Ancient Indian Culture and Tradition


  • India has a continuous history covering a very long period. Evidence of neolithic habitation dating as far back as 7000 BC has been found in Mehrgarh in Baluchistan. However, the
    first notable civilization flourished in India around 2700 BC in the north western part of the Indian subcontinent, covering a large area. The civilization is referred to as the Harappan civilization. Most of the sites of this civilization developed on the banks of Indus, Ghaggar and its tributaries.
  • Harappan civilization;
    • Urban culture
    • Earliest cities complete with town planning, sanitation, drainage system and broad well-laid roads
    • Bathroom, a kitchen and a well
    • Great Bath, Grannaries and Assembly Halls
    • Agriculture
    • Knowledge of metals and the process of alloying
    • Bronze sculpture ofa dancing girl found in Mohenjodaro
    • Shell, ivory, bone and faience
    • Lothal was a dockyard situated in Dholaka Taluk of Ahmedabad in Gujarat (important centre of sea trade with the western world)
    • Town in Gujarat was Dhaulavira while Kalibangam was inRajasthan
    • Worshippeda male god resembling Lord Shiva of later times and a mother goddess
    • Seals engravedwith animal figures like the humped bull, elephant and rhinocerous
    • ‘Peepal’ has been found depicted on many seals.
    • Knew how to write and most of their seals contain some form of script
    • art of spinning and weaving
    • first people to cultivate cotton

Vedic Culture

  • spread across the Ganga-Yamuna plains
  • Aryan culture
  • settled on the banks of rivers Indus (Sindhu) and Saraswati
  • composed many hymns in honour of the gods and goddesses
  • 04 Vedas – the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda
  • Initially the Vedas were transmitted orally
  • Division of Vedic Period
    • The earlier is represented bythe Rig Veda (Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Puranas)
      • Rig Veda contains about 250 hymns in praise of Indra who is described as a destroyer of cities and there are 200 hymns in praise of God Agni.
    • The later Vedic: Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads.


  • Aryan society was patriarchal, women were treated with dignity and honour. The family was the smallest social unit.
  • Later Vedic period, society was divided into four varnas – Brahamanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras called Varna-Vyavastha.
  • Another important social institution of the time was the system of chaturashrama or the division of life span into four distinct stages i.e.brahmacharya(period of celibacy, education and disciplined life in guru’s ashram), grihastha (a period of family life), vanaprastha (a stage of gradual detachment and sanyasa (a life dedicated to spiritual pursuit away from worldly life).
  • The early Vedic people worshipped forces of nature and personified them as gods and goddesses. Indra, Agni, Varuna, Marut were some of their gods while Usha:Aditi, Prithvi were some of their goddesses.
  • The kings performed Ashvamedha, Rajasuya and Vajapeya sacrifies to establish their position.

Material life and economy

  • The Aryans were primarily pastoral and agricultural people.
  • They domesticated animals like cows, horses, sheeps, goats and dogs.
  • They ate simple food consisting of cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables, milk and various milk products.
  • They drank a beverage called Soma. Games of chess, chariot racing etc. were their modes of entertainment.
  • In the early period there was no money transaction or taxes.
  • Bali or voluntary donation was prevalent. Cows were the measure of wealth.
  • Iron axes enabled them to clear forests leading to the expansion of agriculture throughout the Gangetic plains.
  • Iron tools resulted in varied crafts and technology. Use of iron weapons and horses enabled them to fight wars and defend themselves better against enemies.
  • High quality earthenware called ‘Painted Grey Ware’ and ‘Northern Black Polished Ware’ have been found in many areas. Coins came into circulation.
  • By sixth century BC, there were some sixteen large territorial states in North India and upper Deccan known as Mahajanapadas.
  • Important among them were Anga, Magadha, Kosala, Kashi, Kuru, and Panchala.


  • Ancient India saw the rise of two very important religions, Jainism and Buddhism which left a lasting influence on Indian life and culture.
  • Vedic religion was earlier also known as Brahmanism because the Brahmins played a major role in it. Later it came to be called Hinduism.


