When reports of an eccentric British
archeologist called John Marshall suddenly stumbling upon some really
ancient structures in Mohenjodaro and Harappa started filtering out,
nothing short of a minor sensation occurred the world over. For this
was clearly something that would prove beyond the shadow of a doubt
that India came before Greece.
Discovery of Ancient City of Mahenjodaro and Harappa
The year was 1922. Initial forays in delving into India's past
began when Dr R D Banerjee found the ancient city of Mohenjodaro
(literally, `city of the dead') in Larkana district of Sindh, now
A little later, archeological remains of another city, quite similar
in planning and age, were dug up by Sir Daya Ram Sawhney in Harappa,
in the Montgomery district of the Punjab. Sir John Marshall, who was
the then chairperson of the Archeology department, decided this was a
thing well worth looking into. Under his supervision, teams of
archeologists worked in other areas of the Sindh and Baluchistan
provinces of present Pakistan. What they came up with astounded the
The Marvelous Town Planning of Mohenjodaro
The chief feature of Mohenjodaro, that amazes all curious spectators,
is its superb town planning. The streets, which divided the city into
neat rectangular or square blocks, varied in width but always
intersected each other at right angles.
The city had an elaborate drainage system consisting of horizontal
and vertical drains, street drains and so on. The architecture of the
buildings was clearly intended to be functional and minimalist, and
certainly not to please the aesthete.
Mohenjodaro was obviously a cosmopolitan city, the capital of the
civilization or something, with people of different races mingling
with the local populace.
Studies reveal that four distinct races inhabited the city:
Proto-Austroloid, Mediterranean, Alpine and Mongoloid. Not much is
known about their socio-economic-religious life as the script of the
civilization eludes decoding; many have come tantalizingly close, but
then just that.
They had their distinct religious sects, including a very active
Mother Goddess cult, as is evinced from various seals that they have
left behind not only here, but also in far-flung places like
Mesopotamia. Which means that sea trade was very much part of their
lives; this is confirmed from another source as their seals carry
insignias of boats and ships on them.
The Indus Valley Civilization
It is without a doubt that the civilization one of the most important
finds in the world of archeology. In one stroke the age of Indian
history was pushed back by more than a millennium, deep into 3000BC.
This effectively exploded the myth that everything in India before the
coming of the Aryans was enveloped in the supreme darkness of one
primeval swamp. Here was a civilization that was not only
well-developed, but actually far more sophisticated than that of the
The Indus Valley Civilization said its last hurray roughly in 2200
BC. The beginning and end of the Indus Valley Civilization are both a
matter of debate. Obviously there must have been a lead up to it.
Suddenly, out of the blue, a people could not have emerged complete
with their perfect town planning, neat houses, lovely jewellery and
loads of make-up. So where did they come from? and then having come,
just where did they disappear?
Popular theory which is accepted by the man on the street is that the
people of the civilization (commonly referred to as the Harappans)
were chased out by the Aryans and went down south. The present South
Indians are their descendants. Recent research also threw up evidence
that the Aryans' descendants actually still survive as santals
(tribals) in various jungle areas in India.
The Settlement of Aryans
It took the tall, beautiful, long limbed Aryans surprisingly little
time to get used to their new home. Initially, they settled in the
area of Sapt-Sindhu, which included Punjab, Kashmir, Sindh, Kabul and
Gandhara (Kandhar). The chief sources of this period which have come
down to us are The Vedas and the Epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana,
which through their stories and hymns tell us about the expansion of
the Aryans. It took them about a thousand years to bring the entire
northern region under their control. Then they turned their attention
to the south. The epic Ramayana is a symbolic tale which tells of the
Aryan expansion to the south - the good, almost godly, aryaputra
(an Aryan's son) king Rama surging forth to finish off the evil Dasyu
(that was what the Aryans called the natives) Ravana.
Aryans Political System
The political system of the Aryans in their initial days here was
amazingly complex, though quite ingenious. They hung around together
in small village settlements (which later grew to kingdoms) and the
basis of their political and social organization was, not
surprisingly, the clan or kula.
