Category Archives: A. The History of India

The Rashtrakuta Dynasty

The Rashtrakuta dynasty ruled over large portions of India from the 8th to 12th century. India at the time was under the threat of invasion from the Arabs, who conquered Sind in 712 (Thapar 2002:407) and were looking to expand to the west and control trade routes in the region. A royal family called the Calukyas controlled this territory and successfully resisted Arab attacks. This significantly weakened their power though. Seeing an opportunity an official in the Calukyas’ administration named Dantidurga declared his independence in 753 (Thapar 2002:334). The dynasty that he and his family formed the core of was called the Rashtrakuta, with their capital based in Ellora. After Dantidurga came Krsna 1, who was responsible for starting construction of Kailasa temple at Ellora in the late 8th century (Majunder 244). This rock-temple was entirely out of a hillside to represent Mt. Kailasa, which is a mountain in the Himalayas said to be the home of Vishnu. The physical dimensions of Kailasa are staggering. It is estimated to be 109 feet wide and 164 feet deep with over 200 000 tons of rock excavated in its creation (Smith 38).

Kailasanatha rock-hewn temple (Rashtrakuta Dynasty), Ellora

This dynasty had the advantage of geographically situated nearly in the middle of India along the top of the Deccan Plateau (Robb 57). This position afforded many opportunities for expansion. The Rashtrakutas took advantage of this and frequently interfered with both the northern and southern kingdoms of India. The northern kingdoms were particularly easy to prey on, as there was no one powerful enough to effectively repel the Rashtrakutas.

The Rashtrakutas also controlled large portions of the western coast of India. The majority of the trade with West Asia came through these ports and much of the Rashtrakutas wealth along with it. Tea and cotton textiles were exported out of the kingdom and horses were imported to be sold further inland (Thapar 2002:408). The Rashtrakutas under Amoghavarsha also maintained good relations with the Arabs in Sind and traded extensively with them. Amoghavarsha was one of the longest-reigning kings in India (ruled from 815-877) and also one of the most powerful. His power was so great he was acknowledged as one of the greatest monarchs in the world along with the Caliph of Baghdad, Emperor of China, and the Emperor of Rome (Smith 216). He was favorable to the Jain religion, and may have been partially responsible for its rise in popularity, along with the decline in Buddhism (Robb 52).

A major focus of the Rashtrakuta dynasty was the control of Kanauj. This northern city was a hub of trade routes heading both east and south. It has been viewed as a symbol of power in northern India since the post-Gupta period (Thapar 1966:406). The Rashtrakuta, Pratihara, and Pala were all kingdoms focused on controlling this city, with the Rashtrakutas doing so on two occasions. One of these conquests came in 916 when Indra III captured the capital from Mahipala. Indra III was unable to control the city for long however (Smith 204).

By the end of the 10th century the geographical advantages the Rashtrakutas had enjoyed turned to disadvantages, as new powers in the north and south emerged as threats. In the south Deccan the Colas were becoming the dominant kingdom in the area (Thapar 1966:364). The Calukya dynasty, whom the Rashtrakutas had originally overthrown, was regaining much of their former power and territory. With this new threat in the south the Rashtrakutas were unable to keep the Colas from regaining their northern territories. Along with the threat of these two kingdoms was the rise of the Shilaharas in the north-western Decca. They took over much of the western coast and port cities of Western India. This power was so absolute that the Shilaharas gave themselves the title of “Lords of the West” (Thapar 2002:369) in reference to their control over trade in the region. In the end the Rashtrakuta’s dynasty came full circle and was overthrown by the Calukyas that Dantidurga had claimed independence from hundreds of years ago.

References and Recommended Further Reading

Datta, Kalinkar,. Majunder, R.C,.and Raychaudhuri, H.C. (1967) An Advanced History of India. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Smith, G.E. Kidder (1990) Looking at Architecture. New York: Harry Abrams

Thapar, Romila (1996) A History of India Vol 1. Baltimore: Penguin Books

Thapar, Romila(2002) Early India: From Origins to AD 1300. Berkley: University of California Press

Vincent, Smith (1981) The Oxford History of India 4th Edition. Delhi: Oxford University Press

Wolpert, Stanley (1997) A New History of India 5th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press

Related Topics


Arabs in India


Trade Routes

Deccan Plateau



Calukya Dynasty

Pala Dynasty

Pratihara Dynasty

Related Websites

Written by Scott Wong (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

King Harsa

King Harsa also known as Harsa Vardhan was born in 590 CE and was an Indian emperor who ruled Northern India over the span of fifty seven years. He was born the second son to Prabhakar Vardhan. His elder brother, Rajya Vardhan, was the king of Thanesar and his younger sister was named Rajya Sri (Panikkar 10). He was born into a royal family classified as the Rajput clan. At the height of his power he managed to build an empire that rivaled the empire of the Guptas (Kulke & Rothermund 109). At the end of his reign Harsa’s kingdom included the Punjab, Bengal and Orissa and stretched from the Himalayas to the banks of the Narmada River (Kulke et al. 109). After the collapse of the Gupta Empire near the beginning of the sixth century C.E., a new imperial dynasty was not established in North India but small republics and small monarchical states sprung up instead (Panikkar 2). His reign seemed to mark a transition from the ancient to the medieval period, when decentralized regional empires continually struggled for hegemony (Kulke et al., 109). Harsa united the small republics from Punjab to Central India, and they, at an assembly, crowned Harsa king in April 606 AD when he was merely 16 years old.

Of all the ancient Indian kings, King Harsa of Kanauj who ruled from 606 to 647 is the most documented in history (Lorenzen 212). This documentation about the life and times of king Harsa is thanks in large part to Bana, a poet and great Sanskrit writer, who wrote the famous biography, Harshacharita, and also, the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who wrote about India during Harsa’s reign (Kulke et at. 110).

Prabhakar Vardhan became ill and died while Harsa’s brother, Rajya Vardhan was in battle. Prabhakar’s queen, Yasovati, wished to die on the funeral pyre of her husband and Harsa took over the administration of the kingdom until his brother returned (Panikkar 12). Rajya Vardhan returned victorious only to find that he must fight another battle. Rajya Sri, the sister of Rajya Vardhan and Harsa, was married to Grahavarman or Graha Varman. The king, Graha Varman Mukhari, had been overthrown and viciously murdered by King Deva Gupta of Malwa. After killing the king of Mukhari, the king of Malwa threw Rajya Sri into prison (Panikkar 17). Harsa’s brother, Rajya Vardhan, then the king of Thanesar, was enraged by this assault on his family. He launched a military attack on the Malwa king and won the battle. However, Sasanka, king of Gauda in Bengal, who was really in secret alliance with the Malwa king, enticed Rajya Vardhan by false civilities and then treacherously murdered him (Panikkar 18).

