The civilizations of any country are, of course, a subject of interest to historians and archaeologists. Pakistan, as a country with a long and complex history, is no exception. There are many ancient sites in the country that date back many centuries, and some of them are considered to be among the world’s earliest civilizations. But there are mainly two ancient sites in Pakistan that are particularly well known for their archaeological significance.

Indus Civilization:

The Indus civilization, also well-known as the Indus Valley Civilizations (IVC) or Harappan civilizations, is one of the earliest known urban cultures of the Indian subcontinent n the world. The IVC flourished between the 26th and 19th centuries BCE and is considered a highly advanced civilization with impressive technological achievements. Some of its most famous ruins include the city of Harappa, which has been excavated to a great extent, and Mohenjo-Daro, which is still partly intact.

Discovery and history of IVC

The Indus civilization was first identified in 1921 at the site of Harappa in the Punjab region. In 1922, the Mohenjo-Daro (Mohenjodaro) site was discovered near the river in the Sindh region. Both sites are in present-day Pakistan, in the Punjab and Sindh provinces. The ruins of Mohenjo-Daro appropriated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. Archaeological evidence suggests that the civilization was widely dispersed throughout the region. Vestiges of the civilizations have been found as far from Sutkagen Dor in southwestern Balochistan province near the shore of the Arabian Sea, at Ropar (or Rupar), in eastern Punjab state, and northwestern India. Later exploration established its presence southward down the west coast of India, 500 miles southeastern of Karachi, and as far eastern as the Yamuna River basin, 30 miles north of Delhi. It is thus the most extensive of the world’s two earliest civilizations, though Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations began somewhat before it.

The Indus civilization comprised two large cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, and more than 100 smaller towns and villages. The two cities were each about one 1-mile square, suggesting that there was centralized political power, either in two separate states or in one large empire with two capitals. This practice has parallels in later Indian history. Harappa may have succeeded Mohenjo-Daro, which is known devastated more than once by exceptional floods. The population of Harappa is estimated to have been between 23,500 and 35,000. The population of Mohenjo-Daro is estimated to have been between 35,000 and 41,250. On the Kathiawar Peninsula, the southern region of the civilizations appears to be of later origin than the significant Indus sites.

The Indus civilization is thought to have evolved from neighboring villages or earlier civilizations, using Mesopotamian-style irrigation to take advantage of the fertile Indus River valley. They could control the annual floods that fertilized and destroyed the land, allowing them to establish a secure foothold in the area. With a growing population, they would find expansion along the riverbanks an inevitable next step. The ancient civilizations known as the Harappan civilization was primarily farming, with crops such as wheat and barley being the mainstay of their diet. They also engaged in a significant trade, although evidence of this is often elusive. In addition to crops, domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, cattle, and chickens were also present, and there is evidence that pigs, camels, and buffalo may also have been domesticated. The Asian elephant was probably also domesticated by the Harappans, and its ivory tusks were used extensively.

Political system and Society

Although there is a developing body of archaeological proof, the social and political structures of the Indus state are still unknown. Nevertheless, the apparent craft specialization and localized craft groupings at Mohenjo-Daro and the significant divergence in house types and sizes indicate some social stratification.

The extensive trade network and well-regulated production centers supplied imported raw materials and distributed finished goods throughout the region, culminating in the establishment of Harappan colonies in Mesopotamia and Badakhshan. Moreover, the exceptional uniformity of measures throughout the Indus valley and the development of such civic works as the great granaries imply a powerful degree of political and administrative authority over the area.

Further, the widespread circumstances of inscriptions in the Harappan script indicate using a single lingua franca. Nevertheless, these aspects of the Indus civilization are more than contemporary Mesopotamia due to the ineligibility of captions that can be read and interpreted.

Crafts and Artifacts

Some of the best-known artifacts from the Indus civilization are small seals. These seals were typically cut from steatite, also known as soapstone. They were carved in intaglio, a type of engraving, or incised with a copper burin, a cutting tool. The majority of seals appear as humpless unicorns or bulls in profile. Others depict the Indian humped bull, elephant, bison, rhinoceros, or tiger. The animal stood in front of a ritual object, which has been identified as a standard, a manager, or an incense burner. Many of the seals contain scenes that appear to be of mythological or religious significance.

During this period, copper and bronze were the primary metals used to manufacture tools and implements. These items included flat oblong axes, knives, chisels, spears, arrowheads (of a type exported to neighboring hunting tribes), trim saws, and razors. These could be created through simple casting, chiseling, and hammering techniques.

