Discovery of Ancient City of Mahenjodaro and Harappa


The year was 1922. Initial forays in delving into India’s past began when Dr R D Banerjee found the ancient city of Mohenjodaro (literally, `city of the dead’) in Larkana district of Sindh, now in Pakistan.

A little later, archeological remains of another city, quite similar in planning and age, were dug up by Sir Daya Ram Sawhney in Harappa, in the Montgomery district of the Punjab. Sir John Marshall, who was the then chairperson of the Archeology department, decided this was a thing well worth looking into. Under his supervision, teams of archeologists worked in other areas of the Sindh and Baluchistan provinces of present Pakistan. What they came up with astounded the world.


The Marvelous Town Planning of Mohenjodaro

The chief feature of Mohenjodaro, that amazes all curious spectators, is its superb town planning. The streets, which divided the city into neat rectangular or square blocks, varied in width but always intersected each other at right angles.
The city had an elaborate drainage system consisting of horizontal and vertical drains, street drains and so on. The architecture of the buildings was clearly intended to be functional and minimalist, and certainly not to please the aesthete.

Mohenjodaro was obviously a cosmopolitan city, the capital of the civilization or something, with people of different races mingling with the local populace.
Studies reveal that four distinct races inhabited the city: Proto-Austroloid, Mediterranean, Alpine and Mongoloid. Not much is known about their socio-economic-religious life as the script of the civilization eludes decoding; many have come tantalizingly close, but then just that.
They had their distinct religious sects, including a very active Mother Goddess cult, as is evinced from various seals that they have left behind not only here, but also in far-flung places like Mesopotamia. Which means that sea trade was very much part of their lives; this is confirmed from another source as their seals carry insignias of boats and ships on them.


The Indus Valley Civilization

It is without a doubt that the civilization one of the most important finds in the world of archeology. In one stroke the age of Indian history was pushed back by more than a millennium, deep into 3000BC. This effectively exploded the myth that everything in India before the coming of the Aryans was enveloped in the supreme darkness of one primeval swamp. Here was a civilization that was not only well-developed, but actually far more sophisticated than that of the Aryans.

The Indus Valley Civilization said its last hurray roughly in 2200 BC. The beginning and end of the Indus Valley Civilization are both a matter of debate. Obviously there must have been a lead up to it. Suddenly, out of the blue, a people could not have emerged complete with their perfect town planning, neat houses, lovely jewellery and loads of make-up. So where did they come from? and then having come, just where did they disappear?

Popular theory which is accepted by the man on the street is that the people of the civilization (commonly referred to as the Harappans) were chased out by the Aryans and went down south. The present South Indians are their descendants. Recent research also threw up evidence that the Aryans’ descendants actually still survive as santals (tribals) in various jungle areas in India.


The Settlement of Aryans

It took the tall, beautiful, long limbed Aryans surprisingly little time to get used to their new home. Initially, they settled in the area of Sapt-Sindhu, which included Punjab, Kashmir, Sindh, Kabul and Gandhara (Kandhar). The chief sources of this period which have come down to us are The Vedas and the Epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which through their stories and hymns tell us about the expansion of the Aryans. It took them about a thousand years to bring the entire northern region under their control. Then they turned their attention to the south. The epic Ramayana is a symbolic tale which tells of the Aryan expansion to the south – the good, almost godly, aryaputra (an Aryan's son) king Rama surging forth to finish off the evil Dasyu (that was what the Aryans called the natives) Ravana.


Aryans Political System

The political system of the Aryans in their initial days here was amazingly complex, though quite ingenious. They hung around together in small village settlements (which later grew to kingdoms) and the basis of their political and social organization was, not surprisingly, the clan or kula.
Being of somewhat militant nature, this was very much a patriarchal society, with the man in the house expected to keep his flock in control.

Groups of kulas together formed a Grama or village, which was headed by a Gramina. Many villages formed another political unit called a Visya, headed by a Visyapati. The Visyas in turn collected under a Jana, which was ruled by a Rajana or king. However, the precise relationship between the grama, the visya and the jana has not been clearly defined anywhere.


