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Harappa Culture of the Indus Valley


The Harappa civilization flourished in the Indus Valley
during India's Bronze Age of the third millennium b.c. This
thriving culture was all but completely descimated in 2500
b.c. by invading Aryan groups from the west. The
archaeological evidence that has been produced by the
famous sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro suggest that the
people of the Harappa Culture may have in fact, contributed
more substantially to modern Hindu culture than was
previously believed. The Harappa Culture of the Indus
valley saw it's peak during the Bronze Age of India. It
stretched from it's northern capital, Harappa, in the
Punjab, to the southern city, Mohenjo-daro, on the Indus in
Sind (Piggott, 134). These two sites together comprise the
most well known and best excavated representatives of
Bronze Age Harappan culture. However, it should be noted
that in addition to these two famous sites, there are
fourteen smaller villages in Harappa's "Northern Kingdom",
and seventeen smaller sites in Mohenjo-daro's "Southern
Kingdom";together, these sites comprise the remains of the
once extensive Harappan culture (Piggott, 136). Both main
sites have certain striking features in common; in
particular, both are, or were, located on the banks of
major rivers -- Harappa on the Ravi, and Mohenjo-daro on
the Indus. Additionally, the plan and lay-out of the two
cities is quite similar, consisting of: "an irregular
series of mounds toward the east and a recognizably higher
and more compact mound placed more or less centrally and on
the edge of the site[s] to the west," (Piggott,159). These
mounds are now recognized as the remnants of fortified
citadels in which stood "certain buildings of peculiar plan
defended by a battered wall of baked bricks... with towers
and great gateways," (Piggott,159). Unfortunately the
majority of the evidence at Harappa has been destroyed by
"brick-robbers" and has been rendered largely incoherent.
Luckily, Mohenjo-daro has been better preserved and we can
turn to it as a model in interpreting Harappa. At
Mohenjo-daro, one of the most striking features is the
presence of a remarkable complex of buildings centering on
a great bath, "built of very fine brickwork," nearly 40 by
24 feet across, and eight feet deep. Around this central
bath was a cloister, and small "changing-rooms" on three
sides (Piggott, 163). If one considers the "tank" ancillary
to every Hindu temple of the middle-ages, the Great Bath
can easily be seen as a sacred site. Also present at
Mohenjo-daro were two other outstanding architectural
features: the Collegiate Building and the Pillared Hall.
The Collegiate Building was a large building measuring 230
by 78 feet,with an arrangement of rooms suggesting a
"college" of some sort, and a cloistered court resembling
that which surrounded the Great Bath. The Pillared Hall was
located to the south of these buildings, and although much
altered since it's original erection, it apparently once
consisted of a "nearly square hall about 80 feet each way,
with a roof supported on twenty rectangular brickwork
pillars," (Piggott,164). These buildings have led
archaeologists to conclude that Mohenjo-daro was once "a
centre of religious or administrative life on a significant
scale," (Piggott,164). The buildings of Mohenjo-daro
followed normal "oriental custom" of the time, with the
outside walls of the houses being as featureless as
possible, save the presence of doorways (Malik, 83). Most
of the buildings were either shops, houses, or a
combination of both. The houses seem to have been built
around a central courtyard, and on two or three sides were
grouped rooms of varying sizes -- including bathrooms
(Piggott, 168). The bath probably would have been taken by
pouring water over the body from a large jar, as it is
still done in many parts of India. In addition to the
presence of bathrooms, beneath the city was an elaborate
drainage system to which access was gained through brick
man-hole covers (Piggott, 168). This entire system shows a
concern for sanitation unparalleled in the Bronze Age, or
even modern Asia. The water supply for both cities was
obtained from brick-lined wells, some of which served
private homes, but others were meant for public use,
serving the purpose of the water stall, or piau, of modern
India (Piggott,177). Around these wells numerous fragments
of little, mass-produced, clay cups have been found
(Malik,97). This evidence suggests that, as in modern
Hinduism, there may have been a taboo against drinking from
the same cup twice. Toward the north of the Mohenjo-daro
site, behind the area known as the "workers quarters", a
collection of grain mortars were found. These "orderly rows
of circular working floors carefully built of baked brick,
.... , and originally containing at the center a massive
wooden mortar sunk in the ground, in which grain could be
pounded to flour with long heavy pestles ... [are] still
employed in Bengal and Kashmir," (Piggott, 179).
