• Anirudh Kanisetti

The Globalised World of the Indus Valley Civilisation

Globalisation. International trade. Diplomacy. The risk of stranded ships bringing economies to a halt. These might sound like features of the 21st century world, but we've been puzzling about them almost since the beginning of civilisation: at least 3500 years. One of the earliest examples of this comes not from Europe or Mesopotamia, but from South Asia.

With a peak population of 5 million, or nearly 40% of all people on Earth, the Harappan civilisation was the powerhouse of the Bronze Age world. Its nearly 1,500 cities imported raw materials from as far away as modern-day Tajikistan and exported manufactured goods all the way to the Mediterranean.

The coastline of Kutch, Kathiawar and Southern Gujarat were studded with Harappan ports. Lothal, in particular, was probably the most sophisticated cargo facility in the world at its peak, capable of handling ships with up to 50 tons of cargo, and even had water locks and spillways to regulate water levels during high and low tide. Such sophisticated hydraulic engineering would not be seen again for thousands of years.

Scene of daily life in an Indus Valley city in the Bronze Age
Life in a Harappan city. Source:

We can imagine small fleets of Harappan ships travelling along the Persian Gulf, releasing birds every now and then to orient themselves with respect to land. Their holds were laden with cargoes of carved ivory, shell inlays, ornaments, and possibly cotton manufactures. Harappan merchants lived and traded across Bronze Age West Asia, leaving imprints of their famous steatite seals on clay records. We even know of Levantine merchants who lived temporarily in South Asia - analyses of their teeth show that they ate bananas during their stay!

Globalisation goes both ways, of course. The Mesopotamian trope of a hero-king controlling animals appears in Indus seals too. What does that tell us about the rich, but now totally forgotten, symbolic texture of the Harappan world, and how it influenced the early polities of the Gangetic Plains?

Images from Wikimedia Commons

Enormous as the Harappan civilisation was, we know little about how it ended. We have a clearer picture of its smaller contemporaries. By the 12th century BCE, earthquakes and climate change began to disrupt harvests, displacing large numbers of people, who took to the seas. The polities of Greece, Crete, and Anatolia collapsed without access to tin, which was needed to make bronze; Mesopotamia and Egypt survived. Trade may have played a role in the collapse of the Harappans, but disease and climate change were major factors, too. We may never know just how deeply they shaped the world of iron and steel that rose out of the ashes of bronze.

Additional Resources:

Shipping and Maritime Trade of the Indus People

Harappan Civilisation Trade Routes

The Sea Peoples

Anthropologists dig into fossilized dental plaque for clues to ancient trade

Meluhha: the Indus Civilization and Its Contacts with Mesopotamia

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the images in this blog post. They are reproduced purely for educational purposes under Free Use.

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