Exploring the Rise and Fall of Ancient Indian Empires: From the Mauryans to the Guptas and beyond”
The country of India, whose name is derived from the Indus River, is located in South Asia. In the Indian constitution, the name ‘Bharata’ is used as a designation for the country, referencing the ancient mythological emperor Bharata, whose story is told in the Indian epic Mahabharata.
According to the Puranas, a collection of religious and historical texts written in the 5th century CE, the subcontinent of India was conquered and ruled by Bharata in peace and harmony, leading to it being known as Bharatavarsha. The Indian subcontinent has been inhabited by hominids for over 250,000 years and is considered one of the oldest inhabited regions on the planet.
Artifacts used by early humans, including stone tools, have been discovered through archaeological excavations, indicating an extremely early date for human habitation and technology in the area.
The Indus Valley Civilization, which existed between c. 7000-c. 600 BCE, was one of the greatest of the ancient world and covered more territory than either Egypt or Mesopotamia, and produced a vibrant and progressive culture. It is also the birthplace of four great world religions – Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism – as well as the philosophical school of Charvaka, which influenced the development of scientific thought and inquiry.
Many aspects of modern life taken for granted today, such as the flush toilet, drainage and sewer systems, public pools, mathematics, veterinary science, plastic surgery, board games, yoga and meditation, were invented and innovated by the people of ancient India.
Prehistory of India
Archaeological discoveries made in the past 50 years have greatly expanded our understanding of India’s rich and ancient history. The subcontinent, which encompasses present-day India, Pakistan, and Nepal, has revealed itself to be a treasure trove of historical significance, providing scholars and archaeologists with an abundance of sites of unparalleled antiquity.
The presence of Homo heidelbergensis, a proto-human ancestor of modern Homo sapiens, on the Indian subcontinent has been discovered to be much earlier than previously thought. Evidence of this ancient species was first uncovered in Germany in 1907 and further discoveries have since revealed clear migration patterns out of Africa.
Despite the rich history that lay beneath the surface, archaeological excavations in India did not begin in earnest until the 1920s, leaving much of the past unexplored and unknown for centuries. The ancient city of Harappa, for example, was recognized as early as 1829, but its archaeological significance was ignored until much later.
It is only in recent years that the true antiquity of the region has been fully realized. The village of Balathal, dating back to 4000 BCE, and the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh, dated at c. 7000 BCE, are just a couple of examples of the groundbreaking discoveries that have been made. These findings have dramatically changed our understanding of India’s past and have had a ripple effect on our understanding of world history as a whole.
One particularly striking discovery made at Balathal in 2009 was that of a 4000-year-old skeleton, providing the oldest evidence of leprosy in India. This find has led to a reevaluation of the origins of this disease, which was previously believed to have been brought to India from Africa at a much later date.
The Holocene Period, dating back 10,000 years, has also revealed significant human activity in India, challenging long-held assumptions based on earlier work in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The beginnings of the Vedic tradition, still practiced today, can now be traced back to the indigenous people of ancient sites such as Balathal and their blending with the culture of Aryan migrants who arrived in the region between c. 2000-c. 1500 BCE. This period, known as the Vedic Period, marked the commitment of the Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas to written form.
These breathtaking discoveries have opened our eyes to a rich and awe-inspiring history that has long been hidden beneath the surface, inviting us to delve deeper and uncover more of the mysteries of our past.
Mohenjo-daro & Harappan Civilization
The Indus Valley Civilization, dating back to c. 7000 BCE, is a testament to the advanced technological and architectural achievements of our ancient ancestors. The civilization, which grew steadily throughout the lower Gangetic Valley region and beyond, was characterized by large cities built of mud bricks, often kiln-fired, and situated according to cardinal points.
The houses of this period were constructed with a large courtyard opening from the front door, a kitchen/workroom for the preparation of food, and smaller bedrooms. Family activities seem to have centered on the front of the house, particularly the courtyard, reminiscent of similar inferences made from sites in Rome, Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia. However, the buildings and homes of the Indus Valley peoples were far more advanced technologically, with many featuring flush toilets and “wind catchers” on the rooftops, possibly first developed in ancient Persia, which provided air conditioning. The sewer and drainage systems of the cities excavated thus far were also more advanced than those of Rome at its height.
Two of the most famous sites of this period are the great cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, both located in present-day Pakistan. Harappa has given its name to the Harappan Civilization, which is usually divided into Early, Middle, and Mature periods corresponding roughly to 5000-4000 BCE, 4000-2900 BCE, and 2900-1900 BCE, respectively. Harappa dates from the Middle period (c. 3000 BCE) while Mohenjo-Daro was built in the Mature period (c. 2600 BCE).
Sadly, Harappa’s buildings were severely damaged and the site compromised in the 19th century when British workers carried away a significant amount of material for use as ballast in constructing the railroad. Prior to this time, many buildings had already been dismantled by citizens of the local village of Harappa for use in their own projects. It is now difficult to determine the historical significance of Harappa, but it is clear that it was once a significant Bronze Age community with a population of as many as 30,000 people.
Mohenjo-Daro, on the other hand, is much better preserved as it lay mostly buried until 1922. The name Mohenjo-Daro means `mound of the dead’ in Sindhi, and was applied to the site by local people who found bones of humans and animals there, as well as ancient ceramics and other artifacts, emerging from the soil periodically. The original name of the city is unknown. Mohenjo-Daro was an elaborately constructed city with streets laid out evenly at right angles and a sophisticated drainage system.
