No one understood the significance of the excavations at Harappan until Mohenjodaro was discovered. Even when the announcement of the rediscovery of this five thousand year old city was reported in the Illustrated London News in September 1924, no one quite comprehended the extent of the civilization nor the extent of its sophistication.
Today, after nearly sixty years of excavations both in India and Pakistan, more than 400 similar ancient urban centers have been uncovered. They stretch from as far as Kabul in the west to Delhi in the east, and to the far south to Gujarat (Lothal) and Maharashtra in India, with a huge cluster of towns around Mohenjodaro. This makes it a more extensive civilization than any other comparable one in Mesopotamia or Egypt.
This civilization was named after the Indus River Valley in which the first most important cities were discovered. Mohenjodaro, one of the largest metropolises, was built on the west bank of the river. The course of the Indus river has moved, as it must have done for centuries, and is now nearly five kilometers from the ancient embankment. But the river once played a vital role in the development and evolution of Mohenjodaro, providing vital drinking water, water for domestic use, to carry away the refuse and sewage of the densely populated habitation. Many historians, acknowledging the vital role that the river played in city life, have suggested that one of the causes of the collapse and gradual abandonment of Mohenjodaro may have been the moving away of the river. There is ample evidence also of the annual flooding of the river that brought rich alluvial soil downstream. This provided the farmer with fertile topsoil so essential for the bumper harvests (rice and cotton for textiles) necessary to maintain the city economy.
At Mohenjodaro there is a Museum with some reconstruction drawing and plans that provide a provocative picture of the city of Mohenjodaro in its prime. It may be useful to study them before venturing on a tour of the deserted streets of the ancient township. The relationship of the river and the city becomes clear when one sees how the water system was used as a means of communication from one region of the civilization to another and for transporting essential supplies of foodgrain from neighboring villages to the city dwellers. Food was brought in by boat and carried through the broad roads by bullock cart. It was stored in what the archeologists first called the civic granary, an enormous platformed, well-ventilated structure for storage. Since nothing that looks like money was found at these sites it was believed that the system of exchange was through barter, and grain was the source of wealth on which the entire economy was founded. This nation was further supported by the position of the granary in an apparently prestigious area of the city of Mohenjodaro where it could be well-guarded and function as a sort of treasury.
From outside the museum you can see the highest mound in the area, topped by a ruined stupa. It was this stupa that initially attracted archaeologists to the region, motivated by their interest in establishing the growth and expansion of the Buddhist world in the early centuries of the Christian era. What they actually found, which no one had quite expected, was a city that pushed back the history of the Subcontinent to 2500 BC. The stupa is still the landmark and occupies its elevated position because no excavations were ever carried out below it. To the west of the stupa is apparently the most important zone of the city in which the Granary and the Great Bath are located, along with other large buildings perhaps serving as administrative purposes.
Beside the granary is the brick structure called the Great Bath. It consists of a large rectangular pool two meters deep with steps leading into it from the narrower ends. The bricks here have been tightly packed and lined with bitumen to make the pool waterproof. Around the pool are cloister-like rooms that are now believed to have served some religious purpose. The elaborate water supply system and drainage network for the Great Bath make it one the most intriguing structures at Mohenjodaro.
Mohenjodaro is not the original name, of course, but one given by local villagers referring to the 'mound of the dead': the tower and hillocks of abandoned debris of bricks that they had their forefathers had noticed in the surroundings. The site is impressive, for the excavations are deep revealing the high walls of the buildings, in contrast to these at Lothal where only the shallow foundations appear above the ground.
It is estimated that the ancient city of Mohenjodaro once occupied an enormous area of four square kilometers, of which only a small portion has been excavated and left uncovered. Large trenches were dug and work begun to study the stratification of the city. What astounded the archaeologists was its symmetric plan. It was built on a rectangular grid with broad roads several meters wide running north to south. From these main roads, side streets and smaller service lanes created a systematic web providing access to every house in the city block, and each was connected to an underground drainage system. Walking through the main streets and into the bylanes one can visualize life in Johenjodaro five thousand years ago. The streets busy with bullock cart traffic and pedestrians. The narrow lanes of Lahore, lined with awning that kept the sun out, keeping them relatively cool. The houses in the apparently wealthier zone of the city have been excavated and reveal enormous blank, windowless outer walls, a style till practiced in these desert areas to prevent hot dusty air from entering the homes. Many of the houses are two or more storeys high, in typical brick and timber construction still in use today. The baked bricks used for construction are of a regular standard size. This is another incredible feature of this civilization: almost all the 400 cities within the 1000 mile radius made use of a similar type of brick. The plans of the houses are different but have areas for bathing with drainage shutes and living spaces, often with a central courtyard within for domestic privacy and housework. Stairways lead up to the roof (which no longer exists) but must have provided, as indeed it does in many homes today, a place in which to sleep and rest during the cool nights of summer and a pleasant recreational area on sunny winter days.
