From Clans to Kingdoms (1700 BCE- 600 BCE)
It was a time of warring clans, fiery fort storming gods & powerful priests who held forth. Join us we head back 3500 years to the dawn of the Vedic Age and dissect through layers of archaeological finds, literature & historical research to trace the story of a period that left an indelible mark on Indian history.
What time ye helped Sudas with all the Tritsu folks when the ten kings had pressed them down in their attack…
There, where the white-robed Tritsus with their braided hair, skilled in songs worshipped you with homages and hymns
These lines from the Rig Veda, invoking the great gods Indra and Varuna, refer to a significant battle – the Dasrajnas – or battle of the ten kings, fought somewhere along the river Parushni or Ravi in Punjab. On one side was Sudas, the Bharata king related/closely aligned with the tribe of Tritsus, and on the other was a confederacy consisting of ten well-known tribes of the time, including the Puru, Yadu, Anu, Druhyu and Turvasa.
While this battle, fought some time during the Early Vedic period, is not as familiar to us as that other one, which is celebrated in literature – the Mahabharata (which defines the later ‘Epic Age’), it was significant. King Sudas, who followed this victory with others, ensured that the Bharatas became so dominant and famous that the entire region came to be called Bharatvarsha.
The heroes of the Mahabharata were also proud to be from the Bharatasvamsha, the lineage of the Bharatas.
The period between 1700 BCE and 600 BCE is a period that saw great transformation – political, social, economic and religious. At the most basic level, it marked a move east – as tribes fought each other and made use of the iron plough and weapons to hack through the thick forests of the Gangetic plains. Over time, where tribes settled and grew, kingdoms rose, until much of the north was carved out into a patchwork of janapadas kingdoms and republics.
Geographically, this marked a change in focus from the Saptasindhu – the land between the Indus and the Sarasvati (Ghaggar-Hakra) – to a narrow strip in the upper Ganga-Yamuna Doab, onwards to the wider Gangetic plains, till the end of the Later Vedic period when the move south along the Dakshinapatha was clear. By the time the Ramayana was penned, most of the subcontinent had been covered.
This era laid the foundation of much of what we understand as the Hindu belief system today. The Gayatri Mantra written in the Rig Veda (Mandala 3.62.10) and probably chanted for even longer before, is still chanted by millions. The rituals, stories, parables, the Vedic texts, Upanishads and the life lessons that the Epics recount, have today been moulded to modern-day problems. New-age gurus and management experts lean heavily on these ancient texts to give life lessons even today.
Yet, sadly, most of this era, especially the Early Vedic period – between 1700/1500/ 1200 BCE and 800 BCE – is shrouded in mystery. It doesn’t help that any discussion on this period invariably leads to the inevitable questions: ‘who were the Aryans’ and ‘where did they come from’? Now, it’s being asked whether they came from outside at all.
The issue has been so politically loaded and so deeply coloured by colonial, national, leftist and rightist biases that the best we can do is to lean on some basic facts, that research and excavations have thrown up over the years. After that, we still have only a sliver of knowledge about this vast period.
Interestingly, one of the earliest commentators on this question, Sanskrit scholar and Indologist Max Muller, was emphatic when he said, “ Aryan, in scientific language, is utterly inapplicable to race. It means language and nothing but language.” Many historians, since the time of Muller, have iterated that.
Excavations across Harappan-era sites also provide no evidence of any kind of large-scale conflict or strife that could justify the big ‘Aryan invasion’ theory that was once held. Archaeologists who have worked on many of the post-Harappan sites have also published evidence to show a diffusion of Harappan people across the subcontinent, after a series of natural disasters around 2000 BCE.
Based on this, archaeologists like Dr B B Lal and more recently Dr Vasant Shinde, who have done decades of excavations on Harappan and Early Vedic (Painted Grey Ware) sites believe that there were no mass migrations from the outside although there may have been regular ‘movement’ of people from Central Asia and beyond the Himalayas, over a very large span of time. If this were the case, then the Vedic culture could have been a product of the many diverse people and influences that came together to birth a new system of beliefs.
The Rig Veda, the oldest of the four Vedas , dated to around 1200-1000 BCE, makes numerous references to the heterogeneous nature of tribes and clans of the time. Language experts who have studied the text point out that almost 300 words used in this text are of non-Indo-European origin, indicating that there was a very close amalgamation of Dravidian and Munda languages.