  • The founder of Jainism is believed to be Rishabhadeva, the first of the twenty-four tirthankaras and as the last tirthankara Mahavira developed and gave final shape to the Jain doctrines.
  • The Jains lay great emphasis on severe penance and asceticism.
  • Lord Mahavira asked them to take five vows – not to tell lies; not to injure life; not to own property; not to steal; and to maintain chastity (celibacy).
  • He also asked the Jains to follow the three-fold path of Right belief, Right Conduct and Right Knowledge.
  • Later, the Jains were split into two sects the Shvetambaras (white clothed ones) and the Digambaras (the naked ones).
  • Most of followers of Jainism belong to the trading community.


  • Gautama Buddha (563 – 483 BC), a younger contemporary of Mahavira.
  • Taught Four Noble Truths. His path was the middle path.
  • He believed that there is sorrow in this world and that desire is the cause of that sorrow and it can be conquered by following the Eight-Fold Path (ashtangika marga).
  • The eightfold path comprises:
    • Right understanding,
    • Right thought,
    • Right speech,
    • Right action,
    • Right livelihood,
    • Right effort,
    • Right mindfulness
    • Right concentration.
  • Buddhism was also split into two divisions- the Hinayana and the Mahayana to which a third called Vajrayana was added subsequently.

Note: Both of them founded an order of monks, established monasteries called sthanakas in Jainism and viharas in Buddhism.


  • In the first half of sixth century BC, there were a number of small tribal states in north west India.
  • Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, and his successor Darius I annexed parts of Punjab and Sindh.
  • The naval expedition of Skylax probably encouraged trade and commerce between Persia and India. Some ancient Persian gold and silver coins have been found in Punjab.
  • The administrative structure of the Mauryan empire was influenced in some measure by that of the Achaemenid rulers of Persia.
  • It may be mentioned here that the Persian title of satrapa (governor) continued to be used by the Indian provincial governors as kshtrapa for quite a long time.
  • The Persian scribes brought into India a new style of writing. It is called kharoshthi.
  • It was derived from the Aramaic script, which was written from right to left. Many of Asoka’s inscriptions found in north western India are witten in kharoshthi.
  • The Persian influence may also be traced in the preamble of Asokan edicts.
  • The monolithic pillar edicts of Asoka with their bell-shaped capitals are somewhat like the victory pillars of the Achaemenid emperors which have been found in Persepolis.
  • The Persian influence found in Chandragupta Maurya’s court was in the form of the ceremonial hair bath taken by the emperor on his birthday.
  • It was in typical Persian style.


  • The Achaemenid empire was finally destroyed by the Greeks under the leadership of Alexander of Macedon.
  • Alexander’s army refused to march ahead when they heard about the vast army and the strength of the Nandas of Magadha. Alexander had to return. He died at Babylon at the young age of 32 on his way back to Macedon.
  • The influence of Greek art is found in the development of Indian sculpture as well.
  • The combination of the Greek and the Indian style formed the Gandhara School of art.
  • Indians also learnt the art of making well-shaped and beautifully designed gold and silver coins from the Greeks.


  • Conquest of Kalinga
  • Adopted the policy of Dhamma Vijaya that is conquest through dhamma.
  • In his thirteenth major Rock Edict, Asoka states that true conquest is by piety and virtue.
  • In his twelfth major Rock Edict, he states that in honouring of other sects lies the honour of one’s own sect.
  • He asked people to practice ahimsa.
  • He himself gave up the practices of the royal hunt and pleasure tours and instead began Dhamma Yattas tours for the furtherance of Dhamma, By giving his empire a common Dhamma, a common language, and practically one script (Brahmi) he brought further political unification.
  • According to a Buddhist tradition, Asoka sent Buddhist missions to regions such as Sri Lanka and Central Asia.


