The Archaeology of Hinduism
The Archaeology of Hinduism
- Namita Sanjay SugandhiNamita Sanjay SugandhiHartwick College
The term “Hindu” derives from Persian expressions coined in the 4th century bce to define the traditions found east of the Indus River. Thus, a common start to the archaeological examination of Hinduism are the prehistoric cults found in various regions of the Indian subcontinent. Some elements associated with traditions from the urban Indus civilization of the 3rd millennium bce have been connected to later Hindu iconography and ideals, but these links remain tenuous. By the mid-2nd millennium bce, the introduction of new Vedic ideologies, so called because the earliest references are found in the texts of the Vedas, ushered in significant transformations in ritual and spiritual life, but left little material trace. However, migrating groups associated with these traditions have been traced genetically and linguistically to the Western Steppes of Central Asia. Over the next two thousand years, Vedic traditions became more elaborate and heterogeneous, merging with popular customs, and generating heterodox schools of thought that challenged both the spiritual and social order of Brahmanical Hinduism, which also took form during this time. The early centuries of the Common Era were witness to additional transformations and adaptations, and it is after this period that various forms of temple architecture, sculpture, and the epigraphic record become a wider body of evidence for study in both South and Southeast Asia. During the 1st millennium ce, Hinduism took on more familiar contours, partly driven by the rise in extant religious, philosophical, and secular literature. Alongside this textual record, a wealth of architectural and art historical sources became available; studies of these sources increasingly look to continuities from earlier eras that are documented archaeologically. Nevertheless, much of this body of knowledge derives from institutional and elite contexts; household-level details remain slim and much contemporary interpretation of past daily worship continues to be inferred from the ethnographic record. During the modern period, Hinduism came to acquire its formal definition as a world religion, and with this came the attempt to delineate Hindu identity for first colonial, and then national ends, often in tandem with the Orientalist archaeologies of the early and mid-20th century. Though the definition of modern Hinduism may be more clearly circumscribed, it is certainly no less varied. Modernity continues to impact the understanding of Hinduism in many ways. Technologies such as DNA analysis have been applied to the study of early societies, with the goal of understanding ancient migrations and the composition of different regional populations. While our understanding of past human movement has increased considerably because of these studies, genetics do not serve as a proxy of culture. DNA evidence can provide some details about the movement and interaction of different populations in the past, but categories like race, language, and culture are as incommensurable as they are artificial, and they should be understood as such. Instead of a match for the textual or genetic record, the archaeology of Hinduism should be considered the material study of a broad amalgam of dynamic beliefs and practices that date back into the eras of earliest prehistory and continue to transform and evolve around the world.
- Histories of Anthropology
Defining an Archaeology of Hinduism
Practices and belief systems associated with Hinduism stretch deep into antiquity. The term “Hindu” itself derives from the River Sindhu, and was a geographic appellation used by Persian, Greek, and Arabic authors to describe peoples and customs east of the Indus River (Dalmia 1997; Verdon 2015). By the 18th century, it had been adopted by Europeans to distinguish specific South Asian religious communities from more clearly defined groups such as Muslims and Christians. Under the influence of Enlightenment thought, religion also came to be seen as a discrete aspect of social life made up of beliefs and practices that could be identified and examined in comparative and scientific ways (Brekke 2002). In this manner, Hinduism as a concept developed as an external definition in opposition to other communities, rather than by a process of self-identification. Hinduism acquired formal status as a world religion by the early 19th century, and through the work of reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda, it was molded into a singular discourse that suited the Indian desire to define itself according to the European worldview, and the European need to categorize native communities through exclusive religious identities (Brekke 2002; Flood 2003; Gottschalk 2013; Vishwanathan 2003). This modern circumscription of Hinduism highlights a particular strand of practice that is drawn from Vedic and Vedantic literature and associated with upper-caste Brahmanical practices. An archaeology of Hinduism following this definition seeks material evidence for ritual behavior that can be correlated with identifiable practices documented in the textual and ethnographic record (e.g., Chakrabarti 2001). However, this orthodox account of Hinduism excludes communities outside of the Brahmanical fold that identify as Hindu, and neglects countless examples of syncretism and polyvalence (e.g., Mishra 2009; Valk and Lourdusamy 2007). A more expansive definition of Hinduism acknowledging the multiple strands of worship outside of Vedic ideology may include communities that do not identify as “Hindu,” given long-standing practices of discrimination and oppression in Brahmanical ideology. Thus, a formal definition of “Hinduism” defies any attempt to place it within a concrete set of practices and beliefs, complicating archaeological efforts to identify the material correlates of “Hindu” tradition at any point in time.
Regardless of whether one considers Brahmanical Hinduism or more inclusive perspectives, as with all studies of Hinduism, the archaeology is hampered by persistent classification into binaries such as Great/Little, Classical/Folk, and Vedic/Dravidian (Champakalakshmi 2011; Sinha 2006). The classification of different traditions and practices began with the European “discovery” and reporting of religious sites and monuments which were assigned exclusive religious identities, often obscuring the multivalent nature of many sacred places and fixing dynamic, living temples into static forms (Mishra 2015; Ray 2009). The use of diminutive terms to describe non-Brahmanical traditions reinforces the hegemonic narrative of dominant caste groups and political regimes and is further bolstered by linguistic divisions and genomic inferences that group Hindu traditions and populations into “Indo-European” and “Dravidian” branches, or “Ancestral North Indian” and “Ancestral South Indian” lineages (e.g., Joseph 2018). Similarly, the colonial model of text-centered history has led to the marginalization of the many complex prehistoric societies in peninsular India (Ray 2007). A thorough overview of the material evidence that exists for a wide range of ritual practices from the earliest eras of documented prehistory provides some corrective, but as with all studies concerning the archaeology of religion, it is difficult to identify specific religious traditions without reference to textual sources or ethnographic observation, particularly given the general archaeological tendency to categorize any nonfunctional or unexplainable material culture as “ritual” (Fogelin 2007; Insoll 2004; Laneri 2015).
The archaeological examination of religion in the past may also take a more expansive view of religion as a structuring element in society (Insoll 2004; Rowan 2012), and one may contrast the practice- and object-oriented study of popular Hinduism, often defined as the beliefs and practices of “ordinary Hindus” (Waghorne 1985), with the textually oriented examination of political Hinduism as a naturalizing and proscriptive force governing aspects of social ordering and hierarchy such as ritual kingship and caste (Manohar, Abkari, and Sugandhi 2022). In historical studies of the modern Indian nation, “political Hinduism” is sometimes more narrowly defined as a particular strand of religious nationalism that emerged during the freedom movement of the early 20th century (e.g., Jaffrelot 2011). However, the concept of political Hinduism can also be extended into the past to provide important insights into the development of Hindu ideology beyond the more recognizable domains of sacred space, mortuary activity, and ritual practice. While this acknowledges the structural role various forms of Hinduism may have played in the past, it is important not to make assumptions about the overwhelming dominance of religion in all societies (Fogelin 2007), and archaeologists must exercise caution when distinguishing ritual hierarchies such as caste, from other forms of social hierarchy in the material record.
This article presents a broad perspective on the archaeology of Hinduism, focusing largely on South Asia, more specifically the Indian subcontinent, but where necessary also visiting surrounding regions such as West, Central, and Southeast Asia. This is with the understanding that Hinduism as a wider social phenomenon is as difficult to limit to the Western construct of “religion” as it is to understand as a single strand of belief, belonging to one place, either in the past or present.
