Ancient Indian History

The first Indian civilisation arose in the Indus valley about 2,600 BC. It actually straddled modern India and Pakistan. By 6,500 BC the people of the area had begun farming. By 5,500 BC they had invented pottery. By about 2,600 BC a prosperous farming society had grown up. The farmers used bronze tools. They grew wheat, barley and peas. They also raised cattle, goats and sheep. Water buffalo were used to pull carts. The people spun cotton and they traded with other cultures such as modern day Iraq. Some of the people of the Indus Valley began to live in towns. The two largest were at Mohenjo-daro and Harrapa.

Mohenjo-daro probably had a population of 35-50,000. By the standards of the ancient world it was very large. It consisted of two parts. One part was a citadel. It contained a public bath and assembly halls. It also held a granary where grain was stored. The lower part of the town had streets laid out in a grid pattern. The houses were 2 or even 3 stories and were made of brick as stone was uncommon in the area. Bricks were of a standard size and the Indus Valley civilisation had standard weights and measures. The streets had networks of drains.

Life in Mohenjo-daro was obviously highly civilised and ordered although most of the people of the Indus Valley civilisation were farmers outside the towns. The Indus Valley civilisation had a form of writing but unfortunately it has not been deciphered so nothing is known of their political system or their religion. However many engraved seals and terracotta figurines have been found. The Indus Valley civilisation was at its peak in the years 2,300-1,900 BC. It then entered a sudden decline.

The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps there was a climatic changed and the area grew cooler and drier. It has also been suggested that rivers changed course. In those days less rainfall or a changed in the course of a river would have had severe consequences for farming and of course, like all early civilisations the Indus Valley depended on farming. Civilisation was only possible if the farmers made a surplus. They could exchange their surplus with craftsmen for manufactured goods. They could also exchange some for goods from far away. However if the farmers no longer made a surplus they could no longer support the craftsmen who lived in the towns. The populations of the towns would drift away to the countryside. Trade and commerce would decline.

As society grew less prosperous people would return to a simpler way of life and the invention of writing would disappear. The Indus Valley civilisation vanished and it was forgotten. It was not rediscovered until the 1920s.


After the collapse of the Indus Valley civilisation a new wave of people entered India. The Aryans came from central Asia and they probably entered India through Afghanistan after 1500 BC. There were probably waves of invasions over a period of time rather than just one. The Aryans were a semi-nomadic race of pastoralists.

At first they wandered about with their herds of cattle rather than live in one place. They had 2-wheeled chariots which allowed them to subdue the native people. By 1,000 BC they had learned to use iron. However in time the Aryans settled down and became farmers.

Slowly a more ordered and settled society evolved. Tribes became kingdoms. The Aryans became the priests, rulers and warriors, free peasants and merchants. The subdued people became the slaves, labourers and artisans. In time this stratified society crystallised into the caste system.

The Hindu religion also evolved at this time. The sacred literature called The Vedas was created. (At first they were orally transmitted. Later they were written down.)

In time the Aryans learned to farm rice rather than crops like barley. By 600 BC rice cultivation was flourishing in India. With a more settled and ordered society trade and commerce flourished. In time people began to live in towns again and writing was re-invented. By 600 BC a highly civilised society had emerged in India.

Although Buddha was born in India about 483 BC the religion he founded failed to take root in the country. At approximately the same time the Persians captured the extreme North-west of India. Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire and penetrated the far North-west of India.

However after his death in 317 BC the Greeks withdrew. The Persians and Greeks had little affect on Indian civilisation. The various Indian kingdoms had begun to conquer one another and after 322 BC the first great empire arose.


In 322 BC Chandragupta Maurya became king of the powerful and highly centralised state of Magadha in the North of India. Aided by his able advisor Kautilya Chandragupta created an empire. After Alexander the Great died his empire had split up. Seleucos took the eastern part. He attempted to reclaim the Indian provinces one ruled by Alexander.

However his army was stopped by Chandragupta in 305 BC. Seleucos was then forced to cede most of Afghanistan to Chandragupta, who also conquered parts of central India.

This new empire was rich and trade thrived. Its capital was one of the largest cities in the ancient world. In 296 Chandragupta abdicated in favour of his son Bindusara who pushed the frontier of the empire further south.