Being of somewhat militant nature, this was very much a patriarchal
society, with the man in the house expected to keep his flock in
Groups of kulas together formed a Grama or village, which was headed
by a Gramina. Many villages formed another political unit called a
Visya, headed by a Visyapati. The Visyas in turn collected under a
Jana, which was ruled by a Rajana or king. However, the precise
relationship between the grama, the visya and the jana has not been
clearly defined anywhere.
The King Was The Supreme Power
The king was yet to become that the all-powerful monarch that he
eventually became. Although he lived as befitted a king, he was
supposed to work in tandem with the people's wishes.
He had an elaborate court of many officials, including the chief
queen (Mahishi) who was expected to help in the decision making
process. Two assemblies, Sabha and Samiti further assisted the king.
The Samiti was roughly equivalent to our modern Lower House or the Lok
Sabha, with members that represented the people, and the Sabha was a
permanent body of selected men.
So everything was very proper and democratic. This was obviously
speedily amended. As one Jana swallowed another and kingdoms arose out
of their ashes, the king became increasingly the despot that we are
all more familiar with. Women seemed to have had it good at this time,
but then through almost all of the ancient period of Indian history
women continued to command respect and considerable pull in society.
Although by the time of the Mahabharata their position had fallen
enough for them to be treated as a man's property, as is evinced by
the episode where Yudhistra gambles away his wife.
No Rigidity In Caste System
The caste system (see Varna system) as is known now does not seem to
have evolved yet. and even when it did, it was not the rigid thing it
became by the time of the Guptas but was a loose social system where
people could move up and down the social scale. Aryan's
worshipped nature gods - they prayed to the Usha (Dawn),
Prajapati (The Creator), Rudra (Thunder), Indra (Rain), Surya (Sun)
and so on. These gods and goddesses were appeased by prayers and
As time went this idyllic life among the beautiful wooded country
with a benevolent monarch, a democratic senate and an open social
system failed to survive. Power won over all else.
Period of Social Reform
By the sixth century BC things had become complicated and rigid
enough for socio-religious reformers like the Buddha and Mahavira to
want change. The priestly class, as happened the world over, became
increasingly the real masters in the socio-economic-political scheme
of affairs. Rituals became rigid, sacrifices elaborate and religion
Rising of Diverse Religions
Buddhism and Jainism
were instant hits with the populace and became powerful clannish
minorities while the bulk of the people remained with Aryanism. Not
for long, however. As the two new religions which had extremely
charismatic leaders and very zealous followers caught the people's
imagination, the influence of both faiths spread enough for kings to
profess and actively promote them.
While the Buddha was expounding on the metaphysics of life, kings
were going about the usual business of going after more power, more
money and more land. A fierce battle of domination (upon which, it is
said, that the Mahabharata might have been based; see Indraprastha
under Delhi History) was waging, of which Magadha (roughly the region
of the present Bihar) emerged as the clear leader.
From now on Magadha, with its capital Patliputra (the present Patna),
became the power that be in the Indian sub-continent (India, of
course, was not recognized as a unit yet). The kings of Magadha were
to remain the mightiest all through out the period of Ancient Indian
history, and their kingdom, at its peak, stretched from Afghanistan in
the northwest to deep into the present Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka
Bimbisara- The Magadhan Ruler of Sisunga Dynasty
The first important Magadhan king who emerges into the limelight was
Bimbisara (544-491 BC) of the Sisunga dynasty. He was an extremely
polished diplomat and crafty statesman.
While the earlier rulers had brought Magadha out of clear and present
danger, it was Bimbisara who consolidated and increased that power and
really gave it the identity of a kingdom.
Through some clever marital and martial policies he pushed the
frontiers of Magadha over, according to a source, eighty thousand
villages. Bimbisara was a contemporary of the Buddha and met him
twice, thanks to his wife Khema's reverence for the teacher. We learn
that when he met him the second time, in Rajgriha (which is an
important Buddhist pilgrimage today), Bimbisara converted to Buddhism.
Assasination of Bimbisara
Apparently Bimbisara was assasinated by his impatient son Ajatsatru,
who was a good friend of the Buddha's cousin Devadutta. This
Devadutta, not to be judged by his cousin's credentials, was very much
a blot on his family name and talked Ajatsatru into killing his father
in the first place.
