History is filled with strange and fascinating stories of ghost towns and abandoned cities, whose population left for reasons still unknown. One of the oldest abandoned cities known to historians and archaeologists is Mohenjo-Daro, located in modern-day Sindh territory in southeastern Pakistan. It was only discovered and excavated in the 1920s, and huge questions about the city’s origin, culture, and eventual abandonment remain unanswered.
Mohenjo-Daro was originally a part of the Indus Civilization otherwise known as the Harappans, who were named after another city they founded called Harappa. The Harappans lived in the southern area of Pakistan around the banks of the Indus River in the third millennium BCE (3000-2000 BCE), where they built a few other relatively populous cities. Though the first Indus Valley Civilization city to be discovered was Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro is one of the largest and best-preserved of the civilization’s cities.
A Nearly Modern City in 2000 BCE
The layout of the city itself along with its public structures indicate that the Indus Valley Civilization was massively ahead of its contemporaries (the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, to name a couple) in terms of urban planning and sanitation. The city itself covers over 600 acres and is laid out entirely in a grid format, making it one of the earliest examples of urban planning and development. In addition to the many smaller houses, the city also contained a large residential building that archaeologists think could have housed over 5,000 people at once. Instead of being surrounded by a large wall, as many other cities were in other parts of the world, Mohenjo-Daro was protected by a series of tall guard towers at its borders.
Mohenjo-Daro’s sanitation system is one of the earliest examples of a public water supply and sewage system. A sanitation and drainage system exist in most of the larger Harappan cities, but Mohenjo-Daro’s system was uniquely complex. The city contained more than 400 public wells, but most smaller houses had private wells, too. Flushing toilets were common in both houses and public buildings. Large public baths were available for use by the city’s citizens, but archaeological evidence shows that many larger homes (likely owned by merchants and other richer people) had private baths. All of the bath and toilet sewage would feed into the city’s underground drainage cesspit, which would be periodically emptied and possibly used as fertilizer.
The Mysteries of Mohenjo-Daro’s Culture
We can surmise a lot about the city structure and planning because many physical remnants of the structures remain intact. But the specifics about Mohenjo-Daro’s culture – its religion, even its language – remain a total mystery to historians and archaeologists. A huge number of seals, figurines, statues, and other cultural artifacts were found while excavating the city. The seals, of which over 3,500 have been found, were used in the production of clay pots and earthenware. The seals would be pressed onto the wet clay, likely to indicate who made the pot or where it was produced. Most of the seals include a carved-out animal figure in addition to a series of symbols above it. Most scholars agree that the symbols above the seals are the Harappan language, but no one has been able to decipher the script.
One of the most common figures carved on these seals is half-jokingly called a unicorn by scholars of the civilization. It is a bull-like figure with a single horn protruding from its forehead, much like a unicorn. The significance of this animal and exactly what animal it is, is hotly debated amongst scholars. Some say that it is a standard bull, with a few additional decorative markings to indicate that the bull was used in religious ceremonies. Others argue that it is an entirely unique animal that no longer exists. Nevertheless, since the “unicorn” appears on hundreds of the seals found, it was clearly a culturally significant animal. But in what way? We still do not know.
Contact with Mesopotamia?
The Mesopotamian Culture in modern-day Iraq existed right around the same time as the Indus Valley Civilization. Today, historians and archaeologists say there is ample evidence that shows the two civilizations interacted and traded a great deal. Firstly, a number of Harappan seals have been found in Mesopotamian archaeological sites. One such seal is one of the famous unicorn seals. Secondly, a number of Mesopotamian historical texts indicate consistent communication and trade with a place they called “Meluhha.” This place was supposedly the source of many exotic goods, and archaeologists have found that a huge number of goods in and around Mesopotamian settlements contain Harrapan markings. Many of these goods would not have been available in Mesopotamia, and the sea trade routes described in the texts are consistent with long-standing trade routes that existed between the coast of Pakistan and the Middle East.
Since most historians agree that Meluhha indeed was Indus Valley Civilization, they have tried to use the name to understand the Harappan language. Some linguists argue that Meluhha is related to the proto-Dravidian phrase mel akam (meaning “high country”). Proto-Dravidian was the basis of many languages in southern India, so that theory links Mohenjo-Daro to southern Indian cultures. Other historians say that Meluhha is more likely linked to the Sanskrit word mlecca, meaning “foreigners” or “barbarians,” thus linking it the Aryans that settled in northern India. Like many topics in Indian history, interpreting the culture and history of Mohenjo-Daro is often tied-up in modern political arguments and understandings.
The Tricky Politics Surrounding Mohenjo-Daro
Since the Harappan Civilization’s cities are a relatively recent discovery, it seriously shook up longtime understandings and explanations of the different civilizations and cultures that originally settled in the Indian subcontinent. Most people might think it isn’t such a big deal – a new civilization is discovered, so why can’t the history books simply alter the region’s history to account for the new discovery? But around the time the city was excavated, very complex stories about the original civilizations that settled the Indian subcontinent already existed. The 1920’s were a time of great pushback against British rule in India and emerging Indian nationalist groups used history to justify their demands for power – social and political – over certain areas of the subcontinent. Some groups were not happy to hear that their ancestors (or the people they claimed were their ancestors) might not have been the first settlers in the region.
