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The Vedic Period in northern India: Part Two: Archaeology


photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer courtesy of

The Vedas are religious (liturgical) texts; precursors to the texts were passed down in an oral tradition from roughly 1500 BCE on.  The texts were first written down in “Vedic” Sanskrit around 500 BCE.  Sanskrit is the ancestor of numerous languages spoken and written in India today, it is still used in some Indian villages, and it is taught in many Indian schools.  It is the language used in Hindu sacred texts and rituals to this day.  Some Buddhist hymns and chants are still spoken in Sanskrit.

The Sanskrit language is known from the beginning of the second millenium, that is 2000 BCE, and was standardized in a treatise on language by an author named Panini (Dakṣiputra Pāṇini) in the mid-first millenium (between 700-400 BCE.)  He is known as the “father of linguistics.”  Controversy about the exact dates for his life continues; he may have lived as late as Alexander the Great (c. 350 BCE) or as early as 700 BCE.  There also is controversy as to the existence of written Sanskrit before his time.

The earliest known examples of written information about Buddhism are in a derivative of Sanskrit called Magadhi Prakrit (as well as some in Greek): the Edicts of Asoka inscribed on stone pillars found all over India.  They are dated to the reign of Asoka, 268-232 BCE, and contain references to Buddhism and certain Buddhist precepts or rules of dharma.

Going back to the origins of Hinduism, Wikipedia says: “Vedism refers to the oldest form of the Vedic religion, brought to India by the Indo-Aryans who migrated around 1500 BCE. Brahmanism refers to the further developed form which took shape at the Ganges basin around ca. 1000 BCE.”  Brahmanism, when mixed with the non-Vedic religious traditions of the Indo-Aryans of the Ganges plain, became Hinduism.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Brahmanism emphasized the rites performed by, and the status of, the Brahman, or priestly, class as well as speculation about Brahman (the Absolute reality) as theorized in the Upanishads.”  The Upanishads were one of the four parts of the Vedas.  The Vedas were: the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda.  Each Veda had four divisions: “the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions), the Aranyakas (text on rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices and symbolic-sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices), and the Upanishads (texts discussing meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge).”

Current archaeology holds that the Indo-Aryans of the Sintashta culture migrated from Central Asia into northern India in the period roughly around 2400-1800 BCE.  This migration is thought to have something to do with the invention of the “war chariot”, a two-wheeled vehicle with an axle in front that yoked two or four horses.  The war chariot utilized a charioteer or driver and could carry passengers or cargo.  It was used as a platform for mobile archery in ancient warfare and for travel.

Indian (nationalist) theory holds that there was no migration and that the Indo-Aryans were indigenous to the Ganges plain.  This theory is not accepted by outside experts.

The Sintashta were a bronze age culture and there is evidence of intensive copper mining and bronze metallurgy at their archaeological sites.  The migration of Sintashta peoples from the area of Kazakhstan may be related to climate change; their lands, already arid, may have become colder and even drier.  Much of what is known about Sintashta culture comes from their extravagant burials with quantities of “grave goods” including bronze weapons and tools.

The Sintashta people traded extensively with Iranian and Mesopotamian cultures; their primary export was copper and its alloy, bronze.  The best known archaeological site is known as Sintashta, in northern Kazakhstan.  At this site, there is evidence of forges where copper ore was smelted and mixed with arsenic to make bronze.  The site originally consisted of roughly fifty buildings surrounded by a palisade and a ditch; it is known as a “fortified metallurgical center.”  Five cemeteries have been found associated with the site; the funerary sacrifices, including horses, bear strong similarities to the rituals described in the Rig Veda.

These people appear to have migrated south and made contact with another group of peoples associated with what is now called the “Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex” located south of the Amu-Darya River and north of the Hindu Kush, roughly in Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan.  These archaeological sites are known for their impressive fortified structures which are identified as palaces or temples (it is unclear exactly what purpose the buildings served.)  The people who lived there practiced irrigated agriculture centered on oases.  Their largest settlement may have held as many as 20,000 people in the era around 2400-2000 BCE.

Continuing south (according to currently accepted archaeology) the Sintashta people, who we can now call Indo-Aryans, wound up in northern India around the plain of the Ganges River.  The root of the word “Aryan” actually means a “member of one’s own group, in contrast to an outsider”– not unlike the “Indians” of the American Southwest who called themselves “the human beings.”  Thus, the term “Aryan” as connoted by racist Western Europeans is something of a self-referent that could be used by any racial group to denote its own people.

These “Indo-Aryans” originally worshipped the god Indra and performed sacrifices called “Yajna” in front of sacred fires.  They called themselves “aryas”, meaning “those who performed noble deeds.”  Their land was called “Aryavarta”, which is in northern India.  The term “Aryas” appears in the Rig Veda and in that document appears to mean “one who sacrifices properly” or one who is pious, as opposed to “aravan” or “not liberal, envious, hostile.”