Upon the murder Harsa’s brother, Rajya Vardhan, Harsa was immediately declared king and took the throne at the young age of 16. However, it is documented by Bana and Xuanzang that at first Harsa was hesitant to take the throne but after some persuasion he did accept the Crown (Panikkar, 14).Despite Harsa’s age when he came to power, he proved himself to be a powerful yet gracious king. After his appointment as king, Harsa joined the kingdom of Thanesar with the kingdom of Kanauj and moved the capital from Thanesar to Kanauj (Schmidt 28).

After learning about the murder of his brother, Harsa was determined to wage war on the double-crossing king of Gauda and killed King Deva Gupta of Malwa in battle (Sen 253). Harsa defeated Sasanka, the ruler of Bengal, but was unable to kill him. Harsa allowed the king of Gauda, Sasanka, to rule his state as a vassal initially; however, Sasanka revolted but it was only the death of Sasanka that resulted in his land being shared between Harsa and his friend Bhaskara (Panikkar 17). After receiving half of Sasanka’s land, Harsa now had the whole of Northern India under his rule. However, the whole of Northern India did not satisfy Harsa (Panikkar 22).

Harsa led an army into the Deccan and Southern India pursuing his ambition of extending his power but he was stopped by Pulakeshi II, the Chalukya king of Vatapi in Northern Karnataka (Panikkar 22). Pulakeshi defeated Harsa’s army on the banks of the river Narmada in 636 AD. This battle was the most impressive demonstration of maneuvers utilizing elephant warfare because both Harsa and Pulakeshi had huge elephant corps at their disposal (Sen 256). A truce was established and Harsa decided to retreat back to Kanauj. The end result was that the river Narmada was marked as the southern boundary of Harsa’s kingdom. He brought Bengal, Bihar and Orissa under his control. His last military campaign resulted in the successful conquer of Dhruva Sena and Ganjam, a part of the modern Orissa state (Schmidt 28). After this monumental achievement Harsa stopped fighting and engaged in a more peaceful lifestyle.

It was during this time that Harsa’s faith shifted from Hinduism to Buddhism. Harsa was an open minded ruler and supported many faiths including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. “The generous vagueness of Hindu religion allowed room for every sort of opinion and hence dogmatic intolerance and sectarian persecution never very much disgraced Hindu history” (Panikkar 34-35). Harsa’s ancestors including his father, Prabhakar worshipped Aditya and other Hindu deities. In his earlier days Harsa was a devout worshipper of Siva (Sen 259). However, according to Bana, in his later years Harsa himself was a Buddhist. Although he followed Buddhism Harsa never gave up his Hindu faith (Panikkar 35). The Buddhists rank Harsa as one of the great Buddhist rulers of India. “The high standard of classical Sanskrit culture at his court and the generous patronage bestowed on Hindu and Buddhist religious institutions alike seemed to show that the glory of the Gupta age had been revived once more” (Kulke et al. 109-110).

Harsa was reportedly a very charitable king. It seems that Harsa donated the accrued wealth of his kingdom every four years to his subjects as well as making numerous endowments to the University of Nalanda (Panikkar 35). All of the charitable donations made by king Harsa to the University of Nalanda lead to the erection of a huge wall that surrounded the entire university campus in order to create a defense against possible attacks. Harsa also built a large number of temples, monasteries, and other houses of religious worship (Panikkar 36). According to the Chinese Pilgrim Xuanzang Harsa also built numerous stupas in the name of Buddha.

In 641, following Xuanzang’s visit, Harsa was at the height of his political power and sent a mission to China which established the first diplomatic relations between China and India (Sen 261. The Chinese reciprocated by sending a diplomatic representative of their own whose trip is written about in inscriptions at modern Rajgir. These were the first of a total of six missions exchanged, three from each side, over the course of eight years (Sen 261).

“Harsa had a literary and artistic talent and was also a patron of learning” (Sen 260). He created three Sanskrit dramas, Nagananda, Ratnavali and Priyadarsika as well as a grammar and some poetry. Nagananda was a Buddhist drama. Ratnavali and Priyadarsika are plays that are illustrative of the court life of the time in which the blessings of Siva, Visnu and Indra are called upon (Sen 260). They are classed among minor classics of India. Harsa also had a great respect for other scholars and men of great intellect, so much so that he spent a quarter of the revenues from his kingdom on rewarding these men (Sen 261).

Harsa died in the year 647 after ruling Northern India for 57 years. Harsa is thought to have been unmarried and after Harsa’s death, not having any heirs, his empire died with him. The large kingdom very quickly broke up into smaller kingdoms. The years after Harsa’s death are very blurry in the history books, but it marks the conclusion of a period that began with fall of the great Gupta Empire.


Kulke, Hermann & Rothermund, Dietmar (1986) History of India Fourth Edition. London: Croom Helm.

Lorenzen, David N. (1993) History and historiography of the age of Harsha. The Journal of the American Oriental Society, xiv-212.

Panikkar, Kavalam M. (1922) Sri Harsha of Kanauj: A Monograph on the History of India in the First Half of the 7th Century A.D. Bombay: Messrs. D.B. Taraporevala Sons & Co.

Schmidt, Karl J. (1995) An Atlas and Survey of South Asian History. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Sen, Sailendra N. (1999) Ancient Indian History and Civilization. New Delhi: New Age International.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Rajya Vardhan

Rajya Sri





Graha Varman


Deva Gupta






Dhruva Sena






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Stacey Platt (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Emperor Asoka

Emperor Asoka is regarded as one of the greatest rulers in India’s history. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, ruled India for twenty-four years. It is reported that Chandragupta ascended the throne in 322 B.C. at the capital of Pataliputra by murdering the Nanda king and proclaiming the beginning of the Maurya dynasty (Smith 13). The entirety of his reign was defined by opulence and totalitarianism. Bindusara Amitraghata, Chandragupta’s son, took over the empire after Chandragupta died or abdicated and presumably began his reign in either 301 or 298 B.C, and ruled for twenty-five or twenty-eight years according to different authorities (Smith 18). He conquered much of southern India during his reign and then passed on the empire to his son Asoka-vardhana, also called Asoka, who became the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty.

Legends claim that Bindusara initially disliked Asoka as a young man due to his unattractive physical appearance. Soon after though, Asoka’s other qualities impressed Bindusara, who then appointed Asoka as a prince (Thapar 21). Asoka ascended the throne at Pataliputra in 273 B.C. It is acknowledged that his coronation was delayed for four years until 269 B.C.; the cause of the delay is still debated between scholars as some believe it to be due to an unclear succession that involved much violence, while others believe that such a struggle was not likely required to solidify the succession to such a well established throne in such a resolutely united empire (Smith 20). The events surrounding Asoka’s death are still unknown as there are no monuments to mark the location of his remains. Both the Hindu Puranas and the chronicles of Ceylon assign Asoka’s reign to be forty to forty-one years long beginning with his accession in 273 B.C. to his death at around 232 B.C (Smith 68).

