Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


First Empires

ca. 7000 B.C. - 200 A.D.


The Middle East was the cradle of mankind's first advanced civilizations. In Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, which extends in an arc from the north of the Arabian Peninsula east through Palestine to Mesopotamia, the first state structures emerged in parallel with the further development of animal husbandry, agriculture, trade, and writing. The first great empires, such as those of the Egyptian pharaohs, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Persians, evolved at the beginning of the third millennium B.C., out of small communities usually clustered around a city. Similar development also occurred on the Indian subcontinent and in China, where quite distinct early advanced civilizations took shape as well.


The golden mask of Tutankhamun, a jewel of ancient Egyptian artwork,
 showing the pharaoh in a ceremonial robe decorated with the heraldic animals, the vulture and cobra, ca. 1340 B.C.


see also:

Art of the Indus


India from the Beginnings to the Invasion of Alexander the Great

ca. 7000-325 B.C.


From very early times, the culture of the Indian subcontinent was marked by the great number of ethnic and linguistic groups living in the region. This diversity was the result of the many waves of migration which settled the subcontinent. Aryan immigrants put their stamp on the first civilization by introducing into it their gods, caste system, and political order. More complex state structures gradually developed out of the original tribal societies.

India's Early Period and the Indus Culture

A great variety of cultural forms took shape early in the history of the subcontinent. The first major culture to assert itself was the Harappa, which arose in the area of present-day Pakistan.

Evidence shows that humans settled India between 40,000 and 30,000 B.C. at the latest. These first inhabitants probably migrated out of Africa by way of the Arabian Peninsula. Several waves of migration followed, resulting in numerous, diverse ethnic groups settling in India. Among the inhabitants, five great language groups developed. The Indo-Aryan (predominantly Hindi) or Indie language, which became the language of religious texts, emerged in northern Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Dravidi-an, the language of archaic literature, appeared in the south of India and (as Tamil) in parts of Sri Lanka. The either, less widespread language groups were the Aus-tro-Asiatic languages, composed of the Munda tongues; the Sino-Tibetan languages in Kashmir, Nepal, and Bhutan; and the autochthonous remnant languages. The first inhabitants of the subcontinent were hunter-gatherers, who were superseded by farmers and herdsmen from 7000 B.C. By 6000 B.C. the emergence of a discernible proto-culture began.

From this, the 1, 8 Indus or 2, 3 Harappa culture, which flourished between 2600 and 1900 B.C., evolved on the plains of the river Indus.

It is named after the city of Harappa, which was discovered in 1921 a.d. in northeastern Pakistan. The civilization was characterized by advanced agriculture, as evidenced by a highly developed irrigation system and large granaries.

1 Citadel of Mohenjo-Daro, Sind Province,
Pakistan—after Harappa, the most important
excavated city of the Indus culture

8 Brick-lined well that supplied the
Mohenjo-Daro Citadel, in today's Sind Province,
in the southeast of Pakistan



2 Harappa royal priest,
limestone carving, ca. 2500 B.C.

Bronze figurine,
Harappa culture,
ca. 2500 B.C.



The society's administrators used standardized weights, measurements, and 5, 7 seals.

The Harappa script, which is etched into about 5000 surviving seals and tablets, was in use around 3300 B.C. and has not yet been deciphered. There were large settlements with planned streets, public buildings, and fortified citadels. Archaeological finds indicate sophisticated commercial structures.

In around 1900 B.C., the settlement suddenly fell after being struck by floods and attacked by outsiders. The southern Indus plains were completely given up as a result, but Indus culture lived on in the animal and sacrificial cults of later groups.

An example of this is the cult surrounding the 9 sacred cow.

5 Official seal with animal heads,
Indus culture

7 Seal decorated with unicorn,
Harappa culture

9 Holy zebu bull in India, decorated with richly
embroidered cloths


The Arrival of the Indo-Aryans

The invading Indo-Aryan peoples were organized into tribal monarchies. When they arrived, they dominated the culture of India. Nevertheless, there was ultimately an intermixing with the native population.

Among the Indo-Aryans moving into India in the second half of the second millennium B.C. was the Sintasha culture from the eastern Ural mountains.

Like the Hurrites of the Mitanni kingdom in northern Iraq and northern Syria, their military superiority was based on their early use of the 6 chariot.

As they pushed into northern India, they introduced the early Aryan gods (Mithra, Varuna, 4 Indra) to the cultures they encountered.

How the Aryan invasion actually took place is disputed among experts. It was most likely a case of migration rather than conquest. The resettlement probably took place in several waves, coming from the West through Iran.

