Short Essay on the Town-Planning of Harappan Civilization



The most striking feature of Harappan civilization is its town-planning and sanitation. The basic lay­out of large Harappan cities and towns shows a regular orientation. One finds the streets" and lanes lay out according to a set plan: the main streets running from north to south and the cross-streets and lanes running at right angles to them.

The Harappan cities were the creation of careful forethought and planning, as is indicated by the striking regularity of the divisions, the successfully aligned streets, the orientation of all principal streets to the points of the compass, the correspondence of the houses and public buildings with the orientation of thoroughfares, etc.

Streets varied from 9 feet to 34 feet in width and ran straight sometimes as far as half a mile. They intersected at right angles dividing the city into square or rectangular blocks. Inside this square or oblong, the area is intersected by a number of narrow lanes crowded with houses. At Mohenjodaro each lane had a public well, and most of the houses had a private well and bath. Nowhere was a building allowed to encroach on a public highway as in Sumer.

Important Harappan cities, such as Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Kalibangan, Dholavira and Surkotada, were divided into two parts - a fortified settlement on the high mounds designated as 'citadels' and the main residential areas to the west of it called 'lower town'.

At Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Kalibangan and Surkotada, there was a 'citadel', smaller in area than the 'lower town' and invariably located to the west of it. The citadel at Mohenjodaro contained many imposing buildings; all made of kiln-burnt-bricks, for example, the great bath, the college, the granary and the assembly hall.

Harappa was regarded as another capital of the Indus Empire. Here to the north of the citadel, lay the workmen's quarter, their working platform, and a granary; the entire complex suggesting a high degree of regimentation of their population.

Situated on the left bank of the desiccated river (Ghaggar) Saraswati in Rajasthan, Kalibangan reveals the same pattern of planning as do Mohenjodaro and Harappa, with a 'citadel' on the west side and a 'lower town' on the east. Thus the citadel complex consisted of two equal and well- defined parts, one to the south containing several large mud-brick platforms meant for specific purposes and the other to the north containing residential houses.

The platforms were separated one from the other, as also from the fortification wall: There was thus regular passages around them; the entire complex on this platform - the well, the bathing-pavements, and the clay-lined 'fire-altars' - had a ritualistic purpose. A similar indication is given by another platform, on the top of which were located a well, a 'fire-altar', and a rectangular pit lined with kiln-burnt bricks, containing antlers and bones of cattle, which seem to suggest a sacrifice.

The lower town at Kalibangan, while showing the usual grid pattern of main thoroughfares, subsidiary streets, cross streets and lanes, revealed that it too was fortified. Piercing the fortification wall, which was made of mud bricks, there were at least two gateways, one on the northern side leading to the river and another on the west providing access to the citadel. In width the Kalibangan lanes and streets followed a set ratio: thus, while the lanes were 1.8 m wide, the streets, in multiples of the former, were 3.6, 5.4, and 7.2 m wide.

At Surkotada, the settlement pattern of Harappa, Mohenjodaro, and Kalibangan is repeated, but with a difference. The citadel and the lower town were joined, although their relative directional position remained the same, the former to the west and the latter to the east.

As at Kalibangan, both the citadel and the lower town were fortified. Each had its independent entrance, located on the southern side; there was also an intercommunicating gate between the two. In addition to mud bricks, stone rubble, which is easily available in the neighbourhood, was liberally used for construction.

At the recently excavated Harappan city of Dholavira, there existed three principal divisions, instead of the usual two at other sites. The first two divisions-the 'citadel' and the 'middle town'- were fortified with stone masonry. The whole planning resembles the European castle having two well-fortified areas. The fortifications were provided with bastions at frequent intervals as well as gates, narrow or wide.

Banawali (Haryana) was one more fortified town of the Harappan civilization. Although the general principles of Harappan town-planning were followed here too, yet there were some significant departures from the established norms. The town lacked the general conception of a chess-board or gridiron pattern of planning.

Here the roads are neither always straight nor do they necessarily cut each other at right angles and systematic drainage is the exception than the rule. Lastly, the general subdivision of a metropolitan or urban township into two distinctly separate walled establishments does not hold good at Banawali.

Still, the available evidence proves that there is a basic uniformity in the planning of most Harappan townships, including Banawali, irrespective of their spatial dimensions. Another significant aspect of the Harappan town planning was the provision of segregated houses, a modern feature. The lower township was populated by the merchants, artisans and craftsmen, while the priestly and ruling class occupied the citadel.

Harappan Gateways:

Most of the large Harappan towns, described earlier, were encompassed by elaborately designed walls with gateways. The Indus towns possessed no general system of urban fortification, which was often massive, as at Kalibangan, but the gateways were simple entry-points to the towns. At Surkotada and Dholavira these gateways were quite elaborate, while at other towns they were very simple.