Tradition states that in Asoka’s early years he followed the Brahman religion, with special adherence to Siva, and it is assumed that he led the life of a Hindu raja (king) (Smith 23). The Buddhist monks who attempted to chronicle Asoka’s reign tried to assert the emperor as a cruel monster before he converted to Buddhism. These claims, however, have no historical value and are treated as stories designed to lead the reader to think Asoka’s transformation was much greater than it actually was (Smith 23). There are no records of Asoka waging war on anyone during his early years as ruler. The first major documented event in Asoka’s reign was his bloody victory over the Kingdom of the Three Kalingas in 261 B.C. (Smith 24). Due to the horrific nature of the battle with the Kalingas, Asoka was given the name Asoka the Wicked or Asoka the Fierce. Later on he is called Asoka the Pious or Asoka the Righteous after he renounces his violent war-like conduct for a more dharmic approach to kingship. Despite his victory in the war with the Kalingas, Asoka felt great remorse for the death and suffering his actions had caused (Smith 24). As a result, there has been no reason to believe that Asoka instigated an aggressive war ever again. Asoka began to devote his life to dharma and never permitted himself to be tempted to wage unprovoked war again (Smith 26). To live a life devoted to dharma is to live righteously and moral­ly, with particular regard to religious teachings and law.

It has been determined that Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism occurred around 261-260 B.C., and that he did not always rule exactly the way a theoretical Buddhist king should. According to the Sanskrit text Asokavadana, Asoka was still very interested in maintaining his rule in the empire and had no scruples about punishing or disposing of those who opposed him in any way (Strong 43). Consequently, he is rarely referred to as a cakravartin, an ideal Buddhist king, but rather is called a balacakravartin, an armed Buddhist king who must “use or threaten physical force to become ruler of his cosmos” (Strong 50). It is widely accepted that Asoka protected, propagated and loved the teaching of dharma, which he often called the Law of Piety. The Hindu interpretation of dharma differs from Asoka’s Buddhist interpretation in the way that Hindus upheld the caste system and believed that each caste had its own dharma, whereas Asoka dropped the caste system and also placed respect for the sanctity of animal life and reverence towards elders in much higher regard than Hindu tradition (Smith 29-30). About four years after Asoka became an upasaka (a lay Buddhist), he progressed so much in his spiritual journey that he became a bhiksu (a Buddhist monk). Scholars believe “that Asoka was both monk and monarch at the same time” based on the clear testimony of the rock edicts he issued in 257 B.C. (Smith 35). It is possible, according to scripture on Buddhist ordination (upasampada), that he lived as a monk temporarily because ordination does not require lifelong vows, and therefore Asoka could have resumed a civil life after any period of time (Smith 38). Asoka’s devotion to the teachings of dharma prompted him to use his enormous imperial power to organize “the most comprehensive scheme of religious missionary enterprise recorded in the history of the world” (Smith 46). Asoka’s efforts resulted in spreading Buddhism as a dominant religion throughout India and other countries in Asia. It is important to realize that when one applies Asoka’s policy of religious tolerance and acceptance to the modern connotation of the word tolerance that in his time there were no truly diverse religions in India. In other words, the only organized religions were Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism while Jesus and Zarathustra were figures still unknown to the emperor (Smith 61).

Asoka Pillar
Asoka Pillar (Lumbini, Buddha’s Birthplace)

Asoka is most well-known for is the creation of his vast number of stupas, monuments, pillars and rock edicts. The numerous inscriptions found on these various objects were mostly recorded by Asoka and provide the leading authentic history of events during his reign (Smith 20). There exists an exaggerated legend that Asoka erected eighty-four thousand stupas, a memorial mound containing relics of important persons, within the span of three years (Smith 107). The actual number of stupas is much smaller. The most important inscriptions made during Asoka’s reign were those found on the Major and Minor Rock Edicts and the Pillar Edicts; these inscriptions defined Asoka’s policy of Dharma (Thapar 2). The dharma ethics in these edicts are Buddhist rather than Brahmanical (Smith 30). There are fourteen major rock edicts located at Kalsi, Mansehra, Shahbazgarhi, Girnar, Sopara, Yerragudi, Dhauli and Jaugada; and various other minor rock edicts located throughout the country (Thapar 5). Asoka particularly enjoyed erecting large numbers of monolithic pillars, both inscribed and uninscribed, throughout his empire (Smith 116-117). Seven major pillars exist at Allahabad, Delhi-Topra, Delhi-Meerut, Lauriya-Araraja, Lauriya-Nandangarh and Rampurva (Thapar 5). It is because of the tales inscribed on the rock edicts that scholars have been able to authentically document the earliest events in Asoka’s reign, the conquest of the Kalingas, for example, and many more of the major events that occurred during his rule (Smith 24). The third and fourth major rock edicts describe the years 257 and 256 B.C.E. as the period of Asoka’s great advance in his spiritual development and religious policy (Smith 52). The final depictions that scholars have of the historical Asoka are found on the Minor Pillar Edicts, which describe “him as the watchful guardian of the unity and discipline of the Church which he loved” (Smith 67).

There is a great deal of evidence of various types available on the history of the Mauryan dynasty, particularly on Asoka’s life and reign during that period (Thapar 11). To consider all of the legends of Asoka would be an overwhelming task for this article, as there are stories about him in many different languages from many different sources (Strong 16). Some of these sources include texts such as the Asokavadana, the Divyavadana, the Mahavamsa and the Dipavamsa, the Asokasutra, the Kunalasutra, and the Puranas. The Asokavadana is a Sanskrit text which starts with details of the life of the elder Upagupta, a Buddhist monk who later plays a major role in Asoka’s career as ruler (Strong 16). The text then goes on to tell the entire Buddhist legend of Asoka’s life and his path to becoming a dharmic king. The legend includes several variations of how Asoka was introduced to Buddhism and how he spent his last years (Thapar 35 & 192). The efforts of many scholars to establish an accurate chronology of Asoka’s reign has resulted in the conclusion that the Asokavadana itself does not explicitly date events during Asoka’s life (Strong 12). The Asokavadana is said to be part of the Divyavadana, a voluminous Sanskrit anthology of Buddhist legends: some Chinese translations of the Asokavadana claim it is a separate, independent work of the Divyavadana (Strong 16). The Kunalasutra is another text that contains the same legends found in the Asokavadana but sheds a different light on these legends (Thapar 192). Kunalasutra’s authors did not compose the text to shape Asoka’s character in a particular way, but to document the legends as they were in local tradition (Thapar 193). The Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa are Ceylon chronicles that describe in great detail the part Asoka played in expanding Buddhism in India, particularly to Ceylon (Thapar 8). It is important to note that many of the legends of Asoka written in Buddhist texts were written by Buddhist monks and therefore depict Asoka from an orthodox Buddhist standpoint.


