|The Indus Valley and the Genesis Of South Asian Civilization
Edited By: R. A. Guisepi
Like Sumer, Egypt, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, civilizations first developed in East and South Asia in the vicinity of great river systems. When irrigated by the massive spring floods of the Yellow River, the rich soil of the North China plain proved a superb basis for what has been the largest and most enduring civilization in human history.
Civilization first developed in the Indus River valley in present-day Pakistan in the middle of the 3d millennium B.C., more than a thousand years earlier than it did in China. In fact, the civilization of the Indus valley, usually called Harappan after its chief city, rivals Sumer and Egypt as humanity's oldest. But like Sumer and its successor civilizations in the Middle East, Harappan civilization was unable to survive natural catastrophes and nomadic invasions. In contrast to the civilization of the Shang rulers in China around 1500 B.C., Harappa vanished from history. Until the mid-19th century it was "lost" or forgotten, even by the peoples who lived in the vicinity of its sand-covered ruins. Important elements of Harappan society were transmitted to later civilizations in the Indian subcontinent. But unlike the Shang kingdom, Harappa did not survive to be the core and geographical center from which a unified and continuous civilization developed like that found in China. The difference in the fate of these two great civilizations provides one of the key questions in dealing with the history of civilized societies: What factors permitted some civilizations to endure for millennia while others rose and fell within a few centuries?
Between about 1500 and 1000 B.C., as the great cities of the Indus region crumbled into ruins, nomadic Aryan invaders from central Asia moved into the fertile Indus plains and pushed into the Ganges River valleys to the east. It took these unruly, warlike peoples many centuries to build a civilization that rivaled that of the Harappans. The Aryans concentrated on assaulting Harappan settlements and different Aryan tribal groups. As peoples who depended primarily on great herds of cattle to provide their subsistence, they had little use for the great irrigation works and advanced agricultural technology of the Indus valley peoples. Though they conserved some Harappan beliefs and symbols, the Aryan invaders did little to restore or replace the great cities and engineering systems of the peoples they had supplanted.
Eventually, however, many of the Aryan groups began to settle down, and increasingly they relied on farming to support their communities. By about 700 B.C., their priests had begun to orally record the sacred hymns and ritual incantations that had long been central to Aryan culture. In the following centuries, strong warrior leaders built tribunal units into larger kingdoms. The emergence of priestly and warrior elites signaled the beginning of a new pattern of civilization in South Asia. By the 6th century B.C., the renewal of civilized life in India was marked by the emergence of great world religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and a renewal of trade, urban life, and splendid artistic and architectural achievements.
The early development of civilization in China combined the successive phases of advancement of Mesopotamian history with the continuity of Egyptian civilization. Civilization in China coalesced around 1500 B.C. Chinese civilization emerged gradually out of Neolithic farming and pottery-making cultures that had long been present in the Yellow River region of East Asia. The establishment of the Shang kingdom at this point in time gave political expression to a combination of civilizing trends. The appearance of a distinctive and increasingly specialized elite supported by the peasant majority of the Chinese people, the growth of towns and the first cities, the spread of trade, and the formulation of a written language all indicated that a major civilization was emerging in China.
Though the political dominance of the Shang came to an end in 1122 under the new royal house of the Zhou, civilized development in China was enriched and extended as the Chinese people migrated east and south from their original Yellow River heartland. By the end of the Zhou era, which would last officially until 256 B.C., many of the central elements in Chinese civilization, one of humankind's oldest, were firmly established. Some of those elements have persisted to the present day.
Great torrents of water from the world's highest mountain range, the Himalayas, carved out the vast Indus River system that was to nurture the first civilization in the Indian subcontinent. As the rapidly running mountain streams reached the plains of the Indus valley, they branched out into seven great rivers, of which five remain today. These rivers in turn converge midway down the valley to form the Indus River, which runs for hundreds of miles to the southwest and empties into the Arabian Sea. The streams that flow from high in the Himalayas are fed by monsoon rains. Rain clouds are carried from
the seas surrounding the Indian subcontinent by monsoons - seasonal winds - across the lowlands to the mountains where, cooled and trapped, they release their life-giving waters. These "summer" or wet monsoons, which blow toward central Asia from the sea, are also a critical source of moisture for the plains and valleys they cross before they reach the mountain barriers. The streams from the mountains also carry prodigious amounts of rich soil to these plains, constantly enlarging them and giving them the potential for extensive cultivation and dense human habitation. The Indus is only one of many river systems in the Indian subcontinent formed by melting snow and monsoon rains, but it was the first to nurture a civilization.
