlying habitation areas. It is one of the best-preserved urban centers of the Indus Civilization and the only other comparable site is Dholavira, Kutch, India.

The buildings of Mohenjo-daro are made primarily of fired brick, though some structures do include mud brick and timbers.

"Granary," a massive building with solid brick foundations with sockets for a wooden super structure and doorways.

Mohenjo-daro was spared the looting of bricks that destroyed Harappa and most sites in the Punjab because the main railroad line was constructed along the east bank of the Indus and crushed rock from the Rohri hills was easily accessible for constructing the rail bed.

"Citadel" Mound

Excavations in the SD area of the "citadel" mound uncovered a large colonnaded building with a specially designed water tank usually referred to as the "Great Bath". Just to the south west of the Great Bath is the so-called "Granary," a massive building with solid brick foundations with sockets for a wooden super structure and doorways.

The actual function of the building has not been determined because it was excavated by large numbers of local workmen, with no documentation of the stratigraphy or of the precise location of valuable small artifacts.

Buildings of Mohenjo-daro are made primarily of fired brick.

There is no concrete evidence for it being a "granary" and this term should be dropped in favor of "Great Hall". The building was probably a large public structure, but it is not clear if it was a storehouse, a temple or some form of administrative building.

Two other major buildings with large open areas and colonnades have been labeled the "Assembly Hall"; (L Area) and the "College"; (SD Area). The rest of the "citadel" mound is comprised of smaller domestic units, with bathing platforms, wells and small internal courtyards.

One portion of the citadel mound has not been excavated because it is covered by a Buddhist stupa dating to the Kushana Period, circa 2nd century CE. Wheeler claimed to have discovered the wall and gateway around the "citadel" mound (Wheeler 1972), but most scholars did not accept his interpretations.

An artistic view of the dockyard at Lothal – a major metropolis of Sarasvati Civilisation.

Although Mackay had tried to locate a wall around the "Lower City" at Mohenjo-daro, he was not successful due to the high water table (Mackay 1938).

"Lower Town"

The "Lower Town" is made up of numerous lower mounds that lie to the east and may represent multiple walled neighborhoods.

Earlier scholars thought that the various mounds at Mohenjo-daro represented contemporaneous occupations in a city divided into distinct functional sectors, the western mounds being administrative centers and the lower mounds representing habitation and industrial areas for the common populace.

This simplistic interpretation is no longer supported by the available evidence, which indicates shifting centers of power within the city and the presence of habitation and industrial areas in each of the major mounds.

Each sector has numerous large brick houses that could have been the mansions of powerful merchants or landowners. No temples have been identified, though there is one building with a double staircase that may have had a ritual function.

Other habitation areas are partly buried by the silts of the encroaching Indus River and some Indus brick structures are seen eroding into the Indus River itself. No cemetery area has been located at the site, though there have been reports of occasional chance burials discovered in the course of site conservation.

Features of Indus Civilization

Town Planning: The excavations of the ruins showed a remarkable skill in town planning. The main streets and roads were set in a line, sometimes running straight for a mile, and were varying in width from 4 meters to 10 meters. Most of these roads and streets were paved with fire brunt bricks. On the either side of the street stood houses of various sizes which did not protrude into the streets. The main streets intersected at right angles, dividing the city into squares or rectangular blocks each of which was divided length wise and cross wise by lanes. Some buildings had a lamp post and a well. There was an elaborate drainage system which emptied into the river.

The Drainage System: The Drainage System of the Indus Valley Civilization was far advanced. The drains were covered with slabs. Water flowed from houses into the street drains. The street drains had manholes at regular intervals. Housewives were expected to use pits in which heavier part of the rubbish will settle down while only sewerage water was allowed to drain off. All soak pits and drains were occasionally cleaned by workmen. In every house there was a well-constructed sink, and water flowed from the sink into the underground sewers in the streets. This elaborate drainage system shows that the Indus Valley people were fully conversant with the principles of health and sanitation.

Houses: The houses were of different sizes varying from a palatial building to one with two small rooms. The houses had a well, a bathroom, and a covered drain connected to the drain in the street. The buildings were made of burnt bricks, which have been preserved even to this day. Sun-dried bricks were used for the foundation of the buildings and the roofs were flat and made of wood. The special feature of the houses was that rooms were built around an open courtyard. Some houses were double storied. Some buildings had pillared halls; some of them measured 24 square meters. It is assumed that there also must have been palaces, temples or municipal halls.

"Great Bath," Mohenjo-daro.

