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Review: The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Possehl, G.L. 2003. Oxford: Altamira. Pp. 276. Figures 188. Price not mentioned.
by D.P. Agrawal

Possehl is a very familiar name in Indian Archaeology. He has been working here for decades now. Though he has not excavated any major Harappan site, he has developed a formidable expertise in the Indus Civilization studies and has produced several volumes on Indus Civilization and related subjects. His works are always marked by an astounding documentation and data presentation, and thus clearly betray his almost perfect data storage and retrieval systems. He has also access to expert draftsmen of the University Museum. His books therefore are always full of well-organised data and excellent illustrations. The Indus Civilization, though relatively small in size, carries about 200 illustrations.

In this book he also gives a fair historical account of the major scholars whose efforts have produced what we know today about the Harappans. He does not believe that the transition between Early and Mature Harappan is well understood so far. He does not think that this transition was simple and smooth; perhaps it was accompanied by violence.

He has been successful in showing a continuous development in the north-west of the continent from the Mesolithic to the Urban economies. He deliberately demolishes, and successfully too, the generally held view that the Harappan phenomena was an abrupt emergence. He is also aware of the marked contrast between the glamour and wealth of Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Indus Civilization, which was something of a faceless sociocultural system where even prominent individuals did not emerge from the archaeological data.

Unlike his earlier writings, this book belongs to a different genre. It is marked by a rare insight and breadth of vision. It appears as if he has mastered the language through which the Harappan artefacts speak, even though the Indus script is still undeciphered. His interpretations and reconstructions of the data make one feel that he has developed an intimacy and rapport with the Harappans. His deep involvement with the Harappans seems to have given him a divyadrsihti, which allows him to visualise their life and society. The author makes one feel that his reconstructions are just natural.

He has taken up the formidable challenge of defining the Harappan ideology and I would say that he has largely succeeded in delineating even such a nebulous concept. He explains, "But the configuration of the book, and the presentation of Ancient India's earliest urban landscape, is new, especially in my attempts to begin to deal with the ideology of the Indus peoples."

Thus in this book the author emerges as a cultural anthropologist who is more concerned about the humans and their society, rather than as an artefact-morphology obsessed archaeologist. The author however is fair in giving different views. Whatever type of data one is looking for – be it human sculptures or settlement sizes – he produces exhaustive tables and figures. Of course it is supposed to be a book aimed at layman but there is ample material for everyone, from layman to a scholar. Towards the end he also tries to shock the reader with his startling observations and conclusions – in complete contrast to the received wisdom about the Harappans. For example, he emphatically says that priest kings did not rule the Indus Civilization; the cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa were not twin capitals of a vast empire; their high mounds were not citadels; there was no granary; the Indus cities were not planned with a grid layout etc. Though, I am afraid, his own assertions sometimes contradict him. His beloved city of Mohenjodaro itself was laid out on a virgin soil in a planned manner.


He gives due attention to the socio-economy of the people and thinks that the Indus peoples mostly were farmers and herders. Most Indus agricultural activities took place during the winter rabi season. The active floodplains and the areas directly adjacent to them were most intensely cultivated during the rabi season. Whether rice was a cultivar of significance during the Mature Harappan has yet to be determined. Barley seems to have been the principal food grain. They grew dates and grapes and collected the Indian jujube (ber). African millets appear in the Indus Civilization. The plants, with their Hindi-Urdu names, are sorghum or jowar, pearl millet or bajra, and finger millet or ragi. The importance of these plants is that they are summer grasses that prosper during the southwest monsoon; wheat and barley, which are winter grasses, thrive as monsoon crops. The millets thus led to or year-round cropping and were important additions to the prehistoric food supply. Indus peoples apparently grew cotton for its fibre and perhaps for its oil. There is good evidence of the use of cotton cloth at Mohenjodaro. Fibres were found in four contexts there.