Categories of Evidence
As with the archaeology of any religious tradition, it is difficult to definitively ascribe ritual meaning to material remains without strong contextual association, or some epigraphic or ethnographic referent. There are various types of evidence that have been brought to bear on our understanding of the archaeology of Hinduism.
Objects associated with ritual meaning may include artistic forms such as figurines and larger sculpture, or more quotidian items such as utensils and vessels. These latter categories of artifacts are difficult to identify as specifically ritual items, but their meaning may be assigned by context or by drawing on modern parallels. Small statuary, generally classified as “figurines,” and other female images are identified from early periods of prehistory and are often linked to widespread and enduring traditions that emphasize the importance of fertility. For example, depictions of Lajjā Gaurī, which range from aniconic pot forms to the headless goddess in supine uttānapad position, are found in numerous contexts across the Indian subcontinent, particularly the Deccan, between the 2nd and 11th centuries ce, and some continue to be in worship today (Bolon 1997). As iconographic traditions develop over time, numerous deities associated with Vedic, Puranic, and non-Brahmanical “popular” Hinduism begin to appear in the archaeological record in the form of figurines, plaques, and other forms of artistic representation (Ahuja 2001; Clark 2016).
With a few exceptions, clearly identifiable ritual structures such as temples and shrines do not appear until the early centuries of the Common Era. At Sonkh, two early apsidal temples were dated from the 1st century ad and early 1st century bce, respectively (Hartel 1993). Temples and shrines are identified not only by style, but also because, along with associated tanks, they form part of a corpus of permanent stone architecture, including forts and other irrigation features, which are more archaeologically visible than structures made of organic materials or more temporary features which may have been seasonally erected (Davis and Coningham 2018). The chronology of temple sites is often fixed according to architectural style or on the basis of epigraphic evidence, but this may not account for ongoing processes of renovation (e.g., Manohar, Abkari, and Sugandhi 2022) and does not indicate when the site initially became a sacred space (Jayaswal, Singh, and Sharma 2017). At Sonkh, the earliest temple structures are dated between the 1st century bce and 2nd century ce, but are preceded by female figurines with possible cultic significance from the late 4th century bce (Singh 2004), and layers of occupation that date back to the 8th century bce (Hartel 1993). There are several potential sources of inspiration for the monolithic temple, and it is likely that multiple structural traditions contributed various elements to the different styles of free-standing temple architecture that developed over time. This includes earlier structures made of more perishable materials as well as traditions of rock-cut architecture that are more frequently associated with Buddhist and Jain traditions during early periods. A third, and less studied, connection may lie in the Iron Age megalithic traditions of peninsular India (Menon 2018, 2019). As with rock-cut caves, an examination of the archaeological contexts of these ritual forms reveals a considerable amount of overlap and sharing, demonstrating the more fluid nature of sectarian and cultic traditions that were only later classified into distinct religious schools (Ray 2004a).
In addition to structural remains, features such as pits or large assemblages of fauna may be interpreted in ritual terms; large collections of animal bones may represent feasting or sacrificial traditions (Paddayya 2019; Sinopoli 2012), or also speak to dietary practices that are confirmed by an appraisal of the historical record (Jha 2001). Ash filled pits, documented at early protohistoric sites have been interpreted as “fire altars” (Bryant 2001, 160–161). The discovery of a 3rd century ce stone yūpa, or sacrificial post, at Isapur near Mathura, demonstrates the continuation of Vedic sacrificial practices into the Early Historic period (Singh 2004).
By the mid-1st millennium bce, the written tradition was established throughout South Asia, and from this period onward, our understanding of Hinduism in the past is aided by a wealth of inscriptions and literary evidence. The field of epigraphy has long been considered a subfield of history, with most analytic emphasis on the content of the inscription or their use in identifying locations in the sacred landscape. In addition to these historical views, the archaeological study of the context of inscriptions also provides a valuable way to go beyond a simple reading of the text, and additionally permits more systematic study of groups of inscriptions to provide a macro view of land-use and patronage, speaking to the institutional development of Hinduism and its relation to broader patterns of economy and social structure (e.g., Bauer 2020; Hawkes and Abbas 2016).
Ethnohistory and Ethnographic Records
When interpreting the archaeology of Hinduism, it is important to consider ethnohistoric and ethnographic evidence for two reasons. First, modern observation, along with literary history, forms the core of our understanding of Hindu religious practice and tradition. While the latter is strongly biased toward dominant strands of Brahmanical Hinduism and idealized proscriptions of worship, the former reveals more of the popular Hinduisms that exist in practice. Secondly, as scientists studying material remains, archaeologists employ “middle-range research” or “middle level theory” to produce inferences about the relationship between human behavior and material remains. This includes observation of contemporary practices, allowing archaeologists to reflect on more perishable or performative aspects of religious activity such as pilgrimage and procession (e.g., Branfoot 2020; Davis and Coningham 2018), and on the material agency of religious objects and structures in shaping the practice of Hinduism (Flueckiger 2020).
In cases when archaeological evidence alone is not forthcoming, only a record of the ethnographic present is available for study. This can be problematic for many reasons, not least of which is the insertion of modern sentiments and anachronistic projections into assumptions about the past. Similarly, the discipline of “ethnohistory” concerns itself with the anthropological study of historic records; here one may consider the broad field of Orientalist scholarship and ethnographic literature of the 16th through 20th centuries. As it is through these accounts that the conventional definition of Hinduism formed (Dalmia 1997; Lal 2003), it is imperative to look at this scholarship to form a critical view of the formation of Hindu identities in the modern era.
Sacred Space and Landscapes
The sacred geography of Hinduism can be marked by structures and inscriptions but may also be part of the natural landscape and identified through ethnohistoric accounts or contemporary claims which archaeology may be called upon to substantiate. The Hindu sacred landscape may be defined in several ways. Firstly, through the identification of sacred hills, forests, rivers, and secondly, by correlation with historic and mythological geography (Eck 2012). Many sacred spaces have enduring histories whose origins may be obscured, but some may also be duplicated in other locations. The region around Hampi, capital of the 14th–16th century Vijayanagara Empire, is often connected with the stories of the Kishkindā Kāṇḍa, but like many other places associated with the Rāmāyaṇa, this identity has also been claimed by other locations across the Indian subcontinent (Verghese 1995).
Along with the prevalence of temple tanks, the significance of rivers, streams, and crossing points or tirthas, point to the importance of water and its sacred connotation in the landscape (e.g., Eck 1981). Water collection features are found in association with many sacred spaces and were used for both practical and ritual purposes (Hegewald 2002). In addition to highlighting the intersection of sacred and profane needs, ethnographic studies also highlight the fluid and dynamic nature of sacred space. Studies of the sacred groves of village Tamil Nadu have demonstrated how communities maintain ancient traditions while simultaneously adopting new practices in response to changing political and economic conditions (Kent 2013). Many traditions may extend into the deep past and though it is difficult to know when the sacred association of a place began, it is possible to examine these ancient sites within their wider landscapes in order to infer broader social and economic importance. For example, the sacred landscape of Varanasi is made up of a number of sites distributed along significant routes of exchange and pilgrimage (Jayaswal, Singh, and Sharma 2017). The site of Aktha, located at the junction of major routes and dated to the early 2nd millennium bce, has been interpreted as a small settlement of hermitages where Vedic rituals were performed, but this explanation is based on textual references such as the description of Rishipattan in the Buddhist Mahavastu (Jayaswal 2015). Nevertheless, excavations at Aktha suggest that iron produced in the foothills of the Vindhya-Kaimur range was being acquired as early as the 18th century bce (Jayaswal, Singh, and Sharma 2017), and there are demonstrated connections between the early communities occupying the Gangetic plains and those in the eastern Vindhyas that date back to the Pleistocene–Holocene transition between ten thousand and five thousand years ago (Chattopadyaya 2008). Similarly in the district of Mathura, many villages are located on ancient mounds that date back to the Iron Age, and many ancient routes cross through this region of the Ganga-Yamuna doab, or interfluvial (Gupta 2019; Singh 2004). Archaeological examination of these remains suggests that in addition to habitation mounds and multivalent religious centers, many of the more “peripheral” sites may have been workshops for the production of stone sculptures, of which a very rich tradition had developed around Mathura between the 2nd and 6th century ce (Gupta 2015). Although archaeological research has shown that Mathura did not become a major economic center until Mauryan times (Quintanilla 2007), artifacts recovered from sites around the greater Mathura region have been associated with copper hoards which have been found at scores of sites across the Indian subcontinent, primarily in the Ganges-Yamuna doab region (Gupta 2019). These hoards, which are not always well dated but generally associated with the post-Indus period, demonstrate some variability but overall indicate very early transregional networks of exchange extending from the upper Ganga Valley into regions as far west as the Indus and as far south as Tamil Nadu.
