Ancient India - Vedic Times

Ancient India – Vedic Times


Culture is a way of life. Culture is the embodiment of the way in which we think and do things. It is also the things – tangible and intangible – that we have inherited as members of society. All the achievements of human beings as members of social groups can be called culture. Culture, thus, refers to a human-made environment which includes all the material and nonmaterial products of group life that are transmitted from one generation to the next.

India was earlier called Jamboodweepa and was called ‘India’ by Greeks for the first time as the ‘region byond Sindhu’. Similarly, Arabs called Indians as ‘Hindus’ as they couldn’t pronounce ‘S’ in Sindhu. Religion of Aryans who lived there in 1000 BCE was called Brahminism and not Hinduism.

Islam and Hinduism existed peacefully for 700 years and first Muslims came to India in form of merchants on Malabar Coast.


Indus Valley was cradle of early civilization and culture because, the place has features which made it conducive for early settlers. Rainfall from Indus to Brahmputra plains gradually increases from 25cm to 250 cm and this was also the reason that vegetations in low rainfall regions were easier to clear to pave way for the cultivation. So, Indus valley came into being in Indus area, Vedic civilisation in Gangetic plain, Guptas spread further towards east and in medieval periods, Assam plains also became important.

Rivers in ancient India served like arteries for carrying of goods easily. They also provided fertile land and most importantly acted as boundaries for political and cultural groups.


Earliestexamples of the art and paintings are found in pre-historic works in caves and on rocks. Rock paintings at Bhimbhethka in Madhya Pradesh are most important among them which themselves belong to the larger Vindhya and Kaimur group findings. In Bhimbhetaka, near Bhopal, there are more than 500 hundred rock shelters with paintings making them richest site in India.

The cave paintings of Narsinghgarh (Maharashtra) show skins of spotted deer left drying. In Uttarakhand also, rock paintings on banks of river Suyal at Lakhudiyar (meaning lakh caves) have been found. Here three types of figures are shown – man, animals and geometric figures. Hand linked dancing figures are famous among them. Though artists during this period used many colors, but white and red were their favorite. Scenes from hunting, dancing etc. are shown in these paintings.

Earliest paintings have been identified in three periods, out of which, the one belonging to the Mesolithic period or the middle period are the largest. In the last period, the painters were probabl settled as agricultural communities and hence, their paintings also depict congregational events in large numbers. Painting style also became sophisticated with time, for example, paintings reaching upto high ceiling were made.


Harrapans used varous forms of art which include sculptures, seals, pottery, gold jewellery, terracotta figures, etc. Harappans made sculptures of terracotta, stone and metal/bronze.

  • Harappan also domesticated Elephant and produced rice which Mesopotamians didn’t.
  • Unlike Mesopotamia and Egypt, no evidences of temples have been found.
  • Harappan also produced sesamum and mustard also.
  • People of Lothal also used rice.
  • Indus people were the earliest to produce cotton.
  • Animal domesticated – ox, camel, ass, dog, cat etc. Evidence of horse as domesticated animal are weak. They were also aware of rhinos as evident from seals.
  • The weights used by Harappans were multiple of 16 (16, 64, 160 etc) and even till recently, 16 in measure was common as in case of 16 annas being one rupee.

Stone sculpture – Stone figures were not in much abundance and very few refined figures have been found. In stone are two male figures are important – one is a torso in red sandstone and the other is a bust of a bearded man in steatite.The figure of the bearded man interpreted as a priest, is draped in a shawl coming under the right arm and covering the left shoulder. This shawl is decorated with trefoil patterns. The eyes are a little elongated, and half-closed as in meditative concentration.The hair line is partitioned from middle.

Bronze/metal sculpture – ‘Lost Wax’ technique was known during this time for making bronze statues andImage result for dancing girl statue‘Dancing Girl’ statue is famous example and it is perhaps the first copper statue in the world. Animal figures were also made. The copper dog and bird of Lothal and the bronze figure of a bull from Kalibangan are in no way inferior to the human figures of copper and bronze from Harappa and Mohenjodaro.