The Hrappans were also great fish eaters, exploiting the rivers and lakes, especially in Sindh. Large fish vertebrae have been found at some Kutch Harappan sites. Salted and/or dried fish were traded over large distances during the Mature Harappan as documented by the presence of a marine species of catfish at Harappa. In the Suarashtra region, the people were cattle keepers par excellence who also raised goats, sheep, water buffalo, and a variety of crops. Cattle remains are consistently one-half or more of the faunal remains from Indus sites. Pigs may not have been domesticated, but pig remains and figurines document their use. The Indus peoples domesticated the chicken and kept several breeds of dogs and possibly house cats. Camels may also have been domesticated. Camel remains that have been found may be either the dromedary or Bactrian species.

The horse is quite a polemical topic because of the politics of Aryans. Possehl declares, "As far as I can tell, there are lots of asses documented at Indus settlements, but no domestic horses (Equus caballus)."

His main inferences about the Indus peoples thus are: The first, and perhaps most important, conclusion would be that the Indus peoples, as well as their immediate predecessors in the long pre-urban period of gestation, have features that physical anthropologists associate with food-producing peoples. This includes a general reduction in tooth size, a high incidence of dental caries, as well as the loss of significant prognathism. He also thinks that the Harappans and their predecessors represent a population, or populations, that are quite stable. He gives an important message for archaeologists: Whatever the racial origins of the Harappans may have been, they were a relatively stable population inhabiting the northern and north-western sectors of the Subcontinent for several millennia prior to their climactic moment of urbanization.

Thus he shows a complementarity of settled agriculture and pastoralism in the lives of the Indus peoples.


The chapter on technology however is rather weak, though the author does recognize its importance in the Harappan society. He says,

"One of the most interesting features of the Indus Civilization is the range of new technologies associated with it. The craft specialists of the Indus Civilization were technological virtuosos. There was, for example, a significant increase in the ability of these peoples to control heat and direct it to pyrotechnology. This is best exemplified in their metal work and the development of bronze. But it is also apparent in the advancements they made with faience and stoneware, clear steps upward on the pyrotechnological ladder. Other significant technologies associated with the Indus are as follows:

  • City planning and the construction of large buildings from baked brick
  • The technology needed for the excavation of brick-lined wells
  • Urban drainage systems
  • Manufacture of very long, hard stone beads, including the sophisticated drilling technology
  • Spectacular pyrotechnological achievement along a number of fronts
  • Mastery of maritime sailing

He gives brief glimpses of the various technologies of the Indus peoples.

Glass/Fayence: There is no true glass from the Indus Age, but there is much faience. Faience technology, which implies an ability to reach a controlled temperature of 1200 degrees Celsius, begins in the Early Harappan, as at Kalibangan.

Pottery: Regarding the ceramic techniques, Possehl says that during the Early and Mature Harappan periods the pots have unmistakable signs that they were formed on a wheel. Some of the Mature Harappan pots are quite large: a meter or so tall and about that diameter. Mackay noted that these pots were made in sections he called "coiled strips of clay." R. Wright tells us that they were made in three separate parts: the base, the body, and the rim. The base was made in a chuck. There are no fully developed glazes of the Indus Age. One ceramic generally called Reserved Slipped Ware does have a kind of crypto-glaze.

There is a variety of painted wares and motifs at Mature Harappan sites. Some of these seem to be intrusive, clearly having been made elsewhere and transported to a new "home." The occasional Kulli-style sherd has been found in the Indus Valley, even at Mohenjodaro. There was also a great deal of line painting on pots during the Mature Harappan. Slips on the pottery were also common, almost always red. Slips are a kind of paint used to cover all or virtually all of the visible surface of the pot. Possehl informs us that the pottery painting style of the Indus Civilization is found as a high proportion of the total pottery assemblage. The only site in Sindh where statistics are available is Allahdino, where it is 3 or 4 percent of the total inventory. Red-slipped pottery is about a quarter of the inventory there.

