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Chapter 04. The Geographical setting (Old NCERT History Ancient India)

4. The Geographical setting

The history of India cannot be understood without some knowledge of its geography. The Indian subcontinent is as large in areas as Europe without Russia. Its total area is 4,202,500 square kilometres. The subcontinent is divided into five countries — India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. India has nearly 985,000,000 people. It comprises twenty five States and seven Union Territories, including the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Some of the States are larger than many European countries. For instance, Bihar is as large, in area as England and several European countries are smaller than Madhya Pradesh.
The Indian subcontinent is a well-defined geographical unit, mostly situated in the tropical zone. The monsoon plays an important part in the history of India. The south-west monsoon lasts between June and October and brings rain in varying degrees to the major part of the country. In ancient times, irrigation was not an important factor and rains played the crucial role in agriculture. What is known today as the kharif crop in north India depended primarily in ancient times on the south-west monsoon? In winter, the western disturbances bring rains to northern India where wheat, barley, etc constitute the main crop. A part of the peninsular India particularly the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu, gets its major rainfall from the north-east monsoon from mid-October to mid-December. Once the direction of the monsoon was discovered sometime around the first century A.D., traders sailed with the south-west monsoon from western Asia and the Mediterranean area and came to India and South-East Asia. They returned with the advent of the northeast monsoon westward. The discovery of the monsoon enabled India to carry on trade and establish cultural contacts with western Asia and the Mediterranean area, as well as with South-East Asia.
India is bounded by the Himalayas on the north and seas on the other three sides. The Himalayas protect the country against the cold arctic winds blowing from Siberia through Central Asia. This keeps the climate of northern India fairly warm throughout the year. Since the cold is not so severe in the plains, people do not need heavy clothing and can live in the open for longer periods. Secondly, the Himalayas are high enough to shield the country against invasions from the north. This was especially true in pre-industrial times when communications were very difficult. However, on the north-west the Sulaiman mountain ranges which are in southward continuation with the Himalayas, could be crossed through the Khyber, Bolan and Gomal passes. The Sulaiman ranges are joined southward in Baluchistan by the Kirthar ranges which could be crossed through the Bolan pass. Through these passes two-way traffic between India and Central Asia has been going on from pre-historic times onwards. Various peoples from Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia came to India as invaders and immigrants and vice versa. Even the Hindukush, the westward extension of the Himalayan system, did not form an insuperable barrier between the Indus system and the Oxus system. The passes facilitated trade and cultural contacts between India on the one hand and Central Asia and West Asia on the other.
Nestled in the Himalayas are the valleys of Kashmir and Nepal. Surrounded on all sides by high mountains, the valley of Kashmir developed its own way of life. But it could be reached through several passes. Its winter compelled some of its people to go to the plains and its summer attracted the shepherds of the plains. Economic and cultural interaction between the plains and the valley was continuous. The Pamir plateau did not prevent it from becoming a transmitting centre of Buddhism for the adjacent areas of Central Asia, The valley of Nepal, smaller in size, is accessible to the people of the Gangetic plains through a number of passes. Like Kashmir it also became a centre fox cultivation of Sanskrit. Both the valleys became the repositories of the largest number of Sanskrit manuscripts.
The foothills of the Himalayas lent themselves to easier clearance than the jungle’s on the alluvial soil of the plains. It was easy to cross rivers in these areas because of their smaller width and hence the earliest routes skirted along the foothills of the Himalayas from the west to the east and vice versa. Naturally the earliest agricultural settlements and states were founded in the foothills in the sixth century B.C. and trade routes followed the terai route.
The heart of historical India is formed by its important rivers which are swollen by the tropical monsoon rains. These consist of the plains of the Indus system, the Indo-Gangetic Divide, the Gangetic basin and the Brahmaputra basin. Proceeding from the west to east we find the annual rainfall gradually increasing from 25 cm to over 250 cm. The Indus vegetation based on 25 to 37 cm rainfall and possibly the western Gangetic vegetation based on 37 to 60 cm rainfall could be cleared with stone and copper implements and made fit for cultivation, but this was not possible in the case of the middle Gangetic vegetation based on 60 to 125 cm rainfall and certainly not in the case of the lower Gangetic and Brahmaputra vegetation based on 125 to 250 cm rainfall. The thickly forested areas, which also contained hard soil, could be cleared (only with the help of the iron implements which appeared at a much later stage. Therefore, the natural resources of the less rainy western area were utilized first and large-scale human settlements generally spread from west to east.
