Ancient Indian History: The term ancient Indian history covers a relatively large period of Indian history from the beginning of the Vedic Era to the end of the various post-Gupta empires. However, it is important to note that historians vary in their opinion regarding the later marker of the period.
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Introduction to Ancient Indian History
This article will provide an overview of the various smaller periods within ancient Indian history starting with the Vedic ages and ending at the various post-Gupta empires. As the period of ancient Indian history extends over 2100 years, from c. 1500 BCE to c. 600 CE, only the socio-political history of the Vedic Age will be addressed so that the article does not become unnecessarily lengthy. Subsequent periods will be addressed in later articles.
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The Vedic Age
The Vedic ages are the first among the subdivisions of ancient Indian history. They cover the period from c. 1500 BCE to c. 600 BCE. The Vedic ages are named after the most important literary works of their time – the Vedas. There are four Vedas, in chronological order of composition, they are – Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. It is important to note here that the Vedas were only composed in this period, their medium of transmission remained oral until they were written down sometime in the mid 1st millennium BCE to late 1st millennium BCE.
The Vedas were composed by the Sanskrit speaking Aryans whose language and culture spread across India starting from the Northwest of India from c. 1650 BCE (I’ll be writing an article later on about who the Aryans were and how they influenced India).
The Early Vedic Age / The Rigvedic Age
After the decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation c. 1800 BCE, there is a very conspicuous gap in the availability of historical sources between c. 1800 BCE and c. 1000 BCE. This is not to say that there were no sources at all, however, the discovered sources were neither numerous nor easily interpreted. Perhaps the only ‘solid’ source of this period was the Rigveda, which was composed during this period and after which the period was subsequently named.
However, there are two major problems in using the Rigveda as the only source:
- First, it was not written with an active view of recording history. History can only be reconstructed by intelligent back-engineering and informed assumptions. Please see the article on Notions of History to better understand the possible reasons for this.
- Second, the composers of the Rigveda were people who were only familiar with the areas of Aryan cultural dominance, the rest of the subcontinent is not mentioned.
During the time of the composition of the Rigveda, Aryan culture was prevalent in the North-Western regions of undivided Punjab, Haryana, and Sindh. The clan or tribe, headed by a chieftain was the basic unit of organization. The Aryans were still a nomadic culture and relied on animal herding as their major source of food and income. Resources obtained from raiding neighboring tribes, loptri, was another important source of income. The unit of production was not clearly defined, however, the lowest unit that was entirely self-sufficient was the clan.
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The Rigvedic Economy
The economy during the Rigvedic period was a subsistence economy, not a market economy. However, this does not mean that no form of trade ever took place, friendly tribes may have bartered goods on occasions. The major economic activities of the period were:
- Animal Rearing: This was the most important economic activity of Rigvedic times. Animals like cattle, horses, and sheep were reared and used for various purposes. The practice of honouring cattle as mothers that continues in modern India probably stems from the great dependence on cattle as the most important providers of food during this period.
- Artisanal Activities: Artisanal activities included leatherworking (the artisans were called charmakaras), chariot making (rathkaras), and pottery (kullal). As an interesting sidenote, pottery seems to have been adopted from the local culture as kullal, the word for a potter is of Munda origin rather than Sanskrit.
- Weaving: Unlike the other activities which were like professions, weaving was undertaken by the women of the household. This was considered as one of their ‘duties’. The material used for weaving was wool, obtained from sheep rearing, there is no mention of cotton at all.
Loptri was commonly referred to as bhaga or amsha, both of which mean division or part (as nouns). This refers to the process of distribution of the loptri among the members of the tribe. The chief got a slightly bigger share than the other members, however, it was small enough to be negligible.
Another interesting feature was the custom of bali. Bali referred to a voluntary offering of gifts to the chieftain by any member of the tribe. The modern meaning of the word in Hindi and Sanskrit is sacrifice, which is slightly related to the archaic meaning. Bali may be in the form of food, flowers, weapons, slaves, and perhaps precious objects. There is also evidence of bali being forcibly extracted from conquered tribes.
Although this period in ancient Indian history is very important to understand how and why certain later changes occurred, historians are handicapped by a lack of sources. The only remedy to this is extensive, comprehensive and careful excavation of the North Western region of the subcontinent.
The Later Vedic Age
The Later Vedic Age extends from c. 1000 BCE to c. 600 BCE. The three later Vedas – namely the Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda were composed during this period. This age did not suffer from the lack of good sources and thus is relatively well understood.
The defining feature of the Later Vedic Age was changed. There were various socio-cultural and economic changes that took place which ultimately led to the second urbanization.
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The major changes during the Later Vedic Age are:
- Migration: The Later Vedic Age witnessed a shift in the area of Aryan culture from Punjab towards the North-Gangetic plains. Thus the new areas of Aryan civilization were modern day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and to some extent Bengal.