Barua, B.M. (1968) Asoka and His Inscriptions. 2 vols. Calcutta: New Age Publishers.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1975) A History of Indian Philosophy. 5 vols. Delhi: The University Press.

Davids, T.W. Rhys (1907) “Asoka and the Buddha Relics.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,pp. 397-410.

Drekmeier, Charles (1962) Kingship and Community in Early India. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Eggermont, P.H.L. (1956) The Chronology of the Reign of Asoka Moriya. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Gokhale, B. G. (1966) Asoka Maurya. New York: Twayne Publishers.

­________ (1949) Buddhism and Asoka. Baroda: Padmaja Publications.

MacPhail, James M. (n.d.) Asoka. London: Oxford University Press.

Monier-Williams, Monier (1964) Buddhism in its Connexion with Brahmanism and Hinduism. Delhi: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.

Mookerji, Radhakumud (1972) Asoka. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Nikam, N. A., McKeon, Richard, ed and tr (1959) The Edicts of Asoka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Vincent A. (1997) Asoka: the Buddhist Emperor of India. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Strong, John S. (1983) The Legend of King Asoka. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thapar, Romila (1997) Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Chandragupta Maurya

Bindusara Amitraghata

Maurya Dynasty

The Buddha

Guatama (Historical) Buddha

The Rock Edicts

The Puranas






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Megan Hilton (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Gupta Dynasty

Ancient India experienced prolific cultural and political advancement under the reign of the imperial Guptas. The Guptas carried the torch of classicism and it was under their reign that early India saw significant advancements in mathematics, art, architecture and drama (Saunders 106). These progressions are attributable to strong leadership by the great rulers of the Gupta Empire as well as advantageous connections through marriage and the practice of relatively peaceful external relations (Avari 156). The relatively blissful condition in which the Guptas reigned is portrayed well by Fa Hian, a Chinese pilgrim who had the opportunity to witness the Guptan civilization under Chandragupta II. Fa Hian, praised the lifestyle of the Guptas who “ruled without corporal punishment… [and] abstain from taking life or drinking wine…” (Saunders 105).

The empire, originating from a relatively small land plot in the “western Ganga plains” (Avari 155) grew quickly and eventually encompassed the majority of continental India. The vast expansion of Guptan territory is connected to the conquests and acquisitions of the great Guptan emperors. The first of these distinguished rulers was Chandragupta I, who would be succeeded by two emperors that would successfully transform continental India. Samudragupta was a leader of great power and influence and it is under him that the Guptas vastly expanded their territory. He swelled their lands by subduing much of Bengal and by obtaining some influence “as far west as the Indus river, and over most of central and eastern India, as far south as Kanchi.” (Robb 39). Samudragupta was a skilled tactician on the battlefield, according to writings inscribed on an Ashokan pillar; Samadragupta was responsible for the submission or defeat of over a dozen ancient Indian kings (Avari 157). Like most monarchs, Samadragupta was a well rounded intellectual and scholar. His son, Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya) would reign until 415 C.E. and would also expand Gupta territory significantly through marriage as well as military conquest (Avari 158). His great military campaign would be against the Shakas of western India, who he would eventually subdue (Robb 39). Ancient Gupta coins exemplify the importance of the ksatriyas (warrior) expansionist type mindset. Coins dating from the reign of Chandragupta II depict the king, armed with a bow combating a lion (Emeneau 86).

The Gupta dynasty expanded its territory through a policy of militarism but within its own borders, the Guptas displayed an enlightened sense of the arts and political structure. Literature flourished under the Gupta dynasty, many works were written in Sanskrit and it is believed that the Guptas played a significant role in legitimizing the language. Like his father, Chandragupta II was a well rounded scholar and had a definite affinity for the arts. Chandragupta II encircled himself with poets and intellectuals (Avari 171). The Shakuntala is one of the most notable pieces of literature to come out of the Gupta dynasty. It is a play that tells a story of romance between Shakuntala and King Dushyanta (Avari 171).

Politically, the Guptas moved towards a system of medieval feudalism. Although the Gupta emperors were considered to be all powerful they did not rule by a system of absolutism, but were governed by a policy of rajadharma (royal dharma). Which basically prescribes that royalty be governed by “fundamental ethical considerations” (Derrett 606). The policy did not promise protection and justice but that the “king should rule his subjects (including of course, the brahmins) in such a manner as to give general satisfaction…” (Derrett 606) Essentially, the Gupta emperors ruled with a political hierarchy in which conquered kings could be spared and could continue to rule their respective kingdoms within Gupta territory as long as wealth was shared (Avari 159). Bureaucracy was kept basic and the Guptas ruled lightly, allowing for the highest degree of cooperation between the various differing and newly annexed or conquered Gupta communities.

The Guptas were generous with land. The distribution of land plots throughout their domain allowed them to maintain a continued sense of order over their large territories. Grants entitling members of the society to land were not uncommon and were most often given to men that belonged to the priestly class (brahman). The Puranas uncover some evidence as to why land was so commonly distributed to the brahman. According to the sacred text, land could be contributed as a way to obtain a certain level of religious merit (Avari 164). Land could also be bestowed upon crown officers, military generals or skilled craft workers (Avari 163). As opposed to the reasoning behind the donation of land to the priestly class, the giving of land to the other castes can be explained by way of payment, as international trade between Rome and the Levant was diminishing (Avari164).

Although the Guptas were in many ways ahead of their time with respect to social order and government they continued to follow a somewhat rigid order of caste. The Chandalas (outcastes) were prosecuted, as they are to some extent in modern India. Members of the lowest caste were required to live outside of population centers. When entering a town, they were obliged to make their presence known by creating audible noises with two pieces of wood, warning people belonging to more distinguished castes of their coming (Smith 171). This being said, there is some evidence that points towards a certain degree of caste mobility under the Guptas. Land grants allowed groups that were largely outside the realm of caste to be included within it (Avari 166). There was also some evidence that pointed towards the reduction of the connection between caste and occupation as lower castes were in some cases able to perform the duties of the upper castes (Avari 167).

The great Gupta Empire can be compared with the other great civilizations of history. This classical age saw advancements not only on a cultural level but to some extent on a social level. Through military conquest and strategic marriage, the Guptan emperors would rule most of continental India for over two hundred years. Constant invasions from the North West, by the White Huns would eventually weaken the Guptas and end this classical age (Thapar 286).


