Ancient India Lesson Plans & Activities

People have been living on the Indian subcontinent for 250,000 years! Currently there are over 1.3 billion people living in the Republic of India, making it the second most populous country in the world next to China. India has a rich history filled with fantastical stories of princes, princesses, gods, and goddesses, as well as some of the greatest achievements in the ancient world. The ancient Indians invented a system of writing and measurement, the concept of zero, the cultivation of cotton, the practice of yoga, and the first urban sanitation system! This teacher guide utilizes the popular G.R.A.P.E.S. acronym for teaching about ancient civilizations and focuses on the geography, religion, achievements, politics, economy, and social structure of Ancient India.

Student Activities for Ancient India Include:

G: Geography and Natural Resources

India is a large country located in Asia. It's called a subcontinent as it extends far south. The climate is warm to hot year round with two seasons: rainy and dry. India is surrounded by ocean on three sides: the Bay of Bengal in the east, the Arabian Sea in the west, and the Indian Ocean to the south. It has many rivers, such as the Brahmaputra which starts in the Himalayas, the Ganges which flows across most of northern India, and the Indus which begins in the Himalayas and flows from the Hindu Kush mountains through what is now Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. The rivers were important sources of water for farmland and people, and the site of the first civilizations.

The Thar Desert lies in northern India, stretching for hundreds of miles comprised of sand, dunes, and stone with little plant life. It is dry and hot, and dust storms are common. Birds, lizards, and snakes live here, as well as gazelles. There are seven mountain ranges in India including the Himalayan and Hindu Kush Mountains to the north and the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats that run south along the western and eastern coasts. They all form a natural barrier. In addition, The Deccan Plateau is a massive triangle-shaped area that lies between the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats mountain ranges. It is raised, flat land that is dry with few rivers. The soil is either black (rich in iron and good for growing cotton) or yellow or red, which are difficult for farming. The monsoons during the rainy season provide most of the water in this area.

R: Religion

India has many polytheistic religions, meaning they believe in many gods. Brahmanism is considered the earliest form of Hinduism, which is the main religion in India. Hinduism teaches reincarnation (one is reborn after death into another being), karma (a cause and effect of spirituality; that one's actions in their current life will affect their status and opportunities in their next life), and nirvana (a state of perfect happiness attained when one has led a life that releases them from the cycle of reincarnation). There are three main gods: Brahma, who creates the universe; Vishnu, who preserves the universe; and Shiva, who destroys the universe. These three together form one supreme god. Hinduism is the world's oldest major religion and the largest religion in India today. Religion was deeply embedded in all aspects of society, from the government to the rigid social structure, or caste system, that was outlined in the Vedas, the oldest Hindu sacred texts.

Buddhism, another major religion in India was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha, 563 BCE-483 BCE), who was a Hindu prince that renounced his wealth to seek enlightenment. Buddhism focuses on understanding and eliminating suffering, karma, birth, and rebirth as laid out in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Other religions practiced in Ancient India include Islam, Jainism and Sikhism. The Dharma Wheel symbol is used by Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The practice of Yoga was one of the components of Hinduism and is also practiced in Buddhism and Jainism. Its focus is to improve health in mind, body, and soul.

A: Achievements

Ancient India made advances in writing, art, architecture, religion, agriculture, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. The Harappan Civilization in the Indus River Valley (2500-1700 BCE) built the first planned cities and even created the world's first urban sanitation systems and large public baths some 2000 years before the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Writing developed in 2000 BCE (4,000 years ago!) with Sanskrit, one of the world's oldest written languages. Sacred Hindu texts called the Vedas were written in Sanskrit after being orally taught for hundreds of years. Writing also flourished during the Gupta empire (320-550 CE) with works of poetry, fables, folktales, plays of comedy and drama, and writings about Hindu law and religion. Kalidasa is considered the greatest poet and dramatist of the Sanskrit language.

