In this second part of a series on Ancient India, we delve further into the achievements from that golden period
Continued from Advancements from the Ancient Vedic Culture – Part 1
We also find that textiles played an important part of the contributions and developments for which ancient India became known. Dr. Stanley Wolpert, professor of history at UCLA wrote in the publication India: Ancient Indians were the first humans to spin and weave cotton into cloth that continues to provide our most comfortable summer attire.
The medieval Arabs took up the art of textiles from India, and their word quattan gave the English word cotton. The word quattan is derived from the original Sanskrit word kantan, which means making a thread out of a cotton ball. The name muslin was originally applied to fine cotton weaves made in Mosul from Indian models; and calico was so called because it came from Calicut on the southwestern shores of India, first in 1631. (Niranjan Shah, India is the Original Home of Cotton, India Tribune, February 27, 2010.)
From the cultivation of cotton and the invention of the spinning wheel and the loom in India came some of the finest textiles the world has seen. India has been known for its brilliant and high quality cloth for hundreds of years. Cotton was cultivated, then spun into threads and woven into cloth since ancient times in India, dating back at least 4000 to 5000 years ago. The Greeks did not know of cotton until Alexander invaded India where they found cotton for the first time. They had not found it in the previous countries through which they traveled, including Egypt, Mesopotamia or Persia. Previous to this, the Greeks had used only wool in their woven fabrics.
Traders from ancient Greece, Egypt and Arabia ordered cotton cloth from India, which was especially known for the sheer quality of the cloth. When the French traveler and trader Tavernier visited India in the 17th century, he described the cotton clothes, by saying, They are so light and beautiful that you cannot even feel them with your hands, and the delicate embroidery is hardly visible. In another place he writes, A Persian Ambassador went back from India and gifted a coconut to his Sultan. The courtiers were amazed at this petty gift. But more amazing was the fact that when the coconut was opened, a roll of 30 yards of [Dacca] mulmul [fabric] came out of it.
India has a great history of metal work, and smelting of metals and deriving alloys, which was done as far back as 3000 BCE. The trade of metal products was extensive between India, Egypt and Rome. Tools of iron and steel from ancient India were of great demand for many purposes. It is indicated that the first weapons of steel for the people of the Mediterranean came from India.
According to the research done by the archeologist Jim G. Shaffer, he determined that iron ore was recognized and used by the late third millennium BCE in southern Afghanistan, and then used to make iron items. Iron ore and items made from it have also been found in eight bronze age Harappan sites, some as far back as 2600 BCE or earlier. This may have been a natural development from smelting copper, and then using it for the making of iron utensils. (Vans Kennedy, Researches into the Origin and Affinity of the Principal Languages of Asia and Europe, Longman, London, 1828, p. 185.)
Kamlesh Kapur describes in her book Portraits of a Nation: History of India in regard to the metal objects found at various sites, such as Mehrgarh and Nausharo: The first metallic objects were found near the excavated burial grounds. These were mostly ornaments. Hammering of unalloyed copper seems to be the only technique used to manufacture these small ornaments. These are dated around 7th millennium BCE. Weapons, chisels, axes and blades were found near habitational sites. The date of these objects is around 4th millennia BCE., thus, it is clear that molding, casting and the use of copper-lead alloy indicate an advanced knowledge and skill of these ancient people.
According to Will Durant, Hindus seem to have been the first people to mine gold. Greek visitors like Megasthenese have mentioned this in their records. Much of the gold used in the Persian Empire in the 5th century BCE came from India. India also mined silver, copper, zinc, led, tin and iron. Indians also knew the techniques for isolation, distillation and use of zinc. (Kamlesh Kapur, Portraits of a Nation: History of India, Sterling Publishers, Private Limited, 2010, p. 408-9.)
Another rather unknown early development of ancient India is the ability of its craftsmen to make high grade steel. S. Ramachandran relates in Iron and Steel Technology: Opinions for India: Steel has been known in India since hoary antiquity and is referred in the Vedas as Ayas. It has been deduced from archeological evidence that ancient Indians knew the art of making steel.
The name of Wootz is figured to have its origin in the Kannada-Telugu word for steel, which is wukku. This steel was made through a process by mixing low carbon soft iron and high carbon brittle steel at high temperature. India used to export this kind of steel from the 2nd century onwards to places like Iran, Arabia, Damascus, etc., where they wanted strong armament. Most places, like Arabia, they only knew how to make the brittle steel, but when that was combined with the Indian steel, they could get stronger material. This is how Indian steel became identified with Damascus swords and became widely exported to the West and East. By 1500, it became a coveted commodity in international trade. India was also known for its work in gold and silver.
