Daily Life
in    Ancient India

What did the ancient Indians wear? What did they eat? Did kids play with toys? Did they go to school? This site shares daily life in three major time periods of ancient India history; the mysterious and so cool Indus Valley Civilization, the Vedic & Epics Periods, and the Age of Empires. If you're in a hurry, use the cheat sheet to find just what you need! Welcome to ancient India!  

Cheat Sheet

Indus Civilization Daily Life 3000-1500 BC
Aryan Civilization Daily Life 1500-500 BC
  • Vedic Period 1500-1000 BC

  • Epics Period 1000 - 500 BC

Age of Empires Daily Life 500 BC-700 AD
Links

Credits

Lessons 

 Indus Valley Civilization Daily Life
3000-1500 BC

We know very little about this civilization, but what we know is fascinating!  Over 4,000 years ago, in the Indus Valley, people built huge, planned cities, with straight streets, and brick homes with private baths!  Kids played with toys and women wore lipstick!

How do we know this?   In 1922, archaeologists found something exciting! They found the remains of an ancient city called Harappa. They found another city, located 400 miles southwest of Harappa, called Mohenjo-Daro. Other ancient cities from the same period, arranged in the same way, have been found since. Collectively, this civilization is referred to as the Indus Valley Civilization (sometimes, the Harappan civilization). This civilization existed from about 3000-2,500 BC to about 1500 BC, which means it existed at about the same time as the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations.  The ruins of their cities are our only clues to their culture.

What was life like, over 4,000 years ago, in Harappa and in Mohenjo-Daro, two busy cities of about 35,000 people each?  Would you have wanted to live in one of these flourishing ancient cities? (I think they sound neat!) Let's see what you think!  

Homes: Houses were one or two stories high, made of baked brick, with flat roofs, and were just about identical. Each was built around a courtyard, with windows overlooking the courtyard. The outside walls had no windows. Each home had its own private drinking well and its own private bathroom. Clay pipes led from the bathrooms to sewers located under the streets. These sewers drained into nearly rivers and streams. This was a very advanced civilization!

Clothing:  Men and women dressed in colorful robes. Women wore jewelry of gold and precious stone, and even wore lipstick!  Among the treasures found was a statue of a women wearing a bracelet. Bracelets with similar designs are worn today in India.

Entertainment: A beautiful small bronze statue of a dancer was found, which tells us that they enjoyed dance and had great skill working with metals. In the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro, scientists have found the remains of a large central pool, with steps leading down at both ends. This could have been a public swimming pool, or perhaps have been used for religious ceremonies. Around this large central pool were smaller rooms, that might have dressing rooms, and smaller pools that might have been private baths.

Food: Dinner might have been warm tasty wheat bread served with barley or rice. It would appear they were very good farmers. They grew barley, peas, melons, wheat, and dates. Farms raised cotton and kept herds of sheep, pigs, zebus (a kind of cow), and water buffalo. Fish were caught in the river with fish hooks!  Each town had a large central storage building for grain. Crops were grown, and the harvest stored centrally, for all in the town to enjoy.   

Toys:  Some of the toys found were small carts, whistles shaped like birds, and toy monkeys which could slide down a string!

Art:  This ancient civilization must have had marvelous craftsmen, skilled in pottery, weaving, and metal working. The pottery that has been found is of very high quality, with unusually beautiful designs. Several small figures of animals have been found, like monkeys, which could be objects of art or toys. There are no large statues. There are small statues of what they think are female gods. They’ve found bowls made of bronze and silver. Goldsmiths made beads and ornaments. The metals used are not found in the Indus Valley, which means they had to import all of these items, or more probably, had to import the metals to make them from somewhere else.

Transportation: The people used camels, oxen and elephants to travel over land. They had carts with wooden wheels. They had ships, with one mast, probably used to sail around the Arabian Sea. Seals with a pictographic script, which has not as yet been deciphered, were found at the Indus Valley sites. Similar seals were found in Mesopotamia, which seems to indicate possible trade between these two civilizations.

The Riddle of the Indus: What does it take to build a city with straight streets and well designed sewers? It takes smart engineers and a lot of planning! These well organized cities suggest a well organized government and probably a well-developed social life.

