Iron Age in India brings one to the threshold of ancient history. This is, therefore, a period for which some of the historical accounts of ancient history may be extended. It is no wonder that as consequence of this large number of Vedic, Upanishadic and Brahmanic literary evidences have-from time to time-being recalled to understand the cultural process then existing in India.
To some, mixing of archaeological evidences with such literary accounts has become a standard method of dealing Iron Age in India. It needs no overemphasizing here that such an approach is essentially not conservative. To avoid this kind of an unholy amalgamation of methodology we might as well concentrate on the archaeology of Iron Age in India.
While doing so one cannot help but note that origin of iron in our sub-continent still remains a matter of dispute among specialists. It is important also to remember that like in Africa India has primitive tribe (Agarias of MP) who prepare iron with indigenous techniques and trade their finished wares.
It will not be entirely illogical to assume that these communities must have had their knowledge from a time which might be preceding a formal Iron Age by several thousand years. Formal Iron Age sets in when this metal is harnessed to clear forests for establishing permanent colonies.
These might have eventually led to the establishment of large cities on the basis of a sizeable surplus and a super structure drawing upon this for its political power. Iron enters at different parts of India within different social contexts and hence the manifest resultant develops entirely different Iron Age features in different areas. We might briefly examine these differentiating phenomena.
The colonization of Ganga basin by Iron users can be taken as one of the best evidences of second urbanization of India. Urban centers which mushroomed around Indus, Ghaggar and its tributaries during 2600 B.C. to 1500 B.C. were generally deserted after this. One would have normally expected a flush of population movement into the Ganga- Jamuna valley and indeed there is evidence of a rise in the number of the Siswal group of sites in Haryana and East Punjab.
Significantly an urban development in the entire Gangetic basin does not emerge until late iron users settle their city states mostly in the western flanks (west of Allahabad) of the Ganga-Jamuna region. Thus, one has to admit that the Gangetic region was not at all an area of attraction for most of the metal users in prehistory. In comparison Saurashtra, northern Maharashtra or even Rajasthan seem to have been much more preferred.
Understanding of the colonization of this region needs a consideration of the changes that can be witnessed further west. In Baluchistan the earliest development of settled economy-and also perhaps the earliest evidence of copper (at least 2000 years earlier than Harappa) has been note at Mehergarh.
The occupation was abandoned before the development of mature Harappa but around the same region one can witness the transition of the post Harappan phase at Pirak. Initially Harappan influence can be demonstrated in this occupation center but very soon and perhaps around 1370-1340 B.C. first pieces of iron appear.
The cultural continuity from the pre-iron layers is so remarkable that an invasion by iron users as a possibility also cannot be entertained. The houses are again (like the pre-Harappan stage) prepared of mud bricks, the pottery is coarse with applique bands and fingertip impressions.
Terra cotta figurines become much larger in frequency than the preceding period and they include horse, camel, humans-singly as also in the form of riders. The most important feature of this phase is the first time appearance of barley and rice cultivation in this zone. Terra cotta seals of the size of large coat buttons are also known but these do not show any comparison with the Harappans.
Evidence of a full-fledged adoption of iron, however, is not demonstrable until about another 2 to 3 centuries. That is, Iron Age west of the Indus can be broadly ascribed to the time bracket of 1100-900 B.C. In the north-west another development, in all probability in an independent manner, is demonstrated from what is now generally known as the Gandhara sites.
These are usually large complexes of graves and are entirely known and defined from the accompanying grave goods. Taxila, Charsada and Timargarha are some of the important sites from this complex. The pottery is a red burnished ware and shows some similarity with the later Mundigak ceramics.
City structures in this region are not identifiable till about 500 B.C. Thus, like Pirak in south west, Gangharas receive this metal without any change in their pre-existing culture. Furthermore these pre-existing cultures are completely individual in character and bear hardly any resemblance with the widely distributed Harappan features.
Iron Age finally establishes beyond doubt that South and North India are basically distinct in their cultural history.
Around 800 B.C. an entirely new ceramic type associated with iron spread out all over Haryana, Rajasthan and western U.P. along Yamuna and Ganga. Among these Noh, Jodhpura and Sardargarh in Rajasthan and Khalana, Bateswara, Ahichchatara, Hastinapur, Allahpur, Atranjikhera, Jakhere and Mathura in U.P. are some of the well-known and excavated sites.