The lower Indus plains were a very different place in the 3d millennium B.C. than they are today. Most of the region is now arid and desolate, crisscrossed by dried-up riverbeds and virtually devoid of forests. In Harappan times, it was green and heavily forested. Game animals and pasturage for domesticated animals were plentiful. Long before the first settlements associated with the Harappan complex appeared, the plains were dotted with the settlements of sedentary agriculturists. By at least 3000 B.C., these pre-Harappan peoples cultivated wheat and barley, and had developed sophisticated agricultural implements and cropping techniques.
The pre-Harappan peoples knew how to make bronze weapons, tools, and
mirrors, and they had mastered the art of pottery making. Recurring motifs, such as bulls and long-horned cattle on elaborately decorated bowls and storage urns, suggest links to early agricultural communities in the Middle East, while fish designs indicate a preoccupation with what was probably a major source of food. The long-horned bull was a central image in the Harappan culture and remains important in Indian iconography, the art of pictorial representation. Pre-Harappan peoples in the Indus valley also carved large numbers of small figurines of women. These statuettes differ from those found in many other early cultures in the detailed attention given to hairstyles and jewelry. Early village sites also contained tiny carts with clay wheels that may be the earliest children's toys yet discovered
In the late 1850s, the British were directing the building of railway lines through the Indus valley. In need of bricks for the railway bed, the engineers allowed the construction workers to plunder those bricks found in the dirt mounds of long-abandoned cities in the valley. A British general named Cunningham, who would later be the head of the Indian Archeological Survey, visited one of these sites in 1856. While there, he was given a number of artifacts including several soapstone seals imprinted with various carvings, including the figure of a bull and what were apparently letters in a script. Cunningham was convinced that the artifacts were of ancient origin and was intrigued by the strange script, which bore little resemblance to that of any of the languages then in use in various parts of India. As head of the archeological survey, Cunningham took steps to ensure the full-scale excavation of what came to be recognized as one of the earliest and most mysterious of all human civilizations.
Today the script still has not been deciphered and much of the original mystery remains. But decades of extensive excavation at the original site and hundreds of other sites throughout the Indus valley have uncovered a huge complex of cities and villages that made up the first civilization in South Asia. The evidence found so far indicates that Harappan civilization developed quite rapidly in the middle centuries of the 3d millennium B.C. There are sharp divergences from the village cultures that preceded it in levels of material culture, scale, and organization. Equally notable is the lack of strong resemblances to other early civilizations to the west of Mesopotamia, which indicates that Harappa was not a colony. Skeletal remains, however, show that the dominant human type of the peoples who built the civilization was a tall, long faced, dark-haired strain much like those from the Mediterranean region.
The civilization was anchored on two cities: Harappa in the north on one of the five great rivers that forms the Indus, and Mohenjo-daro, 400 miles to the south on the banks of the Indus proper. These cities formed the town capitals of a complex of smaller urban centers and villages that covered an area four times the size of Sumer and twice the size of Egypt during the Old Kingdom. That the many sites associated with the Harappan complex were part of one civilization has been established due to excavations of layer after layer of cities and towns rebuilt in the same way, with the same proportions, at the same locations.
Though hundreds of miles apart, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were remarkably similar in layout and construction. Both were built on a square grid pattern that was divided by main thoroughfares into 12 smaller and precisely measured grids. Each of the cities was surrounded by walls, which extended one mile from east to west and one-half mile from north to south. The buildings of the cities and the surrounding walls were made of standardized kiln-dried bricks. Controlled building on such a massive scale would have required an autocratic government with the capacity to organize and supervise the daily tasks of large numbers of laborers. This control appears to have extended to the Harappans' domestic lives as well.
The existence of a strong ruling class is also indicated by the presence of large and well-fortified citadels in each of the capital cities. These citadels served as sanctuaries for the cities' populations in times of attack and as community centers in times of peace. The citadel at Mohenjo-daro included a very large building that may have been a palace. Both citadels contained what are believed to have been audience and assembly halls or places
of worship, and bathing tanks for public use. The elaborately decorated bath at Mohenjo-daro was surrounded by a cloister, which opened onto many small rooms that may have housed priests of the city's cults. Large granaries were located near each of the citadels, which suggest that the state stored grain for ceremonial purposes, times of shortage, and possibly the regulation of grain production and sale.
