An artist's interpreation of an army and calavary, with their animals used in war, waiting in the courtyard as they wait for their king to come from the palace for orders.

Ancient India: Its Historical Development, Innovations, and Legacy

Ancient India (1500 – 500 BCE) had the greatest innovations that are still used today as adapted methods that shape aspects of modern society, from architecture to science

Just like many ancient civilizations, India’s history started in the Prehistoric Age. Traced to 400,000 – 200,000 BCE, the discovery of cave paintings and stone tools show the first signs of human activity.

The details in the paintings give information about this time period, such as what the living conditions were.

How did all of this start?

The great rulers who expanded their kingdoms made what India is today, but there were also leaders who proved incapable of maintaining a kingdom. Religions and their practices were formed, which later transformed ancient Indian society’s structure.

Changes made in the passing times strengthened the greatest empires known in history.

The history of ancient Indian civilizations is just like any other, with great rulers and malicious rulers, battles in wars that came with victories and defeats, social classes creating societal structures, and ancient education setting the foundations for modern education.

Indus Valley Civilization

The ruins of the Indus Valley Civilization, showing the architectural structure is strong after thousands of years.
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The earliest known urban Indian population, near the Indus River, was the Indus Valley Civilization, which started in 3300 BCE and ended in 1300 BCE. Also known as Harappan, the civilization grew in three states.

Early Harappan

Between 3300 and 2600 BCE, early settlers started farming communities and pastoral camps. Among their duties were crop cultivation and domesticating animals.

Within those small communities were effective trade networks that established connections with settlers further away, along with copper working, a form of technological advancement.

In their final years, the communities built large-walled settlements and expanded their trade networks. They increased the integration of regional communities, which led to material culture.

Mature Harappan

From 2600 to 1900 BCE, the early settlers evolved into the Indus Valley Civilization and became widely known as such after its future discovery.

The slow migration of monsoons allowed the villages to further develop. By taming the floods and their tributaries, they obtained an abundance of agriculture that aided in the development of their cities, but farmers depended on monsoons and summer floods without an irrigation system.

Over the years, the communities of Early Harappan became large urban cities.

Further excavations show that the early settlers had their own writing system and the development of social and economic systems.

Late Harappan

Although the Indus Valley Civilization thrives with the natural elements, between 1900 and 1300 BCE, the early settlers slowly declined.

The changes in building structure and methods of production show that another civilization inhabited the land after some time.

However, there’s uncertainty surrounding the reason behind the decline, but there have been plausible theories, such as:

  • The scarcity of natural resources forced settlers to relocate.
  • Aryan invaders attacked and destroyed the city, but there isn’t any evidence of destruction or killing at the site.
  • Floods and other natural disasters were very common.

Vedic Period

A colourful image depicting the Aryan's of Central Asia moving toward the Indus Valley, some riding on horses while some walk carrying their belongings on their backs or on top of their heads.
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Aryans from Central Asia inhabited the land that belonged to the early settlers from 1500 to 500 BCE. They spoke an Indo-European language, an early form of Sanskrit. The Aryans, tribal and nomadic, were tough, fierce, war-like and determined to stay true to their tribal identity.

They started as small communities and brought a religion based on the worship of gods and goddesses.

Also known as the Vedic people, they followed four sacred texts: the Vedas. The Vedas provide a look into their lives and beliefs.

Many Indians soon followed the Vedic people’s beliefs by 1000 BCE. The Aryans saw the formation of various kingdoms at that time. They shared that happiness and salvation come from a person’s morals and ethics by bringing their philosophical beliefs. Additionally, they shared that one’s path should be based on their place in life, but should be right and good.

In sharing their beliefs, they brought a societal caste system:

  1. Brahmins (priests, teachers and intellectuals).
  2. Kshatriyas (warriors, police and administrators).
  3. Vaishyas (farmers, merchants and businesspeople).
  4. Shudras (artisans and workers).

As their tribal settlements spread across India, their civilization grew and flourished in culture and trade. As a result, it created 16 larger settlements across northing India, Anga, Assaka, Avanti, Chedi, Ghandhara, Kamboja, Kosala, Kuru, Machcha, Magadha, Malla, Panchala, Surasena, Vaijji and Vatsa.