Great Bath: One of the largest buildings was the Great Bath measuring 180 feet by 108 feet. The bathing pool, 39 feet long, 28 feet wide and 8 feet deep was in the center of the quadrangle, surrounded with verandahs, rooms and galleries. A flight of steps led to the pool. The pool could be filled and emptied by means of a vaulted culvert, 6 feet and 6 inches high. The walls of the pool were made of burnt bricks laid on edge, which made the pool watertight. The pool was filled with water from a large well, situated in the same complex. Periodic cleaning of the pool was done by draining off the used water into a big drain. The Great Bath building had six entrances. The Great Bath reflected the engineering genius of those ancient days.

Great Granary: Another large building in the city was the Great Granary which was made about 45 meters long and 15 meters wide. It was meant to store food grains. It had lines of circular brick platforms for pounding grain. There were barrack like quarters for workmen. The granary also had smaller halls and corridors.

The Assembly Hall: An important feature of Mohen-jo-daro was its 24 square meters pillared hall. It had five rows of pillars, with four pillars in each row. Kiln baked bricks were used to construct these pillars. Probably, it was the Assembly Hall or the ruler's court. It is said that it also housed the municipal office which had the charge of town planning and sanitation.

Social Life of the People

Food: Specimens of wheat and barley show that they were cultivated in that region. Rice was also probably grown. There is evidence to show that date palms were grown in the area. Besides these, the diet of the people consisted of fruits, vegetables, fish, milk and meat of animals i.e. beef, mutton and poultry.

Dress: From the sculptured figures it can be seen that the dress of men and women consisted of two pieces of cloth-one resembling a dhoti, covering the lower part, and the other worn over the left shoulder and under the right arm. Men had long hair designed differently. Women wore a fan shaped head dress covering there hair. The discovery of a large number of spindles showed that they knew weaving and spinning. Similarly it was concluded, by the discovery of needles and buttons, that the people of this age knew the art of stitching.

Ornaments: Both men and women wore ornaments made of gold, silver, copper and other metals. Men wore necklaces, finger rings and armlets of various designs and shapes. The women wore a head dress, ear rings, bangles, girdles, bracelets and anklets. Rich people wore expensive ornaments made of gold while the poor had ornaments made of shell, bone or copper.

Cosmetics: The ladies of Mohen-jo-daro were not lagging behind in styles as used by the ladies of the present day, when it came to the use of cosmetics and the attainment of beauty. Materials made of ivory and metal for holding and applying cosmetics prove that they knew the use of face paint and collyrium. Bronze oval mirrors, ivory combs of various shapes, even small dressing tables, have been found at Mohen-jo-daro and other sites. Women tied the hair into a bun and used hair pins made of ivory. Toilet jars, found at Mohen-jo-daro, show that women took interest in cosmetics.

Body of a figurine with a movable head and tail from Harappa.

Furniture and Utensils: The furniture and utensils found at Mohen-jo-daro show a high degree of civilization because of their variety in kind and design. The beautifully painted pottery, numerous vessels for the kitchen, chairs and beds made of wood, lamps of different material, toys for children, marbles, balls and dice, indicate what people manufactured in those days.

Conveyance A copper specimen found at Harappa resembles the modern Ekka (cart) with a top-cover. Bullock carts with or without the roof was the chief means of conveyance.

Amusements and Recreation: The Indus Valley people liked more of indoor games than outdoor amusements. They were fond of gambling and playing dice. Dancing and singing were considered great arts. Boys played with toys made of terracotta, while girls played with dolls.


The earliest pottery made in the Harappan region was built beginning about 6000 BC, and included storage jars, perforated cylindrical towers and footed dishes. The copper/bronze industry flourished at sites such as Harappa and Lothal, and copper casting and hammering were used. Shell and bead making industry was very important, particularly at sites such as Chanhu-daro where mass production of beads and seals is in evidence.

The Harappan people grew wheat, barley, rice, ragi, jowar, and cotton, and raised cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats and chickens. Camels, elephants, horses, and asses were used as transport.

Agriculture: Agriculture was the main occupation of the Indus Valley people. Crops such as wheat, barley, peas and bananas were raised. In the olden days, there was enough rain in that region and occasional floods brought a great deal of fertile soil to the area. People used to plough the land with wooden ploughshares drawn by men and oxen. From the existence of granaries it is concluded that there were surplus food-grains.