Though the main avenues of the cities were straight and about 30 feet wide, the lanes and paths in the cities' quarters were narrow and twisting Brick houses of one to three stories were jumbled together in these areas, which must have been densely populated at the height of Harappan civilization. The layout of the houses was strikingly uniform in that each consisted of a courtyard surrounded by rooms for sleeping, cooking, and, in the larger homes, receiving visitors. Entrance to the houses was gained through a long passageway from the street, which in combination with few windows reflects a concern for security. The lack of ornamentation on the houses and the dun-colored brick walls must have given the cities a very drab appearance. Each of the homes had a bathing area and drains that emptied into a covered, citywide sewage system, which was the best in the ancient world. The Harappans apparently bathed standing up by pouring pitchers of water over their bodies. Some scholars believe that bathing was related to religious rituals rather than hygiene.
The great cities and many towns of the Harappan complex were supported by a rather advanced agricultural system based on the cultivation of wheat, rye, peas, and possibly rice. Cotton was widely cultivated and numerous domesticated animals were reared. It is likely that irrigation systems were built to catch and control waters from the monsoon and the rivers, and that fish caught in the rivers provided an additional dietary staple.
The cities of Harappa were major trading centers. The mysterious seals from the Indus civilization have been found in urban ruins as far away as Sumer in Mesopotamia. Jade from present-day China and precious jewels from what is now Burma have been unearthed at various Indus sites. Despite these overseas contacts, Harappan peoples appear to have been intensely conservative and highly resistant to innovations introduced from the outside. They cast tools and weapons in bronze, but most of their tools were inferior to those of Mesopotamian peoples with whom they had contacts, and their weapons were even more primitive. They lacked swords, tipped their spears with bronze points so thin that they would crumble on contact, and used stone for their arrowheads. These shortcomings may have proven fatal to the survival of the Harappan civilization.
Harappan society was dominated by a powerful priestly class that ruled from the citadel of each of the capitals. Though there may have been specialized warriors, the priests appear to have been the main coordinators of fortress construction and preparation for defense. The location of granaries and artisan dwellings near the citadels indicates that the priests may have also overseen handicraft production and supervised both regional and long-distance trade.
The priests derived their impressive control over city and town dwellers from their role as the intermediaries between the Harappan populace and a number of gods and goddesses, whose provision of fertility was of paramount concern. Several of the gods are depicted on the undeciphered seals that are dominated by a naked male figure with a horned head and a fierce facial expression. On some of the seals he is pictured in a crossed-legged posture of meditation similar to that which was later known as the lotus position. Numerous figurines of females, also naked except for a great deal of jewelry, have been found. These "mother goddesses" appear to have been objects of worship for the common people, while the horned god was apparently favored by the priests and upper classes.
The obsession with fertility was also reflected in the veneration of sacred animals, especially bulls, and by the large quantity of phallic-shaped objects that have been found at Harappan sites. Along with a handful of superbly carved figurines of male notables, dancing girls, and animals, these cult objects represent the pinnacle of artistic expression for the rather unimaginative and practical-minded peoples of Harappa.
The control exhibited by the uniformity and rigid ordering of Harappan culture would not have been possible without an extensive administrative class serving the priests. It is probable that members of this class and possibly wealthy mercantile families lived in the large two- and three-story houses. Characteristically, size - not decoration - set their dwellings off from the artisans, laborers, and slaves that made up the rest of the urban population. Outside of the two great cities, the subjects of the priest-rulers were agriculturists, whose surplus production was essential to urban life and the maintenance of very vulnerable defenses against natural calamities and human aggressors.
It was once widely accepted that Harappan civilization was the victim of assaults by nomadic invaders eager to claim the rich Indus valley as pasturelands for their herds of cattle. A dramatic vision of a wave of "barbarian" invaders smashing town dwellers' skulls made for good storytelling but bad history. Archeological investigations carried out in recent decades demonstrate rather conclusively that Harappa declined gradually in the middle centuries of the 2d millennium B.C. The precise causes of that decline remain a matter of dispute. The later layers of building at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro as well as at other sites show a clear deterioration in the quality of construction and building materials. There also are a few smashed skulls, but these have been dated somewhat earlier than the period when the civilization disappears from history.
It is likely that a combination of factors led to Harappa's demise. There is evidence of severe flooding at Mohenjo-daro and other sites. Short-term natural disasters may have compounded the adverse effects of long-term climatic changes. Shifts in the monsoon pattern and changes in temperature may have begun the process of desertification that eventually transformed the region into the arid steppe that it has remained for most of recorded history.
