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5-08-2015, 23:19

Settling the Subcontinent

The Indus, or Harappan, people stand out in India’s history. Their existence makes ancient India a unique place. Their time exhibited great growth and achievements, including the development of major urban centers.

Bhimbetka's Prehistoric Inhabitants

People have occupied the subcontinent of India for hundreds of thousands of years. Archaeological finds place prehumans in India 500,000 years ago. Modern humans probably arrived in India between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago. Over time, communities developed, including Bhimbetka, in central India. There, approximately 10,000 years ago, people left their mark on rock shelters. Their artwork is the earliest known in India and provides a glimpse into life

at that time. The prehistoric artists used paint made from animal fat, colored earth, roots, and vegetable dyes. Their brushes were made from stringy branches.

Paintings show a variety of animals, including bison, deer, elephants, a peacock, and a snake. The art also features hunters carrying weapons such as bows and arrows. Some hunters carry swords and shields. One scene details a hunter running from a bison.

Mohenjo-Daro. Harappa was another major Indus city, with a population of roughly 30,000.1 The two cities were approximately 400 miles (640 km) apart.2 Each city occupied roughly one square mile (2.6 sq km).3

Harappa’s and Mohenjo-Daro’s designs were quite complex. The cities were laid out in a rectangle. Features included wide roads, large homes, citadels, and granaries. Canals allowed for irrigation. A drainage system of sewers lined with bricks was likely the first sanitation system in the world.

The Indus civilization included hundreds more sites. It stretched hundreds of miles in every direction, making it the largest of the world’s earliest known civilizations, bigger than Egypt and Mesopotamia.


Sir John Marshall, a British archaeologist, headed the Indian Archaeological Survey from 1902 to 1931. He oversaw digs at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, unearthing similar clay seals at both locations. The Indus people used them in trading, stamping a seal’s image on pottery or on clay tags.

Marshall learned a similar seal existed in the Middle East, in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Archaeologists dated that seal to approximately 2300 BCE, which provided a date for the Indian discoveries. The similarities between the seals also connected the people in India and Mesopotamia via trade.

Archaeologists have since recovered thousands of seals. Several are square, measuring approximately 0.75 inch by 0.75 inch (1.9 cm by 1.9 cm).4 They are made of soapstone. The seals feature a variety of figures, including gods and animals such as bulls and elephants. The unicorn often appears on seals. Seals often include writing. Scholars have not yet deciphered the system of symbols the Indus people used.

By approximately 1900 BCE, cities in the Indus Valley began declining. Scholars have different opinions as to why. Possible reasons include flooding and climate changes, which would have affected farming and may have led to economic hardship.


The Vedic civilization succeeded the Indus, lasting from 1700 BCE to 500 BCE. The word Vedic comes from the Vedas, which are the texts of the Hindu religion written during this time.

Indus Settlement Hierarchy

Archaeologists have discovered remains of the Indus civilization between the Indus and Ganges Rivers and well beyond, and they have categorized settlements into four tiers by size.5

The Arya were a semi-nomadic people who spoke Indo-Aryan languages. Their origin is not quite certain. Scholars have hypothesized the group came from Central Asia, Iran, Russia, and Scandinavia.

During this time, many different groups called ancient India home. Some were nomads, others farmed, and others lived in villages and large towns. The Indo-Aryan speakers lived an agriculture-based lifestyle for the most part, and they spread out across the subcontinent, intermixing with the people already living there. They occupied land stretching west from the Punjab, the region of the Indus River and its tributaries, to the Ganges River. The Vedic civilization formed the foundation of Hinduism and of modern Indian culture, including the caste system, which divided the population into distinct social classes.

During the latter part of the Vedic age, in 600 BCE, 16 mahajanapadas, “great kingdoms,” emerged. This time would also bring about great changes in ancient India’s religious beliefs with the birth of two religious leaders. Mahavira, born in 599 BCE, would found Jainism. Siddhartha Gautama, born in approximately the 500s BCE, became the Buddha and founded Buddhism. Neither man believed in Hinduism, the prevailing religion of the Vedic civilization, and each formed his own set of beliefs to counter it.


Less than a century after the mahajanapadas began, the ancient Indians found themselves fighting invaders from Persia and then Greece. Greek traders had long been visiting ports along India’s coasts. Then, in the 300s BCE, the Greeks attacked under the direction of skilled leader

Alexander III. He was a Greek king known as Alexander the Great for his military achievements. In 327 BCE, he became the first Greek to invade India. Alexander took over Taxila and Aornos, two cities in the north. Next, he challenged Porus, an Indian king, in 326 BCE in the Battle of Hydaspes. After defeating Porus, Alexander led his troops to victory along the Indus River. Once Alexander and his men reached the mouth of the Indus, they headed back westward, toward their homeland.

India's Name

India’s name reflects its geography. The region’s early settlers called the area sindhu, a word that means “river frontier” in Sanskrit, a language that developed in ancient India during the Vedic period.

The name came from the many rivers that ran through the region. In fact, today’s Punjab Province was once called Sapta-Sindhava, “land of seven rivers.”

The Rigveda, an ancient sacred book, discusses the area. Five of the rivers still exist: the Chenab, Indus,

Jhelum, Ravi, and Sutlej/Beas. The other two rivers, the Drasadvati and Saraswati, dried up long ago.

Persians used a different word when they began exploring ancient India in the 500s BCE. They called the Indus River and the people who lived near it Hindhu, a variation of sindhu. The Greeks introduced the word India. When Alexander the Great invaded in the 300s BCE, he and his army called the river Indos and the area around it India.

Alexander wanted the communities to do more. Alexander wanted to unite Asia and Europe into a single country. He supported marriage between Indians and Greeks, and he encouraged the spread of Greek customs in India, as well as the rest of his empire. Alexander’s grand plan would not come to life. He died suddenly in 323 BCE, and his great empire was gone in little more than ten years. However, a new Indian empire was on the rise.


Only two years after Alexander’s invasion, India’s first empire began. In 321 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya founded the Mauryan Empire, uniting almost the entire Indian subcontinent. Chandragupta expanded his empire by invading neighboring lands, including areas Alexander had captured in modern-day Afghanistan. Chandragupta created a strong government that led to a strong economy.

The Mauryan Empire Chandragupta founded would last more than 130 years, ending in 185 BCE. Before its decline, the empire would have a leader even greater than its founder. Ashoka, Chandragupta’s grandson, was a powerful leader who spread Buddhism across the subcontinent. Ashoka became one of India’s most celebrated emperors.

After a series of invasions and different dynasties, India’s next great empire emerged in 320 CE.

Magadha kingdom. Marriage made him leader of the Ganges Valley. He joined the two territories into his own empire. The Gupta Empire would last until 550 CE. Its leaders, the Guptas, oversaw an era of great cultural achievement and economic success.