Avari, Burjor (2007) India, the Ancient Past : a History of the Indian Sub-Continent from c. 7000 BC to AD 1200. New York: Rutledge.

Derrett, Duncan (1976) “Rajadharma.” Journal of Asian Studies, 35, no. 4, 597-609.

Emeneau, Barry (1953) “The Composite Bow in India” American Philosophical Society, 97, no. 1, 77-87.

Robb, Peter (2002) A History of India. New York: Palgrave.

Smith, Vincent (1981) The Oxford History of India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Saunders, Kenneth (2002) Great Civilizations of India. New Delhi: Shubhi Publications.

Thapar, Romila (2003) Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Kushans

Karma Sutra

The Visit of Fa Hsien

Skandagupta Chandalas (untouchables)

The Shakuntala Noteworthy Websites Related this Topic

Written by Evan Gregory (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Pallava Dynasty

The Pallava Dynasty has a history enveloped in debate due to the lack of reputable records on the subject. Although the timeline for when the Pallavas took power remains speculative, most scholars place the time of Pallava influence from the 4th to the 9th century C.E. Much of what is known was documented by the celebrated Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang who traveled to the capital city of the Pallavas, Kancipuram, around 642 C.E. and stayed there for some time (Tripathi 449). Xuan Zang commented on everything from the landscape, to the character of the people. The main epigraphic source of information about this people was found on approximately 30 copper-plate grants and about 200 stone inscriptions that were mostly found in temples in the Tamil and Telugu country (Minakshi 1).

The Pallavas trace their descent back to Drona (Minakshi 35). [Drona was the military leader of the Pandavas as mentioned in the Mahabharata]. This myth however is not widely accepted by scholars. There are differing schools of thought on the origin of the Pallavas. The theory of Parthian origin depicts the Pandavas as a northern nomad tribe that came to India from Persia; they were unable to settle in northern India so they continued south until they reached Kanchipuram. Another school of thought places the Pallavas as the Tamils of south India (Minakshi 4-5). The former explanation of origin is more widely accepted. The first Pallavas were not kings; they were new to that country. One of them married the daughter of a local king and thereby became a king himself, the first king of the Pallavas (Dubreuil 23).

The Pallavas were not a colonizing people but a ruling caste, and they maintained themselves by military power and the subjugation of the native people (Schoff 210). The Pallankovil Plates [of the 30 copper plates] explained that the Pallavas were originally Brahmins that later adopted the profession of arms and became Brahma Ksatriyas. Drona, their mythological ancestor, also was a Brahmin who became a warrior (Minakshi 35).

The government of the Pallavas was largely one of hereditary kingship; however, there was found on the constitutional document of the Vaikunthaperumal temple, the details of an election after the death of Paramesvaravarman II (c. 731), during this time the kingdom was subject to anarchy, assumedly because the dead king had no heir (Minakshi 46-47). The copper-plates elaborately relate the idea of the divine origin of the Pallava family and the line of rulers is traced back to Brahma (Minakshi 48).

Under the rule of the Pallavas, village life was remarkably ordered. All four castes were represented in the villages. The Brahmins enjoyed a high standard of living while the other inhabitants formed the framework of various industries, some of the industries that were represented included cattle, pottery, carpentry, goldsmithing, oil pressing, and merchants. Industries were only set up after obtaining the proper sanctions from the government and taxes were paid to the king in the form of goods or money (Minakshi 160-161). The Pallavas instigated the construction of a complex water irrigation system including tanks, wells, and channels flowing throughout villages and agricultural land in an attempt to ward of the effects of famine and to facilitate agricultural production, rice being the main food source (Minakshi 155).

The Pallava Dynasty was rich is various cultural aspects including dance, art, and music. Evidence of dancing among the Pallavas has been found painted on the walls of temples and caves and depicted by sculptures. Many different poses are depicted and there were individual dances as well as group dances for both men and women. Dancing was a form of entertainment frequently employed in the king’s court, as well as temples. It was common to have dancing and wrestling matches alternate while music provided accompaniment (Minakshi 313-314). Dancing was also used as a form of worship; Siva is depicted in the dance: tandava (Minakshi 315). One of the principal hobbies of the princes and princesses of the Pallava Dynasty was painting. Unfortunately remnants of Pallava paintings are not commonly found. The walls of the cave temples provide a partial look into this art form; paint can be seen in traces of rich colors. The Pallavas used vegetable colour so the available colors were few, but they included red, yellow, green, and black. The Kailasanatha temple contains nearly fifty cells around the inner courtyard and each of them shows traces of painting. Several of the temples sculptures have red and green on them (Minakshi 330). Music also had a prominent place in Pallava society; songs were not only used to praise deity, but rulers as well. Pallava kings had songs called birudas composed, these songs sang their praises and spoke of their individual genius and skill (Minakshi 264).

The Five Rathas (Pallava Period rock-hewn Temples, Mahabalipuram)

Religious freedoms during the Pallava Dynasty were exceptionally observed. Denominations that were present during the dynasty included Saiva, Vaisnavas, Buddhists, and Jainas. Not only were these groups found in the kingdom, but they were all found in the capital city. Right from the beginning of Pallava rule, different religions were allowed to practise their faith. By the 7th and 8th centuries however there are a few hymns that make contemptuous references to Buddhists and Jainas (Minakshi 206).

Perhaps the most well recognized remnant of the Pallava Dynasty is their architecture. Great temples still stand as an ever present reminder of that great past. Monolithic temples hewn out of solid rock first emerged in the Tamil lands under the reign of Mahendravarman I; during his reign 20 such temples were completed, using specialized craftsmen from the north where such temples were already found. Stone temples in the Tamil landscape had not previously been erected because of a prejudice against the stone due to its use in funerary ceremonies. Mahendravarman I, however, was practically minded and saw no reason why the stones could not be shaped and used in his building (Minakshi 350-351).

The Pallavas ruled over a vast kingdom. Kanchipuram was the capital city of the Pallava Dynasty. The kingdom extended along the Coromandel Coast up to the mouth of the Krsna, it then continued to the west in the Deccan and up to the banks of the Tungabhadra River (Dubreuil 14). This vast kingdom was not obtained by marriages alone. The Pallavas employed a vast military and were frequently at war with enemies in an attempt to increase their dominion. The main opposition to the Pallava movement were the Calukyas. It is written in one of their copper-plate records that the Pallavas constituted “their natural enemies.” The Kadambas, the Eastern Calukyas, and Rastrakutas were the other main ruling dynasties and the Pallavas were frequently in combat with each of them (Minakshi 42).

By the 9th century the Cola dynasty to the south was a strong force and the Pallavas finally succumbed to the combined attacks of the Calukyas dynasty on its northern boundary and the reviving Cola power on the south (Schoff 210).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Dubreuil, G. Jouveau and Dikshitar, V.S. Swaminadha (1995). The Pallavas. Madras: Asian Educational Services.

