Indus Valley

© Bob Denton, 2016
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Indus Valley civilization
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some 4,000 kms (2,500 miles), almost directly east of Mesopotamia, across Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan another Neolithic civilization evolved in South Asia located along the Indus Valley, a perennially running river. The area controlled by this civilization was huge, some 650,000 square kilometres, around twice that controlled by the Mesopotamians and Egyptians.


One of the earliest settlements, dating to 7,000 BCE, was Mehgarh in today’s Pakistan. This civilization evolved by herding and cereal agriculture, and by 5,500 BCE had developed distinctive pottery products and ornaments. They pursued schemes of extensive irrigation from 4,500 BCE.

Discovered among the settlement of Mehrgarh there are items that some suggest as the components of a water clock or clepsydra. Documentary evidence talks of such devices being used to measure the Nádiká, meaning ‘rivulet’ which was a time period of roughly twenty-four minutes.

BRIEFER: The twinkling of a human eye was called a Mátrá, fifteen Mátrás made a Káshthá, thirty Káshthás made one Kalá and fifteen Kalás equalled a Nádiká – so a Nádiká was the equivalent of 6,750 eye-winks. Two Nádiká sum to one Muhúrtta, thirty Muhúrtta equate to one day and one night, making a Nádiká twenty-four minutes and a Mátrá was a fifth of a second. This multiplicity of units and roots sounds like my youth when we had inches, feet, yards, rods, perches, chains, furlongs, miles – just to mention lengths.

The community wealth was enhanced by being located on the ancient trading routes. The region proved innovative with evidence discovered of animal-drawn ploughing from as early as 2,500 BCE. They were also engaged in the early growing and weaving of cotton.

Mehgarh, Pakistan

BRIEFER: The waters of the Indus are significant to today’s India and Pakistan. The countries have a number of flashpoints like Kashmir, but perhaps the root of their antagonism with each other is that the Indus is used by both ‘rival’ nations for irrigation and hydroelectric power, both fear the other will annexe too much for itself.

Settlements throughout the Indus and Kalash valleys had followed much the same process as Mesopotamia with smaller communities coalescing into cities. There is evidence that the two civilizations (Mesopotamian and Indus Valley) inter-traded.

The Kalash people are termed as ASPM, because of an Abnormal Spindle-like, Microcephaly-associated protein present in the first chromosome of their DNA. This ASPM appeared around 6,000 years ago just as agriculture, the creation of cities and the development of written languages was developing momentum. Naturally academics looked to see if this protein somehow increased their propensity for these developments, or their IQ, but it was not able to be demonstrated convincingly.

The people harnessed their fast-flowing rivers and developed cereal grinding mills. Parts of their irrigation system was developed using an underground systems of channels and is still in use today.

The Indus Valley Civilization grew out of these early developments. It commenced in the Bronze Age around 3,300 BCE and lasted for two millennia, spreading across today’s Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. It used irrigation so that agriculture flourished both in the Indus and Sarasvati valleys (though the latter river later dried up). At its zenith this civilization was able to support over five million people.


Harrapa civilization

The Indus Valley is sometimes termed as the Harrapa Civilization, named for one of its largest cities. Harrapa city is in today’s Punjab region, Pakistan and was active between 2,600 and 1,900 BCE. It should be noted that Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro are merely the two cities that have been extensively investigated, many other such cities existed in the region.

Harrapa was well-planned with broad streets set on mud-brick platforms, two-storeyed houses were built with baked or sun-dried bricks. They were served with wells, drains and sewers catering for a maximum population of 50,000 spread across 100 hectares (250 acres). There appear to have been facilities for public bathing and evidence that bathing and water played a role in their rituals. There are remnants of latrines too. Recent excavations have uncovered a whole range of intricate ornaments that show they had a pictographic form of writing too, though the script has yet to be deciphered.

Harrapa city, showing drainage ditch Source:
Dr Muhammad Naveed Tahir, Rawalpindi University, Pakistan
Harappan wet toilet Source:


Mohenjo-Daro is not its original name, this has long been forgotten, the name’s literal sense is none too attractive, meaning the ‘Mound of the Dead’.

Great Bath Mohenjo-Daro

The city is thought to have had a maximum population of 40,000 living in mud-brick houses set out in an organised grid around a central citadel. The citadel was set on a mound and it was here that meeting areas, a market and community storage facilities were securely located. Nearby a very early flint mining site has been found.

Mohenjo-Daro’s water management was very advanced, they had a public baths and a central well located within the citadel. There were some seven hundred smaller wells dotted around the settlement. The more affluent lived in houses with a bathroom and a flush latrine built onto its outer wall. The latrine was brick-built with a wooden seat and a vertical chute falling into a drain or cesspit.

Frain in Harappan

From 2,600 BCE waste was washed away through sewage pipes. In the Indus Valley archaeologists discovered both clay and copper pipes. One house was discovered to have an underground heating device to warm their water, an early hypocaust (more below).