Although Hindu funerary customs are commonly associated with cremation, a wide range of mortuary practices have been documented archaeologically and continue to this day (e.g., Rajesh et al. 2020). This provides some evidence for study, but the climate of much of South Asia does not bode well for the preservation of ancient human remains, and this is also a limiting factor. There are several questions that can be asked of bioarchaeological evidence vis-à-vis the archaeology of Hinduism. Questions about mortuary ritual and conceptions of the afterlife can be addressed through an examination of grave goods and the process of inhumation. Since the early 21st century, the intensification of genetic research has created a large body of scholarship concerned with the investigation of human migration in antiquity. In a discussion of the archaeology of Hinduism, this scholarship is particularly significant because of the connection to Indo-European speaking groups that are believed to have migrated into the Indian subcontinent sometime during the 2nd millennium bce, bringing with them the Vedic traditions that form the foundation of much Hindu ideology. Early 21st-century studies in population genetics have suggested that modern South Asian populations derive from a mix of indigenous South Asian, Iranian, and Central Asian ancestry (Narasimhan et al. 2019). Although, on the surface, genetic studies appear to support earlier theories derived from historical linguistics, the fields of genetic, language, and culture studies are not proxies for one another and their evidence cannot be so easily aligned.
Genetic studies have also been applied to an understanding of social categories such as caste, but as with the study of migration and human movement, this can be problematic for several reasons (Boivin 2005, 2007; Egorova 2009). While it is possible to see evidence for inequality in the bioarchaeological record, it is difficult to fully understand the nature of inequality in the past without imposing our own categories of class, caste, or gender. Tribal groups in South Asia are often thought to represent autochthonous populations that were geographically and socially displaced by the arrival of Indo-European speaking groups, but similar to caste, it is difficult to correlate modern tribal identities with those in the past (Danino 2016; Ratnagar 2019).
All in all, far too much weight has been given over to the study of ancient genetics in the narrative of Hinduism’s origins. Genetic data must be matched to other material evidence before making assumptions about culture or social change, and furthermore must be collected on a scale large enough to reveal patterns on the level of a population (Mehta 2019; Veeramah 2018). This level of data does not exist in South Asia, but the evidence that has been analyzed does reveal some introduction of groups from other parts of the Old World. In addition to evidence for larger migrations, there is considerable amount of material evidence to suggest that South Asia has always been connected by maritime and land routes to societies both to the West and to the East. From at least the 3rd millennium bce, many of these connections were quite extensive and should also be considered in terms of their role in the exchange of ideas and gene flows.
For some, the idea of sanatana dharma (an eternal set of duties required of all Hindus regardless of status) is synonymous with Hinduism (e.g., Chakrabarti 2001), and only became decoupled from the structure of caste when its more modern formulation was created in the 19th and 20th centuries (Brekke 2002). While the emergence of anti-caste movements, such as the one led by Basava in 12th-century Karnataka, suggests this was not always the case, they also point to the enduring structures of caste oppression which spawned such social movements. Nevertheless, the archaeology of caste is difficult to identify and separate from other archaeologies of inequality. Caste is distinguished by the concept of untouchability (Guru 2009) but may also be queried through an examination of diet and occupation (Coningham and Young 1999). Although these may be understood through the spatial distribution of material culture such as habitation and ritual structures, paleobotanical and faunal remains, and evidence for craft production, both archaeological and ethnographic testing of the material record has proved inconclusive, suggesting that the manifestation of caste is a complex matter that cannot be easily interpreted (Boivin 2005, 2007; Coningham and Young 1999; Kramer and Douglas 1992). Studies of Mesolithic foraging societies in the Gangetic valley have suggested that evidence for specialization and intergroup complementarity may form an early precursor to the system of jati, which alongside the notion of varṇa make up the concept of “caste,” but this hypothesis is extremely speculative and only inferred through ethnographic reference to the niche specialization practiced by contemporary groups in the Ratnagiri region of Maharashtra (Chattopadyaya 2008).
Prehistoric Footings (up to c. 3000 bce)
Although many identifiable elements of Hindu ideology and practice do not emerge until well into the 1st millennium bce, it is important to consider the development of early cults and systems of beliefs across South Asia, and their connections to other societies and later traditions (see Table 1). While there are attempts to project events and phenomena drawn from literature such as the Vedas and Epics into deep antiquity, there are no scientific studies that substantiate claims drawn from mythology. Instead, the material evidence for early ritual activity in South Asia prior to the 3rd millennium bce is more in line with a broader tradition of ritual and symbolic practice emphasizing fertility and hunting magic that is found across wide swathes of the Old World. Evidence for known mythological narratives is not identifiable until contexts dated to the last few centuries of the Common Era. Rather than the fruitless search to find “Vedic origins” in the extant evidence, those who seek to locate the origins of Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent would do better to look to practices documented during the era of prehistory, which consists of some rock art imagery, figurines and other cultic objects, and some limited mortuary evidence.
Table 1. A Chronology of the Historical Periods of Hindu Archaeology
North (Indo-Gangetic Plains)
South (Peninsular India)
40,000 years bp
Upper Paleolithic Traditions
12,000 years bp
Chalcolithic/Southern Neolithic Traditions
Early Historic Period
South Indian Early Historic
Source: Created by the Author - Namita Sanjay Sugandhi
Rock art such as petroglyphs (engraved images) and pictograms (painted images) are often associated with Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic communities during the late and terminal Pleistocene, but in fact continued to be produced throughout prehistoric times and into historic eras (Korisettar 2018). The representation of domesticated animals, most notably cattle, is seen as the mark of the Neolithic, or later periods. However, it is extremely difficult to assess the absolute chronology and meaning of rock art; chronology is often determined stylistically, or on the basis of stratigraphy. Functional interpretations often view rock art images as symbols of hunting magic or fertility rites, but additional methods may also be employed, such as relational analogies drawn from modern ethnographic observation of tribal art. While several parallels have been found, caution should be applied with the reminder that tribal communities are not remnants of archaic populations, but are groups that have been constituted, transformed, and defined in various ways over time. A general strategy that has been used to interpret the cognitive meaning of early rock art images draws on neuropsychological theories about the nature of shamanistic trances (Ghosh and Sonawane 2005–2006). Although the very earliest periods of the prehistoric era are too far removed to search for archaic analogies to modern practices, attempts have been made to link certain images or patterns with later traditions. A Late Pleistocene motif of concentric geometric shapes, found in rock art images, as well as artifacts recovered from stratigraphic contexts, are identified with later Tantric yantras (mandalas) or rituals designed associated with Hinduism (Ghosh and Sonawane 2005–2006). While these links remain tenuous, these earliest forms of artistic representation demonstrate the existence of ritual practice from the earliest eras of the Stone Age and may have some connections to later Hindu traditions. These practices may have included other sensory experiences. For example, the occurrence of sonorous stones or “ringing rocks” (Boivin 2004; Boivin et al. 2007) at many prehistoric art sites may be part of a broader Neolithic cultic practices (Korisettar 2018), and may also have been incorporated into architectural elements of Medieval South Indian temples (e.g., Kumar et al. 2008).