The changes in linguistics, culture and politics contributed to the end of an era. However, the Vedic Age led to a complex change in society. With the abundance of agriculture, trade expanded. The written verbal traditions of the Aryans show the Vedic Period as the heart of urban civilization’s rebirth.

In other words, the Vedic Age brought forth Ancient Indian civilization.

Dynasties of Ancient India

An artist's interpretation of the Magadha Empire, showing the vastness of its architecture in Ancient India.
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20 dynasties ruled ancient India. Each made effective contributions to India’s growth and prosperity. The focus will be on those labelled as important in ancient Indian history.

The Mahajanapadas were 16 large states that served as republics and kingdoms during the Vedic period. Kings ruled the majority. Others, known as ganas or sanghas, were oligarchies. In an oligarchy, several men known as rajas shared power.

Magadha, Koshala, Vatsa and Avanti seemed the most powerful. In the battle of supremacy, however, Magadha emerged the most powerful. In addition to being rich in natural resources, iron ores created Magaha’s weapons. Its jungles provided wood and elephants, which proved useful to their armies. Their fields grew enough to feed its people and their entire army.

Magadha became the first empire of India (544 – 322 BCE), with its growth seen through dynasties. First, the Haryanka Dynasty, next, the Shishunga Dynasty, and then, the Nanda Dynasty.

Following the Magadha Empire was the Mauryan Empire. Years later, the Gupta Empire progressed into ancient India’s Golden Age.

The Haryanka Dynasty

Three rulers reigned in the Haryanka Dynasty between 544 and 412 BCE.

Bimbisara, the founder of the Magadha Empire, reigned from 544 to 492 BCE. His kingdom’s boundaries expanded through marriages and conquests.

His first marriage to Kosala Devi, daughter of the Koshlan King, brought a dowry of a Koshi village and calmed hostilities between the two rulers. The second marriage to Chellan, a Lichcchavi princess from Vaishali, gave him a son and secured the northern frontier. His third marriage to Khema, the daughter of a chief of the Madra clan of Punja, secured their alliance.

Bimbisara expanded his territory by conquering Anga and placing his son as vice-royal. Following his continuous conquests and alliances, the Magadha Empire became large enough to hold 80 000 villages.

However, he was killed by his son, Ajatashatru, who later ascended to the throne.

Ajatashatru’s reign lasted between 492 and 460 BCE and, just like his father, he was an aggressive expansionist.

Although allied with Koshala, he wanted to conquer it, along with Kashi. It brought a war between the two rulers. In the end, the war forced the Koshala King to give his daughter to Ajatashatru for peace. Then, the King of Kashi gave his daughter to him.

Udayin succeeded his father, Ajatashatru, from 460 to 444 BCE and played an important role in the junction of the Ganges and Son. During this time, Magadha extended from the Himalayas (north) to Chotanagpur (south).

Just like his grandfather, Udayin’s son killed him and ascended to the throne. The cycle of patricide continued and angered the common people. They lost faith in their leaders and revolted and disposed of the last ruler of the dynasty.

Soon after, they made the most qualified official Shishunga, a viceroy of Kashi, their leader.

The Shishunga Dynasty

The dynasty ruled the Magadha Empire from 412 to 344 BCE.

Shishunga ruled from 413 to 395 BCE. Destroying the power of Avanti became his greatest military achievement that surpassed his predecessors. Therefore, the 100-year rivalry between Avanti and Magadha came to an end and Avanti became part of the Empire.

Kalashoka, Shishunga’s son, succeeded his father from 395 to 344 BCE. He ruled just as his father did and maintained the empire as before. Little is known about his military achievements.

Although he had ten sons, he was the last ruler of the Shishunga Dynasty.

His ten sons divided the kingdom amongst themselves instead of choosing a suitable brother to rule. However, this only weakened the empire in later years and led to a quick downfall.

The Nanda Dynasty

The kings of the Nanda Dynasty were the last to rule the Magadha Empire from 344 to 322 BCE.