The greatest Mauryan ruler was Ashoka or Asoka (269-232 BC). He conquered Kalinga (modern day Orissa). Afterwards he declared he was appalled by the suffering caused by war and decided against any further conquest.

Asoka also converted to Buddhism. He decreed that the Buddhist principles of right conduct should be engraved in stone pillars or on rocks throughout his kingdom to teach the people how to live. Asoka set about pacifying and consolidating his empire. However despite his conversion to Buddhism Mauryan rule was authoritarian and punishments for wrongdoers were severe.

After his death the Mauryan empire declined, as all empires do. It suffered an economic decline and political instability as different brothers strived to become king. A general assassinated the last Mauryan ruler in 185 BC. The general then took over running the empire and founded the Shunga dynasty. However in 73 BC the last Shunga ruler was, in turn, assassinated. They were replaced by the Kanva dynasty which ruled from 73-28BC.

The influence of the Mauryans penetrated into Southern India. In the time of the Mauryans the farmers there became more advanced. By the first century BC organised kingdoms had grown up and trade and commerce were flourishing there.


After Alexander the Great's death his empire was split between his generals. The various successor states fought each other until a strong state emerged in Bactria (roughly modern Afghanistan). The Greek rulers of Bactria attempted to control Northwest India.

About 185 BC King Demetrius invaded India. About 160 BC one of his successors, King Menander conquered most of northern India. However after the death of Menander this empire broke up into separate states and Indian civilisation developed without European influence.


India now faced a new invader. Nomads from Central Asia conquered Bactria in about 120 BC. They then settled down and gave up their nomadic lifestyle. They were split into 5 tribes. One of the tribes, the Kushanas conquered the others. They then turned their attention to Northern India. Gradually they conquered more and more territory. Successive kings carved out a bigger and bigger empire in Northern India.

The Kushan Empire reached its peak under King Kanishka (about 78 AD to 114 AD. During his reign Northern India was prosperous and did much trade with the Roman Empire. Kanishka was also a patron of the arts, which flourished. However after his death the empire declined and broke up. By the early 3rd century AD India was once again split into small states.


A new empire was founded early in the 4th century AD by Ghandragupta. After his death in 335 AD his son Samudragupta (335-375) conquered the whole of Northern India and much of Central India. India once again became prosperous and stable and much trade was done with China. Mathematics, astronomy and medicine flourished. Literature also blossomed. This was the age of the great poet Kaidasa.

However Gupta rule was less strict then Mauryan rule. Punishments were less harsh and provinces of the empire were given some autonomy. The Gupta Empire reached a peak under Chandragupta II 375-415 AD. However it then went into decline. The Gupta Empire broke up in the early 6th century.


In the mid 5th century AD, the Huns, a fierce and warlike people from Central Asia invaded Northwest India. However about 460 AD they were repulsed by Skandagupta (454-467). Nevertheless the Huns returned at the end of the 5th century. This time they conquered most of North-western India.

However their rule lasted no more than about 30 years. About 528 AD the Indians, led by a ruler called Yashodharman defeated them in battle and drove them out.


The next great ruler in Indian history was king Harshavardhana (606-647). He created an empire to rival the Guptas. Harsha began as ruler of the kingdom of Thanesar, north of India. He then carved out an empire in Northern India. However in 630, when he attempted to conquer Southern India he was severely defeated by a king called Pulakesin (610-643). (By this time the South of India was definitely equal to the North).

Despite this setback Harsha remained a powerful ruler. During his reign his biography was written. It was called the Harschacharita. Nevertheless Harsha's kingdom really depended on his personality to hold it together. After his death it quickly broke up.

India once again became a land of several kingdoms, which were frequently at war with each other. The three most important dynasties were the Rajputs, the Pallavas and the Chalukyas. However in the 9th century a new empire arose in Southern India - the Cholas.


In the late 10th century the Chola king Rajaraja I began to expand his kingdom. He conquered his neighbours and took Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The next king, Rajenda I took more territory including the Ganges and the Andaman Islands. The Chola was a prosperous empire with many merchants organised into guilds to protect their interests. Trade with Southeast Asia thrived. So did trade with the Arabs.

The empire of the Cholas, although powerful, was less centralised than older empires such as the Gupta. Rulers, once conquered were often reinstated as vassals called samantas and they were allowed a certain amount of autonomy. In some ways this political system resembles European feudalism. Of course there was always a risk that a samanta would rebel!