The ancient history of India is just as rich as any other history. It is the cradle and crux of major archaeological excavations in India. These findings coupled with a deep interest in preserving them is what helped shape the Indian history today. This article compiles 10 important questions on ancient history of India that can let you know more about it. Be it school exams or for UPSC preparation, these questions were curated to serve any purpose. The detailed descriptions of topics like the Indus Valley Civilization or the Gupta kingdom of ancient India will help you develop a firm knowledge on the topics available.
Explain the expanse of the Harrapan and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations?
- The Harappan Civilization is mainly known as the Indus Valley Civilization. It is one of the oldest and most extensive civilizations that existed between 2500-1700 BCE. The civilization is named after the town of Harappa located in the Sindh region which existed during that period.
- It was the first town to be identified in the Punjab region in the year 1921 that led to the discovery of the Indus Civilization. After partition of India in 1947, the region is now located 640km (400 miles) to the northwest in Pakistan’s Punjab Province.
- Mohenjo-Daro which means “mound of the dead” is the second most important center of the Indus Valley Civilization. The site gained archaeological importance in 1922. At present, Mohenjo-Daro is a pile of ruins that flanks the bank of the Indus River, northern Sindh province in Southern Pakistan. The area is covered with alluvial soil that lies 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Sukkur, a city in south-eastern Pakistan.
- The remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization were found in Sutkagen Dor which is located 480 km west of Karachi in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. The other sites include Ropar in eastern Punjab state in northwest India.
- The civilization also extends towards southern India down the west coast of the Gulf of Khambhat and towards east down the Yamuna River basin that lies 50 km (30 miles) north of Delhi.
- The cities under modern-day Pakistan includes Harappa, Ganeriwala and Mohenjodaro while that of modern-day India includes Kalibangan, Dholavira, Rupar, Rakhigarhi and Lothal.
What led to the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization?
The decline of the Indus Valley Civilization started around 1900BCE and was abandoned completely by 1700 BCE. There is a lot of debate surrounding the reasons for the civilization’s demise.
- The Aryan invasion theory: According to the racial writers like Houston Stewart Chamberlain (l. 1855-1927 CE) and political philosophers of the early 20th century, the Indus valley Civilization probably were invaded by the light-skinned race called Aryans. This theory has a lot of claims and gained a lot of prominence and acceptance by historians worldwide.
- Change in climate: The sites of the Indus Valley Civilization witnessed droughts and floods equally. The Indus River is believed to have caused extensive floods that drowned the crops and brought famine. Another reason that hints at the fact that climate change could have brought about the civilization’s demise is the eastward shift of monsoons in the north. Due to shortage of rain during the monsoons, crops failed to thrive and people were forced to migrate to the south where they resided in small villages and farmed on isolated lands.
- Extra-terrestrial invasion: The less likely theory behind the abandonment of the Harappan Civilization was that the inhabitants during that period were driven away by the extra-terrestrials. As per this theory, humans were driven south from their place of residence but it is highly untenable because of the lack of substantial proof.
- Exposure to intense heat: The sites in Mohenjo-Daro underwent vitrification which necessitates the conclusion that it was exposed to intense heat that could have melted the bricks and stones. As the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization is shrouded in mystery, the vitrification phenomena continue to baffle everyone. A similar case was witnessed in Traprain Law in Scotland but the reasons were attributed to the results of warfare.
When did archaeological excavations start in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro? What were some of the important discoveries made?
- Harappa was excavated between 1920 and 1934 by the Archaeological Survey of India. For the first time, the site of Harappa was briefly excavated by Alexander Cunningham in 1872-1873. It underwent extensive excavation under Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni in 1920. He not only contributed to the discovery of major sites in India but one that came to be called as the earliest urban culture in the Indian subcontinent.
- A detailed excavation was conducted when Mortimer Wheeler served as the Director-General of the ASI in the year 1946 where he exposed several fortifications and findings including the Kot Dijian deposits and founded a stratigraphy for the settlement.
Some of the important discoveries made during the Indus Valley Civilization include:
- Measuring systems: The important discovery of the period was the standardized weights and measures which were developed to measure length and mass.
- Seals: Seals were invented to stamp goods used for commercial purposes and for property identification. These distinctive seals bore cut-out patterns which were made from steatite (soft stone), teracotta, agate, ivory etc. The standard Harappan seal was square in shape and was decorated with several animals surrounding Pashupati (Lord Shiva).
- Sanitation systems: The drainage and sewage systems were well laid out and were far more advanced than the contemporary urban sites in the Middle East, Pakistan and India. Managing wastewater was easy as vertical pipes in homes led to chutes and street drains. These drains were made from baked bricks and were kept covered to ensure cleanliness and proper sanitation. Even the smallest homes on the outskirts were connected to this elaborate drainage system.
