Remains of the stupa overlooking the Upper City.

Ancient History: A Walk Through the Indus Valley’s Mohenjo-Daro

Mohenjo-Daro today is a site of cultural and archaeological significance because it contains the remains of an urban city from one of the largest ancient civilizations we have known – the Indus Valley Civilization. The name is reputed to mean “the mound of the dead”. 

The Indus Valley Civilization spanned what is now present day Pakistan, North Eastern Afghanistan and parts of Western India. Since 1920, about 2600 Indus Valley Civilisation sites have been discovered in these regions. It is one of the oldest and largest of ancient civilizations, alongside those in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The two main sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation were Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Mohenjo-Daro lies in the southern most province of Sindh in what is present-day Pakistan. Harappa lies roughly 400 miles to the northwest from Mohenjo-Daro, in the province of Punjab. 

The Indus Valley Civilization developed gradually, with its peak occurring around 2600 BCE. It is said to have a population of about 5 million at that time. It is said that from 2500 – 1900 BCE, large scale flooding caused people to move from rural areas into urban cities, and this is when the major developments in these cities took place. City planning became more complex, a complex water management system (which the Indus Valley Civilization is also famous for) was laid out, and a number of other urban cities sprouted. There were newer technologies introduced in metallurgy, in making seals and shell work, and in producing figurines. The decline of the Indus Valley Civilization began in 1900 BCE, with Mohenjo-Daro being completely abandoned by 1500 BCE. The reasons for this decline are still debated upon; however, it is attributed to a possible combination of change in the course of Indus River, climate change, and a disease epidemic in some of its cities.

Mohenjodaro shown on the present day map.
Mohenjo-Daro shown on the present day map. (Image source: Google maps)

History of Excavations and Archaeological Studies in Mohenjo-Daro

The Indus Valley Civilization was accidentally discovered in the late 19th century, when the British engineers John and William Brunton were laying the railway tracks from Lahore to Karachi in what is now present-day Pakistan, stumbled over the city of Harappa and used its bricks to construct the railway track. Alexander Cunningham, the later Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), visited the site and identified it to be a possible ancient city. He found a seal from Harappa but mistook its script to be Brahmi.

John Marshall, the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), carried out the first of the proper excavations of Mohenjo-Daro in 1922-23. Between 1944 and 1948, Mortimer Wheeler, the Director General of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), considerably expanded the excavations being carried out in both Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. These excavations carried on after the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. However, as time passed, they were halted at many of the Indus Valley Civilisation sites. 

In 1919, R.D. Banerji documented Mohenjo-Daro for the first time ever, when he visited it as part of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Over the years, other archaeologists continued the excavation and documentation of Mohenjo-Daro after him; some among them being: Kashinath Narayan Dikshit, Madho Sarup Vats, Herald Hargreaves, D. K. Dikshitar and Ernest Mackay, and more. In 1965, there was a ban placed on the excavations of the site due to the aggravated erosion of its structures and some land disputes. Since there was a ban on the excavations, a team led by Dr. Michael Jansen and Dr. Maurizio Tosi continued instead with the documentation and surface surveys of the site from 1979 till 1985. Mohenjo-Daro was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

Based on these studies and documentation, the excavated site is divided into 6 major areas: the Citadel area, the DK-A, B, and C area, the DK-G area, the HR area, the SD area, and the VS area. The citadel area comprises the part of the site known as “the Citadel” or “Upper City”, whereas the remaining five areas aforementioned comprise to form what is known as the “Lower City”.

A site plan of Mohenjodaro.
A site plan of Mohenjo-Daro.
(Image source: Possehl (2003:100))

For the traveller, though, the site is introduced as being divided into two main areas: the ‘Lower City’ and the ‘Upper City’, also known as the ‘Citadel’.

