Origins of Bronze Age Cultures in the Indus Basin

A Geographic Perspective

By: Ahman Hasad Dani

Originally Published in 1975

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We have been studying the problems of the Bronze Age Cultures in the Indus Basin for almost half a century. Since the discovery of Mohenjo-daro we have been trying to get a better understanding of these metal-using peoples. The early use of metals at once per­suaded scholars to view the rise of these cultures in the perspective of the already known West Asian civilizations. Mesopotamia —the cradle of human activity in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, even Egypt of the Pharaohs and Asia Minor of the Hittites were looked to for possible explanations. Nearer still, Iran could be the best intermediary and what other channel could there be than the intervening upland of Baluchistan, a geographic zone seen as a continuation of the Iranian plateau? Thus the picture was complete of a culture-bearing caravan people transplanting a civilization in the soil of the Indus.

Nevertheless Mohenjo-daro and its com­panion city Harappa maintained their cultural individuality. The mystery about their cul­tural origin assuaged the feeling of the rising nationalists and partly satisfied their pride in the glory of the past but that past had long been propagated in the name of the Aryans. Could they not get credit for such a wonderful civilization? Opinions still hold fast to this concept and even S. R. Rao, the excavator of Rangpur and Lothal, has striven hard to include the Aryan share in the development of this civilization. The emotional feeling of the nationalists is easy to understand, and it is this spirit which led them on to open up a new perspective of Bronze Age Culture by an intensive exploration of the border land of Pakistan and in the zone of Gujarat, so that the Indians should not lose the glory of this civil­ization even though the main earlier centers are now within the territorial limits of Pakis­tan. The extent of this civilization was much broadened and this brought in the question of the ancient limit of the Indus Basin at a time when some of the present-day dried-up rivers still flowed in what is now the eastern deserts. The picture must have been entirely different from what the present political states would like us to accept. It appears that some such consideration might have led Dr. Rafiq Mughal to propose the concept of “Greater Indus Valley.” The connotation of such a term could not be much different from “Greater India” or “Greater Iran.” Everyone is entitled to attribute greatness to the country of his choice. But has that solved the problem of cultural origins and development?

Or let us take the matter-of-fact description of the bare geography of this vast belt of land to which the appellation South Asia is now commonly applied. 0. H. K. Spate’s book on South Asian geography presents a picture of the physical canvass that is not far different from the vision of the classic Indian poet Bhasa or even from the hyperbolic concept of king’s dominion as recorded in the Mehrauli Iron pillar inscription of King Chandra in Delhi. That vast territorial limit of the British Indian Empire could not but be viewed as a component whole of the four-fold geographic zones—the Himalayas on the north, the Indo-Gangetic plains, the Peninsular South and the coastal belt facing the open seas. While the Himalayas kept away the northern invaders, the coast opened sea traffic to the west and, further, the alluvial plains with perennial rivers could be contrasted with the rocky surface of the Deccan and its poorly fed rivers. This classification is far different from the picture of the four seasons, the four castes, the four stages of life born out of the environment of the holiest of the holy—the Ganga—the core of the Gangetic pattern that forms the basic foundation of the Indian cultural life and that has continued to play a definitive role in the socio-political life of the country down to this day.

What has this picture to say on the origin of the Bronze Age Cultures? Can we examine the pattern of the Indus Basin from the known traditional Indian behavior as born out of the Gangetic system? At least one great Indian scholar, the late-lamented Dr. B. Subba­rao who presented for the first time a geo­cultural perspective of Indian archaeology, has an explanation far different from that usually found in general textbooks. Taking his cue from the concept of geographic regions earlier propounded by F. J. Richards he built up his own reconstruction of the varying patterns of cultural distribution, but unfor­tunately his premature death left the field open. His work remains unfulfilled.