Terracotta sculpture – The Indus Valley people made terracotta images also but compared to the stone and bronze statues the terracotta representations of human form are crude in the Indus Valley. They are more realistic in Gujarat sites and Kalibangan. The most important among the Indus figures are those representing the mother goddess.Image result for mother goddess harappan civilizationIn terracotta, we also find a few figurines of bearded males with coiled hair, their posture rigidly upright. The repetition of this figure in exactly the same position would suggest that he was a deity. A terracotta mask of a horned deity has also been found. Toy carts with wheels, whistles, rattles, birds and animals, gamesmen and discs were also rendered in terracotta.

Seals – Various seals are also found which were usually made of steatite, and occasionally of agate, copper, and terracotta, and even gold and ivory with beautiful figures of animals, such as unicorn bull, rhinoceros, tiger, elephant, bison, goat, buffalo, etc. The purpose of producing seals was mainly commercial. It appears that the seals were also used as amulets, carried on the persons of their owners, perhaps as modern-day identity cards. Harappans knew how to write and most of their seals contain some form of a pictographic script which is yet to be deciphered. The most remarkable seal is the one depicted with a figure in the centre and animals like tiger, elephants, antelopes and rhinoceros and a buffalo around. This seal is generally identified as the Pashupati Seal by some scholars whereas some identify it as the female deity. Figures and animals are carved in intaglio on their surfaces. Seals engraved with animal figures like the humped bull, elephant and rhinoceros suggest that these animals were considered sacred. ‘Peepal’ has been found depicted on many seals.

The Indus Valley pottery consists chiefly of very fine wheelmade wares, very few being hand-made. Plain pottery is more common than painted ware. Red and black pottery of various types is also found. Plain pottery dominates over painted pottery. Polychrome pottery is rare and mainly comprises small vases decorated with geometric patterns. Incised and perforated potteries have also been found. Miniature vessels of less than half a inch have also been found. Pottery for household purposes is found in as many shapes and sizes as could be conceived of for daily practical use.

There are also traces of ornaments including anklets, armlets etc made up of various materials precious and semi-precious. There are examples of dead in mounds with such ornaments – a grave was discovered in Farmana Haryana with ornaments. Woman during Harrapan times also wore ornaments made of beads made in local factories as well as from various stones, metals and terracotta. Beads were made of stones like cornelian, amethyst, crystal, quartz, steatite etc. Metals like copper, bronze and gold, and shell, faience and terracotta or burnt clay were also used for manufacturing beads in varying shapes—disc-shaped, cylindrical, spherical, barrel-shaped, and segmented. Some beads were made of two or more stones cemented together, some of stone with gold covers. Some were decorated by incising or painting and some had designs etched onto them. Great technical skill has been displayed in the manufacture of these beads. Different hairstyles were in vogue and wearing of a beard was popular among all. Cinnabar was used as a cosmetic and facepaint, lipstick and collyrium (eyeliner) were also known to them.

It is evident from the discovery of a large number of spindles and spindle whorls in the houses of the Indus Valley that spinning of cotton and wool was very common. The fact that both the rich and the poor practiced spinning is indicated by finds of whorls made of the expensive materials as also of the cheap pottery and shell.

In architectural field also they had made significant progress. Harappan civilization is the first known urban culture in India. The Harappans built the earliest cities complete with town planning, sanitation, drainage system and broad well-laid roads. They built double storied houses of burnt bricks each one of which had a bathroom, a kitchen and a well. The walled cities had other important buildings such as the Great Bath, Granaries and Assembly Halls. Towns were well planned and most of the towns were divided into a higher placed citadel – probably used for elite or for sacred purpose – and non-citadel for commoners. Many stone structural remains are also found at Dholavira which show how the Indus Valley people used stone in construction.