Figurines and Cult Objects
Prior to the 3rd millennium bce, there is scant evidence for ritual activity that can be firmly connected to later Hindu practices. One possible exception is a small rubble platform uncovered from the site of Baghor I in Madhya Pradesh and assigned an Upper Paleolithic date between 9000 and 8000 bce (Kenoyer et al. 1983). At the center of the platform, the excavators recovered a fragmented triangular rock with a striking pattern of naturally occurring concentric bands. Drawing a comparison to contemporary tribal practices in the region, some archaeologists have suggested this demonstrates the early existence of Mother Goddess worship and local continuity in the tradition of reverence for shakti or female energy. Female figurines are frequently recovered from sites associated with the sedentary communities that begin to appear from the mid-7th millennium bce, at sites such as Mehrgarh, near the Bolan pass on the Kachi plain of northern Balochistan (Jarrige 2008). Various Neolithic and Chalcolithic societies emerged across South Asia over the succeeding millennia. Although identifiable deities are not yet evident during this time, a range of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines have been linked to cultic fertility practices. Parallels have been drawn to the ritual and iconographic traditions of Western Asia emphasizing Mother Goddess and Bull worship, but some attention has also been drawn to the local origins of some customs (cf. Jarrige 2008; Parpola 2015).
Evidence for mortuary ritual becomes evident from the Mesolithic, increasing over time during subsequent Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. Nevertheless, there are only limited connections that may be drawn to later Hindu funerary practices. Most archaeologically documented funerary remains from these eras are simple inhumations with some grave goods. At Mehrgarh, and other Neolithic sites across the Hindu Kush and Indus regions, burials are found within settlements, both within and outside of houses. Most are primary, single inhumations placed in a flexed position. At Mehrgarh, the use of ochre throughout different levels of early period burials indicated the importance of this pigment during the funerary process (Cucina and Petrone 2005), and brings to mind the use of ochre in many human mortuary rites from the Paleolithic period. Of most significance are the grave goods found with many inhumations. Objects such as animal bones, beads, and copper ornaments are included with many burials, with some variation based on gender, age, or other forms of social status. Exotic items such as shell and semi-precious stones indicate the early existence of long-distance exchange routes, pointing to the connections between the early farming communities of the Balochi highlands and Indus Valley, and societies of the eastern Iranian plateau and Central Asia (Allchin and Allchin 1982, 106–107; Santoni 1984).
Protohistoric Foundations (c. 3000–800 bce)
The protohistoric era of early Hinduism is associated with the period of the Bronze Age Indus civilization, but also requires examination of a number of other cultures and complexes within and outside of the Indian subcontinent during this time. Although extant scripts are still undeciphered, they indicate the early knowledge and use of writing, thus the term “protohistoric” is the most technically accurate and universal, though many regional chronologies also exist. This period, archaeologically characterized by Bronze, Copper, and Iron producing societies, witnessed significant changes in ritual practice and belief, and this is often the time when what is thought of as the early foundations of “Hinduism” begins to crystalize. However, throughout this entire period there continued to be a plurality of traditions in circulation, only some of which may have made their way into later Hindu traditions.
Bronze Age Traditions—The Indus Civilization
Even though the languages used by Indus communities are unknown, they are often assumed to be part of the Dravidian language family, in contrast to Indo-European language speakers, who are believed to have started moving into the Indian subcontinent by the mid-2nd millennium bce. While this is certainly possible, the use of the term “Dravidian” to categorize not only Indus language but also culture and race is highly problematic, not only because it overly simplifies the existing populations of the Indus civilization by evoking an artificial binary, but also because it leads to a mischaracterization of other “Dravidian” cultures in the Indian subcontinent as derivative or archaic forms of Indus tradition, which as the archaeology shows, is not accurate.
Some suggestions have been made about the nature of Indus religious practice from the scores of Indus sites, both urban and rural, that have been excavated over the past century. There are several elements that have been remarked upon—these are represented through artifacts such as figurines and seals, as well as more enigmatic objects where ritual meaning is inferred through lack of apparent functional meaning (Ardeleanu-Jansen 2002; Atre 2002; Clark 2016, 263–299).
Mother Goddess worship is often assumed to have been a large focus of religious life in the Indus. This interpretation has been drawn from the quantities of female figurines recovered from Indus sites, as well as female motifs on seals and other objects. This interpretation has been largely shaped by parallels drawn to later Hindu goddesses, female deities in Western Asia, or by more general association with traditions of Mother Goddess worship and cults of fertility in the Middle East. However, recent analysis of Indus terracotta figurines and other female imagery have challenged this assumption by demonstrating significant variation in representation, and by presenting alternative interpretations such as children’s toys or decorative items (e.g., Bhardwaj 2004; Clark 2016). Mother Goddess worship continues to be popular across India, and the goddess can take on either fierce or more benign forms (Elgood 2004). Forms of the goddess as the Sapta Matrikas (“seven mothers”) may have antecedents in Indus seal imagery, but this connection is tenuous, and there are also suggestions that this divine form originates in popular South Indian traditions (Arya 2016; Bhattacharyya 1974).
In addition to a female divinity, images of male figures have also been noted and interpreted in ritual terms. Seals and seal impressions depicting a figure posed in a yoga-like, cross-legged position and surrounded by animals are often referred to as “proto-Shiva” (Possehl 2002), and similar images depicting a horned male figure are connected to the Hindu god, along with linga-shaped features, and ring stones which together are interpreted as cultic objects. Zoomorphic figures, and images of tree worship have also been interpreted as ritual motifs in various ways, but again, in the absence of any written record, it is impossible to assess their meaning. Most efforts at reading these Indus images have focused on identification of depicted figures, but broader narrative scenes have also been hypothesized (Ameri 2013, 2018). However, none of these narrative elements seem suggestive of the later mythological narratives of Vedic or Puranic Hinduism. Although some have suggested that the unicorn motif, a major element of more than half of the seals found in the Greater Indus region, was a mythical creature that played an important role in Indus ideology (Kenoyer 2013), seals have also been characterized as economic features used in trade (Ameri 2013).
In addition to motifs, there are some features that have been interpreted as ritual remains, but as a major characteristic of the Indus civilization is an absence of monumental architecture, the evidence is quite limited, and interpretation remains speculative. While there have been several Indus cemeteries excavated, and some reports of cremation (e.g., Trivedi 2003–2004), an overall examination of Indus burial traditions suggest a heterogeneous mix of mortuary treatments (Kenoyer and Meadow 2016; Schug 2021).