Some of the gateways had attached guard rooms, which were invariably very small. The Harappan fortifications were not meant to defend the townships from strong attacks by enemies but were safety measures from robbers and cattle raiders. The fortifications also provided protection against floods and served as the hallmark of social authority over the area they commanded.

Drainage System:

The elaborate drainage system is a unique feature of the Indus Valley civilization, the like of which has not yet been found in any other city of the same antiquity. Below principal streets and many lanes ran a main drain, 1 to 2 ft deep, covered with bricks or stones, and provided with sumps and inspection traps at regular intervals.

Individual house drains, each one with its own sump pit, opened into the street drains, which in their turn opened into the great culverts emptying into the river. All soak pits and drains were occasionally cleared by workmen, and drains were provided with manholes at intervals for cleaning. This elaborate drainage system, like the town-planning, constitutes a notable point of difference with Sumer, where the inhabitants had, in most cases, vertical pottery drainage shafts beneath their courtyards, but these had no outlet.

Altogether, the extent of the drainage system and the quality of the domestic bathing structures and drains are remarkable, and together they give the city a character of its own, particularly indicating some sort of highly effective municipal authority. These features of urbanization and town planning are further reflected in the general lay­out and architecture of the Harappan cities and towns.


The Indus cities were built on pre­arranged plans as it is evident in the case of Mohenjodaro which is very well preserved. There was some kind of municipal or civic authority which controlled the development of the city. The streets ran in straight lines and crossed one another at right angles. The streets aligned from east to west or from north to south.

The most famous street called the 'First Street' of Mohenjodaro was 10.5 m wide and would have accommodated seven lanes of wheeled traffic simultaneously. The other roads were 3.6 to 4 m wide, while the lanes and alleys were 1.2 m (4 feet) upwards. The streets and lanes were not paved and must have been full of dirt and dust. The 'First Street' was, however, surfaced with broken bricks and potsherds.


Harappa, Mohenjodaro and other major towns were built entirely of bricks. All the bricks, burnt or unburnt, were well proportioned. The sun-dried bricks were used at Mohenjodaro mainly for fillings, but at Harappa it sometimes alternated with burnt-brick course by course and at Kalibangan it seems to have been, if anything, more common, burnt-brick being almost exclusively reserved for wells, drains and bathrooms.

The predominant brick size was 7x14 x 7 that is a ratio of 1: 2: 4. Very large bricks measuring 51 cm or more were used to cover drains. The bricks were made from alluvial soil (i.e., deposit of earth left by flood) and shaped in an open frame mould. Recessing and frogging were still unknown. Kilns of brick have been discovered at a number of places and some of them were probably associated with copper working.

Sometimes the bricks were stocked in large heaps with wood fire in between. The outside of the pile was covered with mud plaster to retain the heat. The bricks were well baked to a light red colour. Wedge-shaped bricks were used in the lining of wells, while for making the bathroom pavements watertight, small bricks (5 * 11 x 24 cm) were employed.

In some bathrooms a sort of plaster of bride dust and lime was reported. L-shaped bricks were preferred for corners. The later occupants sometimes removed the bricks of the old houses and reused them. This was possible owing to the non-sticking nature of the mud.


The buildings so far unearthed in the Harappan cities fall into three main classes: (i) dwelling houses, (ii) larger buildings, (iii) public baths, granaries, etc.

There is much variation in the size of dwelling houses. The smallest have no more than two rooms, while the largest are so vast as to rank almost as palaces. The buildings were mostly plain, without any recession or plasters. Only in the floor of one house at Kalibangan ornamental bricks were used. Probably the verandahs were decorated with wooden screws which have now perished. The ground floor of a small house measured 8 x 9 m and of the large one was double its size.

The houses were separated from one another by about a foot, probably to avoid dispute with the neighbour, and the space in between was bricked up at either end to prevent the thief from scaling the walls. The walls were very thick which suggests that some of the houses were double storeyed- Square holes on the walls remind that the upper floors and roof rested on wooden beams.

The roofs were made of reed matting-and then covered with thick coating mud. The matting was tied to the wooden beams with cords-some impressions of the cord are still noticeable. A few staircases of burnt bricks have, no doubt, been discovered but, as a rule, wooden staircases were used which have mostly perished.

The stairways had high narrow steps, sometimes 38 cm high and 13 cm wide to economize space. The roofs were flat and were enclosed by a parapet. To drain the rainwater, gutters of pottery were made; a number of them have been found at Chanhudaro. No roof tiles have so far been traced.

Ordinarily there was an entrance to the houses from the street side. The houses were quite commodious, divided into well-sized rooms, containing wells and bathrooms, and provided with covered drains, connected with street drains.

The open court was the basic feature of house planning in the Indus valley as in Babylon. The courtyard, which was usually paved with bricks laid flat, was surrounded by chambers, and doors and windows opened into it. The kitchen was placed in a sheltered corner of the courtyard, and the ground floor contained store rooms, well chambers, bath, etc.