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During Vedic times, Aryans came from outside and settled in area around Indus valley. Aryan society was patriarchal, but women were treated with dignity and honor. The family was the smallest social unit. Several families (kula) made a village (grama) and several villages formed a vis. Varna system emerged during this period and Vedas were also composed during this period. Varnashramadharma also emerged during this time in which life is divided into four phases. The early Vedic people worshipped forces of nature and personified them as gods and goddesses. Indra, Agni, Varuna, Marut (natural deities) were some of their gods while Usha, Aditi, Prithvi were some of their goddesses. Indra or rain god is called ‘Purandara’ or breaker of forts in Rigveda and was the most important deity to who 250 hymns are attributed. Second most important deity was Agni to whom 200 hymns are attributed. Varuna or god of water was third most important god.

Vedic Aryans lived a simple life which revolved around agriculture. Cows, horses, sheep, goats and dogs were common domesticated animals. Aryan used horse – unlike Harappan – which afforded great mobility to them. They also used chariots. We have not found any material evidence of their habitation which indicates that they might be pastoralist.

They also drank a beverage called Soma. Games of chess, chariot racing etc. were their modes of entertainment.Cows were the measure of wealth and no currency was used. Iron, which was not used during Harappa period, was now used and it changed agricultural practices as well. Use of horses also became popular and it helped in fighting wars as well.

Politically, by the end of 6th century BCE, large units came into existence called Mahajanpadas. They were some 16 in number and Buddha also belonged to one of such Janpadas.

The term Bharata first appeared in Rig Veda which was probably a clan.

Crafts – In crafts also, progress was made and Painted Grey Ware were now made unlike relatively simple red pottery of Harappans. Later Vedic people were acquainted with 4 types of pottery – Painted grey Ware (most distinctive), Black and Red Ware, Red ware (most prevalent) and black striped ware. Painted grey ware that were found were in form of plates and bowls and were probably used for rituals.

In the later Vedic times, the Sabhas lost their democratic character and were now dominated by nobility and Brahmins. Women were also debarred. Kings became more powerful as their kingdoms expanded.

vedic line
  • The Rig Veda is the haven of mantras, hymns, verses, Ayurveda, Yoga et al.
  • The Sama Veda is a collection of songs and melodies which are found in the Rig Veda.
  • The Yajur Veda is a compilation of the ceremonial guidelines of the rituals that are performed by the priests.
  • The Atharva Veda contains the mantras for creation, for evil destruction, and to avert destruction.
It is during the Vedic period that the great Indian epics, namely the RamayanaMahabharataUpanishads were written. The original text (mantra) and a commentary portion (Brahmana) are parts of every veda. Brahmana is further classified into two parts, one explaining the ritual and other the philosophy (known as Upanishads). The Vedangas are supportive texts of the Vedas.