The dynasty reached new levels of power and supremacy of the Magadha Empire. It grew in geographical expanse, wealth and military conquests.

Mahapadma Nanda was not only the first ruler of the dynasty but the first non-Kshatriya ruler, from 344 to 319 BCE. After killing Kalashoka and becoming king, he proved to be the most powerful. He extended the empire by conquering Kalinga.

Dhana Nanda, the last ruler of the Nanda Dynasty, succeeded his father from 319 to 322 BCE. The extent of his power proved so great that Alexander the Great did not dare move near his territory. However, his power proved nothing against his unpopularity with his people. His unpopularity is a result of the anti-Kshatriya policy, Shudra origin, oppressive methods of collecting taxes and poor management of his kingdom’s finances.

He proved to be a weak and unable leader.

When there came a threat of possible foreign invasion, the people looked to their king for a plan. His selfishness and arrogance made him belittle those who advised him.

While he lived in denial, Chandragupta Maurya trained with his guru, Chanakya. They worked on a plan to strike the Magadha Empire. Additionally, Alexander the Great’s death left a power vacuum, which Chandragupta took advantage of.

Dhana was thrown off guard by the Mauryan attack and prepared his army for an unanticipated war. Chandragupta led his small army to victory using his knowledge and military expertise.

Overthrowing Dhana Nanda led to the start of Mauryan rule and the end of the Magadha Empire.

The Mauryan Empire

A coloured photograph of teh still standing stupa, in its glory, build by Ashoka in Ancient India.
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The Mauryan Empire, the first Indian imperial empire, started in 321 BCE and ended in 185 BCE. It covered most of the Indian region: across central and northern India, as well as parts of Persia.

Chandragupta, named king in 323 BCE, took additional lands through force and formed alliances.

Chanakya advised and contributed to the empire’s legacy. As well as being a political strategist, he wrote the Arthashastra. This focused on leadership and government, and how a state should organize its economy while maintaining power.

The Empire expanded to all 16 states.

Chanakya recommended a network of spies, a focused element in the Arthashastra. They acted as a surveillance force for the ruler. Their focus on deception reflected their practical and pessimistic view of human nature.

Moreover, the Empire constructed extraordinary temples, libraries, palaces, and a university. Their trade system grew impressively, all while maintaining a strong governmental system and army.

Bindusara succeeded his father around 300 BCE, peacefully maintaining the lands as his father did.

After succeeding his father between 268 and 232 BCE, Ashoka led a bloody battle against the Kingdom of Kalinga. This battle caused him to re-evaluate his commitment to the Empire’s expansion. Therefore, in taking a step towards non-violence, he turned to Buddhism.

His mark in history was the creation of pillars inscribed with his official decress on Buddhism. They promoted non-violence and living in peace with each other.

Unlike Ashoka and his predecessors, his successors failed to hold the Empire. Eventually, it broke apart. The public’s unwillingness to follow Buddhism brought conflict throughout the Mauryan Empire.

The last of the line, Brihadratha, was assassinated by his commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra Shunga. Thus, the Shunga Dynasty rose.

The Gupta Empire

A colour photograph of a lasting temple during the Gupta period in Ancient India.
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From 320 to 550 CE, the Gupta Empire was known for its exquisite art, architecture, sciences, religions and philosophy.

Known as the Golden Age, the Gupta Empire was a period of prosperity and growth. Not much is known of its early years. However, traveling Buddhists were trustworthy sources of information.

During the reign of Sri Gupta (240 – 280 CE), the empire comprised only Magadha and part of Bengal. His son, Ghatotkacha, succeeded him and learned the benefit of maintaining an army.

Chandragupta I

Chandragupta I, son of Ghatotkacha, started with the rapid expansion of the empire. He was the first sovereign ruler and his reign continued from 320 to 335 CE. After marrying the Lichcchavi Princess Dumaradevi, he obtained ownership of mines rich in iron ore. These mines met internal demands and became valuable trade commodities.

Other territorial heads of India surrendered to Chandragupta I and saw him as an unmatched sovereign ruler.