 Within the walls of the two cities, evidence of commerce
has been found in the form of small, cuboid weights made of
chert (Piggott, 181). The weights run in a unit ratio of
sixteen; "this use of the multiple of sixteen is
interesting and curious, as the number had a traditional
importance in early Indian numerology ... [and] in the
modern coinage of sixteen annas to one rupee,"
(Piggott,181). Along with commerce came the need for a
writing system. Essentially, the Harappa script was a
pictographic one, "recalling the formality of Egyptian
hieroglyphics," (Piggott,179). Like Hebrew, the language
was probably read from right to left, and when a second
line of characters was present, the boustrophedon practice
was likely to have been followed (Piggott,180). While the
idea of writing may have come from the Mesopotamians, the
Harappa style of script is unique in most respects.
However, the spoken language of the Harappan Culture will
likely remain a mystery. The presence of a "Dravidian type
of language in Baluchistan ... has given rise to the
supposition that the Harappa language also belonged to this
group," (Piggott,181). The majority of the examples of
script have survived on the stamp-seals engraved with
various representations of animals, gods, and humans
(Piggott, 178). This type of seal (like a signet ring) was
very common all over bronze age West Asia; with examples
being found in Syria as early as Halaf times, and similar
seals appearing in the "Tal-i-Bakun A phase in Southern
Persia (Piggott, 184). The Sumerian cylinder-seal is,
however, practically absent from the Harappa sites. The
fact that Haraappa is characterized by stamp-seals and not
cylinder-seals "should indicate that its eventual
antecedents are likely to have been from
Persia"(Piggott,185). For the most part, the pottery of the
Harappa culture was plain, having been mass-produced for
utilitarian reasons (Piggott, 1191). The most common type
of decorated pottery was a black-on-red ware, suggesting
ties with North Baluchistan (Piggott, 192). The surface of
this pottery type was almost always dull (with the
exception of two pieces), with the lines of the design
being flush with the surface of the piece (Malik, 13). A
less common polychromatic ware, which employed the use of
green, red, black, and occasionally yellow pigments was
less commonly found at the sites (Sankalia,1978; 13). It
should be noted that this type of polychromatic ware is
rarely seen in other Asian sites of the time (Piggott,195).
Typical designs consisted of either geometric or
naturalistic patterns (Sankalia 1975, 132). Among the most
common motifs were interlocking circles, scales, and combs;
naturalistic motifs included indigenous animals (peacocks,
antelope, and zebras were common) and plants, with
occasional human depictions as well (Malik,13-15). "As
compared to Baluchistan, the designs of the [Harappa] ware
are characterized by a certain boldness and careless
freedom of patterning," (Malik,12). These uniquely Harappan
designs were probably painted with donkey hair brushes
similar to those still used in Sind today (Malik,14). 
Among the artifacts produced by the Harappa metal-smiths
were simple flat-type axes, as well as shaft-hole axes,
indicating that some of their culture may have been
inherited from early Iranian tradition (Piggott,200).