- The beginning of Agriculture: This period saw the increasing importance of agriculture as a source of food. Very soon agriculture replaced animal rearing as the primary source of food and by extension, the primary economic activity. This shift in occupation is attributed by most historians to the extremely fertile lands of the area and the easy access to irrigation. The Rigveda mentions agricultural occupations in its later stages, this shows that agriculture had begun to be accepted in the later Rigvedic age. Ploughshares and other implements were made of wood, however, in an exceptional case, an Iron ploughshare has been excavated from Noh in Haryana that has been dated to c. 1100 – 1000 BCE. Archaeo-botanical evidence from Hastinapur and Atranjikhera backs up all claims of agriculture and has established that among the cultivated crops were: rice (yava/vrihi), wheat (godhum), mung bean (mudga), urad dal (masa), sesame seed (til), and sugarcane (ikshu).
- Declining importance of animal rearing: Due to the dependence on agriculture as the main source of food, animal rearing was relegated to a secondary role starting from this period. However, it was still an important economic activity as animal protein was essential for a nutritious diet. An important change which shows the increasing importance of agriculture is the change in the name for a king/chieftain. Whereas in the Rigvedic era a king was called a gopati (owner of cows), in the Later Vedic era a king was called bhupati (owner of land).
- The emergence of the concept of Private Property: This era sees the first emergence of the concept of private property. However, the concepts regarding this were very primitive and not well defined. For example, prayers requesting material from the gods never included a request for land. This was probably due to the fact that the Gangetic plain was sparsely populated and there was no shortage of land for willing settlers.
The Later Vedic Economy
Although the Later Vedic Economy was still a subsistence economy, there was a pattern of change towards a market economy. Craft activities became more and more popular as well as numerous. This was a response to the higher number of tools required to practise agriculture. The major economic changes of the era were:
- Change in the unit of production: Whereas in the Rigvedic era the entire tribe was involved in production, in the Later Vedic era the householder (grihapati) directed the household (kul) in production activities.
- Increase in craft and artisanal activities: This period saw a marked increase in the number of craft activities. With the advent of agriculture new tools were required and this acted as a catalyst for new artisanal activities. In the later period of the era, there was also the discovery of iron, this led to an entire new order of craftsmen and artisans which were solely dedicated to iron making. These new activities were those of the krishnaayas/shyamayas (blacksmiths; both krishna and shyam are associated with darkness in Sanskrit). There are also references to dhmatri (smelters) and bhastra (bellows) in the later Vedas, which show the knowledge of metalworking. These references have been further corroborated by archaeological evidence from Suneri, Rajasthan. There are also references to swarnakar (goldsmiths), and kachakar (glassworkers) which are corroborated by finds of glass beads and bangles. Weaving was probably still done in households.
- Decreasing importance of loptri: Whereas earlier loptri was the second most important source of income, in the the Later Vedic era loptri lost its importance. Since there was a ready supply of food from agriculture, for cultivators loptri was not important. However for the brahmans (priests, teachers, etc) and the kshatriyas (warriors, administrators, etc) who did not produce their own food still depended on loptri. Thus from this era loptri was only distributed among the brahmans and the kshatriyas.
- Change in the nature of bali: Whereas in the Rigvedic times bali was voluntary, in the Later Vedic times it became an almost universally accepted obligation. Even later, during the time of the second urbanisation, it became compulsory and was essentially a tax. The changing nature of bali shows the increasing dependence on agricultural surplus to sustain society and administration. Another factor that explains the enforced change in the nature of bali is the declining income from loptri. The public reaction to the compulsory nature of bali is reflected in a name for a king: vismatta (eater of the people). Bali was used for feasts, sacrifices and dakshinas (donations) to brahmans.
- Emergence of trade: The later three Vedas show a better understanding of the geography of the Indian subcontinent. All three seas: the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea are mentioned in the later Vedas. Some scholars attribute this higher understanding of geography to contact with traders from other lands. The Vedas also mention nishka and satman which were taken to mean gold and silver coins respectively earlier. However as there has been no archaeological evidence to support this, the terms came to mean some measure of gold and some measure of silver respectively. These coins were used as a medium of exchange and facilitated better trade as the barter system was done away with.
- Reference to cities: The later Vedas mention nagaras (cities), however, they seem to be more centers of political activity rather than economic activity. Three nagaras are mentioned in the later Vedas; Ahichhatra (modern day Bareilly), Kausambi (modern day Allahabad), and Hastinapura (modern day Meerut). Excavation of all these sites revealed a very rich material culture. These urban centers were the precursors to the cities of the second urbanisation.
The Vedic ages were the first among the divisions of ancient Indian history. They marked the true and final transition of the population from a nomadic existence to a sedentary, agriculture-based one. The changes that took place in the Vedic ages were the reasons for the second urbanisation as well as many other subsequent events in ancient Indian history. The emergence of the caste system, the prevalence of Vedic Hinduism over all other religions including animism in the subcontinent, the emergence of a culture that was of product of intermixing of Aryan and local cultures were all changes that took place in the Vedic ages; however, their effects were very widespread in ancient Indian history.
In my next article on ancient Indian history, I will deal with the second urbanisation, the rise of the various city-states and social structure of the period.