Rapid changes in types of pottery suggest a series of sudden waves of migrants into the region. It is possible that the Harappans were too weak militarily to prevent these incoming peoples from settling in or taking over their towns and cities.
The marked decline in the quality of building and town planning indicates that the priestly elite was losing control. Some of the migrants probably were bands of Aryan herders who entered the Indus region over an extended period of time, rather than in militant waves. But the Aryan pastoralists may have consciously destroyed or neglected the dikes and canals on which the agrarian life of the Harappan peoples depended. Extensive cattle raising would then have replaced intensive crop cultivation, further undermining the economic basis of the civilization. That there was a good deal of violent conflict in this transition cannot be ruled out. Groups of skeletons in postures of flight have been found on the stairways at some sites. There is evidence of burned-out settlements and the flight of refugees through the passes into the Himalayas to the north. Thus, a combination of factors brought an end to India's first civilization. These factors also gave rise to an extended transition period, dominated increasingly by the nomadic Aryan invaders.
In their size, complexity, and longevity, the first civilizations to develop in South Asia and China match and in some respects surpass the earliest civilizations that arose in Mesopotamia and Egypt. But the long-term impact of the Harappan civilization of the Indus basin and the Shang-Zhou civilization in north China was strikingly different. The loess zone and north China plain where the Shang and Zhou empires took hold became the center of a continuous civilization that was to last into the 20th century A.D., and, many historians would argue, to the present day. Though regions farther south, such as the Yangtze basin, would in some time periods enjoy political, economic, and cultural predominance within China, the capital and center of Chinese civilization repeatedly returned to the Yellow River area and the north China plain. The Indus valley proved capable of nurturing a civilization that endured for over a thousand years. But when Harappa collapsed, the plains of the Indus were bypassed in favor of the far more lush and extensive lands in the basin of the Ganges River network to the east. Though the Indus would later serve, for much shorter time spans, as the seat of empires, the core
areas of successive Indian civilization were far to the east and south.
The contrast between the fate of the original geographical centers of Indian and Chinese civilizations is paralleled by the legacy of the civilizations themselves. Harappa was destroyed and it disappeared from history for thousands of years. Though the peoples who built the Indus complex left their mark on subsequent Indian culture, they did not pass on the fundamental patterns of civilized life that had evolved. Their mother goddess
and the dancing god of fertility endured, and some of their symbols, such as the swastika and lingam (usually stone, phallic images), were prominent in later artistic and religious traditions. Harappan tanks or public bathing ponds remain a central feature of Indian cities, particularly in the south. Their techniques of growing rice and cotton were preserved by cultivating peoples fleeing nomadic invaders, and were later taken up by the newly arrived
Virtually everything else was lost. In contrast to the civilizations of Mesopotamia, which fell but were replaced by new civilizations that preserved and built on the achievements of their predecessors, much of what the Harappan peoples had accomplished had to be redone by later civilized peoples. The cities of the Indus civilization were destroyed and comparable urban centers did not reappear in South Asia for hundreds or, by some scholars' reckoning, thousands of years. Their remarkably advanced standards for the measurement of distance and weight ceased to be used. Their system of writing was forgotten, and when rediscovered, it was celebrated as an intriguing but very dead language from the past. Harappan skills in community planning, sewage control, and engineering were meaningless to the nomadic peoples who took control of their homelands. The Harappan penchant for standardization, discipline, and state control was profoundly challenged by the brawling, independent-minded warriors who supplanted them as masters of the Indian subcontinent.
In contrast to the civilization of the Indus valley, the original civilization of China has survived nomadic incursions and natural catastrophes and profoundly influenced the course of all Chinese history. Shang irrigation and dike systems and millet and wheat cultivation provided the basis upon which subsequent dynasties innovated and expanded. Shang and Zhou walled towns and villages surrounded with stamped earth have persisted as the predominant patterns of settlement throughout Chinese history. The founders of the Shang and Zhou dynasty have been revered by scholar and peasant alike as philosopher-kings who ought to be emulated by leaders at all levels. The Shang and Zhou worship of Heaven and their ancestral veneration have remained central to Chinese religious belief and practice for thousands of years. The concept of the Mandate of Heaven has been pivotal in Chinese political thinking and organization.