The King Was The Supreme Power

The king was yet to become that the all-powerful monarch that he eventually became. Although he lived as befitted a king, he was supposed to work in tandem with the people's wishes.
He had an elaborate court of many officials, including the chief queen (Mahishi) who was expected to help in the decision making process. Two assemblies, Sabha and Samiti further assisted the king. The Samiti was roughly equivalent to our modern Lower House or the Lok Sabha, with members that represented the people, and the Sabha was a permanent body of selected men.

So everything was very proper and democratic. This was obviously speedily amended. As one Jana swallowed another and kingdoms arose out of their ashes, the king became increasingly the despot that we are all more familiar with. Women seemed to have had it good at this time, but then through almost all of the ancient period of Indian history women continued to command respect and considerable pull in society. Although by the time of the Mahabharata their position had fallen enough for them to be treated as a man's property, as is evinced by the episode where Yudhistra gambles away his wife.


No Rigidity In Caste System

The caste system (see Varna system) as is known now does not seem to have evolved yet. and even when it did, it was not the rigid thing it became by the time of the Guptas but was a loose social system where people could move up and down the social scale. Aryan’s worshipped nature gods – they prayed to the Usha (Dawn), Prajapati (The Creator), Rudra (Thunder), Indra (Rain), Surya (Sun) and so on. These gods and goddesses were appeased by prayers and sacrifices.

As time went this idyllic life among the beautiful wooded country with a benevolent monarch, a democratic senate and an open social system failed to survive. Power won over all else.

¤ Period of Social Reform

By the sixth century BC things had become complicated and rigid enough for socio-religious reformers like the Buddha and Mahavira to want change. The priestly class, as happened the world over, became increasingly the real masters in the socio-economic-political scheme of affairs. Rituals became rigid, sacrifices elaborate and religion increasingly expensive.

¤ Rising of Diverse Religions

Buddhism and Jainism were instant hits with the populace and became powerful clannish minorities while the bulk of the people remained with Aryanism. Not for long, however. As the two new religions which had extremely charismatic leaders and very zealous followers caught the people's imagination, the influence of both faiths spread enough for kings to profess and actively promote them.

While the Buddha was expounding on the metaphysics of life, kings were going about the usual business of going after more power, more money and more land. A fierce battle of domination (upon which, it is said, that the Mahabharata might have been based; see Indraprastha under Delhi History) was waging, of which Magadha (roughly the region of the present Bihar) emerged as the clear leader.
From now on Magadha, with its capital Patliputra (the present Patna), became the power that be in the Indian sub-continent (India, of course, was not recognized as a unit yet). The kings of Magadha were to remain the mightiest all through out the period of Ancient Indian history, and their kingdom, at its peak, stretched from Afghanistan in the northwest to deep into the present Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka region.

¤ Bimbisara- The Magadhan Ruler of Sisunga Dynasty

The first important Magadhan king who emerges into the limelight was Bimbisara (544-491 BC) of the Sisunga dynasty. He was an extremely polished diplomat and crafty statesman.
While the earlier rulers had brought Magadha out of clear and present danger, it was Bimbisara who consolidated and increased that power and really gave it the identity of a kingdom.
Through some clever marital and martial policies he pushed the frontiers of Magadha over, according to a source, eighty thousand villages. Bimbisara was a contemporary of the Buddha and met him twice, thanks to his wife Khema's reverence for the teacher. We learn that when he met him the second time, in Rajgriha (which is an important Buddhist pilgrimage today), Bimbisara converted to Buddhism.

¤ Assasination of Bimbisara

Apparently Bimbisara was assasinated by his impatient son Ajatsatru, who was a good friend of the Buddha's cousin Devadutta. This Devadutta, not to be judged by his cousin's credentials, was very much a blot on his family name and talked Ajatsatru into killing his father in the first place.

