A History of Ancient India

By Tim Lambert

The Indus Valley Civilisation

The first Indian civilization arose in the Indus valley about 2,600 BC. It actually straddled northwest India and Pakistan. By 6,500 BC the people of the area had begun farming. By 5,500 BC they had invented pottery. By about 2,600 BC a prosperous farming society had grown up. The farmers used bronze tools. They grew wheat, barley, and peas. They also raised cattle, goats, and sheep. Water buffalo were used to pull carts. The people spun cotton and they traded with other cultures such as modern-day Iraq.

Some of the people of the Indus Valley began to live in towns. The two largest were at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Mohenjo-Daro probably had a population of 35-50,000. By the standards of the ancient world, it was very large. It consisted of two parts. One part was a citadel. It contained a public bath and assembly halls. It also held a granary where grain was stored.

The lower part of the town had streets laid out in a grid pattern. The houses were 2 or even 3 stories and were made of brick as stone was uncommon in the area. Bricks were of a standard size and the Indus Valley civilization had standard weights and measures. The streets had networks of drains.

Life in Mohenjo-Daro was obviously highly civilized and ordered although most of the people of the Indus Valley civilization were farmers outside the towns. The Indus Valley civilization had a form of writing but unfortunately, it has not been deciphered so nothing is known of their political system or their religion. However many engraved seals and terracotta figurines have been found. The Indus Valley civilization was at its peak in the years 2,300-1,700 BC. Then after 1,700 BC, it broke down.

The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps there was a climatic change and the area grew cooler and drier. It has also been suggested that rivers changed course. In those days less rainfall or a change in the course of a river would have had severe consequences for farming and of course, like all early civilizations, the Indus Valley depended on farming.

Civilization was only possible if the farmers made a surplus. They could exchange their surplus with craftsmen for manufactured goods. They could also exchange some for goods from far away. However, if the farmers no longer made a surplus they could no longer support the craftsmen who lived in the towns. The populations of the towns would drift away to the countryside. Trade and commerce would decline. As society grew less prosperous people would return to a simpler way of life and the invention of writing would disappear. The Indus Valley civilization vanished and it was forgotten. It was not discovered until the 1920s.

The Aryans

After the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization, a new wave of people entered India. The Aryans came from central Asia and they probably entered India through Afghanistan after 1500 BC. There were probably waves of invasions over some time rather than just one. The Aryans were a semi-nomadic race of pastoralists.

At first, they wandered about with their herds of cattle rather than live in one place. They had 2-wheeled chariots which allowed them to subdue the native people. By 1,000 BC they had learned to use iron. However, in time the Aryans settled down and became farmers. Slowly a more ordered and settled society evolved Tribes became kingdoms. The Aryans became priests, rulers, and warriors, free peasants, and merchants. The subdued people became slaves, laborers, and artisans. In time this stratified society crystallized into the caste system.

The Hindu religion also evolved at this time. The sacred literature called The Vedas was created. (At first, they were orally transmitted. Later they were written down.) In time the Aryans learned to farm rice rather than crops like barley. By 600 BC rice cultivation was flourishing in India. With a more settled and ordered society, trade and commerce flourished. In time people began to live in towns again and writing was re-invented. By 600 BC a highly civilized society had emerged in India.

Although Buddha was born in India about 483 BC the religion he founded failed to take root in the country. At approximately the same time the Persians captured the extreme North-west of India. Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire and penetrated the far northwest of India.

However, after he died in 317 BC, the Greeks withdrew. The Persians and Greeks had little effect on Indian civilization. The various Indian kingdoms had begun to conquer one another and after 322 BC the first great empire arose.

The Mauryan Empire in India

In 322 BC Chandragupta Maurya became king of the powerful and highly centralized state of Magadha in the North of India. Chandragupta founded a great empire. After Alexander the Great died his empire split up. Seleucus took the eastern part. He attempted to reclaim the Indian provinces once ruled by Alexander. However, his army was stopped by Chandragupta in 305 BC. Seleucus was then forced to cede most of Afghanistan to Chandragupta, who also conquered parts of central India.

This new empire was rich and trade thrived. Its capital was one of the largest cities in the ancient world. In 296 BC Chandragupta abdicated in favor of his son Bindusara who pushed the frontier of the empire further south. The greatest Mauryan ruler was Ashoka or Asoka (269-232 BC). He conquered Kalinga (modern-day Orissa). Afterward, he declared he was appalled by the suffering caused by war and decided against any further conquest.

Asoka also converted to Buddhism. He decreed that the Buddhist principles of right conduct should be engraved in stone pillars on rocks throughout his kingdom to teach the people how to live. Asoka set about pacifying and consolidating his empire. However, despite his conversion to Buddhism Mauryan rule was authoritarian and punishments for wrongdoers were severe.

After his death, the Mauryan empire declined, as all empires do. It suffered an economic decline and political instability as different brothers tried to become king. A general assassinated the last Mauryan ruler in 185 BC. The general then took over running the empire and founded the Shunga dynasty. However, in 73 BC the last Shunga ruler was, in turn, assassinated. They were replaced by the Kanva dynasty which ruled from 73-28 BC.

The influence of the Mauryans penetrated Southern India. In the time of the Mauryans, the farmers there became more advanced. By the first century, BC organized kingdoms had grown up and trade and commerce were flourishing there.

After Alexander the Great’s death, his empire was split between his generals. The various successor states fought each other until a strong state emerged in Bactria (roughly modern Afghanistan). The Greek rulers of Bactria attempted to control Northwest India.

About 185 BC King Demetrius invaded India. About 160 BC one of his successors, King Menander conquered most of northern India. However, after the death of Menander, this empire broke up into separate states, and Indian civilization developed without European influence.

The Kushan

India now faced a new invader. Nomads from Central Asia conquered Bactria in about 120 BC. They then settled down and gave up their nomadic lifestyle. They were split into 5 tribes. One of the tribes, the Kushans conquered the others. They then turned their attention to northern India. Gradually they conquered more and more territory. Successive kings carved out a bigger and bigger empire in Northern India.

The Kushan Empire reached its peak under King Kanishka (about 78 AD to 114 AD). During his reign, Northern India was prosperous and did much trade with the Roman Empire. Kanishka was also a patron of the arts, which flourished. However, after his death, the empire declined and broke up. By the early 3rd century AD India was once again split into small states.