All this has led historians and archaeologists to now believe that what took place during that period was an ‘Aryanisation’, or a spread of the Vedic Aryan culture, and this entailed the primacy of one language – Sanskrit; the existence of an authoritative priesthood – the Brahmanas; an increasingly rigid social hierarchy; and the primacy of the Vedic texts.
On the whole, we must remember that the evidence is sketchy. As B B Lal himself says, “We know so little about the era that it is like looking at the tail of an animal you have never seen and trying to imagine what the animal is like.”
The Early Vedic Period
The paucity of data makes this period, especially the very early phase between 1700 BCE and 1200 BCE, hazy. Excavations in the Upper Gangetic valley, in sites like Ropar, Bhagwanpura, Hastinapur and Ahichchhatra, go back to roughly 1200 BCE. The people who lived here then lived in small village communities. The complete absence of any written material or inscriptions makes it very difficult to piece together what their lives were like.
The Rig Veda is perhaps the only real source of information on this period.
But it is important to remember that while the Rig Veda is the oldest Veda, it is in no way a historical text – books 1, 8, 9 and 10 of the Rig Veda are said to have been added later. But books 2-7, the older part, the earliest known composition and dated to between 2000 BCE and 1200 BCE, are ‘family books’, which talk of important priests (groups) of the time.
While there is a certain romance attached to this old text, given its antiquity, it isn’t all that gripping. It has been described by historian Dr B K Ghosh, for instance, as a work ‘submerged under a stupendous mass of dry and stereotyped hymnology’. As historian Dr Upinder Singh reminds us in her book, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, ‘this work was never part of the popular literature of the time’. It was a preserve of a few priestly families and hence we have to extrapolate history from it.
The very early Vedic period was dominated by battles and the storming of forts by the gods (Indra is called Purandara, the ‘destroyer of forts’). The Rig Veda also talks of conflicts between the Aryan kings and old Dasa (non-Aryan) rulers. The latter were powerful, as is obvious from the story of how the Bharata King Divodasa (grandfather of Sudas, the hero of the Dasrajnas Battle), defeated the Dasa king Shambara, who had many mountain fortresses.
In all, the Rig Veda mentions around 30 tribes and clans, and from references in the verses (of what we have available), we can piece together the geography or the broad theatre of activity.
In the enumeration of rivers in the Nadistuti (X 75), there are names for almost 25 rivers, many of which were streams of the Indus. There is mention of the Vipas (Beas), Sutudri (Sutlej), Chandrabhaga (Chenab), Vitasta (Jhelum) and the Parushni (Ravi) There is also a reference to the Yamuna and the Sarasvati river that flows between the Yamuna and Sutudri.
To the west of the Indus, there is a reference to the Rasa or Jaxartes (modern-day Amu Darya in Uzbekistan) and the Kubha, the modern-day Kabul river. Broadly, the area that this text covers is the Saptasindhavah. (While there has been some debate on the ‘seven rivers’ and whether they were further west of the Oxus (modern-day Syr Darya in Uzbekistan), it is largely accepted that this region was east of the Indus).
The main tribes who people the Rig Vedic verses lived along these rivers – the Bharatas between the Sarasvati and the Sutudri (Sutlej), the Purus south of the Bharatas, the Yadu closer to the Yamuna and the Druhyu north of the Vitasta or Jhelum.
Interestingly, many names and places resonate even today. An important tribe mentioned in the Rig Veda, for instance, is the Pakthas, who lived in the hills on the North-West. German Indologist Heinrich Zimmer locates them in eastern Afghanistan and identifies them with the modern-day Pakhtuns.
The Painted Grey Ware Period
As the tribes settled, small kingdoms arose and it is from around 1200 BCE that we start getting material remains of that period – the ubiquitous Painted Grey Ware pottery that has been famously associated with this age. This lies above the cruder Ochre Coloured Pottery or OCP of the Chalcolithic period, around 2000 BCE.
While most historians date the actual writing of the Rig Veda to around 1200-1000 BCE, it is clearly an earlier composition that was passed down through the oral tradition. Although penned later, the text refers to an earlier period than the ‘later’ Vedas. A look at the map of the areas and tribes mentioned in the Rig Veda clearly indicates that there was movement east, towards the Ganga- Yamuna Doab, by 1200 BCE.