Art: The best the Indus Civilization sculptures are the red jasper torso from Harappa and the bronze dancing girl from HR Area of Mohenjodaro. In terms of its artistic merit, the jasper torso is comparable to the achievements made on the seals.

The differences between Harappa and Mohenjodaro in terms of the sculpture in the round is worthy of note. The red jasper torso and gray stone torso are the only pieces of note from Harappa, and there is nothing that is very much like them from Mohenjodaro. The two bronze dancing girls and the eleven other major pieces that have been found at Mohenjodaro are vastly larger in terms of number and once again do not have parallels at Harappa. The two cities that we know best are simply very different in terms of the corpus of sculpture in the round. There are many pieces in this repertoire of Harappan terra-cotta art that are alive with a sense of humour. These objects offer the most human face of the Indus Civilization, a sociocultural system that can often appear to be quite severe.

The author points out that there seems to be a great disparity between the very best of the art of the Mature Harappan and the rest. While the seals are numerous and demonstrate without doubt that there was widespread appreciation of art high-quality craftsmanship, the rest of the material by and large is of distinctly lesser merit.

Architecture: Possehl explains the enigmatic yet ubiquitous Harappan platforms. First, they elevated settlements as protection against floods. At, other times they served as solid, level foundations for buildings. These platforms, one side of which might be tens of meters long, also served the purpose of protecting one edge of a settled area from general erosion and of forming a manmade boundary, segregating a particular settled area from those around it. Finally, some of the platforms were substructures that elevated large sections of a settlement, as in the case of the Mound of the Great Bath. Massive platforms emerge at Mohenjodaro during the Mature Harappan as one of fundamental architectural principles on which the city was built.

Possehl points out that there are three oft-repeated misconceptions about the Indus architecture. These deal with the use of baked brick, the presence of a common pattern of civic organization, and the importance of grid town planning and design. The Indus settlement most like Mohenjodaro in layout is Kalibangan, but that is the only one with such close similarities. Thus, out of some 1,050 Mature Harappan sites there are two that are proved to conform to the pattern said to be typical of the civilization as a whole. The best example of Mature Harappan grid town planning is found at Mohenjodaro, although Kalibangan and Nausharo also provide good evidence for this practice.

The Polity

Possehl however does not believe that the Indus Civilization was a state. "There are no clear signs of kingship in the form of sculpture or palaces. There is no evidence for a state bureaucracy or the other trappings of 'stateness.' Nor is there evidence for a state religion in the form of large temples or other monumental public works…It is clear that the Indus Civilization is an example of archaic sociocultural complexity, just as complex in its own way as the archaic civilizations of Mesopotamia and Dynastic Egypt or the Maya and Inca of the New World. But the Indus Civilization was not organized as a state, if by state we adhere to the criteria previously outlined."

The author recognises the sociocultural complexity of the Indus Civilization. It expresses itself in the absence of the temples and other monumental buildings either for kings or priests. In fact, the religious and political institutions of the Indus Civilization express themselves in significantly different ways from all other civilizations of the ancient world.

He thinks that the Indus peoples tended to build new settlements, on fresh soil, abandoning their past in the form of the places that were home to their ancestors. The rate for the founding of Indus new settlements is significantly greater than that for the other stages of the Indus Age! He thinks that this kind of behaviour as "nihilistic," a concept with many connotations. The one used here is as an ideology that espouses great, even revolutionary, change, in a sociocultural system whose past has come to be seen as vacuous, baseless, even corrupt, or perhaps just wrong. Nihilists are those who attempt to deny their heritage and replace it with a new order, or ideology. He draws a significant inference, "This resonates with my strong sense that the Indus Civilization brings with it a sense of originality, something new and fresh. Nihilistic movements mayor may not be associated with violence. This is not the predominant theme that I see in the origins of the Indus Civilization, but I have already I noted that the Early Harappan-Mature Harappan Transition was a period of unusual conflagrations, and that may be telltale of the fact that Indus nihilism was not free of aggression."