Aside from this scanty evidence, no remains of temples or shrines have been found. What is perhaps most striking about Indus households is the access to water and bathing facilities present in each house of an Indus settlement. Monumental hydraulic facilities are not known, with the exceptions of the “Great Bath” at Mohenjo Daro (Possehl 2002), and potential water storage features at Dholavira (Bisht 2005), and Lothal (Ghosh 1989), but the emphasis on water indicated by the extensive water management systems found at all Indus settlements has brought to mind many of the later traditions of ceremonial ablutions and bathing rituals of Hinduism (e.g., Possehl 2002).
Taken as a whole, the material evidence from the Indus civilization suggests an elaborate religious complex had developed in northwest South Asia by the 3rd millennium bce, drawing on preceding regional traditions which shared some connections with West and Central Asia. Increasingly, comparison of Indus settlements is suggestive of a society marked by heterogeneity rather than a homogenous “civilization.” Following on this is the suggestion that variation in imagery across the Indus civilization represented regional variations (Ameri 2013; Clark 2016) or the existence of a pluralistic society (Ameri 2019). In any case, there is little concrete evidence that shows the Indus religion to be “Hindu” in character, although it is quite likely that some social memories and motifs persisted after the Indus, eventually becoming enfolded into later Hindu tradition or iconography.
Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Iron Age Traditions outside of the Indus
To the south and the east of the Indus civilization, numerous other communities flourished in terms of both economic and ritual development. Although often overshadowed by the urban formations of the Indus, archaeological research in the 20th and 21st centuries has uncovered evidence for numerous Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Iron Age societies, each with their own unique traditions, but also some common elements and evidence for interregional connections. For the most part, these societies remained relatively small-scale until the advent of the Historic period sometime during the 1st millennium bce. Prior to this, religious practices across the Indian subcontinent are poorly understood, although the emergence of unique forms of monumentality in certain regions of the subcontinent have potential connections to later Hindu forms, suggesting interesting avenues for further exploration, and research.
These cultures are frequently considered derivative traditions of the Indus civilization or framed as Dravidian “folk” practices that were assimilated and given a Brahmanical veneer over the succeeding millennia. However, neither characterization is accurate and the archaeology of these cultures reveals many continuities suggestive of endogenous development and selective incorporation. For example, worship of female deities such as Mariamman is still popular in the villages of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, deriving from the popular prehistoric cults of these regions, and coexisting with a number of other non-Vedic and Vedic deities (Valk and Lourdusamy 2007).
Similar to the early farming communities at Mehrgarh and other Neolithic sites, a predominance of female and bull figurines have led to assumptions about fertility cults and the importance of cattle (Hanlon 2014, 2021). With the shift toward sedentism and the growth of agricultural communities, a proliferation of cattle figurines and rock art images at many sites across the Indian subcontinent point to the economic and ceremonial importance of the cow (e.g., Boivin 2004; Hanlon 2021). Further underscoring the centrality of cattle to early Neolithic society are unique features referred to as “ash mounds” made up of large accumulations of vitrified cow dung—these have been predominantly identified in Ballari and Raichur districts of Karnataka at sites such as Budhihal, Kudatini, and Sanganakallu (Allchin 1963; Paddayya 2019).
By the mid-2nd millennium bce, a new form of monumentality, collectively referred to as “megaliths,” began to appear across South and Southeast Asia. There are many different interpretations about the origin and meaning of megalithic monuments but given the vast spatial and temporal span of their occurrence, as well as their significant formal variability, it is quite likely that megalithic features represented many different things, both ritual and political (Aswani and Kumar 2018; Brubaker 2000–2001; Moorti 1994; Selvakumar 2015). Some possible horse remains have been reported from chalcolithic and megalithic graves (e.g., Kumar, Aswani, and Vinuraj 2020; Nagaraja Rao 1984; Ratnagar 2019; Thomas 1991–1992, 2002), and many megalithic features are associated with iron objects, leading to a hypothesis that megalithic culture represented the incursion of new populations from the Middle East or Central Asia. However, archaeological examination of the preceding Neolithic period suggests that even with the introduction of new domesticates and ideologies, many of the traditions and technologies of the Iron Age grew out of prior local cultures of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic (e.g., Boivin, Korisettar, and Fuller 2005; Rao 2021). Megalithic features have been assigned many meanings, but of particular relevance for this discussion is the suggestion that megaliths served as one inspiration for later stone temple construction (e.g., Anita 2004; Menon 2018, 2019). The juxtaposition of many historic period temples with these prehistoric features (e.g., Kadambi 2019) certainly attests to their enduring significance in the ritual landscape. Megalith construction in the southern Deccan has been linked to emerging social inequalities that were based on access to important resources such as water and pasture lands (Bauer 2015; Brubaker 2008); while this differentiation cannot be linked to caste structures of varṇa or jati, it does underscore the significance of water resources at many symbolic and ritual sites.
New Populations and Ideologies of the Iron Age
The introduction of Vedic ideology was one of the most transformative and controversial encounters in the story of Hinduism but was a process that left behind few material remains. For this reason, the topic of Indo-European migrations and Vedic origins is sometimes glossed over in a discussion of the archaeological origins of Hinduism, but this is an important issue to consider considering popular theories about the completely autochthonous origins of Hinduism, or the “Indigenous Aryan” hypothesis. Early Indo-European speaking groups are associated with the introduction of the horse, the wheeled chariot, and traditions of fire worship (Bryant 2001). Debates about the nature of domestication, and identification of species, have created some question of the earliest date for horse domestication (Thomas 2002), but it is generally placed between the mid-4th and 2nd millennia bce in the Central Asian steppes (Orlando 2020; Outram et.al. 2018).
The migration of Indo-European groups into the Indian subcontinent has largely been documented through the field of historical linguistics, which proposes the theory that populations originating in the steppes of Central Asia had begun dispersing during the 2nd millennium bce, bringing new linguistic, economic, and ritual traditions into Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. More recent DNA studies seem to confirm this hypothesis (e.g., Narasimhan et. al. 2019; Thangaraj and Rai 2019), but even together, these linguistic and genetic studies do not fully capture the range of movements and exchanges that shaped societies across Central and Western Asia during this period.
By the 2nd millennium bce, evidence for chariots, horse skeletons, and horse trappings are used to archaeologically track the movements of Indo-European-speaking groups through Central and Western Asian (Bryant 2001; Parpola 2015). From the mid- to late-2nd millennium bce, the Mittani kingdom of northern Syria was ruled by an Indo-European-language-speaking elite, distinct from the native Hurrian-speaking population. Treaties between the Mittani and Hatti (the Hittites) name the Vedic deities Mitra, Varuṇa, Indra, and the Nāsatyā (Aśvinā; Fournet 2010). The Mittani “Kikkuli text,” though written in Hittite, uses several Indo-European words for numerals, horse (ašṷa), and other terms (Thieme 1960).
The archaeological study of these groups in South Asia is hindered by a lack of permanent settlements, given that many of these communities practiced mobile strategies of pastoralism. However, urban centers and settlement hierarchies continued to flourish in the Punjab and parts of Sindh (Kenoyer 2006). The “Gandharan Grave Culture,” identified at sites in the Swat and Dir valleys and surrounding regions, was long considered to represent the earliest introduction of Indo-European-speaking groups in South Asia, and is characterized by burial traditions that include lined pit graves, secondary inhumations, and some cremations. These mortuary styles, as well as horse burials and iron horse trappings from sites such as Timargarha and Katelai, have been compared to graves in Western and Central Asia, and similar pottery types are found at Tepe Hissar, Hasanlu, and Shah Tepe (Allchin and Allchin 1982). Earlier research associated these burial traditions with a discrete “culture” dateable to the time of the Indo-European migration (e.g., Allchin 1995; Dani 1968). However, more recent analysis, and refinement of radiocarbon dating, has provided a much longer chronology and a more nuanced interpretation of these protohistoric cemeteries, suggesting instead that they represent a plurality of funerary customs that emerged largely from local traditions that preceded them (Zahir 2016). This is also the case with other regional traditions dating to the post-Indus phase such as the Cemetery H culture of Harappa, and Pirak on the Kachi Plain. Although a characteristic of these post-Indus societies is a sharp decline in the extensive long-distance trade connections that marked the Bronze Age, an examination of their material culture suggests continuities with local pre-Indus forms, and less that may be associated with an expanding “Vedic” culture (Kenoyer 2006).