Following the line of Dr. Subbarao, let us re-examine the explanations given so far. By now we have no doubt succeeded in defin­ing the various Bronze Age Cultures by differ­entiating one from the other, tracing the main converging traits of a particular culture and following one to another on the basis of affiliation and acculturation—the whole ap­pearing to present a picture of cultural con­tinuity in a given geographic zone. This under­standing has followed two distinct lines of approach—one we would call the orthodox style of archaeological investigation, in which the classic pattern has been laid by such British archaeologists as Marshall, Wheeler, Piggott and, in recent years, Allchin. The other is just emerging in which the American anthropologists are trying to apply the meth­odology of the integration of cultures, their interaction and final disintegration or rural­ization when the centripetal forces no longer retained the power to hold together the widely-spread settlements of cultural expres­sion. Both approaches have led to a formula­tion of a socio-political system in which such concepts as empire, state and provinces have been assumed factors. But such factors need not be deciding elements in understanding cultural growth. After all, what we are trying to do is to discover the social pattern that held good not only in the different phases of the Bronze Age but also in the varying geographic conditions of a given area. A given social pattern need not qualify for only one type of cultural expression. Cultural activity depends on the environment, the resources of the environment, the technolog­ical capability available in that environment, and certainly the will and the manner of the people that go to harness them to their best advantage. It is for us to determine how each of these factors has been responsible for giving a meaning or a definition to one or the other form of cultural expression, and how, given the same factors, we notice differenti­ation in collective expression depending probably on which of the various organiza­tional systems prevailed among one or the other human group. It is this last basis that should lead us to the determination of socio­political systems, and the way in which the different systems are related to one another as integral parts of a component whole. That whole in the present case is the sum of the Bronze Age Cultures of the Indus Basin, and it is far different from the pattern presented by the Gangetic system.

This whole hardly can be considered an empire or a state, or even a homogenous well-knit society. It is equally possible that there were congeries of social groups in differ­ent levels of development, but all participating in the common activity of the Bronze Age, as, for example, we find today in Pakistan where social variation has stood in the way of social integration, although this has not blocked the process of establishing the state of Pakistan. However, the state is a political organism born out of several politico-eco­nomic factors for which we have not obtained any real evidence in Bronze Age excavations. Society is a human system in which socio­economic factors, along with others, predom­inate, and it is only these factorial elements which we have been able to gather here. Such societies may have different cultural traditions and it is possible to define social patterns on the basis of traditional systems. How a particular tradition inheres to a par­ticular human group or a particular regional group is the problem with which we are faced in relation to cultural origins. It is not pos­sible in this short paper to deal with the issue from all possible points of view, but we shall take only one variable and show how this one factor has been responsible for creating varying cultural patterns in the Indus Basin and how, on its basis, it is possible for us to rethink the origin of these patterns from a new vantage point. That factor presents a new geographic perspective, in which we may understand the direction of cultural diffusion in an entirely new fashion and seek the roots of the Bronze Age Cultures in the underlying system of the Indus Basin.


While we talk in terms of the Indus Basin, we cannot afford to allow the limitation of regionalism to prejudice our judgment. This latter, of course, is an emotional feeling from which our archaeological data must be absolutely free. It is the very nature of the archaeological material that many emotions and feelings are squeezed out of life. But the material has to be related to the earth, and when we do that we are attempting to define a region. For this definition we can follow a statistical method. Each cultural expres­sion needs to be defined properly and its various traits analyzed fully. A sum total of the traits should give an idea of a culture. The agglomerate of traits can be reduced into groups and it is not difficult to discover the main traits that constitute the culture and separate them from the variables. These latter should always be there because any given society is supposed not to live in isolation. It participates in the activity of the then known world although this world may be changing its connotation depending upon needs and human relations.

If, applying this principle, we note on maps the archaeological sites inter-related to a given integrated system, we find the Bronze Age Cultures of the Indus Basin within a distinct geographic region, in which the con­cept of the Indo-Gangetic plain does not play any significant part. These cultures spread down the Indus and over the coastal areas of Gujarat. The Ganges is still a long way off. We need not stop here to explain why the fertile valley of the Ganges did not attract these people. After all, Bronze Age Cultures in other parts of the world also spread over arid zones where life was sustained more by the seasonal flood of the rivers than by any great amount of natural rainfall. The Indus Basin offering a similar condition can well be understood to define a region in the known technology of the time. If we get some sites outside this zone near the Ganges Basin, either they lie in the “divide” or they are spill-over, in an attempt to draw outside resources into the main cultural focus. As far as the coastal area of Gujarat is concerned, that must be viewed in the natural direction of advance of these people who had mastered the rudimen­tary knowledge of seafaring. Thus we can picture the Arabian coastline as the base to which the Indus Basin joins like a perpendic­ular. The coast provided the seaward traffic while the interior of the Indus stood like a great support in the form of the hinterland. It is therefore no wonder that these cultures were rooted in the Indus River system. But Gujarat opened up a new world of contact by which these highly developed areas could establish some relation with the under­developed peoples in its neighborhood.