The Layout and Architecture of Mohenjo-Daro 

Mohenjo-Daro is laid out on a grid plan and covers about 300 hectares of an area. It is divided into rectilinear sections, each one measuring 1,260 feet by 750 feet. Each section is further divided by lanes. The city, like Harappa, was not fortified and the similar layouts of these two Indus Valley cities suggests that the civilization had an administrative and political centre of some sort. Mohenjo-Daro had two main areas: the Lower City and the Citadel. The Citadel is a 39-foot-high mud-brick mound which includes a residential area housing about 5,000 people, public baths, and two assembly halls.  

Remains of the stupa overlooking the Upper City.
Remains of the stupa overlooking the Upper City.
(Image source: © Top Photo Group/Thinkstock)

The Houses

Most of the built structures were made with fired bricks mortared together. Some houses had two stories, signified by stairs leading up to the upper floor. The upper floor could also have been a flat open rooftop. Most of these houses had central courtyards that would open out onto the street. The more prestigious of residents had two rooms in their houses, where one was apparently used for bathing. One building has an underground furnace which presumably was used for heating the house or for heating the bathing area. 

The walls of a house belonging to a chief in Mohenjo-Daro.
The walls of a house belonging to a chief in Mohenjo-Daro.
(Image source: Copyright J.M. Kenoyer/; Courtesy Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Pakistan)

A central marketplace housed a large central well. The residents would get water from smaller wells in the city, as individual households to a well or as groups of households to a well. Mohenjo-Daro is famous for its sanitation system, one of the first of its kind in the world. 

Wells, Water Supply, and Sanitation in Mohenjo-Daro

Mohenjo-Daro has about 700 wells, in addition to baths and drainage systems. The large number of wells present suggests that the water sources the city relied on were annual rainfall, in addition to the Indus River flowing close by. The wells were designed to have circular walls which, were not seen in the Egyptian or Mesopotamian civilizations of the time, hence implying these well designs were a particularly Indus Valley invention. The sewage water from the individual households would flow into covered drains lining the sides of the main streets in the city, to be carried off and away. 

A multi-storeyed well in Mohenjo-Daro.
A multi-storeyed well in Mohenjo-Daro.
(Image source: J.M. Kenoyer/

The “Great Granary” in Mohenjo-Daro

In 1950, the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler discovered a structure he thought to have been a granary, and thus named it the “Great Granary”. He believed the divisions in the walls of its wooden superstructure signified grain storage rooms, with air ducts that dried the grain. According to him. the grain must have been brought in from the country side into the city. However, the archaeologist Jonathan Kenoyer pointed out that there was no evidence of any grain at the “granary” and this structure might rather have been a “Great Hall”. 

The Great Bath

The Great Bath was a large public bath, made out of bricks and lined with bitumen in order to make it waterproof. It measures 12 meters (39 feet) by 7 meters (23 feet) and is 2.4 (7.9 feet) meters deep. It is situated close to the structure previously assumed to have been the “Great Granary”. The bath has steps leading down from a colonnaded courtyard into it. It is believed to have been used for religious purification rituals. 

The Great Bath in Mohenjo-Daro.
The Great Bath in Mohenjo-Daro.
(Image source: Copyright J.M. Kenoyer/; Courtesy Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Pakistan)

Artefacts in Mohenjo-Daro

The people in Mohenjo-Daro developed techniques in metallurgy (copper and bronze work), pottery styles, seal making, ornamentation and shell work. Some of the most well-known artefacts of theirs include the Priest King, the Dancing Girl, the Mother Goddess, and the Pashupati Seal. Upon the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the artefacts from the Indus Valley Civilisation were divided between the two. From among the aforementioned artefacts, the Priest King is in Pakistan, whereas the Mother Goddess and the Dancing Girl are in India.

Priest King

In 1927, a soapstone (steatite) figure of a bearded man was found. It measures 17.5 centimetres (6.9 inches) in height and 11 cm in width, and shows a bearded man with combed-back hair. He wears a headband or ribbon with an in laid ornament in the middle of the band. He wears a similarly designed but smaller in size armband on his right arm. The cloak drapes over his left shoulder, and its design comprises trefoils and circles initially pigmented red. He has pierced earlobes and dons a cloak and an armband. The eyes are deeply chiselled and may have been inlaid initially. The archaeologists named this figure the “priest king” despite the fact that there is no evidence that any priests or priest kings ruled Mohenjo-Daro.

The Priest King sculpture.
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The Priest King sculpture.
(Image source: J.M. Kenoyer/

Dancing Girl

In 1926, the Dancing Girl – a bronze statuette measuring 10.5 centimetres (4.1 inches) in height – was found. The girl is adorned with bangles all the way up her arm. John Marshall posits that the ornaments at the time may have been made out of metal, but the majority of them were most likely made out of shell. The common belief is that the girl this statuette depicts was a dancer. If so, the figurine reveals a bit more about the culture of the Indus Valley Civilisation: it reveals that artistic engagement including dance was a life way of theirs.

The Dancing Girl found in Mohenjo-Daro- a bronze statuette - with bangles all the way up her arm.
The Dancing Girl – a bronze statuette – with bangles all the way up her arm.
(Image source: StephanieV/

Mother Goddess

In 1931, the archaeologist John Marshall discovered the figurine thought to be the Mother Goddess Idol, not very conceptually different from the Mother Goddess figurines found in the Near Eastern civilizations. It measures 18.7 centimetres in height. Many more were found after too. Marshall posited that the female genitalia is depicted rather exaggeratedly on these figurines hence pointing towards how it must have been a figurine employing the concept of fertility and motherhood. Marshall stated that these figurines could be an offering to the mother goddess rather than depicting her likeness, which would explain why the headdresses, styles, body proportions and jewellery vary so greatly on each of these figurines.

The Mother Goddess found in Mohenjo-Daro - a terracotta figurine.
The Mother Goddess – a terracotta figurine.
(Image source:

This Mother Goddess theory, also employed by Marshall in explaining these figurines, is an example of a Universalist school of thought which tries to come up with a singular explanation for the seemingly similar across time and space. There are archaeologists who have been talking about considering the Contextual approach while studying figurines instead: realizing that seemingly similar figurines found in different regions and different civilizations across the world may just as well have had a very contextually specific philosophy and function around them. That the figurines were not necessarily a representation of or dedication to the Mother Goddess, and that the concept of a Mother Goddess itself might have been a result of the specific cultural philosophies of the earlier archaeologists studying these material artefacts.


Archaeologists have found many seals from Mohenjo-Daro to date. While some have a script, others only have outlines of animal figures etched on them. Among the animal figures that can be seen on the seals, the three most important ones are: the bull, the antelope, and the unicorn. The pipal tree (sacred fig tree) and what archaeologists surmise to be deities, also feature on these seals.

A seal found in Mohenjo-Daroshowing the three animals - the bull, the antelope, and the unicorn. This seal has no script, and measures 2.4 cm by 2.4 cm by 0.53 cm.
A seal showing the three animals – the bull, the antelope, and the unicorn. This seal has no script, and measures 2.4 cm by 2.4 cm by 0.53 cm.
(Image source: J.M. Kenoyer/

















Pashupati Seal

The Pashupati Seal shows a seated figure, donning a horned headdress, and sitting in a lotus position. This figure is surrounded by animals. Some believe the figure to be a yogi, whereas others believe it depicts Lord Shiva – the Lord of Animals. The seal is named Pashupati after an epithet of Shiva by the same name of “Pashupati”.

The Pashupati Seal in Mohenjo-Daro shows a figure wearing a horned headdress and sitting in a lotus position. The figure is surrounded by animals.
The Pashupati Seal shows a figure wearing a horned headdress and sitting in a lotus position. The figure is surrounded by animals.
(Image source:

Cultural Significance of the site of Mohenjo-Daro

Mohenjo-Daro, being one of the most important sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation, tells us a lot about its people and the techniques they developed, worked, and re-worked when it came to urban planning, water and drainage systems, metallurgy, faience, seal-making, pottery and jewellery designs, and shell work. What is also of interest is how the way the artefacts are read and understood by the archaeologists and anthropologists – case in point being the “Mother Goddess” figurines and the building structure formerly understood to be the “Great Granary” – changes over time, and it too bears with it a stamp of its own time!