Ancient India

Life in the Indus ValleyLife in the Indus ValleyThe Indian civilization is one of the oldest in the world. Farmers had begun to build villages in the valleys of the River Indus and the nearby River Ghaggar-Hakra (in modern-day Pakistan and India) by about 7000 BC. These settlements grew larger and eventually became the centre of a great civilization that flourished from about 3200 BC until about 1700 BC. The greatest cities of that civilization have been named Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa by archaeologists. The inhabitants of these cities constructed great buildings and made beautiful crafts.

Indus valley civilization

A model showing life in an Indus Valley cityA model showing life in an Indus Valley cityA map of the Indus Valley civilizationA map of the Indus Valley civilizationThe two largest cities of the Indus civilization, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, had streets of brick-built houses laid out on a grid system. Their thick walls kept people cool in the heat of summer, while the windows may have had wooden shutters with grilles (barred openings) to let in light and air.

Both cities had their own water supply—wells in the streets where people could get water—and sewage systems (for the disposal of waste), making them the first known cities in the world to do so.  Almost every house had a flush toilet. Dirty water flowed out through pipes into a drain in the street.

The The "Priest-King" sculptureHarappa and Mohenjo-Daro flourished until about 1700 BC, when people seem to have gradually moved away, perhaps because the rivers on which the cities depended changed course or constantly flooded. The cities lay in ruins and were buried beneath soil and vegetation until the 19th century, when archaeologists began to uncover their remains. Among those remains was the famous "Priest-King" statue, which some archaeologists believe represents a priest or other important man.

Mould of a seal found at Harappa Mould of a seal found at Harappa


One of the first civilizations to have the wheel, the Indus Valley also developed a type of writing using symbols that may have represented words. However, these symbols have not yet been deciphered. A clay mould of a stone seal found at Harappa shows a row of symbols called pictographs. These are probably some kind of writing—like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or early Chinese characters

A view of the upper Indus Valley today A view of the upper Indus Valley today

The Aryans

Some time around 1500 BC, speakers of an Indo-Aryan language, who were semi-nomadic pastoralists from central Asia, moved into India and occupied the territory of the now fallen Indus Valley civilization. They took over the old Indus Valley civilization of western India and slowly spread across central and eastern India. With them they took the language of Sanskrit and the religion of Hinduism. Their descendants dominated India for about 1000 years. What little we know about their movements and wars has been preserved in the mythic Vedas, the holiest books of the Hindu religion.

Map of the 16 mahajanapadasMap of the 16 mahajanapadas

Early kingdoms

In around 1000 BC, the Aryans began to work in iron and gradually moved east into the Ganges valley, where they grew rice. They formed small tribal kingdoms known as janapadas. By around 700 BC these had come together to form 16 large mahajanapadas ("great realms"). Around 500 BC, the greatest of these was Magadha, ruled by its energetic king, Bimbisara. Its cities were encircled by mud-brick defensive walls.

As powerful kingdoms grew up in India during the 500s BC so Indian religions developed. This was the period when Hinduism became fully organized; it was also the time when Mahavira, founder of Jainism, and Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, both lived. All three religions made use of the Aryan language, Sanskrit. 

Valmiki writes the Ramayama, a Hindu sacred poemValmiki writes the Ramayama, a Hindu sacred poem

Origins of Hinduism

Hinduism has been called “the oldest religion in the world”. It has no single founder and comes from many different Indian cultures and traditions. The word Hindu comes from the Persian word sindhu, or "river", because the earliest Hindus lived in the Indus Valley civilization around the River Indus. As the Indo-Aryan groups who lived in the region moved out across India, they took the Hindu religion with them.

The Rig Veda in SanskritThe Rig Veda in Sanskrit

The four Vedas

Hinduism has three main types of scripture, all written down in the Aryan language of Sanskrit. The first are the four Vedas, which were written down between 1200 BC and 900 BC. The Hindus believe that these four are divine texts and cannot be changed in any way. The four are: the Rig Veda, which contains religious hymns; the Sama Veda, which consists of chants for Hindus to sing as part of their worship; the Yajur Veda, which contains words to be spoken by Hindu priests; and the Arthara Veda, which is full of magic spells.