Earlier suggestions of fire worship are reported northwest of the Gandhara region at sites associated with the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) of Central Asia (c. mid-3rd–early 2nd millennium bce). Brick-lined pits filled with ash, identified as “fire altars,” are also reported from Indus sites such as Kalibangan and Lothal (Bryant 2001), but these are not features characteristic of most Indus sites and are difficult to conclusively identify as ritual features associated with any widespread tradition. In all such cases, the archaeological evidence for “fire altars” is drawn from the large, often urban, and permanent settlements of the BMAC and Indus civilizations, and not from mobile pastoral groups, which have left little trace in the archaeological record.
“Vedic Aryans” are sometimes associated with the ceramic type known as Painted Grey Ware, which is found in northeastern and central India, particularly in the eastern Ghaggar and western Ganges valley, and dated to the late centuries of the 2nd millennium through the early 1st millennia bce at sites such as Ahichchhatra, Hastinapura, and Bhagwanpura (Coningham and Young 2015), but a closer analysis has suggested that this ceramic tradition developed out of prior Black Slipped Ware traditions, and also had connections to later Northern Black Polished Ware styles (Uesugi 2018).
Overall, the archaeology of the protohistoric era does little to substantiate any narrative of large-scale invasion or population replacement. Rather it indicates a constant circulation of goods, ideas, and people connecting communities of the Indian subcontinent to those of Central and Western Asia from the very earliest of times. Although there is some decline in these long-distance connections during the early 2nd millennium bce, a widespread distribution of “copper hoards” across the Ganges-Yamuna doab and in eastern India and parts of the Deccan, demonstrate the persistence of some networks in the post-Indus period (Allchin and Allchin 1982). It is likely that these continual movements, rather than any successive “waves” of migration or invasion are what brought the genetic markers that have been identified in paleogenomic studies (e.g., Narasimhan et al. 2019). The fact that the same DNA evidence from one individual at Rakhigarhi has been used both in support and in refutation of the Indo-European migration theory (Etter 2020), is good demonstration that the field has not yet reached the scale and resolution required to address the question of the origins of Hinduism in any substantive way (Veeramah 2018).
The Early Historic Structures of Hindu Discourse (c. 600 bce–600 ce)
As the name suggests, the centuries referred to as the “Early Historic period” are associated with the earliest literary traditions, and the gradual codification of Hindu religious practice. However, this was by no means a uniform or unidirectional process. While some identifiable elements point to the emerging orthodox structure of what may be called “political Hinduism,” other forms of material evidence point to the continuation of heterodox plurality and a diverse array of popular forms of worship. This is made clear by looking at archaeological evidence separate from the literary record. By the mid-1st millennium ce, both political and popular forms of Hinduism had expanded to create a vast material record of structures, objects, and inscriptions. During the latter stages of this era, the fields of literary art and architectural history become more predominant, and there is much less archaeological scholarship of this and subsequent periods.
The Emergence of Literary Traditions and the Hindu Pantheon
The Early Historic period is sometime called the “Puranic Age,” and the period between the 8th century bce and 6th century ce is typically associated with the development of the mythological and political literature of the Epics and early Puranas (Dimock et al. 1974). However, iconographic conventions of many Hindu deities are not established until the centuries around the Common Era or later (Ahuja 2001; Branfoot 2015). While epigraphic evidence and later references demonstrate some traditions of literacy by at least the 6th centuries bce, there are very few extant texts that date earlier than late 1st millennium ce. Important early examples of Buddhist texts were found in eastern Afghanistan and dated between the 1st century bce and 1st century ce, while palm leaf documents referred to as the “Spitzer manuscript,” discovered in the Kizil caves of Xinjiang, China, are thought to be the earliest surviving Sanskrit documents, dating between the 1st and 2nd centuries the Common Era (Franco 2005; Salomon 2018). The earliest decipherable inscriptions in South Asia date to the 3rd century bce with the establishment of the edicts of the Buddhist king Asoka Maurya; however, epigraphic evidence does not become more widely available until the reign of later dynasties such as the Sungas (c. late 2nd century–mid-1st century bce), Satavahanas (c. late 2nd century bce–early 3rd century ce), Kushanas (c. 1st century–4th century ce), Guptas (c. 3rd–6th centuries), and the South Indian dynasties of the Cheras, Cholas, and Pandyas (Abraham 2003).
While the literary record suggests a narrative of consolidation and assimilation of local cults into broader Hindu tradition during the first half of the Early Historic period, the archaeological evidence is much more varied, and shows that ritual practices were extremely diverse, as regional traditions of the preceding Iron Age continued to flourish, particularly in peninsular India. This leads to some difficulty in the assignment of chronology (e.g., Rajan 2016) and highlights the challenge of matching the early archaeological record to literary history.
Between the 6th and mid-4th centuries bce, urban centers began to develop across the Indo-Gangetic Plain and Malwa Plateau, but evidence for ritual practice in the form of figurines or structures is quite sparse until the close of the Mauryan era in the late 2nd century bce. After this time there is a dramatic increase in iconic representation, as demonstrated by the widespread distribution of terracotta plaques and figurines across South Asia (Ahuja 2001; Poster 1986). Some of these figures, such as the goddess wearing a headdress of weapons (Panchachuda), Lajjā Gaurī, and Gaja Lakshmi, may have been revered, while others may have served talismanic, decorative or other purposes (Agarwal 2009; Ahuja 2001). While many of the forms, such as yakṣas, yakṣinis, and nāgas, are also found in the later iconographic traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, it has also been suggested that many of these early molded figures, which were easily produced and widely distributed, represented an early popular cult that lost public prominence by the 2nd century ce with the rise of a pantheon of deities associated with Puranic Hinduism such as Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Durga, and Lakshmi (Ahuja 2009; Kumar 2004–2005; Singh 2004). Vestiges of this cult may be seen in village traditions across India today, where local deities underwent complex processes of syncretism, incorporation, and influence with Vedic and Puranic deities of Brahmanical Hinduism (Elgood 2004; Shaw 2004). The mass-produced nature of these mold-made plaques present a unique glimpse into household and popular forms of worship (Ahuja 2001). Brick temples and platforms constructed during the time of Gupta imperialism were also decorated with terracotta figures and plaques but unlike their more popular counterparts, these reflect the Smarta-Puranic ideology of Advaita Vedanta philosophy and political Hinduism and depict scenes from the Epics and Puranic mythology. Ramayana imagery is found on terracottas from Shravasti, Chausa, Apsad, and Barehat. Scenes from the Mahabharata are found at Ahichhatra (Poster 1986). Early temples and platforms are found throughout South Asia by the early centuries of the Common Era. Evidence for early composite structures with elliptical brick foundations and wooden superstructures have been dated to the 2nd century bce at Besnagar and Nagari (e.g., Poster 1986; Shaw 2004; Singh 2004). In central India at Dangwada, two elliptical shrines dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva have been identified and dated to the same period. This form is connected to early apsidal shrines commonly associated with Buddhist architecture, but are now shown to have been part of a broader shared tradition of construction (Ray 2004b). Such archaeological evidence demonstrates the plurality and overlapping nature of many of these traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism, which were reform movements of the Brahmanism of their times, but never regarded as discrete religious traditions until the Orientalist categorization of monuments and communities in the colonial era.
