Volume - 7 : Issue - 3

Published : Jul. - Sep. 2008

Group : History





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By Devendra Kodwani


Sindhis trace their roots to Indus Valley civilisation, one of the oldest civilisations in the world. A lot has been written both in Sindhi and in other languages about life and times of people who lived during that period1. This article aims to narrate briefly some theories that have tried to explain how and why this great civilisation declined about 4000 years ago. Objective is to inform the readers that there is a much wider range of opinions on the rise and fall of Indus civilisation than what we frequently hear in seminars and conferences organised by Sindhi cultural organisations. It should be a matter of satisfaction for the Sindhis that high quality academic research has been conducted on Indus valley in some of the most reputed universities around the world. Although there is no definitive answer to the question being addressed here, there has been a lot of progress in the inquiry aimed to explain transformation of Harappan civilisation.

Almost 4000 years have lapsed between now and when Harappan civilisation flourished, this means that researchers have had to rely mostly on the archaeological evidence and its interpretation to explain how and what, happened. Archaeologists have suggested that around the beginning of second millennium B.C. areas of Mohen Jo Daro and Harappa were abandoned. There was rapid decline in the size and 'complexity' of society. The big question that scholars have tried to explain is, what was responsible for such rapid decline, or, as some have called it, 'collapse' of Indus valley civilisation. Possehl (1997) offers a detailed discussion on various such theories. He divides the different arguments in two categories. A set of what he calls 'old paradigms' and another one called 'new paradigms. Older views include claims by Sir John Marshall, Sir Mortimer Wheeler and others. New theories include claims by Possehl2 (1992), Joshi3 (1984) and Ratnagar4 (1991) and others. In this article I don't want to reproduce the academic work which is already there for those interested in the respective journals and books listed at the end of the article. A short summary of the old and new arguments is provided here. But before we go further it is pertinent to get the geographical perspective of the area over which the Harappan civilisation spread (see Fig 1).­­­­­­

Figure 1 : Principal sites of Mature Harappan Civilisation,  Source : Possehl, 1997, p. 426

As can be seen from Figure 1, there are large number of archaeological sites that have been found and have been shown to represent Harappan era settlements. Mohen Jo Daro and Harapa are two of the main urban settlements that are popular but there were many settlements other than these two also. Geographically they range from north west Pakistan to northeastern areas in India. In south they extended well into Saurashtra-Kutch and even some areas further south near Narmada river in Gujarat. These areas were not evenly developed. Now let's see what are the theories that have tried to explain rapid decline of Harapan civilisation.

Twisting and turning Sindhu: was that the cause of eclipse?

B.M. Advani (1944, 2008) in his book “Qadeem Sindh' provides two possible explanations about the collapse of Mohen Jo Daro which was a well developed urban city around the beginning of second millennium B.C. The first explanation suggests that the city was destroyed by floods and fires. Advani argues that the change of the course of Indus river resulted in flooding, and referring to some evidence of fires found in the ruins during excavations it is argued that fires also might have been responsible for destruction of the city. The other explanation provided by Advani (2008, p.65) refers to a traditional (folk) tale about a king Dilorai during the times of Sumras. The story goes that Dilorai was corrupt and notorious for abusing young women. His abuse saw no limits and invited the curse of his sister and niece when he tried to capture his sister's daughter. The story goes that the ladies' prayers were heard and resulted in storms, earthquakes and lightning, destroying the cities ruled by Dilorai. However, without spending too much time on this story which does not seem very plausible, let's move to the old paradigms that Possehl refers to.

According to Possehl (1997) Sir John Marshall said 'almost nothing about the destruction of Mohen Jo Daro' (p.439). Ernest Mackay who worked with Marshall believed that flooding of Indus river caused the destruction ( a view echoed by Advani later as mentioned above). The frequent changes in the course of Indus river in earlier periods are known.

However, do the sudden twists and turns of Indus explain changes that were taking place in other areas away from Mohen Jo Daro area also? Possehl argues that there are some other theories than flooding that may explain the transformations that were taking place throughout Harappan civilisation cities. Table 1 one shows the growth of civilisation rising from less populated fewer settlements from 5000-7000 B.C to large number of settlements for which sites have been found and classified as Mature Harappan Civilisation around 2500-1900 B.C. Settled area increasing from just 52 ha to 7358 ha. The number of sites that have been found have increased from 20 for 5000-7000 B.C period to 1022 for period 2500-1900 B.C. period. This indicates the increasing density and complexity of social and demographic patterns as the ancient civilisation matured reaching its peak by 2500 B.C

Table 1 : Changes in the settlement patterns during different periods, Source : Possehl (1997), p. 429

Was it Aryan Invasion?