- Metallurgy: The inhabitants of the civilization widely used metals like copper, bronze, lead and tin. They crafted different tools used in their daily lives starting from axes, coins to jewellery.
What were the main religions and philosophical schools of thought in the Indian subcontinent practiced in the ancient India?
The three main world religions that was born in the Indian subcontinent in ancient times were:
- Hinduism: Indus Valley Civilization is said to be the birthplace of Hinduism. It is one of the oldest religions of the world. It was not founded by a single person but is an amalgamation of various beliefs. Hinduism mainly emerged after the Vedic period and flourished after the decline of Buddhism. With the emergence of this religious, various Hindu texts were composed which included the Puranas and the epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana.
- Jainism: Jainism is one of the oldest religions that originated in India, dating nearly 2,500 years back. The main principle of this religion is non-violence towards any living creature and finding moksha (liberation) as the ultimate goal in life. Jainism was carried forward by 24 tirthankaras or teachers, the last of whom was Vardhamana Mahavira. Buddha is thought to be a contemporary of Mahavira and both the religions have several similarities.
- Buddhism: The religion Buddhism was founded by Gautama Buddha who attained nirvana under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya (present-day Bihar). After having thwarted the temptations caused by Mara and the subsequent knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, he attained enlightenment. He gave his first sermons at Sarnath and taught the Eightfold Path that will lead to nirvana.
- The ancient India also saw the emergence of the Charvaka, philosophical school of thought. According to its tenets’, seeking pleasure is the sole aim of life. This school upheld reasoning through the five senses to be of supreme importance. It heavily relied on “anubhava” to draw inferences. They discarded the notion of afterlife, authority of Vedas and enlightenment. Although this school of materialists disappeared by the end of the medieval period, it gained prominence one time evidenced by its refutation by Buddhist and orthodox Hindu texts.
What was the Sanatan Dharma?
- The Sanatan Dharma or The Eternal Order was a belief system in Hinduism that proposed the idea of one Creator or one God and the only way to realize him is by worshipping him in multiple forms of the Hindu pantheon. This Dharma was born during the Vedic period (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE).
- The basic tenet of Sanatan Dharma is that there is a particular order decreed by the Gods or the universe and living in accordance to that order is the perfect way to experience life as it is. It is an absolute set of duties or an eternal ordinance that applies across all sects and castes of Hinduism.
- Sanatan Dharma is a Sanskrit term that roughly translates to “eternal law” or “eternal way”. According to its notion, seva or service should be performed by the Atman or the individual soul. It is a law that transcends our temporary belief systems.
- The Sanatan Dharma encourages inculcating virtues like goodwill, purity, honesty, non-violence, forbearance, generosity, asceticism, patience etc. There is another Dharma known as the Varnashrama Dharma which explains that your “own duties” should be committed when in conflict with the Sanatan Dharma.
- For example, in Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna who upholds Sanatan Dharma, that the individual soul is immortal and so the karma (or the duty) must be committed and one should maintain an attitude of indifference towards the results. That is how Varnashrama Dharma can be adopted.
Who was Alexander the Great and define his Indian campaign of invasion?
- Alexander the Great, precisely Alexander III was an ancient Macedonian (Greece) ruler who established the largest empire the ancient world has ever seen. He was one of the greatest military minds to have changed the course of history. His vast empire stretched from Macedonia to Egypt, Greece and parts of India.
- Alexander was a highly ambitious conqueror who drew inspiration from the Greek gods Achilles (god of war), Heracles (god of strength) and Dionysus (god of fertility). Hellenistic culture started under the rule of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. The culture is a concoction of ancient Greek world with that of West Asian, Northeastern African, and Southwestern Asian.
- The Indian campaign of Alexander the Great started in 327 BC. The campaign covered areas like present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. After controlling Gandhara, he proceeded to Punjab and fought against the king of the territory, named Porus. Alexander emerged victorious but it is believed to be the costliest battle fought by the armies of Alexander the Great.
- He was again confronted by the Nanda empire of Magadha further east. As per Greek sources, his troops mutinied at Hyphasis as they were exhausted and confronting the armies of the Nanda empire seemed to be quite demanding as the armies were claimed to be massive. Alexander decided to move through southern Punjab and Sindh towards the Indus river which brought about the end of his Indian campaign of invasion.
What were the four varnas that the society were divided into during the Vedic period?
- With the inception of Vedas which are known as the religious or historical texts, Indian society was classified into four major classes (also called varnas) in the Vedic period:
- Brahman: Brahmans occupied the highest level of the four major classes. This varna mainly consisted of priests, intellectuals and scholars. They were called the leaders of society who took major decisions that required much thought and were of higher importance. Brahmans were involved in studying scriptures, teaching, performing sacrifices and religious rituals.
