World History/Civilization and Empires in the Indian Subcontinent

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Origins[edit | edit source]

Modern humans settled the Indian subcontinent 65,000 years ago. The move towards civilizations began when farming from the Middle East reached the area that is now Pakistan around the 8th millennium BC. Since farming could support much higher population densities than hunter-gatherer societies, it was also accompanied by a large influx of people. However, it was slow spread further into the region due to climate differences.

In the 3rd millennium, a local species millet was domesticated in the south of India by former hunter-gatherers. Also around that time, local species of wild rice were hybridized with domesticated rice from China, allowing farming to spread into the Ganges Valley. As a result, the region's population is primarily descended from the Middle Eastern farmers and the earlier South Asian hunter-gatherers, but there have been other groups who migrated to the region since.

The Indus River Valley Civilizations (ca. 2800 - 1800 BC)[edit | edit source]

Around 2800 BC, a new civilization rose along the banks of the Indus river (just like other early civilizations, along a river) in India. The place in which it arose was largely ideal, and was well-protected by the natural boundaries of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Although this limited outside contact, it is known that the early Indians used the Khyber pass through this range to communicate with other civilizations. In the future, groups would use this same pass to invade India.

Ruins of Mohenjo-daro

Two major cities of the Indus Valley Civilization have been discovered: Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. These two cities developed at the same time as those in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but were much larger. Together they might have contained 100,000 people and the Civilization may have been as large as 5 million. These cities show remarkable organization, and the civilization seems to be the first to have developed urban central-planning. There were well-organized wastewater drainage systems, trash collection systems, and possibly even public granaries and baths. Most city-dwellers were artisans and merchants. The civilization developed the first accurate system of standardized weights and measures, some as accurate as to 0.001 millimeters. The Indus Valley peoples were adept at using metals as well, showing sophisticated use of bronze, tin, copper, and lead.

The Indus Valley economy was driven largely by trade. They use bull-driven carts to carry goods across distances. The same carts are still used throughout South Asia today. The Indus peoples developed boats, which possibly had sails. In addition, archaeologists have discovered a massive, dredged canal and docking facility at the coastal city of Lothal.

In spite of the many achievements of the Indus Valley Civilization, we know very little about them. Their system of writing, the Indus Script, remains undecipherable. We know next to nothing about their use of agriculture, except that they must have used the river's flood deposits and must have had a large agricultural surplus. We have no conclusive evidence about how they were ruled, nor of kings, priests, armies, temples, or palaces. Although the cities contained massive "citadels" their purpose seems largely defensive, even possibly used for floodwater diversion. Scientists do not even know what the Indus Valley peoples called themselves. Also, we do not know what caused their sudden collapse, beginning circa 1900 BC. What we do know is that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization did develop a massive, well-organized, and highly advanced civilization.

The Aryans and the Vedic Culture (c. 1800 - 500 BC)[edit | edit source]

Spotlight: The Caste System

Around 1800 to 1500 BC, a group of nomadic peoples known as the Aryans traveled from Central Asia to the Indian Subcontinent, probably through the Khyber Pass. Unlike previous tribes in the region, they could ride horses and wheeled vehicles, which gave them a military advantage. The Aryans were the opposite of the Indus River Valley Civilization, in that they left behind voluminous amounts of written and decipherable information but that there are almost no archaeological remains to examine. It is not clear if their arrival had any role in the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization.

The Aryans brought with them a system of polytheistic beliefs. Their culture gave rise to the Vedic Culture, whose beliefs were based in a collection of texts called the Vedas and the Upanishads. They spoke Sanskrit, a language which is the ancestor of most modern Indian languages and a major source of words for others. As they did not have writing, they instead had people who were trained to recite them very accurately. Even as the languages of India changed, the reciters tried to keep the old pronunciation as much as possible. Although they have since been written down, this tradition of oral transmission continues today.

Over many centuries, these beliefs would evolve into the religion known as Hinduism. One part of the Vedic religion was the belief in class divisions, which became the forerunner to the Indian caste system. Originally, the caste system was divided into three classes: the warriors on top, the priests in the middle, and the broad mass of the population, the peasants, on the bottom. Eventually, a class of landowners and merchants was created above the peasantry, and the priests, known as Brahmans (not to be confused with Brahman, the Hindu "oversoul"), were elevated above the warriors. However, it was different to later versions of the caste system. For example, there were no "untouchables" and people could move between classes.

Among other oral texts of the Vedic civilization were Aṣṭādhyāyī, a guide to Sanskrit grammar by a scholar called Pāṇini. This is one of the first times that anyone described a language's grammar in detail.

The Mauryan Empire[edit | edit source]

In later years, the Vedic culture formed small states called janapadas which later merged into larger ones called mahajanapadas. Out of the mahajanapadas came the Mauryan Empire, the first empire to control an area resembling modern India. One of the notable writings of the Mauryan period is the Arthashastra, a detailed set of advice about politics, economics and military tactics. Besides local developments, the move towards larger empires was influenced by contact with outside societies. In 326 BC, Alexander the Great invaded India. He won a battle in the Indus Valley but did not go further as his troops were threatening to mutiny.

After this, the Mauryan Empire began to dominate the Indus and Ganges regions. In the 2nd century BC, the empire became stronger under the leader of Ashoka and reached its maximum size. Ashoka had his laws carved in writing, and these are some of the earliest surviving writings from after the Indus Valley Civilization. The writing system used was the Brahmi script, which is the ancestor of all the indigenous scripts used in modern India. Ashoka also encouraged Buddhism. His successors were not able to maintain the empire and it declined after Ashoka's death, and collapsed 50 years later.

The Gupta Empire[edit | edit source]