South Asian history has no one beginning, no one chronology, no single plot or narrative. It is not a singular history, but rather many histories, with indefinite, contested origins and with countless separate trajectories that multiply as we learn more about the past. In recent decades, history’s multiplicity, antiquity, and ambiguity have become more complicated as scholars have opened new perspectives on the past and made new discoveries. Having the issues of objectivity and subjectivity, the historians have embarked upon the mission of discovering the discursive and archeological answers to the question; what we know and how do we know about the history of this region of ancient civilization. To the east of Mesopotamia, beyond the Iranian plateau and the mountains of Baluchistan, the Asian continent projects sharply southward below the Himalayan mountain barrier to form the Indian subcontinent.
The earliest evidence of a settled, Neolithic way of life on the subcontinent comes from the foothills of Sind and Baluchistan and dates to about 5500 B.C.E., with evidence of barley and wheat cultivation, baked brick dwellings, and, later, domestication of animals such as goats, sheep, and cows, and, after about 4000 B.C.E., metalworking. The subcontinent’s earliest literate, urban civilization arose in the valley of the Indus River sometime after 2600 B.C.E. and by about 2300 B.C.E. was trading with Mesopotamia. Known as the Indus valley culture (or the Harrapan civilization, after the archaeological site at which it was first recognized), it lasted only a few centuries and left many unanswered questions about its history and culture. The region’s second identifiable civilization was of a different character. Dating to about 1500 B.C.E., it is known as the Vedic Aryan civilization—after the nomadic Indo-European immigrant people, or Aryans, who founded it, and their holy texts, or Vedas. This civilization endured for nearly a thousand years without cities or writing, but its religious and social traditions commingled with older traditions in the subcontinent— notably that of the Indus culture—to form the Indian civilization. Archaeologists discovered the existence of the Indus culture at the site of Harappa in the 1920s. Since then, some seventy cities, the largest being Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, have been identified over a vast area from the Himalayan foothills west and south on the coasts of the Arabian Sea. This urban civilization had bronze tools, writing, covered drainage systems, and a diversified social and economic organization. Because it disappeared before 1500 B.C.E. and its writing is still not deciphered, it remains the least understood of the early river valley civilizations. Archaeological evidence and inferences from later Indian life, however, allow us to reconstruct something of its highly developed and once thriving culture.
In the general aspect, the Indus culture covered an area many times larger than either Middle Kingdom Egypt or Third Dynasty Ur, yet the archaeological finds show it to have been remarkably homogeneous. City layouts, building construction, weights and measures, seal inscriptions, patterned pottery and figurines, and even the burnt brick used for buildings and flood walls are unusually uniform in all Indus towns, suggesting an integrated economic system and good internal communications. Indus culture was also remarkably constant over time. Because the main cities and towns lay in river lowlands subject to flooding, they were rebuilt often, with each reconstruction closely following the previous pattern. Similarly, the Indus script, known from more than 2,000 stamp seals and apparently using both pictographic and phonetic symbols, shows no evidence of change over time. This evidence of stability, regularity, and traditionalism has led scholars to speculate that a centralized government, perhaps a conservative (priestly) theocracy rather than a more unstable royal dynasty and court, controlled this far-flung society.
The cities of both Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro apparently had populations of more than 35,000 and were meticulously designed on a similar plan. To the west of each stood a large, walled citadel on a raised rectangular platform about 800 by 1,400 feet in size. East of this the town proper was laid out on a north–south, east–west grid of main avenues, some as wide as 30 feet. The citadel apparently contained the main public buildings. A large bath with a brick-lined pool, a subterranean furnace, and columned porticoes have been excavated at Mohenjo-Daro. Both Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro had buildings tentatively identified as temples. The periphery of each city had a cemetery and a large granary for food storage. The town “blocks” formed by the main avenues were crisscrossed by small, less rigidly planned lanes, off which opened private houses, sometimes of more than one story. The typical house was built around a central courtyard and presented only blank walls to the lanes or streets outside, an arrangement still common in many Near Eastern and south Asian cities. Perhaps the most striking feature of these cities was a complex system of covered drains and sewers. Private houses were serviced by wells, bathrooms, and latrines, and the great bath at Mohenjo-Daro was filled from its own large well. The drainage system that served these facilities was an engineering feat unrivaled until the time of the Romans, nearly 2,000 years later. The economy of the Indus state or states was based on agriculture. Wheat and barley were the main crops; rice, peas, lentils, sesame, dates, and cotton were also important. Cattle, dogs, cats, goats, sheep, and fowl were raised, and elephants and water buffalo were likely used as beasts of burden. The Indus valley people wove cloth from cotton, made metal tools, and used the potter’s wheel. Among the most striking accomplishments of the Indus culture are fine bronze and stone sculptures. Other evidence of the skill of Indus artisans includes copper and bronze tools and vessels, black-on-red painted pottery, dressed stonework, stone and terra-cotta figurines and toys, silver vessels and ornaments, gold jewelry, and dyed woven fabric. Indus stamp seals, which provide the only examples of the still not deciphered Indus script, also bear representations of animals, humans, and what are thought to be divine or semi divine beings. Similar figures are also found on painted pottery and engraved copper tablets. Compared with the art of Egypt or Mesopotamia, this art seems limited, however. Except for some decorative brickwork, no monumental friezes, mosaics, or sculpture have been found. The Indus remains reveal somewhat more regarding the religious realm. The elaborate bath facilities suggest that ritual bathing and water purification rites were important, as they still are in India today. The stone images from the so-called temples of Mohenjo-Daro and the more common terra-cotta figurines from other sites also suggest links to later Indian religious practices and symbols. The many images of male animals such as the humped bull might be symbols of power and fertility or might indicate animal worship. A recurring image of a male figure with leafy headdress and horns, often seated in a posture associated later in India with yogic meditation, has been likened to the Vedic Aryan “Lord of All Creatures.” He has features in common with the Hindu god Shiva, especially where he is depicted with three faces and an erect phallus. Also found in Indus artifacts are the pipal tree and the left-handed swastika, both symbols of later importance to Hindus. Sometime in the period from about 1800 to 1700 B.C.E., Indus civilization disappeared. It is not clear whether its demise was related to the warlike Aryan invaders who may first have appeared in the upper Indus about 1800 B.C.E. and later used their horse-drawn chariots to subdue indigenous peoples and move across the north Indian plains. Some scholars think it was destroyed by abnormal flooding (perhaps from careless damming of the Indus), changes in the course of the Indus, collapse of military power, or a long period of desiccation even before the Aryans arrived. Regardless of cause, the Indus culture disappeared by about 1700 B.C.E. and remains too shadowy for us to measure its proper influence.
In a nutshell, this civilization has made the modern world astonished by the very development they had made so earlier in the art of sophisticated human living.