Above all, the system of writing that developed in connection with Shang
oracles developed into the key means of communication between the elites of the many peoples who lived in the core regions of Chinese civilization. The scholar-bureaucrats who both developed this written language and profited the most from it soon emerged as the dominant force in Chinese culture and society. Chinese characters provided the basis for the educational system and bureaucracy that were to hold Chinese civilization together through thousands of years of invasions and political crises. In contrast to India, many of the key ingredients of China's early civilizations have remained central throughout Chinese history. This persistence has made for a continuity of identity that is unique to the Chinese people.
It has also meant that China, like the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, was one of the great sources of civilizing influences in human history as a whole. Though the area affected by ideas and institutions developed in China was less extensive than that to which the peoples of Mesopotamia bequeathed writing, law, and their other great achievements, contacts with the Chinese led to the spread of civilization to Japan, Korea,
and Vietnam. Writing and political organization were two areas in which the earliest formulations of Chinese civilization vitally affected other peoples. In later periods Chinese thought and other modes of cultural expression such as art, architecture, and etiquette also strongly influenced the growth of civilized life.
China's technological innovation was to have an impact on civilized development on a global scale comparable to that of early Mesopotamia. Beginning with the increasingly sophisticated irrigation systems, the Chinese have devised a remarkable share of humankind's basic machines and engineering principles. In the Shang-Zhou era they also pioneered key manufacturing processes such as sericulture - the manufacture of silk cloth through the domestication of silkworms.
The reasons for the differing legacies of India and China are numerous and complex. But critical to the disappearance of the first and the resilience of the second were different patterns of interaction between the sedentary peoples who built the early civilizations and the nomadic herders who challenged them. In the Indian case, the nomadic threat was remote, perhaps nonexistent for centuries. The Harappan peoples were deficient in military technology and organization. When combined with natural calamities, the waves of warlike nomads migrating into the Indus region proved too much for the Harappan peoples to resist or absorb. The gap between the nomads' herding culture and the urban, agriculture-based Harappan civilization was too great to be bridged. Conflict between them may well have proven fatal to a civilization long in decline.
The loess regions of northern China were open to invasions or migrations on the part of the nomadic herding peoples who lived to the north and west. Peoples from these areas were moving almost continuously into the core zones of Chinese civilization. The constant threat the nomads posed forced the peoples of the north China plain to develop the defenses and military technology essential to defending against nomadic raids or bids for lasting conquest. Contrasting cultures and ways of life enhanced the sense of identity
of the cultivating peoples. The obvious nomadic presence prodded these same peoples to unite under strong rulers against the outsiders who did not share Chinese culture. Constant interaction with the nomads led the Shang peoples to develop a culture that was malleable and receptive to outside influences, social structures, and political systems. Nomadic energies reinvigorated and enriched the kingdom of the Shang and Zhou, in contrast to India where they proved catastrophic for the relatively isolated and unprepared peoples of Harappa.
The spread of the Aryan pastoralists into the hills and plains of northern and eastern India between 1500 and 500 B.C. and the establishment and decline of the Zhou kingdom in the latter half of the same time span marked key transition phases in the development of civilization in India and China. But in each case a very different sort of transition occurred. Like Mesopotamia, the well-watered Indus valley had given rise to one of humankind's earliest civilizations. In contrast to the succession of more limited civilized centers that arose in Mesopotamia, Harappa extended over the largest territory of any of the first civilizations, and it existed without interruption for over a millennium. Its longevity invites comparison with Egypt. But Egypt proved more able than either Harappa or individual Mesopotamian civilizations to absorb massive invasions of nomadic peoples.
Faced with major climatic shifts, the Harappans proved unable to also withstand the steady and prolonged pressure of the Aryan incursions. Thus, the dominance of these invaders in the Harappan core regions and much of the rest of northern India by 1000 B.C. meant the end of India's first civilization.
The Zhou conquest and later the slow disintegration of the Zhou dynasty represented a continuation rather than a break in the development of civilization in China. Though civilization arose later in China than in the other three original centers in the Eastern Hemisphere, like the others it emerged independently and resulted in a distinctive pattern of development. In its capacity to endure, China resembled Egypt more than Mesopotamia or Harappa.
Perhaps as a result, the Chinese proved the most adept at absorbing and assimilating outside invaders while preserving their own sense of identity and their basic beliefs and institutions. The Chinese both originated and perpetuated these key ingredients for thousands of years. The conquering Zhou did not destroy Chinese society and culture; they were assimilated by them so thoroughly that they became Chinese. Thus, though the Zhou period brought major changes in the nature and direction of civilized development in China, fundamental themes and patterns persisted from the Shang era, and the Zhou rulers strove to conserve and build upon the achievements of their predecessors.