Along the way, the Indo-Aryans picked up elements of the Oxus culture, which had flourished in southern Tajikistan from around 2400 to 1600 B.C. The greater part of our knowledge about the arrival of the Aryans, and the oldest literary work written in an Indo-European language, comes from the Rig-Veda. Vedism was the earliest Aryan religion of India. In its verses we learn, for example, that the Aryans were cattle breeders. The Aryans did not see themselves as a race— in contrast to later Aryan ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries—but as members of a particular cultural group who spoke the Vedic (Sanskrit) language. They were soon the dominant class in North India and spoke of other peoples as "enemies" or "slaves." Only after a long period of time did an accommodation with the native population occur.

The Vedas are considered religious texts of purely Aryan origin, although India's early 10 religions probably arose through a process of fusion of Aryan and native elements. The Rig-Veda refers to the native people as "idol" and "phallus" worshippers and the veneration of the stone Phalli (lingam) as fertility symbols can be traced to them. The Rig-Veda also describes the early organization of the Aryans into tribal monarchies, and mentions the Bharata people in Punjab. The Bharata king Sudas is said to have defeated his enemies in the Battle of the Ten Kings by bursting the dams (Rig-Veda 7,18). Poets played a major role in the Aryan culture as chroniclers of the lives and deeds of the kings.

6 Chariot, bronze model, Harappa culture

4 Indra, Nepalese sculpture,
15th century


10 Religious scene depicting Indra appealing
to the goddess, Indian miniature



The Four Vedas

The Vedas ("knowledge") constitute India's oldest literature, a collection of religious hymns and verses. They contain the religious, philosophical, and ritual knowledge used by the priests and poets of the Vedic period (between 1500 and 500 B.C.). The canon of the Vedas was compiled around 1000 B.C. The oldest Veda is the Rig-Veda. The Sama Veda, which follows, is made up of melodies and texts to accompany sacrificial rituals. The Yajur Veda contains verses and dietary requirements to go with tit ñ sacrifice. The Atharva Veda is primarily composed of magic formulas and poetical-philosophical speculation.

Rigveda (padapatha) manuscript in Devanagari,
early 19th century

Boy receives lessons in the holy Vedas -
a Brahman school in Trichur


The Four Vedas

The canonical division of the Vedas is fourfold (turīya) viz.

Rig-Veda (RV)

Yajur-Veda (YV, with the main division TS vs. VS)

Sama-Veda (SV)

Atharva-Veda (AV)

Of these, the first three were the principal original division, also called trayī, "the triple Vidyā", that is, "the triple sacred science" of reciting hymns (RV), performing sacrifices (YV), and chanting (SV). This triplicity is so introduced in the Brahmanas (ShB, ABr and others), but the Rigveda is the older work of the three from which the other two borrow, next to their own independent Yajus, sorcery and speculative mantras.

Thus, the Mantras are properly of three forms: 1. Ric, which are verses of praise in metre, and intended for loud recitation; 2. Yajus, which are in prose, and intended for recitation in lower voice at sacrifices; 3. Sāman, which are in metre, and intended for singing at the Soma ceremonies.

The Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda are independent collections of mantras and hymns intended as manuals for the Adhvaryu, Udgatr and Brahman priests respectively.

The Atharvaveda is the fourth Veda. Its status has occasionally been ambiguous, probably due to its use in sorcery and healing. However, it contains very old materials in early Vedic language. Manusmrti, which often speaks of the three Vedas, calling them trayam-brahma-sanātanam, "the triple eternal Veda". The Atharvaveda like the Rigveda, is a collection of original incantations, and other materials borrowing relatively little from the Rigveda. It has no direct relation to the solemn Shrauta sacrifices, except for the fact that the mostly silent Brahmán priest observes the procedures and uses Atharvaveda mantras to 'heal' it when mistakes have been made. Its recitation also produces long life, cures diseases, or effects the ruin of enemies.

Each of the four Vedas consists of the metrical Mantra or Samhita and the prose Brahmana part, giving discussions and directions for the detail of the ceremonies at which the Mantras were to be used and explanations of the legends connected with the Mantras and rituals. Both these portions are termed shruti (which tradition says to have been heard but not composed or written down by men). Each of the four Vedas seems to have passed to numerous Shakhas or schools, giving rise to various recensions of the text. They each have an Index or Anukramani, the principal work of this kind being the general Index or Sarvānukramaṇī.

Vedas manuscript


The Nations of the Middle Vedic Period

In the Kuru period, India's caste system and complex religious rituals developed. The hierarchical society spread throughout the entire subcontinent.

Around 1000 B.C. India entered the Middle Vedic period. This began in northwest India with the unification of 30 Aryan tribes from the Rig-Veda era to form a great tribal entity: the Kuru-Pancala. The leading tribe, from which the kings were drawn, was the Bharata. Their capital was situated in Hastinapura, present-day Delhi.