Support for this proposition of ethnic diversity also can be obtained from the human skeletal record, which indicates some degree of biological diversity. One can also look to the representations of people in the figurines of the Mature Harappan. There is a good deal of diversity in dress, headgear, and hairstyles – all of which can be used as indicators of ethnicity.

He thus makes a very interesting observation that the Indus Civilization was an organisation of diversity: diversity of cultures, peoples and geography. Possehl however is conscious of the problems. He says, "The forces of intercommunication, diffusion, homogenisation, and regional unity are in constant, dynamic tension with local forces of parochialism and the need for group identity and solidarity. All of these forces are real and in some ways contradictory. Over the long duree of the Indus Age, they led to a kind of "unity of diversity" from the Mediterranean to the Indus. They also make telling the story of the Indus Age a difficult task, as one tries to seek and explain the roles of autochthonous and interregional culture processes."

The author has given a new meaning and importance to the Transition stage between the Early and Mature Harappan phases. He thinks that there may be some possible sociocultural implications of this transition as a link between the simple regional clans and lineages of the Early Harappan and the greater complexity of the Mature Harappan. He however concedes, "None of this should be elevated to the level of theory. The investigation of the Early Harappan-Mature Harappan Transition has only begun, and we know very little about it. But setting up models, proposing hypotheses, and anticipating data, enables progress in archaeology and other sciences to speculate on what might be found and then "digging" for it. The archaeological record does not speak for itself and little in it is inherently obvious."

He also briefly describes the nature of the major settlements like Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi etc. Of course Mohenjodaro is his special love.


Possehl declares, "For me, Mohenjodaro is the epitome of all Mature Harappan settlements. It is about 100 hectares in size and I suspect that it was founded in the Early Harappan-Mature Harappan Transition by a group of Harappan "true believers." The activities occurring at Mohenjodaro were the essence of Harappan life and ideology. While each Mature Harappan settlement has its own character as a settlement or an urban centre, Mohenjodaro symbolically represents a good deal of what it meant to be Harappan…This is the largest Bronze Age city in the world where one can walk down streets well defined by the high walls of homes and other buildings, climb the stairways used in antiquity, peer down ancient wells, and stand in bathing rooms used over 4,000 years ago. One feels a sense of being in a living community; Mohenjodaro is an extraordinary, unique place."

Jansen believes that the location of the wells throughout the city was also planned from the beginning. Water and the management of water have been proposed to have been central to the ideology of the Indus peoples. This is most fully expressed at Mohenjodaro, but is also found at many other Indus sites, most notably Dholavira.

In SD Area of Mohenjodaro there are some drains where the bottom was made of gypsum and lime plaster with sides of baked brick.

The thickness of the walls of the houses at Mohenjodaro and the presence of stairways leading up (to open sky today) seem to imply that many, perhaps most, of these buildings had an upper story. The stairs could have led to the roof, but the thickness of the walls argues against this, at least as the general pattern.

Following Jansen, a strong case can be made that Mohenjodaro was the quintessential Indus city. This position rests on three observations:

First, Mohenjodaro seems to have been a founder's city, built within the Transitional Stage, or early in the Mature Harappan. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that it is in some ways a complex reflection of practical day-to-day life and an expression of the ideology of the Mature Harappan. Second, the planning and investment made in Mohenjodaro over a protracted period of time. Interestingly enough, Mohenjodaro does not compare well with Harappa or most other Mature Harappan settlements in the very extensive use of baked brick, the Great Bath, town planning, and the like. Finally, Mohenjodaro was a place of wealth, more wealth than is apparent at any other Indus settlement. This wealth is expressed in terms of the continuity of civic planning and investment in urban facilities, in the high quality of architecture almost to the end, the extensive use of baked bricks, and the rich assemblage of artefacts.

