Ancient India and the Indian Subcontinent

People walking in front of Indian Khajuraho temples.
Ancient Khajuraho temples in India. Alex Lapuerta / Getty Images

The Indian subcontinent is a diverse and fertile region with monsoons, droughts, plains, mountains, deserts, and especially rivers, along which early cities developed in the third millennium B.C. Along with Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica, the ancient Indian subcontinent was one of the few places in the world to develop its own system of writing. Its early literature was written in Sanskrit.

The Aryan Invasion

The Aryan Invasion is a theory about Indo-Aryan nomads migrating from the area of modern Iran into the Indus Valley, over-running it and becoming the dominant group.

Ashoka was the third king of the Mauryan Dynasty, ruling from c. 270 B.C. until his death in 232. He was known for his cruelty early on, but also his great acts following his conversion to Buddhism after he waged a bloody war in c. 265.

The Caste System

Most societies have social hierarchies. The caste system of the Indian subcontinent was strictly defined and based on colors that may or may not correlate directly with skin color.

Early Sources for the History of Ancient India

Early, yes, but not very. Unfortunately, although we now have historical data that go back a millennium before the Muslim invasion of India, we don't know as much about ancient India as we do about other ancient civilizations.

Ancient Historians on Ancient India

Besides the occasional literary and archaeological record, there are historians from antiquity that wrote about ancient India from around the time of Alexander the Great.

The River Ganges

The Ganges (or Ganga in Hindi) is a holy river for Hindus located in the plains of northern India and Bangladesh, running from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Its length is 1,560 miles (2,510 km).

Gupta Dynasty

Chandra-Gupta I (r. A.D. 320 - c.330) was the founder of the imperial Gupta Dynasty. The dynasty lasted until the late 6th century (although starting in the 5th century, the Huns started breaking it apart), and produced scientific/mathematical advances.

Harappan Culture

Harappa is one of the very ancient urban areas of the Indian subcontinent. Its cities were laid out on grids and it built sanitation systems. Part of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, Harappa was located in what is modern Pakistan.

Indus Valley Civilization

When 19th-century explorers and 20th-century archaeologists rediscovered the ancient Indus Valley civilization, the history of the Indian sub-continent had to be rewritten. Many questions remain unanswered. The Indus Valley civilization flourished in the third millennium B.C. and suddenly disappeared, after a millennium.

The Kama Sutra

The Kama Sutra was written in Sanskrit during the Gupta Dynasty (A.D. 280 - 550), attributed to a sage named Vatsyayana, although it was a revision of earlier writing. The Kama Sutra is a manual on the art of love.

Languages of the Indus Valley

The people of the Indian subcontinent used at least four different languages, some with limited purposes. Sanskrit is probably the best known of these and it was used to help show a connection among the Indo-European languages, which also include Latin and English.

Mahajanapadas and the Mauryan Empire

Between 1500 and 500 B.C. 16 city-states known as Mahajanapadas emerged in the Indian subcontinent.

The Mauryan Empire, which lasted from c.321 - 185 B.C., unified most of India from east to west. The dynasty ended with an assassination.

Mound of the Dead Me

Along with Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro ("Mound of the Dead Men") was one of the Bronze Age civilizations of the Indus River Valley from before the time when the Aryan Invasions might have occurred. See Harappan Culture for more on Mohenjo-Daro as well as Harappa.

Porus and the Punjab Region

Porus was the king in the Indian subcontinent whom Alexander the Great defeated with great difficulty in 326 B.C. This is the earliest firm date in the history of India.


Punjab is a region of India and Pakistan that lies around tributaries of the Indus River: the Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Chenab, and Jhelum (Greek, Hydaspes) rivers.

The 3 Main Religions

There are 3 main religions that came from ancient India: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Hinduism was the first, although Brahmanism was an early form of Hinduism. Many believe Hinduism is the oldest extant religion, although it has only been called Hinduism since the 19th century. The other two were originally developed by practitioners of Hinduism.


The Vedas are spiritual writing valued especially by the Hindi. The Rgveda is thought to have been written, in Sanskrit (as are the others), between 1200 and 800 B.C.

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Gill, N.S. "Ancient India and the Indian Subcontinent." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Ancient India and the Indian Subcontinent. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Ancient India and the Indian Subcontinent." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).