Geography Of Ancient India

Harappan Culture 2500 BCE-1900 BCE, Indo-Aryans 2000 BCE-300 BCE, The Mauryan Empire 321 BCE– 184 BCE, Gupta Empire 310 CE-600 CE

Geography – Physical environment and how it may influence an economy and culture. 

The Indus Valley Civilization, referred to as Harappan Culture, is named for the Indus River. This river starts in the snow-covered Himalayan Mountains of North India and winds its way to the Arabian Sea. On its way, it flows through parts of modern-day Pakistan, northwest India, and Afghanistan. The Indus River is one of the longer rivers in the world, covering some 2,000 miles. Its rich soil was ideal for farmers who used irrigation to grow their crops. This area also receives rain during the monsoon season. While many people think of this season as a time of intense rain, it is actually a time when the winds change. During India’s monsoon season, hot air flows across the Indian Ocean and forms clouds full of water. As these clouds move across the cooler land it drops its rain, often resulting in floods.

Since its discovery in 1922, not much is known about the Indus Valley Civilization, but researchers believe that it flourished from about 2600 to 1900 BCE before it mysteriously vanished. From that point, the Ancient Indian civilizations grew bigger and smaller, much like an accordion. The Indo-Aryan people migrated through a pass in the northern Hindu Kush mountains in approximately 2000 BCE, settling in the Indus River Valley and expanding to the Ganges Plain. Later, under Mauryan rule in 324 BCE, the empire united, expanding into much of modern India, only to shrink in size under the Gupta Empire (about 400 BCE) to a region 

surrounding the Ganges River, south of the Himalayas.

Part 1 Indus River Valley Civilization 2500 BCE-1900 BCE

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Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization. 

Archeologists are still uncovering the mysteries of the Indus Valley Civilization, but they have discovered that these people had a written language.  Well over 4,000 Indus symbols have been found on seals, or ceramic pots, and over a dozen other materials, including a sign that hung over the gate of the inner citadel of the Indus city of Dholavira. Still, archeologists have not been unable to decipher the language coding.  The people of the Indus River Valley had very well-planned cities. These cities were laid out in a grid-like pattern that followed the cardinal directions. Houses were often built of oven-baked, clay bricks and were similar in size.  Each home was usually one to two stories high and had a center courtyard, a bath with a toilet, running water, and drains. Waste water was sent to sewer systems.  The twin capital cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro had a citadel (fortress) that stood upon a hilltop at the edge of the town, overlooking the citizens below and safe from monsoon floods. The cities had large granaries that held surplus grain. They also had a large pool in the center of the cities. While it is unknown what the purpose of these pools was, many believe that they could have been for public bathing, religious rituals, or even, perhaps, for swimming.  The artisans of the Indus Valley created high quality tools that they used to produce fine pottery, cotton clothing, and jewelry.

Part 2 Indus River Valley Civilization 2500 BCE-1900 BCE

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Economy – How a civilization makes money through the buying and selling of goods and services. 

The economy of the Indus Valley Civilization was based upon agricultural goods and the natural resources of the area.  It is believed that the Indus Valley people were one of the first to use wheeled transportation, and developed water crafts to sail to distant markets. These crafts were sailboats with one single mast and sail. The people of this area traded within northeastern modern India, as well as with western China, Mesopotamia, and other foreign markets.  Wheat, barley, rice, cotton, peas, dates, and melons were a few of the domestic crops grown by farmers. Farmers used water collected during the monsoon season to irrigate their varying crops. Archeologists recently uncovered giant reservoirs where it is speculated that rain water was kept to use during the dry season. They also used domestic animals, such as the water buffalo, to use in the fields. Other domestic animals included sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. Artisans of this civilization created a high quality pottery that was often adorned with elegant designs.  This region also offered useful natural resources such as fresh water, fish, timber, gold, silver, and semiprecious stones. Blue lapis lazuli, a bright blue metamorphic rock, is found in the nearby mountains and was used in jewelry making. We also know that the Harappan Culture used a standard set of weights and measures. This was used to ensure accuracy in trading.