This new ceramic type has a thin fabric of very well levitated clay. It is fired uniformly grey by heating upto a temperature of 800° C in well oxygenated kilns. Thus, in terms of technique these ceramics can surely be counted as having reached the zenith. The shapes of the finished pots, however, show no rich variability.
The main types are straight sided bowls, dishes and lotas. Very few thick linear lines in bold black colour are used for decoration. Short spirals, sigmas, groups of strokes and swastikas are the usual paintings occurring in this ceramics group. This ceramic bears a resemblance to the Gandhara grave pottery only to the effect that both are grey in colour.
This ceramic type has now come to be known as Painted Grey Ware or PGW. There are some stratigraphic evidences (Atranjikhera and Jakhera in U.P.) to show that probably a pre-PGW did exist in western U.P. and this was a Black-and-Red ware. Whether this Black-and-Red ware groups acquired iron first and then the PGW came to colonize the zone or they were also pre-iron cannot be demonstrated.
In fact, so little is known about PGW that most of the commentaries on this culture are rather over simplistic at the moment. Most significantly PGW sites are not entirely constituted by this specific ceramics. Both red ware and grey ware and some black slipped ware besides in the eastern sites a fairly moderate number of Black-and-Red ware are also known from these sites. Most of the PGW sites show wattle and daub huts.
At Bhagwanpura these are circular for the early phase and become rectangular in subsequent phases but at Jakhera circular huts continue without any change. Yet in the latter site a bund, a moat and a road of about 4 meter width have been observed. These evidences hardly show anything comparable to the city development during Harappan culture.
In fact PGW show a village character with large scale colonization (more than 300 rich sites of this period are recorded so far) and multiple specialized craft activities. Rice, wheat and barley are the cultivated cereals with sheep, cattle and buffalo forming the main animal types domesticated.
Bone objects and beads of PGW sites show a fairly high frequency. In rare instances glass as also lapis lazuli beads are also known. Bones or ivory has been used to form a variety of arrow heads, bangles, needles, combs and hair pins. Some animal forms like bull, birds and ram are represented in terra cotta but human forms are totally absent. Remarkable evidence of iron smelting and forging has come to light from Jodhpura. Iron implements also are varied and include such types as spear heads, arrow heads, socketed tangs, blades, sickles, axes, knives and tangs.
As one moves eastward in middle Ganga valley from Kausambi (Allahabad) onwards, iron gets merely grafted within the previously existing Chalcolithic Black-and-Red ware. Chronologically the point of emergence of iron in these sites is not very different from the western region.
Generally speaking iron at Kausambi, Chirand, Mahisadal and Pandu Rajar Dhibi occurs around 800 B.C. But almost all these sites show the microlithic component continuing without much change. Sharply carinated vessels become quite common although most of them do not carry any decoration.
Consideration of the southern zone would require paying some attention to south Rajasthan, Malwa and northern Maharashtra as a prior consideration. This is the area which developed a fairly consolidated regional character during 1500-1300 B.C.
The Banasian leading to Kayatha and the latter to Malwa and finally to Maharashtrain Jorwe almost demonstrated the movement from wheat to millet adaptation. Of these sites very few show an attraction to iron except a few items obtained probably by trade. Thus, Iron Age in this area does not develop any special personality of its own like what has been observed in Western U.P.
The southern Neo-Chalcolithic sites which had shown so reluctant changes during their early metal period bring about a change for the first time around 800 B.C. At Hallur this transition may have occurred a couple of centuries earlier while in some other regions few centuries later.
Considering a mid-value, therefore, appearance of iron in South India can be taken as almost co-eval with the same in western U.P., i.e. 800-500 B.C. The Iron Age in South India till today is known entirely from a large and complex variety of burials and their accompanying grave goods like the Gandhara Grave culture.
Since these graves have elaborate stone arrangements around them these have traditionally been nicknamed as Megalithic culture. A point of great inconsistency in adopting this term needs to be specially kept in mind. This is, while ‘Megalithic culture of South India’ means iron age; the same term is the established designation used for a particular variety of sea faring Neolithic culture in Europe.
