Ancient India

Ancient India: Harappan Civilization

The first people seem to have reached India from Africa around 40,000 BC. At first they were hunters and gatherers, like other people around the world at this time. But by around 4000 BC, these people had begun farming and by 2500 BC settled in the Indus river valley, where they began to live in cities and use irrigation to water their fields. This is a little later than in West Asia, probably because India was not as crowded as West Asia at this time. A lot of people think that the reason they began to farm, and then build cities was that a gradual warming trend was making it harder to get water, and harder to find wild plants to eat, every year. So every year more and more people moved into the Indus river valley, where there was still plenty of water. When it got really crowded there, people began to build cities.There were two main cities that we know of, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, about 250 miles away from each other. Both are in modern Pakistan. The people of these cities lived in stone houses two and three stories high, and had sewage systems. They used bronze tools. They may have learned to make bronze from the Sumerians.The Harappa people used an early form of writing based on hieroglyphs. But we can’t read it, because there isn’t very much left of it.

By around 2000 BC, though, the Harappan civilization had collapsed. We don’t know what caused this collapse. Most people think the most likely reason is that the warming trend continued until there wasn’t enough water even in the Indus river valley to support these cities and the farmers who fed them. Some people probably starved to death, while others moved up into the hills, where it was cooler and some rain fell. But by 1500 BC, the Indus river valley saw an invasion of Indo-Europeans, like similar invasions in Greece and Italy a little earlier.

Ancient India: Indo-Europeans

Around 1500 BC, India was invaded by Indo-European people who had come from a region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Between 2500 and 2000 BC, many Indo-Europeans migrated all over Eurasia. Some went to Europe and became the Romans and the Greeks, some settled in Turkey and became the Hittites. Others migrated south-east instead. Some of them stopped in Iran, while others continued south-east to Pakistan and India. The slow migration did not arrive in northern India until about 1500 BC. In India, the Indo-Europeans are usually called the Aryans. There are written records of the language that these Indo-European people brought with them to India, Sanskrit. We can read Sanskrit, and we can easily see that many words in Sanskrit are basically the same as in other Indo-European languages. In addition, recent genetic evidence supports the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. In addition to their language, the Aryans brought their gods with them to India. These gods form the basis of the Rig Veda and other sagas which were first written down in Sanskrit. They also brought the domesticated horse.

The Aryans first settled along the Indus River, in the same place where the Harappa people had lived. They settled down and mixed with the local Indian people. They lived there from about 1500 BC to about 800 BC. It seems to be at this time that the caste system got started in India.

About 800 BC, the Aryans learned how to use iron for weapons and tools. They probably learned to work iron from the people of West Asia, the Assyrians, who had learned it from the Indo-European Hittites. Once the Aryans learned how to use iron, they used their new weapons to conquer more of India, and moved to the south and east into the Ganges river valley. They settled there not long after 800 BC.

After the Aryans moved into the Ganges valley about 800 BC, they were further from West Asia and had less contact with West Asian people. They began to mix more with the Indian people and the Indian gods became mixed with the Aryan gods. The Aryan conquest of the Ganges is remembered in the Mahabharata, first told about this time.
Ganges River.

But still the Aryans did not control all of India. Southern India was ruled by a bunch of independent kings who did not have to do what the Aryans wanted. Stories of fights between the Aryans and the southerners are told in the Ramayana.In the 500’s BC, part of north-western India (modern Pakistan) was conquered by the Persians under their kings Cyrus and Darius. The Persians were also Indo-Europeans, but they had left their homeland later and settled in modern Iran. But the Persians never really controlled India much- they made the Indians pay tribute in gold to Persia, but they didn’t really tell them what to do. Persian archersMeanwhile, the Aryans continued to rule north-eastern India. In the 400’s BC, this was where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, lived and started the faith of Buddhism.