The Indo-Aryan migration theory was the primary historical theory supported by most historians, Indian and British, throughout the 1800s into the twentieth century. Put very simply, the Indo-Aryan migration theory states that Indo-Aryans from Russia and Central Asia migrated to the Indian subcontinent around 1500 BCE. These Indo-Aryan peoples followed the Vedic religion, which was a precursor to Hinduism and the Old Indo-Aryan language would later evolve into Sanskrit. The British were the original proponents of this theory since they argued that the Aryans were originally European people, thus legitimizing their claim of colonial control over India. Many Indian Hindu nationalists took this basic argument and tweaked it to suit their political goals, claiming that most Indians have Aryan heritage and since Aryans practiced what would later become Hinduism, that India should go back to being ruled by Hindus/Indians. The idea that there was a flourishing civilization in India that pre-dated the Aryan migration with no cultural similarities really shook the foundation of those historical and political arguments.
Even though Mohenjo-Daro was excavated in 1920, it took time before it was written into history textbooks and taught about in classrooms. For this reason, many current historians are still arguing against the idea that Mohenjo-Daro predates the Aryan settlement of India or they’re trying to incorporate Mohenjo-Daro into the Indo-Aryan migration theory itself. Many scholars with a Hindu nationalist mindset (in other words, the belief that India has always been a Hindu nation) try to link the relatively few extant artifacts from the Indus Valley Civilization to the Aryan Vedic religion, thereby claiming that both the Indus Valley Civilization and Aryan Civilization practiced a kind of Hinduism. However, there are still so many questions about the Indus Valley culture that it is difficult for scholars to determine whether these distinct cultural connections actually existed, or if they’re manufactured for the sake of supporting a certain political groups’ claims to power.
What Caused the Indus Valley Civilization to Collapse?
So if Mohenjo-Daro was such an expansive and technologically-complex city, why was it abandoned? And what happened to the rest of the Indus Valley Civilization? Like many aspects of the civilization, scholars argue back and forth about the possible circumstances regarding the culture’s disappearance. Most theories involve environmental disasters but some contend that the civilization was annihilated by an outside culture. One of the earliest theories was that the Aryans invaded the Indian subcontinent and obliterated the Harappan peoples. In response to this theory, archaeologists pointed out that there are no skeletal remains to indicate that tens of thousands of people died at once.
A more recently theory that has gained more traction is one blaming climate change. More recent scholars have concluded that around 1800 BCE, the Indus Valley region grew cooler based on geological evidence. This would have affected the monsoon rainfall, which would in turn affect flooding and agricultural yields. Fewer crops would lead to malnutrition or starvation, which would then lead to massive outbreaks of disease. This could possibly cause the breakdown of urban society, being that they heavily relied on the crops produced in the countryside. Evidence shows that most Indus Valley Civilization cities were completely abandoned around 1700 BCE, which coincides with the climate change theory. Even if the cities were suddenly abandoned, many individuals belonging to the Harappan culture probably assimilated with the Aryan civilization that was settling into the northern part of the subcontinent.
Mohenjo-Daro Today – How Long Will It Stand?
Mohenjo-Daro has only within the last few decades become widely taught-about in history classes around the world. For that reason, it is hugely understudied across academia. The last major archaeological study undertaken at the site happened in the 1960s, and only a slow trickle of new scholarship about the Indus Valley Civilization has come out within the last couple of decades. Many institutions have donated money to help preserve the site, but unfortunately it has deteriorated significantly since its excavation. The site is largely unprotected, meaning that anyone can access it. In 2014, one of the largest political parties in Pakistan (the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP) organized a large festival at the site, despite being told that it would seriously disturb and possibly ruin the excavations. Preservation and conservation issues continue on today, though on a relatively small scale.
In 2016, Indian filmmaker Siddharth Roy Kapur produced the film Mohenjo Daro, a romantic historical epic set in the ancient city itself. The film had a huge budget and featured a number of Bollywood stars. The production team insisted that they had consulted with archaeologists and historians to make the film as authentic as possible. Nevertheless, the film garnered heaps of criticism for being hugely inaccurate and conflating the Indus Valley Civilization with the Aryan Civilization. The filmmakers chose to have the movie characters speak a very heavily Sanskritized version of Hindi, even though there is no solid indication that the Harappan language is related to Sanskrit. The costumes do not resemble any of the costumes seen on artifacts recovered from the city. Instead, the costumes were a mix of modern fashion and a generic tribal aesthetic (i.e. feathers in headdresses, even though nothing indicated they used feathers for decoration). Sure, most historical epics are not perfectly accurate, but Mohenjo Daro is a film about a poorly-understood facet of history. Massive inaccuracies, like the overly Sanskritized language, can lead to widespread misconceptions about a civilization that is already understudied and misunderstood.
Although depictions of a historical civilizations in popular culture are often misleading, perhaps shedding some light on the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro will resuscitate interest in the archaeological studies needed to understand this fascinating but mysterious culture.
Katie Blank is a Content Moderator and staff writer for Sporcle. She is also a PhD student studying South Asian history. Her guilty pleasures include binge-watching The Office and going to every metal concert she can.