Geography of Early Indian Civilization

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  • 0:02 India's Geography
  • 0:39 Rivers
  • 2:10 Mountains
  • 3:21 Plateaus and Deserts
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

India stretches from alpine glaciers to the hottest rainforests on Earth. Such a diverse group of landforms heavily impacted early civilization, starting with the very first settlements on the Indus and Ganges Rivers.

India's Geography

The Indian Subcontinent is roughly the same size as Western Europe, so it is no surprise that it contains some of the most diverse landforms imaginable. In fact, India's geography makes it a land of extremes, most notably in the north. Here, in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the river valley created by India's two great rivers, civilization first developed on the subcontinent. It is that river valley that we will focus on today, although we will also talk about the south to understand how the two areas developed cultures that were not the same.

Rivers

Like so many other great civilizations, the earliest Indians began their first cities on the banks of the Indus River and the Ganges River. Today, much of the Indus River flows through Pakistan in the west, although the Ganges River flows from north-central India through northeast India to finally enter Bangladesh.

The role that these two rivers played in the earliest parts of Indian civilization is hard to understate. The Harappan culture that developed on the banks of the Indus River to the west not only had bathhouses and fountains, but also indoor plumbing. To put this into perspective, only a handful of cultures until the last 100 years had pipes to take water to and from individual houses. Further, from what we can understand about Harappan religious life, it seems that water, and the Indus River specifically, played an important role. In fact, historians have suggested that when the river began to change its course and become less predictable that many people of Harappa and other towns in the region simply picked up and moved east to another great river.

Settlements along the Ganges River started somewhat later than those in the Indus Valley, but many of these still exist today as some of the most important cities in Indian cultural history. After the arrival of the Aryans, it was the towns along the Ganges that would serve as the holy sites for much of Hinduism. The river became crucial to the beliefs of people throughout India.

Mountains

However, just as much as the rivers help define India, it is really the mountains that make them possible. Both the Indus and the Ganges Rivers have their sources deep in the great mountain chains of northern India from the waters of glaciers and melting snow. Three such groups create a boundary between India and the rest of Asia: the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalaya. The tallest of these is the Himalaya, created by the Indian tectonic plate pressing against the Eurasian plate, creating the some of the tallest mountains in the world, including the world's tallest, Mount Everest.

That is not to say that invaders did not use the passes between these great mountains for their benefit. As the Indians historically saw the mountains as a barrier, this meant that for the warriors intrepid enough to brave the cold and wind, few defenders would often be waiting on the other side. Aryans, Greeks, Persians, and Mongols all succeeded in conquering all or part of India by attacking through the mountains, with the Aryans having a massive influence on the culture of the subcontinent even today.

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