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Figure 2. Indus Valley Culture Sites, ca. 2500-1600 B.C.

Source: Based on information from Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler, Early India and Pakistan: To Ashoka, New York, 1968, 95; and Joseph E. Schwartzberg, ed., A Historical Atlas of South Asia, New York, 1992, 9.


Dhyani Buddha, second-century Buddha statue from the historic site of Taxila
Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

From the earliest times, the Indus River valley region has been both a transmitter of cultures and a receptacle of different ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups. Indus Valley civilization (known also as Harappan culture) appeared around 2500 B.C. along the Indus River valley in Punjab and Sindh. This civilization, which had a writing system, urban centers, and a diversified social and economic system, was discovered in the 1920s at its two most important sites: Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh near Sukkur, and Harappa, in Punjab south of Lahore (see fig. 2). A number of other lesser sites stretching from the Himalayan foothills in Indian Punjab to Gujarat east of the Indus River and to Balochistan to the west have also been discovered and studied. How closely these places were connected to Mohenjo-daro and Harappa is not clearly known, but evidence indicates that there was some link and that the people inhabiting these places were probably related.

An abundance of artifacts have been found at Harappa--so much so, that the name of that city has been equated with the Indus Valley civilization (Harappan culture) it represents. Yet the site was damaged in the latter part of the nineteenth century when engineers constructing the Lahore-Multan railroad used brick from the ancient city for ballast. Fortunately, the site at Mohenjo-daro has been less disturbed in modern times and shows a well-planned and well-constructed city of brick.

Indus Valley civilization was essentially a city culture sustained by surplus agricultural produce and extensive commerce, which included trade with Sumer in southern Mesopotamia in what is today modern Iraq. Copper and bronze were in use, but not iron. Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were cities built on similar plans of well-laid-out streets, elaborate drainage systems, public baths, differentiated residential areas, flat-roofed brick houses and fortified administrative and religious centers enclosing meeting halls and granaries. Weights and measures were standardized. Distinctive engraved stamp seals were used, perhaps to identify property. Cotton was spun, woven, and dyed for clothing. Wheat, rice, and other food crops were cultivated, and a variety of animals were domesticated. Wheel-made pottery--some of it adorned with animal and geometric motifs--has been found in profusion at all the major Indus sites. A centralized administration has been inferred from the cultural uniformity revealed, but it remains uncertain whether authority lay with a priestly or a commercial oligarchy.

By far the most exquisite but most obscure artifacts unearthed to date are the small, square steatite seals engraved with human or animal motifs. Large numbers of the seals have been found at Mohenjo-daro, many bearing pictographic inscriptions generally thought to be a kind of script. Despite the efforts of philologists from all parts of the world, however, and despite the use of computers, the script remains undeciphered, and it is unknown if it is proto-Dravidian or proto-Sanskrit. Nevertheless, extensive research on the Indus Valley sites, which has led to speculations on both the archaeological and the linguistic contributions of the pre--Aryan population to Hinduism's subsequent development, has offered new insights into the cultural heritage of the Dravidian population still dominant in southern India. Artifacts with motifs relating to asceticism and fertility rites suggest that these concepts entered Hinduism from the earlier civilization. Although historians agree that the civilization ceased abruptly, at least in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa there is disagreement on the possible causes for its end. Invaders from central and western Asia are considered by some historians to have been "destroyers" of Indus Valley civilization, but this view is open to reinterpretation. More plausible explanations are recurrent floods caused by tectonic earth movement, soil salinity, and desertification.

