Origins of Civilization in India
Of all world civilizations, India’s is the oldest still in continuous existence. If one defines civilization as involving a writing system, metalworking, and some concentration of settlement in cities where most of the inhabitants are not farmers, the earliest such developments seem to have occurred, as noted above, in Mesopotamia by about 4000 b.c.e. and about the same time in Egypt. Civilization in these terms had emerged by about 3000 b.c.e. in India, and by about 2000 b.c.e. in China.
Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations came to an end by Roman times and were later superseded by the Arab conquest. The present cultures of these areas have little or no connection with ancient Sumer or the time of the pharaohs, leaving India as the oldest survivor.
It was not far from Sumer to India, and the way was relatively easy: by ship along the sheltered coasts of the Persian Gulf and thence still following the coast to the mouth of the Indus River. The route by land across Iran and Baluchistan ran through a desert with few oases, but it was used, too.
Neolithic developments in agriculture and the beginnings of large, settled villages or towns were taking place at several locations along this land route and in the upland Baluchistan borderlands west of the Indus during the fifth-millennium b.c.e. Although these developments were probably independent of Sumer, they may have benefited from early Sumerian achievements.
Agriculture had also appeared on the Indus ﬂoodplain by the sixth and fifth millennia and may thus have developed independently there. By about 3000 b.c.e. true cities had arisen in the Indus Valley, much as early agriculture in the highlands around Mesopotamia later spread onto the riverine lowlands.
As in Mesopotamia, the ﬂoodplain presented new challenges to early agriculturists: how to control river ﬂooding, manipulate irrigation, and drain swampy land. Te long experience with an evolving set of agricultural techniques ultimately made it possible to exploit the potentially rich agricultural resources of the lowlands.
Consistent agricultural surpluses provided the basis for real cities, as opposed to towns. They had populations that were literate, used metal, stored surplus food, had a division of labor, and exhibited great sophistication in the arts, in a building, and in town planning.
The Indus Civilization
The chief urban centers so far discovered are Kalibangan in modern Rajasthan (probably the oldest city site yet found in India), Harappa in what is now the Pakistani part of Punjab, and Mohenjo Daro on the lower course of the Indus.
All three, in addition to over 1000 smaller town or village sites from the same period, scattered over an immense area from the Indus Valley east to the upper Ganges and south to near modern Mumbai, show similar forms of settlements, pottery, seals (for marking pieces of property), and artwork.
Weights and measures at all these sites were uniforms, further emphasizing the unity of Harappan culture. This vast culture complex, covering by far the largest area of any of the ancient civilizations anywhere, is called the Indus civilization. It clearly had a close relationship to the river and its tributaries, a situation very like that in Sumer and in Egypt.
Like the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates rivers, the Indus is an exotic river, that is, one that originates in a well-watered area. Rising with its tributaries in the Himalayas, the source of snowmelt, and the heavy monsoonal rains of summer, it flows across lowland Punjab and arid Rajasthan into the desert of Sindh to reach the sea near modern Karachi.
All of this lowland area is dry, and the lower half of the Indus Valley is virtually desert, as in Sumer and Egypt, so agriculture is dependent on irrigation. Annual river floods provided both water and highly fertile, easily worked alluvium or silt.
Combined with a long growing season of high temperatures and unbroken sunshine, this was the same set of agricultural advantages that helped to explain the early prominence of Egypt and Sumer after the management and use of floodwater had been mastered.
The Indus—and another river somewhat to the east that no longer exists, called Saraswati, where evidence of even more settlements can be found— also offered cheap, easy transport for bulky goods such as grain or building materials and, together with the treeless and level plain, created the transport access that is essential for exchange and hence for the division of labor.
Relations with Sumer
We know much less about the Indus civilization and its cities than about Sumer or ancient Egypt, in part because the Indus script has not yet been deciphered despite more than a generation of effort by cryptologists and linguists. The texts we have are incised on clay tablets and seals, as in Sumer, and contain over 300 different symbols.
They may help provide some clue to who the writers were. There is some linguistic evidence that they were part ancestors of the present inhabitants of southern India, although some scholars suspect a closer link with the peoples of Iran. But the Indus script has no resemblance at all to anything from Sumer, and especially not to cuneiform.
That in itself is convincing evidence that the Indus civilization was not an offshoot of earlier Mesopotamian developments but an independent creation. By at least 3200 b.c.e. , almost certainly before the beginnings of city-based civilization in India, cuneiform had replaced earlier pictographs in Sumer. Its clear superiority as a form of writing ensured its rapid spread.
If the Indus civilization had been an outgrowth of Sumer, it would surely have used cuneiform or at least shown some connection with earlier Sumerian writing systems.
