Religion, language, and culture
Little is known about Harappan religion and language. A collection of written texts on clay and stone tablets unearthed at Harappa—which have been carbon dated 3300-3200 BCE—contain trident-shaped, plant-like markings that appear to be written from right to left. There is considerable debate about whether it was an encoded language at all and whether it is related to Indo-European and South Indian language families. The Indus script remains indecipherable without any comparable symbols, and is thought to have evolved independently of the writing in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. Researchers are using technological advances in computer science in order to attempt to decipher it.
The Harappan religion also remains a topic of speculation. It has been widely suggested that the Harappans worshipped a mother goddess who symbolized fertility. In contrast to Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization seems to have lacked any temples or palaces that would give clear evidence of religious rites or specific deities.
Many Indus Valley seals include the forms of animals; some depict the animals being carried in processions, while others show mythological creations like unicorns, leading scholars to speculate about the role of animals in Indus Valley religions. Interpretations of these animal motifs include signification of membership in a clan, elite class, or kin structure. One seal from Mohenjo-daro shows a half-human, half-buffalo monster attacking a tiger. This may be a reference to the Sumerian myth of a monster created by Aruru—the Sumerian earth and fertility goddess—to fight Gilgamesh, the hero of an ancient Mesopotamian epic poem. This is a further suggestion of international trade in Harappan culture.
Indus Valley excavation sites have revealed a number of distinct examples of the culture’s art, including sculptures, seals, pottery, gold jewelry, and anatomically detailed figurines in terracotta, bronze, and steatite.
Among the various gold, terracotta, and stone figurines found was a figure of a priest-king displaying a beard and patterned robe. Another figurine in bronze, known as the Dancing Girl, is only 11 centimeters high and shows a female figure in a pose that suggests the presence of some choreographed dance form enjoyed by members of the civilization. Terracotta works also included cows, bears, monkeys, and dogs. In addition to figurines, the Indus River Valley people are believed to have created necklaces, bangles, and other ornaments.
Institutions and hierarchies
How was Harappan society organized, and what institutions functioned as centers of authority? Archaeological records provide no immediate answers regarding a center of authority or depictions of people in power in Harappan society, and there are few written records to consult. However, Harrapan artifacts display an extraordinary uniformity. Pottery, seals, weights, and bricks with standardized sizes and weights, suggest some form of authority and governance, though it is not clear what that form was exactly.
Over time, various theories have developed concerning Harappan systems of rule. One theory is that there was a single state encompassing all the communities of the civilization; this theory is supported by the similarity in artifacts, the evidence of planned settlements, the standardized ratio of brick size, and the apparent establishment of settlements near sources of raw material. Another theory posits that there was no single ruler, but rather a number of leaders representing each of the urban centers, including Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, and other communities. It seems likely that there was not one centralized and all-powerful state but that various classes and centers of power were integrated into a decentralized structure.
Though seal inscriptions do seem to have written information, scholars have not been able to decipher the Indus script. As a result, they have had considerable difficulty understanding the nature of the state and religious institutions of the Indus Valley Civilization. We know relatively little about their legal codes, procedures, and systems of governance.
Historians have made educated guesses about the nature of Harappan civilization from the available artifacts and physical structures. Some experts have theorized that the Indus Valley Civilization had no rulers as we understand them, that everyone enjoyed equal status. Some evidence in support of this conclusion is that most Harappan residents seem to have enjoyed relatively equal health and that there were not many elite burials, which archaeologists have discerned through mortuary analysis—the study of graves and deposits containing human remains.
However, this does not conclusively prove that Harappan society lacked any social hierarchy, and it could possibly be the result of other factors, like different beliefs about the afterlife. Some scholars point to varying house sizes and varied heights of structures to suggest that different social classes occupied different levels in the cities. Others identify items such as painted pottery, bangles, beaded ornaments, and even location within cities as indicators of wealth. A considerable degree of craft specialization also suggests some degree of socio-economic stratification.
It is widely believed that the Harappan civilization was a peaceful one that did not engage in any warfare, but there is not conclusive evidence to support this belief, and some archaeologists consider it a pervasive myth. Some scholars argue that Harappans were peaceful primarily because there were no natural enemies due to the geographic location of the major cities. Weapons have been found at sites, but there is debate as to whether they were used in conflict with other groups or as defense against wild animals.
The Indus Valley Civilization declined around 1800 BCE, and scholars debate which factors resulted in the civilization’s demise. One theory suggested that a nomadic, Indo-European tribe called the Aryans invaded and conquered the Indus Valley Civilization, though more recent evidence tends to contradict this claim. Many scholars believe that the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization was caused by climate change. Some experts believe the drying of the Saraswati River, which began around 1900 BCE, was the main cause for climate change, while others conclude that a great flood struck the area.
Various elements of the Indus Civilization are found in later cultures, suggesting the civilization did not disappear suddenly due to an invasion. Many scholars argue that changes in river patterns caused the large civilization to break up into smaller communities called late Harappan cultures.
Another disastrous change in the Harappan climate might have been eastward-moving monsoons, or winds that bring heavy rains. Monsoons can be both helpful and detrimental to a climate, depending on whether they support or destroy vegetation and agriculture.
By 1800 BCE, the Indus Valley climate grew cooler and drier, and a tectonic event may have diverted or disrupted river systems, which were the lifelines of the Indus Valley Civilization. The Harappans may have migrated toward the Ganges basin in the east, where they could have established villages and isolated farms. These small communities would not have been able to produce the same agricultural surpluses to support large cities. With the reduced production of goods, there would have been a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia. By around 1700 BCE, most of the Indus Valley Civilization cities had been abandoned.