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Life in Ancient India

An overview of the history and culture of ancient Bharatha

Moenjo Daro Site

It is well past time to rewrite our history textbooks and this page is based on a work by Sudheer Birodkar and Debbie Azzopardi posted in 1998. Sudheer Birodkar also has other pages linked here asking what was India like? What did the ancient Indians wear? What did they eat? Did kids play with toys? Did they go to school?

Ancient India or Bharatha once stretched from Persia or modern day Iran to the Pacific coast of Cambodia and Vietnam. This was never a unified country as we think of countries today, rather it was a collection of states functioning in accord with Sanatana Dharma which would later on be labelled as Hinduism.

This history of ancient India tends to be ignored by most modern historians and yet it is from India that the world has gained the core understanding of language, numbers and technologies. It is well argued that were it not for the system of numbers, we may all be still struggling with Roman numerals. Since these pages were compiled back in 1998, many new discoveries have been made updating our understanding about the Indus Valley civilisation and the extent of ancient India.

Given the vast geographical expanse, like the modern India of today with its myriad of different languages and cultures, so too the ancient landscape of what we generally refer to as ancient India would have been equally colourful although much less populated. It is generally thought that the horse arrived in the Indian subcontinent in the period of 2 to 3000 BC and before that the primary work animals were elephants, camels and cattle. It's thought the wheel arrived before then from a spindle to potters wheel, and then wheels for transportation while agriculture is thought to have began around 11,000 BC.

Thanks to modern technology and international rivalry, nearly 1,400 Indus sites (towns!) have now been discovered. That is a very big civilization, large enough to be called an empire, only there is no evidence that these people were governed by emperors who lived in palaces or large estates. Upsetting many understandings, a 32000 year old Idol of Narasimha (Lord Vishnu’s Avatar) was found in Germany and elements of Hindu culture existed in the Americas and Africa long before European adventurers arrived.

Welcome to ancient India!

The Mysterious Indus Civilization
Age of Empires
The generations of occupation into the modern era

Indus Valley Civilization
9000-1500 BC - planned cities, streets, brick homes private baths, kids toys and women wore lipstick!

Scientists from IIT-Kharagpur and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have uncovered evidence that the Indus Valley Civilization is at least 8,000 years old, and not 5,500 years old, taking root well before the Egyptian (from 7000 BC ) and Mesopotamian (from 6500 BC) civilizations. What's more, the researchers have found evidence that a pre-Harappan civilization existed for at least 1,000 years before this.

A modern interpretation of Indian history

In 1922, archaeologists found the remains of an ancient city called Harappa followed by another city 400 miles southwest called Mohenjo-Daro. Many other ancient cities from the same period arranged in the same way, have been found since. Collectively, this civilization is referred to as the Indus Valley Civilization (sometimes, the Harappan civilization). This civilization existed from about 9000 BC to about 1500 BC, which means it existed at before and concurrently with the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations.

The cities of the Indus Valley Civilization were well-organised and solidly built out of brick and stone. The people of the Indus Valley Civilization, Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and other cities are thought to have had populations of about 35,000 people and more.  Their drainage systems, wells and water and food storage systems were the most sophisticated in the ancient world. They also developed systems of weights and trade, and what is unique is that their cities were not defensive indicating peaceful co-existence.

Given that the civilisation covered an area from what is now Mumbai along the coast to Karachi, North to Islamabad and East to present-day New Delhi. 9000 years ago the region would have been much greener and today's Thar desert probably a grassland.

As no clear record remains from 9000 BC, perhaps we can imagine a collection of villages covering the region of north-east Bharatha interconnected by foot paths and waterways. The people would have been farming, collecting wild food and hunting. They would be experimenting with different lifestyles and under the influence of the wandering yogis, becoming more accepting of the unpredictability of life.

People would have been travelling between villages and even further afield sharing knowledge and ideas. Behind the ideas was an intelligence of cooperation with nature and each other because the defences of the villages were only adequate to keep out tigers and the herds of wild elephants.

Those who were more successful and affluent would have been experimenting to improve technologies, brickmaking, metallurgy, agriculture, health care, trade and general well-being. Those well-to-do may have worn woven garments and those who were poor may have only had animal skins while labourers may have had little more than loincloths.

