The Geographical Setting Of Ancient India




The history of any country or region cannot be understood without some knowledge of its geography. The history of the people is greatly conditioned by the geography and environment of the region in which they live.

The physical geography and environmental conditions of a region include climate, soil types, water resources and other topographical features. These determine the settlement pattern, population spread, food products, human behaviour and dietary habits of a region.

The Indian subcontinent is gifted with different regions with their distinct geographical features which have greatly affected the course of its history.

Geographically speaking the Indian subcontinent in ancient times included the present day India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. On the basis of geographical diversities the subcontinent can be broadly divided into the following main regions. These are –

  • (i) The Himalayas
  • (ii) The River Plains of North India
  • (iii) The Peninsular India


The Himalayas

The Himalayas are the world’s largest and the highest mountain ranges. These are approximately 2,400 kilometers long.

These ranges have not only checked invasions but have also protected us from the cold winds coming from north. They also stop the monsoon winds from the seas which results in rainfall in the northern plains.

However, there are some mountain passes which, though difficult, have provided access to determined invaders, traders, missionaries. These have helped in developing cultural contacts with Central Asia, China and Tibet in ancient times.

In the north-western direction the broken Himalayan ranges contain the major routes linking the Indian plains with Iran and Central Asia through Afghanistan. These pass through the Gomal, Bolan and Khyber passes.

  • The Greeks, Shakas, Kushanas, Hunas and other foreign tribes reached India following these routes.
  • Likewise, Buddhism and other Indian elements were carried out to Afghanistan and Central Asia through these mountain passes.



The River Plains Of North India

The Himalayas also provide India with three river systems dominated by the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. These rivers made their respective regions fertile and attracted both settlers and invaders.

Indus Plains : The Indus plains include the regions of Punjab and Sind. Irrigated by the tributaries of the river Indus, they form a vast fertile plain which have made the region the ‘breadbasket’ of the subcontinent. It is called so because this region is very important for wheat cultivation. The strategic location and richness of the Punjab region has attracted foreign invaders since ancient past. The Sind region includes the lower Indus Valley and the delta. It is the Indus plains which witnessed the development of an urbanized culture called the Harappan culture for the first time in the subcontinent.

Gangetic Plains : The Gangetic basin receives more rainfall and is more humid than the Indus region. The Gangetic plains is divided into three sub-regions: Upper, Middle and Lower.

  • The Upper plains of the river Ganges constitute the western and southern parts of Uttar Pradesh. This region has seen active cultural developments since the ancient period. This was inhabited by the Aryans in the Later Vedic period, during which they practised agriculture.
  • The Middle Gangetic plains, which is more fertile and has more rainfall, include eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is the region where mahajanpadas (territorial states) like Kosala, Kasi and Magadha were established in the 6th century BC. The two main religions of India, Jainism and Buddhism, also took their birth here.
  • The Lower Gangetic plains constitute the Bengal region. Its northern part is irrigated by the Brahmaputra. The high rainfall in this region created dense forest and marshy land which made it difficult for the development of settlements in the beginning. But its coastal areas served as important channels of communication with other regions of the subcontinent and also with the South-east Asian countries. Tamralipti or Tamluk was an important seaport of this region which played a significant role in commercial activities.

The Eastern India normally refers to the coastal plains formed by the river Mahanadi and other streams. The fertile coastal plains of this region helped in the development of agriculture, society and culture. This came into contact with the Gangetic culture from the time of the Nandas and the Mauryas (4th century BC). Around AD 1000, Orissa began to develop her distinct linguistic and cultural identity.

The Western India refers to the regions of the modern states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. It is known for its black soil which is good for cotton cultivation. The Thar desert of Rajasthan, surrounded by the semi-arid regions, was not as fertile as the Gangetic plains. As a result, this region was not much favourable for cultivation. However, later in the 8th century AD, with the growth of irrigation mechanism in the form of Persian wheel (rehat), many settlements emerged here. Rajasthan is also the home of the Rajput clans.

In Gujarat the fertile plains of the rivers Sabarmati, Mahi, Narmada and Tapti brought prosperity. A very long coastal line too helped Gujarat to develop contacts with other countries through its ports. The most important sea port of this region has been Brigukaccha or Bharuch (Broach).


