The city of Mohenjo-Daro (“hill of the dead”) was the largest settlement of a culture that for more than 600 years from 2500 b.c. extended over 600,000 square miles (1.5 million square kilometers) of India and Pakistan—larger than western Europe. The city’s ruins, on the west bank of the Indus River about 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Karachi, evidence careful urban design combined with a sophisticated infrastructure that was undreamed of in the contemporary river-valley civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Although presented with undeniably nationalistic and political bias, recent archeological evidence from the subcontinent suggests that there, and not in Mesopotamia, was the cradle of civilization. Mohenjo-Daro has been chosen here as simply representative of a great achievement, the invention of city planning.
The first traces of the ancient cities were accidentally discovered on the Indus River floodplain in 1856. The occupying British, building the East Indian Railway between Lahore and Karachi, plundered hundreds of thousands of bricks from the site of Harappâ, a metropolis on the Ravi River, 400 miles (640 kilometers) northeast of Mohenjo-Daro. In 1920 Sir John Marshall, director general of archeology in India, initiated investigation of these “twin capitals,” and discoveries were made by Daya Ram Sahni (at Harappâ) and R. D. Banerji. Nani Gopal Majumdar worked in the Sindh region (now in southern Pakistan) from 1927 to 1931. About a decade later, Ernest Mackay discovered Chanu Daro, and Sir Aurel Stein found more sites in Baluchistan and Rajputana. From 1946 into the early 1950s, Sir Mortimer Wheeler continued excavations at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappâ.
The terms “Indus valley civilization” and “Harappân culture” spring from the collective work of all these men, but Hindu scholars in India and Pakistan recently have challenged that nomenclature. Some insist that the civilization was created by Vedic people. Hard evidence is displacing earlier speculative myths about origins. Since the early 1990s archeologists have uncovered several cities east of the Indus. The settlement known as the Dholavira
excavation, about 150 miles (250 kilometers) from modern Bhujin in India; another under modern Rakhigarhi in the Haryana district; and Kunal, also in Haryana and close to the dry Ghaggar-Hakra River (thought to be Mother Saraswati of the Rig Veda), are evidence of how widespread Harappân culture was. It extended from the mountains of northern Afghanistan south to the Arabian Sea, and from the Baluchistan highlands in the west eastward to the Thar Desert, once a fertile plain watered by the Saraswati. Of about 1,400 sites now uncovered, about 900 are in India, 1 is in Afghanistan, and the remainder are in Pakistan. Because there are more Harappân settlements along the Saraswati than along the Indus, it has been suggested by some Indian archeologists that the name “Indus-Saraswati” civilization be adopted; their peers in Pakistan prefer “Hakra” civilization.
However modern scholars choose to classify them, well-structured barley- and wheat-growing communities existed in the region around 4300 b.c., and by 3200 b.c. large villages stood along the great rivers. The historian Arnold Toynbee has suggested that such locations were chosen not because they offered an easy life but because of the challenges presented by annual flooding. Whatever the case, the Harappâns made a dizzying leap from villages to cities between 2600 and 2500 b.c. As elsewhere, there was no intermediate, evolutionary step. The U.S. archeologist Gregory Possehl describes this as a century of cathartic changes, and Gordon Childe coined the expression “the urban implosion.” Quite suddenly, there existed commercial centers with high levels of municipal control; complex social organization; specialized occupational structures; administrative expertise; and tools, such as a system of writing (that of the Indus-Saraswati culture is as yet undeciphered), mathematics and especially geometry, survey instruments, and standard weights and measures.
Although there were other locations of comparable size and importance, Mohenjo-Daro was certainly a principal—and typical—city. This largest Indus valley settlement covered more than 200 acres (80 hectares) and was over 3 miles (5 kilometers) around. Like most Indus-Saraswati cities, it had two principal and functionally disparate districts, each built on a huge mud-brick platform, which raised it above the annual floods. To the west stood the 45-foot-high (14-meter) “citadel,” measuring 1,400 feet (430 meters) by 450 feet (140 meters). Fortifications have survived at its southeast corner and the entire platform may have been enclosed by a wall. Several public buildings stood on it. Archeologists once imagined these to include a large granary (with a wooden superstructure), an assembly hall, a college, and a ritual tank, but more recent scholarship has found no evidence for those conclusions. Whatever their purpose, the layout and juxtaposition of the structures demonstrates careful urban design. Noteworthy among the buildings was the so-called Great Bath, about 29 by 23 feet (8.8 by 7 meters) and 8 feet (2.4 meters) deep, entered by steps at each end. It was built of fired bricks laid in gypsum mortar and sealed with bitumen.
Across an area of probably unused land, the residential “lower” city of Mohenjo-Daro occupied a more extensive platform to the east. It also was set out on a north-south, east-west grid of properly drained, brick-paved streets, 30 feet (9 meters) wide, forming rectangular urban blocks measuring about 400 by 270 yards (360 by 240 meters). Tightly packed courtyard houses and places of business, all built of fired brick, faced the streets. It is likely that internal walls were plastered, and most houses had stairs leading to either a second story or a flat roof. The houses normally had a private bathing area supplied with water from their own wells, and a properly drained toilet. A secondary grid of narrow service lanes subdivided the main blocks, and chutes from most residences were connected to a system of covered sewers—more evidence of well-developed municipal controls that still cannot be found in many Asian cities. Because of the high water table beneath Mohenjo-Daro, it is impossible to extend archeological investigation to its foundation level. Exploration continues, and in the early 1980s German scholars discovered a “suburb” about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from the “downtown area.”
Harappâ and many other Indus-Saraswati sites are almost identical to Mohenjo-Daro in layout and organization, indicating that, at the peak of the civilization, regional centers may have been built to a
standard city plan. There are exceptions in detail, if not in overall form.
This remarkable civilization remained unified for nearly 700 years. Then, partly because of overexpansion of its trade networks, after about 1900 b.c. it gradually disintegrated into a regionalized pattern of cultures, referred to as late or post-Harappân. Within 150 years Mohenjo-Daro’s efficient urban government had deteriorated. Administrative breakdown was augmented by ecological factors. Recent research has established that most protohistoric cultures suffered three centuries of persistent drought from about 2200 b.c., perhaps activated by a sudden global climate change. The passing of the Indus-Saraswati cities can be attributed in part to changing river patterns, upsetting a river-based agricultural and trade economy that had already outgrown its strength. The Saraswati dried up, the Hakra-Nara’s tributaries were diverted eastward to the Jamuna River and westward to the Indus, and the course of the Indus itself began to change, resulting in frequent violent flooding of its southern reaches.