Our present concept of state and empire is apt to blind our vision to the actual processes of life that may have conditioned the societies which produced Bronze Age Culture. If we free ourselves from such notions we can take recourse to geography, but then we have to assume the continuity of a geographic aspect at least from that time to date. Given this assumption, it is not difficult to define sub-regions within the Indus system. This may involve preparation of several maps and sur­veying the census figures to see the locale of population concentration and the behavior such population follows in a period of time. It is possible to demarcate the sub-regions, examine the climatic factors, natural re­sources, varying geographic features, use of land and settlement patterns, historical migra­tions and the formation of states. Viewed in this light, the old classic division has been to draw a line between the plains of the Indus and the hills on the north and the west. This broad division has no doubt seen an interplay of population movement in order to share the common profits of the valley either through cooperation or through open rivalry. But the valley plain is not a unitary whole. It is con­ditioned by the five-river pattern of the Punjab and the riverine zone of Sind, the two being separated one from the other at the Indus bottleneck over the Sukkhur-Rohri gorge. Here the western Sulaiman Range takes a long loop to come close to the Thar desert on the east. The Punjab plain looks eastward towards Delhi gap while the Sind delta has always allowed an overflow of population towards Kutch and Saurashtra. The Thar desert has acted as a possible line of demar­cation but in historical periods it has become a refuge zone for the stalwart Rajputs. The quickest comparison in history can be made with the Scythian advance through Sind into Gujarat and through Punjab into the Mathura region. The two were simultaneous but it seems there was hardly any inter-relation. The same probably was true during the Bronze Age.

Again the Punjab itself is not a united cultural zone. Even today its population, languages and geography are much varied. At least we can show that west of the Jhelam River and north of the Salt Range it is all rocky country. No great rivers flow here and the subsoil rests thinly on a geological forma­tion which still baffles the geologists. The loess deposited during the Pleistocene has cre­ated several terraces and hardy people have played their role to bring it under cultivation. But they have survived more because of their military spirit and it is this spirit which has won for them a royal rank, as in the case of the Gukkhurs. It is in this zone that Taxila is situated but that has been the only urban center here: Taxila, Rawalpindi and Islam­abad all being in the same general area. On the other hand the eastern plain in the Punjab has a different pattern of urbanization:

Harappa, Multan and Lahore are some of the focal centers. The Punjab plain follows the river course and converges near Multan, skirts the Salt Range and spreads along the Sind Sagar Doab, even crossing the Indus over to the Gomel Valley where a form of Punjabi is still spoken by a heterogenous population.

The trans-Indus region, now in the North­west Frontier Province, is a long undulating plain spreading south of the Salt Range from a point about twenty miles north of Bannu to about one hundred and thirty miles across the district of Dera Ismail Khan, but with a width ranging from twenty to thirty miles. Lying at the foot of Takht-i-Sulaiman, it is the most attractive expanse of earth for the hill tribes­men of the west, who have nothing else to live for except trade through the passes of Gomal and Kurrum. The Salt Range is a unique feature in the Indus Basin, the human impor­tance of which has not been properly assessed, except for the exploitation of salt. The area north of the Salt Range is a world apart from that to its south. In the Frontier Province this Range has defined the eternal rivalry between the north and the south right down to the present time. The Khattaks of the south and the Yusufzais of the north have been perma­nent competitors and rivals. The rocky saltish zone of the Khattaks has nothing to offer them and hence they have been flocking to the army from time immemorial, while the north incorporates the fertile Doab of the lower Kabul Valley, the beautiful land of Swat, the narrow opening of Panchkora and the vast land of Bajaur around Jandul River—all within the ancient Gandhara. Could we expect Gandhara in the southern zone? There is no evidence to support it. It is this Gand­hara, i.e. the Peshawar Valley, that has ex­tended towards Taxila north of the Salt Range. There has also been a reverse traffic. It is along this traffic that the famous Khyber Pass lies, while to the south of the Salt Range lie the Gomel and the Kurrum Passes that take the caravans direct from the Ghazni-Kanda­har side to the Punjab Plain and even beyond to the east.

