India built first planned city — Mohenjo-Daro

A Letter From Grandpa

By Niranjan Shah

My dear Reva and Asha:

After reading about India’s contribution in the fields of food, like mango, rice, chicken, and many spices some readers have questioned if India had contributed to the development of clothing and housing. Food, clothing and housing  are considered the basic needs of any society.   India has contributed extensively in all these three areas of basic human needs. Now we will see that India was the first country to build planned city and comfortable housing.

American authority on civilization and author of Story of Civilization writes in Case for India: “Recent excavation at Mohenjo-Daro have revealed a civilization of 3500 B.C. with great cities and industries, comfortable homes, and luxuries ranging from bathrooms to statuary and jewelry; all beckoning a social condition superior to that prevailing in Babylonia and Egypt.” Dora Jane Hamblin and editors of Time-Life Books write in The First Cities: “Probably the very first ‘first city’ in which a 20th Century visitor could have found his way around without the aid of a native guide was Mohenjo-Daro. It lay on the flat, hot flood plain of the Indus River, 300 miles north of today’s Karachi in Pakistan. (There was no Islam or Pakistan, then.) It (Mohenjo-Daro) and the half-dozen other cities of the Indus Valley had already put to use the crisscross gridiron system of street layout — an urban convention long thought to have been invented by the Greeks of a later era.”  

Mohenjo-Daro was planned with a broad boulevard 30 feet wide, running north and south, and crossed at right angles every 200 yards or so by somewhat smaller east-west streets. Along these impressive avenues were shops and food stands. The grid layout is only one indication of the perception and care that had gone into the planning of the city. Of all the amenities provided by Mohenjo-Daro and other well-laid-out cities of the Indus Valley, none were more sophisticated than those that were devoted to public hygiene. Dora writes: “Never before, and never again until Greek and Roman times, was so much attention paid by human beings to sanitation.” Running along the sides of the streets were neat, brick-lined open sewers at intervals there were catch basins dug below sewer level to trap debris that might otherwise have clogged the drainage flow.

Archeologist Sir John Marshall, who excavated Mohenjo-Daro, writes in Prehistoric Civilization of the Indus: “These discoveries establish the existence in Sind and the Punjab, during the fourth and third millennium B.C., of a highly developed city life; and the presence, in many of the homes, of wells and bathrooms as well as elaborate drainage-system, betoken a social condition of the citizens at least equal to that found in Sumer, and superior to that prevailing in contemporary Babylonia and Egypt. Even at Ur, the houses are by no means equal in point of construction to those of Mohenjo-Daro.”

The discovery in the 20th Century of so complete and so advanced a metropolis came as a complete surprise to scholars, who had never dreamed that a full-fledged civilization had existed on the Indian subcontinent as early as 3000- 4000 B.C. It was not until 1920, when archeologists got around to excavating Harappa, 400 miles from Mohenjo-Daro, that the existence of a whole network of oddly modern ancient cities was suspected.  The ruins of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa indicate that these twin cities grew according to a central plan that had been conceived at their foundation — much as in Washington D.C. Each city could house some 20,000 to 50,000 people, a very large urban population for that period. The wide main streets bordered rectangular city blocks far larger than a typical block in modern Manhattan. Sumerians built in sun-dried brick of clay and mud, the Egyptians built in stone, but the engineers of Indus Valley used baked bricks.

— Grandpa’s blessing

Niranjan Shah, a civil engineer, who pioneered famous high-rise buildings in Baroda, is a broadcaster in India and the USA and a prolific writer. Under “A Letter from Grandpa.” he has been writing since 2002 on India’s historical, philosophical, and literary heritage. He can be reached at

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