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The Development of Early Historic Urbanism in South Asia  

Reshma Sawant

Two phases of urbanism are identified in the South Asian context: the first one is the Mature Harappan phase (c. 2500–1900 bce) and the second one is the Early Historic phase (c. 600 bce–300 ce). The latter phase of urbanism has its roots in the preceding Protohistoric cultural phases. The gradual developments in various facets of the society, such as polity, social setup, subsistence strategies, settlement size and hierarchy, crafts and industries, and trade and exchange, during the Neolithic-Chalcolithic (non-Harappan) and Iron Age phases appear to have subsequently culminated into Early Historic urbanism in South Asia. Scholarship on the subject has proposed various theories to explain the genesis of the second urbanism, which include technologically deterministic explanations citing the introduction of iron in South Asia and its repercussions that resulted in drastic changes between 1200 and 600 bce. These multivariate explanations identify technological advancements, technology-based diversification of activities, and growing complexity of socioeconomic organizations as the causal factors behind the Early Historic urbanism. As is evident in the archaeological context, the transformation of wider spatial urban morphology, characterized by differential velocity and magnitude, occurred during different time periods in different parts of South Asia. However, by the beginning of the current era, in around c. 100–200 ce, it can be said that most of the South Asia had experienced growth of urbanism. The process of Early Historic urbanism in South Asia from between the 6th century bce and the 3rd century ce can be divided into three phases: Phase 1: The period around the 6th century bce witnessed the emergence of the first urban polities in South Asia known as the Janapada, organized under a ruling class of Janapadins. These Janapadas were ruled by twofold constitutions: Rajya (monarchical) and Gana or Sanghas (non-monarchical). Among these polities, the four monarchies of Kosala, Vatsa, Magadha, and Avanti emerged as notable rivals contending for internal supremacy. By the 4th century bce, Magadha arose supreme. The period 600–300 bce is characterized by an early phase of fortification in South Asia involving mud and stone ramparts, and ditch or moat building at a few sites like Charsada, Kausambi, Rajghat, Rajagriha, Champa, Adam, and Ujjain. There is substantial evidence of civic planning in these settlements, such as for the construction of streets, lanes, brick and ring wells, and drainage systems. There is also extensive evidence of burnt-brick structures, early coinage (bent bars, punch-marked coins [PMCs], and uninscribed cast copper coins) and script, apart from the widespread distribution of the identifying ceramic style: the Northern Black Polished Ware. It can be argued that these changes in socioeconomic conditions and urbanism may have in fact contributed to the formation and rise of institutional religious sects like Buddhism and Jainism. Phase 2: This period of urbanism in early South Asia can be dated to between 300 and 100 bce, marked by rise of the Mauryas. This stage was characterized by the steady expansion of trade with the western world, evidenced in the proliferation of Mauryan PMCs that are found all over South Asia, indicating the presence of vibrant political and economic interactions across the larger geographical region. The presence of Mauryan courtly culture and art can be seen reflected in the technological sophistication of the polished surfaces of Asokan pillars and the various distinct animal capitals that may indicate Persian, Greek, and Achaemenid influence. The patronage that Buddhism gained among royalty, trading communities, and masses is more than evident in the various donator inscriptions that can be seen at monuments like Sanchi. The rules regarding social status and the concept of wealth seem to have been liberal, with Buddhism providing much-needed impetus in facilitating long-distance trade through their encouragement of traders to undertake long journeys. The earliest script of South Asia is the Brahmi script and the earliest acceptable evidence of Brahmi can be found in the Asokan inscriptions. However, in the past few years, new data have emerged from Peninsular India and Sri Lanka (from the sites of Porunthal, Vallam, Alagnkulam, Uraiyur, Karur, Kodumanal, and Anuradhapuram) that indicate evidence of Brahmi script that can now be dated from as early as the 6th century bce to the 4th century bce. Phase 3: The rise of the Kushanas, Sakas, Kshtrapas, Satavahanas, Cheras, Cholas, and Pandyas, and their active presence in South Asia from c. 100 bce to 300 ce, brought significant changes to the urban aspects of life. This period is characterized by extensive construction activity, complex burnt-brick buildings, well laid-out streets and drains, and fortification walls; further characterized by the adoption of new techniques of tiled flooring and roofing, extensive coinage, remarkable developments in the fields of art and architecture, knowledge production, and organized religions. Under the rule of the Kushanas and the Satavahanas, hinterland as well as the maritime trade networks grew manifold. Maritime trade with Mediterranean and Southeast Asia is quite extensively evident within archaeological findings. Another commonality between the Kushanas and Satavahanas is their patronization of Buddhism that resulted in the impressive development of art and architecture. The Gandhara and the Mathura schools of art, the rock-cut Buddhist viharas in the western Deccan, and the construction of various stupas in Sanchi, Bharhut, Nagarjunakonda, Amaravati, and Kanaganahalli, are all excellent examples of flourishing Buddhism under the Kushanas and Satavahanas. These impressive social and political complexities arose from the financial demands of maritime and overland trade, and were not necessarily the consequence of mere territorial expansion. To summarize, Early Historic urbanism in South Asia is manifested through complex polities that took the form of cities and states characterized by architectural advancement in both secular and non-secular structures, the use of baked bricks, and ring wells. Early Historic urbanism was also characterized by technological advancements in the form of various craft industries and the extensive use of metal (iron and copper), along with the development of a complex system of recording, measurement, accounting, and other sciences due to an advancement in scripts, coinage, astronomy, and mathematics. Long-distance trade led to the introduction and intensification of new religious movements (Buddhism and Jainism) that in turn contributed to the development of philosophy, art, and architecture, and. ultimately, to the rise of a ruling class.