During this period, the transition to iron working began and the distinctive "Painted Gray Ware" pottery became prevalent. The Vedic Indians retained a semi-nomadic lifestyle; even the kings did not lead fully sedentary lives. Lower down the social structure, rice farmers were forced off their land to make way for grazing and had their provisions stolen.

An important aspect of the Kuru period was the development of the caste system. There were originally four castes.

Two upper classes, the 5 priests and the nobility, ruled over the two lower castes, which were made up of the farmers, craftsmen, and laborers, and the outcasts (Pariah, or "untouchables").

In religious practice the sacrificial rites, considered to be exchanges of food between the gods and men, became progressively more complex. This practice was thought to preserve the cosmic order. A Brahman was required for the interpretation of the holy texts.

This social system spread to north and east India, including Kashmir and Nepal. Brahman texts speak of a "ritual taking-possession" of the country and the "civilizing" of barbaric tribes by the Brahmans around the year 800 B.C. The tribes of the east were "adopted" into the caste society. The major kingdoms of the northeast, the Kosala and Videha, produced "Black and Red Ware" pottery. The kingdom of Videha, under King Janaka, soon became a model nation of the Vedic order.


5 The Priest and the Believer, Indian miniature, 18th century


The Later Vedic Period and the Eastern Nations

In the sixth century B.C., Buddhism and Jainism emerged as religious reform movements. The rise of Buddhism began as the cultural center of gravity shifted toward the eastern Indian states.

In the Later Vedic period, around 600 B.C., the cultural and political focus of India shifted to the northeast. Concurrently, new groups began moving into the eastern states from Iran and Afghanistan. The kings of Videha and Kosala sent for Brahmans from western India to instruct them in the Vedic laws. Around this time, two reform movements emerged in the cast. Both were critical of the caste system and the bloody animal sacrifices that it demanded. The reform movements were the Buddhism of Prince 1, 3, 4 Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and the Jainism of 2 Mahavira.

The Later Vedic period came to an end somewhere around 450 B.C., at least partly due to the Persians' invasion of the Gandhara and Sindh regions of present-day Pakistan in 530 and 519 B.C. New cities and centers of commerce developed. An ambitious class of dealers and merchants prospered, as the luxurious vessels of the "Black Polished Ware" testify. The culture opened itself to the world and flourished.

1 Buddha with disciples

3 Buddha, relief from the Jaulian monastery, ca. third-fifth century

4 Buddha in contemplation


2 The birth of Mahavira, Indian miniature, ca, 1400


In Gandhara, the alphabet borrowed from further west was modified into a new script: the 9 Brahmi alphabet from which all present-day Indian alphabets derive.

9 Characters of the Brahmi alphabet, second millennium B.C.


The True Brahman

"The Brahman, truly, was this world in the beginning, the One, the Unending: Unending to the East, unending to the South, unending above and below, unending on all sides. For him there is no... location of heaven, not across, nor below, nor above." From the Upanishads following the Vedas.


The grand Indian national epic 6, 7, 8, 10 Ramayana was written between 400 and 300 B.C. by the legendary poet Valmiki.

While western India had been under Persian influence since the end of the sixth century, the east developed its own structures. In 500 â.ñ. the kingdom of Maghada, under King Bimbisara, was in a position of dominance. Bimbisara had professed his faith in Buddhism around 525 and sought to promote it. while pursuing a strategy of conquest and marriage. His son Ajatashatru extended the empire to include the tribal federation of the north, and his successor continued this effective strategy. In 364 the usurper, Mahapadma Nanda, toppled them and expanded the empire into central India and Orissa. He and his successors, the Nanda kings, reigned almost up until the invasion of Alexander the Great between 327 and 325 B.C.

6 The gods Brahma and Krishna,
scene from the Ramayana

7 The monkey kingdom, scene from the Ramayana


8 Fhe testing of Sita in the fire,
illustration of a scene from the Ramayana

10 Rama and Krishna, illustration of a scene from the Ramayana


Rama redeeming Ahalya, a sculpture from Deogarh,
now in the National Museum, Delhi


Lakshman prepares to mutilate Surpanakha,
in a carving from Deogarh (Gupta period, c.500's CE)


Rama in pursuit of the golden deer, from Cave 1, Udaigiri


Ravana in the midst of the battle: wall painting, Orchha, palace of Bir Singh Dev, 1627


Rama and his animal armies (Banaras school, early 1600's)


Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, 1652


The meeting of Rama and Parasurama, painted by Manohar (Mewar school, 1649)



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