Indus Valley Civilisation – Economic Life – Trade and Commerce

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Political Organisations/Municipalities

De­spite a growing body of archaeological evidence, the social and political structures of the Indus culture remain objects of conjecture. The apparent craft specialisation, along with the great divergence in house types and size, points to some degree of social stratification. Trade was extensive and apparently well-regulated.

The remarkable uniformity of weights and measures and development of many civil works such as construction of great granaries, imply a strong degree of political and administrative control over a wide area.

Further, the widespread occurrence of inscriptions in the Harappan script almost certainly indicates the use of a single lingua franca, a sign of social coherence.

Economic Life

The nature of the Indus civilization’s agricultural system is still largely a matter of conjecture due to the paucity of information surviving through the ages. Some speculation is possible, however.

The Indus civilization agriculture must have been highly productive; after all, it was capable of generating surpluses sufficient to support tens of thousands of urban residents who were not primarily engaged in agriculture.

It relied on the considerable technological achievements of the pre-Harappan culture, including the plough. Very little is known about the farmers who supported the cities or their agricultural methods. Some of them undoubtedly made use of the fertile alluvial soil left by rivers after the flood season, but this simple method of agriculture is not thought to be productive enough to support cities. There is no evidence of irrigation, any such evidence could have been obliterated by repeated, catastrophic floods.

The Indus civilization appears to contradict the hypothesis of the origin of urban civilization and the state. According to this hypothesis, cities could not have arisen without irrigation systems capable of generating massive agricultural surpluses. To build these systems, a despotic, centralized state emerged that was capable of suppressing the social status of thousands of people and harnessing their labor as slaves. It is very difficult to square this hypothesis with what is known about the Indus civilization, as there is no evidence of kings, slaves, or forced mobilization of labor.

It is often assumed that intensive agricultural production requires dams and canals. This assumption is easily refuted. Instead of building canals, the Indus civilization people may have built water diversion schemes, which, like terrace agriculture, can be elaborated by generations of small-scale labor investments.

In addition, it is known that the Indus civilization people practiced rainfall harvesting, a powerful technology that was brought to fruition by classical Indian civilization but nearly forgotten in the twentieth century. It should be remembered that Indus civilization people, like all peoples in South Asia, built their lives around the monsoon, a weather pattern in which the bulk of a year’s rainfall occurs in a four-month period. At a recently discovered Indus civilization city in western India, archaeologists discovered a series of massive reservoirs, hewn from solid rock and designed to collect rainfall, that would have been capable of meeting the city’s needs during the dry season.

Trade and Commerce

The Harappan cities were bustling centers of industry, trade and commerce. Carpenters, metal-smiths, weavers, gold-smiths and jewellers produced goods of high quality which were in demand within as well as outside the Harappan territory.

Government and municipal servants regulated and maintained municipal services, weight and measures and trade routes.

Merchants carried on trade in cotton as well as finished goods within and outside the country. Bullock carts, pack animals, boats and sea – going ships were used to transport goods. Objects like pottery, stone beads and metal – ware originating in one region but found in other cities are evidence of extensive trade. Harappan type seals found at Bahrain and in Mesopotamian cities provide evidence of extensive overseas trade.

Cotton was the most important item of export. Lapis lazuli was imported from Central Asia, gold from Karnataka and copper and possibly, also tin, from Mesopotamian.

Seals were affixed by merchants to bales or parcels of their goods as trademarks or proofs of ownership.


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