  • Ashoka is known to have built 84,000 stupas to commemorate various events of Buddha’s life.
  • Ashokan edicts were inscribed on stone pillars that were made of single columns of polished sandstone and had capitals on their top.
  • The best preserved of all Ashokan edicts stands at Lauriya Nandangarh (Bihar).
  • Seated lion capital placed on its top.
  • The bull capital from Rampura is also another fine example of Mauryan
  • The most famous capital is the one at Sarnath, which shows four lions and the Dharmachakra which is the national emblem of the Republic of India.
  • Mauryan figures: Yakshi from Didarganj (appear to be made from one single stone)
  • Rock cut caves: Lomash Rishi (with its impressive entrance) and the Sudama caves. These caves cut from solid rock were provided by Ashoka for non-Buddhist monks.
  • His rock edicts were inscribed in the local language and the local script.


  • Greeks, Shakas, Parthians, and Kushanas status of Kshatriyas and adopted Vaishnavism.
  • Besnagar Pillar incription, Heliodorus (the Greek ambassador of the Indo-Greek king Antialkidas) describes himself as a Bhagavata i.e. worshipper of Vishnu.
  • Coins of Kanishka show figure of Siva
  • Vasudeva-Kushan rulers-vaishnava faith
  • Kanishka’s accession i.e. 78 A.D. marks the beginning of the Saka era.
  • Menander converted to Buddhism.
  • Two Schools of Buddhism:
    • Mahayana or the Great Wheel believed in image worship, rituals and Bodhisattvas, (incarnations of Buddha). Received royal patronage from Kanishka, who convened the fourth Buddhist Council to finalise its teachings.
    • Hinayana or the Small Wheel continued the practices of the earlier Buddhism.

Art and Sculpture

Gandhara school of art

  • Greek and Roman art forms
  • Images of the Buddha from the Kushan period have Apollonian faces, their hair is in the Graeco-Roman style and their draperies arranged in the style of a Roman toga.

Mathura School of Art

  • Images from here of terracotta and red sandstone, which have definite Saka-Kushan influence
  • Famous is the headless statue of Kanishka from Mathura.
  • First to make faces and figures of the Buddha
  • Folklores such as the Jatakas were drawn out in long panels on rock faces
  • Statues of Mahavira

Deccan and South India


  • Satavahanas in Deccan under the Mauryas
  • Capital at Paithan or Pratisthan on the river Godavari.
  • entered into conflict with the foreign satraps, especially the Shakas
  • Gautamiputra and his son Vasishthiputra Satkarni

Kharavela of Kalinga

  • modern Orissa and parts of Northern Andhra
  • Rule: Kharavela
  • Hathigumpha Inscription in a Jain cave at Udaigiri hills would give us a detailed account of his reign

South India

  • South of the river Krishna and Tungabhadra
  • Cholas, Cheras and the Pandyas
  • Sangam literature: Ist century B.C. to the end of 2nd century A.D.
  • Cholas
    • Karikala defeated the combined forces of the Cheras and the Pandays.
    • Canals dug so that water from the river Cauvery could be used for irrigation purposes.
    • follower of the Vedic religion
  • Pandays
    • founded by a woman king.
    • Huge Army
  • Yavanas
    • Greeks, Kushanas, Shakas and Parthians
    • Coins started carrying the images of Indian gods like Vishnu, Ganesha and Mahesha

The Age of Harshvardhana

  • Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese traveller and Bana Bhat, his court poet, have given detailed accounts of Harsha’s reign.
  • built many hospitals and rest houses
  • gave grants to many religions especially Buddhism and Hindu Religion.
  • more inclined towards Buddhism
  • Literary: Nagananda Ratnavali and Priyadarsita.
  • Bana Bhat wrote Harsha’s famous biography, Harshcharita as well as the literary piece Kadambari