A Hindu ritual being performedA Hindu ritual being performed

Later scriptures

As Hinduism developed during the 8th century BC, Hindus began to wonder about the meaning of life and other important questions. These questions gave rise to the second group of scriptures. The Upanishads (”sittings near a teacher”) explore the main concepts of Hinduism. The Aranyakas (“wilderness texts") deal with the meaning of rituals. The Puranas (“ancient myths”) contain stories of creation and the lives of the gods. Like the Vedas, the Upanishads are divine and cannot be changed.

Vyasa, author of the MahabharataVyasa, author of the Mahabharata

Epic poems

The final group of Hindu scriptures are two epic poems. The Mahabharata, which appeared in about 500 BC, is 200,000 lines long and is the longest poem ever written. At its core is the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”), a conversation between the god Krishna, one of the avatars (appearances) of Vishnu, and his chariot driver Krishna . 

The second poem, the Ramayana, was first written down in around 300 BC and tells the story of how Rama, another avatar of Vishnu, rescued his wife Sita, who had been kidnapped by Ramana, the demon king of Lanka.


A page from the MahabharataA page from the MahabharataSanskrit is an Indo-European language brought to India by the Aryans. In the 350 BC, the scholar Panini wrote out the Eight-Chapter Grammar that has defined the language ever since. Sanskrit was considered to be refined way of speaking: to speak Sanskrit was to show your high social class and educational achievements. 

The letters A, B, C and D in SanskritThe letters A, B, C and D in Sanskrit

A formal, literary language, Sanskrit was used for religious purposes, as well as for poetry, drama and scientific and philosophical works. It existed alongside other languages used in everyday conversation. Today Sanskrit is one of the 22 Indian languages recognized by the Indian Constitution and is still spoken across India.

Mauryan Empire

By the 3rd century BC most of northern and central India had become one empire. It was called the Mauryan Empire after Chandragupta Maurya, who founded it in 322 BC after Alexander the Great had left India. Maurya, followed by his son Bindusara, then brought most of the rest of India into the empire.Emperor Maurya arrives in his capital city, Maghada.Emperor Maurya arrives in his capital city, Maghada.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi, IndiaThe Great Stupa at Sanchi, India


By the time the third emperor, Ashoka (reigned 269–232 BC), came to power, there was only one major state left to conquer: Kalinga on the east coast. Ashoka conquered Kalinga, but caused so much bloodshed that he was overcome by guilt. He converted to Buddhism and set about governing his empire in a more peaceful manner.

A map of Ashoka's empireA map of Ashoka's empireWhen Ashoka came to the throne, there were several different religions in India, including Hinduism, which later became India’s main religion. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (c.563–483 BC), but it only had small groups of followers until the reign of Ashoka, who encouraged the spread of the religion throughout his empire.

Ashoka set up trading links with neighbouring lands and built a network of roads. His beliefs about how people should behave and the laws he made were engraved on rocks and pillars throughout the empire.

Consultant: Philip Parker

See also in Culture

From 2600 BC, cities of the Indus Valley featured basic "flush" toilets in nearly every house, connected to common sewer pipes.

In 2006, in Mehrgarh, Pakistan, adult skeletons dated between 7000 and 5500 BC were found to have drill-holes in their molars. This suggests that people of the region may have had some of the world's earliest dentists to look after their teeth.

At about 1.8 million words, the Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem. The earliest preserved parts of its written text date from about 400 BC.

Emperor Ashoka had countless pillars erected across his empire, carved with his proclamations about Buddhism. Nineteen survive today.

Capital of the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BC, Pataliputra (modern-day Patna) was one of the world’s largest cities, with a population of 270,000 people.

© 2017 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile