Before the Mauryans took over in the fourth century BC, India’s greatest empire was the Indus Valley Civilization. Sophisticated settlements dating back to 2500 BC were first discovered in 1924 on the banks of the Indus in present-day Sindh (Pakistan), at Mohenjo Daro. Further excavations in 1946 in Punjab revealed the city of Harappa, from the same era. In its prime, this great society spread from the present-day borders of Iran and Afghanistan to Kashmir, Delhi and southern Gujarat. It lasted until 1900 BC, when it was destroyed by heavy floods.

A prosperous and literate society, importing raw materials from regions as far west as Egypt and trading ornaments, jewellery and cotton, it also had a remarkable, centrally controlled political system. Each town was almost identical, with complex drainage systems. Lothal, close to the Gulf of Cambay in southern Gujarat, was a major port. Although much about this complex society remains unknown, similarities exist between the Indus Valley Civilization and present-day India. For example, like Hindus, the Indus Valley people had a strong custom of worshipping a mother goddess, and there is evidence of phallic worship, still popular among Shaivites.

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