Geography of Early Indian Civilization

India stretches from alpine glaciers to the hottest rainforests on Earth. Such a diverse group of landforms heavily impacted early civilization, starting with the very first settlements on the Indus and Ganges Rivers.

India’s Geography

The Indian Subcontinent is roughly the same size as Western Europe, so it is no surprise that it contains some of the most diverse landforms imaginable. In fact, India’s geography makes it a land of extremes, most notably in the north. Here, in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the river valley created by India’s two great rivers, civilization first developed on the subcontinent. It is that river valley that we will focus on today, although we will also talk about the south to understand how the two areas developed cultures that were not the same.


Like so many other great civilizations, the earliest Indians began their first cities on the banks of the Indus River and the Ganges River. Today, much of the Indus River flows through Pakistan in the west, although the Ganges River flows from north-central India through northeast India to finally enter Bangladesh.

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The role that these two rivers played in the earliest parts of Indian civilization is hard to understate. The Harappan culture that developed on the banks of the Indus River to the west not only had bathhouses and fountains, but also indoor plumbing. To put this into perspective, only a handful of cultures until the last 100 years had pipes to take water to and from individual houses. Further, from what we can understand about Harappan religious life, it seems that water, and the Indus River specifically, played an important role. In fact, historians have suggested that when the river began to change its course and become less predictable that many people of Harappa and other towns in the region simply picked up and moved east to another great river.

Settlements along the Ganges River started somewhat later than those in the Indus Valley, but many of these still exist today as some of the most important cities in Indian cultural history. After the arrival of the Aryans, it was the towns along the Ganges that would serve as the holy sites for much of Hinduism. The river became crucial to the beliefs of people throughout India.


However, just as much as the rivers help define India, it is really the mountains that make them possible. Both the Indus and the Ganges Rivers have their sources deep in the great mountain chains of northern India from the waters of glaciers and melting snow. Three such groups create a boundary between India and the rest of Asia: the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalaya. The tallest of these is the Himalaya, created by the Indian tectonic plate pressing against the Eurasian plate, creating the some of the tallest mountains in the world, including the world’s tallest, Mount Everest.

That is not to say that invaders did not use the passes between these great mountains for their benefit. As the Indians historically saw the mountains as a barrier, this meant that for the warriors intrepid enough to brave the cold and wind, few defenders would often be waiting on the other side. Aryans, Greeks, Persians, and Mongols all succeeded in conquering all or part of India by attacking through the mountains, with the Aryans having a massive influence on the culture of the subcontinent even today.

Plateaus and Deserts

Obviously, mountains formed a natural frame to the north and east, but what about to the south and west? Here, other landforms played a significant role. The most visible of these is the Thar Desert to the west, which along with the mountains helped to prevent all but the most determined travelers from entering or leaving India. Making use of the handful of water sources in the Thar Desert, Indians slowly built parts of the desert into major centers for both trade and for animal husbandry.

To the south of the river valleys of the Indus and Ganges rivers exists much of the rest of India. Rising gently from the banks of those rivers, much of what is left is known as the Deccan Plateau, a slowly rising shelf of land that ultimately reaches an elevation of almost a kilometer in the south. This change in land is vital to understanding how Indian society developed—the major agricultural centers were most often, although not always, in the north, along the Indus and Ganges rivers. In fact, mountain ranges known as the Ghats blocked rain, meaning parts of the Deccan were dry.

Also, while many foreign conquerors were able to grab parts of northern India, the south had much fewer outside influences imposed upon it. This also created a natural division of culture between the two halves of India, and one that still exists today.

Lesson Summary

Today we discussed how geography affected the early settlement of India, specifically mentioning the role played by the Indus and Ganges Rivers. Of course, those rivers would not have existed without the Himalaya mountains to the north which, along with the Thar Desert, created a boundary that kept out many, but not all, foreign invaders. Finally, we talked about the Deccan Plateau, and how it helped to create a difference in culture between northern and southern parts of India.

Learning Outcomes

In-depth study of this lesson could heighten your ability to:

  • Examine the role the dominant river systems played in early Indian culture
  • Remember the way in which invaders used the Indian mountain chains to their benefit
  • Discuss the effects of India’s deserts and plateaus on the culture of its northern and southern halves

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