As is seen from Table 1 and is also a well known fact, Mature Harappan civilisation witnessed rapid decline after 2500 B.C. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who was the Director General of Archaeological department after Sir John Marshall proposed an alternative theory to explain the 'eclipse' of Harppan civilisation. Wheeler5 (1947) argued that wars between the 'aborigins' living in Harappan areas and the Aryans described in Rig Veda were the reason for collapse of the Harappan civilisation. However, Possehl and others have critiqued this theory on more than one ground. First Sir Wheeler seems to imply that Rig Veda is a historical document. However, this claim is disputed till today whether it was put together in the form we know today by 2000 B.C. There is also dispute about the claim that the skeletons found in the Mohan Jo Daro represent the massacre and mass burial following the wars with Aryans. Quoting Dales6 (1964) and other studies, Possehl argues that 'skeletons found in the upper layers of Mohen Jo Daro are actually hasty internments, not the remains of victims of a massacre.' Possehl (1997, p.441).  Thus the recent research scholars along with Possehl don't support the Aryan invasion theory as explanation for destruction of Mohen Jo Daro.

If not flood was it drought caused by damming of Sindhu?

Another theory that has been proposed about abandonment or depopulation of Mohen Jo Daro is that river Indus was 'impounded' by formation of a natural dam near Sehwan which caused so much trouble for people of Mohen Jo Daro that they abandoned it. However, this theory by Raikes and Dales7 has been questioned. Other scholars who have studied the sediments of Indus flood argued that sediments which would have constituted the dams are not so strong as to withstand the pressure of impounded mighty Indus. There is an interesting incident in recent history that seems to support the objections to dam theory. It is a known fact that earthquake of 1819 A.D. did cause a formation of a natural ridge in northern Kutch. It was called 'Allah Bund' which blocked some of the branches of Indus river system. But 'Allah Bund' did not withstand the force of the first floods against it, thereby providing support to the argument that naturally formed dams would not have stopped river Indus' flow of water to Mohen Jo Daro so severely as to cause its depopulation.

Was it climate change?

In second millennium A.D potential impact of climate change on almost every walk of our life is viewed so seriously that the research group headed by an Indian, Dr. R K Pachauri, analysing the consequences and implications of changing climate got Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007. But could climate change explain the demise of Indus civilisation in second millennium B.C? Professor Gurdip Singh8 proposed climate change theory in 1971. Professor Singh, noting the scientific evidence about aridity and increasing salinity in the lakes of Rajasthan around the second millennium B.C argued that this climate change was responsible for eclipse of Indus civilisation. However, Possehl argues that changing salinity need not be because of fall in rainfall as is evidenced by some other lakes in Rajasthan such as Pushkar which have remained freshwater although they are in same region where other lakes studied by Prof. Singh turned saline. Another argument is that during the same period when Mohen Jo Daro was being depopulated other settlements were thriving (see more on this below). So climate change effect can not be so localised as to affect Mohen Jo Daro and not to affect other nearby areas. Thus climate change theory also does not explain the eclipse of Indus civilisation.

So what caused 'transformation' of Indus civilisation?

Before considering the answer provided by recent research scholars let's consider the issue about the extent of decline. Some scholars have argued that Harappan civilisation 'collapsed'. But as the Table 1 above showed that although there was rapid decline from 2500 B.C. to 1900 B.C. it was not sudden disappearance over few years. It took years and there was lot of shifting of people and cultures across the length and breadth over large area as said earlier. Therefore, it does not seem appropriate to call it 'collapse' of a civilisation. But it seems to have been rapid socio economic transformation and movement of population. This is explained by the recent research work and theorising by Possehl and other scholars such as Bridget and Raymond Allchin9. These scholars argue that there are multiple factors responsible for abandonment of Mohen Jo Daro, Harappa and other urban settlements. They include economic factors and climate change. Allchins argues that people of Indus valley had trade links with Mesopotamia and when those trade links weakened for whatever reason it had effect on the economic life of Indus valley. In today's globalised world even a common man understands that if US economy suffers it affects jobs in India and China. So economic argument seems good but Possehl argues that there is little evidence on the extent and depth of economic relations between Mesopotamia and Indus valley region in 2000 B.C. This reasoning questions the criticality of declining trade as an explanatory factor. Low rainfall could not explain either, because even today that region receives very little rainfall but still supports agriculture. But Allchins' approach of looking at wider regional circumstances such as developments at the same time in Mesopotamia etc. is appreciated by Possehl as it opens up new ways of thinking about socio economic transformation in a society.

Figure 3 : Adapted from Possehl (1997)

Possehl argues that due to changing circumstances the people abandoned some areas to settle elsewhere. While he concedes that Indus way of life is not found in the post-Harappan sites in Sindh, at the same time when it was declining in the Sindh region, that way of life thrived in Gujarat. This he reports on the basis of findings at Lothal, Dholavira, Rojdi and other places where the urban designs, symbols indicating way of life in these settlement have been found and are similar to Harappan urban cities found in Sindh area. Rojdi, according to Possehl is a very interesting settlement is it thrived through the period of 2500 to 1700 B.C and thereby excavations there have provided clues to the changes taking place in the Harappan civilisation.