However, there is evidence that his crime weighed on Ajatsatru's mind, and in the end he confessed his crime to the Buddha before converting to Buddhism. Apart from this, Ajatsatru was very much his father's son and continued his imperialist policies. One particularly bitter, acrimonious and prolonged rivalry went on between him and the Lichchavi dynasty that ruled Vaishali (in Bihar), which he eventually managed to conquer.

Ajatsatru was obviously a colorful character and a man of sentiment. There are tales of his passionate affair with the chief courtesan of Vaishali, called Amrapali. Then, when the Buddha attained parinirvana (nirvana from all births and bonds), Ajatsatru insisted upon a part of his relics be buried in a stupa (shrine) that he got erected in Rajgriha. He said, "The lord was a kshatriya (the warrior caste of the Varna system), so am I. Therefore I am worthy of a share of his relics upon which I will erect a stupa."

¤ The Fading Glory of Sisunga Dynasty

The Sisunga dynasty faded fast after Ajatsatru; having produced two rulers with force enough for twenty, the dynasty bowed out. The last recorded ruler of the family was Kakavarna who was put to death by Mahapadmananda, of the Nanda dynasty which followed the Sisungas.

The Nandas could never be popular rulers despite their airs of magnificence and immense wealth (which they amassed by huge taxation). They were of lowborn sudra stock and hence had the odds stacked against them right from the start. By now the kings had become the more familiar despots and were becoming increasingly unapproachable.
The Nandas, though very powerful with a huge standing army and a grand court, were apparently a very vain lot. Indeed, traditional sources give us a very unflattering picture of the kings of this family. Much of this can be discounted – the Nandas were sudras to start with (which queered them with the Aryan Brahmins who were writing one half of these sources) and never bothered to associate with the Buddhists and Jains (who were writing the other half).

The Nanda who unwittingly became the most famous of the entire dynasty was Dhanananda. He started his own downfall by insulting a certain unsightly looking Brahmin, who unfortunately for Dhanananda, turned out to have surprising vision, intellect and Machiavellian cunning. ¤ Chanakya - The Man With Master Mind

This Brahmin was called Chanakya. This was time (around 326BC) when Alexander came visiting India's northwest borders along Taxila where the king, called Ambhi, laid out the red carpet for him. There was an active concern among all except the king Dhanananda himself that Alexander would come all the way to Magadha. The first thing that Chanakya tried to achieve was to raise a confederacy against the foreign invader. Though this attempt, to a large extent failed, what it did manage was to bring Chanakya into political limelight of the day. He made many friends in high places, which set him off on a bigger goal – to overthrow the Nandas.

One of the main reasons the confederacy against Alexander never got going was that Magadha, as the most powerful kingdom and the obvious leader for the rest to follow, simply refused to fall in. Dhanananda apparently not only flatly refused to spend good cash on a mad project like this, but also managed to offend Chanakya so thoroughly by his insolent behavior that the Brahmin went away convinced that the king deserved to be overthrown. It was a good thing that Chanakya's concerns were in vain; Alexander never did come all the way to Magadha; in fact, he didn't even get close. Long before that summer set in and his armies started grumbling, while he himself fell ill (this illness would eventually be the end of the great king in 323BC, at a tragically early age of 32).

So the Greek armies turned around after leaving Seleucus Nikator as Alexander's general in the region. The Greeks established a colony along the border who eventually mingled with the local populace, thus forming a new stock of people. This meant not only political, but also cultural and social exchange with the Greek which influenced Indian warfare, painting and sculpture (a whole school of art called Gandhara School of art come up of the amalgam), trade and economy. While we, in turn, influenced their science, astronomy, art and philosophy.

In these exciting times, Chanakya was going about with a single-minded focus to find a replacement for Dhananada. This he found in young Chandragupta Maurya (324-298BC).