However, there is evidence that his crime weighed on Ajatsatru's
mind, and in the end he confessed his crime to the Buddha before
converting to Buddhism. Apart from this, Ajatsatru was very much his
father's son and continued his imperialist policies. One particularly
bitter, acrimonious and prolonged rivalry went on between him and the
Lichchavi dynasty that ruled Vaishali (in Bihar), which he eventually
managed to conquer.
Ajatsatru was obviously a colorful character and a man of sentiment.
There are tales of his passionate affair with the chief courtesan of
Vaishali, called Amrapali. Then, when the Buddha attained parinirvana
(nirvana from all births and bonds), Ajatsatru insisted upon a part of
his relics be buried in a stupa (shrine) that he got erected in
Rajgriha. He said, "The lord was a kshatriya (the warrior caste
of the Varna system), so am I. Therefore I am worthy of a share of his
relics upon which I will erect a stupa."
The Fading Glory of Sisunga Dynasty
The Sisunga dynasty faded fast after Ajatsatru; having produced two
rulers with force enough for twenty, the dynasty bowed out. The last
recorded ruler of the family was Kakavarna who was put to death by
Mahapadmananda, of the Nanda dynasty which followed the Sisungas.
The Nandas could never be popular rulers despite their airs of
magnificence and immense wealth (which they amassed by huge taxation).
They were of lowborn sudra stock and hence had the odds stacked
against them right from the start. By now the kings had become the
more familiar despots and were becoming increasingly unapproachable.
The Nandas, though very powerful with a huge standing army and a
grand court, were apparently a very vain lot. Indeed, traditional
sources give us a very unflattering picture of the kings of this
family. Much of this can be discounted - the Nandas were sudras
to start with (which queered them with the Aryan Brahmins who were
writing one half of these sources) and never bothered to associate
with the Buddhists and Jains (who were writing the other half).
The Nanda who unwittingly became the most famous of the entire
dynasty was Dhanananda. He started his own downfall by insulting a
certain unsightly looking Brahmin, who unfortunately for Dhanananda,
turned out to have surprising vision, intellect and Machiavellian
cunning. Chanakya - The Man With Master Mind
This Brahmin was called Chanakya. This was time (around 326BC) when
Alexander came visiting India's northwest borders along Taxila
where the king, called Ambhi, laid out the red carpet for him. There
was an active concern among all except the king Dhanananda himself
that Alexander would come all the way to Magadha. The first thing that
Chanakya tried to achieve was to raise a confederacy against the
foreign invader. Though this attempt, to a large extent failed, what
it did manage was to bring Chanakya into political limelight of the
day. He made many friends in high places, which set him off on a
bigger goal - to overthrow the Nandas.
One of the main reasons the confederacy against Alexander never got
going was that Magadha, as the most powerful kingdom and the obvious
leader for the rest to follow, simply refused to fall in. Dhanananda
apparently not only flatly refused to spend good cash on a mad project
like this, but also managed to offend Chanakya so thoroughly by his
insolent behavior that the Brahmin went away convinced that the king
deserved to be overthrown. It was a good thing that Chanakya's
concerns were in vain; Alexander never did come all the way to
Magadha; in fact, he didn't even get close. Long before that summer
set in and his armies started grumbling, while he himself fell ill
(this illness would eventually be the end of the great king in 323BC,
at a tragically early age of 32).
So the Greek armies turned around after leaving Seleucus Nikator as
Alexander's general in the region. The Greeks established a colony
along the border who eventually mingled with the local populace, thus
forming a new stock of people. This meant not only political, but also
cultural and social exchange with the Greek which influenced Indian
warfare, painting and sculpture (a whole school of art called Gandhara
School of art come up of the amalgam), trade and economy. While we, in
turn, influenced their science, astronomy, art and philosophy.
In these exciting times, Chanakya was going about with a
single-minded focus to find a replacement for Dhananada. This he found
in young Chandragupta Maurya (324-298BC).