What is amazing is that it appears the Harappan cities did not develop slowly, which suggests that whoever built these cities learned to do so in another place. As the Indus flooded, cities were rebuilt on top of each other. Archaeologists have discovered several different cities, one built over the other, each built a little less skillfully. The most skillful was on bottom. It would appear that builders grew less able or less interested in perfection over time. Still, each city is a marvel, and each greatly advanced for its time.

So far, scientists have found no wall carvings or tomb paintings to tell us about their life. We do know they had a written language, but only a few sentences, on pottery and amulets, have been found. We don’t know what it says. Scholars have quite a few mysteries to solve about the ancient Indus civilization.  For one thing, the people who lived in these marvelous cities disappeared around 1500 BC. Perhaps they ran out of wood to hold back flooding, or perhaps their soil gave out and no longer would grow crops. No one knows what happened these people, or where they went. Historians are very curious. It will be interesting to see what archaeologists "dig up" next!

UPDATE ON THE INDUS VALLEY! (Spring, 1998)     Thanks to modern technology and international rivalry, nearly 1,400 Indus sites (towns!) have now been discovered. That is a very big civilization, large enough to be called an empire, only there is no evidence that these people were governed by emperors who lived in palaces or large estates. Rather, the opposite has been discovered. Some homes are a bit larger than others, but that might be due to a larger family unit.  

What else have scientists discovered about this fascinating culture? LOTS! Their towns were laid out in grids everywhere (straight streets, well built homes!) These people were incredible builders! Scientists have found what they think are giant reservoirs for fresh water. They have also found that even the smallest house at the edge of each town was linked to that town's central drainage system. (Is it possible that they not only drained waste water out, but also had a system to pump fresh water into their homes, similar to modern plumbing? What a neat thought! Who were these people? Remember-these systems were built over 3,500 years ago!)

Although scientists can not yet read the language, they are beginning to believe these people had a common language! That's incredible! As well, scientists have found artifacts at different sites (towns) with the same or similar picture of a unicorn on them. India Today suggested humorously that perhaps it was a logo - like Pepsi and Coke, only this one was Unicorn!

What next? Scientists remain very curious about these people, who lived about the same time in history as the ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Egyptians. Did these ancient civilizations know each other in ancient times? My personal opinion is - yes! As scientists continue to unravel the riddle of the Indus, we may find we will have to rewrite history! Was it the ancient Mesopotamians who first invented the sailboat, or was it perhaps the people in the Indus Valley? How about the wheel? Who were these people? Where did they come from, and where did they go? It's a fascinating riddle.

To read India Today's delightfully informative update on the Riddle of the Indus, go here!

To see some marvelous pictures, and more, see Harappa!

Aryan Civilization Daily Life
The Vedic & Epics Periods
1500-500 BC

The Red Dot on Foreheads: Have you ever wondered why Indian women place a red dot on their foreheads, between their eyes? This goes back to Aryan days! In ancient times, a groom used to apply a spot of his blood on his bride's forehead, in recognition of wedlock! Today, married Indian women may choose to wear this mark. A married woman does not have to do this, but she can if she wants. However, if a woman is single, divorced or a widow, she can not wear this mark.  It's a sign of marriage!

Things changed in the Indus Valley when a new group arrived, called the Aryans. The Aryans came from Central Asia (modern day Russia). They entered the Indus Valley through the fabled Khyber pass. The Aryans were nomads. They raised livestock, rode chariots, and loved to gamble. They had no sophisticated government. They grouped in clans, and were ruled by warrior chiefs called rajas. Their history is one of constant war amongst themselves, between the various clans. We have little archaeological evidence, but have something else we can use to learn about them. The Aryans created marvelous stories, stories they told or sang for centuries.

The VEDAS: The Aryan beliefs and daily life are described in the four Vedas, a collection of poems and sacred hymns, composed in about 1500 BC.  Veda means knowledge. The Vedas are composed of the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas. This is why the period from roughly 1500 BC to 1000 BC is called the Vedic Period.  It is named after the Vedas.

