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Early India: The Chalcolithic, Megalithic, Iron Age and Vedic Cultures
A conventional view of the timeline of Indian history would simply shift its themes from the Indus Civilization through the Vedic Culture to the Age of the Mahajanapadas. But, if we consider the time after the decline of the Indus Civilization, covering from c. 2000 BCE to 600 BCE and the space stretching from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat, it is clear that diverse cultures and people who spoke different languages lived in ancient India.
This chapter focuses on the Late Harappan, Chalcolithic, Iron Age and Vedic Cultures and the Aryans, except for the Indus Civilization which was covered in the previous lesson. Essentially, it deals with the history of India from about 3000 BCE, up to the emergence of the Mahajanapadas, with a focus on social and economic changes.
The history of India, after the decline of the Indus Civilization around 1900 BCE, is characterised by the presence of nomadic microlith-using hunter-gatherers and pastoral, semi-sedentary and sedentary agro-pastoral communities of the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Iron Ages and Vedic Cultures. We have two main types of sources for this long span of time (c. 3000 to 600 BCE) in Indian history. One source is the archaeological sites and material culture including pottery, plant remains and metal objects.The other is Vedic literature. There are no written documents for this period, since the Vedic texts were transmitted orally. At this point of time, people had not developed a script in India, except the symbols of the Indus script which are yet to be deciphered. Correlating the archaeological cultures and the information related to various groups of people from the Vedic texts is not an easy task. There are various theories on the identity of the originators of the Indus Civilization, and various other archaeological cultures. We are dealing with diverse cultures and communities with different modes of living in this space-time unit.
The Early Vedic culture is correlated with some of the Chalcolithic cultures of India, while the Later Vedic culture is correlated with the Painted Grey Ware Culture of the Iron Age in North India.
Unlike the age of Indus Civilization, when the urban sites and farming cultures were in a limited area, we notice cultural, agricultural and technological expansion and developments in many parts of India in this period accompanied by the growth of craft production and population. A strong cultural foundation was laid across India during this period, which finally culminated in the Early Historic period. The extensive foundations for the village settlements of India were laid during this period.
The Vedas (Vid = to know, Vidya) are one of the earliest known texts to have been composed in India. The language of the Vedas is described as Vedic Sanskrit. The Vedas are four: Rig is the oldest, and the others being Yajur, Sama and Atharva. The Vedic texts were memorized and orally transmitted by Brahmins from generation to generation. They were written down in the later period, after the introduction of writing. The earliest known written manuscripts of the Vedas date to the 10-11th century CE. They contain information about the polity, society, religion and philosophy, and hence they are a source for writing history.
The main collections of Vedic hymns are called samhitas. The Rig Vedic-samhita is the earliest text. The Rig Veda is dated to between 1500 and 1000 BCE. The Rig Veda contains 10 books. Books 2 to 7 are the earliest and the Books 1, 8, 9 and 10 are assigned to a later period.
Samhitas are ritualistic texts, and they explain the social and religious importance of rituals. Each samhita has added texts called brahmanas, which have commentaries on the hymns and rituals. Each brahmana has an aranyaka (forest text) and an upanishad. The aranyakas contain mystical ritual instructions to be undertaken in secret by the sages who live in the forests. Upanishads deal with philosophical enquiries.
The Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas are dated to a slightly later period. The samhitas of the Sama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas, and the brahmanas, aranyakas and upanishads attached to the Vedas are the Late Vedic texts. The Sama Veda was composed in musical notes which are considered to constitute the basis of Indian music. The Yajur Veda has rituals and hymns. The Atharva Veda contains charms and magical spells.
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