Indus River: Cradle of Civilizations

With a murmur and a roar, the Indus River makes its way through areas as turbulent as its shimmering waters.

One of the longest rivers in the world, its waters brought life and industry to many civilizations along its long and winding banks. Even great conquerors were both driven and shaken by its might and majesty.

The Fine Details

From the northern slopes of the Kailash Mountain Range in the Tibetan plateau of China at roughly 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) of elevation to the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, the Indus River and its many tributaries fed numerous civilizations throughout Pakistan and India. The approximately 2,000-mile-long river traditionally has double the flow of the larger Nile River in Africa and nearly three times that of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers combined.

Near Tatta Pani in Azad Kashmir, the Indus branches out into a multitude of distributaries that form its fertile delta. Covering more than 3,000 square miles with 130 miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal, this delta is one of the most significant habitats in the world.

The People of the Indus River

Millions of people have lived and thrived along the Indus River. They were as separated by faith, race and language as they were by the wild waters of the river.

In the Pothohar Plateau of Punjab, explorers found Paleolithic sites with stone tools. In ancient Gandhara, evidence of cave-dwelling people from 15,000 years in the past turned up. However, the best known and largest group of people to grow from the Indus River is undoubtedly the civilization that bears its name.

The Indus River Valley & Its Civilization

 a vibrant look at the Indus river and valley

The fertile waters of the Indus River touched the lives of many people and even gave birth to a civilization all of its own. The Indus River Valley Civilization (IRVC) — or simply Indus Valley Civilization depending upon who you ask — thrived along the lower Indus River in what is now northeast Pakistan and northwestern India. Their civilization lasted roughly from 3300 BC to 1300 BC and has also been known as the Harappan Civilization of the Indus Valley due to the earliest artifacts being found in the ancient city of Harappa. This city was one of the first archeological excavation sites in the area.

This highly agricultural society is often considered to be one of the great early civilizations, alongside Sumer and Egypt. Archeological evidence shows that they were an urban culture, meaning that they organized into large cities, with an advanced culture involving sculpture, music and religion. Many of the roots of Hinduism and Indian culture can be traced back to this civilization.

Legacy of the IRVC

The IRVC is known to have experimented with metallurgy. Examples involving tin, lead, bronze and copper were found among the relics. A standardized system of weights and measures is another innovation that this ancient society left behind.

They also invented a system of writing. Many linguists believe that this language may have developed into Vedic Sanskrit, often referred to as the mother of all languages. However, there are near as many who disagree with this assertion.

Many theories abound as to why this once great nation abandoned its cities and moved away from the river that gave it life. One of the most prevalent themes is that the people migrated elsewhere when the Indus River changed its course. While it’s a historic fact that the course change occurred, the reason for the Indus River Valley Civilization’s downfall is still a matter of debate.

Agricultural Powerhouse

Indus river in the Himalayas
The turquoise Indus river near Saspul in the Indian Himalaya in autumn. Ladakh, India

The Indus River system — the river, its many tributaries and the delta — feed the agricultural needs of the entire Indus River Valley that surrounds it. This includes large parts of Pakistan and India, two areas with booming populations and rapidly growing food and water shortages. The rich waters of the river feed flora and fauna in the plateaus, temperate forests and dry rural areas of Pakistan almost exclusively.

The Indus River system is vital to the Pakistani economy and agricultural industry in particular as it is the country’s major freshwater resource. This is especially true in the Punjab province, where the majority of Pakistan’s agricultural production occurs. Approximately 90% of the country’s agriculture depends on the Indus River.

Recent years have seen an increase in the rate of deforestation and the human destruction of the ecosystem has caused a noticeable decline in the quality and production rate of farmland and foliage in general along the Indus River. This has led to the majority of cultivation requiring irrigation.

Nearly 30% of the world’s cotton comes from India and Pakistan, with the vast majority coming directly from the Indus River regions. This level of production requires that an average of 137 billion gallons of water be taken out of the Indus River.

Hydroelectric projects and irrigation are rapidly draining the flow of the Indus River while the glaciers that feed it in Kashmir are melting away faster than they can reform. The Indus is a critical source of drinking water, hydroelectric power, and much more throughout both Pakistan and India. The fragile balance needed for the growingly limited water resources in the area is igniting barely dormant political tensions in an area that has a long history of unrest.

Popular Culture

While the Indus River has not made a splash in the worlds of movies, television, music or art, it’s undoubtedly in the background of many Bollywood films. Bollywood is the colloquial term for the Indian film industry, which sets nearly every movie in the subcontinent.

The 2016 action-adventure film Mohenjo Daro is set in the Indus River Valley. The river itself figures prominently in this film set amid the ancient Indus River Valley Civilization. It has drawn many critics for what is seen as a highly sensationalized and inaccurate representation of that civilization.

The Indus River helped to build civilizations and is one of the catalysts in the war between two others. It has long been the seat of unrest with conquerors crossing its waters to reach their next battle. Today, it continues to play a vital role in Pakistani and Indian society as well as the ecological future of the planet as a whole.