¤ Mauryan Dynasty

The dynasty that Chandragupta and Chanakya established in Magadha together, the Mauryan dynasty, was the first real dynasty of Indian history. The first among the Mauryas, however, is quite a mystery figure in history and not much is known about him. Descriptions of his good looks have led some to conclude that he had Greek blood in him. and since he was supposed to have come from the North, certainly he was of the hills. Much hair splitting has happened over him, his credentials to the throne, his family, even his name; with one of the theories claiming that he was actually the son of Dhanananda mistress called Mura, and hence the name Maurya

. However, all this is up there in the realm of conjecture, since we are never likely to know the truth about Chandragupta Maurya's background. His mentor himself doesn't throw any light on his origins; indeed, if he was in fact low born, Chanakya's attempts would have been more in the direction of hushing them up. He was on the look out for a shrewd, intelligent young man who had a certain genius for battle as also ruling, suffice is that he got him.

Together they both made a formidable team and stayed together till the end of Chandragupta's reign, when Chanakya lived to see the early half of his successor Bindusara's (298-273BC) reign too. There's sufficient evidence to prove that elaborate planning and much intrigue went to shake the Nandas out of the Magadha throne.
A few early attempts, in fact, failed. There's a story about how Chandragupta finally got the idea that managed to defeat the Nanda might. Apparently he was walking round Taxila when he saw a woman feeding her son a dish of rice and lentils. As the son started to go straight for the middle of the dish, his mother reprimanded him and told him to start eating from the sides, for the centre was bound to be hotter.
This gave Chandragupta the idea to abandon trying to directly take on the Magadhan armies, and consolidate his position around it first and choke the Nandas so to speak.

After Magadha was taken, Chanakya and Chandragupta had most of their allies summarily disposed off and integrated their kingdoms into one strong Mauryan empire. His successor Bindusara although known as Amitraghat (slayer of foes) was neither a conqueror nor a military man.
But he was a dynamic and brilliant diplomat. He started sending and receiving missions to Egypt, Greece, Persia, Mesopotamia and various other countries. Trade increased, the economy prospered and there was general prosperity in the kingdom. There were several rebellions in the border regions in this period (regular features through out Indian history), for which he sent out his son Ashoka Maurya, who was very successful in dealing with them.

¤ Ashoka The Great

Ashoka Piyadassi Maurya (269-232BC) was perhaps Buddhism's most famous convert. He has caught the imagination of many as the cruel king who suddenly, after one battle, saw the light and became an avowed non-violent. The truth was a little more complicated than that.

Ashoka's conversion had been building for sometime before the famous battle of Kalinga (present Orissa) which is supposed to have knocked the wastefulness of war into him – ever since his younger brother Tissa converted to Buddhism. and he wasn't really a cruel king, even though he did put all his brothers to death to come to the throne – but then that was no different from what any other aspiring king would have done, and no doubt any of his brothers in similar circumstances would have done the same.
Most of what we know about him comes from Buddhist traditions, which would naturally try to portray him as this really ruthless animal who turned into a radically decent person as soon as he converted to Buddhism.

Nevertheless, Ashoka's reign has remained unique all through our Indian history. Under him, for the first time, almost the entire regions of present-day India were united under one central authority. Ashoka made Buddhism the state religion for having found peace in it. He wanted others to find it as well, although no conversions were forced upon the people.
This last was a clever political move as well for nothing unites a nation like the bonds of a common religion, as recommended by the crafty Chanakya in his masterpiece Arthasastra, a political and economic critique.

Next, Ashoka propounded his celebrated philosophy of Dhamma, which was a something like a correct moral code of conduct meets metaphysics. It has been suggested that Ashoka abandoned all violence so thoroughly that he even disbanded the army. This, however, was not true; for certainly the tone of some of the edicts that he has left strewn all over India, in which he warns troublemakers in the northwest border regions, is very much that of a king in control and ready to back up word with force. Ashoka also sent Buddhist missionaries abroad to spread the light; the most famous of these was sent to then Ceylon (Sri lanka), under his own son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra.