Minakshi, Cadambi (1938). Administration and Social Life under the Pallavas. Madras: University of Madras.

Schoff, Wilfred H. (1913). Tamil Political Divisions in the First Two Centuries of the Christian Era. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol 33, pp.209-213: American Oriental Society.

Tripathi, Ramashankar (1942). History of Ancient India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Li

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Yuan-Chwang (Xuan Zang)


30 copper-plate grants



Vaikunthaperumal temple

Pallava painting




Cave temples

Coromandel Coast





Cola dynasty

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Andy Bridge (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Gupta Dynasty (2)

The Classical period of Hinduism or what is often referred to as the Golden Age of Hinduism, saw the rise and fall of the Gupta Dynasty which reigned from 320-500 C.E. This empire ruled in Northern India and was concentrated around Pataliputra which is currently Patna. This was also the capital city of the Mauryan Dynasty which among other dynasties ruled northern India before the Gupta Dynasty. According to scholars the exact geographical and familial origins of the rulers of the Gupta Empire are largely unknown (Gupta 1). Some sources infer from the name Gupta that they belonged to the vaishya caste while others believe them to be Brahmin (Thapar 282). The three best known rulers of this time period are Chandragupta I, his son Samudragupta, and his youngest son Chandragupta II (Heitzman & Worden). They were all victorious in unifying the people of Northern India which spurred the expansion of Hinduism. Chandragupta I began his reign by gaining control of the Magadha region at the local level and expanding from there (Basham 46). His marriage to Mahadevi Kumaradevi who was a member of the powerful and wealthy Licchavi lineage also helped him secure his kingdom (Gupta 1). Samudragupta and his kingdom were able to defeat many rivals and expand their territory to the west and south; he was known for his skills in battle (Gupta 2).

The time period of the Gupta Dynasty is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of Hinduism or the Classical Period. Some attribute this partly to Samudragupta and his love of the arts. He is said to have been a poet and musician and often assembled literary scholars at his kingdom (Gupta 2). When Chandragupta II came to succession, there were many threats being made to the kingdom. One of the best known plays composed in this time period was about how Chadragupta II came to be king. The Devi- Chandraguptam tells the rather mysterious tale of how Chandragupta, the son of Samudragupta came to succession. Apparently after the death of Samudragupta, Rama Gupta (Chandragupta’s older brother) was the decided heir to the throne. When Rama Gupta was defeated by the Sakas he decided to give up his wife Dhruvadevi as a trade. Chandragupta thought this was despicable so he concealed himself under the disguise of the Dhruvadevi and killed the king of the Sakas (Thapar 285). He then went on to kill his brother Rama who was furious with him, and in the end he married Dhruvadevi. Chandragupta is well known for spearheading the annexation of western India which resulted from the triumphant attack against the Sakas (Basham 46). He was able to consolidate the empire and once again bring harmony and unification back to Northern India (Gupta 3). The Gupta’s were eventually overthrown by the Hunas (or White Huns) in 500 C.E (Heitzmen & Worden). The relative peace and harmony created by these rulers allowed for an atmosphere that was conducive to innovation and the bringing together of people culturally and religiously.

The cultural advances that occurred during the Gupta period can be seen in literary sources, language, art, architecture and the building of temples. There were also scientific advancements in areas such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. The Gupta Empire reigned during a time of great economic prosperity from domestic and foreign trade of spices, textiles, ivory, stone, and much more (Basham 47). Sanskrit became more developed and was the language of religion, the courts, scholars and science, and poetry. Many of the most important Hindu texts and scriptures were composed in Sanskrit. One of the best-known Indian playwrights also flourished during this time, his name was Kalidasa. He was known for his beautiful and exemplary use of Classical Sanskrit language and literature. Among his most famous pieces are the drama Shakuntla, Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava two of his Mahakavyas, and the poem Meghaduta ( Some of the more famous literary works of the time were the Puranas, and the plays Kamudi-Mahotsava and Devi-Chandraguptam (discussed above).

The Puranas are a broad collection and mixture of history and myths dealing with bhakti. Visnu, one of the great gods in the Hindu tradition is described in the Puranas. Visnu is said to have ten incarnations or avataras, one of which was the boar or Varaha. The myth tells of how Varaha defeats a demon and rescues the Earth Goddess from the cosmic ocean where she was being held hostage. The boar incarnation (Varaha) was widely worshipped by the kings of the Gupta Dynasty (Rodrigues 308). Early Hindu art and architecture largely inspired the evolution of art around the world. Temples began to be constructed from brick and stone rather than wood making them more durable. The Northern and Southern style of temple architecture was born during this time as well. This was a very prosperous time rich with cultural advancement and harmony for the people of northern India.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Basham, A.L. (1975) A Cultural History of India. London: Oxford University Press.

Gupta, Lal Parmeshwari (1991) The Golden Age: Gupta Art – Empire, Province and Influence. Bombay: Marg Publications.

Heitzmen, James & Worden, Robert (1995) India: A Country Study. Washington: Library of Congress.

Rodrigues, H. (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook an Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Thapar, Romila (2003) Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

The Classical Age 320-750. Retrieved April 3, 2008 from

Written by Krista Tittlemier (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Indus Valley Civilization

The ancient civilization of the Indus Valley is arguably one of the oldest and largest ancient civilizations discovered in the world today. With its roots buried deep some 4 millennia ago (2500BCE) and covering an area of over 1.3 million km2, this civilization prospered greatly in Pakistan and the north west of the Indian Subcontinent (see Rodrigues 8 and Chattopadhyay 32). It was essentially a culture of the plains; reaching but never crossing the sub-Himalayan foothills. The number of people living here is nearly impossible to tell but scholars have maintained that the sites had at least 250 000 inhabitants (see Habib 22). The main excavation sites of the Indus Valley were two large and complex cities; Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Harappa; the oldest city was discovered in the 1820’s by British settlers. Because it is the oldest city, the people indigenous to the Indus Valley area were designated, “The Harappans” (see Hawkes 263-64).

In 1922 the ruins of another large city center, Mohenjodaro, was discovered by an Indian archeologist. Within this compound they found pottery, seals, and weights; all similar to those found in Harappa (see Rodrigues 8). Also, there were most likely ports involved with trade along the Persian Gulf (see Hawkes 265-68). There were seals with images of river vessels further increasing the likelihood of over-sea trade. The seals found in the Indus Valley cities have been found in Persian cites (see Habib 32). The bricks that were used within the confines of the city are cast in the same ways as those found in modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Within Mohenjodaro, a large bathing tank has been excavated, looking much like the Hindu bathing tanks of today, exemplifying the ancient Harappans had a definite knowledge or ritualized practice of religion advanced for their time. On many seals excavated from both sites, there is a horned, ithyphallic creature in a seemingly yoga-looking posture, which; though it has not been confirmed, some scholars think may be a type of proto-Siva icon (see Chattopadhyay 32-38).

