Historical and Cultural Background

We know the India of today as a subcontinent containing a very large population of diverse peoples but of two principal religions: Hinduism and Islam. There are, however, many other ancient religions on the subcontinent, such as Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism. India is the birthplace of Mahavira and Buddha and of the two great ancient religions that they are credited with founding— Jainism and Buddhism, respectively. Indeed, Hinduism is much more complex than can be summarized by the word religion, because it involves a synthesis of many ways of living and beliefs, with roots stretching back in time to more than two millennia before the beginning of the Christian era. Table 9.1 summarizes the Indian chronology.

Animal remains, weaponry, and flint tools indicate a human presence in India for nearly two million years. The Lower, Middle, and Upper Palaeolithic of the Pleistocene period have their counterparts in the west, but also show regional differences; a similar statement holds for the Mesolithic, from the beginning of the Holocene, around 9000 b.c., to the beginning of the Iron Age, about 1000 b.c. or later (Allchin and Allchin 1982, pp. 33-35). The earliest cultural period, the Acheulian from the Lower Pleistocene, is characterized by the use of stone tools. Acheulian habitation of several rock shelters in the area of Bhimbetka hill near Hoshangabad in Central India has been discovered (Allchin and Allchin 1982, pp. 38-41). These shelters revealed much rock art, although it is likely that this rock art stems from the Mesolithic rather than from any earlier time. Agrawala (1965) reports more than 50 rock shelters with rock painting within 5 miles of Pachmarchi alone. The paintings are of human and animal figures (Agrawala 1965, Plate 1) and show primarily hunting and dancing scenes. Rock art from rock shelters near Mori show geometric figures, including "a four-armed cross inside a circle, an eight-spoked wheel," and "a solar orb with multiple rays" (Agrawala 1965, p. 13).

Technically advanced farming settlements are first known in a region that today comprises areas of Iran, Afghanistan, and northwestern India. The Elamite civilization developed in this region. The recent decipherment of the early Elamite script has given us information about the language that makes it clear that Elamite is distantly related to the Dravidian languages. The Dravidians were probably in the Indus region before ~2500 b.c. and evolved from a pastoral to an urban, trading culture. Dravidian languages spoken today include Tamil, Telegu, Kannada, and Malayalam, restricted to the central and southern regions of India. As far as is known, the first major civilization in India was that of the Indus or Harrappan culture (~2250-1750 b.c.) in the northwest. The major excavated sites are Harappa, Mohenjodaro, and Lothal, all in the Indus River valley. The Indus civilization is characterized by writing, and by large cities, with monumental architecture, broad streets, indoor plumbing, public granaries, and baths. Specialized craftsmen made elaborate painted pottery, and metal was used both for luxury items and tools.

The writing of the Harappan culture is still undeciphered, but Parpola (1994) has produced a compendium that will be an indispensable aid to anyone attempting this task. In his discussion, Parpola (1994, Part IV) provides a mass of new evidence for identifying the language of Harappa as Dravidian and has extensive material on direct and indirect evidence for Harappan astronomy. Parpola, along with a number of earlier scholars, reads a fish hieroglyph as *men, which means both "fish" and "star." There are reasons for doubting this interpretation (Kelley and Wells 1995), but in the present state of decipherment of the Indus script, it is certainly possible. In any case, Parpola gives good linguistic evidence that Sanskrit borrowed Dravidian astronomical terms and concepts along with associated mythology. His discussion should be read by anyone interested in early astronomy.

The Harappan cities were laid out with the walls slightly off the cardinal directions. It has been suggested that they were oriented to the setting point of the Pleiades, which

Table 9.1. A brief chronology of India.





Paleolithic Early Indus Valley Early Harappan

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (Indus Civilization) Vedic (Indo-Aryans)




(Maurya dynasty)




Kushanas (Kanishka dynasty) Classical age (Guptas)

Arabs and Turks

Mogul Empire European

~500 b.c. 400 b.c 327 b.c. 321-185 b.c. 185 b.c. 100 b.c. -200 a.d. 78-248 300-400

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