It is here that archaeology comes to the rescue in piecing together the story. Through the 1950s veteran archaeologist Dr B B Lal carried out extensive excavations at the sites mentioned in the Mahabharata. These included the sites of Indraprastha, Hastinapur, Kaushambi and Mathura. It was Lal who famously associated the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) pottery with the period. He dated the battle in Kurukshetra to around 800 BCE and also found evidence of a later flood in Hastinapur that seemed to have led to an abandonment of the city.
The Mahabharata mentions how a huge flood forced the people of Hastinapur to move south to Kaushambi.
Subsequent excavations carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India did not unearth any evidence to substantiate this. However, in 2018, excavations in Barnava village in Uttar Pradesh, on what was called the ‘Lakshagriha’ site (named after the ‘wax house’ where an attempt was made to kill the legendary Pandavas, the heroes of the Mahabharata), unearthed artefacts similar to those excavated by Lal. Here too there was clear evidence of a flood, due to which the area was abandoned.
The concentration of towns and villages that still resonate to names from the Mahabharata and evidence of the PGW culture in the upper Ganga-Yamuna Doab around the area of Delhi, indicate a clear eastward shift in activity and continuum. The later Vedas corroborate this.
Some of the cities that emerged at this point have seen continuous occupation since then. The Panchala town of Parichakra has been identified with Kampila, and Nagasahvaya with Hastinapur. A portion of Delhi’s Old Fort area has been identified as the ancient Pandava capital of Indraprastha, and excavations here have also unearthed PGW artefacts.
The names of the various tribes of the Rig Veda also go through a churn during the later Vedic age. The five great tribes of Punjab – the Puru, Anu, Druhyu, Yadu and Turvasa – recede into the background and there is realignment. The Puru, Bharata and Kuru are amalgamated, and five other tribes come together to form the Panchala. The Kurus occupying the present-day areas of Thanesar and Delhi, and Panchalas occupying the present-day areas of Bareilly, Budaun and Farrukhabad, seem to have been closely aligned, ruling most of the fertile lands on the Ganga-Yamuna Doab.
In the Mahabharata, the Kuru princes, the Pandavas, are married to Panchali, the Princess of Panchala. History and legend are clearly intertwined.
The Era of the Janapadas
By the later Vedic period, texts also refer to the Kosalas, Videhas, Kasis, Vatsa, Chedi and Salvas, and in the east, the Magadhas and Angas. The first mention of Magadha, a kingdom that would go on to play an important role later, is in the Atharva Veda. Anga, in present-day Bhagalpur district of Bihar, is also first mentioned as a kingdom along the Ganga and Son rivers. Some early scholars like Frederick Eden Pargiter viewed the Magadhans and Angas as non-Aryan tribes who lived in the region and were ‘Aryanised’ i.e. amalgamated over a period of time.
The first mention of the Vanga (from where ‘Bengal’ gets its name) comes from the Aitareya Aranyaka.
The Aitareya Brahmana also mentions some tribes in the South – Dakshinadis – Satvants, Vidharbha, Nishadas and Kuntis. The Aitareya Brahmana refers to a King Bhima who ruled Vidarbha, roughly corresponding to the area around present-day Berar. The Upanishads mention Sage Bhargava, who was from the region and also refers to Kundina, the capital of Vidarbha i.e. present-day Kaundinyapura on the banks of the Wardha river.
The three main regions broadly classified by now are the Brahmavarta or Aryavarta, Madhyadesa and Dakshinapatha. Interestingly the Satapatha Brahmana refers to the ‘Samudra’, indicating that the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal could have been known to the people of that period.
By around 600 BCE, we have more to go by. Thriving cities that became centres of commerce and power mushroom along the main Ganges-Yamuna stretch. In the East, the cities of Vaishali, Champa and Tamralipti are important centres of trade and administration. The kingdoms of Magadha and Anga gain power, and beyond the course of the Ganga, towards the north-west, you have Gandhara. Marking the southern edge of the janapadas, you have the Asmakas with their capital in Pratisthana, modern-day Paithan.
Interestingly, it is the Yadu of Mathura who spread along the Malwa plateau and westwards to Gujarat. The Puranas point out that the Bhojas and Satvants, who settled in the Madhyadesa, were offshoots of the Yadus.
