Short Essay on the Trade & Transport Policy of Harappan Civilization


In the Harappan civilization the elaborate social structure and the standard of living must have been maintained by a highly developed system of communication and trade.

How far trade supplied basic essentials such as food, and how far it was simply a means of obtaining luxury goods, are questions of importance. However, there can be no question that with the inception of the full urbanism of the Mature Indus period, the volume of trade and interaction, both within the Harappan economic circle and outside it, must have increased in scale and variety to a quite unprecedented extent.

In some cases common products were distributed throughout the state. From the limestone hills at Rohri and Sukkur (Sakhar) came nodules of fine and finished flint blades which were worked at vast factory sites nearby. Thence they were imported, no doubt, by river to wherever possible, to form a uniform item of equipment at Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Lothal, Rangpur, Kot Diji and Kalibangan. Balakot, near Las Bela on the coast of Baluchistan, and Chanhudaro were centres for shell working and bangle-making; Lothal and Chanhudaro were centres for the manufacture of beads of carnelian, etc.


It may be confidently assumed that many other specialist products, such as weights, seals, copper artefacts, etc. were equally much the work of craft groups in the cities, and were disseminated in similar fashion throughout the Harappan state. A glance at the finds from Mohenjodaro will suffice to recognise the presence of specialized groups of craftsmen – potters, copper and bronze workers, stone workers, builders, brick-makers, seal cutters, bead makers, faience workers, etc. Other groups are implicit – scribes, priests, administrators, sweepers, farmers, caravan-leaders and, of course, traders.

The cities like Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Lothal were important centres for metallurgy, producing tools and weapons as well as kitchenware and objects of art for wide distribution. Rice seems to have been imported to Punjab from Gujarat. Lothal and Surkotada filled a large gap in the growing demands for cotton in the expanding townships of Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Banwali, etc. because supply of local agricultural produce was limited.

Ivory, lapis, turquoise and silver objects, found in extremely limited quantities in Gujarat sites, obviously came from Punjab and sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Sea-shells of different varieties were exported from Balakot and Lothal to sites in Baluchistan as well as the Indus. On the other hand, internal trade, based on individual transactions, was also conducted. Dates, and shilajeet (a medicinal product of the Himalayas, etc.), found at Mohenjodaro, represent those items which may have come from nomadic trade of one kind or the other.

External Trade:


The discovery of Harappan seals and sealings in many West Asian sites confirm some sort of commercial contact between India and her western neighbours. Lothal, Surkotada and Balakot were some of the important trading coastal towns from where these might have found their way to Mesopotamia and other West Asian sites. Most of the so far excavated Harappan towns give a look of material prosperity, which seems to have been the result of increasing overseas as well as inland trade.

The Harappan merchants must have been exporting to and importing from the West and Central Asian sites a number of commodities. The goods must have included such objects for internal consumption as the stone blades, and perhaps even seals, and also beads and other items for trade or exchange with the barbarian people, who lay outside the empire.

Again they must have carried back to Mohenjodaro and the other urban centres, objects of trade or raw materials derived from the coastal provinces or from neighbouring territories. Although there is plentiful evidence that the Indus merchants or caravan-leaders carried their trade far beyond the frontiers of the empire, and established contacts with other peoples, either still in a state of barbarism or belonging to contemporary civilizations, they also had another function: linking together the city and the countryside.

Gold was almost certainly an import, and the presence of clusters of Neolithic settlements contemporary with the Harappan civilization around the goldfields of North Karnataka suggests an important source. Silver was imported, probably from Afghanistan or Iran. The sources of copper may have been several: predominantly, the ore came from the vicinity of Khetri in Rajasthan; other sources were perhaps South India towards the east, and Baluchistan and Arabia to the west. Lead may have been derived from either East or South India.


Lapis lazuli, though rare, could only have come from the region of Badakshan in North-east Afghanistan, turquoise from Central Asia or Iran and fuchsite from North Karnataka. Alabaster could have come from a number of sources both east and west (but the large-scale manufacture of alabaster vessels in contemporary Shahr-i-Sokhta suggests the probable source); amethyst probably came from Maharashtra; agates, chalcedonies and carnelians from Saurashtra and West India, jade from Central Asia.

A dramatic indication of the extent of such Harappan trading activity, even beyond its own frontiers, has come with the discovery of a small settlement or colony in North-east Afghanistan, at Shortughai. This site is situated not far from the lapis lazuli mines of Badakshan, and the large quantities of lapis discovered at the site clearly show that it was one reason for the establishment of this Harappan trading outpost, beyond the high passes of the Hindukush.

Of trade with other civilized states, notably with the cities of Mesopotamia, there are two kinds of evidence, archaeological and literary. Of the former we may list objects imported from the Indus and exported in return. The most convincing sign of the presence of Indus merchants is the discovery of some two dozen seals, either actually Harappan, or copying Harappan, or of intermediate ‘Persian Gulf’ types, from Susa and the cities of Mesopotamia.

A more definite indication of foreign trade comes from Lothal, where a circular button seal of a distinctive kind was discovered. This belongs to a class of ‘Persian Gulf’ seals, known otherwise from excavations at the port of Bahrain, and also found occasionally in the cities of Mesopotamia, notably at Ur.


The Persian Gulf sites, such as Bahrain and Failaka near Kuwait, were beyond doubt entrepot for sea trade between Mesopotamia and outlying regions, and these seals, therefore, provide very convincing evidence of some sort of trade activities. Also from Lothal come bun-shaped copper ingots, which may be compared with ingots found on the Persian Gulf islands and at Susa.

Means of Transport

The discussion of trade focuses attention upon methods of transport. Several representations of ships are found on seals or as graffiti at Harappa, Mohenjodaro, etc. and a terracotta model of a ship, with a stick-impressed socket for the mast and eyeholes for fixing rigging, come from Lothal. The evidence of sea trade and contact during the Harappan period is largely circumstantial, or derived from inferences from the Mesopotamian texts.

Considerably quantities of goods of Indus origin have been found in Mesopotamia and there are also many inscriptional references to Meluhha, ships of Meluhha, men of Meluhha. That Meluhha was located near the mouth of the Indus in coastal India or Pakistan has now been generally accepted.


A second type of river transport would have been by river, including ferries for simple river- crossings and larger boats for carrying goods from production points to cities. This trade must have been complemented by sea trade and perhaps overlapped with it.

The movement of stone artifacts from Sakkhar, where there is clear indication that the blades were transported to the nearby river bank where they were loaded onto boats and transported to Mohenjodaro. In the river by a dense mass of finished stone artefacts was discovered, probably an embarkation point, or perhaps the place where some laden vessel sank. This is a good example of the role of river transport.

Of inland travel on the plains, there is plentiful evidence from terracotta models of bullock carts, to all intents and purposes, identical with those of modern times. Further, cart-tracks were found on the roads of the cities which indicated that the wheel span of the Indus carts was also little different from that of their modern descendants.

From Harappa and Chanhudaro come copper or bronze models of carts with seated drivers, and also nearly identical models of little carts of the modern type, still common in the Punjab. These have a framed canopy over the body in which the passenger sits.

For longer journeys and through rougher and more wooded country there can be little doubt that the chief means of transport would have been by caravans of pack-oxen. Such caravans continued to be the principal means of carriage in large parts of the subcontinent until the advent of the railways and motor traffic.

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