It is thought that human relationships were amicable and perhaps a little more like the later generations in places like Çatalhöyük or China’s Mosuo matriarchy where the village was a centre for social stability but human relationships more fluid.

It is probable that there were migratory groups of hunters and gatherers who come to increasingly depend on livestock for their sustenance. But in areas where agriculture was becoming established, collectives would have formed giving rise to permanent settlements and eventually cities.

From looking at the structures and objects which survive we are able to learn about the people who lived and worked in these cities so long ago. They made jewellery, game pieces and toys for their children and developed a writing system which was used for several hundred years. However, unlike some other ancient civilizations, we are still unable to read the words that they wrote.

Even at this time, the idea of yoga, liberation and freedom from suffering was well established and during the monsoon and colder months, yogis from the Himalayas would travel through the towns and villages are sharing their wisdom and helping to formulate what was to become Sanatana Dharma.

Temples: Temples were designed as spiritual energy centres to re-charge the spirit of mankind but following the breakdown in traditions, few temples today serve this purpose meaning most temple visits have little spiritual value.

Homes: Houses were one or two stories high, near identical and made of baked brick, with flat roofs. One of the features of firing bricks is that this operation requires a lot of firewood which would have contributed to localised deforestation, erosion and reduced rainfall. This is prevalent all the way across Persia and up into Bactria. In the process of firing bricks it's probable that metallurgy began with people learning how to manipulate gold, copper, tin and eventually iron.

Each house was built around a courtyard, with windows overlooking the courtyard but the outside walls had no windows. Each home had its own private drinking well and, bathroom and clay pipes led from the bathrooms to sewers located under the streets. These sewers drained into nearly rivers and streams making this an advanced civilization for the period

Ancient attire

Clothing:  In this early period of 9000 BC, people in West Asia began to spin thread out of wool or linen and weave cloth out of it. It was much easier to sew cloth than to sew leather, so people began to do more sewing. When people began to use bronze, about 3000 BC, sharper and lighter needles began to appear.

So clothing would have been a luxury and status symbol, It is probable that people doing manual labour would have worn a little more than a small piece of cloth around their hips and only dressed on special occasions. In the public baths it is probable that everyone would have been equally naked as the idea of shame about the body first began to develop around 4000 BC in Sumer.

It took so long to spin and weave a piece of cloth, that people generally didn't want to cut the cloth up: it was too valuable. Most people wore the whole piece of cloth, wrapped around them as a sari or a shawl or a cloak or a toga. Men and women had colourful robes, women wore jewellery of gold and precious stones perhaps representing the family fortune and some even wore lipstick.  Among the treasures found was a statue of a women wearing a bracelet and similar designs are seen in India today.

Entertainment: A beautiful small bronze statue of a dancer was found, which tells us that they enjoyed dance and had great skill working with metals. In the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro, scientists have found the remains of a large central pool, with steps leading down at both ends. This could have been a public swimming pool, or it may have been used for religious ceremonies. Around this large central pool were smaller rooms that might have dressing rooms common to the Roman era.

Food: Dinner might have been warm tasty wheat bread served with barley, rice and vegetables. It would appear they were very good farmers. They grew barley, peas, melons, wheat, and dates. Farms raised cotton and kept herds of sheep, pigs, zebus (a kind of cow), and water buffalo. Fish were caught in the river with hooks and nets.  Each town had a large central storage building for grain. Crops were grown, and the harvest stored centrally, for all in the town to enjoy.

Toys:  Some of the toys found were small carts, whistles shaped like birds, and toy monkeys which could slide down a string!

Art:  This ancient civilization must have had marvellous craftsmen, skilled in pottery, weaving, and metal working. The pottery that has been found is of very high quality, with unusually beautiful designs. Several small figures of animals, such as monkeys, have been found. These small figures could be objects of art or toys. There are also small statues of what they think are female gods. So far, scientists have found no large statues. They have found bowls made of bronze and silver, and many beads and ornaments. The metals used to make these things are not found in the Indus Valley. So, either the people who lived in this ancient civilization had to import all of these items from some other place, or more probably, had to import the metals they used to make these beautiful things from somewhere else.

