The Bronze Age in India: History, Culture & Technology

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Bronze-Age civilizations around the world share many traits in common. India's Bronze-Age civilizations share some of these traits, but are completely unique in other ways. In this lesson, we'll examine this ancient and enigmatic world.

India's Bronze Age

In a way, you're in a unique position to understand people who lived 5,000 years ago. Today, we're undergoing a technological revolution with communications media that's fundamentally changing the world. People 5,000 ago were experiencing major technological changes, too. In their case, however, it wasn't the internet that reshaped their world. It was bronze.

In the Indian subcontinent, the Bronze Age began roughly 3,300 BCE, and lasted to roughly 1,300 BCE. It's worth noting that southern India never really experienced this phase, jumping instead straight from the Copper Age to the Iron Age, so we'll mostly be focusing on the Bronze Age of northern India and Pakistan. This era was characterized by huge changes in societies, and while we call it the Bronze Age, the dispersal of metal tools was just one innovation in a world that also saw the first major period of urbanization. For people of the Indian subcontinent, their entire world was about to change.

Early Bronze Age and the Rise of the Indus Valley

So, how exactly does a Bronze Age begin? There are two notable shifts that define this transition. First is the development of metallurgy and, specifically, the ability to work bronze. Second is urbanization and the creation of cities with more complex social and political structures. Some of the earliest evidence of both of these in the Indian subcontinent occurred at Kot Diji, a site in modern-day Pakistan. Here, around 3,300 BCE, we see bronze being used for jewelry and early signs of urbanization.

What attracted people to this site was likely its proximity to the Indus River. This is a trend around the world. As ancient people first started urbanizing, they often did so in fertile river valleys that had access to lots of fresh water, good land for farming, and other resources. It wasn't long before the trends started at Kot Diji expanded along the Indus River, and the subcontinent's first major civilizations emerged.

Harappan Civilization

So, who were these people? We generally call the Indus River Valley civilizations the Harappan people, named after the first of their cities to be rediscovered, Harappa (also in modern-day Pakistan). Harappa developed into a major urban center around 2,600 BCE, along with several other cities like Mohenjo Daro. The Harappan people lived on their productive agriculture but were highly urbanized, conducting most of their affairs within their cities.

The Great Baths of Mohenjo Daro

All Harappan cities were well organized, laid out in grid patterns, with spaces set aside for public baths, ritual centers, and markets. Everything was so uniform that even the bricks of nearly every Harappan city were identical in dimension and method of construction. There was also a standardized system of weights shared throughout the region.

All of this points to a high degree of interaction between Harappan cities, and some archaeologists think they know why: trade. Harappan cities were clearly major centers of commerce, with trade being a huge part of urban life. In fact, there's evidence of Harappan products being traded as far away as Mesopotamia.

Other interesting artifacts from Harappan cities include potter's wheels, bronze and clay statuettes of people, lots of beads and jewelry, and even children's toys, the most famous being a ceramic dog on a leash. Yes, the Harappans had pet dogs. They also had a writing system, although we don't yet know how to read it.

Harappan seals with their mysterious script

The Mystery of Harappan Civilization

Clearly, the Harappans had a sophisticated culture, one of art and religion and commerce. All of this, however, just leads to more questions about Harappa, notably because it seems to lack one thing that every other Bronze-Age urban civilization in the world had: a government.

When we examine Harappan cities, a few things seem to be missing. There are no clear palaces or temples. There are no massive tombs. There are no large statues of individual people. Overall, there's no evidence of a king, priest-ruler, or even council that acted as a true government anywhere in Harappan civilization.

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