This article explains the lives of human beings in Ancient Indian Civilizations, by answering questions like ‘What, Where, How, and When?’. We might wonder what was the lifestyle of people in ancient India? What were our ancestral and anthropological origins? How were their daily lives and what were their survival techniques? How were the scriptures and culture passed on, over the generations? And the timeline, ‘When’, explains the sequence of events. We shall look into the history for some specific points and speaking of which actually how do we know what happened? All the questions will be answered in brief as follows.
‘What’ are the sources of information from the past?
The two main categories that give evidence of Ancient Indian History Are Literary and Archeological records.
Manuscripts were written sources written in Vedic Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, and other scriptures. These were handwritten records of the past, which were usually written on palm leaves and or barks of trees. Many of these manuscripts were preserved in temples and monasteries. Some of them suffered pest infections, while others were destroyed for geopolitical reasons.
Inscriptions were writings that were engraved on hard surfaces like stone or metal. Such inscriptions, wall paintings (murals), archaic coins, ornaments, gravestones, etc. were found in famous archeological excavations. Their scientific studies served as gateways for gathering more information about the past. Sculptures and figurines were found during the excavation, especially including terra-cotta figures, amulets, glazed seals, etc, which indicated their era.
Where and how did the ancient people live?
How: People have lived along the banks of rivers like Narmada, Ganga, Indus, etc., and its tributaries for thousands of years. Due to the abundance of resources for their daily life, life flourished here. Records suggest that around 4700 years ago, the earliest cities and towns were developed on the banks of these rivers. Later, around 2500 years ago, cities prospered on the banks of river Indus and its tributaries, and alongside the sea coasts. As an early civilization, fruits, roots, and other forests’ produce were included in their diet in that period. People could develop their skills as gatherers, due to the tools they had in these times. This enabled them to adapt to their surroundings effectively. They also hunted animals for food thus making them hunters. People all around progressed from one part of the subcontinent to another.
Where: They used to live in hilly areas like Sulaiman and Kirthar hills to the northwest. It is the origin of the cultivation of wheat and barley crops about 8000 years ago. The Rice crop was first grown around Garo Hills to the northeast and the Vindhyas in central India. So in such ways, men and women moved in search of livelihood including places like the Himalayas, deserts, and seas to escape disasters like floods or droughts.
Indus River Valley civilization (Harappan Civilization)
We will learn in-depth about the civilizations in the Indian Subcontinent. Same as many ancient people, the people in India chose to settle near rivers. Town planning began to appear in India in about 2500 BCE. As stated above, rivers provided an abundance of water and the soil was favorable for agriculture. The rivers also became a means of transport and trade. The earliest known settlements in ancient India were in the Indus river valley, also known as the Harappan civilization. They were the first urban culture of the Indian subcontinent. The Indus river originates from the Himalayas Mountains. The dates of the civilization appear to be about 2500-1700 BCE. It is called the Harappan civilization as it was first identified in 1921 at Harappa in the Punjab region and then in 1922 at Mohenjo-Daro, near the Indus river in the Sindh region. Like all pre-modern societies, agriculture played the primary role in the Indus valley’s economy. The main staple foods were wheat and barley, pulses, and millet. Flax, melons, cucumbers, rice, etc. were also grown. Hides, wool, and meat were extracted from buffaloes, goats, and sheep. Trade routes were built as it was necessary for them to survive as the civilization was located on a floodplain. Tin, copper, gold, etc. were the material they used to trade. Even hunter-gatherers used to exchange raw materials for finished products. Even today, the Indus texts and symbols are not deciphered. Wheeled transport first came into existence at that time. The Indus people even had seagoing crafts like types of boats etc. Various types of artifacts were found in the Indus Valley cities like seals, beads, earthen pots and wares, gold jewelry, bronze, and soapstone. The most popular art of Harappans was in the form of terracotta figurines. Perhaps the best-known artifacts of the Indus civilization were several small seals. Those seals functioned as amulets as well as merchandise. All these show that those cities prospered in highly refined craft industries.
Aryan Civilization (1500-500 BCE)
After 1900 BCE, all the major Indus Valley settlements were abandoned. There were many reasons due to which this occurred such as changes in climate and temperature and rapid changes in types of pottery led to a series of migrations. The first migrants were the Aryans(Indo-European) from central Asia. These Aryan people were mostly herders. Aryans were the group who invaded and conquered ancient India from the north and whose literature, religion, and modes of social organization carved the way for Indian culture.
When: This period of migration and change coincides with the development of the so-called Vedic period (1500-500 BCE) which came into prominence. The Vedic Age began when the Sanskrit-speaking people began to dominate life and thought. However, it was eventually superseded by Hinduism. During the Vedic period, the Vedas were introduced which were the religious texts. Vedas meant ‘knowledge’. Vedas are of four types, namely Rigveda (collection of hymns), Samveda (collection of songs), Yajurveda (collection of formula), and Atharva Veda (collection of spells and charms). The society became divided into four classes (the Varnas) popularly known as ‘the caste system’ which consisted of the Brahmana at the top (priests and scholars), the Kshatriya (the rulers and administrators), the Vaishya (bankers, farmers, and merchants) and the Shudra (artisan and laborers). The lowest caste was the Dalits (the untouchables), who handled meat and waste material. Besides the Vedas, the great religious and literary works of the Puranas, the Mahabharata, Bhagavad-Gita, and Ramayana all came from this period. Agriculture, cattle rearing, and trade and commerce were the main economic activities of the Rig Vedic people. Some other occupations were pottery-making, weaving, carpentry, metal-working, leather-working, etc. Money-lending was also popular at that time. The sea was known for ocean wealth like pearls and shells and in the context of trade.
These branches of Vedic literature are said to have emerged out of each other. Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and the Upanishads were followed by these Vedas. The knowledge of Vedic ceremonies and their origins was held by the Brahmanas, while the Aranyakas hosted philosophical and mystical know-how. The specific name ‘Aranyakas’ suggested that their knowledge should be studied in the isolation of the aranya (sanskrit word for forest). The last phase of Vedic culture, Upanishads, followed the traditions of Aranyakas. Their famously studied settlements were found within the Indus valleys. As time progressed, people revered the sacred river of Ganga. Thereafter, the center of civilization shifted to the banks of rivers Saraswati and Ganga.
After the Vedic period, Varnas came to be birth-based rather than profession-based. The development of new professions gave rise to ‘jatis’. The individuals such as Kavasha, Vatsa, and Satyakama Jabala were born in non-Brahman jatis but came to be known as the great Brahmans.
Jainism and Buddhism (600 BCE)
By this time, Vedic tradition had slowly ceased to be a strong force. The freedom of thought paved the way for new ideas and principles, leading to the establishment of religious sects, which never happened in India before. An important landmark in the history of Indian culture was the uprising of Jainism and Buddhism in 600 BCE. Jainism and Buddhism have greatly influenced the society and culture in India. Buddhism was founded by Gautama in 566 BCE. He was the son of Suddhodhan and Mayadevi. The key similarity in the philosophies of Jainism and Buddhism is recognizing the fact that the world is full of sorrows and salvation of a man i.e., his deliverance from the eternal chain of birth and death.