Once brought under cultivation, the Indus-Gangetic plains produced rich crops and supported successive cultures. The Indus and the western Gangetic plains mainly produced wheat and barley, while the middle and lower Gangetic plains mainly produced rice, which also became the staple diet in Gujarat and the south of the Vindhyas. The Harappan culture originated and flourished in the Indus valley; the Vedic culture originated in the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab and flourished in the western Gangetic basin; the post-Vedic culture, mainly based on the use of iron, thrived in the middle Gangetic basin. The lower Gangetic valley and north Bengal really came into limelight in the age of the Guptas; and finally, the Brahmaputra valley covering Assam gained importance in early medieval times. Important powers fought for the possession of these plain’s and valleys. Especially, the Ganga-Yamuna doab proved to be the most coveted and contested area.
The rivers served as arteries of commerce and communication. In ancient times it was difficult to make roads and so men and material were moved by boat. The river routes, therefore, helped military and commercial transport. Evidently the stone pillars made by Ashoka were carried to different parts of the country by boat. The importance of rivers for communication continued till the days of the East India Company. Further, the rivers inundated the neighboring areas and made them fertile; they also supplied water to the canals cut from them. However, they caused heavy floods which periodically destroyed towns and villages in the northern plains and so many ancient buildings have been washed away beyond recovery Nevertheless, important towns and capitals such as Hastinapur, Prayag, Varanasi, Pataliputra and others were situated on the banks of the rivers. In modern times, urban sites are selected on the railway and road junctions or in the industrial or mining zones. But in the pre-industrial times towns were mostly situated on river banks.
Above all, the rivers provided political and cultural boundaries; these were also formed by mountains. Thus in the eastern part of the Indian peninsula the area known as Kalinga, covering the coastal belt of Orissa, was situated between the Mahanadi on the north and the Godavari on the south. Similarly, Andhra Pradesh mostly lay between the Godavari on the north and the Krishna on the south. The deltaic plains formed by these two rivers at their mouths shot into historical importance by the beginning of the Christian era when they became studded with towns and ports under the Satavahanas and their successors. Finally, a major part of Tamil Nadu was situated between the Krishna on the north and the Kaveri on the south. The Kaveri valley extended in the south roughly to the Vaigai river and in the north to the South Pennar river. It formed a distinct geographical zone and became the seat of the Chola power a little before the beginning of the Christian era. This area was different from north Tamil Nadu, which consisted of uplands and. came into prominence under the Pallavas in the fourth-sixth centuries A.D. The eastern part of the peninsula is bounded by the Coromandal coast. Although the coastline is flanked by the Eastern Ghats or the steps, the Ghats are not very high and have several openings caused by the eastward flow of the rivers into the Bay of Bengal. Thus communication between the eastern coast on the one hand and the other parts of Andhra and Tamil Nadu on the other was not difficult in ancient times. The port cities of Arikamedu (modern name), Mahabalipuram and Kaveripattanam were situated on the Coromandal coast.
In the western part of the peninsula we do not have such distinct regional units. But we can locate Maharashtra between the Tapi (or Damanganga) on the north and the Bhima on the south. The area covered by Karnataka seems to have been situated between the Bhima and the upper regions of the Krishna on the north and the Tungabhadra on the south. For a long time the Tungabhadra provided a natural frontier between the warring powers lying to its north and south. Just as the Chalukyas of Badami and the Rashtrakutas found it difficult to extend their sway to the south of the Tungabhadra, so also the Pallavas and Cholas found it difficult to extend their authority to its north. The, coastal area in the extreme southwest of the peninsula was covered by the modern state of Kerala. The sea coast along the western part of the peninsula is called the Malabar Coast. Although the coast came to have several ports and small kingdoms, communication between the coast and the adjoining areas of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala was rendered difficult by the Western Ghats with difficult passes to cross.
