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History of India

Early History
Invasions and empires to A.D. 500
From A.D. 500 to the Mughal Empire
The arrival of Europeans
British India
Independent India  


Early history

Archaeologists have discovered prehistoric Bronze Age sites throughout the Indian subcontinent. The economy of these prehistoric people was based on crop-growing, and the herding of domesticated sheep, goats, and cattle. The history of Indian civilization dates from around 3500 B.C. There was then a growth of villages and towns, which developed into a culture known as the Indus Valley civilization. The towns and cities of the Indus valley civilization show evidence of a government and economic system.

The Indus Valley people. Archaeologists have uncovered much about these people and their way of life. Inscriptions, mainly on clay seals, reveal that the people knew and practised the art of writing. Modern scholars cannot read these inscriptions, as there is no code-key to enable them to work out the meaning. But some inscriptions indicate that the people knew how to count and measure. 

The two major cities of the Indus Valley civilization were Mohenjo Daro, in the lower Sind, and Harappa in the Punjab. Archaeologists have also found the remains of many other smaller towns, from Gujarat province in south India to the Himalaya in the north. 

The larger towns and cities of the Indus Valley civilization were carefully planned. They had well laid out streets, and systems of water supply and drainage. The houses were made mostly of fired bricks, although sun-baked bricks were used occasionally. Some houses were large mansions with many rooms. Others were small dwellings for poor people and craftworkers. Buildings resembling citadels suggest that there was some kind of political organization to govern the cities, which were large. Their inhabitants had a high standard of living and an elaborate social structure. They lived by trade and crafts.

Trade and crafts. Trade supplied the Indus Valley people with essential foods, and with basic raw materials such as timber, raw cotton, dyes, metals, and glass. Archaeologists have also found a large quantity of well-made pottery, replicas of bullock carts, statues showing the human face, bronze objects (including a beautiful female statuette), and glass beads. These finds prove that the people of Harappa practised industrial crafts, such as ceramics, sculpture, metal work, and glass-making. There is a strong similarity between the Indus Valley civilization and the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, in the Middle East. Scholars believe that sea trade may have existed between northwestern India and the Persian Gulf.

The coming of the Aryans. The Harappa civilization appears to have reached its peak in about 2500 B.C. The reason for its decline by about 1700 B.C. is not fully understood. On many ancient sites, archaeologists have found signs of destruction by fire. It is possible that nomadic invasions, and the migration of Aryan people from central Asia and Persia (now Iran), may have led to wars. These wars may have resulted in the sacking and burning of the Harappan towns. The appearance of the Aryans in the Indian subcontinent was part of a larger pattern of migration. 

The people arriving in India spoke a related group of languages, which included Sanskrit, ancient Iranian, Greek, and Latin.

The Vedas. The history of the Aryans in India is known mainly from their religious texts, the four Vedas . The oldest is the Rig Veda, which dates from about 1500 B.C. The three others are the Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Veda, probably composed during the following 700 years. The Vedas form the basis of Hindu religion and philosophy. They were transmitted orally (by word of mouth) by generations of priests and scholars before they were written down. 

The Vedic and other Sanskrit mythological literature reveals that the Aryans were organized into tribes. The horse played an important symbolic role in both Vedic religion and military power. This suggests that these people came from the steppes of Europe and Asia, which were suited to raising horses. The Aryans settled mainly in the part of India which they called Sapta-Sindhu, or the land of seven rivers (present-day Punjab). In the plains of the Punjab the Aryans combined animal breeding with a more settled agriculture. They cleared forests and planted wheat and barley. They practised carpentry.

The Aryan social system. The early Vedic society, like that of other Aryan people, had three classes: priests, warriors, and commoners. A hymn in the Rig Veda speaks of the mythological origin of the Indian caste (class) system (see CASTE). But the division of society into Brahmans (priests and scholars), Ksatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vasyas (traders, artisans, and cattle tenders), and finally Sudras (labourers) took a long time to develop. Once the idea of castes had taken root, it became the most important principle of social organization. It was upheld by the moral force of the religious concept of dharma (right conduct). 

The Sanskrit word varna means colour. As applied to the caste system, it originally meant the colour of clothes worn by the priests, warriors, and other groups. Varna has come to mean simply caste. Vedic and later histories also refer to black-skinned people. These were the original Indus people, the Dasa as the Aryans called them. The Aryans fought many battles against these people. It is possible that the lowly sudra caste were enslaved members of the Dasa. The bravery of the warlike Aryans is recorded in two epic sagas of early India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which describe how righteous rulers fight against forces of evil and destruction . By the time these two epics were composed, over 2,500 years ago, the centre of the Aryan-Sanskrit civilization had shifted from the Punjab, in the northwest, to the Ganges valley, further east. It was also beginning to extend southward. 

Expansion in agriculture and food production was accompanied by greater manufacture of iron and iron tools. The great rivers of northern India, the Jumna, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra, served as means of trade and communication. In this period, the great cities in the Indus and Ganges river plains, and further south, became the capitals of flourishing republics and kingdoms. Ayodhya, Magadha, Kashi, Sarnath, and Ujjain were towns famous for their learned inhabitants and warrior rulers. Buddha founded his first vihara (monastery) at Sarnath. The superior position of Brahmans, as priests and the guardians of Sanskrit education, was challenged by the rise of new religions, Buddhism and Jainism. Low-caste warrior groups apparently gained political power and controlled large areas of land.