After Ashoka the Mauryan dynasty fizzled out surprisingly quickly. of Ashoka's sons, one Tivara died in his lifetime, another Kunala established an independent kingdom in the Kashmir region. Mahindra was, of course, appointed to carry out the more esoteric side of his father's concerns. The successor then was Jaloka, who succeeded when Ashoka died in 232Bc. He was physically very weak and died after just eight years. Confusion reigned for some years after his death, which was ended by Pushyamitta Sunga (184-149BC) taking over.

¤ The Post Maurya Period


In the post Maurya period, three dynasties jostled, came and went with astonishing speed on the Magadhan throne.
The first among these were the Sungas, under whom the country made certain progress.
The Sunga rulers were also quite successful in checking foreign invasions. Art and culture also flourished considerably under the Sungas who were particularly known to be great patrons of both.
They were followed by the Kanvas who were almost like a blip in the scene of Indian history, lasting only 45 years in all. The other important dynasty of this Post-Mauryan confusion was the andhras or the Satavahanas.

According to traditional sources, they were apparently Dasyus (as opposed to Aryans) from south India. Even in Ashoka's time, this dynasty had risen to quite a bit of prominence along the southwest regions.
We are told that it had 30 kings, however we get to names only with Simukha (235-213BC), who has been credited with founding the dynasty although his claim is in dispute – by historians that is. Simukha himself, one presumes, is now beyond caring. One of the most famous rulers of this dynasty was Sri Satkarni (194-184BC), who had a kingdom covering almost all of south India, down to the andhra region and around with his capital as the present Aurangabad.

¤ Kushana Dynasty

The next important dynasty to step into the scene were the Kushanas, about whom not much is known, so much so that there is controversy even over the date of accession of their most important king Kanishka.

Scholars have used imaginative ways to come up with as disparate dates as 78BC to down to 248AD. Most probably he ruled sometime in the first century AD. Kanishka has been greatly associated with Buddhism and his reign made the religion popular again.
Much artistic, cultural, spiritual and literary activity was encouraged by him to promote the religion. It was in his reign that Buddhism split into two sects, Hinayana (the older simpler religion when Buddha was not considered God) and Mahayana (the more ritualistic Buddhism, which worships the Buddha). The latter was the state religion of the Kushanas, who were Indo-Greek by origin.

¤ Gupta Dynasty

After the Kushanas, India saw political unity only under the second great dynasty of ancient Indian history after the Mauryas, the Guptas.

The imperial Guptas were great conquerors, efficient administrators and renowned patrons of the arts, science and culture. What's more, they lasted pretty long too; they had at least six strong rulers before the dynasty petered off, which meant greater stability than any kingdom had ever known in Indian sub-continent. Their reign is called the Golden Age of ancient Indian history.

There is evidence, the first traces ever, of fundamentalism as the staunchly Aryan Guptas set about reviving the older religion. It is in this era also that we see the beautifully simple and free-spirited Aryan philosophy settling down into a more rigid mould of a religion that we now call Hinduism. There could be reasons for this, though.

For when the Guptas came on the scene India had just seen a long line of Indo-Greek, Indo-Bactrian, Indo-Parthian, in short Indo-anything except Indo-Indian rulers. and even then they had to continuously wage bitter battles to keep foreign invaders like the Sakas off their backs. So naturally they reached deep back to their roots so to speak, in reaction against all things foreign. To revive the glory of the `old’ culture, which had been obscured by the so-called foreign rulers, must have been a matter of pride for them. In this, however, came certain downs. For example the caste system came back with a vengeance but no longer as the flexible loose social structure of the early Aryan days, but a strict code that later became such a curse for India.

¤ Great Rulers of Gupta Dynasty

If one turns a blind eye to this, the Guptas were obviously what the doctor ordered for the country then. For a dynasty which was so well documented we know surprisingly little about the rise of the Guptas. The first Gupta king was apparently Chandra Gupta I (320-335AD), though not much is known about him.

