India was the home of one of the oldest civilisations of history, which grew up along the banks of the Indus River. The Indus Valley culture and the Vedic culture, which succeeded and were influenced by it, were the basis for the development of later Indian society, in particular for the major religious systems of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
3500 BC: beginning of Early Indus period
2500 BC: beginning of Harappa culture in the Indus valley
1750 BC: Abandonment of Major Indus Valley cities
1650 BC: Indo-Aryans begin to arrive in India
1000 BC: Indo-Aryan settlements established in the Upper Ganges plains.
600 BC: Kausambi and Ujjayini develop as earliest post-Harappa cities
The early history of India is very difficult to recover. Archaeology can reveal something about the way of life of its earliest inhabitants but little can be learned from written evidence. The earliest works of Indian literature, the Vedas, were composed in the centuries after 1200 BC, but they were not written down until probably the 5th century
Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro
Although the subcontinent had substantial human occupation from the Stone Age onwards (see Map 1), the first great Indian civilisation was the Harappan culture which emerged in the Indus valley in the third millennium BC. Like the slightly older civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt it was based on flood-plain agriculture, as the cultivation of the fertile land on either side of the Indus was able to provide enough of a surplus to support a complex urban society. Several substantial cities were built (see map 2), of which the best explored are Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.
The Indus civilisation also developed writing and about 200 seals with short pictograph inscriptions on them have been discovered. Although it has not yet convincingly deciphered, the language was almost certainly an early form of Dravidian related to languages still spoken in southern India and the hills of Pakistan and distinct from the Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit, that became prominent in the following millennium.
The cities of the Indus valley engaged in some kind of trade with Mesopotamia as goods marked with Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia and Mesopotamian cylinder seals have been found in Mohenjo-Daro. However, in the first half of the 2nd millennium the major Indus Valley cities declined, probably as a result of climatic change, although smaller settlements remained inhabited.
From around 1500 BC a new culture becomes apparent in India. This is now known as Vedic civilisation, and was characterised by a new language and rituals, and the use of horses and two-wheeled chariots. The traditional way to explain the changes was to talk of an “Aryan invasion” with mounted bands of warriors riding in from the northwest and conquering the indigenous Indus population before moving eastwards to the Ganges. Support for this picture was claimed from one of the Vedas, the Rig Veda, where the Aryans are presented as conquering the cities of the darker skinned indigenous Dasas. It is more likely that the process was gradual and that small groups of nomads entered the subcontinent from the northwest in the early second millennium and settled alongside the existing population. They absorbed elements of the Harappan culture, but were able to establish themselves as the dominant elite (arya is the Sanskrit word for nobility). Over the next centuries their Aryan language was adopted by more of the population and at the same time their influence spread eastwards to the upper Ganges.
Southern India was left largely untouched by the civilisations of the north. There were probably trading links between the Indus valley and the southern tip of the peninsula, but there was no urbanism in the south, where villages were the normal form of social organisation. However, some limited form of common culture in the south is suggested by the distinctive megalithic tombs found over most of the area.
In the north, where unlike the hilly fragmented geography of the south, great plains lent themselves to large-scale agriculture and the growth of substantial kingdoms, cultural coherence became more widespread as, in the centuries that followed the emergence of the Vedic culture, the new civilisation spread gradually east from the Indus to the Ganges. Evidence from finds of pottery characteristic of particular periods suggests that there was also movement southwards (see map 3).
The early Aryans had been pastorals, but over time they adopted agricultural practices and as they became increasingly settled, they established larger communities. Once again cities began to be built although they were not on the scale of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, being constructed largely from mud bricks. No known public buildings survive from this period. Yet by the 5th century BC there were political entities that might be called states or polities, most significantly Magadha, with its substantial fortified capital at Pataliputra.
- The religious practices of the Vedic society were influenced in part by the earlier Indus Valley culture, and animal sacrifice had a central role in it.
- Vedic religion was polytheistic, and the Rig Veda includes hymns to a number of deities, including the warrior god, Indra, the fire god, Agni, and Soma, identified with mind altering drug of some kind, possibly derived from mushrooms.
- Vedic religion is the forerunner of Hinduism, and the urban societies that developed along the Ganges were the communities among whom appeared in the 5th century, Mahavira, the founder of a Jainism, and the Buddha himself.