Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Twenty-Five

The Harappan Disintegration

In India, from 1750 to 1575 BC, the Harappan cities crumble and northern nomads settle in the ruins

FAR EAST OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, the obsessively uniform Harappan cities faced a calamity of their own.

Sometime between 1750 and 1700, the people of Mohenjo-Daro began to flee their homes. Not all of them escaped. Excavation has revealed skeletons lying unburied in streets, an entire family trapped and killed in their home, their bodies left uninterred. Here and there, a house caught on fire and collapsed. Escaping inhabitants dropped their treasured items (tools for carrying on a livelihood, jewelry and silver) so that they could flee faster.1 North at Harappa, much the same scene unfolded. The evidence from the smaller Harappan sites is not clear, but without a doubt the Harappan civilization ceased to exist.

The Harappans were not brought down by hostile invasion. The ruins show no dropped weapons, no bodies wearing armor, no systematic destruction of buildings, and no signs of struggle around the citadel (which, after all, had been built for just such an occasion).2

The collapse of various buildings, along with the fires (which may have started when kitchen-fires were overturned), could have been caused by earthquake or flood. If by flood, the waters must have been sudden and unusually violent. Silt layers show that the Indus, like other rivers that ran through major ancient civilizations, flooded regularly and left fertile soil behind in a predictable pattern.3 The baked bricks of the citadels probably served as protection against unusually high waters. Only a wall-high wave could have caused the destruction found at the Harappan cities.

Hydrologist R. L. Raikes has suggested that a silt dam formed upstream from Harappa, stopped the flooding altogether for some time (thus reducing the fertility of the fields and possibly throwing the city into a minor famine), and then broke under the accumulated weight of water, sending enormous floods rushing down into the city. In fact, something like this happened in 1818, when a silt dam stopped up the Indus for almost two years, forming a block fifty miles long and fifty feet high.4 But silt traces at the two largest Harappan cities don’t prove a flood, one way or the other. In any case, even if a flood destroyed buildings throughout the cities, why weren’t they rebuilt?

We have to assume that some kind of natural disaster descended on a civilization that was already suffering from internal rot. Many of the skeletons show evidence of illness, the most common being severe anemia, probably caused by malnutrition.5 The banks of the Indus were not prone to salinization, but no field is immune to exhaustion; the growing populations undoubtedly required a greater and greater yield of grain. Those mud-brick buildings required plenty of small wood to use as fuel in the baking ovens. As the cities grew, the builders must have deforested larger and larger areas. Possibly the floods were simply a coup de grace given to an urban civilization already overextended. And once the cities had begun to disintegrate, the Harappan system was unable to turn the decay around. Perhaps that obsessive uniformity had so removed flexibility that, once driven out of their neat cities with the uniform bricks and familiar tools, they simply could not reorganize themselves from the ground up.

The cities were not entirely deserted. Some people remained, or returned, or wandered in from the countryside. The sketchy occupation above the Harappan layers shows crude pottery, little organization, and no attempt to rebuild or use the complicated drainage and sewer systems of the cities; far less sophistication than the Harappan. Archaeologists call this the post-Harappan, or Jhukar, culture,6 after a village where the crude pottery was first made. But there is no organized culture about it. The “Jhukar culture” is, more accurately, the people who lived in the Harappan remains once the Harappan civilization had ended.

INVADERS DID COME down into India from the north, but they did not arrive until sometime between 1575 and 1500. They were nomads who had been wandering east of Elam and north of the mountains on India’s western corner (now called the Hindu Kush Mountains). Eventually they made their way through the passes, down into the valleys formed by the upper branches of the Indus. Their own literature—not written down until a thousand years later—calls their earliest home in India the “Land of the Seven Rivers,” which probably means that they first lived in the Punjab: the upper branches of the Indus, where it divided into six branches flowing into the one main river (in the millennia since, one of these branches, the Sarasvati, has dried up).7


25.1 Newcomers to India

Their civilization was, at first, barely a civilization at all. They were accustomed to living in roving bands headed up by warleaders. So they did not build; they did not write; they had, so far as we know, no art; their language had no agricultural words such as “plough” or “threshing floor.”

What they could do was fight. They are most distinguished by their weapons: not only horses, but also chariots with spoked wheels, bronze axes, and longbows with range unlike anything the Harappan people had used.8 As with the Hyksos of Egypt, who also came from desert plains, these battle innovations had helped them plow a path through enemies before them.

However, they did not immediately set out to conquer the Indus valley. They lived among the Seven Rivers for at least a century before moving farther south and east. By the time they made their way down to the Harappan cities, the Harappan civilization had already tottered and fallen. Although they probably drove out the occasional band of squatters, this was the extent of their conquest. They took advantage of deserted buildings that they found, since they had none of their own (their language also lacked any word for “mortar”), and settled in. The sophisticated and highly organized Harappan civilization had been replaced by roving tribes with less culture, less technology, and no experience in running a city—but infinitely more experience in adapting to strange surroundings.


Later, the descendants of these invaders referred to themselves as arya, an adjective which has been given at least seven different English translations, ranging from “respectable” to the more ominous “pure.”719 At its beginning, the Aryan civilization was anything but pure. Even though the citizens of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro had lost the bureaucratic structure that held the Harappan state together, they were hardly removed en masse from northern India, like a massive alien abduction. They were scattered, but they survived. They mingled with the arriving Aryans, lent them the words for “plough” and “threshing floor” and “mortar,” and presumably taught the ex-nomads how to use these civilized tools. The Aryan culture that spread across the north was woven through with threads from the world of the disappeared Harappans.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!