He points out that the lower floors of many of the houses of Mohenjodaro have small rooms that could have been the abodes of the lower, servant classes. Thus, rather than establishing regular, independent homes, the servant class may have occupied the lower floors of their "employers'" residences.

Possehl confesses that no one knows why Mohenjodaro was abandoned, but if the Indus Civilization was its ideology, then a failure of that ideology would explain the failure of Mohenjodaro as the quintessential Indus settlement. By about 1900 B.C., based on radiocarbon dates, the city was no longer a functioning urban centre. A period of civic and social deterioration that was centuries long took Mohenjodaro and elsewhere.


Possehl makes some interesting observations about the Indus religion. "With the ethnic and cultural diversity that seems so clearly implied by the Early and Mature Harappan remains, there is still a chance that there never was a single Indus religion, but simply the sum of the belief systems of the peoples we see united within the archaeological context…. However, in the Indus Civilization, there was a high level of intense communication throughout the Greater Indus region that would have promoted a corresponding amount of change, adjustment, synthesis, and sharing of the older, diverse beliefs of the Early Harappan Stage. The emergence of an Indus religion would not be out of place, assuming the validity of these observations. It can be seen in the iconography that the religious aspect of ancient life in the Greater Indus region was exceptionally complex."

He says that the figurines could represent gods or toys. In some cultures they could be both simultaneously. Or they might be gods at some point, and once used, could be recycled into the toy arena, perhaps to be resuscitated to divinity by the uttering of a culturally loaded incantation. He warns that the archaeologist should therefore be conscious of the fact that human figurines of the type found at sites of the Indus Age should not be thought of simply as either "religious" or "toys." Some of the figurines might serve one purpose and others, another.

He remarks that when the Mehrgarh figurines carry something, it is a small human. It is not a rabbit, or a dog, or a sheaf of grain; it is a human infant. This establishes a connection to the gender markers and fertility. This seems to indicate that the figurines were meant to represent human fertility and reproduction, possibly "motherhood," in some abstract sense.


The most interesting part of his book is about ideology of the Indus people. He comes out as a theoretician in this discussion. He says,

"I have a strong sense that the defining characteristic of the Indus Civilization, as with most peoples, was their ideology. By ideology I am attempting to convey the notion that the Indus peoples had a well-defined set of concepts about human life and culture that they used to set themselves apart from other peoples. This was an Indus institution based on propositions that could be neither affirmed nor denied that set forth the social, especially political, aspirations of these peoples…. We can be sure that there was an Indus ideology, and this book gives me a chance to begin to grapple with it. I also want to open a subject matter that, if not new, is certainly not well developed in the writing on the Indus Civilization. Who were these Harappan peoples? – not biologically, or in the sense of their geographical home, but what were they like, what made them tick? He says,

As my thoughts began to deal with the Indus ideology, I wondered what it could possibly be. I am still not sure, since finding "the" ideology of the Indus peoples was pretty clearly an impossible goal, at least at the moment. Therefore, I decided to accept a kind of proxy, or first approximation. Assuming that the ideology of the Indus peoples would be reflected (approximated) in the archaeological record, I decided to use as my proxies those traits of the Indus Civilization that come to mind as the most distinctive Harappan features – the important things I think of when I think of them. These are features of the Indus Civilization that define the civilization for me, give it character and substance, set it apart from other complex sociocultural systems of antiquity.

This led me to four aspects of the Indus ideology:
1. The Indus peoples were nihilists who sought to bring a new sociocultural order to the Greater Indus region.
2. Urbanization and city life were a part of this new ideology.
3. The physical and symbolic aspects of water formed a part of the Indus ideology. M. Jansen calls it wasserluxus, a term I have integrated into my position on Indus ideology.
4. The Indus ideology promoted technological prowess and innovation.

Transformation of the Indus Civilization
The author holds that the transformation of the Indus Civilization took place at its heart, the ideological core: nihilism, urbanization, wasserluxus, technological prowess.