Additionally, chisels, knives, razors, spears (lacking the
strengthening mid-rib), and fish hooks have been found at
both sites. The lack of armour at the Harappa sites points
to a lack of contact with the warlike Sumerian culture. And
aside from purely utilitarian copper objects, a wide range
of bronze and silver bowls, cups, vases, and various other
vessels have been found at both sites
(Piggott,200). Archaeologically, of all the Harappa sites,
Mohenjo-daro has produced some of the most convincing
sculpture. In these pieces the use of inlay and was quite
common, the "Bearded Man" being an excellent example of
this technique: "...the trefoils on the robe and the disk
on the bared right arm; probably the eyes and perhaps the
ears may also have held inlays, while the sockets for a
metal ... collar can be seen ... behind the ears,"
(Piggott,186). This type of inlay was "frequent in
prehistoric Western Asia,but ... not characteristic of
early historic Indian culture," (Piggott,186). An abundance
of small, female clay figurines suspected to have been
"godlings in household shrines," (Piggott,187) were
uncovered at the Harappa sites. Interestingly, Harappa
civilization was completely devoid of all forms of public
art -- from temples to monuments -- and one gets the
impression of cities with threatening blank walls enclosing
secret religious practices and great hordes of wealth. The
Harappa Culture was likely to have been administered by
priest-kings (Piggott, 201), a practice which was not
uncommon in Western Asia of this period. Among the
religious objects left at the sites, the afore mentioned
clay figurines, and a seal bearing a representation of a
woman with a plant emerging from her womb, suggest the
worship of a Mother-Goddess (Piggott, 201-2). These
goddesses are commonly worshipped even today in Hindu
practices in the rural areas of India. Depictions of a man
with three faces, sitting in a yogi's position and
surrounded by four beasts has been interpreted as being a
predecessor of the god Shiva (Piggott, 202). References to
the sacred fig tree, or pipal, still considered holy in
modern Hindu practice, are seen as common motifs in Harappa
pottery (Piggott, 202). These links between Harappa and
modern Hinduism explain many of the features that cannot be
attributed to the Aryan traditions brought to India with
the fall of the Harappa civilization. "The old faiths die
hard: it is even possible that early historic Hindu society
owed more to Harappa than it did to the Sanskrit-speaking
invaders," (Piggott,208). Looking at the burial practices
of the people of the Harappa Culture, links to modern Hindu
practices have been noted here as well. For example, the
dead were often placed in "post-cremation urns". These urns
contained the remains of completely cremated individuals,
and according to modern Hindu practice, they were supposed
to have been thrown into a river for proper disposal
(Piggott,204). The consistency of grave goods across the
various settlements suggests a relative homogeneity of
culture. Most burials were extended, with the head pointing
north. A typical grave was large enough to hold large
quantities of pottery vessels -- sometimes up to forty
pieces (Piggott, 205). Personal items typically included in
the graves were: copper rings (usually found on the third
finger of the right hand), necklaces and anklets, bangles,
bead strings, and rods for applying eye make-up (Piggott,
205). One burial in particular does stand-out however. In
1946,the body of a young girl was found wrapped in a shroud
of reeds, and buried in a wooden box. This type of burial
was commonly found in Sumerian sites dating between 2800
and 2000 bc (contemporary with Harappa), and has been taken
to imply a link between the cultures (Piggott, 208).
However, aside from this possible Sumerian link, parallels
with other contemporary cultures of the time have been
difficult to find in the burial practices of the Harappans.
Forensic archaeological evidence indicates that the people
who created this culture were of mixed racial backgrounds.
Skulls characteristic of the "Mediterranean type" -- long
from chin to forehead -- have been the predominant skeletal
type found at the Harappa sites. This type of skull is
commonly related to expansion from the west, and is
"associated with the earliest agricultural settlements: at
Sialk, ... ,[and] Alishar," (Piggott,146). The other main
type of skull to be found belongs to people of the
Proto-Australiod group (Piggott, 146). These people, having
curly hair, darker skin, and flatter facial features,
resemble the Aborigines of Australia and New Zealand, and
have long been considered to have been the original
inhabitants of India as well. In Harappa society, these
people were probably the main constituents of the lower
working classes, just as in today's Hindu society, the
lower castes are primarily composed of people belonging to
this racial group (Pigggott, 147). Their location on rivers
made the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro quite
accessible to trade with foreign cultures as we have seen
from the evidence just presented. Evidence of trade with
Sumer dates from 2300 to 2000 bc or later.While evidence of
Harappa goods has been found in Sumerian sites, no such
reciprocal evidence has been found at the Harappa sites,
suggesting that the bulk of the Sumerian contribution
probably consisted of consumable goods (Piggott, 208-9).
Harappa contact with the Hissar III Culture of North Persia
has been archaeologically established through the presence
of the previously mentioned, mid-rib lacking spear heads.
Additionally, evidence of intermittent contact with the
people of the Caucasus and Turkestan has been established
through the presence of characteristic bronze pins at
Mohrnjo-daro and Harappa (Piggott, 210). In conclusion,
then, while Harappa Culture may bear the marks of some of
its contemporaries, as well as its Aryan conquerors, it was
clearly in no way a second-hand culture. It was, in most
ways, a truly unique and distinctly Indian culture. Much of
the evidence contained in the archaeological remains
reveals the foundation of what may have become modern
Hinduism. From the obsession with cleanliness, as
exemplified by the baths and drainage systems, to the
identification of seals bearing the likeness of Shiva, we
see the significant contributions made by Harappa Culture
to the formation of Indian culture and Hindu practice of



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