Art and Architecture of Indus Valley Civilization (Harappan Civilization)


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Prelims:  History of India

Mains:  Indian Culture: Architecture from ancient to modern times

The Indus Valley/Harappan civilisation was the first urban civilisation in South Asia, coexisting with Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Harappan civilisation occupied the largest area (approximately 8,00,000 sq km) among the three civilisations. It made noteworthy contributions to the art and architecture of the ancient history of India.

Nature of the Art and Architecture of the Indus Valley Civilisation

  • Arts: Artists of the Indus Valley civilisation era had fine artistic sensibilities and a vivid imagination evident from the anatomical details included in the unique arts, their delineation of human and animal figures was highly realistic in nature, and in the case of terracotta art, the modeling of animal figures was done with extreme care.
  • Architecture: The architecture of the Indus Valley Civilization was very unique. The architecture during this time was used for the purpose of functions and not for beauty or decoration. The evolution of the architecture of civilization occurs in isolation. It has been influenced by the local cultures, which prevailed previously years back of the first farming and pastoralist settlements.

Architecture of Harappan Civilization

The Harappan culture was distinguished by its system of town planning on the lines of the grid system – that is, streets and lanes cutting across one another almost at right angles, thus dividing the city into several rectangular blocks.

  • The Pattern of Houses: Many of the cities of the Indus Valley civilization were divided into two or more parts: the citadel and the lower town
    • It is believed that the citadel was a fortified settlement and comprised of some chief structures, such as the great bath and the warehouse, while the lower town consisted of houses and workshops. 
    • Only 6 citadels have been found, showing that only priests or higher classes used to live there.
  • The pattern of streets and roads: Indus Valley streets and roads were straight and cutting each other at a right angle. The roads were built using burnt bricks.
  • Drainage system: The drainage system of Indus Valley civilization connected all houses to the street drains, which were covered by stone slabs or bricks. Houses with single, double, and more rooms attached with a very good drainage system were found in many of the sites of the Indus Valley.
  • Burial sites: At burials in Harappan sites, the dead were generally laid in pits. Some graves contain pottery and ornaments, indicating a belief that these could be used in the afterlife. Jewellery has been found in burials of both men and women. In the excavations at the cemetery in Harappa in the mid-1980s, an ornament consisting of three shell rings, a jasper (a kind of semi-precious stone) bead and hundreds of microbeads was found near the skull of a male.

Great Bath at Mohenjo Daro

Great Bath at Mohenjo Daro

  • Great Bath was a large rectangular tank in a courtyard surrounded by a corridor on all four sides. There were two flights of steps on the north and south sides going into the tank, which was made watertight by laying bricks around the perimeter and using gypsum mortar.

Great Granary

Great Granary

  • One of the biggest granary sites found in the Indus Valley at Mohenjo Daro. Almost every site found in excavation witnesses the system of Granary or Warehouses.
  • Most staple food, such as rice, wheat, and barley, was stored in these warehouses.

Dockyard at Lothal

Dockyard at Lothal

  • Lothal was a port town of the Harappans. It is located in a low deltaic area in the Saurashtra peninsula. It is believed that the sea was once much closer to the site.
  • This place seems to have been an outpost for sea trade with contemporary West Asian societies. The researchers have discovered a dockyard in Lothal.

Arts and Artifacts of the Indus Valley Civilization

During the second half of the third millennium BCE, the arts of the Indus Valley Civilisation emerged. Sculptures, seals, pottery, gold jewellery, terracotta figures, and other forms of art have been discovered at various sites throughout the civilisation.