Scripts and Measures

Maintaining such a large and complex network of relations – as evidenced by the size and consistency of the Harappan state and the extent of trade contacts – would have required an equally well-developed communication system. Unfortunately, the Harappan script has long defied attempts at decipherment, meaning that the language remains unknown. However, relatively recent analyses of the order of signs on the captions have led several scholars to believe that the language is not Indo-European, nor is it closely related to Sumerian, Hurrian, or Elamite.

The script of the Indus Valley civilization still needs to be discovered. However, it appears to be related to the Dravidian language family, spoken throughout the south side of the Indian peninsula. A confined member of this class, the Brahui language, is spoken in west Pakistan, an area closer to those regions of Harappan culture. The script was written from the right to the left side and is known as one of the 2,000-odd short inscriptions that have been recovered so far. These inscriptions range from single characters to those with about 15-20 characters. In addition, there are over 500 signs that appear to be compounds of other signs, but it still needs to be determined whether these signs are ideographic, logographic, or other.

Some have suggested that particular curious objects may have been accurately made into optical squares, which surveyors could use to offset right angles. Because of the accuracy of much of the architectural work, this theory appears entirely plausible.

Foreign union and Trading

The Indus civilization had a remarkably consistent level of material culture, suggesting a closely knit and integrated administration. Evidence of the actual exportation of objects can be challenging to find. Still, the wide dispersal of chert blades made of Sukkur stone and the factory’s enormous scale at the Sukkur site strongly suggest a trade. Other items indicate trade, such as the almost identical bronze carts discovered at Chanhu-Daro and Harappa. It suggests that these two cultures had a common origin.
There is literary and archaeological evidence for trade between Mesopotamia and the Harappan civilizations. Harappan seals have been found at Ur and other Mesopotamian cities, and a Persian Gulf seal has been found at Lothal, providing evidence for sea trade between the two regions. Goods such as timber, precious woods, ivory, lapis lazuli, gold, and luxury items like carnelian beads, pearls, and shell and bone inlays (including the distinctive Indian kidney shape) were exchanged for silver, tin, woolen textiles, and grains and other food from Mesopotamia.

Copper ingots have been imported to Lothal from Magan (possibly present-day Oman). After the Old Babylonian Period, trade between the two cultures wholly halted.

Urban system decay and the end of the Indus civilization

It is uncertain how and when civilizations came to an end. The decline probably occurred in several stages over a period that could be a century or more. A reasonable estimation would be the period between 2000 and 1750 BCE. The end of the urban system in the Indus region does not necessarily mean a complete lifestyle change for the population. However, it involves the end of whatever social and political control system preceded it. After that date, cities and many of their distinctively urban traits – such as the use of writing, seals, and specialized urban crafts – disappeared.

The end of Mohenjo-Daro is known and dramatic, and sudden. Riders attacked the city in the center of the 2nd millennium BCE. Who the attackers were is a matter of conjecture. Nevertheless, it adheres that the Indus Valley Civilization was succeeded by poverty-stricken cultures that drew elements from both the sub-Indus heritage, Iran, and the Caucasus. Urban civilizations were dead in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent for many centuries.

The evidence suggests that the Indus Valley civilization was succeeded by poorer cultures that drew elements from both the sub-Indus region and Iran/the Caucasus. Urban civilizations were largely absent from the northwest of the Indian subcontinent for many centuries. There appears to be an absolute cultural continuity between the late Indus phase and the Copper Age cultures in Kathiawar and beyond. These cultures form a material bridge between the end of the Indus civilization and the developed Iron Age civilizations that arose in India about 1000 BCE.

Gandhara Civilization

The Gandhara Civilization, also known as the Indo-Gandhara Civilization, was an archaeological culture that flourished in Gandhara, present-day Pakistan, and Afghanistan between the 1st millennium BCE to the rise of the 2nd millennium CE.

The civilization was notable for its Buddhist art, monuments, and sculptures. During the period between the reigns of various significant powers, Buddhism was held in great reverence, and the artistic tradition of Indo-Greek developed following Alexander’s invasions into India. The Gandharan period is a direct predecessor of the Kushan Empire.

The edge of Gandhara

Gandhara is mentioned in historical sources dating back to the region of the Achaemenid the Great (r. c. 550-530 BCE). However, in the 7th century CE, Gandhara was described in detail when the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (Hsuan-Tsang, 602-664 CE) made a pilgrimage to the region. He visited the Gandharan region during its decline after it had achieved its most incredible feats. Following ancient Buddhist sources, he accurately described the area and its various cities and sites. It is the first account that survives to the present day and has helped researchers identify Gandharan remains.

