Until the discovery of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, it was thought Indian history and civilization began with the coming of the Aryans. But now we know that it began much earlier. The cities of the Indus civilization declined but the culture continued in the villages. There were a variety of cultures in the Indian sub-continent during the second millennium B.C. This points to a variety of people living in different parts of the country. It was during this period that a people speaking an Indo-Aryan language emerged in north western India. We do not know where they came from; perhaps they came from north eastern Iran or the region near the Caspian Sea or Central Asia. They are called 'Indo Aryans' to distinguish them from others who spoke various Aryan languages and went to western Asia and Europe. They are called Aryans after their language. We do not know anything about their race or even whether they belonged to a race different from the earlier settlers of north-western India. It was once thought that they came in large numbers invaded the country but there is very little evidence to prove this. Many historians, therefore, now argue that they came in small groups over a long period of time and lived with the existing people. There was, as a result, a mixing of languages and ways of life.
This period of Indian history is called the Vedic Age because its reconstruction is based on using the Vedic texts as sources. But in the last 40 years evidence has also been found from archaeology. In the areas where the Aryan speaking culture developed, there were settlements of a people practising pastoralism and agriculture and using a distinctive painted grey pottery which goes by the technical name of Painted Grey Ware. In the regions adjoining these areas, another pottery was used which, as its name suggests, was 'Black and Red Ware' (the term ware here refers to vessels made of baked clay). It is now possible to use both literary and archaeological sources to reconstruct the history of the Vedic Age. It is also sugested now that Vedic culture is a mixture of some new ideas and practices with some existing ones based on the local structures.
The Aryans at the first settled in the Punjab. Gradually, they moved south-eastwards into the region just north of Delhi. There used to be a river flowing nearby called Saraswati but the water of this river has now dried up. Here they remained for many years, and here they prepared the collection of hymns known as the Rig Veda. In the same region is the plain of Kurukshetra where it is believed, the great battle between the Pandavas, and the Kauravas was fought. Sometime later the Aryans moved still further eastwards into the Ganga valley clearing the thick forests as they went along. Some of these forests were burnt and some were cleared with iron axes for they had by now begun to make tools and weapons of iron.
The Aryans came as pastoral nomads, that is, they kept large herds of cattle, which was the means of livelihood, and then wandered from place to place. Gradually, they took to agriculture and began to settle down permanently in villages. Because they were nomads, they were unfamiliar with city life, and it took a few centuries before cities emerged. Their early habitation sites, therefore, were villages. It is likely that in the process of settling down, they mixed with the existing people, some of whom were the descendants of the Harappans.
Our knowledge of Aryans is not based, as it is in the case of Harappan people, mostly on digging up their habitation sites. We know about the Aryans from the hymns which they composed and which were recited and passed on from generation to generation until they were finally written down. We call this literary evidence and it provides the clues to their history. But, recently, digging in certain places as Hastinapura and Atranji-Khera in western Uttar Pradesh has also supplied further information about their culture.
The hymns were composed in praise of the gods whom they worshipped. Rules were made about their religious ceremonies, their work and worship. These can be found in the four Vedas - Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. They also wrote long poems about their bravery and the battles which they fought. These poems were later collected and became the two epics of ancient India - the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha.
Society at this time was divided into tribes and each tribe settled in a particular region. But the tribes often fought each other. The herds of animals required grasslands for grazing and the tribes fought over the possession of these grasslands. Each tribe had its king or chief who was generally selected for his strength and bravery. Later, kingship became hereditary, that is, the son of a king became king when his father died. The king's duty was to protect the tribe and his kingsmen helped him in this.
The king ruled according to the wishes of the tribe, and he had various persons to assist him. There was the comander of the warriors, the Senani, who was always with him. There was a priest or purohita who performed the religious ceremonies for him and advised him. There were messengers through whom he made contact with his tribesmen living in neighbouring vilages. The king also consulted the headmen of the villages of his tribe, the gramanis. But if there was something very important to be discussed, the king took the advice of the entire tribe. These assemblies were called the samiti and the sabha. In the samiti, anyone could speak his mind about the problem but the sabha appears to have been a smaller assembly of selected people.
The tribe was split into small units called gramas comprising a number of families living in villages. When the people gradually gave up the nomadic way of life and took to agriculture, the villages became larger, and many more members of a tribe lived in one vilage. A group of families was known as a clan or vish. The people of the tribe were called jana.
The village was divided into families and all the members of a family lived together as a joint household. The family was patriarchal, that is, the oldest male member in the family was regarded as the head of the family - often this was the grandfather. This was a position of power in the family, since the head made all the decisions and the other members had to accept what he decided. The sons brought their wives home and continued to live with their father. Women were held in respect as they generally are in societies based on a system of tribes. Some of the girls were educated along with the boys.
The life of the village included more persons than merely those who cultivated the fields. There were craftsmen as well. And certain villages began to specialise in particular crafts. For instance, in areas where the clay was good for making pots, there were many potters. The surplus pots made in one village were sent to a neighbouring village where there may not have been enough pots. Thus trading began with goods being exchanged and transported from one village to another.