- Kshatriya: Kshatriyas appeared at the second category of the varnas and consisted of the warriors. The two primary roles of the Kshatriyas are to wage war during disputes and to govern the land in times of peace.
- Vaishyas: The next class in the hierarchy of the caste system were the Vaishyas or the farmers, skilled traders and merchants. Their way of life required study, sacrifice and serving as a benefactor to others.
- Shudra: The lowest of the varnas were the shudras or people who performed unskilled manual labor. It is the inferior most position ascribed to a class whose work was considered to be of negligible importance. Shudras were also known as the Dalits or untouchables who mainly handled meat and waste.
- Later, this varna system was strictly adhered to and a person’s caste was predetermined by birth. The progeny of the shudras were bound to be shudras and cannot be initiated into other classes no matter their intellectual capacity or skills. This created a wider rift between the varnas, especially the upper and lower castes. People began to be highly discriminated against, by the rigid interpretation of this social stratification.
What are some of the important developments that took place during the Gupta period?
- The Gupta period (320-550 BCE) witnessed an extensive growth in different areas of life. It is the same reason why it is also known as the Golden Age of India. This period is known for its remarkable achievements in science, literature, astronomy, philosophy, art, dialect etc.
- Trade and commerce prospered during the Gupta period. Indian iron was deemed as non-corrosive and today the Iron Pillar (402 CE) at Qutub complex, New Delhi stands testimony to this fact. Both inland and outland trade were at its zenith and proved exemplary to represent the highest and finest of standards. The items for trade included silk, precious gemstones, steel, ivory, spices, medicines etc.
- Significant contributions to literature, science and mathematics were made during the Gupta period. This period consisted of important scholars like Aryabhata, Dhanvantri, Varahamihira and renowed poets like Kalidasa, Harishena, Vishakhadatta etc. The texts that gained prominence widely include Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam, Harisena’s Allahabad Prasasti, Aryabhatta’s Aryabhatia and Surya Siddhanta.
- There were some important architectural developments during the period. Some of the architectural monuments include the Ajanta, Ellora, Sarnath, Sigiriya, Mathura, Anuradhapura and the iron pillars. The Shilpa Shasrta which consisted of important tenets on art was strictly adhered to and was used ubiquitously, including even town planning.
What were the Vedas and when they were written?
- A veda is collection of hymns by the Indo-European people residing in the north west India that were composed between 1500-1200 BCE. The four main Vedas are the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda. The first three vedas together are known as the trayi-vidya which means the threefold knowledge.
- Vedas are composed in archaic Sanskrit that celebrated a large pantheon of Hindu deities, often representing cosmic phenomenon such as the Agni devta ( the fire God), Surya and Savitri (the Sun God), Indra devta (the god of rain) etc.
- Rigveda is one of the oldest books of ancient times in Hinduism. It consisted of more than 1000 poems and was written in 300 BCE. Prior to that, it was transferred orally across generations.
- The Yajurveda comprises of prose mantras or incantations to be used while performing religious rituals of worship. The Yajurveda is broadly divided into Krishna Yajurveda and Shukla Yajurveda which corresponds to the unclear and clear versions of the Veda.
- The Samaveda is a book of melodies and chants that consisted of 1,875 verses composed in archaic Sanskrit.
- The Atharvaveda is the last of the Vedas that is a compilation of twenty books and is a storehouse of 730 hymns of 6000 stanzas. It is a collection of beliefs that helps handle regular issues of the Vedic society.
Who was Harshavardhana?
- Harshavardhana was one of the prominent Indian emperors in the 7th century AD who expanded his empire from Punjab, central India to Bengal and Orissa in the east.
- Harshavardhan, also called Harsha was Hinduism by birth but he later adopted Mahayana Buddhism. His fame reached far and wide and he was praised by the Chinese Buddhist traveler Xuanzang in his works.
- Under his rule, two kingdoms named Thanesar and Kannauj were united. His rule initiated the onset of feudalism in India and the territories during his period can be classified into two major groups- 1. Territories under the direct rule of Harshavardhana and 2. Feudatories, land that were under the control of the feudal system.
- Harshavardhan was a great king who was defeated only once in life by the Chalukyas in 618-619 AD. The Chalukya King, Pulakesin II defeated the king when he was advancing towards the south to capture the area.
This article highlights the 10 important questions on the ancient history of India. The history of the kingdom of ancient India is diverse and are marked by conquests and significant contributions in various aspects of life. The vital facts contained in bullet points should have made it easier to read. These answers will help you maintain a wealth of ancient history knowledge that you can employ during a test and pass with flying colours.