Doors, Windows and Stairs: Doors were possibly made of wood and were placed at the ends of the walls, not in the middle. Ordinary houses very rarely had windows in their outer walls. Possibly, perforated lattices were used as windows or ventilators at the top of the wall.

Stairways, made of solid masonry, are found in nearly every house. They were built straight and steep, with treads unusually narrow and high. In some cases, the stairways led to the upper storey's which contained the bath and the living and sleeping apartments.


The kitchen was small. Fuel was placed on a raised platform. Cooking was mostly done in the courtyards in the open. A round bread oven has been unearthed in which 'tandoori roties' were made. Sometimes between the kitchen and the larger room a 'serving hatch' (an aperture in the wall) was made, pottery vessels with a hole in the bottom were sunk in the kitchen for waste water. The water gradually ran into the earth.

Bathroom and Toilet:

Every house had its bathroom which was on the side of the street. Latrines, though found rarely, lay between the bathroom and street for the convenient disposal of water. The bathrooms and latrines on the first floor had brick channels.

The walls of the bathroom (generally a square small room) were wainscoted with bricks laid on edges so as to stand three inches above the level of the floor. It had brick pavement sloping towards one corner. Pottery rasps were used to remove thickened cuticle. Pottery pipes, each provided with a spigot so that they fitted together, were used for drainage.


Several dwelling houses, large and small, have been unearthed at Mohenjodaro. There were large Khans (inns), store houses and watch towers. There is an extensive building, on the west of the stupa mound, which measures 69 x 23.5 m. It was a priestly corporation. It contains the Great Bath which was excavated by Sir John Marshall. The whole complex is a single architectural unit with walls sometimes 1.2 m thick. It might have been a college; hence it is named the 'Collegiate Building'.

Assembly Hall:

On the south of the stupa at Mohenjodaro has been discovered a hall, 8 m sq, with a roof having 20 rectangular brick piers in four rows of five piers each. There are four well- paved aisles which are separated by rows of pillars. The hall was used for some religious assembly. Sir John Marshall compares it with a Buddhist rock- cut-temple of a later date, while Mackay calls it a large market hall with lines of permanent stalls along the aisles.


At Harappa a building has been discovered measuring 50 * 40 meters with a central passage 7 metres wide. It was a gigantic storehouse for grain, cotton and other merchandise. Some buildings were used as eating-houses; they have depressions in the floors which one held large pottery jars for liquids, grains and other foodstuffs.


A short distance from the 'First Street' at Mohenjodaro there was a palatial building of excellent masonry. It has two spacious courtyards, servant quarters and store rooms. It was either a temple or the residence of the Governor.


The population of the city gradually increased and the big houses were divided into smaller ones. In later stages, civic rules were not strictly followed. The entire city was protected by a 'city wall'. A small fort has been laid bare in most of the important cities.

Although it is difficult to estimate the population of the Harappan cities, Lambrick has made a case for a figure of 35, 000 at Mohenjodaro, based upon comparison with the population of a city of comparable area in Sind in 1841.

Another estimate by Fairservice suggests a slightly higher figure of 41, 000. He has also suggested a figure of 23,000 for the lower city at Harappa, excluding the citadel. According to Ailchins, Harappa's population may well have been more or less the same as of Mohenjodaro as both were of the equivalent size. S. R. Rao estimated the population of Lothal to have been around 15,000 whereas according to S. P. Gupta, Lothal may not have accommodated more than 2,000 to 3,000 people during its peak period.

Foundation Deposits:

It was usually believed that Harappans did not use foundation deposits, a system prevalent in Babylonia and Egypt. Such deposits help the excavator to fix the date or history of the building. However, at Kot Diji and Allahdino stone foundations have been unearthed. But nothing is known about the ceremonics associated with the laying of foundation.

Household Articles:

Various household articles have been found at Harappan sites. These were made of pottery, stone, shell, faience, ivory, and metal. Copper and bronze appear to have replaced stone as the material for household implements. Pottery supplied numerous articles for the kitchen including flesh-rubbers, cake-moulds, dippers, beakers, bowls, goblets, dishes, basins, pans, saucers, ladles, heaters, jar stands, storage jars, etc.

Goblets with pointed bases were the customary drinking vessels, which were used only once. Querns, palettes, and jar stands figure among articles of stone. Jar covers and ladles were also made of shell. There were needles, awls, axes, saws, sickles, knives, fish hooks, chisels, etc. made of bronze or copper; the first two also in ivory. Blocks of lead were probably used as net-sinkers.

Technology, Arts and Crafts:

The Harappan craftsmen exhibit a degree of uniformity similar to that found in town-planning and structure plans. Indeed, it is so marked that it is possible to typify each craft with a single set of examples drawn from one site alone. It is not yet established whether this feature was achieved by the centralization of production, linked with efficiency of distribution, or whether by other factors, but in either case if calls for special attention.