Ancient India, Indus Valley Civilization for Kids and Teachers Illustration

Indus Valley Civilization
For Kids, 3000-1500 BCE


In 1922, archaeologists made an exciting discovery - the remains of an ancient city from a previously unknown civilization. They named this city Harappa. Shortly thereafter, and with help from local guides, they found another city. They called this one Mohenjo-Daro. Since that time, archeologists have found over 1400 cities from this same civilization.  Most towns and cities in ancient times were built along waterways and rivers. These cities were different, at least, that is what archaeologists thought at first. They soon discovered that the cities were built along a dried out river bed, where once a mighty river had run. That river was probably the Indus River, long ago. Today, the Indus River is one of the world's longest, and winds from the mountains in northern India through India and Pakistan until it reaches the ocean. But once, archaeologists believe, the Indus flowed along a different path to support a very large and very advanced, ancient civilization.  

These early people did write things down, but historians still cannot read their writing. And there is not a lot of writing to be read. Perhaps they used paper or another material that did not stand the test of time. But archaeologists have discovered quite a bit from the artifacts left behind. What they have discovered is fascinating!  

Over 4,000 years ago, in the Indus Valley, people built huge, planned cities, with straight streets, and brick homes with private baths! Kids played with toys and women wore lipstick! This civilization existed from about 3000 BCE to about 1500 BCE, which means it existed at about the same time as the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations. Some of their cities had a populations of 35,000 people each. Each city was laid out in pretty much the same way. There is no question that this was a very advanced civilization. How advanced is still under investigation.

Homes: Houses were one or two stories high made of baked brick, with flat roofs, and were just about identical. The flat roof probably acted as a third floor for dining and sleeping. Each home was built around a courtyard, with windows overlooking the courtyard. The outside walls had no windows. Each home had its own private drinking well and its own private bathroom. Clay pipes led from the bathrooms to sewers located under the streets. These sewers drained into nearly rivers and streams.

Clothing:  Men and women dressed in colorful robes. Women wore jewelry of gold and precious stone, and even wore lipstick! Among the treasures found was a statue of a woman wearing a bracelet. (Bracelets with similar designs are worn today in India.)  

Entertainment: A beautiful small bronze statue of a dancer was found, which tells us that they enjoyed dance and had great skill working with metals. In the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro, scientists have found the remains of a large central pool, with steps leading down at both ends. This could have been a public swimming pool, or perhaps have been used for religious ceremonies. Around this large central pool were smaller rooms that might have dressing rooms, and smaller pools that might have been private baths.  

Food: Dinner might have been warm tasty wheat bread served with barley or rice. It would appear they were very good farmers. They grew barley, peas, melons, wheat, and dates. Farms raised cotton and kept herds of sheep, pigs, zebus (a kind of cow), and water buffalo. Fish were caught in the river with fishhooks!  

Toys:  Some of the toys found were small carts, whistles shaped like birds, and toy monkeys, which could slide down a string!  

Art:  This ancient civilization must have had marvelous craftsmen, skilled in pottery, weaving, and metalworking. The pottery that has been found is of very high quality, with unusually beautiful designs. Several small figures of animals, such as monkeys, have been found. These small figures could be objects of art or toys. There are also small statues of what they think are female gods. So far, scientists have found no large statues. They have found bowls made of bronze and silver, and many beads and ornaments.

Transportation: The people used camels, oxen and elephants to travel over land. They had carts with wooden wheels. They had ships, with one mast, probably used to sail around the Arabian Sea. Seals with a pictographic script, which has not as yet been deciphered, were found at the Indus Valley sites. Similar seals were found in Mesopotamia, which seems to indicate possible trade between these two civilizations.  

Himalayan Mountains: One of the advantages of the Indus Valley civilization was the Himalayan Mountains. The Himalayas acted as a natural barrier, offering protection from other people in the ancient world. Water ran down from the Himalayas and fed the Indus River, keeping it full of clean fresh water. The Himalayas provided important timber, and minerals like gold, silver, tin, and semi-precious metals. Cedar was used for building and for coffins.   

The Riddle of the Indus: What does it take to build a city with straight streets and well-designed sewers? It takes smart engineers and a lot of planning! These well-organized cities suggest a well-organized government and probably a well-developed social life.

What is amazing is that it appears the Harappan cities did not develop slowly, which suggests that whoever built these cities learned to do so in another place. As the Indus flooded, cities were rebuilt on top of each other. Archaeologists have discovered several different cities, one built over the other, each built a little less skillfully. The most skillful was on bottom. It would appear that builders grew less able or less interested in perfection over time. Still, each city is a marvel, and each greatly advanced for its time.

So far, scientists have found no wall carvings or tomb paintings to tell us about their life. We do know they had a written language, but only a few sentences, on pottery and amulets, have been found. Although scientists cannot yet read the language, they are beginning to believe these people had a common language! As well, scientists have found artifacts at different sites (towns) with the same or similar picture of a unicorn on them. The newspaper, India Today, suggested humorously that perhaps it was a logo - like Pepsi and Coke, only this one was Unicorn!

Scientists remain very curious about these people who lived at about the same time in history as the ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Egyptians. Did these ancient civilizations know each other in ancient times? The Ancient Mesopotamians, whose cuneiform language scholars can read, talk about a special place with an aquatic culture, where water and bathing played a central role. The ancient Mesopotamians might have been talking about the people in the Indus Valley region. (The Great Bath)

As scientists continue to unravel the riddle of the Indus, we may find we will have to rewrite history! Was it the ancient Mesopotamians who first invented the sailboat, or was it perhaps the people in the Indus Valley?

Another mystery is why the people who lived in these marvelous cities disappeared around 1500 BCE. Perhaps they ran out of wood to hold back flooding, or perhaps their soil gave out and no longer would grow crops. They doubt when the river moved that they moved with it becuase the remains of their distinctive cities been not been found along the banks of the Indus River today.  Archaeologists do not know where they people came from or where they went. It's a fascinating riddle. It will be interesting to see what archaeologists "dig up" next!

Daily Life in the Indus Valley Civilization (Donn, games and activities, learning module)

Indus Valley Interactive (BBC)

Ancient India for Kids (British Museum)

Free Online Games & Activities
about the Ancient Indus Civilization

Interactive Quiz about Ancient India

A quick look - A List of Indus Valley Civilization sites and what was discovered at each

Harappan Artifacts