Transportation: The people used camels, oxen and elephants to travel over land. They had carts with wooden wheels. They had ships, with one mast, probably used to sail around the Arabian Sea. Seals with a pictographic script, which has not as yet been deciphered, were found at the Indus Valley sites. Similar seals were found in Mesopotamia, which seems to indicate possible trade between these two civilizations. In South India, the Tamils had great ocean going ships, they explored South East Asia and the Pacific.

Education:  Kids were either taught by their parents and industry leaders, or by a guru (a teacher) hence the concept of Gurukul schools. Even chiefs sons had to obey the guru. All students followed a rigorous course of studies which were imparted orally. Writing was done on bark and leaves, and hence was perishable, so we have very few rock edicts to tell us what they studied or what they wrote.

If we step forwards a couple of thousand years, some villages have become cities and people are settling into occupational groups. Farmers, city development and maintenance workers, scribes and record keepers, brick makers, carpenters, builders, metal workers, weavers and more. Others are contemplating the words of the wandering yogis giving rise to a meeting place for spiritual contemplation. Another aspect of social life were communal kitchens and public bathhouses that will be adopted by the Romans in another 5000 years.

The distinction of social class was beginning to develop and because of the increase in population, the idea of marriage may have developed to keep track of who children belonged to and prevent inbreeding. As with breeding animals to maintain their health and vitality, so to the Gotra system may have begun around this time along with collecting ideas into the oral tradition known as Vedanta.

Language was also undergoing a major development with Sanskrit appearing as the primary language to convey technological and spiritual knowledge. With the increase in population, deforestation would be accelerated while improvements in agriculture kept people well fed. With cities of up to 50,000 people or more, there would have been industrial areas around the edge of town and improved roadways between each city.

The Riddle of the Indus: What does it take to build a city with straight streets and well designed sewers? It takes smart engineers and a lot of planning! These well organized cities suggest a well organized government and probably a well-developed social life.

After the Indus flooded, cities were rebuilt on top of each other. Archaeologists have discovered several different cities, one built over the other, each built a little less skillfully. The most skillful was on bottom. So it would appear that the social structure changed or the builders grew less able or less interested in perfection over time. Still, each city is a marvel, and each greatly advanced for its time.

So far, scientists have found no wall carvings or tomb paintings to tell us about their life. We do know they had a written language, but only a few indecipherable sentences on pottery and amulets have been found.  Scholars have quite a few mysteries to solve about the ancient Indus civilization.

What else have scientists discovered about this fascinating culture?

Indus Valley era Yogi

Lots! Their towns were laid out in grids everywhere (straight streets, well built homes!) These people were incredible builders! Scientists have found what they think are giant reservoirs for fresh water. They have also found that even the smallest house at the edge of each town was linked to that town's central drainage system. (Is it possible that they not only drained waste water out, but also had a system to pump fresh water into their homes, similar to modern plumbing?

Although scientists can not yet read the language, they are beginning to believe these people had a common language. As well, scientists have found artefacts at different sites (towns) with the same or similar picture of a unicorn on them. India Today suggested humorously that perhaps it was a logo - like Pepsi and Coke, only this one was a Unicorn!

What next?

Scientists remain very curious about these people, who lived about the same time in history as the ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Egyptians. Did these ancient civilizations know each other in ancient times? A statue of a cow dating to 5000 BC was unearthed in Egypt and the so-called pagan gods across the entire Middle East along with much of the spiritual understanding can be traced back to India. Even in Great Britain, earthworks and stone circles reflect what has been found from earlier periods in India which provides some certainty there was some trans-continental communication.

As scientists continue to unravel the riddle of the Indus, we may find we will have to rewrite history! Was it the ancient Mesopotamians who first invented the sailboat and the wheel, or was it the people in the Indus Valley?  This civilisation began to decline when the monsoon started weakening 7,000 years ago but the civilization endured and still influences the world.

Some argue that at some point in the BC period there was a Aryan invasion. This argument has been soundly disproved and yet it still persists. By 3000 BC, accurate knowledge of the world and our place in the universe had been well established. The books of Vedanta were being passed down through the generations and society was becoming much more complex.