Along with this seeming proto-Siva, archeologists have uncovered what some suggest to be male linga and female yoni stones; symbols traditionally representative of Siva (see Rodrigues 11). The Harappans had a talent for animal art. Models of terracotta monkeys and other animals were carefully crafted. Even finer were the carvings of sacred animals such as the bull on some of their seals. As masterfully crafted as they are, there is seemingly no distinct style of the times as one would normally expect of sculptors at the time (see Hawkes 277).

The City of Mohenjodaro had impressive infrastructure, complete with a citadel raised 40 feet in the air for protection against invaders. Buildings were raised above ground level on mud platforms to protect from seasonal flooding. It was complete with a full drainage system and docks accessible to shipping and sailing up the Gulf of Cambay. The regularity of the plans for the Indus cities and towns is a strong indicator that each was built as a whole by some type of authority; perhaps some sort of early origins of government (see Hawkes 273). Massive walls, bastions and towers most likely needed soldiers to protect them, giving evidence that whoever this authority was had some type of military or force. Within the citadel there is what looks like an early grain elevator in which the townspeople would store grain products, giving the impression that the people of the time sustained each other in an organized fashion as opposed to an every man for himself mentality (see Hawkes 278).

Indus Valley Artefacts (Musee Guimet, Paris)

The discovery of the grain elevator has shed some light on one of the crucial questions of the Harappans: what did they eat? Findings related to the grain elevator indicate that for the city of Harappa, the main crops were wheat, barley, peas and sesame. The many streams and rivers flowing from the plateaus and mountains made water accessible to grow these types of crops. At Mohenjodaro, the only crops for which there is certain evidence are different types of wheat. There was most likely trade going on between the cities, but it is inconclusive as of now (see Aris and Phillips 206-207).

Although the origins of the Indus Valley Civilization, along with its religion are obscure, there are many theories as to what lead to the rich and diverse culture.

One theory; coined the Aryan Migration Thesis, believed a group called the Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent from the Caucasus Mountains sometime during the Vedic period (1500-500BCE). They brought many things such as the chariot, the wheel and iron. Among these things was also the Vedas. Over time, the Aryans mixed with the elite Dravidians (southerners) and out of this emerged the present day caste system of India. Within this mix, the practice of the Aryan Vedic religion mingled with the Dravidian tribal practices thus creating modern Hinduism (see Rodrigues 12-13 and Kapoor 2002:1357-1364). In support of this thesis, north Indian languages are mostly based on Sanskrit and belong to the Indo-European family of language which includes English. South Indian languages by contrast are Dravidian languages most likely some type or form of Tamil (see Rodrigues 13).

Another theory fewer scholars believe that may have occurred is called, the Cultural Diffusion Hypothesis. This theory states that the Aryans had a sacred Sanskrit language, lived near the Harappans, and the Vedas were conceived near the Indus Valley Civilization. The rich and sophisticated culture created between the Aryans and Harappans eventually diffused into neighboring lands (see Rodrigues 14).

It is important to note however, the Aryans were not as civilized as compared to the urban cultures which they attacked and often ruined. There is no characteristically Aryan pottery or special Aryan tools to describe an Aryan culture. What gave these people importance in history was their nomadic style of herding cattle and their mobility by the use of the chariot (see Kosambi 76-77). In the Indus region however, a ploughed field has been found, along with a terracotta plow and some simple harvesting tools. The Harappans were also the first known civilization to secure underground water via wells (see Habib 24).

One of the major achievements of the Indus Valley was the invention of writing. It is one of the worlds 4 earliest known scripts but there is no identification to how it was created or who created it. The Indus logo-syllabic text consists of short inscriptions of about 4 000 in all, each of about five characters on average. They are mainly found on stamp seals and baked into pottery and molds. When the script is decoded and deciphered, we may learn more about their scientific knowledge and if they had any concept of things like mathematics (see Habib 50).

There are still many parts to this complex civilizations that are yet to be uncovered, but the mystery that surrounds these cites is hoped to be soon discovered. From what we do know about this vast civilization with its infrastructure, language, trading posts and economy, we can only hope to uncover more as we wonder and marvel at what they had already accomplished almost 4 500 years ago.

* It is important to note that the Aryan migration and the diffusion theory are just that; a theory. There is some evidence towards both theories, but none conclusive.

* Also, both the genesis and the demise of the civilization are shrouded in mystery; there is not enough evidence to be sure on either account.

References and Further recommended reading

Kosambi, Damodar Dharmanand (1996) The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline. Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.

Aris and Phillips LTD (1982) Harappan Civilization: a Contemporary Perspective. New Delhi: Oxford & IBH publishing Co. in collaboration with American Institute of Indian Studies.

Kapoor, Aubodh (2002) Ancient Hindu Society. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Rodrigues, Hillary Peter (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York, NY: Routledge Press.

Hawkes, Jaquetta. (1973) The First Great Civilizations: Life in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley,and Egypt. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Chattopadhyay, K.P. (1970) Ancient Indian Culture Contacts and Migrations. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta-12.

Habib, Irfan (2002) The Indus Civilization: Including Other Copper Age Cultures and History of Language change until 1500 BC. Shahpur Jat, New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Powell-Price, John Dadwigan (1958) A History of India. Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, LTD.

Khanna, S.K. (1998) Caste in Indian Politics. New Delhi: Ajay Verma at Koshan Offset Printers.

Dr. Sharma, S.P. (1996) History of Ancient India. New Delhi: Mohit Publications.

Rob, Peter (2002) AHistory of India. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press LCC

Wheeler, Mortimer (1968) The Indus Civilization: Third Edition. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.

Related topics for further Investigation

Aryan Migration thesis
Bathing tanks
Caste System
Caucasus Mountains
Cultural diffusion hypothesis
Indus Valley
Stamp seals
Sub-Himalayan foothills
Vedic Period

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic,M1

Article written by Justin Quintin (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Mohenjodaro and Indus Valley Religion

Mohenjodaro or “heap of the dead” is the largest city excavated of the Indus Valley, or Harappa Civilization. The city flourished between 2600 BCE and 1900 BCE, although the first signs of settlement in the area have been dated to the period of 3500 BCE (Kenoyer 4). Excavation at this level is impossible due to the high water table that makes even simple excavations of Mohenjodaro difficult (Kenoyer 4). The city covers around 200 hectares of land and at its height may have had a population of 85 000 people (Habib 37). The site is located in the modern Larkana district of Sindh province in Pakistan. Mohenjodaro was the largest city in the southern portion of the Indus Valley Civilization and important for trade and governance of this area.

