Home History Ancient India
 
Culture
Creative Arts
Travel
Religion
History
Performing Arts
Cuisine
Science
India Heritage and Beyond
Newsletter
Feedback
Contributed Articles
Site Map
Advertising Enquiries
Discussion Groups






 



Ancient History of North India

 

India is the site of one of the famous civilizations of the ancient world, the others being the Mesopotamian, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek and the Mayan (Central America).

The earliest known civilization in India dates back to about 3000 BC. Discovered in the 1920s, it was largely confined to the valley of the river Indus (which now flows through Pakistan and Ladakh, to name a few places) hence it acquired the name the Indus Valley civilization. This civilization was predominantly an urban concentrated in and around two principal towns, Mohenjodaro and Harappa, the ruins of which still exist.

The Great Bath, Mohenjodaro
Subsequent archaeological excavations established that this civilization was not restricted to the Indus valley but encompassed a wide area in the present day north-western and western India. Thus this civilisation is now familiarly known as the Harappan civilization, its main sites in India being Ropar in Punjab, Lothal in Gujarat and Kalibangan in Rajasthan.

All the cities of the Indus Valley Civilization were well planned and were built with baked bricks of the same size; the streets cut each other at right angles, and had an elaborate system of covered drains. There was a fairly clear division of localities and houses for the upper and lower strata of society. There were also public buildings, the most famous being the Great Bath at Mohenjodaro and the spacious granaries. The people of this civilization knew the use of copper, bronze, lead and tin. The discoveries of bricks prove that burnt bricks were used extensively for both domestic and public buildings.





The people of the Indus Valley Civilization had domesticated animals including camels, goats, buffaloes and fowls. The presence of several seals depicting a humped bull indicate that this animal was known in those ancient times. The Harappans cultivated wheat, barley, peas and sesame and were probably the first to grow cotton for making yarn for clothes.

Humped bull
Trade was an important activity at the Indus Valley and the numerous seals discovered at the site suggest that each merchant or mercantile family had its own seal. These seals are in various quadrangular shapes and sizes, etched with human or animal figures. There is ample evidence that the Harappan civilization had extensive trade relations with the nearby regions in India, besides areas around the Persian Gulf including Sumer (modern Iraq)

The figures of deities on the seals indicate that the people of Harappa worshipped a host of gods and had also evolved a set of rituals and ceremonies. No edifices or monuments survive, but a large number of human figurines have been discovered, including a steatite (gray/grayish-green stone with a soapy feel) bust of a man (probably a priest) and the figure of a dancing girl in bronze.

Dancing girl in bronze,Mohenjodaro

A large number of terracotta statues of the Mother Goddess (shakti) have also been unearthed, suggesting that she was commonly worshipped. Several conical and ring-like pieces of stone have also been found which are considered the rudiments of Shivalingas (phallic symbols of Shiva) and yonis (vulva), depicting the cosmic creative forces.

By about 1700 BC, the Harappan culture began to decline, due to repeated flooding of its towns located on the river banks, coupled with the ecological changes which forced the desert to engulf the arable land. Some historians also claim that invasions by barbarian tribes of the northwest also contributed to the decline of the Harappan civilization.

The initial migrations of the Aryan people into India began around 1500 BC.
The Aryans came down from the Central Asian region, and entered India through the Khyber Pass. They intermingled with the local populace, and assimilated themselves into the social framework. They took up the agricultural lifestyle of their predecessors, and established small agrarian communities across the territory of modern Punjab.



Bust of a man,Mohenjodaro
The Aryans are believed to have brought with them the horse, developed the Sanskrit language (written in Devanagri Script) and made significant inroads into the prevailing faiths of the times. These factors played a crucial role in the shaping of Indian culture.

Sanskrit is the basis of the majority of Indian languages. The religion of the Aryans, which sprung during the Vedic era, with its rich pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, and its storehouse of myths and legends, became the foundation of the Hindu religion as we know it today.

The early religion of the Aryans was basically nature worship. The objects of nature – the sun, moon, water, earth, fire, each had a presiding deity, who had to be propitiated for peace and general well-being.


Lord Rama, the hero of the
epic Ramayana

The Aryans developed a rich tradition. They composed the hymns of the four Vedas, the great philosophical poems that are at the heart of Hindu philosophy.

A settled lifestyle brought in complex forms of government and social patterns. This period saw the evolution of the caste system, and the emergence of kingdoms and republics. The events described in the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are likely have occurred during the 1000 BC to 800 BC period.

In course of time, the Aryans got divided into tribes which had settled in different regions of northwestern India. Tribal chieftainship gradually became hereditary, though the chief usually functioned in consultation with either a committee or the entire tribe. Still later, with the creation of diverse kinds of vocation, the internal division of the Aryan society developed along caste lines.

Their social framework was composed mainly of the following groups: the Brahmana (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (farmers and traders) and Shudra(menial workers). It was, in the beginning, a division of occupations; as such it was open and flexible. Much later, caste status and the corresponding occupation came to depend on birth, and change from one caste or occupation to another became far more difficult.


A scene from the famous battle
of Kurukshetra,described in the
Mahabharata

The sixth century BC was a time of turmoil, of political and social transformations in India. It was during this period that Vardhaman Mahavira (599 BC-527 BC) founded Jainism while Gautama the Buddha (560 BC- 480 BC) propounded Buddhism.

