From the beginning of the third millennium BC, invaders and colonizers from Central Asia challenged the passes of the Himalayas to settle in the indus valley. Among the cradles of agriculture, these brilliant civilizations of northern India contemporaries of Pharaonic Egypt and Mesopotamian civilization gave birth to two great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Long forgotten, they have been rediscovered thanks to archaeological excavations carried out since 1920.
The Harappan civilization, the first civilization of the Indus
South Asia's first civilization flourished in the floodplain of the Indus River in present-day Pakistan. This region has strong similarities to Mesopotamia - a hot and dry climate, but fertile soil and abundant water. Agriculture did not take long to spread there and, as early as 2600 BC. AD, many villages dotted the plain, some of which had already developed into large towns, even small towns.
It was in the 1920s that archaeologists began excavations in the Indus Valley. Two sites in particular; Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, delivered the first clues to the existence of a highly urbanized civilization, dating back over 4,000 years and easily rivaling its contemporaries in Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley. These two towns and a few others, the extent of which seemed to exceed other populated sites in the region, were arguably royal capitals.
The remains unearthed bear witness to an extremely well organized civilization. Towns and villages were designed according to a checkerboard plan; while social classes and professions were grouped together by neighborhoods. Raised on mud-brick platforms to protect against flooding, urban centers were equipped with sophisticated water and sewage systems.
On the other hand, we have only rare information on this building people. Although stone seals engraved with pictograms have been found, its writing retains all its mystery, and its language remains unknown to us. It was nevertheless established that the inhabitants of the Indus had trade relations with distant countries, both within the subcontinent and along the Persian Gulf, and as far as Mesopotamia.
The Indus civilization is said to have started to decline around 1800 BC. AD A century later, the cities were abandoned. The reasons for this disappearance remain obscure. The hypothesis of an invasion was ruled out, as life in rural areas remained unchanged. On the other hand, it is probable that climatic changes or some other natural disaster played a decisive role in this desertion.
Vedic India and new beliefs
Around 1500 BC. In AD, the Aryas from central Asia migrated to northern India. Originally semi-nomadic and cattle ranchers, they settled down around 1000 BC. in the vast fertile plain of the Ganges - which stretches 3,000 km from west to east, in the north of the subcontinent - to cultivate rice. By this time the Aryas had already acquired the use of iron; probably independently.
The Aryas exercised considerable influence over the history of India. Many of the languages spoken in the country today come from Sanskrit, their idiom. Hinduism, currently the most prevalent religion on the subcontinent, has its origins in their belief. The Vedas, the first Hindu sacred texts, consist of songs recounting the mythical history of Aryan migration and wars, under the aegis of the god Indra.
Hinduism is largely based on the caste system, a social categorization with a hereditary character. He came from the four vamas, or classes, that once ruled Aryan society. At the top of the hierarchy stood the Brahmins, or priests, and the feshatriya, the warriors. Then came the Vaishya - peasants and merchants - and, at a lower level, the shudra, which brought together artisans, laborers and slaves. kings traditionally belonged to the warrior caste, while being invested with important religious functions, including performing the rituals of fertility of the earth.
In 500 BC. By AD, Hinduism had spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. The Brahmins had evolved into a power class, and the questioning of their role encouraged the emergence of new sects, such as Jainism (still widely practiced in India) and Buddhism. The latter was founded by Siddharta Gautama (c. 563-483 BC), whose teachings were disseminated in the plain of the Ganges and its surroundings. However, Buddhism did not become truly popular until the reign of Emperor Ashoka from 268 to 233 BC. J.-C.
The reign of Emperor Ashoka
Ashoka was the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty, inaugurated by his grandfather, Chandragupta, who reigned from 321 to 293 BC. A skilled administrator and accomplished military man, Chandragupta earned a reputation as commanding troops in northwest India during the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of the Indus Valley. Then he seized Magadha, the most influential kingdom in the Ganges plain. At the head of a powerful central government, he built roads, irrigation systems and other public amenities. Chandragupta ended up subduing almost all of northern India. His son, Bindusara, who wielded power from 293 to 268 BC. AD, extended the sphere of Mauritian influence to the Deccan, the central plateau of the country.
Ashoka began her reign with the conquest of Kalinga, in eastern India. However, horrified by the suffering caused by the war, Ashoka converted to Buddhism and placed his life under the banner of non-violence. The new follower informed neighboring heads of state that he would never attack them, gave up the hunt and became a vegetarian.
On Ashoka's orders, the teachings of Buddha were carved on rock faces and stone stelae all over India. He sent missionaries to Ceylon, Indonesia, and Central Asia, where Buddhism enjoyed considerable success, and to Syria, Egypt and Anatolia. Religious tolerance was also one of the precepts advocated by Ashoka. In India, many converted to Buddhism. However, the majority of Indians continued to devote themselves to traditional Hindu worship in peace.
The Mauryan Empire began to decline with the death of Ashoka. In 185 BC. AD, it was divided into several independent states. The latter offered little resistance to the new invaders from Central Asia, the Sakas (related to the Scythians). Then surged the Rushans, who took control of a string of territories to the north. They developed trade with China, Persia and Rome. These newcomers, adopting the language and religion of their subjects, fully assimilated Indian culture. At this time, flourishing ports and independent kingdoms were beginning to emerge in southern India, thanks to the development of maritime trade routes.
- The Forgotten Cities of the Indus: Archeology of PakistanThe Forgotten Cities of the Indus: Archeology of Pakistan. Guimet Museum, 2008.
- India and the invasion of nowhere: The last den of the Aryan myth, by Michel Danino. Les Belles Lettres, October 2006.