Ideas from India continued to spread far and wide, and many of these ideas were so fascinating as like today, people began travelling to India in search of knowledge and freedom from suffering. It is not known exactly when the great teacher Agustaya Muni lived, but he and his contemporaries helped to shape the development of Sanatana Dharma.

Veda means knowledge and the Vedas; the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas are often thought to have been composed during the period from 1500 BC to 1000 BC and is called the Vedic Period in archaeology. The two great books the Ramayana & the Mahabharata have been seen as fictions written round 1000 BC. These epics are stories about life, wars, and accomplishments yet modern science has revealed they are so full of historic fact that they cannot be fictitious.

The Ramayana tells a story in which the King Rama destroys the Ravana a wise but corrupted King of Lanka who kidnapped his wife and suffered a life of misfortune as he maintained his civic duties. The Mahabharata, talks of wars between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. As these two tribes battle it out, Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna on the truth of existence in context to the morality of the time.

Sri Krishna was born in northern India in approximately 3,228 BCE. The Puranas consider Sri Krishna's life to mark the passing of the Dvapara age into the Kali Yuga.  Again with the help of modern technology and further archaeological discoveries, the story of Krishna as described in the Mahabharatha is historic fact although some of the facts of history may have been embellished.

Following the death of Krishna, humanity entered into the age of the Kali Yuga, a period of least influence from a large and mysterious planet that until 2016 was completely unknown to modern science. When this planet returns to a position of greater influence, when its orbit brings it close again the sun, its gravity will cause a rise in human intelligence.

During this dark age that we are still feeling the after-effects of, the influence of Sanatana Dharma weakened and outside influences crept in as a consequence of global trade. Kingdoms rose and fell but the conditions for living and technology continued to improve thanks to the influence of many great yogis, the men and woman who came to realise the nature of existence and how to best preserve humanity in harmony with nature.

Astronomy, science and technology continued to improve for human well-being and one of the biggest upsets to life in ancient India was the invasion of Alexander. Not knowing that Greek mysticism was actually based on ancient Hindu knowledge, Alaexander trashed and plundered much of the Middle East only to be thwarted by superior military prowess in India's north-west.

Age of Empires
1000 BC- 647 AD

A time of great many kings and emperors, some who did fabulous things, like planting trees along the roads and building rest houses for travellers. Others started great public works programs like roads, irrigation schemes and temples.

Global trade and communication was expansive, even by 5000 BC South Indian sailors had discovered Australia and some from South India actually migrated there as evident in the DNA of today's indigenous Australians. From about 1000 BC or even earlier, Sanatana Dharma has spread as far east as Japan, Korea and the Philippines, and the culture of Southeast Asia was predominantly Hindu. To the east, Hindu technology was helping to construct the great monuments in Syria and Lebanon, and democracy reached Greece although it was only practised by the nobility.

From about 600 BC, Buddhism that many people see as an intelligent reformation quickly expanded, complementing and replacing Sanatana Dharma across Southeast Asia. It also spread west dominating Afghanistan by which time trade extended as far as Scandinavia as evidenced by the famous Oseburg ‘Buddha’. Buddhism also helped to shape China, especially during the Gupta period.

The Gupta Empire existed at about the same time as the Roman Empire was in decline with extensive trade. The Gupta Empire was great and India's population huge by world standards. Villages were protected from bandits and raids with local military squads. Each squad was made up of one elephant, one chariot, three armoured cavalrymen and five foot soldiers. In times of war, all the squads were brought together to form the royal army!

People were happy during the Gupta period, a "Golden Age" of ancient India. They had religious freedom. They were given free medical care, which included simple surgery. Criminals were never put to death. Instead, they were fined for their crimes. Rewards of money were given to writers, artists, and scholars to encourage them to produce wonderful work, and they did. Very few of the common people were educated, but the Gupta Empire had many universities. Students came from as far away as China to study at Gupta universities!

"Indian cities are prosperous and stretched far and wide. There were guest houses for travellers, hospitals providing free medical service for the poor. The viharas and temples were majestic as today. People were free to choose their occupations. There are no restrictions on the movement of the people. Government officials and soldiers were paid regular salaries. People were not addicted to drinks, they shun violence. The administration provided by the Gupta rulers was fair and just." ~ Chinese traveller Fa Hien, during the reign of Chandragupta II.