In between the Indus and the Gangetic systems in the north and the Vindhya Mountains on the south lies a vast stretch of land, which is divided into two units by the Aravalli mountains. The area west of the Aravalli is covered by the Thar desert, although a part of Rajasthan also lies in this region. The vast expanse of the desert made human settlements impossible in ancient times. However, a few fertile oases scattered in the desert were settled and from early times it has been possible to cross the desert by means of camels. The south-eastern portion of Rajasthan has been a comparatively fertile area since ancient times and because of the existence of the Khetri copper mines in these region human settlements arose in this area in the chalcolithic period.
Rajasthan shades off into the fertile plains of Gujarat, which are drained by the waters of the Narmada, the Tapi, the Mahi and the Sabarmati. Situated at the end of the north-western portion of the Deccan plateau, Gujarat includes the less rainy region of Kathiawar peninsula. The coastal area of this, state is fairly indented, allowing the existence of several harbours. Therefore, since ancient times Gujarat has been famous for its coastal and foreign trade and its people have proved to be enterprising traders.
South of the Ganga-Yamuna doab and bounded by the Chambal river on the west, the Son river on the east and the Vindhya Mountains and the Narmada river on the south, lies the State of Madhya Pradesh. Its northern part consists of fertile plains. At present Madhya Pradesh is the largest State in the country and can be broadly divided into two parts, eastern and western. The eastern, part, mostly hovered by the Vindhyas, became historically important in Gupta times in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. But western Madhya Pradesh includes Malwa, which has been the scene of historical activities from the sixth century B.C. onwards. Malwa served as an important hinterland for tire Gujarat ports and many wars were fought between the Deccan and the northern powers for the possession of Malwa and Gujarat. The Shakas and the Satavahanas fought for the possession of this key area in the first and second centuries A.D. and the Marathas and the Rajputs in the eighteenth Century,.
Each one of the areas bounded by rivers, mid in some cases by mountains and sometimes identical with deltas and plateaus, constituted a political and administrative unit in which different ruling dynasties rose and fell. On account of difficult communications in a vast country and the defensibility of the natural frontiers, it was not easy for the ruling class of one region to establish its rule over all the other regions, in course of time every region grew into a distinct cultural unit having its own style of life and language. But in northern and western India most languages were derived from the same Indo-Aryan stock and hence held many elements in common. What is further important, almost all over the country Sanskrit came to be cultivated and understood?
The Vindhya mountains cut right across the country from west to east and form the boundary between north and south India. The speakers of the Dravidian languages lived south of the Vindhyas and of the Aryan languages north of it. In between lived tribal peoples in the Vindhya regions where they are still found. The coastal areas along the Eastern and Western Ghats attracted settlers and traders and the south earned on a flourishing foreign trade. The Vindhyas do not constitute insurmountable barriers. In ancient times, in spite of the difficulties of communication, people moved from north to south and vice versa. This led to a give-and-take in culture and language. Again and again the northern powers moved down to the south and the southern rulers moved up to the north. So also did the traders, missionaries and cultural leaders, particularly the brahmanas. The two-way traffic remained constant and helped the development of a composite culture.
Although most regions had well defined natural frontiers, not every region possessed the resources necessary to keep life going. Therefore, from pre-historic times onwards the common need for metals and other resources had produced a network of interconnections between the different regions of the country.
The exploitation of the natural resources of the country has an important bearing on its history. Until human settlements developed on a large scale, because of heavy rainfall a good part of the Indian plains abounded in thickly forested areas, which provided game and supplied forage, fuel and timber. In early times, when burnt bricks were not much in use, timber houses and palisades were constructed. They have been found in Pataliputra, the first important capital of India. For construction and tool-making all kinds of stones including sandstone are available in the country1. The earliest human settlements are naturally found in India in the hilly areas and in those river valleys which are situated between the hills. In historical times more temples and pieces of sculpture were made of stone in the Deccan and south India than in the plains of northern India.