Eminent historian A D Pusalker, who did some of the most detailed studies to understand the pattern of Aryan settlements through references in Vedic literature, sums up his study of the later Vedic period when he says that “the later Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanishads and Sutras are characterised by a spirit of adventure and expansion and the advancing Aryans are spreading in every direction, colonizing the east, west and the north”. This was written in the early 1950s. Since then, scholars have desisted from using the word ‘Aryan’, replacing it with the ‘Vedic culture’. But the picture Pusalker draws of a rapidly spreading people and culture, holds.
The Epics Era
By the time of the epics – especially the Ramayana – there is mention of almost the entire subcontinent, from Uttara Madra and Uttara Kuru (some historians identify it with Kyrgyzstan) in the North, to Kishkindha in present-day Karnataka, and Lanka in the South. Across the breadth of India, the familiar world stretches from Pragiyotisha (Assam) in the East, to Dwaraka in the West.
Much of this, scholars believe, would have been added later, perhaps during the Gupta period. Nonetheless, the Ramayana, a later story than the Mahabharata, reflects the knowledge of a far wider landscape. A careful study of the text has also led scholars to believe that the Ramayana marked another important shift – it legitimised, nay celebrated, monarchical rule.
Until then, as new lands were being ‘Aryanised’, different forms of state existed.
The idea of kingship was still evolving. In the Rig Vedic era, the ‘Rajan’ was selected. The post gradually became hereditary. But along with these early kingships, there were also alternative systems, like republics, that existed – the gana sangha as opposed to the janapada.
Governed by councils, sabhas and smaller samitis, words used in India’s political system even today, these clan-based societies were more egalitarian and democratic (than the ones that came before them. They also tended to occupy the fringes of the rich Gangetic plains and included the Licchavis, Sakyas, Koliyas and Videhas. Over time, they created their own janapadas. Interestingly, both Gautama Buddha and Lord Mahavira, who would question the Brahmana status quo and seek new answers to life’s most difficult questions, came from these states.
Go back in time – 2,600 years – and a large part of the Indo-Gangetic plains would have been in a state of flux.
Warring janapadas, ambitious expansionists and political realignments were at work. Society may have been on edge as the infamous Matsya Nyaya (rule of the stronger fish eating weaker fish or dog-eat-dog in today’s parlance) would have been the norm. It is in the midst of this chaos that some janapadas expanded and swallowed their smaller neighbours, to create large mahajanapadas.
Archaeological evidence across the Indo-Gangetic plains is sketchy. A lot more needs to be done to piece together the subcontinent’s early history.
A World in Transition
Interestingly, the known world at the time was also seeing its share of change. Close parallels have been drawn between Bronze Age civilizations like those of the Minoans of Crete, Mycenaeans in Greece, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Egyptians and the Harappans, who shared the same fate. Teams of archaeologists, geologists and scientists, the world over, have been looking at how a series of natural calamities – earthquake storms (a series of earthquakes at short intervals) and droughts led to the collapse of this world closely connected by trade.
Scientists studying Harappan sites claim that there was a 200-year drought around 2000 BCE.
Meanwhile historians studying the Aegean and Mediterranean Bronze Age world have said that cities that had been flourishing in the Aegean and the ancient Near East in 1225 BCE had begun to vanish by 1177 BCE and had almost completely disappeared by 1130 BCE.
This is important in the context of our story because, across the known world during this time, advanced Bronze Age civilizations crumble almost simultaneously. The fall was so rapid that the memory of these once-great cities is completely obliterated. Over time, life seemed to have started afresh as rudimentary houses and settlements start to appear.
It was these settlements that grew into the city-states of Greece during the Early Iron Age period. Given how little we know of this era, this has been referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’ in Greece’s history.
The similarities between this cycle and what happened in India are stark.
If in Greece and the Aegean, it marked the interim between the Minoans and Mycenaeans, and the Greek city-states – a period between 1200 BCE and 600 BCE, in India it marked a slightly longer period, between 2000/1800 BCE and 800 BCE. This was a period that saw a reorientation and regrouping.
This period also set the stage for an era that shapes us even now – a second coming, where the power of commerce, the sword and ideas heralded a new world!
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.