The art of the Indus people and their remarkable city planning are also completely distinctive and show no relation to Sumerian equivalents. The seals that they used are very similar to those of earlier and contemporary Mesopotamia, and we know that from at least 2500 b.c.e. there was trade between them.
Objects from India at this period have been found in Sumer and Sumerian objects in India. It seems likely that because seals were probably used primarily to mark property or goods, they were adopted by the Indus people in the course of their trade with Sumer. But in all other respects, their civilization was distinctively their own.
When exactly Indus civilization emerged is difficult to determine, beyond the rough guess of approximately 3000 b.c.e. The city sites, including the three major ones at Kalibangan, Harappa, and Mohenjo Daro, were necessarily close to the Indus or its tributaries, and the local water table is high. The lowest (earliest) levels are now below the modern water table and thus present severe problems for the archaeologist.
There have been major changes in stream courses also since these cities were built some 5,000 years ago. Flooding and silt deposition have carried away, buried, or drowned most of the earliest levels of evidence. As in the Nile Delta and for similar reasons, we can no longer see beginnings that may be considerably earlier than we can now prove.
The earliest objects that have been dated cluster around 2500 b.c.e. , but they come necessarily from upper site levels and from a period when the urban culture was already well advanced. Especially in the emerging phase of civilization, development is relatively slow.
One must assume that it began many centuries before 2500, during which it evolved, built the first city levels, and acquired the form and quality evident by 2500. The guesses at 3000 b.c.e. is a convenient, though arbitrary round number.
We do not know what the builders of these cities called themselves or their settlements. The place names we use for them are modern—Mohenjo Daro means “place of the dead.” The Greeks called the land they encountered in Alexander’s time “India,” which is derived from Sanskrit Sindhu, the Aryan name of the river and by association the river’s valley and the land beyond it.
Hind, the Persian and modern Indian name for their country, is, of course, the same root, as is Hindu, Hinduism, Hindustan (Stan means “country”), and the province of Sind (or Sindh) in the lower Indus Valley. The first external account of India is by the Persians in the time of Cyrus the Great (reigned 550–530 b.c.e. ), who added the northwest brieﬂy to his empire; they rendered Sind or Sindus as Hind or Hindus, establishing a form that has persisted.
Trade with Sumer took place both overland and through the port of Lothal on the coast below the mouth of the Indus, where the remains of large stone docks and warehouses have been found. These were associated with a city that was clearly part of Harappan culture (a convenient shorter label for the Indus civilization).
A site along the route between them, on Bahrain Island, has yielded objects from both Sumer and India and seems to have supported a major trade center where many routes to and from Sumer met.
Sumerian texts speak of a place called Dilmun, which was probably Bahrain, a few days’ sail southward from the mouth of their river, where goods were found from a place they called Meluha, to the east: ivory, peacocks, monkeys, precious stones, incense, and spices, the “apes, ivory, and peacocks” of the Bible.
Meluha must have been India, but it is not clear whether people from Sumer went there or whether the Indus people or some intermediary, carried their cargoes to Dilmun.
The Cities of the Indus
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this civilization was the planned layout of its cities, including wells, a piped water supply, bathrooms, and waste pipes or drains in nearly every house. There is no parallel for these developments anywhere in the ancient world, and indeed one must leap to the late nineteenth century in Western Europe and North America to find such achievements on a similar scale.
The rivers that nourished these cities were the source of their municipal water supply, led by gravity from upstream, a technique later used by the Mughal emperors for their palaces in Delhi and Agra.
The importance attached by the Indus people to personal use of water already suggests the distinctively Indian emphasis both on bathing or washing and on ritual purity. Religious figures found are varied, but they include many that suggest an early representation of the Indian god Shiva, Creator and Destroyer, the god of the harvest, of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, and also the primal yogi, represented, even then, seated with arms folded and gaze fixed on eternity.
Figures of a mother goddess, phallic images, and the worship of cattle are other elements that provide a link with classical and modern Indian civilization. Some scholars have suggested that the distinctively Indian idea of reincarnation and the endless wheel of life were Harappan beliefs.
Indeed, the roots of most of the traditional and modern Indian culture, including not only religion but also many other aspects, maybe traced eventually to the Indus culture, as we learn more about it.
The houses in these cities were remarkably uniform, suggesting an absence of great divisions in the society, and were arranged along regular streets in a semi-grid pattern. There were a few larger buildings, including in most of the cities a large public bath, perhaps appropriately the largest single structure, and others that were probably municipal granaries or storehouses.
The art these still-unknown people have left behind is strikingly varied and of high quality. Its variety may suggest that it was produced over a very long time, during which styles changed, as anywhere else in the world over 1,000 years: abstract, realistic, idealized, and so on. One of the most appealing forms is the enormous number of clay and wooden children’s toys, including tiny carts pulled by tiny oxen or little monkeys that could be made to climb a string.