The Great Bath, a central structure at the site, was heated and seems to have been a focal point for the community. The citizens were skilled in the use of metals such as copper, bronze, lead, and tin, as evidenced by artworks such as the bronze statue of the Dancing Girl, and by individual seals. They also cultivated barley, wheat, peas, sesame, and cotton. Trade was an important source of commerce and it is thought that ancient Mesopotamian texts which mention Magan and Meluhha refer to India generally or, perhaps, Mohenjo-Daro specifically. Artifacts from the Indus Valley region have been found at sites in Mesopotamia, though their precise point of origin in India is not always clear.
These ancient cities stand as a reminder of the brilliant minds and the grand accomplishments of our ancestors and how much we have yet to uncover about our past. They evoke a sense of wonder and awe at the complexity and advancement of the Indus Valley Civilization, and invite us to delve deeper into the mysteries of our history.
The Harappan Civilization
The Harappan Civilization, which flourished in present-day Pakistan around 4,000 BCE, was a complex society that engaged in ritual worship of various gods and goddesses. Statues of deities such as Indra, the god of storm and war, have been discovered at many sites, and terracotta pieces depicting the Shakti, the mother goddess, suggest a popular worship of the feminine principle.
Around 2000-1500 BCE, a group known as the Aryans is believed to have migrated into the region through the Khyber Pass and assimilated into the existing culture, introducing their gods and the language of Sanskrit. The exact impact of the Aryans on the indigenous people is still debated, but it is generally agreed that at about the same time as their arrival, the Harappan culture began to decline.
Climate change is thought to be one possible reason for the civilization’s decline, with evidence of both drought and flood in the region. The Indus River is believed to have begun flooding the region more regularly, destroying crops and causing famine. Another possibility is the loss of trade relations with Mesopotamia and Egypt, which were both undergoing domestic conflicts at the time.
Theories of an invasion by light-skinned Aryans or the destruction of the city by an ancient atomic blast have been discredited. The vitrification of parts of the site, as though it had been exposed to intense heat, remains one of the most mysterious aspects of Mohenjo-daro. While various theories have been proposed, the exact cause remains unknown.
These ancient civilizations are a reminder of the complexity and advancement of our ancestors, and how much is still left to uncover about our past. The Harappan Civilization’s decline may have been influenced by a combination of factors, including climate change, loss of trade relations, and possible migration of people. But it still remains a mystery to be unraveled.
The Vedic Period
The Vedic Period, which followed the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization, was characterized by a pastoral lifestyle and adherence to religious texts known as The Vedas. Society became divided into four classes, known as the Varnas, popularly known as the caste system, which were comprised of the Brahmana at the top (priests and scholars), the Kshatriya next (warriors), the Vaishya (farmers and merchants), and the Shudra (laborers). The lowest caste was the Dalits, the untouchables, who handled meat and waste, though there is some debate over whether this class existed in antiquity.
During this time, the religious beliefs of Sanatan Dharma, also known as Hinduism, became systematized. The underlying tenet of Sanatan Dharma is that there is an order and a purpose to the universe and human life and, by accepting this order and living in accordance with it, one will experience life as it is meant to be properly lived.
However, in the 6th century BCE, religious reformers such as Vardhamana Mahavira and Siddhartha Gautama developed their own belief systems, breaking away from mainstream Sanatan Dharma to create Jainism and Buddhism, respectively. These changes in religion were part of a wider pattern of social and cultural upheaval which resulted in the formation of city-states, the rise of powerful kingdoms, and the proliferation of philosophical schools of thought, challenging orthodox Hinduism.
The philosophical school of Charvaka rejected all supernatural elements of religious belief and encouraged the adoption of empirical and scientific observation and method. Cities also expanded during this time and the increased urbanization and wealth attracted the attention of invaders, ultimately leading to the rise of powerful empires such as the Maurya and Gupta Empires.
Overall, the Vedic Period marked a significant shift in religious, social and cultural beliefs, laying the foundation for the development of ancient India’s rich and diverse culture. It was a time of great change and growth, shaping the India we know today.
The Great Empires of Ancient India
Alexander the Great’s conquest of India in 330 BCE brought foreign influences to the region, leading to the emergence of the Greco-Buddhist culture in northern India. This impacted all areas of culture, including art, religion, and dress.
Following Alexander’s departure, the Mauryan Empire rose to power under the reign of Chandragupta Maurya. His son, Ashoka the Great, expanded the empire and, after a devastating military conquest, embraced Buddhism and embarked on a systematic program to spread its teachings. He established monasteries, gave lavishly to Buddhist communities, and erected 84,000 stupas across the land.
Ashoka’s efforts to promote Buddhism led to its growth from a small sect to a major religion. He even sent missionaries to foreign countries to spread the Buddhist vision. One of his major contributions to Buddhism was the formal establishment of Lumbini as the birthplace of Buddha and the erection of a pillar there. He also commissioned the famous Edicts of Ashoka to encourage Buddhist thought and values.
The Mauryan Empire declined after Ashoka’s death and the country splintered into many small kingdoms and empires. The Middle Period saw an increase in trade with Rome, which became India’s primary partner in trade after Augustus Caesar’s incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire. This was a time of individual and cultural development in the various kingdoms.
The Gupta Empire, founded by Sri Gupta, emerged in 320 CE and saw a period of great cultural and intellectual achievements in various fields such as philosophy, literature, science, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, technology, art, engineering, religion, and astronomy. The famous caves of Ajanta and Ellora, with their elaborate carvings and vaulted rooms, were also begun during this period.
The Gupta Empire, however, declined slowly under weak rulers and collapsed around 550 CE. The empire was replaced by Harshavardhan’s rule, but his kingdom collapsed following his death. India fell into chaos and was easily conquered by the Islamic Mughal Empire in 712 CE. The Islamic invasion saw an end to the indigenous empires of India and the region was divided into small kingdoms and communities under the control of a city.