From 335 to 375 CE, Samudragupta ruled as a military genius and continued the empire’s expansion. He conquered the remaining areas of northern India and a portion of southern India.

During his rule, India spanned from the Himalayas (north) to the mouth of the Rivers Krishna and Godavari (south), from Balkh, Afghanistan (west) to the Brahmaputra River (east).

Chandragupta II

After Samudragupta’s reign, there was a short power struggle.

His eldest son, Ramagupta, became the next king, but the Scythian King of Mathura overcame this power. The Scythian King was interested in Ramagupta’s wife and so, to maintain peace, Ramagupta gave his wife, Queen Dhruvadevi, to the king.

Chandragupta II rescued Dhruvadevi and assassinated the Scythian King.

After Dhruvadevi condemned her husband, Chandragupta II killed him and became the next king. He spent his first years putting an end to the rebellions among the subordinate rulers and later married Dhruvadevi.

Chandragupta II was a skilled and able leader and defeated the provincial governor of Saurashtra. This further expanded his kingdom to the coastline of the Arabian Sea. He earned the title Vikramaditya, meaning “Emperor of Ancient India”.

His progress is well-known across history.

In other words, the Gupta Empire reached its pinnacle.

The last sovereign ruler, Skandagupta, reigned from 455 to 467 CE. He managed to stop the Hun invasion of India but, after his death, the dynasty faced domestic conflict.

His successors failed to maintain the large kingdom and brought a decline in law and order.

The Hun and foreign powers attacked them and tarnished the kingdom’s economic well-being. The final attack of the Hun in 550 CE ended what remained of the empire.

Ancient Indian Society

An artist's depiction of a people in Ancient India, going about their daily activities as they were meant to.
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Ancient Indian society was divided into four varnas (societal classes or castes). They gave society order and structure.

At first, it seemed a reflection of the profession, but interpretations show it was determined by one’s birth.

Changes in the caste system weren’t allowed, even marriage outside of one’s own caste was forbidden.

Brahmin in Ancient India

The highest varna focused on the duties of priests, teachers, and intellectuals. Their duties centered around knowledge.

They provided education and spiritual leadership, studied and taught the Vedas, performed and taught sacred rituals, and developed ideal qualities. Among these qualities were honesty, integrity, purity, and austerity.

Along with Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, they’re “twice-born”. In their second birth, they undergo spiritual initiations. They accepted the sacred threat and performed certain rituals and rites of passage.

Kshatriyas in Ancient India

These were warriors, police, and administrators of nobility, the protectors of society.

They displayed the strength of the body and its character and ensured the citizens performed their duties.

Additionally, they dealt uncompromisingly with crime and lawlessness. They conquered their own minds and senses.

Vaishyas in Ancient India

The productive class of farmers, merchants, and businesspeople protected animals, especially cows, and the land.

They created wealth and prosperity and maintained work with food, clothes, etc., and traded ethically.

Shudras in Ancient India

Artisans and workers were the only class allowed to accept employment from others. The three varnas above, however, were occupationally and financially self-sufficient.

They rendered their services to others, followed moral principles, remained loyal, and took pride in their work.

The fifth and lower varna, Chandala, handled jobs in society that no one wanted to do. Also known as “the untouchables”, it’s unclear if they were truly mentioned in the caste system.

Ancient Indian Literature

A photograph of one of the recovered Veds, the words in Sanskrit written on parchment. The copy is worn out but still readable..
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The Vedas

The Rig Veda is the earliest known work of ancient India. It contains 1028 hymns in Vedic Sanskrit.

Most of the surviving works are religious texts, but attention is placed on everything linked to “literature”. This includes epics and lyrics, dramatic and didactic poetry, narrative and scientific prose, and verbal poetry and songs.

Yajur Veda holds the directions for performances of the rituals.

Sama Veda prescribed tunes for the recitation of the hymns.

Athora Veda describes rites and rituals.

Ancient Indian Philosophical Literature

Brahmanas gave detailed explanations of Vedic literature.

Aryankas explains the rituals and goes into a philosophical discussion of the Brahmanas. It holds records of transitions between the Brahamans’ ritualistic symbolism and the Upanishads’ philosophical aspects.