This suggests a relatively prosperous society that could aﬀord such nonessential production—a tribute to the productivity of its irrigated agriculture—and one whose values seem admirable.
Complementing the picture, very few weapons or other indications of warfare have been found at these sites. It seems to have been a notably peaceful and humane civilization as well as organized and sophisticated. Cotton, indigenous to India, was woven into cloth earlier here than anywhere else.
This distinctively Indian innovation spread much later to the rest of the world. The animal sculpture and bas-relief, including the figures on many of the seals, were superbly done and include very large numbers of bovines, mainly the familiar humpbacked cattle, which suggests that cattle were already venerated, as ever since in India.
This and other evidence lead one to believe that already by Harappan times the reverence for life and the quest for nonviolent solutions that mark the consistent Indian stress on the great chain of being and the oneness of creation had emerged.
The chief Indus food crop was wheat, probably derived originally from areas to the west, augmented by barley, peas, beans, oilseeds, fruits, and vegetables and by dairy products from domesticated cattle and sheep.
Tools were made of bronze, stone, and wood, but in later centuries iron began to appear and was used, for example, in axle pins for wheeled carts. Rice appeared as a minor crop only toward the end of the Indus period, imported from its Southeast Asian origins as a crop plant via contact with the Ganges Valley.
Sugarcane is native to India and was first cultivated there, but more is now grown in the better-watered Ganges Valley. In the Indus region, riverine location not only was essential for irrigation but also made for recurrent problems from irregular and occasionally disastrous ﬂooding. The remains of successive dikes speak of eﬀorts to protect even the cities themselves against ﬂoods and major course changes, not always successfully.
There was no building stone in this ﬂat and semiarid or desert region, and the cities were built of brick, as in Sumer, some of it sun-baked and some kiln-fried, using fuel from riverside tree stands (which must soon have been exhausted), or brought down the rivers from the better-forested hills and mountains upstream.
The ruins of Harappa were first investigated in the 1850s by a British military engineer whose sharp eye noticed the strange dimensions of the bricks and other fragments brought to him by Indian contractors for railway ballast and the equally strange markings on some of them, samples of the Indus script, which he traced back to the site of Harappa and realized where the remains of a civilization.
Decline and Fall
Toward the end of the third-millennium b.c.e. the Indus civilization began to decay. We can only guess at the reasons, but there is clear evidence of progressive shrinking of the area under cultivation or irrigation, and of the urban area occupied.
The port of Lothal was abandoned by about 1900 b.c.e. , and the other major centers probably supported only a fraction of their earlier populations, huddled in a small part of the decaying city.
There is also evidence of violence at some of these sites: ashes and unburied or headless corpses, victims perhaps of bandit raids now that the cities were so largely defenseless against plunder.
Any civilization that had already lasted for many centuries might be expected to show signs of decay. But the Indus people encountered some specific problems resulting from their desert or a semiarid environment, problems that may rather quickly have become overwhelming.
Continued irrigation of any arid area leads to the progressive buildup of salts and alkaline left behind by the evaporating water and not washed away adequately by rainfall. Irrigation also raises the water table, which may drown crop roots.
When accumulated salts and alkaline reach levels toxic to plants or when the root zone is ﬂooded, agriculture may rather suddenly come to an end. We have modern experience with both problems in many arid irrigated areas, including the drier parts of the United States.
In the Indus Valley, large parts of the areas cultivated in ancient times appear to have been abandoned for these reasons, as the telltale white deposits on the ancient surface indicate. In addition, recurrent ﬂooding and course changes not only menaced the cities directly but also indirectly undermined their agricultural base by destroying or choking with silt the irrigation channels that fed the fields.
Course changes perhaps resulting from earthquakes, to which the area is prone, could also deprive a city or an irrigated area of its water. All of this is characteristic of the behavior of exotic rivers, rising in the mountains and then ﬂowing across a treeless desert.
There is no evidence that the climate changed, as has often been asserted despite clear evidence to the contrary, but plenty to suggest that the agricultural surpluses that had built the cities and nourished their culture shrank and then disappeared, leaving only a remnant population living on a relatively primitive level in the ruins of the once-great cities on what they could still wring from the remaining but far less productive fields, plus hunting and gathering.
In this reduced state, they were less and less able to defend themselves against raiders. The Aryan migrants, arriving later, could never have seen the Indus civilization in its prime and are thus unlikely causes for its decline. The people who built it, or their descendants, probably dispersed eastward into the Ganges Valley and southward into peninsular India, taking their culture and technology with them.