Further, the “Megaliths of India” may not refer to any prehistoric culture but the memorial stones erected by the tribals in Chhotanagpur and Patkai ranges in the historic period as well. Thus Iron Age in South India would appear to be a safer terminology to adopt.
The burials found so far with iron from the Deccan can be grouped as follows:
1. Large urns are used with collected bones of previously incinerated dead bodies in them. These urns are kept with grave goods in a pit. The pit after covering can be marked by a circular demarcation made of stone.
2. Cists are made out of slabs of stones and may at times be covered with a similar flat stone to cover. There are sometimes post holes also curved out of the slab used as chamber walls.
3. Legged urn or sarcophagi used to encase the body before burial is another important pattern of these Megaliths.
4. Sometimes chambers have been cut out in the compact lateritic floor and then the body has been placed in it.
There are a large number of variations seen in the pattern in which each of these disposal systems are operationalized. In fact it would not be very wrong to state that within a couple of hundred miles the patterns change. The Megalithic arrangement on the ground to mark the grave also can vary from one kind of burial system to the other.
However, in spite of these external variations of grave pattern one can see a surprising similarity in other aspects. Black- and-Red ware, for instance, becomes one of the common denominators found almost without exception in all Iron Age sites of Deccan India. The pottery types include carinated vessels, bowls with pedestals and spouted dishes besides a conical shaped lid often provided with a loop on the top.
The iron implements which are common to all the Megalithic sites are flat axes with crossed straps, sickles, tripods, tridents, spear heads, multiple lamp hangers, arrow heads and lamps. Horse harness bits and various ornaments used on the frontal region of the head of a horse including bells are also known from a number of Megalithic burials.
The cultural repertoire of the Megalithic builders appears entirely exotic to the pre-existing cultural canvas of the region. And this led many specialists to visualize a new population movement from west. The traditional homeland of Chalcolithic culture, i.e. West Asia, does not show the practice of Megalithic burials and hence can no longer be taken as the source of dispersal of the iron using Megalithic builder.
Instead the coastal regions of south Arabia and the Levant show sarcophagi and cist graves during Iron Age. The land route to South India from Arab would have to include exactly those regions of Punjab and Haryana where iron occurs with an entirely different cultural association. This will, consequently, leave no option for us but to accept a population from Arabia having entered Deccan India through the sea route.
Apparently these people did not create any urban settlements the likes of which we have witnessed in the Harappan period or during the phase of second urbanization in the Ganga valley. Megalithic builders might have maintained isolated gypsy like tented colonies where they might have bred and grazed horses to be traded with the newly rising political centers around the middle Ganga valley.
We have very little archaeological evidence to demonstrate who these Megalith builders were or for that matter why their knowledge of higher technology did not cause the rise of such urban trading centers which can bring about the growth of a complex civilization. Megalithic Iron Age in Deccan India remained so much self- centered that it did not take much effort for the northern centers of power to spread their dominance into this region within a span of 500 to 600 years.
The discovery of a site called Malhar in Chandauli district south of Banaras has changed the entire picture of iron having entered India from the west. Textual references of Rigveda were usually cited to indicate that iron smelting technology arrived from the west between 1000 B.C. to 600 B.C. The excavation carried out at Malhar revealed a sequence of four periods.
Period I – Pre Iron
Period II – Early Iron
Period III – N B P W
Period IV – B.C. 2000 to 300 A.D.
There is no stratigraphic interval between the layers of Period I and Period II. Iron is found in all the layers of Period II and identified finds include a nail, clamp, spear head, arrow head, awl, Knife, bangle, sickle and plough share. Iron slag as well as elongated clay crucibles is found in large number. Black-and-Red ware and black slipped wares along with bone tools and terra cotta beads form the other antiquities recovered from Period II.
Two radiocarbon dates are available from this layer and these are 1882 B.C. and 2012 B.C. The quantity and types of iron artefacts and the level of technical advancement indicate that the introduction of iron working took place even earlier. This can possibly explain that iron smelting is practised even by some tribals in the adjoining region even today.
That is, iron technology developed around the rocky haematite rich terrains of the north-eastern Vindhyas. This indigenous technology may have been adopted for mass production only after about another 800 to 1000 years later when the second urbanization is recorded further north in the rich alluvial plains. In other words it is the development of a complex management and social order which actually determines the emergence of a full blown Iron Age.