The dynasty that Chandragupta and Chanakya established in Magadha
together, the Mauryan dynasty, was the first real dynasty of Indian
history. The first among the Mauryas, however, is quite a mystery
figure in history and not much is known about him. Descriptions of his
good looks have led some to conclude that he had Greek blood in him.
and since he was supposed to have come from the North, certainly he
was of the hills. Much hair splitting has happened over him, his
credentials to the throne, his family, even his name; with one of the
theories claiming that he was actually the son of Dhanananda mistress
called Mura, and hence the name Maurya
. However, all this is up there in the realm of conjecture, since we
are never likely to know the truth about Chandragupta Maurya's
background. His mentor himself doesn't throw any light on his origins;
indeed, if he was in fact low born, Chanakya's attempts would have
been more in the direction of hushing them up. He was on the look out
for a shrewd, intelligent young man who had a certain genius for
battle as also ruling, suffice is that he got him.
Together they both made a formidable team and stayed together till
the end of Chandragupta's reign, when Chanakya lived to see the early
half of his successor Bindusara's (298-273BC) reign too. There's
sufficient evidence to prove that elaborate planning and much intrigue
went to shake the Nandas out of the Magadha throne.
A few early attempts, in fact, failed. There's a story about how
Chandragupta finally got the idea that managed to defeat the Nanda
might. Apparently he was walking round Taxila when he saw a woman
feeding her son a dish of rice and lentils. As the son started to go
straight for the middle of the dish, his mother reprimanded him and
told him to start eating from the sides, for the centre was bound to
This gave Chandragupta the idea to abandon trying to directly take on
the Magadhan armies, and consolidate his position around it first and
choke the Nandas so to speak.
After Magadha was taken, Chanakya and Chandragupta had most of their
allies summarily disposed off and integrated their kingdoms into one
strong Mauryan empire. His successor Bindusara although known as
Amitraghat (slayer of foes) was neither a conqueror nor a military
But he was a dynamic and brilliant diplomat. He started sending and
receiving missions to Egypt, Greece, Persia, Mesopotamia and various
other countries. Trade increased, the economy prospered and there was
general prosperity in the kingdom. There were several rebellions in
the border regions in this period (regular features through out Indian
history), for which he sent out his son Ashoka Maurya, who was very
successful in dealing with them.
Ashoka The Great
Ashoka Piyadassi Maurya (269-232BC) was perhaps Buddhism's most
famous convert. He has caught the imagination of many as the cruel
king who suddenly, after one battle, saw the light and became an
avowed non-violent. The truth was a little more complicated than that.
Ashoka's conversion had been building for sometime before the famous
battle of Kalinga (present Orissa) which is supposed to have knocked
the wastefulness of war into him - ever since his younger brother
Tissa converted to Buddhism. and he wasn't really a cruel king, even
though he did put all his brothers to death to come to the throne -
but then that was no different from what any other aspiring king would
have done, and no doubt any of his brothers in similar circumstances
would have done the same.
Most of what we know about him comes from Buddhist traditions, which
would naturally try to portray him as this really ruthless animal who
turned into a radically decent person as soon as he converted to
Nevertheless, Ashoka's reign has remained unique all through our
Indian history. Under him, for the first time, almost the entire
regions of present-day India were united under one central authority.
Ashoka made Buddhism the state religion for having found peace in it.
He wanted others to find it as well, although no conversions were
forced upon the people.
This last was a clever political move as well for nothing unites a
nation like the bonds of a common religion, as recommended by the
crafty Chanakya in his masterpiece Arthasastra, a political and
Next, Ashoka propounded his celebrated philosophy of Dhamma, which
was a something like a correct moral code of conduct meets
metaphysics. It has been suggested that Ashoka abandoned all violence
so thoroughly that he even disbanded the army. This, however, was not
true; for certainly the tone of some of the edicts that he has left
strewn all over India, in which he warns troublemakers in the
northwest border regions, is very much that of a king in control and
ready to back up word with force. Ashoka also sent Buddhist
missionaries abroad to spread the light; the most famous of these was
sent to then Ceylon (Sri lanka), under his own son Mahindra and
After Ashoka the Mauryan dynasty fizzled out surprisingly quickly. of
Ashoka's sons, one Tivara died in his lifetime, another Kunala
established an independent kingdom in the Kashmir region. Mahindra
was, of course, appointed to carry out the more esoteric side of his
father's concerns. The successor then was Jaloka, who succeeded when
Ashoka died in 232Bc. He was physically very weak and died after just
eight years. Confusion reigned for some years after his death, which
was ended by Pushyamitta Sunga (184-149BC) taking over.