Stone statues
  • The three-dimensional stone statues have been discovered at the sites of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.
  • Two male figures in stone have been found: 
    • Torso in red sandstone
    • Bust of a bearded man in a steatite.
Bronze Casting
  • The bronze statues were made using the ‘lost wax’ technique.
  • Both human, as well as animal figures, were made out of bronze.
    • Some bronze motifs included: ‘Dancing Girl,’ Buffalo, and Goat.
    • The copper dog and bird of Lothal and the bronze figure of a bull from Kalibangan.
    • Copper tablets with an animal or a human figure on one side and an inscription on the other, or an inscription on both sides, have also been found
Terracotta figures
  • The terracotta representations of the human form are crude in the Indus Valley.
    • More realistic motifs were found in Gujarat sites and Kalibangan.
  • Important terracotta motifs included: 
    • Mother goddess
    • Bearded males with coiled hair
    • A terracotta mask of a horned deity
    • Toys: Toy carts with wheels, whistles, rattles, birds and animals, gamesmen and discs.
  • Thousands of seals have been discovered on various Harappan sites. 
  • Materials: The seals were usually made of steatite and occasionally of agate, chert, copper, faience gold, ivory, and terracotta.
  • Steatite, a soft stone found in the river beds, was the most common material used to make seals.
  • Every seal is engraved in a pictographic script which is yet to be deciphered.
    • Animal motifs on the seals: 
      • The seals had carvings of beautiful figures of animals, such as unicorn bulls, rhinoceros, tigers, elephants, bison, goat, and buffalo.
  • Purpose: The seals served various purposes:
    • Mainly used for commercial purposes.
    • Also used as amulets: carried on the persons of their owners, perhaps as modern-day identity cards
  • Most remarkable seal: Pashupati Seal, is also identified as a female deity. It has various animal motifs, such as elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, buffalo and antelopes.
  • The art of pottery witnessed the gradual evolution of various design motifs as employed in different shapes and styles.
  • Characteristics: The IVC pottery consists chiefly of very fine wheel-made wares, very few being hand-made.
    • Plain pottery with red clay was more common than painted ware. It was confined to the use of vases, bases of the pans, and dishes of offering stands
    • Both polychrome and incised pottery were rare. 
    • Perforated pottery had a large hole at the bottom and small holes all over the wall, and was probably used for straining liquor
Ornaments used by the Harrapans
  • Beads and Ornaments: The Harappan men and women decorated themselves with a large variety of ornaments produced from every conceivable material.
    • Ornaments and materials: Necklaces, fillets, armlets and finger-rings, girdles, earrings and anklets were made in gold and copper.
    • Beads were made of cornelian, amethyst, jasper, crystal, quartz, steatite, turquoise, and lapis lazuli.
  • Major sites: Beads making industry at: Chanhudaro and Lothal.
  • Spindle whorls: The spindle whorls were made of terracotta and faience. These were primarily used for spinning thread.



  • The Harappan script is not yet completely deciphered. 
  • The number of signs ranges between 400 and 600, with 40 or 60 being fundamental and the remainder being modifications. 
  • The majority of the script was written from right to left
  • The script style of the Indus Valley Civilization is Boustrophedon, which means written from right to left in the first line and left to right in the second line. Table: Art and Architecture of the Indus Valley Civilization

What is the Significance of Harappan Art and Architecture?

  • Foundation for civilisations: One of the earliest notable urban civilisations is the Harappan civilisation. It set out the routines, perspectives, responses, and standards that served as the foundation for the following eras in Indian history.
  • Brotherhood: The artefacts from the Harappan civilisation reveal that there was remarkably little intergroup violence despite centuries of immigration, climatic changes, and social, political, and economic upheavals. As a result, this culture valued brotherhood, and excess wealth did not lead to economic divisions.
  • Urban architecture: In many ways, this culture serves as an exceptional model for the modern world. The Harappans were unmatched experts in drainage systems, water harvesting and management systems, and town planning. This laid the foundations for present-day urban planning. 
  • Sanitation: The perfection of the drainage system and the private bathrooms in every home show how important cleanliness and hygiene were to the Harappans. As a result, the Harappan civilisation laid the groundwork for both individual and societal hygiene in urban planning.
  • Secular: From the discovery at any of the Harappan sites, it is clear that religious discrimination was largely absent and that social ties and notions of the fraternity were stronger.
  • External relations: The first urban civilisation in India to establish trade relations with other countries was the Harappan civilisation. It thus paved the way for emerging civilisations to strengthen their ties with the outside world. In a sense, this serves as the foundation for modern globalisation.

PYQs on Architecture of Harappan Civilization

Q) Regarding the Indus Valley Civilization, consider the following statements: (Prelims, 2011)

  1. It was predominantly a secular civilisation and the religious element, though present, did not dominate the scene.
  2. During this period, cotton was used for manufacturing textiles in India.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 nor 2

Q) Which of the following characterise/characterises the people of Indus Civilization? (Prelims, 2013)

  1. They possessed great palaces and temples.
  2. They worshipped both male and female deities.
  3. They employed horse-drawn chariots in warfare.

Select the correct statement/ statements using the codes given below.

(a) 1 and 2 only

(b) 2 only

(c) 1, 2 and 3

(d) None of the above

Q) To what extent has the urban planning and culture of the Indus Valley Civilization provided inputs to present-day urbanisation? Discuss. (Mains, 2014)

Q) The ancient civilisation in the Indian sub-continent differed from those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece in that its culture and traditions have been preserved without breakdown to the present day. Comment. (Mains, 2015)

FAQs on Architecture of Harappan Civilization

Q) At which Harappan site was the dancing girl sculpture discovered?

One of the best-known artefacts from the Indus Valley, the copper figure of a dancing girl, was found in Mohenjo Daro.

Q) Which language was the Harappan script written in?

The Harappan script has still to be fully deciphered. The script was mostly written from right to left. In a few long seals, the boustrophedon method – writing in the reverse direction in alternative lines - was adopted.