Kingdoms of the Deccan and the South

  • Vakatakas
  • Chalukyas of Vatapi and Kalyani.
    • Pulakesin was a powerful ruler of the Chalukya dynasty.
    • Chalukyas kept fighting with the Rashtrakutas (towards the north) and the Pallavas (towards the south).
    • Rule came to an end in 753 A.D. when the Rashtrakutas defeated them
    • Pulakesin II sent an ambassador to king Khusrao II of Persia
    • build temples and cave shrines in the deccan hills
    • Ellora caves were created


  • Gupta period art became more creative and Hindu gods and goddesses also came to be portrayed
  • Gupta coins exhibit the portrait of the king on one side of the coin or an appropriate goddess with her associated symbols on the other side.
  • Many positions of Kings: shooting a tiger or a lion, playing a musical instrument seated on a high-backed couch and the reverse in most cases was Lakshmi and, in some cases, Saraswati
  • Adequate expression in monuments and sculptures.
  • Images of gods were treated as symbols representing attributes associated with the gods
  • God was shown having four or eight arms in each carrying a symbol or an ayudha (weapon) although they were depicted in human forms.
  • Stone, terracotta, and other materials were used
  • Dashavatara temple at Deogarh and the cave temples in Udaigiri hills, Buddha from Sarnath
  • Skilled in bronze. E.g: bronze image of Buddha at Sultanganj (near Bhagalpur in Bihar)
  • Examples of sculptures in caves famous Ellora Caves


  • rock cut caves (Ajanta), Dashavatara temple at Deogarh
  • stone and bricks
  • Kalidasa give us a glimpse of Gupta architecture
  • court-yards, prisons, court-room and sabhagriha
  • Gupta shrines have been discovered in the jungles of Central India, especially in the Bundelkhand region. These include the one at Bhitargaon in Kanpur district


  • Frescoes at the Ajanta caves (Aurangabad) and the one at Bagh caves (near Gwalior)
  • Depict various scenes from the life of the Buddha.
  • human, animal and plant figures have been drawn


  • Pallavas
    • ‘Ratha’ at Mahabalipuram style of temples built by them were fine examples of rock-cut temples.
    • Structural temples like the Kailashanath and Vaikunthperumal temples at Kanchipuram
    • Kailashanath temple is a huge structure with thousands of images and is said to be the “largest single work of art ever undertaken in India”.
    • Set of bas reliefs found at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) which is attributed to the pallava period.
    • Pagodas built at Mahabalipuram go back to the first century AD
    • North Indian temples were built in the Nagara style consisted of the shikaras (spiral roofs), the garbhagriha (sanctum) and the mandap (pillared hall)
    • Temples in the South were built in the Dravida style completed with vimana or shikhara, high walls and the gateway topped by gopuram.
  • Cholas (l0th – 12thcentury AD)
    • democratic institutions for governance at the village level
    • village panchayat called sahha or ur had extensive powers
    • great builders
    • Dravida style of temple architecture
    • Rajarajeshwar or Brihadeshwara temple
    • Sanskrit also became the language of the courts
    • Alvars and the Nayanars, the Vaishnavite and Shaivite saints made lasting contributions to it


  • The Gupta rulers especially provided filling to the Bhagavata Sect of Hinduism.
  • They called them selved Bhagavatas, worshipped Lord Vishnu performed Asvamedha yajnas, gave large donations to brahmanas, and built many temples.
  • by the fourth century AD there came into being a famous Vaishnava work called ‘Shrimadbhagavad-purana’which taught devotion to Lord Krishna.
  • few Gupta kings also were worshippers of Shiva
  • The snakes, the yakshas, and the Gandharvas also continued to be revered.
  • Besides the artistic creations of Ajanta and Ellora, the images of Sarnath Buddha belonging to this time show that Buddhism was also quite popular.
  • Even Jainism commanded some following during the Gupta period.


  • great centre of learning during Harsha’s reign
  • Hiuen Tsang has given a detailed account
  • centre for learning of Mahayana Buddhism
  • Grammar, logic, epistemology and sciences were taught


  • brought to India by Saint Thomas in the first century A.D.
  • The Christian Church has two major divisions-the Roman Catholic church and the Protestant church.

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