Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Development of Agriculture and Social Changes during Early Iron Age in Northern India

Manoj Kumar Dubey

            The Northern India has played a significant role in the origin and development of the history of India. Northern India geographically also has been an important feature in Indian subcontinent. It was a nerve centre of the political, economic and religious upheavals of 6th century B.C. and witnessed the second urbanization of the subcontinent. It is during the recent years that there has been an increasing awareness amongst historians to discuss in specific terms the impact of the use of iron-technology on the development of agriculture and as a force of social change in Northern India.
                It should be interesting to study that what exactly may be logically deduced about the immediate social impact of the beginning of iron in Northern India from the relevant recent and basic archaeological data. In the present research paper we seek to study the development of agriculture during the early iron age (Painted Grey Ware) and thereby the role of iron in it; and to analyse the social change occurred during this period in Northern India.

            The North India has played a significant role in the origin and development of the history and archaeology of India. Entire North-Indian plain basically known as Ganga plain geographically also has been an important feature in Indian-subcontinent. It has a slope from North-West to South-East. It may be divided in to three main portions, i.e., Upper Ganga Plain, Middle Ganga Plain and Lower Ganga Plain. The geologists and geographers now in their studies have divided the on basis of some distinctive geomorphic feature, slightly differently.1 The entire Ganga plain was a meeting point of different cultures of North, South, East and West. It is now credited with on of the early centres of origin of agriculture and domestication, which paved the way for development of chalcolithic cultures and civilization in the early Iron Age in the region.
            It is during the recent years that there has been an awareness amongst historians of the need to study and discuss the impact of the origin of iron and development of agriculture as a tool of socio-economic changes in North-India. Ghosh2 held the view that the effect of iron was not significant, that the metal did not produce any result in the material prosperity of the society and that the introduction of iron did not immediately transforms the society towards urbanizations. Sharma3 ascribes the rise of Magadha power to the availability of iron around it in 600 B.C. Chakrabarti 4 is of the opinion that iron did make the already existing village structure economically more productive but he is not prepared to ascribe any revolutionary role to it in social change. Following Sharma, Thakur5 hold that the much discussed iron aided extensive agriculture is a myth in the context of the economy of the 6th century B.C.
            The iron using painted grey ware (P.G.W.) people were not the first to settle in the Gangetic Valley. The cultural sequence of the doabs begins with the Harappans, though their link with the succeeding cultural stages is not clear. After the Harappans the first settlers were the users of the Ochre Colour Pottery (O.C.P.). Their link with the Gangetic valley copper hoards are now established, and as excavations at the site of Lal Qila indicate, they possessed mud floors, a general use of mud bricks along with a limited one of burnt bricks, a reasonably wide range of pottery, bone points and arrowheads and several other miscellaneous objects. The data quite clearly suggests that the ochre coloured pottery (O.C.P.) people adapted them selves well to the geographical setting of the Gangetic Valley. At Noh, however iron is supposed to occur in this level but the evidence is not yet clear. The next stage is characterized by the painted grey ware (P.G.W.) with which begins the first unmistakable use of iron in Ganga valley. The types of iron objects include slay arrowheads, spearhead, knife, spade, crowbar, fish hook, tong and adze. This phase is likely to have begun around 1000B.C. or slightly later and this led straight to the historic Northern Black Polished Ware(N.B.P.W.) level of c. 600-500B.C. As the data reveal the use of iron became an essential part of agriculture activities in the Ganga valley during this phase. None of the painted grey ware (P.G.W.) sites horizontally excavated.
