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D.P. Agrawal

Transport in the far-Flung Harappan Territory

When one considers the huge areal extent of the Harappan zone of more than a million sq km, one wonders how the Harappans managed with the slow transport at their disposal. It is obvious that t he largest cities and towns of the Indus Valley were situated at strategic locations along the major river systems and coastal areas where they could control the movements of goods and raw materials along the trade routes. Kenoyer points out that as the cities were built on enormous mud-brick platforms high above the flood waters, they had a vantage point from which to view the surrounding plains. Towers rising above the city walls allowed the guards to signal the approach of river boats and caravans bringing goods to the cities.

In the Harappan territory the trading season could begin only after the monsoon rains were over and the flooded rivers had returned to their beds. The monsoon rains caused muddy roads and swollen rivers which made travel difficult, if not impossible. Only after the monsoon, when the roads dried and the mountain landslides stopped, the caravans of pack animals,

(oxen, sheep and goat) could bring copper, precious stones, wool, fruit and nuts from the highland plateaus to the west. On the plains, long lines of carts pulled by humped zebu cattle carried heavy goods to the cities from the rural farmlands and nearby towns. Porters with wooden poles and suspended baskets must have hauled trade goods to the markets, returning home with grain and other commodities.

As most of the Harappan zone comprised flat alluvial plains, the Indus people could use a variety of two-wheeled carts, as depicted by their terracotta representations. Kenoyer informs that carts for transporting heavy goods were made in at least five different styles, which were possibly used by different ethnic communities or by different social classes. In Pakistan today, the carts made in different parts of the Indus Valley have distinctive designs, and each different community has its own style of decorating or carving. Some terracotta toy oxcarts have solid floors and side bars; others have hollow frames and holes for setting removable sidings. The ancient oxcarts would have been made from wood, with leather and sinew bindings for the harnesses. The heavy axle and solid wheel were probably joined together, rotating as a single unit like the traditional oxcarts still used in Sindh today. But now the evidence of spoked toy wheels from Banawali raises the possibility of the use of lighter carts. This simple construction is quite well adapted to the wide sandy plains, where wide turns are the norm and a squeaking axle does not bother anybody. The cart tracks at the excavated sites indicate that the ancient carts were about 1.6 meters wide.

The bronze models from Harappa and Chanhudaro however show another type of two-wheeled cart. The driver sits on a ledge at the front, and a small cabin with side bars provides a protected place for riders or perishable goods. Similar covered carts are used in Pakistan and India for long journeys or on special occasions such as weddings.

It is intriguing to note that during most of the Harappan period there is no evidence for the use of the camel in long-distance transport. The domesticated two-humped Bactrian camel was however known in the highlands of Central Asia , and the one-humped dromedary camel was probably being used in the desert regions of Arabia . Only towards the end of the Mature Harappan period camels appear. This must have far reaching impact on the organization of inland trade. Kenoyer categorically says that the horse is another animal that was known in Central Asia during this time but was never used nor depicted in the art of the Indus Valley until long after the decline of the Indus cities. A K Sharma however has reported true horse from Surkotada, though the bones are more likely to be of onager (wild ass) which is common in that area.

As far as river transport is concerned, the flat-bottomed river boats probably carried most of the trade goods up and down the Indus Valley . Flotillas of boats must have carried trade goods down the river to the coast to meet up with the merchants bringing goods from Kachchh and far away Oman . The ancient Indus boats as depicted on seals and moulded tablets have cabins, with ladders to the roof and a high-seated platform at the stern from which the large rudder could be manipulated. The legacy continues as the modern river boats in Pakistan have the same basic features, because this type of boat is perfectly adapted to the shifting sandbars and slow-moving waters of the Indus and its tributaries. Kenoyer and his team have reported clay models of river boats from the recent excavations at Harappa, but no actual boat remains have been recovered yet. Of course the sea-going vessels would have differed from river boats and must have had sails as well as keels to withstand ocean swells. A small model of a high-prowed sailboat was found at Lothal, but there are hardly any other representations. The monsoon period would have had a determining effect on the timing of the seasonal trade by sea. The monsoon winds pick up in late May or June and subside in August. The last boats would have traveled back to the Indus Valley from Oman with the weak southwesterly winds at the beginning of the monsoon. After August the boats would be confined to the coasts once again. As indicated by the Indus trade many Indus ships may have sailed on up the Persian Gulf to the port cities of Mesopotamia at the mouth of the Tigris Euphrates Rivers. Obviously the Harappans had the navigation technology to carry out long distance marine trade.


Kenoyer, Jonathan.1998. Rules and Traders of the Indus Cities. In Indus Valley Civilization . New Delhi : Oxford University Press. Pp. 89-90.