Part 3 Indus River Valley Civilization 2500 BCE-1900 BCE

At this station, you will learn about:

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a civilization. 


Archeologists are uncertain if the Harappan civilization was led by priests, kings, or elected officials. However, we do know that the leader of their government had a large land area to govern with tens of thousands of citizens. It is believed, because of their size, that the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were twin capitals; therefore, there may have been co-rulers. The job of the ruler or rulers was to ensure that the people of the Indus River Valley had sufficient food, grain, and protection.

While no one knows for sure how the Harappan culture worshiped, some speculations have been made.  Many believe, based on sculptures that have been found, that like some other early civilizations these people were polytheistic, that they believed in more than one god or deity.  One such deity may have been a mother goddess, who was responsible for all creation. Due to the similarities in deities and fertility statues, Hinduism, the oldest religion in the world, is often regarded as having roots in the life and practices of this civilization. Other objects and sculptures made of clay, bronze, and silver seem to show that these people also may have worshiped animals, in particular bulls. This may indicate that the Indus Valley culture may have influenced the later neighboring Indian society which today places a reverence on cattle.   

While there are signs of some swords and other weapons, there is not enough evidence to support the idea that the Indus people had a standing army or were engaged in harsh battles with neighbors. Still, some speculate that an attack by the Indo-Aryans may be one of the reasons that the people of the Indus Valley disappeared about 1900 BCE.

Part 1 The Indo-Aryans 2000 BCE-300 BCE

At this station, you will learn about:

Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Economy – How a civilization makes money through the buying and selling of goods and services.

Social Class – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.


Some archeologists speculate that an attack by the Indo-Aryans may be one of the reasons that the people of the Indus Valley disappeared about 1900 BCE. The Indo-Aryan people, often referred to as Aryans, migrated through a pass in the northern Hindu Kush mountains in approximately 2000 BCE, ultimately settling in the Indus River Valley. When the nomadic Aryans dominated this region, there were individual tribes throughout the valley. Each tribe was led by a raja or chief.  Aryan hymns, songs, and poems depict the people as delighting in waging war and raiding each other’s herds of cattle.

As a nomadic herding civilization, the Aryans traded cattle as both food and a type of currency. After all, cattle proved to be a valuable food source, providing milk, meat, and butter. Wealth was measured in cattle, which explains why raiding was common. In fact, the Aryans considered the animal so sacred that eventually a ban was placed on eating meat.

The Aryans brought with them the caste system. This social system determines one’s place in society by one’s birth. The caste or jati is the group of people who comprise a social class. While it is unfair, once a person is born into one of the four groups (referred to as varnas), they have little to no chance of moving up the social ladder. The people were forbidden to marry outside of their caste. They lived in communities with each other and did not mingle with others outside their group. While the social system evolved over time, the top of the social hierarchy were the Brahmans, or priests. Next, on the hierarchy were army warriors and rulers called Kshatriyas. Commoners, including merchants, artisans and farmers were called Vaisyas. The Vaisyas tended to herds, made and sold products, and farmed. Lastly, the Shudras or Kshadras were unskilled laborers and servants. However, outside of the four main varnas were a group called Pariahs (lower-order workers also referred to as Dalit). The Pariahs, sometimes called “untouchables” were considered unclean and were rejected, forced to live outside of the villages.

Part 2 The Indo-Aryans 2000 BCE-300 BCE

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Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a civilization.                                                   

Priests collected hymns, epics (long poems), religious rituals, and legends orally passed down for hundreds of years. They created a holy book called the Vedas written in Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans. Priests used four Vedas, referred to as “books of knowledge,” that formed the basis of religious practice. While the Aryans left no artifacts, the Vedas have offered great information about the daily lives, values, and rituals of the Aryan people. The Vedas are the earliest written source for the religion of Hinduism. Later, Hindus believed in many deities. However, the most important deities are Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). These three gods are all part of the same universal spirit. Fundamental to Hinduism is the belief that both animals and people have souls that can be reborn into other beings after death. The concept of being reborn is called reincarnation. Another basic concept of Hinduism is the belief that there is dharma or religious duty, and karma, or actions that determine one’s fate. The two concepts together determine a person’s social class or caste. Those who do not perform religious duty or have bad karma will be reincarnated into another, lower caste. People who have reached spiritual purity can escape reincarnation on Earth.