The Ramayana & the Mahabharata:  Around 1000 BC, the Aryans started to create two marvelous epics. We know about daily life during this period from these famous epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These epics are stories about Aryans life, wars, and accomplishments. School kids in India, today, know these stories very well. They're great stories! The Ramayana tells a story in which the (good) aryan king Rama destroys the (evil) pre-aryan king Ravana. The other epic, Mahabharata, talks of Aryan wars amongst themselves, where two clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, battle it out, and the Pandavas emerge victorious.  This is why the period from roughly 1000 BC to 500 BC is called the Epics Period.  It is named after these two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.  

How did the Aryans live?  The Aryans clans, or tribes, settled in different regions of northwestern India. The tribes were called Gana (literally a "collection" - of people). The chief of each tribe was an hereditary job. If your father was the chief, someday, you would be chief. It was the only way to become a chief. The chief made decisions, after listening to a committee, or perhaps even to the entire tribe. People had a voice, but the chief was the boss.

Aryan Houses:  The people in the Vedic period lived in straw and wooden huts. Some homes were made of wood, but not until later, during the Epics Period.

Yagna (central fire-place):  The life of the tribal Aryans was focused around the central fireplace called the Yagna.  Dinner time was social time. The tribe would gather around the central fireplace, and share news, and the days happenings. Those who tended the central fireplace also cooked for the rest of the tribe. This was a very special job. The fire tenders were the go-between between the fire god and the people. These fire tenders, later on, formed the caste of priests. The Aryans ate meat, vegetables, fruit, bread, milk, and fish. The word for guest was Go-Ghna or eater of beef.

What did they do when they were not working or fighting each other? The Aryans loved to gamble. They introduced the horse to ancient India and raced chariots. They played fighting games. They loved to tell stories. The ancient Aryans were proud and fierce, and deeply religious. They had many gods and goddesses.

Jobs:  As the Aryans settled in and began to grow crops, people started to have occupations. In each tribe, people began to belong to one of four groups: the Brahmana (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (traders and agriculturists), and Shudra (workers).  In the beginning, these were just occupations. You could move from group to group. This changed over time, until a person's occupation or group depended upon birth. If your father was a farmer, you had to be farmer. Change from one group to another became very difficult.

Education  Kids were taught by a guru (a teacher). Even chiefs sons had to obey the guru. All students followed a rigorous course of studies which were imparted orally. Writing was done on bark and leaves, and hence was perishable, so we have very few rock edicts to tell us what they studied or what they wrote.

Clothing was initially made of animal skins. As the Aryans settled down, clothing began to be made of cotton.  

Age of Empires Daily Life
500 BC- 647 AD

The next thousand years saw a great many kings and emperors! Some did fabulous things, like plant trees along the roads and built rest houses for travelers. Other started great public works programs. Let's take a closer look at just one of the empires, (my favorite), the Gupta Empire.

The Gupta Empire (320 AD to about 500 AD). The Gupta Empire existed at about the same time as the Roman Empire. It dominated northern India. The Gupta Empire was neat. Villages were protected from bandits and raids with local military squads. Each squad was made up of one elephant, one chariot, three armored cavalrymen, and five foot soldiers. In times of war, all the squads were brought together to form the royal army!

People were happy during the Gupta period, the "Golden Age" of ancient India. They had religious freedom. They were given free medical care, which included simple surgery. Criminals were never put to death. Instead, they were fined for their crimes. Rewards of money were given to writers, artists, and scholars to encourage them to produce wonderful work, and they did. Very few of the common people were educated, but the Gupta Empire had many universities. Students came from as far away as China to study at Gupta universities!

Gupta homes: In the villages and towns, homes were mostly one room huts made of wood or bamboo, with thatched roofs. Even the palaces were made of wood! Larger homes had several rooms and balconies.

Gupta villages: Streets between the homes were narrow and twisted. Stalls for selling things were located on both sides of the street. People mostly walked where they wanted to go inside their village. Villages were very noisy places. Not only were they full of happy, busy people, they were full of animals. A monkey might sneak up and steal food right out of your hand! (Imagine coming home from the market, and telling your mother you didn't bring home any fruit because the monkeys stole it again!)

Art:  The craftsmen worked with iron and copper. Their iron work, especially, was outstanding. Even today, statues exist from this period, made of iron, that show very little rust!  