The Post Maurya Period
In the post Maurya period, three dynasties jostled, came and went
with astonishing speed on the Magadhan throne.
The first among these were the Sungas, under whom the country made
The Sunga rulers were also quite successful in checking foreign
invasions. Art and culture also flourished considerably under the
Sungas who were particularly known to be great patrons of both.
They were followed by the Kanvas who were almost like a blip in the
scene of Indian history, lasting only 45 years in all. The other
important dynasty of this Post-Mauryan confusion was the andhras or
According to traditional sources, they were apparently Dasyus (as
opposed to Aryans) from south India. Even in Ashoka's time, this
dynasty had risen to quite a bit of prominence along the southwest
We are told that it had 30 kings, however we get to names only with
Simukha (235-213BC), who has been credited with founding the dynasty
although his claim is in dispute - by historians that is. Simukha
himself, one presumes, is now beyond caring. One of the most famous
rulers of this dynasty was Sri Satkarni (194-184BC), who had a kingdom
covering almost all of south India, down to the andhra region and
around with his capital as the present Aurangabad.
The next important dynasty to step into the scene were the Kushanas,
about whom not much is known, so much so that there is controversy
even over the date of accession of their most important king Kanishka.
Scholars have used imaginative ways to come up with as disparate
dates as 78BC to down to 248AD. Most probably he ruled sometime in the
first century AD. Kanishka has been greatly associated with Buddhism
and his reign made the religion popular again.
Much artistic, cultural, spiritual and literary activity was
encouraged by him to promote the religion. It was in his reign that
Buddhism split into two sects, Hinayana (the older simpler religion
when Buddha was not considered God) and Mahayana (the more ritualistic
Buddhism, which worships the Buddha). The latter was the state
religion of the Kushanas, who were Indo-Greek by origin.
After the Kushanas, India saw political unity only under the second
great dynasty of ancient Indian history after the Mauryas, the Guptas.
The imperial Guptas were great conquerors, efficient administrators
and renowned patrons of the arts, science and culture. What's more,
they lasted pretty long too; they had at least six strong rulers
before the dynasty petered off, which meant greater stability than any
kingdom had ever known in Indian sub-continent. Their reign is called
the Golden Age of ancient Indian history.
There is evidence, the first traces ever, of fundamentalism as the
staunchly Aryan Guptas set about reviving the older religion. It is in
this era also that we see the beautifully simple and free-spirited
Aryan philosophy settling down into a more rigid mould of a religion
that we now call Hinduism. There could be reasons for this, though.
For when the Guptas came on the scene India had just seen a long line
of Indo-Greek, Indo-Bactrian, Indo-Parthian, in short Indo-anything
except Indo-Indian rulers. and even then they had to continuously wage
bitter battles to keep foreign invaders like the Sakas off their
backs. So naturally they reached deep back to their roots so to speak,
in reaction against all things foreign. To revive the glory of the
`old' culture, which had been obscured by the so-called foreign
rulers, must have been a matter of pride for them. In this, however,
came certain downs. For example the caste system came back with a
vengeance but no longer as the flexible loose social structure of the
early Aryan days, but a strict code that later became such a curse for
Great Rulers of Gupta Dynasty
If one turns a blind eye to this, the Guptas were obviously what the
doctor ordered for the country then. For a dynasty which was so well
documented we know surprisingly little about the rise of the Guptas.
The first Gupta king was apparently Chandra Gupta I (320-335AD),
though not much is known about him.
Next in line was Samudra Gupta (335-375AD) who, by all accounts,
seemed to have been nothing short of a genius. He appears to have come
to the throne brimming with an amazing appetite for conquest.