Gandhara is traditionally considered a triangular tract of land extending approximately 100 kilometers from east to west and 70 kilometers from north to south, primarily situated west of the river and bounded on the north by the Hindukush Mountains. However, some scholars believe that Gandhara proper may have also included the Peshawar valley and the hills of Swat, Dir, Buner, and Bajaur – all of which are located within present-day Pakistan. In addition, greater Gandhara’s influence extended to the Kabul basin in Afghanistan and the Potwar plateau in the Punjab, Pakistan. At times, the influence advance as far as Sindh, Pakistan, where stupa and Buddhist city remains are visible, built over the even older remains of Mohenjo-Daro.

Well-known cities of Indo-Gandhara include Taxila, Peshawar, and Mardan, where ruins have been discovered and continue to be found.

Origin of Gandhara

The name Gandhara is thought to come from the words Qand/Gand, meaning “fragrance,” and Har, meaning “lands.” So, in other words, Gandhara is the “Land of Fragrance.”

Another more apparent supported theory is that the word Qand/Gand, developed from Kun, means ‘well’ or ‘pool of water.’ Indeed, the word appears with other place names associated with water, such as Gand-ao or Gand-ab (pool of water) and Gand-Dheri (water mound). Moreover, the region is known today as Tashkand (stone-walled pool), and Yarkand are thought to have been named for its many lakes.
Finally, it is supported by the fact that the Peshawar vale still has good drainage, even during the rainy season, which results in a lake-like appearance to the marshes.

The political background of Gandhara

Gandhara was ruled by several major powers of antiquity, including:

  1. Persian Great Achaemenid Dynasty (c. 600-400 BCE)
  2. Macedon Greeks(c. 326-324 BCE),
  3. Mauryan Dynasty of Northern India (c. 324-185 BCE),
  4. Indo-Grecian of Bactria (c. 250-190 BCE),
  5. Scythians of East Europe (c. 2nd century to 1st century BCE),
  6. Parthian Dynasty (c. 1st century BCE to 1st century CE),
  7. Kushans of Middle Asia (c. 1st to 5th century CE),
  8. White Huns of Middle Asia (c. 5th century CE)
  9. Hindu Shahi Family of North India (c. 9th to 10th century CE)

It was followed by Muslim conquests, after which we come to the medieval time of Indian history.

Achaemenids and Alexander Dynasty

Gandhara was part of the Achaemenid Empire for a brief time, but the Achaemenid occupation did not last long. Later, it was known as a state of the Achaemenids, paid tributes, and offered generosity to Alexander, who conquered the empire. The Achaemenid in Gandhara continued from the 6th century BCE to 327 BCE.

According to reports, Alexander the Great crossed through Gandhara and into Punjab to form an alliance with Raja Ombhi, the ruler of Taxila. This alliance was formed to combat Raja Porus, causing great unrest in the Taxila region. The Battle of Hydaspes was crucial in Alexander the Great’s conquest of India. However, his stay in India was short, and he soon moved south through the Indus River valley and into Gedrosia (modern-day Balochistan). From there, he continued into Persia, where he eventually died.

When Alexander the Great conquered the region of Gandhara, he encouraged the Greek soldiers, artisans, and other followers to intermarry and blend with the locals to integrate them into the Greek civilizations fully. However, when Alexander the Great died in June 323 BCE, his occupying Greek force began their journey back home, leaving behind those who had stayed with their new families. Over time, these people gradually became more Indian than Greek.

Mauryan Dynasty

King Chandragupta of Magadha conquered the Indus Valley in 316 BCE, annexing Gandhara and making Taxila the capital of the Mauryan Empire. Chandragupta was achieved by his own son Bindusara, who was, in turn, succeeded by his son Ashoka. Ashoka was a famous propagator of Buddhism who built multiple monasteries and spread the edicts of Dharm over the subcontinent.

These Dharmarajika monasteries are east of the Tamra at Taxila, famous for their stupa. It is said that Ashoka buried several artifacts of Buddh, and Dharmarajika, Mankiyala, and Sanchi are said to be contemporary stupas.

Indo-Grecian of Bactria

In 184 BCE, the Grecians firm in Bactria, modern North Afghanistan) invaded Gandhara again under king Demetrius. He built a new city on the opposite river bank from Bhir Mound. The embodiment of Taxila is known as Sirkap. It was built on the plan of Hippodamian following a grid model.

The Demetrius kingdom consisted of Gandhara, Arachosia (now Kandahar in Afghanistan), Punjab, and Ganges Valley. It was a multi-ethnic society where Grecians, Indians, Bactrians, and Western Iranians lived together. It is evidenced in second-century BCE Taxila, such as a Zoroastrian sanctuary at Jandial, just north of Sirkap.