Toilet in Harappan

BRIEFER – It is strange that they should have been one of the earliest developers of the toilet because Indian scriptures suggested that a perfect saint has no need to defecate, for he eats no more than he can digest. So not to defecate was considered saintly. Other societies believed that not to defecate was considered manly. The pressure!


Lothal was another of the region’s larger cities, built on the coast. It is described as having a dock and warehouse on the banks of the Sabarmati river used for the trading of beads and gemstones. Some authorities disagree and say that the structure identified as a dock may have been a water storage cistern and canal.

The main well, Lothal
Source:Wikimedia Commons

Lothal also means the ‘mound-of-the-dead’, evidently a term popularly applied to ancient ruins within the region. The original Lothal was destroyed by a flood in 2,350 BCE and this allowed the city to be reconstructed with standard width roads for example. It had two main zones, the citadel and the town. In the town, platforms of sun-dried bricks up to two metres high were constructed (with lime and sand mortar) and became the base for up to thirty houses on each. A north-south road acted as the commercial centre with traders and artisans located there. The citadel had a water well, drains and paved baths.

Lothal bathroom and toilet structure
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Houses vented their waste material in to drains and cesspools, using high tides to clear away the waste and was built with manholes for maintenance. Lothal was one of the first places in which a sitting-type toilet has been discovered.

BRIEFER: These peoples were among the first to domesticate the chicken for food and it spread the practice on to other communities. There are some references suggesting that it was also the first to introduce the notion of cock-fighting.

Mount Girnar

Mount Girnar, is the highest point on Saurashtra peninsula in India’s Junagadh district of Gujarat. These mountains are so old that they pre-date the Himalayas, which were only raised when the Indian sub-continent crashed into Eurasia some 50-55 million years ago.

Mount Girnar and Jain temples

It is a sacred place for both Hindus and particularly for Jains, with proclaimed connections with Lord Krishna. Pilgrims visiting the temples and shrines must climb 9,999 steps to reach the top! A number of water storage facilities had been built here from as early as 3,000 BCE, but the earliest is an artificial reservoir.

These developments pioneered in the Indus Valley took their time in spreading through the sub-continent – reaching Gujarat by 1,900 BCE, central India by 200 BCE and south India by 150 BCE. A number of early documents were influential in spreading the ‘gospel’.

Information dissemination

The Rigveda (literally ‘praise knowledge’) is a series of Sanskrit documents dating from 1,500 – 1,200 BCE which makes it the oldest religious text that has been in constant use until today. It is organised into ten Mandalas (books) that contain a creation myth suggesting that all life on this planet evolved from apah, water. It contains hundreds of sūkta (hymns) in praise of their gods with prayers to them for prosperity and a long life.

At its heart are four vedas which have become canonical sacred texts for Hindus. Their deities include Varuna as their lord of the seas and Apam Napat as the god of fresh water. The huge significance of the River Ganges means that it is also considered as a goddess in its own right. The vedas urge the conservation and preservation of pure water for its medicinal qualities and praise it for being transparent, cold and clean.

From an early time water for drinking was usually kept in brass containers, which modern research shows did help to combat many water-borne diseases, the copper particles broke down bacteria while not being harmful to humans.

Water management and irrigation systems were funded by a community tax or tithe levied on agricultural produce. These payments were also applied to protection from the excesses of the weather and their neighbours. From 400 BCE these leaders or kings would store surplus grain for trading and for lean times.

Information about early water management can also be gleaned from the Mahābhārata epic, literally ‘the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty’. It talks of events as early as the 9th/8th centuries BCE although it appears to have been written between 400 BCE and 300 CE. It is said to be the longest poem ever written, some eight times the size of The Iliad and three times longer than the Bible.

In the 6th century CE Varāhamihira an Indian mathematician, astronomer and astrologer produced Brihat-Samhta, its 106 chapters detailed his knowledge of planetary movements, eclipses, clouds, rainfall and growth of crops. In our subject he also detailed a series of powdered herbs that should be prepared in measured quantities and added to groundwater to keep it pure.

Another source is the Arthashastra, a 150 BCE to 50 CE treatise on how to manage the state, the economy and wars. There is little agreement on the meaning of the term, but the ‘science of political economy’ appears to fit, it is often compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Water storage and water-wheels

In various regions Indians developed a number of water management technologies. Paar systems and Kunds collected rainwater for use in irrigation. Pat irrigation channels diverted streams and rivers for irrigation and nadis or village ponds held it locally. Chandela and Johad were earth-built dams, while Naada were stone-built versions. Talais, talab and bandhi were water reservoirs and kohli tanks stored water for times of drought. They also had open wells, saza kuva and baoris or step-wells called vav or vavadi.  

There are Indian texts that suggest it was they who invented the waterwheel as early as the 4th century BCE, describing these as cakkavattaka (turning wheel) and arahatta-ghati-yanta (machine with wheel-pots attached). The latter seems to be describing a noria, though as there is no mention of water-power, they may have been simple treadle devices.

This section merely touches the surface of the many water technologies that emerged in ancient India.

Water wheel

© Bob Denton, 2016
Advance to Nile Valley   –  Back to Mesopotamia
Back to Unpublished writing