Next in line was Samudra Gupta (335-375AD) who, by all accounts, seemed to have been nothing short of a genius. He appears to have come to the throne brimming with an amazing appetite for conquest. Considering that he defeated kings all over northern and southern India (in all about twenty-four of them) one wonders when did he get the time to govern the kingdom. So, it is not really a surprise to learn that he did not. He came up with a rather clever plan to keep the newly acquired territories as annexed lands; which meant that he retained the old kings as vassals to keep the administration going. So, effectively his kingdom was like a loose federation, where everyone knew who the boss was while the actual ruling was handed over to other more competent authorities.

The conqueror was just one facet to the charismatic Samudra Gupta. Court poets would, of course, have us believe that he was nothing short of a Narcissus to look at. However, he must have been unquestionably a magnetic personality which he used to great effect as a statesman. He was a skilful diplomat who had excellent relations with not only foreign rulers but also his vassal-kings, surely a much more difficult task to achieve. Due to his ingenious ideas of government, Samudra Gupta could establish a really powerful empire which stood solid as a rock for many years to come. He was also a great scholar and was especially fond of poetry and spiritual studies.

He was followed by his elder son Rama Gupta (375-380AD) who was a bit of blot on that proud family's good name. Apparently he was having immense trouble with the central Asian Saka invaders who refused to budge from borders of the empire and threatened to come in. Rama Gupta sued for peace, and the Saka king agreed on one condition that his queen Dhruvadevi be surrendered to him. Which was okay with Rama Gupta, but not his younger brother Chandra Gupta who, disguised as the queen, entered the Saka camp and killed their king. After this Chandra Gupta also killed his brother and married Dhruvadevi and succeeded the throne.

He came to be called Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya (380-413AD) and was an excellent ruler. The story does not change much from Samudra Gupta's time. Conquests (though not many since Samudra Gupta had pretty much already conquered all there was to conquer), able administration, the arts flourishing, literature being produced in huge quantities, relations with foreign kings being excellent… and God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. Vikramaditya’s main achievement was that he managed to quash the stronghold of the Saka might (called the Saka Satraps) in India. Fa-Hien the famous Chinese Buddhist traveller-student came to India during his rule.

Next in line were Kumara Gupta (413-455AD) and Skanda Gupta (455-468AD). They were considerably troubled by foreign invasions, especially the latter who had to contend with the Huns. The Huns, though finally defeated by Skanda Gupta, seemed to have had remarkable tenacity, for they continued to invade Gupta territory with unfailing regularity.

The period between 458-540AD saw five Gupta rulers and the slipping away of the reigns of a once-powerful kingdom away from their hands. The Guptas were the last great dynasty to rule India till the Delhi Sultanate came along much later, and certainly they were the end of great Aryan rulers.

¤ Harsha Vardhana -- The Rulere of Vardhana Dynasty

The final important ruler of Ancient Indian history was Harsha Vardhana (606-646AD), who ruled not from Magadha but Thanesar (in modern Haryana area) of the Vardhana dynasty. He was a Buddhist and convened many Buddhist assemblies. The second Chinese traveller to come to India, Huien Tsang, arrived during his reign.
By all accounts Harsha was all the usual things that one associates with a good king. However, lots of petty dynasties like the Maukharis and the Vakatakas had started springing up all over the place, and the confusion which is generally associated with the absence of a strong central dynasty was rife.

The south presented a medley of dynasties around the time of Harsha Vardhana. There were the Pandyas (in regions of Mudurai, Travancore and Tinnevelly), the Chalukyas (in present Maharashtra region) and Pallavas (in modern Tamil Nadu region), who had this terrific battle of supremacy going constantly. Pulakesan II (610-642AD) was the ablest of the Chalukyan kings and for a time managed to keep the Chalukyan flag flying above the others. But strictly for a time being.

This was also the time (around 650AD) when the Rajputs suddenly appeared on the scene out of nowhere (See Medieval Indian History for more on them). Another major dynasty called Rashtrakutas, which had been around during the days of the Guptas too, suddenly saw an upsurge in power in 750BC in the present Karnataka region. Their dynasty spills over to very early Medieval period and then fizzles out.

In 800AD thus we leave India in a state of chaos, out of which order was made only somewhere in 1192AD.