The religions of India were described by Nehru as collectively called “arya dharma” and include Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.  In Buddhism, the term “arya” refers to one who is noble or a spiritual warrior, and “ārya pudgala” refers to a person who has virtue and has reached a certain level of spiritual awakening.

The denotation of the term “aryan” was altered in popular discourse during the nineteenth century by certain authors who misidentified these Indo-Aryans as coming from northern Germany (or Atlantis) and being blonde and blue-eyed.  This has eventuated in the co-opting of the term by racists and its misuse for white nationalism.  This is off-topic and may be discussed elsewhere– not here.

The peoples of the Western Ganges plain had a type of pottery called “Black and Red Ware” during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, around 1450-1200 BCE.  This type of pottery also was popular in the Eastern Ganges area and Central India, and continued for longer, until it was succeeded by the “Northern Black Polished Ware” type around 700-500 BCE.  Black and Red Ware is not found west of the Indus Valley.

The Indo-Aryan peoples of the Vedas developed a distinctive form of pottery known as “Painted Grey Ware” which is fine, grey pottery painted with geometric patterns in black.  This type of pottery is found in settlements beginning with dates of roughly 1500-700 BCE.  It is associated with small to medium sized villages with primitive moats, domesticated horses, ivory working, and the beginnings of iron metallurgy.  Rice, barley, millet, and wheat were grown, and cattle, pigs, sheep, and horses were domesticated.

Settlements of this time were built with houses made of mud brick or wattle-and-daub (sticky mixtures on top of woven wood frames.)  Larger settlements had paved streets, water channels, embankments, and grain storage buildings.  Carbon dating of painted grey ware seems to set its earliest creation around 2000 BCE.  There appears to have been gradual growth and enlargement of settlements to city-size during the millenium or so that this type of pottery was used on the Ganges Plain.

Copper was first smelted (as far as we know, since there is no written record) in around 5000 BCE.  Smelting bronze from copper and arsenic is first known from 4200 BCE in Asia Minor.  Arsenic is frequently an impurity in copper ore, so this combination would have happened naturally.  Bronze is much harder than copper,   Tin was added to copper first around 2000 BCE; tin is much rarer than other metals, so it was hard to find.  Bronze with tin is even harder than ordinary wrought iron.

Smelting iron requires higher temperatures than copper.  The first evidence of smelted iron is found around 2000 BCE.  Early iron was smelted in a “bloomery” in which the ore is not heated enough to melt the iron but the necessary oxidation-reduction process goes forward with the addition of lime to the ore.  When iron ore is smelted, the iron is reduced by reaction with carbon monoxide (which is formed by incomplete burning of charcoal) and it becomes metallic at 1250 °C (2282 °F or 1523.15 K), nearly 300 degrees below its melting point.  To reach these temperatures, a charcoal fire must be sustained with forced air in a brick-lined kiln (like those used to fire clay for pottery.)

Once the iron has been reduced from ore (which was iron oxide) into the metallic form, it is a light, spongy mass (bloom) which must be hammered (wrought) down into the final product: wrought iron.  Hammering the iron expels the slag (non-iron impurities) and condenses the iron into a hard, ductile mass with a very low carbon content.The first known archaeological evidence of this process comes from Tell Hameh, Jordan, and is carbon-14 dated to 930 BC.   This date does not conform to the asserted beginning of the Iron Age in India, however, and I don’t know why that is.

The principal advantage of iron over copper is that iron ores are much more common than copper ores.  The disadvantage is the higher heat needed to produce wrought iron– copper melts at 1130 C (2066 F), although it can be smelted at a lower temperature (reduced and extracted from ore, not like melting.)  For comparison, a campfire only reaches 600 Celsius (1112 Fahrenheit) while charcoal can reach temperatures of 1100 Celsius or 1260 degrees with forced air.

Making charcoal for smelting was a prime cause of deforestation in ancient and medieval times.  Parenthetically, laws were passed in England in the 16th century to prevent the country from being completely denuded of trees.  For this reason as well as convenience, people switched to using coal for large scale heating and metallurgy even before the Industrial Revolution.

The transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age occurred in northern India during the Vedic period.  This was the period in which the religious rituals of Brahmanism and Hinduism were being codified.  It is not known when these rituals and the liturgical text were committed to writing, but the original written materials were long ago lost to deterioration, decay, or burning.

The oldest known writing is known independently from Egypt, roughly 3250 BCE, Mesopotamia, between 3400 and 3100 BCE, China, about 2000 BCE, and Meso-America around 650 BCE.  Symbols on pottery discovered in Romania are dated to between 4500 and 4000 BCE (known as Vinca symbols), but their significance as writing and authenticity are disputed.

This is part two of a continuing series of posts about ancient India, the roots of Hinduism and Buddhism, and on the ancient world in general.








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