            No specific reference regarding the socio-economic effects of iron in this level can thus be meaningfull. Considered as a whole, however this level seems to mark a better agricultural utilization of the Gangetic valley. The number of sites seems to be greater and when excavated most of them reveal firm signs of occupation, a fact which can not be said about most of the ochre colour pottery settlements. The point is that the village settlements were possible in the Gangetic valley even without a knowledge of iron but they could become deep rooted and expand only with its use without an elaborate village base made possible by the use of iron these would have been no urban growth  in the Gangetic valley from about 600 B.C.
            The impact of the use of iron tools is also reflected in the multiplicity of cereals and grains and beginning of cultivation of an important cereal (wheat) evidenced at Atranjikhera and hitherto unknown in the Gangetic valley during the copper-bronze age. The excavations at Hastinapur and Noh brought to light the remains of rice form the P.G.W. levels. It may be noted that barley and rice were the staple food of the Gangetic plain during the copper Bronze Age. The two cereals are reported from Hulas (Harappan), Lal Qila, Atranjikhera, Noh and Sringaverapur in the O.C.P. context Evidence from Atranjikhera6 clearly establishes that besides rice and barley the P.G.W. people started cultivation of wheat (Iriticum compactum). From these facts one could be led to presume that production of cereal was then not only enough to meet the requirements of the entire community but there was also some surplus.
            About the cultivation of wheat Watt7 observes that during the rains in June-July the land is ploughed 2-3 times and smoothed. It implies that iron tools were usefull in breaking the hard alluvium of the Gangetic plain. Though this the P.G.W. culture definitely reveals very stable agricultural base with agricultural tools like sickle obtained from the proto P.G.W. phase at Jakhera and Atranjikhera. On the basis of testimony of sources it may be concluded that before the introduction of iron in the Gangetic valley agriculture was extensive without proper ploughing and that irrigational facilities made it more intensive after the introduction of the iron tools leading to multifarious agricultural activities, producing some new crops, wheat being one of the most important.
            The socio-economic effects of the beginning of iron can only be guessed. The historic India begins with a number of territorial units, each of them politically centralized, an extensive craft-specialisation and trade, and a social scene which was generally well stratified. It may not, however, be logical to attribute all these to the advent of iron. Changes in the social-institutional sphere might have played a more significant part. On the nature of these changes, however, the present limited archaeological data can not throw any light8. In a stimulating paper R.S. Sharma has discussed the material milieu of the birth of Buddhism. One of his assumptions is ‘The primary factor that revolutionised the material life of the people around 700 B.C. in eastern U.P. and Bihar was the beginning of use of iron’. In the archaeological record one, however notices that the earlier chalcolithic elements continue to occur in a significant quantity at all the sites even after the beginning of the use of iron. In no case did iron bring about a noticeable change in the material prosperity of the people soon after its appearance. Iron did make the already existing village structure economically more productive but we prefer not to attribute any revolutionary role to it in the social changes preceding the sixth century B.C. This is of course, not to deny that iron was the basic technological element from the sixth century B.C. onwards. We only suggest that no undue emphasis should be given to it before the growth of civilization in the sixth century B.C..
1. Singh I.B. 'Landform Development and Palaeovegetation in Late Quaternary of Ganga Plain ; Implication for Anthropegenic Activity'. Pragdhara, 2004-05, Vol. 15, pg. 5-3.
2. Ghosh A., 'The City in Early Historical India'. New Delhi, 1982, pg. 10.
3. Sharma R.S., 'Iron and Urbanisation in the Ganga Basin', IHR, vol.1, no.1, pg. 100.
4. Chakrbarti D.K., 'Beginning of Iron and Social Changes in India; Indian studies Past and Present'. Vol. XIV, No.4 pg. 329.  
5. Thakur V.K., 'Urbanisation in Ancient India', Patna, 1981, pg. 63.
6. Choudhury A.K., et al, 'Ancient Agriculture and Forestry in North India', pg. 63-66.
7. Watt G., 'Dictionary of Economic Product of India', Vol. VI, p. IV, pg. 125.
8. Sharma R.S,'Material Milieu of the Birth of Buddhism', 29th Int. Cong. of Orientalists, Paris,16-22July, 1973

Dr. Manoj Kumar Dubey

                H.No.-A/M-2, Katju Colony,Allahabad