The Peninsular India

Peninsular India includes the Deccan plateau and the coastal plains of South India.


The plateau is situated to the south of the Vindhya mountains. It is divided into three major regions which largely correspond to the modern states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

  • The northern Deccan plateau comprises of a part of Maharashtra. A number of Chalcolithic sites inhabited by people using copper and stone tools have been found in this region.
  • Karnataka includes the southwestern Deccan. This region with the availability of water and other resources had been more suitable for human settlements than the northern part. The Raichur doab for its rice cultivation has been known as the ‘rice-bowl’ of South India. It has been the bone of contention between different kingdoms. These regions were inhabited right from the prehistoric times.

The plateau region also has hilly terrains in the Western and Eastern Ghats.

  • The Western Ghats rise sharply close to the western coast, tapering eastwards into the plateau. They are cut by a series of passes at Junnar, Kanheri and Karle. These served as trade routes connecting the ports along the west coast.
  • At the southern end of the Western Ghats is the Palghat pass which linked the west coast to the Kaveri valley and played an important role in the Indo-Roman trade in ancient period.
  • The Eastern Ghats merge more gradually into the plateau and the coastal plain.

The coastal plains constitute the states of Tamil Nadu in east and Kerala on west.

  • In Tamil Nadu the rivers are seasonal.
    • As a result, the people of this region have depended more on the tank irrigation since the early times.
    • However, Kaveri delta has been the major region of human attraction.
      • It provided opportunity for the cultivation of rice and witnessed the flourishing of the Sangam culture in the early historical period.
  • The ports such as Arikamedu and Kaveripattinam gave impetus to the Indo- Roman Trade in early centuries of Christian era.
  • The Tamil region evolved a distinct linguistic and cultural identity of its own.


Influence Of Environment

The settlement of people in any region is very much dependent on its environmental conditions.

  • Environment is taken as the surroundings or conditions in which various species (men, animals and plants) exist and function.
  • The environment mainly comprises of elements such as climate, landscape, rivers, species of plants and animals (flora and fauna), etc.

1. A semi-arid region is advantageous to people for settlement purpose.

  • For example, the Sind region having this type of climate in ancient period, resulted in the flourishing Harappan civilization. It also helped the growth of urban settlements.
  • Similarly, the rise of Pataliputra and the importance of Magadha in Bihar can also be explained in relation to its physical features and environment. Pataliputra was surrounded by the rivers namely the Ganges, Son and Gandak which provided natural defence as well as internal communication.
  • Moreover, the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains helped in the maintenance of a strong population base.

2. The environmental conditions also determine the resource potential of a region.

  • The forested region can be a rich source of timber, whereas the coastal regions yield the sea products.
  • The hilly regions with rocks containing the mineral ores can lead to the development of metallurgy.
  • The extraction of metals and their use for tools and other purposes may add to the standard of living.
  • For example, Magadha was located in proximity to the iron ore mines and sources of stone and timber in the region of Chotanagpur plateau. This strengthened the position of Magadha.

3. The subsistence pattern is also influenced by the environmental conditions.

  • The regions covered by the river plains have alluvial soil.
  • The fertility of soil helps in surplus production.
    • The surplus production results in exchange activities which develop into trade on a larger scale.
  • The type of soil also determines the crop pattern.
    • For example, black soil is good for growing cotton.

4. An area gifted with navigable rivers has well-developed trade and communication networks.

  • Our ancient literature like the Jatakas and other texts, mention many riverine routes in ancient India.
  • Similarly, the coastal routes promote the long distance trade with different countries.
  • The mountain passes are also very important in this context. For example, the Palghat pass linked the east and west coasts and thus helped in the growth of Indo-Roman trade in ancient times.

Thus, we find that the physical features and environment help us to unfold the historical processes of a region.

  • The diversity of Indian subcontinent presents an uneven pattern of historical developments.
  • The areas which were rich became important while those with fewer resources lagged behind.
  • It is important to observe that the settlement pattern and mode of life depend on the local resource utilization which in turn is dependent on the technological developments in that region.



Bibliography : NIOS – Ancient India

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