In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indus Civilization

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Visual Overviews
  • History of Discovery
  • Town Planning, Civil Engineering, and Architecture
  • Trade and Cultural Relations, Foreign and Inter-Indian
  • Population and Social Structure
  • Indus Script
  • The “Aryan Problem”
  • Bibliographies
  • Article Collections
  • Serial Publications and Journals
  • Websites

Hinduism Indus Civilization
Asko Parpola
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0249


The Harappan or Indus civilization was the world’s most extensive urban culture when it flourished in Pakistan and western India from 2600 to 1900 BCE. Yet its very existence was unknown until its discovery was announced in 1924. The great sensation enabled large-scale excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. They did not reveal impressive palaces and temples with monumental statues and inscriptions characteristic of the older Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. A different kind of urban culture came into view, one that was more egalitarian and rather invested in civic amenities such as wells and drains. Warfare is less in evidence. The economy was based on agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade. Among the crafts, the bead industry developed effective micro-drilling and produced jewelry much coveted in foreign markets. Cuneiform documents tell about Mesopotamia’s sea trade with the foreign countries Dilmun (Failaka and Bahrain), Magan (Oman), and Meluhha (Indus), and provide the few historical data available. There is also clear archaeological evidence for Harappan presence in Mesopotamia, the Gulf, and the Oman Peninsula. The Harappans were also in contact with Central Asia, including its “Oxus civilization.” Besides standardized weights and measures as instruments of administration, the Indus civilization created its own unique script, preserved in thousands of very short texts. Hard obstacles to decipherment include the absence of bilinguals that usually have provided the key to unknown ancient scripts. This “unsolved mystery” remains one of the main fascinations of the Indus civilization. Due to the lack of such abundant textual sources as are available in Mesopotamia and Egypt, there is no exact information about history, society, language, and religion. The few small-scale sculptures, numerous terracotta figurines, and the iconography of Indus seals and tablets are the principal sources for the study of the Indus religion. A century of archaeological research has clarified the development of the Indus civilization: from the Neolithic (7000–5500 BCE) through the Early Harappan (5500–2600 BCE) and Transition (2600–2500 BCE) phases to the Harappan (2500–1900 BCE) and Late Harappan (1900–1300 BCE) phases. The decline of the Indus civilization had multiple causes, among them climate change and the arrival of immigrants from Central Asia. This involves the controversial “Aryan problem.” According to the now widely accepted view, the Indo-Aryan language of the Vedas is derived from Proto-Indo-European spoken in southeastern Europe, coming via the intervening steppes to India in the second millennium BCE. Against this is the nationalistic and in India politically supported view that Indo-Aryan is of native South Asian origin and that it was the language of the Indus civilization.


Possehl 2002 is an excellent summation, based on the author’s lifelong work on the archaeology of the Indus civilization and several extensive publications (see Article Collections; History of Discovery; Chronology; Early Harappan; Excavation Reports of Harappan Sites; Geography, Resources, Environment, and Climate; Religion; Indus Script; Decline of the Indus Civilization and Late/Post-Urban Harappan; Late/Post-Urban Harappan Sites; Bibliographies). McIntosh 2008 is a clear, comprehensive, and easily read account of the Indus civilization by a non-Indus archaeologist. Robinson 2015 offers a concise introduction to the tantalizing civilization by a very experienced science writer. Ratnagar 2006 aims at presenting clearly the salient aspects of the Indus civilization without technicalities. Wright 2010 is a comprehensive and more detailed overview by an Indus archaeologist, focusing on complexities of an agro-pastoral and craft-producing economy. Lal 1997 is the summation of India’s most senior archaeologist, who led the excavations of Kalibangan. Wheeler 1968 is a dated but still valuable summary of the Indus knowledge fifty years ago. Allchin and Allchin 1982, Singh 2008, and Coningham and Young 2015 describe the Indus civilization in the context of South Asian prehistory at large. It is advisable to consult these overviews on any aspect of the Indus civilization besides the specialized studies listed further on; on some topics, for instance religion, the individual authors may offer divergent views, which are worth knowing.

  • Allchin, Bridget, and Raymond Allchin. The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    xiv, 379 pp., ill., index. Indus civilization, its antecedents, legacy, and aftermath on pp. 97–297.

  • Coningham, Robin, and Ruth Young. The Archaeology of South Asia: From the Indus to Asoka, c. 6500 BCE–200 CE. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139020633

    xxi, 533 pp., ill., maps, bibl., index. Pages 103–278 deal with the Indus civilization, its predecessors, and its aftermath.

  • Lal, B. B. The Earliest Civilization of South Asia (Rise, Maturity and Decline). New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1997.

    xxi, 308 pp., 56 pl., 75 maps and figs., index. Focus on antecedents, main sites, and economy with arts and crafts.

  • McIntosh, Jane R. The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives. Understanding Ancient Civilizations. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2008.

    xv, 441 pp., ill., 5 maps, bibl., index. A very readable, clear and comprehensive description of the Indus civilization. After taking her PhD in 1982 with a thesis on South Indian megaliths, McIntosh has professionally written many archaeological books for the general public—on archaeological practice, on the Indus civilization, on ancient Mesopotamia, and on ancient Europe. Indus archaeologists are critical of the book for inaccuracies of the kind pointed out by J. M. Kenoyer in his review of McIntosh’s earlier book on the Indus civilization, A Peaceful Realm (2002), in Asian Perspectives 42.3 (2003): 376–380.

  • Possehl, Gregory L. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002.

    xi, 276 pp., ill., maps, index. Readily accessible, well-informed book with good illustrations and maps.

  • Ratnagar, Shereen. Understanding Harappa Civilization in the Greater Indus Valley. 2d ed. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2006.

    x, 165 pp., ill., maps. Short introduction avoiding technicalities and concentrating on main issues.

  • Robinson, Andrew. The Indus. Lost Civilizations. London: Reaktion Books, 2015.

    208 pp., 78 ill. Includes a critical assessment of recent hypotheses concerning Indus religion and script. The author has published many books on the early scripts and their decipherment.

  • Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th century. Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2008.

    xxvii, 677 pp., more than 350 photos, maps and sketches, bibl., index. A highly readable and well informed university textbook. Indus civilization on pp. 132–181.

  • Wheeler, Mortimer. The Indus Civilization. Supplementary volume to the Cambridge History of India. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

    xi, 144 pp., 34 pl., index. Concise presentation of data, partly still relevant after half a century, partly quite outdated.

  • Wright, Rita P. The Ancient Indus: Urbanism, Economy, and Society. Case studies in early societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    xix, 396 pp., ill. A fairly recent account of the Indus civilization by an experienced Indus archaeologist. The author gives most attention to her own field of study—the village sites of the Beas River valley and their relation with the city of Harappa, including the socioeconomic questions.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.