As Figure 3 shows, when the settlement and density of population is captured over a period of 1600 years representing rise and decline of Harappan civilisation from 3200 B.C to 1400 B.C. it is seen how the communities have moved from north west (now Pakistan) in early Harappan period to north east (now India-Pakistan) in mature Harappan period and south in Gujarat in post Harappan period. It is noticeable that transformation from 2500-1900 B.C to 1900-1400 B.C. period leaves very few settlements in west north. But during the same period there is little change in south in Gujrat suggesting populations were migrating east ward and south during the transformation period resulting in substantial depopulation of Harappan cities in Sindh and Baluchistan areas. Possehl argues that these changes could be result of complex factors including changing agricultural practices, trade links.


In conclusion of his book Possehl10 (2002) conjectures that Indus valley civilisation was too good to last long. His argument rests on socio-cultural dimensions of the growth and survival of civilisations. Possehl (2002) concludes that ,” the fatal flaw was centrally, and most importantly, socio-cutlural in nature, not flood, avulsion, drought, trade, disease, locusts, invasion or another of myriad of 'natural' or 'outside' forces. A failed Indus ideology is here proposed to be the social cultural flaw.” (p. 244).

Possehl does not deny that Indus people were successful. They were but for only short period, peaking for about six hundred years during Matured Harappan period, compared to other great civilisations such as ancient dynastic civilisations of Egypt and China. The successful Indus ideology, as characterised by Sir John Marshall and Wheeler represented, 'a well integrated, harmonic socio-cultural system,' Possehl (2002, p.244).  This ideology helped create a great urban civilisation over vast area. Possehl agrees that, “the Indus people built and maintained great urban centres, conducted maritime trade with the gulf and Mespotamia, and probably reached Africa. They were economically prosperous for their time. They enjoyed art of writing, were successful technological innovators on a huge scale,.. These tell us of a well oiled socio cultural system that had created great social harmony in human relations and with environment.” Possehl (2002, p.244).

Possehl's view seems to be drawn from the theory that civilisations that survive for long are characterised by culture of constantly adapting to the world as it throws up new natural and social challenges. Indus valley people developed stable, integrated systems in society that helped them live in harmony, peace and in an efficient way. However, same stability, can lead to 'rigidity and brittleness' making the social structure vulnerable to eventualities and uncertainties of nature and human behaviour. How far Possehl's assessment about socio-cultural reasons is true is left for other experts in socio-cultural history of Indus valley civilisation to question or comment. Perrhaps the most important clues about culture could have been obtained from the literature and writings from that era. But unfortunately no agreeable interpretation of Harappan writings has yet been achieved.

1 - In Sindhi a pioneering work is “Qadeem Sindh” by Mr. Bherumal Meherchand Advani first published in 1944 but recently reprinted by National Council for Promotion of Sindhi Language, New Delhi in June 2008. In English works by Sir John Marshall, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Stuart Piggot and others are some of the prominent earlier views. The research on Indus Valley civilisation continues till today. The archaeologists, linguists, anthropologists and other scholars from around the world are engaged in this research at various sites in India at Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan and in Pakistan at various sites in Sindh and Northwest areas.

2 -  Possehl, G.L (1992) . The Harappan cultural mosaic: Ecology revisited. In Jarrige, C. (ed.), South Asian Archaeology 1989, Monographs in World Archaeology, Vol. 14, Prehisotry Press, Madison, WI, pp. 237-244.

3 -  Joshi, J. P. (1984). Harappa Culture: Emergence of a new picture. Puratattva 13-14: 51-54.

4 - Ratnagar, S. (1991). Enquiries into the Political Organization of Harappan Society, Ravish Publishers, Pune.

5 - Wheeler, R. E. M. (1947). Sociological aspects of the Harappa Civilization. Ancient India, 3: 74-78.

6 - Dales, G. F. (1964). The mythical massacre at Mohenjo-daro. Expedition 6(3): 36--43.

7 - Possehl (1997) lists several references of Raikes and Dales works in his paper. The objections to this theory are quoted from Wasson, Agrawal and other scholars. Again these are also listed in Possehl (1997).

8 - Singh, G. (1971). The Indus Valley Culture seen in the context of Post-glacial climatic and
ecological studies in northwest India. Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 6(2): 177-189.

9 - Bridget and Raymond Allchin (1997) Origins of a Civilzation , Viking Books, New Delhi.

10 - Gregory L Possehl (2002) The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective, Altamira Press, New York.

Acknowledgement: Inspired by the 1997 paper in Journal of World Prehistory by Gregory Possehl, I made couple of presentations based on the article about Transformation of Indus Civilisation at Indian Institute of Sindhology in Ahmedabad and at Adipur Kutch. These presentations and this article are primarily based on the work of professor Gregory Possehl who is a professor of anthropology at University of Pennsylvania and curator of the Asian Collections at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Professor Possehl has been leading his research on Indus civilisation particularly in Gujarat at Rojdi and other sites.


Devendra Kodwani - Lecturer In Finance, The Open University Business School, UK.

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