Plants and their many uses also played an important part of the ancient Vedic culture of India. Botany was first used to develop a good system of agriculture. India also had a long agricultural heritage that went back before 3700 BCE, and had the first written texts on the topic. One of the oldest books is the Krishi-Parashar, which means “Agriculture by Parashara.”
In the Rig and Atharva Vedas agriculture was considered a noble occupation. In fact, the Atharva Veda regarded it almost as important as human procreation. Dried cow dung was prescribed and used as manure, which has also been found that when combined with cow urine and made into a dried paste, is one of the best fertilizers today for putting nutrients back into the soil, much more effectively and naturally than chemical fertilizers. From the Vedic literature it seems that Vedic-age farmers also knew how to maintain soil fertility by crop rotation and changing crops from season to season. (Dr. W. B. Rahudkar, Ancient Indian Science & Technology of Agriculture, in Bharatiya Bouddhik Sampada, August, 2000, pp. 6-7.)
India was one of the oldest regions for cultivated plants, which included rice, jute, cotton, pulses, black pepper, wheat, rye, linseed, walnuts, and fruits such as apple, pear, and mango. Earliest forms of vegetive propagation were of bananas, sugarcane, yam, palm, etc. Animals were also domesticated for agricultural purposes, such as cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, fowl, and possibly elephants back then as well. It has been found that river boats were used in ancient times for agricultural trade. Devices such as seed grills, carts, and granaries were found in Harappan sites, and other places yielded implements for ginning, spinning, and weaving cotton.
Archaeological findings have revealed that several species of winter cereals, such as barley, oats and wheat, along with legumes like lentil and chickpeas, were domesticated and grown in Northwest India before the sixth millennium BCE. Such research has also shown that several other crops were cultivated 3000 to 6000 years ago. These included oilseeds such as sesame, linseed, safflower, mustards, and castor; legumes such as mung bean, black gram, horse gram, field pea, grass pea, and fenugreek were all grown in the region. There were other crops as well, such as sugarcane, barley, jute, ginger, turmeric, pumpkin, gourd, cucumber, pepper, sesamum, radish, peas, and other pulses. Of course, there were also crops like cotton along with fruits like jujube, grapes, dates, jackfruit, mulberry, and black plum.
Regarding the arid landscape of the area, collecting and conserving water was extremely important, and they devised ways to do that. Water preservation was especially important in the southern part of India. Rulers felt it was an obligation as part of their duty to the people and kingdom. It was the only way to make sure their kingdoms would remain fertile. In preparation for durations without enough rain, storage of large amounts of water, and to collect as much as possible during times of rain and monsoons, they built wells, tanks, large reservoirs, lakes, canals between rivers, and small dams to preserve and provide for irrigation water for farmers and for drinking until the next season. You can still see many of these as you travel through India. Satellite pictures have shown as many as 1.2 million of such ponds in India.
In Jaisalmer, for example, in the western desert of Rajasthan, the king’s palace in the central fort was constructed in such a way that it would collect every drop of water that fell to be used and stored for later. And the passageways were made to collect the slightest breeze made by the wind so that every part of the palace would have whatever cooling effect that could be felt.
Along with the other developments came the Vedic arts, and music has been a great favorite of the people of Bharatvarsha (ancient India) for many centuries. Much of this knowledge is said to have been originally given to humanity through the Gandharva Veda. And the many different forms of music and the serious nature of learning the numerous kinds of instruments confirms their advancements in it.
Music was known and understood in Bharatvarsha from the earliest of times, and was a primary basis of the Sama Veda for the chanting of the mantras within it. The Gandharva Veda specialized in music, but this has been lost. Nonetheless, the knowledge of music remains and the number of the Ragas and Ragnis are innumerable. However, the subtle differences between these are often so subtle that an untrained ear will not tell the difference.
The main Indian musical instruments that accompanied the songs were the sarod, veena, sarangi, tambora, ghata, tabla, sitar, etc. These instruments were not simple, but required special material, craftsmanship and processes to construct them, along with years of arduous practice to master them.