The Vedic period is divided into two broad branches. They are the Early Vedic Age and the Later Vedic Age. Let’s study them in greater detail.
Early Vedic Period-
village system in the aryan period
The Early Vedic period is the time when the Rig Veda was composed. It is essential to know that the Aryans were groups who were nomads. They relied heavily on cattle. During this age, these nomadic Aryans began to settle down. They formed small villages known as gramas, and each grama had a head. This was the basis how kinship gradually flourished, and the village head, over a period of time made way for the Raja or the ‘king.’ Thus formed the first structure of a society.
Jana was the name given to a tribe in early Vedic society. The land was known as janapada. The society was still in the growing and flourishing phase. Agricultural activities were taken to a different plane of development.
One primary feature of the people of this time was that they still migrated from place to place in search of better resources, and avenues. In the process they managed to conquer several lands and places, and thus spread immensely. Agriculture, cattle rearing reached greater heights. Working with metals was still unknown. However, as they increased in number, they preferred to settle down permanently than to migrate from place to place.
The Aryans were ambitious, and didn’t agree to settle for less. Thus, fights and inter-tribe clashes were a part and parcel of their lives. This trait of them also motivated them to own places that were occupied by others.
The kings acted as the guardians for the rest of the clan, and provided the subjects with security. They were extremely able and powerful, and were also believed to be the protectors from the evil. This was the basis of the politics that was soon taking shape in the early Vedic Age.
The ruling of one king was followed by the younger generations. And so kinship was hereditary. What is astonishing that, when a particular tribe conquered any foreign land, the loot was not just enjoyed by the king; but was distributed amongst the masses.
Unfortunately, animal sacrifices played a crucial role in the lifestyle of the Aryans. They made sacrifices for the appeasement of their Gods. They also did the same in order to pay tribute to their kings.
aryan temple architecture
The Aryans were god-fearing people and strongly adhered to the rituals and religious practices. Apart from deities, they held the elements of Nature as objects of worship. They mainly prayed for good agriculture, favorable climate, and victory in the wars. Needless to say, religion was pivotal in the early Vedic Age. Performing rituals was an important part of their daily duties.
Another noteworthy feature of this age was the respect that was given to the women. Their role was not just limited to the household chores, but they were encouraged to participate in social activities, and decision-making process as well. Warfare, literature, culinary activities were all practiced by the Early Vedic Age women.
Gradually, people discovered the uses of iron, and also used it in clearing out forests. Economy was good, and economic position was determined by the number of cattle they owned. Barter system was also introduced during this time. Spinning, carpentry, pottery were all introduced with the passage of time.
Later Vedic Age-
krishna preaching arjun
This period is also known as the Epic Period, as during this time, the great Epics the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Upanishads were written. These epics defined the way of leading a meaningful life. The Ramayanaand Mahabharata deal with various social, political and religious views of Hindu culture, while the Bhagwad Gita (an extract from the Mahabharata) beautifully describes Hinduism in its true essence.
Unlike the kings of the Early Vedic Age, who thought for the welfare of all the people, the rulers of this time were not the same. They were more inclined towards amassing their own wealth, rather than opting for distribution. Warfare still continued to be the trend of the time, and conquering land was still practiced. The kings prospered by collecting taxes from the subjects, apart from war.
hindu caste system is based on occupation
In later Vedic period many social-religious changes occurred in society. Caste system became rigid one and many older deities like – Indra and Agni (natural deities) were replaced by the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Religion became extremely ritualistic. Sanskrit mantras, which were the monopoly of Brahmins, became an essential part of all religious functions. This made the Brahmins very powerful and the Yajnas expensive. Participation in them was restricted to the upper three classes. The kings performed Ashvamedha, Rajasuya and Vajapeya sacrifies to establish their position. Vedic religion also transformed itself into what is now called as Brahminism. When Brahminism became too rigid and ritualistic, Buddhism and Jainism emerged as alternative movements.
Caste system was a new way of dividing the society. The society was divided into four main subsections, Brahmins or the priestly people became the religious heads and educated the common people, while the Kshatriya were responsible for the safety of the society. It comprised the kings and the royal lineage.
The Vaishyas adopted the roles of businessmen and merchants and the Shudras or the ‘outcasts’, were a deprived section of the society. They performed the jobs of removing dead bodies, picking garbage, etc. and weren’t given much option to prosper within the society.
Horse riding, gambling and other types of recreational games on fighting were also introduced by the Aryans. Gurukul system of education was practiced. One important point is that, though there was the division of society based on caste, it was not too rigid during this time. People could still enjoy liberty in choosing a means of livelihood.
One disheartening effect was the decline in the position of women. Gender biases were extreme.
There were small areas which were demarcated by borders and boundaries; this means that there were too many regions and kingdoms. However, this age also saw the emergence of some of the most significant dynasties of India.
The Vedic Period formed a platform for the rise of Hindu principles and indeed, the whole religion. It also contributed to Indian philosophy and literature. Empires and kingdoms started to flourish after the Vedic Period. The Vedic Period was an amalgamation of ‘mind’ and ‘matter.’ Due to deep spiritual insights, the sages more ably understood the natural principles. The discovery of ‘zero’ and other mathematical theorems, Ayurveda and Yoga are a few gifts of the Vedic Period, that make it an immortal era of Indian civilization.
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