Gupta homes: In the villages and towns, homes were mostly one room huts made of wood or bamboo, with thatched roofs. Even the palaces were made of wood! Larger homes had several rooms and were two stories with balconies.

Gupta villages: Streets between the homes were narrow and twisted. Stalls for selling things were located on both sides of the street. People mostly walked where they wanted to go inside their village. Villages were very noisy places. Not only were they full of happy, busy people, they were full of animals. A monkey might sneak up and steal food right out of your hand!

Art:  By 200 BC, India had a thriving silk industry, craftsmen worked with silver, gold, iron and copper. Their iron work, especially, was outstanding. Even today, many iron statues exist from this period that show very little rust!

Jobs:  People worked on roads and other public works, but, (as they were in ancient Egypt), they were paid for their work. In the Gupta Empire, wheat was the main crop, and they kept cows for milk. This civilization produced great works of literature and marvellous works of art. Sculpture was their thing and they were very good at it.

They were also very smart scientists. They knew the earth was a sphere and rotated around the sun. They also figured out that the solar year had 365.358 days. (Today, our scientists think it's probably more like 365.242, which means they only missed by 3 hours!) They were great with math. Ancient India gave us the number system we use today - 9 digits, the zero, and the decimal!

What did they eat?  The concept of breakfast did not exist, more likely the main meal of the day was before or near to noon. In earlier times, meals were both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, depending upon religious beliefs. After the coming of Buddhism, Jainism and other pacifist religion and reforms in Hinduism, vegetarian food (excluding animal and fish meat) became the norm for as over half of the population. In the Gupta Empire, they mostly ate vegetables, cereals, fruits, breads with drank milk and milk products.

School: Older kids, who went to school, lived at a Gurkul school or ashram and life was tough. You had to do everything yourself. There were no servants. Even princes had to wash their clothes, cook their food, and follow a rigorous course of studies. They had a lot to learn. They studied math, science, engineering, literature, art, music and dharma.

Marriage: In ancient India, the most popular form of marriage was called Swayamvara. In this type of marriage, potential grooms assembled at the bride's house and the bride selected her spouse. Instances of Swayamvara ceremony are found in India's national epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There were other types of marriage as well, such as marriage by arrangement, arranged by parents, astrologers and family historians to ensure good breeding (Gotra) as well as Gandharva Vivaha (love marriage) and Asura Viviha (marriage by abduction).

Sports and Games:  Ancient Indians invented many of the games we play today, like chess, polo, and playing cards (which are said to have gone from India to the other parts of our globe). They practised martial arts (India is the origin of martial arts), wrestling, and fencing.  Hunting was mostly a pastime of the nobility and later foreigners.

When Alexander invaded northwest India, he said the people used parasols as a screen from the heat, shoes made of white leather, some elaborately trimmed, the soles thickened to make the wearer seem taller. In the south ancient scriptures describe women as wearing saris or a dhoti for working.  It's not really known when it became important to keep one's body covered.

Prior to 10,000 BC, clothing was mostly animal skin or course weaving. But from then the quality steadily improved yet even during the British occupation, the dhoti was most common and a great many women wore little more than the men. But in many places the human body was never a subject of judgement or derision. In many of the great temples, men and women would disrobe completely then bathe in the temple tank and complete their temple visit naked.

It's well known that this human body did not come dressed and clothing is only for protection from the elements whereas people's opinions about bodies in general are only opinions. So when it comes to spiritual practices, clothing can be an impediment to self-realisation.

Spiritually, the southern half of India has been almost exclusively Shaivite for thousands of years. Shaivites typically have very, very few possessions. A Shaivite woman would not have worn such jewelry. Shaivite men would have typically worn only a loin cloth and perhaps a cloth on the head to protect from the sun, never jewellery.

Clothing in Ancient India was for the most part, similar for both men and women. The basic costume of ancient society was a length of cloth wrapped around the lower part of the body, and a loose fitting garment for the upper body, which was usually another length of fabric. A headdress was also worn, mainly by the men.