In this regard, one person who explained the advanced nature of the Vedic system of music is Sir William Hunter, who stated in The Indian Empire: A regular system of notation had been worked out before the age of Panini and the seven notes were designated by their initial letters. This notation passed from [Vedic] Brahmins through the Persians to Arabia, and was then introduced into European music by Guido d’Arezzo at the beginning of the 11th century. . . Vedic music, after a period of excessive elaboration, sank under the Muhammadans into a state of arrested developments.
To summarize, Anne C. Wilson relates in A Short History of the Hindu System of Music: AIt must, therefore, be a secret source of pride to them (Vedic Indians) to know that their system of music, as a written science, is the oldest in the world. Its principal features were given long ago in Vedic writings.
Dance in India, used with its musical developments, dance in India was not merely an expression of an artist’s emotional mindset or imagination, but was meant to be an interpretation or conveyance of higher spiritual principles or pastimes of the Divine. In fact, in the Vedic pantheon ShivaShivaknown as Nataraja is known as Nataraja, the king of dancers. Shiva’s dance was also not without a more significant purpose. His dance was based on the rhythm of cosmic energy that pervades the universe, and the destruction of the illusory energy by which all souls are given the opportunity for release from the illusion to attain liberation, moksha.
In this way, traditional Indian dance is highly spiritual and often accompanies important religious rituals and holy days and festivals. Vedic dance goes back to prehistoric times. Bharata Muni wrote his Natya Shastra, science of drama and dance, over 2000 years ago. Some scholars feel he belongs to the 5th century BCE. In his text he explains that it was Lord Brahma, the secondary engineer of the universal creation, who brought dance (natya) and drama to the people of planet Earth millions of years ago, shortly after the Earth was created.
Ranjani Saigal elaborates on how this was supposed to have happened: “Once gods and goddesses pleaded with Lord Brahma for another Veda to be created that would be simple for the common man to understand, which is particularly important in Kali-yuga. Granting their wish, Lord Brahma created the Panchama-Veda, the Fifth Veda, or Natya Veda, a quintessence of the main four Vedas. Brahma took pathya (words) from the Rig Veda, abhinaya (communicative elements of body movements, or mime) from the Yajur Veda, geeth (music and chant) from the Sama Veda, and rasa (vital sentiment and emotional feeling and expression) from the Atharva Veda to form the Fifth Veda, Natya Veda. After creating this Veda, Lord Brahma handed it to the sage Bharata and asked him to propagate it on Earth. Obeying the fiat of Lord Brahma, sage Bharata wrote the Natyashastra. Bharata together with groups of the Gandharvas [angelic beings] and Apsaras [heavenly dancing girls] performed natya, nritta and nritya before Lord Shiva. It became the most authoritative text on the artistic technique of classical Indian dancers, especially Bharatnatyam and Odissi. It is also possible that the term Bharatnatyam partly owes its name to sage Bharata.”
Ancient Indian classical dance was so influential that it is not difficult to see the affects of it in nearby areas, such as in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, etc. Nowadays this ancient art of Indian dance is enjoying a wide audience and a prominent place on the international stage.
Vedic art is another ancient development that still holds much appreciation in modern times. Art in the Vedic tradition was never a mere representation of an artist’s imagination. It was always a vehicle to convey higher truths and principles, levels of reality that may exist beyond our sense perception. It was always used to bring us to a higher purpose of existence and awareness. In this way, it was always sacred and beheld the sacred. Still today it is used to allow others to enter into a transcendental experience. It may also present the devotional objects of our meditation.
Vedic paintings or symbols are unique in that they can deliver the same spiritual energy, vibration and insight that it represents. In other words, through the meditation and devotional mood of the artist, the art becomes a manifestation of the higher reality. In this way, the painting or symbol becomes the doorway to the spiritual essence contained within. They are like windows into the spiritual world. Through that window we can have the experience of what is called darshan of the Divine or divinities, God or His associates. DarshanDarshan is not merely seeing the Divine but it is also entering into the exchange of seeing and being seen by the Divine.
Thus the art, or the deity, is beyond mundane principles or ingredients, such as paint, paper, stone or metal with which it may be made, but it becomes completely spiritual through which the deity can reveal Himself or Herself. Thus, the truth of spiritual reality can pierce through the darkness of the material energy and enter our mind and illuminate our consciousness.
To convey higher realities in paintings and sculpture, everything has a meaning. The postures, gestures, colors, instruments or weapons, everything conveys a principle or purpose, which often must be explained to those who lack understanding. Thus, knowing the inner meaning of the painting increases its depth for those who can perceive it, which makes it worthy of further meditation and contemplation.
To be continued……..