The two largest cities of the Indus Civilization, Harappa and Mohenjodaro, have a similar layout and show signs of civil planning. The Great Mound, or Citadel, dominates the west end of Mohenjodaro. The mound rises 40 feet about the plain at present time; it would have been higher at the time Mohenjodaro was inhabited. The mound runs 400 – 500 yards north to south, and 200 – 300 yards east to west (Habib 41). There is a gap between the mound and the lower city. Because of the large size and separation from the rest of the city, it is thought the mound may have been used for a religious or administrative purpose (Wheeler 47). This hypothesis is strengthened by the architecture found on the top of the mound. The mound at Mohenjodaro consists of two distinct features: the Great Bath and the Granary or Meeting hall. The Great Bath is a sunken tank on the top of the mound, the tank measures 12 meters long, 7 meters wide and is sunk 2.4 meters below the depth of the mud bricks that surround it ( The Great Bath is one of the first aspects of Indus Valley life that can be related to modern Hinduism. The Great Bath may also be related to the concept of River worship, much like the worship of the Ganges today. Mohenjodaro is situated between what use to be two separate rivers it was almost an island. This would have made the rivers a very important resource for the city itself, it would have depended on it for most things: trade, transportation and its way of life. It has been suggested that the people of Mohenjodaro were concerned with ritual purification, much like some Hindus of today. This conclusion draws strength from the existence of the Great Bath on the top of the Citadel and a small stone structure that has been excavated at the top of the great staircase leading to the Citadel. It has been suggested this building was a bathroom for ritual cleansing before you entered the Citadel, as there is a well and drainage system in the building (Wheeler 44).

There are a small number of hard facts related to the religion of the Indus Valley Civilization, as their script has not been deciphered, but we do know they were polytheistic. What insights have been gained about their religion come from the thousands of seals that have been found in Indus Valley sites. Mohenjodaro has been a major contributing site for these seals. In 1977, 68% of the seals that had been found had been uncovered in Mohenjodaro itself (Habib 59). The seals show a wide range of subject matter; some have script on them while others have no inscriptions at all. These seals have been found throughout the Indus Valley, yet the script found on the seals shows no regional variation (Habib 60). Although the seals are diverse in subject matter, there does seem to be some dominant themes running through them. Many of the seals show animals. These animals can be divided into three categorizes: mythical, ambiguous, and actual (Goyal 29). The animals even within these categories are varied too. It has been suggested that the animals on the seals represent the zoomorphic forms of deities, much like the gods of Hinduism today. The Hindus’ deities can take animal form when they desire, or at the very least, have an animal that is associated with then (i.e. their mounts) (Habib 54). One interesting fact is that there are no birds depicted on any seals found to date, just on pottery (Goyal 30).

If the seals were to be used to judge what was important in the religion of the Indus people, then the pipal or asvattha tree would have been of great importance. The tree is depicted on a number of seals that have been found (Goyal 29). The depiction of trees is almost as diverse as the depiction of animals. On some seals, the tree is endowed with a human shape, or has a human head in the top foliage (Goyal 29); in some seals, the trees have rails or wall surrounding them, almost like a sanctuary (Goyal 29).

Indus Valley Seals and Imprints (Musee Guimet, Paris)

There are clues that the Indus Valley people may also have worshiped a Mother Goddess. Many terracotta female figures have been found throughout the empire. Most of these figures have been found within what are assumed private homes leading to the assumption that the Goddess may have been the form of divinity worshipped within the home (Goyal 17). Many of these figures are standing figures that are almost nude or depicted as wearing a girdle or band, an elaborate headdress, collar, and necklace (Goyal 17). Feminine figures are also depicted on many of the Indus seals, thus showing the importance of this feminine figure to the Indus Valley Civilization (Goyal 17). Stones that resemble yoni stones of modern Hinduism have also been found (Wheeler 109). Yoni stones are used to represent the female reproductive organ in modern Hinduism, and it is speculated that the stones found at Mohenjodaro may have had the same function, acting as a representation of the female reproductive principle. This interpretation may just be transference from modern Hinduism to the past in the hopes of better understanding the origin of some aspect of Hinduism.

The people of the Indus Valley also appeared to have worshipped a male god. The most important depiction of a speculated modern Hinduism god is seal number 420 in Mackay’s list (Goyal 19). Many other seals have been found depicting the same figure, but not in the same detail as number 420 (Goyal 19). This seal has been interpreted as depicting a proto-Siva type of figure. The deity has three visible faces, and is seated in a yogic position on a throne flanked by two antelope. The deity is wearing a headdress that has horns, the shape being reminiscent of the crescent moon that modern representations of Siva show on his forehead. Animals also surround the deity and Siva is regarded as the Lord of Animals (Goyal 19). The deity is ithyphallic, and what are thought to be linga stones have been found. Linga stones in modern Hinduism are used to represent the erect male phallus or the male reproductive power of the god Siva, but again these stones may be something entirely different from objects of religious worship (Goyal 19). Even today, Siva is worshiped in both a human form and in that of the phallus. The deity sitting in a yoga-like position suggests that yoga may have been a legacy of the very first great culture that occupied India.

All interpretations that are made about the Indus Valley Civilization may one day be proven wrong, if the script of this civilization is ever deciphered. There have been some people who have claimed to have deciphered the script, but none of their systems have gained wide spread acceptance. Since the script shows consistency across the empire, there can be little doubt that it is some kind of language, but until we can decipher and translate it, the great city of Mohenjodaro will remain awash in controversy and speculation.

Reference List and Related Readings

Goyal, S. R (1984) A Religious History of Ancient India (up to c. 1200 A.D.). Meerut: Urvashi Press.

Habib, Irfan (2002) A People’s History of India 2: The Indus Civilization. Delhi: Chaman Enterprises.

Kenoyer, J. M. & Heuston, K. (2005) The Ancient South Asian World. New York, Oxford University Press.

Kenoyer, J. M. (1998) Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Karachi, Oxford University Press.

Kenoyer, J. M. (2005) Mohenjo-daro: An Ancient Indus Valley Civilization Metropolis.

Possehl, G. L. (2002) The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Walnut Creek, AltaMira Press.

Wheeler, Sir. Mortimer (1968) The Indus Civilization: Supplementary Volume to The Cambridge History of India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Indus Valley Civilization

Indus Valley Seals

Indus Valley Script

Goddess Worship


Nature Worship in Modern Hinduism


Pipal or Asvattha tree

River Worship

Yoni and/or Linga stones

Noteworthy Websites Related to Mohenjodaro

Article written by Shaun Fox (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.