Domestication of Animals: The people of Harappa domesticated animals like oxen, buffaloes, pigs, goats and sheep. Camels and asses were used as means of transport. Dogs and cats were kept as pets. The humped bull was considered a great asset in the farming community. Crafts The discovery of spindles at the sites of Harappan culture shows that the people used to spin and weave. Goldsmiths made jewellery of gold, silver and precious stones. People were also engaged in brick-laying and in the art of sculpture. The making of seals was developed during this period. Bronze-smiths made various types of weapons and tools such as knives, spears, saws and axes which were used in daily life.

Trade: Traders carried on trade in the country as well as with other countries like Egypt, Babylon and Afghanistan. Many seals of Harappa found in Mesopotamia show that trade existed between the two countries. The seals were made of terracotta and were used by merchants to stamp their goods.

The people of the Indus Valley used weights and measures in their business transactions. They used 16 and its multiplies: 64, 160 and 320, in measurement and weight.

Art of Sculpture

The discovery of statues, figurines of men and women in terracotta, stone and metal indicate that people of the area were great artists and sculptors.

Sculpture in Stone: Among the stone images found in Harappa two male statues are noteworthy. One of them is artistically decorated while the other is kept naked. The first statue is that of a yogi, draped in a shawl worn over the left shoulder and under the right arm. His beard is well-kept and his eyes are half-closed. The other figure is a torso of a human male. It is beautiful piece of sculpture made of red stone. The head and arms of the figure were carved separately and socketed into holes drilled on the torso.

The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro

Sculpture in Metal: The Harappan artists knew the art of bronze casting. They used the special lost wax process in which the wax figures were covered with a coating of clay. Then the wax was melted by heating and the hollow mould thus created was filled with molten metal which took the original shape of the object. A figure of a female naked dancer was found at Mohen-jo-daro. Necklaces adorn her breast. One of her arms is fully covered with bangles made of bone or ivory. Her eyes are large, nose is flat and the lips are pendulous. Her hair is braided and her head is slightly thrown back. Her limbs suggest graceful lines. Besides the figurine, bronze figures of a buffalo and a humped bull are very artistically designed.

Sculpture in Terracotta: The Indus Valley people practiced sculpture in terracotta. The teracota figure of the Mother Goddess was discovered in Mohen-jo-daro. The figure, with a punched nose and artistic ornamentation laid on the body and pressed on the figure, shows the Mother Goddess as the symbol of fertility and prosperity.

Pottery and Painting: Pottery found in large quantities shows that with the potter's wheel the craftsman produced pottery of various artistic shapes. The special clay for this purpose was baked and the different designs on pots were painted. Figures of birds, animals and men were depicted on the pots. Paintings on the pots show, that these men were equally good at painting.

Indus Seals and the Indus Civilization Script

The Indus Valley people had some knowledge of the art of writing, though in a rudimentary way. No regular documents on stone or baked clay tablets have been found but the numerous seals, representing unicorns and bulls and other objects give us the idea that the people had a language of their own. About 6,000 representations of glyph strings have been discovered at Indus sites, mostly on square or rectangular seals like the ones in this photo essay.

Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets.

The writing was generally from left to right, but in some cases it was in the opposite direction i.e., right to left in the first line and left to right in the second. The Indus Valley script resembles the script of the ancient Mesopotamian people. Dr. S.R. Rao in his research work Decipherment of the Indus Script holds that the Indus Valley people used the phonetic script and in the late Harappan period the script evolved itself towards and alphabetic pattern. He says that numerals were shown by corresponding numbers of independent vertical lines. However, the Indus script remains to be a puzzle to the historians and thus the riches of this civilization remain unrevealed until this script is interpreted.

Importance of Seals

The most interesting part of the discovery relates to the seals-more than 2000 in number, made of soapstone, terracotta and copper. The seals give us useful information about the civilization of Indus valley. Some seals have human or animal figures on them. Most of the seals have the figures of real animals while a few bear the figure of mythical animals. The seals are rectangular, circular or even cylindrical in shape.

The seals even have an inscription of a sort of pictorial writing. Most of the seals have a knob at the back through which runs a hole. It is said that these seals were used by different associations or merchants for stamping purposes. They were also worn round the neck or the arm.

The seals show the culture and civilization of the Indus Valley people. In particular, they indicate:

  • Dresses, ornaments, hair-styles of people.
  • Skill of artists and sculptors.
  • Trade contacts and commercial relations.
  • Religious beliefs.
  • Script.
Stamp seal depicting a rhinoceros from Mohenjo-daro.
Stamp seal depicting a unicorn from Mohenjo-daro.
Stamp seal depicting a man siting in lotus position from Mohenjo-daro.