Also during the Gupta empire, Aryabhata I discovered a more exact calculation of pi and correctly believed that the Earth rotated on an axis and that the planets and Moon shine by reflected sunlight. Ancient India is credited with the mathematical concept of zero, decimals, systems of measurements, weights, and scales. Mathematical concepts aided in creating complex architecture in ancient India, with massive structures built as universities, temples, and palaces. Later in 1632, the white marble Taj Mahal was constructed by emperor Shah Jahan in honor of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It serves as a tomb for her and the emperor himself. The Taj Mahal is considered one of the world's most impressive and iconic works of architecture.

Medicinal practices were written in the Vedas and ancient Indians used hundreds of herbs, plants, and flowers to treat ailments. They even performed surgeries! Yoga was a Hindu practice that helped align the mind, body, and soul.

Art also flourished in ancient India with wall murals, paintings, and sculptures of stone, wood, metal, and clay. Metallurgy, or metalwork, using the natural resources of copper, gold, and iron created engraved coins, pillars, and sculptures. The ancient Indians loved games and are even credited with inventing chess!

P: Politics

Ancient India had monarchical forms of government with rajahs, or kings, as rulers who handed down power through their families. When challenges to succession occurred, wars could break out as they did when King Ashoka seized the throne from his brother during the Mauryan Empire.

The Mauryan Empire (322-187 BCE) conquered much of India and modern day Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Later in his life, King Ashoka turned away from brutal conquest to spread Buddhism and the values of love, respect, and nonviolence. He communicated these values through his famous edicts that were carved into stones and pillars and placed throughout the empire.

About five hundred years later, the Gupta Empire (320-550 CE) created a peaceful time of great prosperity and achievements that is nicknamed Ancient India's "Golden Age." They created a central government with councils that were made up of religious advisors and members of the royal family to help the king make decisions. In addition, local provinces were ruled by royal governors.

Ancient India boasted military might in order to conquer lands and maintain control of its empires. They created weapons of bronze, and later iron, such as bow and arrows, swords, javelins, and spears. The cavalry rode on horseback, they used chariots and also had a most fearsome weapon in their use of domesticated elephants, which could stampede and scatter opposing forces.

E: Economy

Ancient India was an agrarian society, meaning their economy was mainly based on farming. Agriculture developed as early as 3000 BCE with crops like wheat, barley, rice, and cotton in the Indus River Valley. India was one of the first in the world to cultivate cotton and they used it to weave cloth, making colorful clothing with natural vegetable dyes. In addition to grains, ancient Indians farmed vegetables, fruit, and spices. They raised livestock such as sheep, goats, and cattle and may also have been the first to raise chickens! The rivers and oceans were full of fish and birds as well as pearls and salt. Metallurgy, or metalwork, was another great achievement of Ancient India and resulted from mining the land rich with gold, copper, and iron. The rivers and oceans lent themselves to travel and trade by boat. Ancient India Imported silk, silver, tin, wool, and grain from along the "silk road". They exported cotton, ivory, salt, pearls, beads, gold, and wood. Metal coins were created as a form of currency as early as 300 BCE!

S: Social Structure

Ancient Indian Hinduism imposed a strict social hierarchy called a caste system. The Vedas (sacred texts) described four main social classes: Brahmins (priests or religious scholars), Kshatriyas (rulers or warriors), Vaishyas (herders or merchants), Shudras (servants) and Dalit (formerly known as "untouchables" who did what were considered the lowest jobs such as street cleaning and sanitation). The Dalit were badly mistreated and thought of as less than because of their social caste. The caste system affected every part of a person's life as they could not change it and could not marry outside of their caste.

With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about Ancient India. They’ll become familiar with the environment, resources, technologies, religion, and culture of Ancient India and be able to demonstrate their knowledge in writing and illustrations.

Essential Questions for Ancient India

  1. Where is Ancient India and how did its geography impact the development of its culture and technology?
  2. What were the religions present in Ancient India and what were some of their characteristics?
  3. What were some of the major achievements of Ancient India in art, architecture, technology, writing, and science?
  4. What type of government existed in Ancient India and what were some of their characteristics?
  5. What were some important jobs and major influences on the economy in Ancient India?
  6. What was the social structure in Ancient India? How was the caste system divided?

Find more lesson plans and activities like these in our Social Studies Category!
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