In our last post, we talked about the rise of the Old Kingdom in Egypt at the turn of the 3rd millennium BCE, and how it laid the foundations for an empire and culture that would flourish for nearly three thousand years. However, as remarkable as the rise of the Old Kingdom was, it was by no means the only major civilization that was beginning to establish itself at the time. To the east, in the fertile basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the ancient Mesopotamian civilization was developing urban life and the art of writing, and further east still, in the rich soil of the Indus river valley, the first Indian civilization was establishing sprawling cities across a vast expanse of the north and northwestern subcontinent.
To the outside world, India has long been an enigma. Separated by formidable natural barriers, deserts to the west, mountains to the north, and thick forests to the east, India was, for much of history, a universe unto itself, much like its great neighbour to the north, China. Yet it was also well established in the trading networks of the world, with archaeological evidence showing trade with other civilizations even in this early period, a practice that would only develop with time.
Satellite view of the Indian subcontinent. India's geography places it in the middle of some of the most important maritime trade routes in history, but at the same time, its desert, forest and mountain frontiers have given it a degree of isolation.
Fortunately for us, much archaeological evidence has been uncovered regarding early India, and we can reconstruct much of what life there looked like. The major cities of this civilization, such as Harappa and Mohenjodaro, could have housed upwards of 50,000 people and had remarkably advanced civic knowledge. These cities were notable for displaying a high degree of urban planning, complete with sewage and drainage systems, common baths, granaries, and plumbing. The people of this civilization were also skilled traders and craftsmen, leaving behind a wealth of artefacts, including some remarkably sophisticated figurines and statuettes.
The Great Bath at Mohenjodaro. Constructed in the third millennium BCE, it is believed to be the oldest public water tank in the world and was likely the site of ritual purifying ceremonies.
One of the most fascinating aspects of life in India has always been religion. Modern India is, at once, both a secular nation and a deeply religious one. The birthplace of all Dharmic religions, and home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population, India also has significant Christian minorities, orthodox, catholic, and protestant, and even jews and Zoroastrians! The oldest of these, Hinduism, is widely considered the oldest religion in the world to still be practised. With over a billion adherents, it is a major world religion and a broad umbrella for a group of beliefs and a system of thought whose origins are shrouded in mystery. The first of the canonical texts of Hinduism, the Vedas, was likely created between 1700 and 1100 BCE. Known as the Rigveda, it deals with complex issues such as cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy, and of course, rituals.
Historians and architects have long tried to uncover the origins of the Rigveda, and in it, unlock the secret of the end of the Indus valley civilization and rise of the Vedic culture that succeeded it, a culture that although greatly changed, still dominates the subcontinent. What is known to us is the fact that, around 1900-1700 BCE, the cities and urban settlements of the Indus valley began to experience a depopulation. This period has long been controversial, with archaeological evidence showing a rise in disease and violence in the cities, implying a breakdown in civil order. Observant readers of this blog would notice that this period is not very far from the end of the Egyptian Old Kingdom and many in the scientific community believe that the same environmental changes may have been responsible for the end of the Indus valley civilization.
This period of world history saw the major civilizations in flux, and the eastward migration of the peoples of the Indus valley was marked by another wave of migration into India from central Asia. Once believed to be invaders, more recent evidence suggests that these central Asian “Aryan” peoples were, in fact, more likely to have been migrants who slowly mingled with and assimilated into the culture of South Asia. One of the seminal events of human history, modern evidence suggests that these Central Asian peoples simultaneously migrated into India, Iran and Anatolia, giving rise to the Indo-European language family, the predominant global family of languages.
The Pashupati seal uncovered at Mohenjodaro is believed to depict a deity who would later evolve into Shiva, one of the principal gods of Hinduism.
As the early Vedic period took shape, the Hindu pantheon started to appear. Parallels have been drawn between the early Hindu deities and other ancient polytheistic religions, such as that of the Greek, Norse, and Roman. Interestingly, the Pashupati seal excavated at Mohenjodaro is widely believed to be an early avatar of what would later be known as Shiva, the destroyer, one part of the Hindu Trimurti or trinity, an important concept within Hinduism generally, and the central deity of the Shaivism tradition among Hindus.
Shiva is a major god in the Hindu pantheon. The supreme being in the Shaivite tradition, Shiva's dual nature as both, a benign benefactor and a powerful destroyer, make him loved, feared and revered. The destroyer third of the Hindu Trimurti or Trinity, Shiva is an enigmatic God who often deals in paradoxes. Needless to say, we are happy to host Him but willing to share! Grab your painting!
It is impossible for us today to peer far enough into history to uncover all the secrets of the Indus Valley Civilization, and perhaps even more consequential, the early Vedic civilization, to determine just where the Vedas and the early beliefs of Indians came from and how original inhabitants and the newcomers from central Asia merged. In the next millennium, however, Vedic culture grew incredibly sophisticated, developing an esoteric specialization in mythology and philosophy and beginning to grapple with advanced math and sciences. Other religions began to appear within the Dharmic worldview, such as Jainism that rejected the Gods (but accepted supernatural events and beings), and Buddhism that sidestepped deities to develop into a discipline that answers psychological problems that plague humanity even today. The robust intellectualism of the Dharmic worldview made it tolerant and accepting of other religions, ultimately leading to the pluralistic India of today.