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Asian History 3 and 4

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Lecture 3 - The Earliest Civilizations of India

The Indus civilization was unknown and completely unsuspected until 1920, when a British engineer, curious about the regular-shaped bricks that his native subcontractors were supplying him for railway ballast, traced them to their source. (The sites, unfortunately, had been used as rubble mines for some time before that.) Soon archaeologists realized that the Indus civilization sites dated back far beyond anything previously known as India. At first it was thought to be an offshoot of Mesopotamian civilization, but we now know from earlier sites such as Mehrgahr that is is indigenous. It is the third-oldest urban culture, after ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The most important sites are Kalibangan (also important in earlier times), Harappa, and Mohenjo Daro. Other sites number about 200, including the port of Lothal, the trade gateway to the Arabian Gulf. At its height the Indus civilization covered a roughly triangular area around half a million square miles in extent, larger than Western Europe. Is is dry land but fertile, and the flooding of the river fertilizes fields with silt. Thus any culture which could bet the problem of irrigation the fields could be assured of high yields, easily transported by boat through canals and rivers in the flat land.

The earliest Indus civilization sites date from c. 2500 BC. There is evidence of violence or sharp change at some sites during this period (cf. abandonment of Mehrgahr), and so this period seems to mark the organization of an overall culture in this area, partly by force.

Indus city design was spectacularly good for this period, and would not be equaled in some respects for two and a half millenia afterwards. Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were rectangular, divided into upper and lower cities. All buildings were constructed with a standard size of brick, and no stone was used. The upper city in each place was built on an artificial mound of bricks, and contained structures which probably had a religious significance. In Mohenjo Daro there was a "Great Bath" by the side of a palace, some 40 by 80 feet, suggesting the later Indian stress on personal and ritual cleanliness was already present in this culture. Both cities had large granaries. In the lower city, the style of house varied, but nothing very luxurious or squalid has been found. The houses had interior courtyards; many had private wells, and all were connected to a municipal sewage system. The walls of the house were thick, and their doors opened on to alleyways, with neither doors nor windows opening onto the street. The resulting effect is rather plain, but the houses and walls were in all likelihood decorated in some other way.

The Indus civilization traded with Sumer and the rest of Mesopotamia overland and by sea through the port of Lothal, directly or through transshipment in Bahrain. They were in trade contact with an even wider area than Mehrgahr had been, but what they themselves exported is not very clear. It may have been cotton, since this plant was first woven into cloth in the Indus valley area.

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Outline of premodern Asian history in 24 lectures. Lectures 3 and 4 cover the early history of the Indian subcontinent.

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