published on 19 January 2013
Indus Valley (hceebee)

The term “Aryan” has had a history filled with controversy. The source of the English word Aryan comes from the Sanskrit word ārya, which is the self-designation used by the Vedic Indic people who migrated into the Indian subcontinent about 1500 BCE. The Sanskrit term has a cognate in the Iranian word arya, which is also a self-designation. Both the Sanskrit and the Iranian terms descend from a form ārya that was used by the Indo-Iranian tribes to refer to themselves, a tem which is also connected to the source of the country-name Iran, from a phrase meaning “Kingdom of the Aryans”.

The Corruption of the Term Aryan

The original meaning of the term is unknown and different meanings have been proposed, the most common being “nobleman”. During the 19th century CE, it was proposed that this was not only the Indo-Iranian tribal self-designation but also the self-designation used by the ancestors of all Indo-Europeans, which is a theory no longer accepted. “Aryan” then came to be used as a synonym of Indo-European. Some time later it was further proposed that the ancestor of the Indo-European people had their homeland located in northern Europe, implying that Indo-Europeans were originally of a Nordic racial type. Thus, “Aryan” developed yet another, purely racial meaning, probably one of the most familiar meanings today.

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The original meaning of the term is unknown and different meanings have been proposed, the most common being “nobleman”.

The Aryan Migration

Before the time of the Aryan migration into the Indian subcontinent, there was a highly developed civilization in ancient India known as the Indus Valley Civilization, which was located in what is Pakistan and northwest India today, on the fertile flood plain of the Indus River and its vicinity. The earliest evidence of religious practices in this area dates back approximately to 5500 BCE, farming settlements began around 4000 BCE, and around 3000 BCE there appeared the first signs of urbanization. By 2600 BCE, dozens of towns and cities had been established and between 2500 and 2000 BCE the Indus Valley Civilization was at its peak. The evidence suggests that the Indus Valley Civilization had social conditions comparable to Sumeria and even superior to the contemporary Babylonians and Egyptians.

By 1500 BCE the Aryans migrated into the Indian subcontinent. Coming from central Asia, this large group of nomadic cattle herders crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains and came in contact with the Indus Valley Civilization. This was a large migration and used to be seen as an invasion, which was believed by some scholars to be behind the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization; this hypothesis is not unanimously accepted today.

Map of the Indus Valley Civilization

Today scholars have a different understanding of how things developed. We know that a process of decay was already underway in 1800 BCE; some say that the Saraswati River was drying up, others that the region suffered catastrophic floods. The consequences of either event would have had a catastrophic effect on agricultural activity, making the economy no longer sustainable and breaking the civic order of the cities. The evidence supporting the decline of the Indus River Civilization is compelling: Writing started to disappear, standardized weights and measures used for trade and taxation purposes fell out of use, the connection with the Near East were interrupted, and some cities were gradually abandoned.

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Mythical Records

Linguistic studies have shown that as the Aryans migrated into the Indian subcontinent, the Aryan language gained ascendency over the local languages. They also gradually adopted an agricultural lifestyle which was widely established by around 1000 BCE. Despite the fact that we have no historical records of this periods, we have a mythical record in the form of religious literature known as The Vedas, one of the most important religious books in Indian history. Stories about military conflicts and other hostilities are recorded in the Vedas, but the historical reliability of this episodes is uncertain.

About the Author

Cristian Violatti
Cristian Violatti is a freelance writer, currently studying Archaeology at the University of Leicester, England. He is a regular contributor and one of the editors of Ancient History Encyclopedia.

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Cite this work

Aryan Books

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Visual Timeline
  • 1500 BCE
    The Aryans - nomadic northerners from central Asia, begin to migrate into the Indus Valley.
  • c. 1000 BCE
    The Aryans expand into the Ganges valley in India.
  • c. 700 BCE
    Indian scholars codify and reinterpret Aryan beliefs to create the Upanishads texts forming the basis of Hinduism.
  • c. 700 BCE
    India is divided into 16 Aryan states or kingdoms.
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