Upanishads focus on the concepts of the origin of the universe, birth, death, and the material and spiritual worlds. These were expressions of philosophical concepts written in poetry or prose.

The Puranas aided in the development of the early Vedic religion of Hinduism. Meaning “to renew the old”, they explain philosophical and religious truths through legends and mythical stories.

Shastras contain works of philosophy and science. It covers art, mathematics, and other sciences. For example, Arthashastra is the science of governance.

Smritis focuses on the performance of duties, customs, and laws according to Dharma.

In early Buddhist literature, Suta Pitaka includes dialogues between Buddha and his followers. Vinaya Pitaka holds the rules of organization of the monasteries.

The Great Epics

Among the great epics are the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

They hold the memory of Ancient Indians. Until the 2nd century BCE, they were either sung or told by storytellers before finally being written.

The Ramayan contained 2400 verses in seven books, the Khandos. It tells the story of Rama and how to achieve the four objectives of human life in poetry form:

  1. Dharma – righteous behavior or religion.

  2. Artha – achievement of worldly wealth and prosperity.

  3. Kama – the fulfillment of desires.

  4. Maliska – ultimate liberation.

Mahabharata contained 100,000 verses in ten books, making it the longest poem in the world. Although considered mystical history, it mentions events that will always happen and repeat.

Art and Architecture Of Ancient India

Intricate temple architecture is seen in the colour photograph, showing the art and ingenuity that went to building temples in Ancient India.The temple remains standing, with only rubble from the blocks of the pathway scattered.
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Ancient Indian Architecture

Evidence of planned cities in Harappan indicates highly developed architecture.

During the Vedic Period, fire altars and mathematical and astronomical significance played a part in the evolution of temple architecture.

The development of rock cut-out caves followed and evolved to suit social and religious contexts and differences.

Originally, Buddhism led to the spread of temples, which were later adopted into Hinduism.

Ancient Indian Art

Cave paintings that date to the Prehistoric Age depict different events of the time.

Paintings and cultures evolved and transformed folk and tribal traditions. They represented people who belonged to different cultural and social groups of Ancient India. It shows how their lives were in sync with nature and connected with natural energy.

Through years of study, their art shows open-mindedness in their portrayal of myths, legends, and gods from dreams and fantasies.

Mathematics and Science in Ancient India

The steps showing how the Brahmic number system evolved into the modern-day number systems in Arabic, English, and Indian.
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Findings show a solid link between science and religion.

In astronomy, planets were considered gods, which resulted in close observation of their movements. This was also due to their connection to changes in seasons and weather.

In the science of grammar and linguistics, Brahamans stressed that Vedic prayers and mantras must be recited with preciseness and accuracy.

Around the 3rd century BCE, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine developed differently.

Ancient Indian mathematics made three contributions to modern mathematics: the notion system, the decimal system, and the use of zero. The introduction of zero led to a higher level of study in mathematical mechanics.

Above all, Brahmic numbers served as the foundations of modern Indian or Hindu and Arabic number systems used today.

The Legacy of Ancient India

A colour photograph of a inside of a temple, the middle shrine surrounded by green, murky water, while the remaining architecture stands as it was built in Ancient India.
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Hinduism and Buddhism are two of the world’s most followed religions. The culture and religion of Ancient India influenced the world. The religions gained followers and the philosophical practices influenced many.

Indian literature, architecture, and art shaped cultures and influenced their respective modern fields.

Proving the legacy of ancient practices, it welcomes any who chooses to follow the steps to self-realization.

Events occurring years after Ancient India’s decline prove it is a living legacy. Mohandas Gandhi used non-violence against British rule in the 1900s. An inspired Martin Luther King Jr. led non-violent protests to gain rights for African – Americans in the 50s and 60s. In northwestern India, the styles of Greek and Persian combined with Ancient Indian to create Gandhara culture.

The practices bring self-reflection to the individual, which includes some of the most powerful people in the world, who continue growth and self-awareness.

“To keep your mind and nature free from impurities, build a hut in your backyard for critics and keep it closed.”


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