Uncovering the Mysteries of Ancient Indian Society: Traditions, Culture, and Daily Life


painting of ancient india man and woman on horse main

Ancient India was an ancient civilization that began about seven thousand years ago. There were two early periods, the Indus or Harappan Civilization and the Vedic Period (the Aryans). Afterwards, the great empires began. Harappans were farmers and lived in significantly developed cities. Aryans were cattle herders who settled down. They developed Hinduism and had a caste system. Families lived together in a tribal system. 

Ancient India 

India is a large Asian country that is south of China.  India takes its name from a large Asian river, the Indus, meaning “large body of water.”  India is a subcontinent, which is a significant- sized landmass that is smaller than a continent. 

Civilization began there about seven thousand years ago. Ancient India was a river valley civilization. Like many ancient civilizations, it was an agricultural society formed around rivers. As farming thrived, larger communities grew, and cities began to form. 

Indus or Harappan Civilization 

India’s earliest civilization is the Indus (after the river) or Harappan (after a major city) Civilization. The Indus Civilization thrived from about 3000 BCE to 1500 BCE. 

The major cities might have had as many as 35,000 people. They had well-planned streets and walls surrounding each neighborhood. The houses were made of mud bricks and had indoor bathrooms and garbage chutes on the outside. Granaries stored grain from farms. 

Most Harappans were farmers. They grew rice, wheat, barley, peas, and cotton. Harappan sailors eventually traded with Mesopotamia, both by sea and land. 

City dwellers made copper and bronze tools, clay pottery, and jewelry from gold, shells, and ivory. People had plenty of food, allowing them the time and means to do other things. 

In the Indus Valley Civilization, priest-kings were at the head of government. Local tribal chiefs appointed helpers to oversee day-to-day local needs. 

People believed in a form of animism. Animists believe all things have such a soul. Humans, animals, objects, geographic features such as mountains and the moon, and natural phenomena such as wind or rain all have some sort of soul. Religious rituals honored the earth’s spirits. 

Archaeologists also found stamp seals among the ruins. Stamp seals were symbols of ownership and badges of status. These stamps have inscriptions of humans, animals, and mythical creatures. We do not know what Ancient Indians understood them to represent. 

A catastrophic event, such as a flood, helped the culture decline. 

Aryan Society 

Over time, a large group of nomadic cattle herders, the Aryans, migrated to India from central Asia. They ruled over Ancient India for over one thousand years.  

Cattle provided them with meat, milk, and butter. Cattle were a sign of individual wealth. They were excellent horse riders and hunters. Horses spread from Asia to other ancient societies. Their chariots allowed them to raid villages and cities for food and booty.

Aryans began to settle down and become farmers. They invented an iron plow and built canals to irrigate the land. New crops, including spices (cinnamon, ginger, and paper), were grown. 

They also developed a written language (Sanskrit), which we can translate. The Vedic Period began, named after The Vedas (“knowledge”), a large body of religious texts. 

The Hindu religion (“Hindu” from “Indus”) developed based on obtaining happiness based on the order of the universe. Hinduism is the earliest religion still worshiped today. 

Buddhism and Jainism, which shared some beliefs, developed later.  The goal in both is nirvana, a freedom from suffering.  Buddhism grew out of the teachings of Buddha.  It includes the belief in reincarnation. The spirit starts a new life in a new body after death.  

Aryan society developed a caste system. There were four groups of people, each with different tasks and rules of behavior. The four castes were priests (Brahmin), rulers (Kshatriya), farmers/merchants (Vaishyas), and laborers (Sudras).  In time, an “untouchable” class (Dalits) developed that handled jobs seen as impure. 

The government was a tribal system. A raja led each tribe. These small kingdoms existed in India for over a thousand years. Tribal councils, including sabha (tribal elders) and samiti (free tribesman), limited the power of rajas. Over time, rajas gained more power.  

Large cities began to develop once again. Trade with other regions grew.  Salt, cloth, and iron were common trade goods. Rulers began to have large bureaucracies and centralized power. 

The age of empires began. 

Family Life 

The family was the center of life. Extended families lived together. The oldest man in the family was in charge. Families followed traditional ways, passed from parent to child. 

Men had more rights than women. Typically, only men could go to school or become priests. Only sons inherited property. The unequal status grew over time.  For instance, women at first had a role in tribal councils. Later, their role decreased and no longer was official. 

Children played with toys such as monkeys that could climb up a string. Other games included dice, board games, and storytelling. People told entertaining animal fables that had a moral. 

Parents arranged marriages for their children. Boys and girls often married in their teens. Divorce was not allowed. If a couple did not have children, men often married another wife. 

Sacred Cows

Cows are sacred in Hinduism. Cows are symbols of the divine. They represent kindness, mercy, and nonviolence. The people of India go out of their way not to harm cows. 

Aryans were traditionally cattle herders. Cows were fundamental to their way of life. It was logical that they became precious. In time, cows became extremely special. It was wrong to kill them for food. Their gentle nature reminded people of the values of Hinduism.

Cows became sacred. We now call anything particularly special to us “sacred cows.”

QUESTIONS

  • 1. How did the geographical features of India, particularly its rivers, influence the development of ancient Indian civilizations like the Harappan?
  • 2. What were some of the key agricultural practices and crops of the Harappan civilization, and how did these contribute to their trade relations with other regions?
  • 3. Discuss the social and political structure of the Indus Valley Civilization. How did the roles of priest-kings and tribal chiefs function in their society?
  • 4. What are some examples of the technological and architectural advancements of the Harappan civilization, and how did these reflect their societal development?
  • 5. How did the arrival of the Aryans influence the cultural and societal structures in ancient India, especially in terms of religion and social hierarchy?
  • 6. In what ways did the caste system shape Aryan society, and what were the roles and responsibilities of each caste?
  • 7. How did family life and the roles of men and women differ in ancient Indian society, and how did these roles evolve over time?
  • 8. Discuss the significance of cows in ancient Indian society, particularly in the context of Hinduism and the Aryan way of life.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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