Possehl has his own vision of how the Indus Civilization 'ended' – he calls it 'transformation'. He informs us that the Great Bath at Mohenjodaro was abandoned late in the history of the city, but well before the transformation. This is a unique structure elevated above and separated from the vulgar life of the city and is intimately connected with water and the "water ideology" of the Indus peoples. The abandonment of the Great Bath is therefore a moment of considerable importance, since it can be seen as the beginning of the end. Over the next two or three centuries there was a progressive deterioration of urban life and sociocultural complexity at Mohenjodaro and in the Indus Civilization generally. The symbolic value of water fades away; brick-lined wells, the metropolitan drainage system, and bathing platforms are no longer constructed. The iconographic themes of the ideology of the Indus Civilization are slowly lost: figurines, pottery, seals, and other glyptic items. Technological innovation comes to a virtual end, and much of the Mature Harappan high technology is no longer used: baked-brick architecture, drainage systems, seal cutting, etching carnelian, drilling of long carnelian bead, stoneware bangles. Some technological innovations such as bronze and faience survive, but they are in the minority.

He admits however that just as continuities between the Early Harappan and Mature Harappan are present, so, too, is there a legacy of the Indus Civilization in the Subcontinent. This is especially seen in the broad range of adaptations to the natural world: farming, pastoralism, house construction, and so forth. There may also be some philosophical themes that are ultimately rooted in the Indus Civilization, especially yoga and the heaven-male/earth-female duality as it relates to the creation myth of the Vedas.

Possehl discovers that eventually the Indus ideology came to be seen in a terribly negative light. The Indus ideology ultimately had feet of clay. The zealots, the "true believers" of the Indus Civilization ultimately lost, perhaps not everything, but their civilization failed, not as an entire culture but as a complex society. He thinks that the Indus Civilization emerges as a kind of experiment in sociocultural organization, and one that was not entirely successful. But he enters a caveat, "It would be wrong to imply that the Indus Civilization was a failure from its beginning. The new ideology that these peoples brought forth made them highly successful for 600 years and spread over a vast expanse of the Subcontinent. These all tell us of a well-oiled sociocultural system that had created great social harmony in human relationships and with the environment."

Possehl tells us that early in the second millennium B.C., by about 1900 B.C., the city of Harappa and its counterpart in Sindh, Mohenjodaro, were no longer functioning urban centers. The Indus Civilization came to an end as a complex sociocultural system. Human life continued on the plains and in the hills and mountains of Pakistan and northwestern India, but class and occupational specialization no longer organized the peoples. While there was continuity of life, there was also much change. The ideology of the Indus Civilization was largely abandoned and the peoples of the region adopted new customs and beliefs. The change was not complete; older cultural patterns persisted, especially in the affairs of these peoples that were closely tied to the natural world, their use of plants and animals, of the land itself.

He concludes, "We might begin to think of the Indus ideology as being "too much of a good thing," too perfect, brought into day-to-day sociocultural reality by true believers who had the answers, at least from their point of view. There was only one good, legitimate way of doing things and that was according to the Indus ideology. This would account for the "tightness" and "sameness" that many researchers on the Indus Civilization have seen. In the end their ideology made the Indus peoples who they were, but it may have proved to be their undoing as well."

NO author can have answewrs to all the questions. He does not tell who killed the Indus ideology, nor how and how. Was it a natural senescence of an old culture, or something did it in?

In his Overview, the author tries to shake you out of your conventional conceptions about the Indus peoples, though it sounds a bit jarring in view of the smooth narrative that he has presented, and which, in the reviewer's view is not marked so much by a startling novelty but a rare sensitivity and intimacy with the Indus peoples.

The book is a fascinating read. It does not leave you with a plethora of confusing artefacts, but tries to give a closer glimpse to the Indus peoples in all their glory, weaknesses, and a unique character. Strongly recommended.