In 553 BCE, a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) founded a new religion called Buddhism, based on a similar concept of reincarnation. Buddhism is not a religion with deities, but more a way of life, and the goal of life is enlightenment (a complete understanding of truth). Buddha developed his philosophy based on the idea that people suffer from desire, which he outlined in the Four Noble Truths. Furthermore, desire causes a person to be reincarnated to more earthly suffering. His basic prescription to end suffering was to teach people to lead compassionate lives, as outlined in the eightfold path. Ultimately, a person who leads a life without desire will reach a state of freedom called nirvana, and he/she will not be reincarnated to earthy suffering.

The Mauryan Empire 321 BCE - 184 BCE

At this station, you will learn about:

Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership. 

After over 200 years of battles between Greeks and Persians, in 320 BCE Chandragupta Maurya defeated the invaders and united India under his rule. Through war and conquest, which he paid for with harsh taxation, King Chandragupta Maurya expanded the empire through much of modern India. He also improved roads and cleared land for agriculture. While he may have led a well-organized empire, he was known for being a ruthless leader who used brutality to oppress the people into order. Since he was so despised by his people, King Chandragupta  lived in constant fear for his life. He had servants taste his food for poison and even slept in different bedrooms every night so his possible attackers would not know where he was.

In 269 BCE, King Ashoka the Great (the grandson of Chandragupta) ruled much of the subcontinent of India, and even expanded into modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Unlike his grandfather and father, he was known for being a fair, compassionate ruler. Religion was also very important during the reign of Ashoka the Great. After a particularly bloody battle, he renounced war and became a Buddhist. He spread Buddhism throughout India by sending missionaries to teach about Buddhism throughout India. In fact, honesty and truth became so important to the people that stealing was almost eliminated. Ashoka the Great recorded laws in local language on tall stone pillars called rock edicts. Rock edicts could be found all over the vast Mauryan Empire. Ashoka even sent government officials to cities to explain what the edicts to the citizens of the vast Mauryan Empire. He also provided free hospitals, veterinary clinics and built roads.

The Gupta Empire 320 Ce-600 CE

At this station, you will learn about:

Achievements-The lasting contributions of a civilization.

Economy – How a civilization makes money through the buying and selling of goods and services.

Religion-A belief system that influences the development of a civilization.                        

After King Ashoka died, the empire fell into a series of separate kingdoms once again. However, in about 320 CE, the New Gupta Empire unified north-central India. From 320 CE to 600 CE, the Gupta Empire is known as the “Golden Age of Ancient India” because people experienced great peace and prosperity. During this time there was religious freedom, government sponsored health care, and artisans were encouraged to produce their crafts. Learning flourished during the Gupta Empire because the court welcomed poets, playwrights, philosophers, and scientists. The famous folktale, “Sinbad the Sailor” was written in this era. Gupta mathematicians invented the concept of zero and developed many principles of Algebra. In fact, the symbols for numbers 1-9, referred to as Arabic numerals, were devised by the Gupta and used by traders all over the Middle East. Furthermore, Gupta scientists knew the Earth was round and philosophized about gravity.  They also had doctors who set bones, performed surgery, and invented hundreds of medical instruments. Gupta doctors also gave citizens inoculations. Inoculations give a person a mild form of a disease in order for the body to build resistance against a more severe form of the disease. Today, doctors all over the world give inoculations for small pox, rubella, and even the flu virus.

Along with spices, cotton cloth, carpets, and jewelry, achievements of the Gupta Empire were traded all over the world.  Sea and land trade routes connected India with Central Asia, Arabia, and Europe. Indian merchants traded for Arabian horses, Chinese silk, and even Roman gold!

Later, Gupta rulers promoted Hinduism through education based on the religious writings of the Upanishads.  The Upanishads further confirm the Hindu idea that all living things have a universal soul and promote physical and mental self-discipline through the practice of yoga. The Gupta built elaborate temples depicting tales in the epics and made Hinduism the official religion of the empire.