Jobs:  People worked on roads and other public works, but, (as they were in ancient Egypt), they were paid for their work. In the Gupta Empire, wheat was the main crop, and they kept cows for milk. This civilization produced great works of literature and marvelous works of art. Sculpture was their thing. They were very good at it.

They were also very smart scientists. They believe the earth was a sphere, and rotated around the sun. They also figured out that the solar year had 365.358 days. (Today, our scientists think it's probably more like 365.242, which means they only missed by 3 hours!) They were great with math.  Ancient India gave us the number system we use today - 9 digits, the zero, and the decimal!

What did they eat?  The concept of breakfast did not exist. In earlier times, meals were both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, depending upon your religious beliefs. After the coming of Buddhism, Jainism and other pacifist religion and reforms in Hinduism, vegetarian food (strictly excluding animal and fish meat) became the norm for as much as half of the population. In the Gupta Empire, they mostly ate vegetables, cereals, fruits, breads, and drank milk.

School: Older kids, who went to school, lived at school. School (ashram) life was tough. You had to do everything yourself. There were no servants. Even princes had to wash their clothes, cook their food, and follow a rigorous course of studies. They had a lot to learn. They studied math, science, engineering, literature, art, music, and religion.

Marriage: In ancient India, the most popular form of marriage was called Swayamvara. In this type of marriage, potential grooms assembled at the bride's house and the bride selected her spouse. Instances of Swayamvara ceremony are found in India's national epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There were various types of marriages, such as Gandharva Vivaha (love marriage) and Asura Viviha (marriage by abduction).

Sports and Games:  Ancient Indians invented many of the games we play today, like chess, polo, and playing cards (which are said to have gone from India to the other parts of our globe). They practiced martial arts, wrestling, and fencing.  Hunting was also a favorite pastime of the nobility.

What kind of pets did they have? The pets were mainly birds like parrots. The royals had peacocks. (Monkeys were not usually pets. Monkeys were mostly a nuisance, but cute!)

Clothing in Northern India:  In the north, Ancient Indians wore (some still wear) an unstiched garment called dhoti. This was a 9 meter long cloth that was draped around the legs and tied at the abdomen. Both sexes wore it the same way. Women wore bright colours. Men wore either white or dark colors.

Ancient Indians did not use banks, so the family "fortune" was worn by the Vaishnav women in the northern half of India. In the north, they wore lots of jewelry. It was used both by men and women. Jewelry included armbands, waist belts, leg and ankle bangles for both sexes, ear rings, nose rings, rings on fingers and toes, crowns and other hair adornments. In 326 BC, Alexander the Great (that great Greek!) invaded northwest India. Here's his account: They use parasols as a screen from the heat! They wear shoes made of white leather and these are elaborately trimmed, while the soles are variegated, and made of great thickness, to make the wearer seem so much taller. 

Clothing in Southern India:  In the south, however, ancient scriptures describe women as wearing saris. A sari is a single cloth wrapped around the body. It covers the woman from head to toe.  A dhoti is less modest. In ancient times, it was considered very important for women to be covered from the neck down to the feet. The southern half of India has been almost exclusively Shaivite for thousands of years. Shaivites typically have very, very few possessions. A Shaivite woman would not have worn such jewelry. Shaivite men have typically worn only a loin cloth and perhaps a cloth on the head to protect from the sun, never jewelry.

Here are some great sites about ancient India!

We would like to thank Sudheer Birodkar, an Indian novelist and historian, who generously shared with us a great of information about ancient India daily life! Sudheer has put quite a few sites online to share his knowledge and love of ancient India. Here are just a few of them.

Sudheer's Sites
http://india.coolatlanta.com/GreatPages/sudheer/
Free Ancient India Clip Art!
Ancient India's Contribution to Science and Technology
A Search for Our Hindu History
Sports and Games in Ancient India

Life & Lifestyles in Ancient India

Other Great Links
Ancient India Resources
INDOlink - ancient & modern Indian stories, coloring book
Learn about Buddha
The Vedas
The Ramayana
Tales of Wonder

For Teachers & Students
Ancient India (Lesson Plans, Activities & Resources)

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  CREDITS  

Our thanks to Sudheer Birodkar for his detailed information about ancient India daily life!

and to Dr Adams, Awesome Library, for his guidance and great links!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Thanks for visiting! Have a great year!

Lin and Don Donn

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