Considering that he defeated kings all over northern and southern
India (in all about twenty-four of them) one wonders when did he get
the time to govern the kingdom. So, it is not really a surprise to
learn that he did not. He came up with a rather clever plan to keep
the newly acquired territories as annexed lands; which meant that he
retained the old kings as vassals to keep the administration going.
So, effectively his kingdom was like a loose federation, where
everyone knew who the boss was while the actual ruling was handed over
to other more competent authorities.
The conqueror was just one facet to the charismatic Samudra Gupta.
Court poets would, of course, have us believe that he was nothing
short of a Narcissus to look at. However, he must have been
unquestionably a magnetic personality which he used to great effect as
a statesman. He was a skilful diplomat who had excellent relations
with not only foreign rulers but also his vassal-kings, surely a much
more difficult task to achieve. Due to his ingenious ideas of
government, Samudra Gupta could establish a really powerful empire
which stood solid as a rock for many years to come. He was also a
great scholar and was especially fond of poetry and spiritual studies.
He was followed by his elder son Rama Gupta (375-380AD) who was a bit
of blot on that proud family's good name. Apparently he was having
immense trouble with the central Asian Saka invaders who refused to
budge from borders of the empire and threatened to come in. Rama Gupta
sued for peace, and the Saka king agreed on one condition that his
queen Dhruvadevi be surrendered to him. Which was okay with Rama
Gupta, but not his younger brother Chandra Gupta who, disguised as the
queen, entered the Saka camp and killed their king. After this Chandra
Gupta also killed his brother and married Dhruvadevi and succeeded the
He came to be called Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya (380-413AD) and was
an excellent ruler. The story does not change much from Samudra
Gupta's time. Conquests (though not many since Samudra Gupta had
pretty much already conquered all there was to conquer), able
administration, the arts flourishing, literature being produced in
huge quantities, relations with foreign kings being excellent...
and God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.
Vikramaditya's main achievement was that he managed to quash the
stronghold of the Saka might (called the Saka Satraps) in India.
Fa-Hien the famous Chinese Buddhist traveller-student came to India
during his rule.
Next in line were Kumara Gupta (413-455AD) and Skanda Gupta
(455-468AD). They were considerably troubled by foreign invasions,
especially the latter who had to contend with the Huns. The Huns,
though finally defeated by Skanda Gupta, seemed to have had remarkable
tenacity, for they continued to invade Gupta territory with unfailing
The period between 458-540AD saw five Gupta rulers and the slipping
away of the reigns of a once-powerful kingdom away from their hands.
The Guptas were the last great dynasty to rule India till the Delhi
Sultanate came along much later, and certainly they were the end of
great Aryan rulers.
Harsha Vardhana -- The Rulere of Vardhana Dynasty
The final important ruler of Ancient Indian history was Harsha
Vardhana (606-646AD), who ruled not from Magadha but Thanesar (in
modern Haryana area) of the Vardhana dynasty. He was a Buddhist and
convened many Buddhist assemblies. The second Chinese traveller to
come to India, Huien Tsang, arrived during his reign.
By all accounts Harsha was all the usual things that one associates
with a good king. However, lots of petty dynasties like the Maukharis
and the Vakatakas had started springing up all over the place, and the
confusion which is generally associated with the absence of a strong
central dynasty was rife.
The south presented a medley of dynasties around the time of Harsha
Vardhana. There were the Pandyas (in regions of Mudurai, Travancore
and Tinnevelly), the Chalukyas (in present Maharashtra region) and
Pallavas (in modern Tamil Nadu region), who had this terrific battle
of supremacy going constantly. Pulakesan II (610-642AD) was the ablest
of the Chalukyan kings and for a time managed to keep the Chalukyan
flag flying above the others. But strictly for a time being.
This was also the time (around 650AD) when the Rajputs suddenly
appeared on the scene out of nowhere (See Medieval
Indian History for more on them). Another major dynasty
called Rashtrakutas, which had been around during the days of the
Guptas too, suddenly saw an upsurge in power in 750BC in the present
Karnataka region. Their dynasty spills over to very early Medieval
period and then fizzles out.
In 800AD thus we leave India in a state of chaos, out of which order
was made only somewhere in 1192AD.