Defining Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy
Vedic traditions of sacrifice continued to be practiced well into the Common Era (Hooja 2004; Ray 2004a; Singh 2004). However, there is a marked shift in the material culture of Hinduism, with the appearance and gradual proliferation of stone temples and idols, as brick construction gradually lost prominence, and ideologies of personal devotion and collective ritual began to influence the practice of both political and popular forms of Hinduism (Devadevan 2019; Poster 1986). Miniature votive tanks, made of terracotta and depicting goddess figures and small shrines, are found at a number of Early Historic urban centers in North India such as Taxila, Mathura, Hastinapur, and Ahichhatra, and also at Bhokardan in Maharashtra (Ahuja 2001; Singh 2004). These have been interpreted as a Parthian influence, assimilated into Kushana religious practices, but also suggest the existence of broadly shared traditions of popular worship (Poster 1986).
The transformation from Vedic Brahmanism to Puranic Hinduism is often attributed to the growth of Bhakti traditions that rose up in challenge to the Buddhist and Jain faiths which were politically ascendant from the 3rd to 1st centuries bce, but these devotional traditions may also have emerged out of earlier popular cults of goddess, yaksha, and nāga worship (Coomaraswamy 1980), or from the Akam poetry of Tamil Sangam literature inherited by the Vaisnava Alvars and Shaivite Nayanar saints during the second half of the 1st millennium ce (Champakalakshmi 2011; Jaiswal 2000). Evidence for Vaishnavite and Shaivite sects are seen during the 2nd and 1st centuries bce, in North India, and are often found either in close association, or as a palimpsest with other sectarian traditions, all sharing a common iconography (Singh 2004).
The Expansion of Political Hinduism
In the prior period, forms of political Hinduism were linked to Brahmanical practices of Vedic sacrifice of which there is little trace in the archaeological record. However, by the first few centuries of the Common Era, a new form of political Hinduism invoking the authority of the Puranas began to inscribe itself across the ritual landscape, intertwining with local cultic traditions such as nāga, or snake cults, associated with water and the monsoon rains (Shaw 2004). This is well represented at Udayagiri, the 4th-century ce royal consecration site of the Gupta king Chandragupta II. In addition to imagery confirming the authority of the king as cakravartin (“The wheel turning king”) and paramabhāgavata (“The supreme devotee of Vishnu”), the early Vaishnavite iconography is closely interlinked with nāga images that reflect the political relationship between the imperial Guptas and the regional nāga dynasty, as well as the importance of control over water in the increasingly agrarian order (Shaw 2004; Willis 2009).
This form of political Hinduism, now materially manifest in stone temples, sculpture, and inscriptions, differed from the various forms of popular Hinduisms which were practiced at the household level in cities, towns, and villages across the Indian subcontinent. Historically this period is characterized as a time of expanding political consolidation and the integration of local folk cults into mainstream Brahmanical practice (Nath 2001). This is often viewed as a hegemonic process (e.g., Jaiswal 2000), but the archaeological record suggests more interplay between regional and pan-South Asian traditions than this simple narrative of “Sanskritization.”
The early development of Hinduism is closely connected to the networks of human movement that traversed regions across Central and Western Asia from the very earliest eras of prehistory. While these interactions continued and intensified during the Early Historic period, bolstered by the discovery of the monsoon winds during the late 1st millennium bce, the focus in the story of Hinduism during this time often shifts toward Southeast Asia, where Shaivite and Vaishnavite practices became closely intertwined with ideas of ritual kingship by the 5th century ce. The earliest Sanskrit inscription in Southeast Asia is found at Võ Cạnh on the south-central coast of Vietnam and dated to between the 2nd and 4th centuries ce (Miksic and Goh 2017). However, evidence for interaction between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia is seen much earlier, possibly by the 5th or 4th century bce (Murphy and Stark 2016; Rao 2001). This long period of interaction prior to the expansion of evidence for Hindu ritual invites serious questions about the cultural flows and directionality of influence traversing South and Southeast Asia. While interpretations typically favor Indian cultural dominance, there is some need to reevaluate this assumption and to think about the relationship more closely. In addition to the flow of Brahmanical and Buddhist ideas from the Indian subcontinent into Southeast Asia, there is also a fair amount of evidence for movement in the other direction. This includes the discovery of stamped pottery associated with Southeast Asian styles from 3rd century bce contexts at Kottapatnam in coastal Andhra Pradesh (Rao 2001), evidence for early domestication of the chicken in Southeast Asia (Wang, Thakur, and Peng 2020), and the importance of tin sources for the production of ritual bronzes (Glover and Bellina 2011; Srinivasan 2008). These finds draw attention to the movement of goods from Southeast Asia into India. It is possible that this early trade played a role in the later adoption of both Brahmanical and Buddhist practices by local elites, who selectively adopted Hindu elements such as Sanskrit and Pali literary conventions and a shared iconographic style, blending these with local deities and traditions of ancestor worship (Miksic and Goh 2017; Schoenfelder 2004).
The Formation of Regional Traditions (c. 600–1500 ce)
The changeover to the Medieval era is typically characterized as the period after the decline of Gupta imperialism in the 5th century ce, but this is nevertheless a somewhat arbitrary distinction which, like the transition from the Iron Age to Early Historic period, obscures the many connections and continuities that exist from the preceding period. There is a vast wealth of material evidence speaking to the development of Hinduism during the Medieval period, but little that has been subjected to systematic archaeological study or interpretation. Although historical scholarship of this time is extensive and richly nuanced, much of it represents Hinduism through idealized systems of sectarian doctrine. This text-focused perspective is slowly changing as researchers begin to investigate archaeological questions about land-use and systems of patronage by examining the material corpus of architecture, inscriptions, and environmental data (e.g., Bauer 2020; Kadambi 2019; Hawkes and Abbas 2016; Sen, Varma, and Sahu 2022; Suvrathan 2014).
Architecture and the Emergence of the Monolithic Temple
During the Medieval period, a proliferation of architectural and sculptural traditions emerged in Hinduism. By the end of the 1st millennium ce, the use of brick as a construction material had fallen out in favor of stone. Nevertheless, traditions of brick construction persisted, particularly in parts of East and South India (Poster 1986, 55–56), as well as in Southeast Asia (Miksic and Goh 2017). While large temples often reflected the norms of political Hinduism, more popular forms of worship can be traced in smaller shrines and cult objects, suggesting that both political and popular forms of Hinduism continued to undergo significant transformation during this time.
In addition to a range of tower or shikara styles, commonly divided into Nagara, Dravida, and Vesara traditions (Champakalakshmi and Kris 2001), Medieval temple structures can be interpreted in several different ways, including an abode of the deity, a reflection of the cosmos, or as a paradise (Branfoot 2015, 190). The reflection of Hindu cosmology in temple architecture reached a peak in the complex of Angkor Wat in the 12th century ce Khmer Empire of Cambodia. The growth of temple cities across peninsular India are also part of this tradition, with urban centers and towns such as Mamallapuram, Tirupati, and Kanchipuram undergoing significant expansion, reshaping both the ritual and economic landscape of the Medieval era.