Baluchistan is separated by the Kirthar Range from lowland Sind. Here the mountains swerve from the centrally located Kalat height—the home of the Brahui—into west­ward curves and follow the alignment of the Makran Coast. Small hill streams push through the broken ranges to meet the Arabian Sea and it is along these streams that settlements are seen. Away from the streams it is all desert. Movement from Iran through Balu­chistan cannot be in a straight line. It must follow the path of the valleys and low passes. The central zone of Kalat is a refuge area where many cultural traditions have been preserved. Quetta, at the head of the Bolan Pass, divides the Sulaiman Range from north­ern Baluchistan. Migration has taken place along the Zhob River towards the Gomal Plain. Hence the Baluchis have flocked to Dera Ismail Khan during the historical period. At the same time the Baluchis are no less in number in Sind. In fact the Baluchis in Sind outnumber their own population in their own home of Baluchistan. Also having a zone in eastern Iran, they are a scattered population cut up into different pockets of settlement as the nature of the earth has permitted.

These sub-regions have their own forms of cultural expression. In this enumeration we have omitted the northern hilly areas as they played little part during the Bronze Age. It is because of these varying geographic factors that there is differentiation in cultural activ­ity. There are differences in the levels of development. There are survivals of a hoary past. In spite of great empire building by the Achaemenians, the Greeks and the Kushanas, the great cultural influences exerted by Bud­dhism and Islam, ethno-cultural and socio­cultural differences mark out the sub-regions. If this is the situation today, what could it have been during the Bronze Age?


If we sit in the beautiful campus of Peshawar University at the mouth of Khyber Pass or at the cantonment in Quetta at the head of Bolan Pass, we hear the stories and sense the presence of the people coming from Central Asia. No wonder that Qissa Khwani (story-teller’s) Bazar is found in Peshawar. The Ganges Valley—the heart of India—is far away. The western hilly borderland, which has given a concept of limited geographic horizon to the classic Indian writers, is no border for the tribal peoples who have been moving freely up and down the land from time immemorial. The hilly paths are the nerves of their life and the hill plateaus their rendezvous. The Indus Plain is the land of the Abasin—the father river—the holy shrine because it is here that they get food. The valley plain of the Indus cannot be separated from the western hills. The peoples have mixed in history so much that they have cre­ated a new ethnic population. In the remote hill plateaus we may discover a survival of older tribes but their own cousins, when they move down to the plains, soon lose their identity in the developing agricultural-indus­trial complex of the society. But all the same the isolated pockets keep up their individu­ality. The Indus system is forced to look west­ward and establish relations with peoples in Central Asia. This is why land routes have played an important part in the development of cultural activity in the Indus Basin. The Gangetic system may offer its peaceful mission or its socio-cultural and socio-economic re­sources, but the western forces hold the key to the understanding of the Indus people, and it is these forces which decide whether they should participate in this give-and-take from the east or remain confined to its own bounds. A study of the Shahanushahis of the Indus Basin presents a unique lesson for the modern period.