While excavating the city the archeologists found over 79 feet of deposits and evidence of several successive reconstructions and layers of habitation. Along the city walls, buildings and walls are tell-tale marks of stratifications revealing how each subsequent stratum of (inferior quality) building was added to the last, recording for posterity the story of Mohenjodaro from its decline-an uninterrupted period of occupation for over one thousand years.
Sir Mortimer Wheeler's excavation reports record that:
Stratified potsherds and other objects were recovered literally by the ton; four weeks after the beginning, twelve wagon loads of selected pottery were sent back to base, and more followed.
The Museum at Mohenjodaro has an instructive collection of the artifacts found in the houses of the great city. Large collections of wheel-thrown pottery finely worked with a red and black slip, with designs and motifs of birds and flowers are a lively heritage of the past. The shapes and sizes of the pottery give some indication of their use: enormous storage pots a meter or so high, tiny little vessels that look like a child's make-believe kitchen set, pots for cooking, serving, and small-mouthed containers for oils and precious liquids (perfumes?). There are hundreds of clay toys for children of animals, bullock carts, and of people at work which provide an animated account of life in the ancient metropolis.
A fine collection of beads in semi-precious stones and some gold jewellery were found at the site. Semi-precious stones that were not from the region led historians to speculate about overland trade with other cultures: lapis lazuli and turquoise from Persia and Afghanistan. The recovery of seals at Sumer has confirmed that the people of the Indus Valley had trade contacts with their contemporaries in Mesopotamia.
Most intriguing of course are the seals some steatite (a kind of soft stone) ones bear inscriptions and beautiful carved figures of animals, of humped bulls, unicorns, tigers, and strange men wearing bull horn masks and seated cross-legged on a throne. While the script is still an enigma and has not so far been deciphered, the seals were undoubtedly used by traders to mark their goods before sale and export, some probably used as family insignia or a religious talisman.
Nothing much is yet known about the religious of the people of Mohenjodaro but there are many conjectures. Some say that the seated mask-wearing male on the seals is a prototype of Shiva, a prominent deity of the Hindu pantheon. Other say that the large stone objects (that took more like a pestle and mortar for pounding grain) are signs of phallic worship in this ancient culture; a custom that continues to be practiced by present-day Hindus. Others points to the female figurines and talk of mother goddess worship. It may perhaps have been a wonderful culture which had no formal religion; a truly liberal people who, unlike us, spent little time and resources on warfare, on arms and weapons, and the destruction of others; who instead crafted their valuable supply of metals to make tools, jewellery, and exquisite masterpieces of sculpture and on building well-planned cities that attracted thousands of people to come and live and partake of their sophisticated culture for centuries.
What's in the neighbourhood
There are several other contemporary sites around Mohenjodaro where some excavation work has been done. Kot Diji is 40 kilometers east of Mohenjodaro; Chanhu-daro (128 kilometers south of Mohenjodaro) bears evidence of a later phase of the civilization, and it would appear that the inhabitants had to move away from the older metropolises and set up shoddy settlements in nearby areas where conditions, economic and environmental, were still favourable. Lothal (Gujarat, India) is a well-kept site that also exemplifies how the southern sites of the Indus Valley culture endured much longer than those directly on the Indus basin. The city of Harappa in the state of Punjab (which can be reached from Lahore) was unfortunately devastated by poor excavation practices and robbers, and is not as exciting a site as Mohenjodaro.
How to get there
There is now an hour long flight to Mohenjodaro from Karachi. Local guides meet the daily flight and can take visitors around. A longer rail route is available. The winter months (October to March) are best suited for the visit and long walks. There is a small rest-house near the museum at Mohenjodaro.