Women in Vedic society wore a variety of garments. The first being a skirt type garment (dhoti), with a blouse (choli) and scarf. Second is a sari, which is a length of fabric wound around the body with the loose end (pallu) thrown over the shoulder. Sometimes a choli would be worn with this. The last garment was worn mainly by tribal women. The Adivasi is a length of fabric tied around the waist with no upper garment worn.

Men also had a choice in their clothing though not as varied as the women. Men usually wore a Dhoti, which is a length of fabric wrapped around the waist. This could be left as a skirt or brought through the legs and made into a pants type garment. Men of the south rarely wore shirts, but men of the north wore a fitted upper garment. Male headdress was also a length of fabric, wrapped around the head, called a Turban. Women sometimes wore the turban also.

Due to the large area of India many differences in clothing emerged, mainly due to climate differences. The southern Indians wore much less than in the colder north. Women in the south rarely wore a upper garment. Northern women adopted a fitted upper garment to be worn under the loose fitting one. Vedic people also enjoyed lavish embroidery and embellishments. Gold being the preferred, though there was also an abundance of silver and precious gems.

The Fall

Throughout this period of ancient India, there was a great deal of squabbling and some fighting between rival kingdoms as we know from the stories in the Mahabharata. But since people arrived in what we call India today, they were successful and prospered.

It is said that when Alexander the Greek invaded, he literally took away tons of gold because India was fabulously rich in every way. There was indeed a great wealth in terms of precious metals and gems, but there was also a great wealth of technology, of wisdom and a social/spiritual well-being that permeated the land.

When the Moslems invaded, the Hindus were unprepared for the creeping ideology followed by the ruthless slaughter of tens of millions of people. Yet the population and wealth of the country continued to grow, and it is reckoned that the economic wealth of many Hindu kingdoms was more than any European kingdom.

When the Portuguese, French and British arrived in India, they extracted a wealth that in today's terms would equate to trillions of dollars. The British came to dominate India, aided by India's merchant class and some strategic alliances, they stripped as wealth, impoverished and caused the deaths of millions of people. Winston Churchill the famous wartime leader of Great Britain was immensely hostile towards India and yet if it wasn't for the Indian troops and supplies, they may well have lost their war against Germany.

While the story of ancient India is a grand rise towards a collective Enlightenment and well-being for all people in harmony with nature, today it stands almost as a victim having been raped and pillaged, it's language and heritage trampled, and it's peoples took on western ideas of social morality. Yet something of that ancient India still survives and hundreds of thousands of Westerners continue to flock there seeking solace and wisdom.

India is not really a place to find solace, but it's a fantastic place to find wisdom because Sanatana Dharma is all about protecting and sharing wisdom and knowledge of existence with sincere seekers.

Most scientific and technological developments that have occurred in the West over the past thousand years are built on the ancient science and research done by Hindu mystics and yogis. Some scientists have realised this and give credit to ancient India, but unfortunately most are still exploitative and continue to take without credit.

Today as India continues to recover from colonial brutality and the corrupting influences of adharmic religions and selfish politics, it is beginning to emerge as a powerhouse for technological, economic and social well-being.

Glossary of Terms
Nivi – Pleats in the front or back of a Sari or Dhoti.
Choli – A short blouse like garment with no back.
Sari – (or Saree) A length of cloth about 2 yards by 6-10 yards (depending on the region) wrapped around the lower part of the body with the loose end being thrown or wrapped around the upper body.
Pallu - The loose end of the sari.
Adivasi – A length of fabric tied around the waist, Usually smaller than the sari.
Dhoti – A length of fabric about 1 ½ yards by 6-9 yards, which is wrapped around the body with the loose end either tied at the waist or thrown over the shoulder.
Turban – A length of fabric wrapped or tied around the head to create a headdress.
Hirano-Drapi – Ornamentation of garments.
Atka – Flowing garments.
Drapi – Embroidered garments.

Suggested Reading
Saris – an illustrated guide to the Indian art of draping, Shataki Press International, 1997, Chantal Boulanger.
Costumes of India, Diamond Pocket Books
Indian Costume 2nd Edition, Popular Prakashan P. Ltd, 1966, G.S. Ghurye
We would like to thank Sudheer Birodkar, an Indian novelist and historian, who generously shared with us a great deal of information about ancient India daily life!
Harrappa Times of India
The role of Indic merchants assisting Muslim invaders

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