Ancient India: Alexander‘s Invasion

In 325 BC, northern India was conquered by Alexander the Great, a Macedonian (and also an Indo-European) king. Alexander had already conquered the whole Persian Empire, and he also conquered northern India (modern Pakistan) as part of that. Alexander didn’t stay very long though. He left after a couple of years and went back to Babylon, where he died. Still, Alexander had a lasting effect on India. Alexander left behind several thousand Greek soldiers, to keep an eye on things. These soldiers had with them writers, artists, sculptors, and teachers, and they built Greek cities in Afghanistan and in the Indus valley. The Indians learned about a lot of Greek culture this way, and the Greeks learned a lot of Indian ideas too.

Ancient India: Maurya Empire

The Maurya Empire (322–185 BC), ruled by the Mauryan dynasty, was a geographically extensive and powerful political and military empire in ancient India. Originating from the kingdom of Magadha in the Indo-Gangetic plains (modern Bihar and Bengal) in the eastern side of the sub-continent, the empire had its capital city at Pataliputra (near modern Patna). The Empire was founded in 322 BC by Chandragupta Maurya, who had overthrown the Nanda Dynasty and began rapidly expanding his power westwards across central and western India taking advantage of the disruptions of local powers in the wake of the withdrawal westward by Alexander the Great‘s Macedonian and Persian armies. By 316 BC the empire had fully occupied Northwestern India, defeating and conquering the satraps left by Alexander.

At its greatest extent, the Empire stretched to the north along the natural boundaries of the Himalayas, and to the east stretching into what is now Assam. To the west, it reached beyond modern Pakistan and significant portions of what is now Afghanistan, including the modern Herat and Kandahar provinces and Sistan and Baluchestan Province in Iran. The Empire was expanded into India’s central and southern regions by Emperor Bindusara, but it excluded a small portion of unexplored tribal and forested regions near Kalinga.

The Mauryan Empire was perhaps the largest empire to rule the Indian subcontinent. Its decline began fifty years after Ashoka’s rule ended, and it dissolved in 185 BC with the foundation of the Sunga Dynasty in Magadha. Under Chandragupta, the Mauryan Empire conquered the trans-Indus region, which was under Macedonian rule. Chandragupta then defeated the invasion led by Seleucus I, a Greek general from Alexander’s army. Under Chandragupta and his successors, both internal and external trade, and agriculture and economic activities, all thrived and expanded across India thanks to the creation of a single and efficient system of finance, administration and security. After the Kalinga War, the Empire experienced half a century of peace and security under Ashoka: India was a prosperous and stable empire of great economic and military power whose political influence and trade extended across Western and Central Asia.

Between 100 BC, and 319 AD, when the Mauryan Empire collapsed and the Guptan Empire was founded, India was split up into a lot of small kingdoms. These small kingdoms were weak and so they were often invaded by stronger neighbors. The Greeks came back in 150 BC and conquered the Indus Valley again, but they didn’t stay for long. The Chinese, under the strong Han Dynasty, invaded frequently. And the Parthians and Sassanians sometimes attacked as well. Buddhism was very strong in India at this time.

Ancient India: Gupta Empire

The Gupta Empire was ruled by members of the Gupta dynasty from around 320 to 550 AD and covered most of Northern India, parts of eastern Pakistan and what is now western India and Bangladesh. The time of the Gupta Empire is referred to as Golden Age of India in science, mathematics, astronomy, religion and Indian philosophy. The peace and prosperity created under leadership of Guptas enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors. Historians place the Gupta dynasty alongside with the Han Dynasty, Tang Dynasty and Roman Empire as a model of a classical civilization.

In 319 AD, the king Chandragupta II managed to unite all of northern India into a great empire again through a series of wars against small kingdoms. Although he was not related to the first Chandragupta, he wanted people to think he was. Even some of the south was brought under Guptan power. The Gupta kings were not Buddhists but Hindus, following the older Indian religion. But in 455 AD the Huns invaded India from the north and destroyed the Guptan Empire. After that, India was split into small kingdoms again until the Muslim invasions around 1000 AD.

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Thor is Carlos Benito Camacho, the manager and writer of this blog.