The west definitely provides the key for the understanding of the Indus system and Indus archaeology has the clue to solve many of the problems of Indian cultural evolution. In order to understand the Indus we have to look to the physical features that open up routes to the west. The central massif of Afghanistan has proved to be a great barrier for the movement of people from the heart of Asia to the Indus. Lucky adventurers have crossed over the Hindukush. But the greater human movement has been across Herat into the Kandahar-Ghazni Plain and from thence the routes open up towards the Indus. The Iranian desert has again proved to be a less attractive path and, as for crossing Baluch­istan, we know only of Muhammad bin Qasim’s march in the early eighth century A.D. and the adventurous return march of Alexander the Great. Both were forced to follow this path because of some strategic reason and both succeeded as they had a sav­ing flank on the Arabian coastline. It was a military march, such as was done much later by the British across Bolan Pass and beyond Quetta into Afghanistan. The route through Baluchistan along the Makran Coast could never be an attractive prospect. It is easier to come by sea and it is probably for this reason that we are now finding more and more mate­rial of Bronze Age contact with the Indus in the Persian Gulf than in the supposed line of route along the Zagros. Poor and ill-equipped caravans do march even today from Bampur eastward, but there is greater activity and direct contact with the Argandhab-Helmand Valley in southern Afghanistan. Those who have gone to Multan to study the activities of such business families as the Parachas or the Chinotis easily understand the impor­tance of the caravans that take off from the traditional Khorasan and unload in Multan or the other cities of Punjab. Multan, the root place as Alberuni explains, has been a link in the great historical movement of peoples, saints, missionaries and merchandise between the southern part of Afghanistan and the Indus plains. While Quetta opens the routes to the smaller valleys in Baluchistan and over the marauding paths of Bolan and Mule to lowland Sind, the Gomel and the Kurrum Passes at once bring the caravans into the lush green plains west of the Indus, and here again there is a wide choice after cross­ing the Indus. One can go straight on to Multan and Harappa and even beyond to the plains of Satlej and the now dried-up Saras­vati and Drishadvati Rivers of Vedic fame; one can follow the Indus downward and enter deltaic Sind; or one can cross over the Salt Range a little beyond the ancient site of Musakhel and pass on to Taxila, the center of activity within this zone. What about Khyber? The earliest recorded evidence of its use comes from the pen of Babur, the first Mogul ruler in India (A.D. 1483-1530). No wonder that the pattern associated with the Indus Civilization has not been traced in Gandhara. The earliest cultural material of the Bronze Age has been found by the Italians in the Ghalegai cave in Swat but that is just a back­water wash from the developed region of the Indus plains. Much later we find here a new complex of the Bronze Age, termed the Gandhara Grave Culture.


The Indus Basin has had overland con­nections with the west as well as a sea route along the coast. Of the overland routes the Khyber Pass was the least attractive, because of certain physical features in Afghanistan which compelled the converging area to be around the Kandahar-Ghazni Plain. From this station it was possible to push over to Quetta, if the objective was limited to the small Baluchistan valleys or a dash to the Indus delta. On the other hand, the Gomal and the Kurrum Passes opened up the vast expanse of the alluvial plain where man could settle down and take advantage of the natural fertility of the soil. We have earlier noted the threefold direction trend in this area. It is along these routes that the earliest archae­ological sites of the Bronze Age are now being discovered. If overland contact was respon­sible for the origin of these cultures, these passes have the first choice. It is on their lines that we have traced the remains of the so-called Kot Diji culture. On the other hand, the overland route through Baluchistan gets bogged down in the labyrinth of hill ranges and numerous hill streams. From here a dash to the Indus delta is rare but a reverse move­ment from the delta to Baluchistan is more profitable in terms of mineral resources. As opposed to this, the urbanity of the Indus Civilization is well grounded on the Indus plains. It is a stage far ahead of Kot Diji. As the development is seen straight up along the river plains and only later spreads into Balu­chistan and the Gujarat area, it seems to follow the pattern of a perpendicular stretch on a coastal base. Where should we start—on the base or over the perpendicular apex? The coast had the advantage of direct sea connection with the west while the perpen­dicular could root itself on the main resources of the Indus plains. In the earlier case of the Kot Diji culture the overland route was more important, but in the present case of the Indus Civilization the coast opens a brighter pros­pect for throwing light on the origin. As the distribution of the two cultures is different, the explanation must be sought differently.


The barren uplands of Baluchistan have held the archaeologists’ interest for many years although this area has yielded only small sites. They need not take priority over the good soil of the plains where alone an urban civilization could possibly develop. While the hill plateaus maintained a precari­ous life, it was the valley plain that forged ahead towards a real stage of urban develop­ment. This development shows two trends—one inclines towards the overland route and the second establishes a direct link with the overseas centers in western Asia. As far as smaller isolated human settlements are con­cerned, they could flourish in the hill plateaus or in the hill slopes. It required a tremendous effort to transform the early agriculturists into a coherent integrated urbanized civilization.

We thus have varying patterns in the Bronze Age Cultures of the Indus Basin. If we desire to trace their origins, this geographic perspective has to be kept in view.

Cite This Article

Dani, Ahman Hasad. "Origins of Bronze Age Cultures in the Indus Basin." Expedition Magazine 17, no. 2 (January, 1975): -. Accessed July 14, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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