Parthian Dynasty

The gradual takeover of Punjab by the Scythians of middle Asia began in 110 BCE. The tribes had been addicted to invading northern areas such as Bactrian but were kept back by the Achaemenids. So instead, they had resolved in Drangiana, present days in Iran, and Punjab, infiltrating through the southern Indus Valley. After taking over Taxila, these Central Asian tribes slowly assimilated into the local culture.

During the first quarter of the 1st century CE, the Parthians began to take over the Greek kingdoms in Gandhara and Punjab. Gondophares, a Parthian leader who lived in Taxila, is said to have been baptized by the apostle Thomas. This claim is possible, as the city already hosted several religious beliefs and accommodated a Christian one nearly 2000 years ago.

Kushans Tribe

The Kushans migrated to Gandhara from Central Asia and Afghanistan around the 1st century CE. They selected Peshawar as their powerful seat and expanded into east India to establish the Kushan dynasty, which lasted until the 3rd century CE. In 80 CE, they wrested control of Gandhara from the Scythe-Parthians. The central city at Taxila was refounded at another site and given the new name Sirsukh.

The Kushan is the high point of Gandhara art and culture and is considered the golden age in this region’s history. The area at the time featured a military base 5 km wall long and 6 meters thick. It became a Buddhist activity hub and hosted pilgrims from Central Asia and China. The end of the Kushan era saw a succession of short-lived dynasties taking control of the Gandhara region, resulting in constant raiding, invasions, and turmoil. Then a succession of eras by the Sassanian dynasty, Kidarites, and the White Huns led to day-to-day religious, trade, and social activity coming to a standstill.

In 241 CE, Persia, under the kingship of Shapur I, defeated the area’s rulers and annexed Gandhara to the Persian Empire. However, the Sassanians could not rule the region, and it fell to the descendants of the Kushans. The latter is the Kidarites or Kidar Kushans, which means little Kushans.

The White Huns

The Kidarites maintained the region, continuing the traditions of the Kushan predecessors until the middle of the 5th century CE. Unfortunately, the White Huns, or Hephthalites, invaded the region at this time, causing physical destruction. The Huns also adopted the Shivite faith, which caused Buddhism to decrease in importance.
During the White Hun aggression, the religious personality shifted towards Hinduism, and Buddhism was shunned in its favor. This change in religious character led to a decline in the Gandhara region. The White Huns allying with the Gupta Empire against the Sassanians caused Buddhism to extend the religion through northern China. Hinduism then swayed the region, and the Buddhists moved away. The following centuries saw invasions from the west, especially Muslim conquest, which led to the eventual obscurity of the remaining remnants of the older culture. The old cities and places of worship fell out for the next 1500 years until they were rediscovered in the mid-1800s CE by British colonial explorers.

Gandhara has had several dynasties over the centuries, but archaeological evidence shows its cultural tradition has persisted throughout these changes. Although the territories are spread over a large area, the cultural boundaries of regions such as Mathura and Gandhara are well-defined. They can be identified through countless archaeological remains.

The Gandhara Art

Gandharan art can be traced back to the 1st century BCE. It included sculpture, painting, pottery, coins, and all the associated elements of an artistic tradition. However, it took flight during the Kushan era, under Kanishka in the 1st century CE. Kanishka deified the Buddha and arguably introduced the Buddha image. Thousands of these images were produced and scattered in every nook of the region, from Buddhas to monumental statues at sacred worship sites.

During Kanishka’s time, Buddhism second revival following Ashoka. The biography of the Buddha became the matter for all aspects of Gandharan art. To this day, a large number of Buddha images can be found in chapels, stupas, and monasteries. The artwork was solely dedicated to propagating religion to the items of everyday use were replete with religious imagery. The Bodhisattva is a critical element of Gandharan art, representing the Buddha’s state before enlightenment. Various Bodhisattvas from the Buddha’s previous lives in Gandharan art, with Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, Padmapani, and Manjushri.

Compared to the Buddha, the Bodhisattva sculptures and variations in jewelry, loincloth, headdress, sandals, etc. So the incarnations of the Bodhisattva are recognizable from their clothing, postures, and mudras.

The Bottom Line!

Gandhara was a well-developed region with a rich and diverse culture. Due to its strategic location between India, Persia, and China, it was constantly visited by traders, pilgrims, monks, and travelers worldwide. Gandhara was the perfect stopover for anyone traveling between India and Persia, and as a result, it became a highly cosmopolitan region. The exact route that Islam entered the region is likely the same route that resulted in the final decline of Buddhism in the area. For centuries, even after Gandhara collapsed, this route continued to be used until the Age of Discovery.
The riches of Gandhara were well known to treasure hunters for centuries, but they were not rediscovered until the British era ruled the Indian subcontinent. Finally, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the traditions of lost civilizations were regained and brought to light.