But all this was still at a very simple level. The villages consisted of a group of thatched huts surrounded by a fence, with the fields lying outside the fence. Fields were ploughed and were irrigated with water from wells or channels. Barley was widely grown, and later on, wheat and rice were also grown. Hunting was another common occupation, with elephants, buffaloes, antelopes and boars being the objects of the hunt . Bulls and oxen were used for ploughing. The cow held pride of place among the animals because people were dependent on the produce of the cow. In fact,for special guests beef was served as a mark of honour. A man's life was valued as equal to that of a hundred cows. If a man killed another man, he had to give hundred cows to the family of the dead man as a punishment.
The horse is an animal which was not native to India and was brought in by the Aryans from Iran and Central Asia. The horse was used for drawing chariots which were used in battle. Chariot racing was a favourite amusement.
The chariot-maker was a respected member of society. A light, two-wheeled chariot became a symbol of high status and kings in later periods are shown driving a chariot or sitting on an elephant. The horse also became an important religious symbol as is evident from the Ashvamedha sacrifice when a horse was released and the territory over which it roamed was claimed by the king who had released it.
The Aryans, when they settled in various parts of north India, were hostile to the indigenous people whom they referred to as 'Dasas' and 'Dasyus'. The Dasas and Dasyus did not worship the same gods as the Aryans and spoke a language which was different from Vedic Sanskrit. Some Dasa chief were treated with great respect but many of the Dasa people were enslaved so that eventually the word 'dasa' came to mean slave. Thus Dasas who were enslaved had to do the most difficult and lowly work and were not treated kindly. But the Aryans also mixed with the local people and married into local families. The word Arya came to refer to any person who was respected.
The Aryans were also divided amongst themselves into three groups. The most powerful people were the king and his warriors who were called kshatriyas. Equally important were the priests or brahmans, and then came the craftsmen and cultivators or vaishyas. There was in addition a fourth group called the shudras. This consisted of Dasyus and those Aryans who were looked down upon. Thus Aryan society gradually came to be divided into four groups or varnas - kshatriyas, brahmans, vaishyas and shudras and each group had separate occupations and activities in society. To begin with, a boy could choose whatever occupation he wished. Gradually, sons began to do the same work as their fathers. The brahmans began by being equal in importance with the kshatriyas, but slowly, they became so influential that they were given the first position. This they did by making religion very important.
Apart from agriculture, cattle-rearing, fishing, metal work, carpentry and tanning were common occupations in the villages. Metal workers now had a new metal to work with - iron. The use of iron made life easier. Iron, being a hard, tough metal, was better suited than copper or bronze for making tools and weapons.
The use of iron goes back in India to a little before 1000 B.C. It was first used in weapons such as arrow-heads, spear heads, swords and knives. Later people began to make iron axe-heads which were very efficient for clearing heavy forests in the Ganga valley. Eventually the iron tip was added to the ploughshare. This improved agriculture in the heavy soil of the same area.
The priests were kept occupied with performing religious ceremonies, specially the big sacrifices in which the entire tribe took part and which lasted for many days. The priests were also the teachers. Young boys stayed with the priests who taught them how to recite the hymns of the Vedas. There is an amusing description of the pupils in one of the hymns. It says that the pupils repeating the lesson after the teacher sound like frogs croaking before the coming of the rains. The priests were also the doctors in the village. They knew about herbs and plants and when someone fell ill, the priest was called to give medicine to the sick man.
The dress worn by these people was not very different from that of the Harappans. It consisted of two pieces of cloth- the upper cloth and the lower cloth. A garment which reached down to the ankles and a turban to tie around the head were also in use. Ornaments were also used. These were made of gold or other metals and the women wore beads in various fashions. The richer people wore cloth which was embroidered with gold thread.
Chariot-racing was a popular sport as were dancing and music. For music, they used the flute, the lute which resembled the veena, and the drum. But their favourite pastime appears to have been gambling.
They drank a great deal of milk and ate plenty of butter and ghee. Fruits, vegetables, cereals, and meat were eaten in large quantities. They also drank madhu and intoxicating drinks such as 'sura'. There was another very special drink called 'soma' which was drunk only during religious ceremonies, as it was difficult to prepare.
The Aryans worshipped many gods. The forces of nature, such as the sun, the stars, the wind, the moon, the earth, the sky, trees, rivers and mountains, all became gods and goddesses. Dyauspitar was the sky-god. Indra was the god of rain, storm and war; Surya was the sun god. Agni was the god of fire, and Usha was the goddess of dawn. The gods were supposed to have human form; but they were super human beings, who were very powerful and to be feared. It was believed that the gods were generally kind to men and women. But when they were annoyed, their anger was terrible and then they would have to be propitiated. Indra was the favourite god, because he was strong and he could strike down the demons and the enemies of the Aryans.
The Aryans believed that the gods would be pleased by the religious sacrifices conducted by the priests. Great preparations were made for such a sacrifice. Altars were built, and animals were sacrificed to the chanting of hymns by the priests. Grain, cattle and cloth were given to the priests and soma was drunk. The priests prayed to the gods to hear the requests of the people, and the people believed that the gods have heard them and would grant them their wishes. The priests became the messengers between the gods and men, and so were naturally powerful.
But not all the people were satisfied with the religion of sacrifices. They had other questions to ask. They wanted to know how the world was created, who the gods were, who made man, and so on. These philosophers wandered away from the villages into the quietest places of the forest trying to find answers to their questions and to hold discussions amongst themselves. Their ideas were memorised by their pupils, and were later recorded in writing. These we can read today in the Upanishads which are a part of the vedas.