The Beginnings of Human Civilization in South Asia

  December 25, 2023   Read time 7 min
The Beginnings of Human Civilization in South Asia
By the middle of the third millennium BCthere were in India the foundations of splendid and enduring cultural traditions which were to outlive those of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and which would enjoy a huge sphere of infl uence. Even now, ancient India is still visible and accessible to us in a very direct sense, through its literature, its religions
A caste-system whose main lines were set by about 1000 BCstill regulates the lives of millions. Gods and goddesses whose cults can be traced to the Neolithic are still worshipped at village shrines. In some ways, then, ancient India is with us still as is no other ancient civilization. Yet though examples of the conservatism of Indian life are commonplace, the region contains many other things too. It has been an area in which great lines of thinking and culture have been forged and from where they have been disseminated. The diversity of Indian life is enormous, but wholly comprehensible given the size and variety of its setting. The subcontinent is, after all, about the size of Europe and is divided into regions clearly distinguished by climate, terrain and crops.
There are two great river valleys, the Indus’ and Ganges’ systems, in the north; between them lie desert and arid plains, and to the south the highlands of the Deccan, largely forested. When written history begins, India’s racial complexity, too, is already very great: scholars identify six main ethnic groups, speaking a number of languages, with Indo-European and Dravidian tongues predominant. Many other groups, attracted by India’s agricultural wealth, were to arrive later and make themselves at home in the Indian subcontinent and society. All this makes it hard to fi nd a focus.
Yet Indian history has a unity in the fact of its enormous power to absorb and transform forces playing on it from the outside. This provides a thread to guide us through the patchy and uncertain illumination of its early stages which is provided by archaeology and texts long transmitted only by word of mouth. Its basis is to be found in another fact: India’s large measure of insulation from the outside world by geography. In spite of her size and variety, until the oceans began to be opened up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ADIndia had only to grapple with occasional, though often irresistible, incursions by alien peoples. To the north and north-west she was protected by some of the highest mountains in the world; to the east lay belts of jungle.
The lower two sides of the subcontinent’s great triangle opened out into the huge expanses of the Indian Ocean. This natural defi nition not only channelled and restricted communication with the outside world; it also gave India a distinctive climate. Much of India does not lie in the tropics, but none the less that climate is tropical. The mountains keep away the icy winds of Central Asia; the long coasts open themselves to the rain-laden clouds which roll in from the oceans and cannot go beyond the northern ranges. The climatic clock is the annual monsoon, bringing the rain during the hottest months of the year. It is still the central prop of the agricultural economy.
Protected in some measure from external forces though she has always been before modern times, India’s north-western frontier is more open than her others to the outside world. Baluchistan and the frontier passes were the most important zones of encounter between India and other peoples right down to the seventeenth century AD ; in civilized times even India’s contacts with China were fi rst made by this roundabout route (though it is not quite as roundabout as Mercator’s familiar projection makes it appear). At times, this north-western region has fallen directly under foreign sway, which is suggestive when we consider the fi rst Indian civilizations; we do not know much about the way in which they arose but we know that Sumer and Egypt antedated them. Mesopotamian records of Sargon I of Akkad report contacts with a ‘Meluhha’, which scholars have believed to be the Indus valley, the alluvial plains forming the fi rst natural region encountered by the traveller once he has entered India. It was there, in rich, heavily forested countryside, that the fi rst Indian civilizations appeared at the time when, further west, the great movements of Indo-European peoples were beginning to act as the levers of history. There may have been more than one stimulus at work.
The evidence also shows that agriculture came later to India than to the Middle East. It, too, can fi rst be traced in the subcontinent in its north-west corner. There is archaeological evidence of farming in Baluchistan in about 6000 BC . Three thousand years later, signs of settled life on the alluvial plains and parallels with other river-valley cultures begin to appear. Wheelthrown pottery and copper implements begin to be found. All the signs are of a gradual build-up in intensity of agricultural settlements until true civilization appears as it did in Egypt and Sumer. But there is the possibility of direct Mesopotamian infl uence in the background and, fi nally, there is at least a reasonable inference that already India’s future was being shaped by the coming of new peoples from the north. At a very early date the complex racial composition of India’s population suggests this, though it would be rash to be assertive about it.
When at last indisputable evidence of civilized life is available, the change is startling. One scholar speaks of a cultural ‘explosion’. There may have been one crucial technological step, the invention of burnt brick (as opposed to the sun-baked mud brick of Mesopotamia) which made fl ood control possible in a fl at river plain lacking natural stone. Whatever the process, the outcome was a remarkable civilization which stretched over more than quarter of a million square miles of the Indus valley, an area greater than either the Sumerian or Egyptian.
Some have called Indus civilization ‘Harappan’, because one of its great sites is the city of Harappa on a tributary of the Indus. There is another such site at Mohenjo-Daro; three others are known. Together they reveal human beings highly organized and capable of carefully regulated collective works on a scale equalling those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. There were large granaries in the cities, and weights and measures seem to have been standardized over a large area. It is clear that a well-developed culture was established by 2600 BCand lasted for something like 600years with very little change, before declining in the second millennium BC
The two cities which are its greatest monuments may have contained more than 30 , 000people each. This says much for the agriculture which sustained them; the region was then far from being the arid zone it later became. Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were between 2and 2 ½ miles in circumference and the uniformity and complexity of their building speaks for a very high degree of administrative and organizational skill. They each had a citadel and a residential area; streets of houses were laid out on rectangular grid plans and made of bricks of standardized sizes. Both the elaborate and effective drainage systems and the internal layout of the houses show a strong concern for bathing and cleanliness; in some streets of Harappa nearly every house has a bathroom. Perhaps it is not fanciful to see in this some of the fi rst manifestations of what has become an enduring feature of Indian religion, the bathing and ritual ablutions still so important to Hindus.
These cities traded far afi eld and lived an economic life of some complexity. A great dockyard, connected by a mile-long canal to the sea at Lothal, 400miles south of Mohenjo-Daro, suggests the importance of external exchanges which reached, through the Persian Gulf, as far north as Mesopotamia. In the Harappan cities themselves evidence survives of specialized craftsmen drawing their materials from a wide area and subsequently sending out again across its length and breadth the products of their skills. This civilization had cotton cloth (the fi rst of which we have evidence), which was plentiful enough to wrap bales of goods for export whose cordage was sealed with seals found at Lothal. These seals are part of our evidence for Harappan literacy; a few inscriptions on fragments of pottery are all that supplements them and provides the fi rst traces of Indian writing. The seals, of which about 2 , 500survive, provide some of our best clues to Harappan ideas. The pictographs on the seals run from right to left. Animals often appear on them and may represent six seasons into which the year was divided. Many ‘words’ on the seals remain unreadable, but it now seems at least likely that they are part of a language akin to the Dravidian tongues still used in southern India.

Write your comment