Copper is widely distributed in the country. The richest copper mines are found in the Chotanagpur plateau, particularly in the district of Singhbhum. The copper belt is about 130 km long and shows many signs of ancient workings. The earliest people who used copper implements in Bihar exploited the copper mines of Singhbhum and Hazaribagh and many copper tools have been discovered in south Bihar and parts of Madhya Pradesh. Rich copper deposits are also found in the Khetri mines in Rajasthan. These were tapped by both pre-Vedic and Vedic people, who lived in areas now covered by Pakistan, Rajasthan, Gujarat and the Ganga Yamuna doab. Numerous copper belts have been found in the Khetri zone and they seem to belong to a period anterior to circa 1000 B.C. Since copper was the first metal to be used, it is invested with great purity by the Hindus and copper utensils are used in religious rituals.
The country today produces practically no tin; this was scarce even in ancient times. There is reason to believe that it was found in Rajasthan, south Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, but its deposits have been almost used up. Since bronze is made by mixing tin with copper, we do not find many bronze objects in prehistoric times. The Harappans possibly procured some tin from Rajasthan, but their main supply came from Afghanistan and even this was limited. Hence although the Harappa people used bronze tools, their number compared with those found in western Asia, Egypt and Crete is very small and their tools carry a smaller percentage of tin. Therefore, the major portion of India had no proper Bronze Age, that is, an age in which tools and implements were mostly made of bronze. Starting with the early centuries of the Christian era India developed intimate connections with Burma and the Malay Peninsula which possessed plenty of tin. This made possible the use of bronze on a large scale, especially for the statues of the gods in south India. Tin for the Bihar bronzes of Pala times was possibly obtained from Gaya, Hazaribagh and Ranchi, for in Hazaribagh tin ores were smelted till the middle of the last century.
India has been rich in iron ores, which are found particularly in south Bihar, eastern Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Once the art of smelting using bellows (making steel) was learnt, iron could be used for war and more usefully, for the clearance of jungles and for deep and regular cultivation. The formation of the first empire in Magadha in the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. owed much to the availability of iron just south of this region. The large-scale use of iron made Avanti, with its capital at Ujjain, an important kingdom in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. The Satavahanas and the other powers which arose south of the Vindhyas may have exploited iron ores of Andhra and Karnataka.
Andhra possesses resources in lead, which explains the large numbers of lead coins in the kingdom of the Satavahanas, who ruled over Andhra and Maharashtra in the first two centuries of the Christian era, Lead may have also been obtained from towns in Rajasthan.
The earliest coins, called the punch-marked coins, were made largely of silver, although this metal is rarely found in the country. However, silver mines existed in early times in the Kharagpur hills in the district of Monghyr and they are mentioned as late as the time of Akbar. This accounts for the use of the white metal in the earliest punch-marked coins found in Bihar.
Large quantities of gold dust, which were carried by river streams from the Himalayas, were collected from the deposits of river channels in the plains. These deposits are called placers. Gold is found in the Kolar gold fields of Karnataka. A very early trace of gold has been found at a New Stone Age site of around 1800 B.C. in Karnataka. We have no indication of its exploitation till the beginning of the second century A.D. Kolar is considered to be tire earliest capital of the Gangas of south Karnataka. Much of the gold used in early times was obtained from Central Asia and the Roman Empire. Gold coins, therefore, came into regular use in the first five centuries of the Christian era. As the local resources were not sufficient to maintain the gold currency over a long spell of time; once the supply from outside stopped, gold coins became rare.
In ancient times, India also produced a variety of precious stones, including pearls, especially in central India Orissa and south India. Precious stones formed an important item of trade in articles which were eagerly sought for by the Romans in the early centuries of the Christian era.


1. Describe the principal geographical regions of India,
2. Why is an understanding of geographical features essential for an understanding of h
istory? Discuss with examples ’from ancient Indian history.
3. Mention the important metals found in India. To what use were they put in ancient times?
4. How did the geographical setting of India promote ‘unity in diversity’ in the development of Indian history and culture? Discuss.
5. On an outline map of India, locate the following:
Khyber, Bolan, Comal, Hastinapur, Prayag, Varanasi, Pataliputra, Arikamedu, Hazaribagh, Mahabaiipuram, Kaveripattanam, Singhbhum, Kolar, Khetri, Ujjain.
6. Make a list of important rivers of India and locate them on an outline map of India.

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