Until the entry of the Europeans by sea in the late fifteenth century, and with the exception of the Arab conquests of Muhammad bin Qasim in the early eighth century, the route taken by peoples who migrated to India has been through the mountain passes, most notably the Khyber Pass, in northwestern Pakistan. Although unrecorded migrations may have taken place earlier, it is certain that migrations increased in the second millennium B.C. The records of these people--who spoke an Indo-European language--are literary, not archaeological, and were preserved in the Vedas, collections of orally transmitted hymns. In the greatest of these, the "Rig Veda," the Aryan speakers appear as a tribally organized, pastoral, and pantheistic people. The later Vedas and other Sanskritic sources, such as the Puranas (literally, "old writings"--an encyclopedic collection of Hindu legends, myths, and genealogy), indicate an eastward movement from the Indus Valley into the Ganges Valley (called Ganga in Asia) and southward at least as far as the Vindhya Range, in central India. A social and political system evolved in which the Aryans dominated, but various indigenous peoples and ideas were accommodated and absorbed. The caste system that remained characteristic of Hinduism also evolved. One theory is that the three highest castes--Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas--were composed of Aryans, while a lower caste--the Sudras--came from the indigenous peoples.

By the sixth century B.C., knowledge of Indian history becomes more focused because of the available Buddhist and Jain sources of a later period. Northern India was populated by a number of small princely states that rose and fell in the sixth century B.C. In this milieu, a phenomenon arose that affected the history of the region for several centuries--Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, the "Enlightened One" (ca. 563-483 B.C.), was born in the Ganges Valley. His teachings were spread in all directions by monks, missionaries, and merchants. The Buddha's teachings proved enormously popular when considered against the more obscure and highly complicated rituals and philosophy of Vedic Hinduism. The original doctrines of the Buddha also constituted a protest against the inequities of the caste system, attracting large numbers of followers.

At about the same time, the semi-independent kingdom of Gandhara, roughly located in northern Pakistan and centered in the region of Peshawar, stood between the expanding kingdoms of the Ganges Valley to the east and the Achaemenid Empire of Persia to the west. Gandhara probably came under the influence of Persia during the reign of Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.). The Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., and he continued his march eastward through Afghanistan and into India. Alexander defeated Porus, the Gandharan ruler of Taxila, in 326 B.C. and marched on to the Ravi River before turning back. The return march through Sindh and Balochistan ended with Alexander's death at Babylon in 323 B.C.

Greek rule did not survive in northwestern India, although a school of art known as Indo-Greek developed and influenced art as far as Central Asia. The region of Gandhara was conquered by Chandragupta (r. ca. 321-ca. 297 B.C.), the founder of the Mauryan Empire, the first universal state of northern India, with its capital at present-day Patna in Bihar. His grandson, Ashoka (r. ca. 274-ca. 236 B.C.), became a Buddhist. Taxila became a leading center of Buddhist learning. Successors to Alexander at times controlled the northwestern of region present-day Pakistan and even Punjab after Maurya power waned in the region.

The northern regions of Pakistan came under the rule of the Sakas, who originated in Central Asia in the second century B.C. They were soon driven eastward by Pahlavas (Parthians related to the Scythians), who in turn were displaced by the Kushans (also known as the Yueh-Chih in Chinese chronicles).

The Kushans had earlier moved into territory in the northern part of present-day Afghanistan and had taken control of Bactria. Kanishka, the greatest of the Kushan rulers (r. ca. A.D. 120-60), extended his empire from Patna in the east to Bukhara in the west and from the Pamirs in the north to central India, with the capital at Peshawar (then Purushapura) (see fig. 3). Kushan territories were eventually overrun by the Huns in the north and taken over by the Guptas in the east and the Sassanians of Persia in the west.

The age of the imperial Guptas in northern India (fourth to seventh centuries A.D.) is regarded as the classical age of Hindu civilization. Sanskrit literature was of a high standard; extensive knowledge in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine was gained; and artistic expression flowered. Society became more settled and more hierarchical, and rigid social codes emerged that separated castes and occupations. The Guptas maintained loose control over the upper Indus Valley.

Northern India suffered a sharp decline after the seventh century. As a result, Islam came to a disunited India through the same passes that Indo-Aryans, Alexander, Kushans, and others had entered.

Data as of April 1994

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