These religions, preached non-violence towards all living creatures, tolerance and self-discipline. In the centuries that followed, the Buddhist monk-missionaries and monks spread their religion to other Asian countries including Sri Lanka China, Japan, Korea, to name a few, where it is practiced till today.

With land becoming property and society being divided on the basis of occupations and castes, conflicts and disorders were bound to arise. Organized power to resolve these issues therefore emerged, gradually leading to the formation of full-fledged state systems, growing into mighty empires.

By the end of the third century BC, most parts of Northern India were knit together into an empire by Chandragupta Maurya who ruled between 322-298 BC.

In 327 BC, Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), of Macedonia (modern Greece) crossed into northwest India. He conquered a large part of the Indian territory before his disgruntled generals, tired of war, forced him to return home. Alexander left behind Greek governors to rule over Indian territories won by him. These regions gradually got merged with the Indian states owing to wars and political upheavals.

However, the contact between the two cultures left an indelible impact on Indian art. The legendary Gandhara School of Art flourished in the Gandhara region (modern Afghanistan). It was the hallmark of Indo-Greek fusion art.

Chandragupta’s son Bindusara (ruled between 298-272 BC) further extended the Mauryan empire over the entire subcontinent. The greatest Mauryan emperor was Ashoka the Great ( 286 BC-231 BC) the watershed of whose political career was the gory, gruesome war of Kalinga (modern Orissa).

Overcome by the horrors unleashed by this war, he renounced weapons and violence forever. He became a Buddhist and zealously propagated and promoted the faith without any violence and coercion. He got his messages engraved on rocks and tablets using the local dialects and Brahmi a post-Harappan script.

Following Ashoka's death in 232 BC, the Mauryan empire began to disintegrate. This situation encouraged invaders from Central Asia to enter India in quest of power and fortune. As a result, several small kingdoms came into being, which soon passed into oblivion.

After the gap of a few centuries another mighty empire which arose, was the Gupta empire in the 4th century AD In fact this period is considered the golden age of Indian history. This empire lasted for more than two centuries, spanning a large part of the Indian subcontinent, with its administration much more decentralized than that of the Mauryas. By means of wars and matrimonial alliances with the smaller, neighbouring kingdoms, the empire's boundaries kept getting extended further.


The Gupta rulers patronized Hinduism which led to the resurgence of orthodox Hinduism. A famous Chinese traveler, Fa Hien, visited India during this period and recorded his experiences in the form of interesting chronicles. The world famous treasure troves of art namely Ajanta and Ellora caves were created during this period.

The Gupta period witnessed the revival of literature and culture. Several important treatises were written on a vast range of subjects – grammar, mathematics, astronomy medicine and erotica (The Kamasutra). The luminaries of this period include Kalidasa the famous playwright who created master pieces in Sanskrit, Varahamihira (505 AD-587 AD), a famous astronomer and Aryabhatta (476 AD-550 AD), the renowned mathematician and astronomer.

At the fag end of the Gupta period, there arose what maybe hailed as the last empire in northern India. Harshavardhan (590-647AD) had inherited a small state in the upper Ganges valley in the year 606AD. But by the year 612 AD he had built up a vast army with which he forged nearly the entire territory lying north of the river Narmada, into an empire, which he ruled efficiently, for almost 42 years. He was an outstanding military leader, who tasted defeat only once in his lifetime, at the hands of the Chalukya king Pulakesin II when he attempted to invade the Deccan in the year 620 AD.

Harsha’s capital, Kannauj (modern Uttar Pradesh) was a flourishing centre of art and literature. Harsha himself was a distinguished poet and dramatist. He is well-known for two dramatic compositions Ratnavali and Naganada, written in Sanskrit

Born a Hindu, Harsha later became a devout Buddhist and forbade the killing of animals in his kingdom.His contribution to the society at large, include a number of stupas, monasteries, and several state hospitals to offer health services to the general public. The great Buddhist Convention, organised by Harsha at Kannauj in the year 643 AD turned out to be a grand event, reportedly attended by 20 kings and thousands of pilgrims from all over the country. The life and times of Harsha are described in the Harsha-Charita, a brilliant literary work by Bana Bhatta, the former’s court poet, and in the Si-yu-ki (Records of the Western world) written by the Chinese scholar- pilgrim, Hiuen-Tsang.

After Harsha's death, the entire northern India once again plunged into anarchy and chaos, after nearly four decades of peace and stability.

The invasions of the Huns (nomadic herdsmen, war-like people from the grasslands of Mongolia who terrorized, ransacked and destroyed much of Asia and Europe between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD) from the west, signalled the end of this glorious chapter of history, although initially they were defeated by the Guptas. After the decline of the Gupta empire, north India got fragmented into a number of petty kingdoms ruled by Hindu kings. The next wave of unification came only with the Muslims invasions.


Gautama Buddha






Alexander the Great







Buddha's image-Gandhara School of Art





Ajanta Murals

 
::Ancient India::
   
::Medieval India::
 
::Modern India::
North
     
     
         
         

 

© Designed and Developed by Macro Graphics Pvt. Ltd. 2005.