Important Seals

The Pashupati Seal: This seal depicts a yogi, probably Lord Shiva. A pair of horns crown his head. He is surrounded by a rhino, a buffalo, an elephant and a tiger. Under his throne are two deer. This seal shows that Shiva was worshipped and he was considered as the Lord of animals (Pashupati).

The Unicorn Seal: The unicorn is a mythological animal. This seal shows that at a very early stage of civilization, humans had produced many creations of imagination in the shape of bird and animal motifs that survived in later art.

The Bull Seal: This seal depicts a humped bull of great vigour. The figure shows the artistic skill and a good knowledge of animal anatomy.

The Religion of the Indus-Sarasvati People

A great many artifacts have been discovered from the Indus-Sarasvati cities. These include pottery, seals, statues, beads, jewelry, tools, games, such as dice, and children's toys, such as miniature carts.

The flat, stone seals have pictures and writing on them. Scholars have not yet agreed on what the mysterious script on the seals means.They show deities, ceremonies, symbols, people, plants and animals. We learn from them that people at that time followed practices identical to those followed by Hindus today. One seal shows a meditating figure that scholars link to Lord Siva, while others show the lotus posture used by today's meditators. The swastika, a sacred symbol of good luck used throughout Hindu history, is common.

There are statues, including a small clay figure with its hands pressed together in the traditional Hindu greeting of "namaste."

A figurine of a married woman shows a red powder called sindur in the part of her hair. Hindu women today follow this same custom as a sign of their married status. The pipal tree and banyan tree are depicted often. These remain sacred to Hindus to this day.

The numerous seals and figurines discovered in the excavations carried out at various sites connected with the Harappan culture point out to the religious beliefs of the Indus Valley people.

Worship of Mother Goddess

A large number of excavated terracotta figurines are those of a semi-nude figures which is identified with some female energy or Shakti or Mother Goddess, who is the source of all creation. She is wearing numerous ornaments an a fan-shaped head dress. It is concluded from the smoke stained figures that the people offered burnt incense before her.

Worship of Pashupati or Lord Shiva

The Pashupati seal in which the three faced male god is shown seated in a yogic posture, surrounded by a rhino and a buffalo on the right, and an elephant and a tiger on the left, make the historians conclude that the people of those days worshipped Lord Shiva who is the Lord of the Beast (Pashupati) and the male principle of creation. Discovery of a large number of conical or cylindrical stones show that the people worshipped lingam, the symbol of Lord Shiva.

Worship of Trees

The worship of trees was widespread. The Pipal tree was considered most sacred. One of the seals shows a god standing between the branches of a people tree and the god was being worshipped by a devotee on his knees. The discovery of a large number of seals with papal trees engraved on them suggests that this tree was considered sacred, same as some nowadays Hindu do.

Other Objects of Worship

People also worshiped animals such as the bull, buffalo and tiger. The worship of mythical animals is evident from the existence of a human figure with a bull's horns, hoofs and a tail. Besides animals, these people also worshipped the Sun, the Fire and the Water.

Faith in Magic, Charms and Sacrifices

The discovery of amulets suggests that the Indus valley people had belief in magic and charms. Some seals have figures of men and animals in act of sacrificing. This shows that sacrifices played some part in their religion.

Belief in Life after Death

The people of Indus Valley disposed of their dead either by burial or by cremation. They buried their dead together with household pottery, ornaments and other articles of daily use. Even when they cremated the dead, they preserved the ashes of the bodies in clay urns. Both these practices show that people believed in life after death.

The existence of public baths suggests that people believed in ritual bathing. The religious beliefs such as the worship of Shiva, animals and trees, show that the religious beliefs of the Indus Valley people were the foundation on which the modern day Hinduism grew up.

Decline and End of Civilization

This civilization is said to have come to an abrupt end. The following reasons are put forward for its abrupt end:

The neighboring desert encroached on the fertile area and made it infertile.

Regular floods destroyed the area.

The end was partly caused by changing river patterns. These changes included the drying up of the Hakra River and changes in the course of the Indus River. The river changes disrupted agricultural and economic systems, and many people left the cities of the Indus Valley region.

Earthquakes and Epidemics caused destruction.


The Indus Valley people gave to the world its earliest cities, its town planning, its architecture in stone and clay, and showed their concern for health and sanitation. They built a scientific drainage system in their cities.

There is enough evidence to show that some of the early conceptions of Hinduism are derived from this culture. On the whole, the present civilization is a composite product resulting from a fusion of several cultures where the contribution of the Indus Valley is of utmost importance.


3. Hinduism From Ancient Times, Hinduism Today Magazine — April/May/June 2007; Himalayan Academy.
4. Indus Civilization, Archaeology —


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