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The Iron Age in India

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Around the world, the Iron Age was an auspicious time. In this lesson, we're going to examine India's Iron Age and see how it drastically changed life in the subcontinent.

The Iron Age of India

Iron is clearly a useful tool, but is it magical? Many ancient people certainly thought so. Around the world, iron was often treated as something that represented purity and protected against malicious spells. Is there anything to this?

The Iron Age was a period found at different points around the world where societies recovered from the collapse of Bronze-Age civilization, developed new tools, and built bigger, more complex civilizations than ever before. This is the era that gave Europe Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. It's the time in which China developed Confucianism and Taoism. India, of course, was not to be left out of this. India's Iron Age laid religious, philosophical, social, and political foundations that would go on to influence people across the world. Maybe there is something special about that metal.

The Vedic Period

India's Iron Age emerged in an era of transition known as the Vedic period (ca. 1,500-600 BCE). The Vedic period covers both the end of the Bronze Age following the collapse of the Harappan civilization around 1,400 CE and the start of the Iron Age. The Harappan civilization of the Indus River Valley had been complex and highly urbanized. The societies of the Vedic period were smaller, most only about the size of a village, recovering from the changes in the regional economy as well as drought, the likely culprit that collapsed India's Bronze-Age stability.

This was a time of re-organization, but also religious growth. The Vedic period is named for the Vedas, foundational religious texts of Hinduism. The oldest, written in the ancient script of Vedic Sanskrit, was likely created between 1,500 and 1,200 BCE.

Out of this changing world, India's first culture to start systematically smelting and using iron appeared. We call them the Painted Grey Ware culture, after a characteristic style of pottery. Thriving from about 1,200 to 600 BCE along the Indus and Ganges river valleys, the Painted Grey Ware people started using iron for agricultural tools, domesticate horses, and started re-organizing into more complex social and political units. This is the first period in Indian history to show clear evidence of social and political hierarchies, as well as true governments.

Painted Grey Ware pottery shard
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So, how exactly did they organize themselves? People of this time starting identifying more strongly by tribe, or jana. Each tribe slowly established its own region of dominance, creating rough clan-kingdoms known as Janapadas. Within this loose system of organization, Indian communities began slowly re-urbanizing for the first time since the collapse of the Harappan civilization.

The 16 Mahajanapadas

From about 700-600 BCE, the Painted Grey Ware culture was replaced by the ceramic styles of a new tradition, known as the Northern Black Polished Ware culture (700-200 BCE). This change in ceramic styles was significant, and indicative of some other major changes in the subcontinent.

By this point, some of the Janapadas had grown large enough to constitute real kingdoms, bringing India into a new period of history. Finally re-urbanized, the Indus and Ganges valley divided between 16 great powers, known as the 16 Mahajanapadas. Most were monarchies, although a few had the basic structures of a republic. The re-urbanization of Indian cultures had been completed at last, with people living in large, complex cities defined by clear political and social hierarchies, complex economies, and professional militaries.

War was a part of this world, but the people of the Mahajanapadas continued their spiritual development as well, building upon the centrality of religion in their lives. However, while some devoted themselves more fervently to the Vedas, other sought another path, which we call the Sramana movements. Some of these belonged to the Indian religion Jainism, which has mysterious and ancient roots but was more solidified in this time. The other big spiritual movement to appear in the era of the 16 Mahajanapadas was led by Siddhartha Gautama sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. His followers would remember him by another name, however: Buddha.

The Sanchi Stupa is an Iron-Age Buddhist temple, and one of the oldest in the world
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