The patronage of temple construction was seen as both a political and ritual act, related to the emergence of new elite practices and institutions reflecting shifts from sacrifice to pūja, and the domestic environment to the temple (Branfoot 2015). In addition to royal patronage, it is also important to consider the role of local elite and community contributions to the ritual landscape. At Banavasi, archaeological and epigraphic evidence show how ritual landscapes were shaped by a complex negotiation between the Brahmanical idioms of political Hinduism, local popular cults, and non-Brahmanical religions such as Buddhism, between the 2nd and 14th centuries ce (Suvrathan 2014). The development of new cults during this time are witness to the continually evolving traditions of both political and popular Hinduism. A study of the Chalukya ritual landscape of the 6th century ce suggests a conscious and deliberate effort to incorporate local cults of popular deities such as the pastoral goddess Yellamma, who is still worshiped in the region today (Kadambi 2019). The concurrence of early temple structures with Iron Age megalithic features demonstrates the multivalent and relational nature of religious identity during early Medieval times, as the recognition of local cults by elites provided avenues of upward mobility for other communities. The assimilation of local deities was also documented by survey of the 14th–16th century ce city of Vijayanagara, where shrines, temples, and inscriptions were used to document the incorporation of the local goddess Pampa though marriage to Virupaksha, and the dynastic rise and fall of royalty and other elites through their selective patronage of Vaishnavite and Shaivite sects (Verghese 2004). Similar acculturation of local nāga elements is seen at the temple site of Mundeshwari which alternated its main dedication between Shiva and the Goddess between the late 5th and 7th centuries ce (e.g., Jayaswal, Singh, and Sharma 2017).
As seen from these examples, the development of political Hinduism involved integration with local cults and deities, but as in previous periods this was not a simple process of hegemonic absorption and assimilation, but a much more intricate conversation about political identity, authority, and faith. Temple construction continued to develop and became more elaborate with the rise and fall of political dynasties. Even during times when political control shifted to Islamic power, the continuation of new styles and sects suggest a continued ethos of plurality into Medieval times (Branfoot 2015, 198).
Elite Patronage and Household Worship during the Medieval Era
Political Hinduism in the post-Gupta era is characterized by a decline in practices of sacrifice and an increase in land donations to Brahmins, temple complexes, and other local religious authorities. Often documented in stone and copper inscriptions, these land grants are typically viewed through the lens of “Sanskritization” and seen as a hegemonic attempt by elites to incorporate local cults and provide an expanding supply of labor for the rising agricultural order (e.g., Nath 2001). This view of Brahmin “colonization” of uncivilized “tribals” is not supported by an examination of the archaeological evidence, which often demonstrate long-traditions of occupation and complex activity at sites associated with early Hinduism (e.g., Hawkes and Abbas 2016). The emergence of new cults throughout the Medieval and subsequent periods also bears witness to the fact that forms of popular Hinduism are not archaic holdouts of primitive tribal communities, but part of a collection of rich traditions that have simultaneously developed alongside mainstream Brahmanical practices. One may consider the Tamil deity Aiyanar, who is considered a protective village god and whose shrines are decorated with terracotta horses and located on the outskirts of villages (Kent 2013; Poster 1986). In the 13th century Aiyanar is said to have been Sanskritized into Hariharaputra, the offspring of Vishnu and Shiva, and by the 16th century, another transformation occurred when the historical Malayarayan prince Manikantan started to be worshiped as an incarnation of Harihara and was given the name Ayyappan, who may have been an early Tamil hunting deity, but is not mentioned in any of the Puranas or Saṇgam texts (Jarzombek 2009; Kumar 2019). Ayyappan’s cult at Sabarimala, located in the Periyar National park of Kerala, underwent additional transformations in the 20th century, first with the Tamil revival and then with the rise of mass media, leading to the widespread popularization of the Sabarimala temple which is one of the most highly visited pilgrimage centers in India. This is a much more complex interplay between traditions of Brahmanical Hinduism and forms of popular Hinduism than have generally been allowed by the Vedic/Dravidian dichotomy.
Archaeology and the Modern Construction of Hinduism (c. 1500–Present, as of 2022)
Although there is almost no archaeology of the modern period, it is an important topic to consider as it is during this time that both archaeology and Hinduism come to acquire formal definitions. As an instrument of colonial rule, archaeology also played a role in defining Hinduism and naturalizing social divisions of race, caste, and religious order through the classification and selective preservation of monuments and texts (Mishra 2015). Orientalist scholars, influenced by European concepts of true and false religion, formed a monolithic conception of Bhakti, which was both challenged and adopted by nationalist leaders of the 19th century. In contrast to Hindu scholars such as Ram Mohan Roy and Dayānand Sarasvatī who opposed idol worship and maintained the pre-eminence of Vedic and Vedantic knowledge, religious figures such as Hariśchandra emphasized Vaiṣṇava Bhakti traditions, in correspondence with contemporary Orientalist discourse (Dalmia 1997). The 19th-century formulation of Hinduism was both emancipatory in terms of colonial resistance, and repressive in its implications for Muslims and those on the margins of Hindu caste hierarchy. Thus, the modern idiom of Hindu nationalism is constructed from a number of contradictions and competing claims that requires continual negotiation. From the early 20th century, archaeology has become a part of that negotiation (e.g., Avikunthak 2021; Chadha 2011; Chakrabarti 2008; Etter 2020; Lal 2003, 2009; Ratnagar 2004; Varma and Menon 2010).
Also important to consider are changes wrought by the rise of mass media and other technological innovations. Studies of popular culture provide important insights into the household penetration of Brahmanical ideology, and the creation of a mainstream civil Hinduism or “syndicated Hinduism” embodied in print, film, and other forms media (e.g., Babb and Wadley 1995; Inden 2009; Thapar 2005). With the rise of the railroad, an increase in the number of devotees making pilgrimage visits transformed temple spaces in the 20th century (Branfoot 2015), and sacred groves which developed between the 16th and 18th centuries continue to be sites of contestation in contemporary times (Kent 2013). Across South Asia, ancient temples and shrines continue to be renovated and refashioned by local communities (e.g., Manohar, Abkari, and Sugandhi 2022) demonstrating how ritual may be used to either challenge or reaffirm existing social orders (Fogelin 2007). Furthermore, the examination of diaspora practices, such as worship of the Tamil village guardian deity Muneeshwaran by communities in Singapore, sheds light on the continued development of Hinduism as a “world religion.” These studies simultaneously provide a critique of the concept of “Sanskritization,” and its implication that social mobility was always the motive behind the assimilation of popular practices into mainstream Brahmanical Hinduism, or the adoption of upper-caste practices (Sinha 2006).
Diaspora communities are important examples of contemporary Hinduism that demonstrate the complexities of understanding cultural syncretism and exchange in the present as well as the past. As the archaeological record from the earliest eras of prehistory have demonstrated, the communities of South Asia were never isolated, either ideologically, materially, or genetically. In addition to narratives of large-scale population migration, we must also consider the evidence for a more gradual and continuous interaction through individual processes of trade, matrimonial alliance, pilgrimage, and the like. While broader flows of commercial exchange may have waxed and waned over time, the presence of significant settlements at strategic locations along mountain passes and coastal routes show the enduring importance of interregional flows both into and out of South Asia. This is the milieu in which Hinduism developed and it is far better to understand it through an archaeological viewpoint emphasizing this plurality, than by beginning with artificial categories created by historical, linguistic, or genetics research, and forcing the material evidence into reified types that are largely based on Western idioms.
Links to Digital Materials
For an interactive map of sites discussed, see arcgis.com
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