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Life in The Harappan Civilization

An introduction to what we know and can reasonably infer about what life was like for the ordinary people of the Indus Valley Harappan civilization.

Although there are many dangers in inferring what life was like for people in the past based on archaeological evidence from not yet fully excavated sites, it is possible to make some suggestions based on what we know of the Indus Valley Civilization that we know as the Harappan (named after the site at Harappa in the Punjab region that is now part of Pakistan).

First, discovery of agricultural remains suggests that farmers may have used floods on the rivers as the major means of growing their crops. With no need for ploughing or fertilizer or large-scale irrigation, farming must have been relatively simple for much of the year and perhaps left farmers some time to pursue alternative occupations. People might have eaten rice, wheat and barley as staples and vegetables such as peas to supplement that diet. Some indigenous spices have also been found (for example mustard) and meat and fish was presumably also available. To help in agriculture, cattle were kept, as well as sheep and goats and some domesticated jungle fowl (modern day chickens, that is). There were also some buffaloes and elephants, although it is not clear whether the latter were then domesticated. Cotton was grown and it seems likely that most people wore cotton clothes of one type or another.

The city sights that have been excavated seem well-organized and constructed according to a network in which communications, perhaps by bullock cart, should have been quite convenient. That would have allowed farmers to take their produce to markets and, therefore, obtain good value for them. The spread of goods made more convenient by markets generally increased the quality of life for those who could obtain them. Other types of carts and chariots were available for transporting people and goods and excavations have found some simple boats, without sails or rudders for example, which presumably were used to go up and down calm parts of the rivers. Evidence of international trade reveals that goods were exchanged with cultures in several other directions and, assuming that knowledge also passed backwards and forwards, it is likely that cooking, story-telling and basic medicine all improved as a result of such cultural exchange.

Copper and bronze were quite widely used for making items, often necessities such as hunting and defensive weapons but also household items. Gold and silver were much rarer but some decorative goods have been found and it is reasonable to assume that these were used to decorate the women of rich families. Others might have had some glass baubles or pottery and stone for domestic items and these might have been decorated.

Overall, the different sites of the Harappan period are usually described as having a uniform level of development: this suggests that there was a diffuse, fairly homogeneous form of culture involved and that most people enjoyed a relatively similar standard of living. No doubt there were the kings and princes at one end of society and the beggars and indigent at the other. However, it seems likely that most people lived lives of relative equality and research indicates that such conditions tend to make people happy.

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