The Indo-Aryan Migration and the Vedic Period

Learning Objective

  • Describe the defining characteristics of the Vedic Period and the cultural consequenes of the Indo-Aryan Migration

Key Points

  • The Indo-Aryans were part of an expansion into the Indus Valley and Ganges Plain from1800-1500 BCE. This is explained through Indo-Aryan Migration and Kurgan theories.
  • The Indo-Aryans continued to settle the Ganges Plain, bringing their distinct religious beliefs and practices.
  • The Vedic Period (c. 1750-500 BCE) is named for the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, which were composed during this period. The period can be divided into the Early Vedic (1750-1000 BCE) and Later Vedic (1000-500 BCE) periods.



A sacred Indo-Aryan collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns. It is counted among the four canonical sacred texts of Hinduism, known as the Vedas.

the Vedas

The oldest scriptures of Hinduism composed in Vedic Sanskrit, and originating in ancient India during the Vedic Period (c. 1750-500 BCE).

Ganges Plain

A large, fertile plain encompassing most of northern and eastern India, where the Indo-Aryans migrated.

Scholars debate the origin of Indo-Aryan peoples in northern India. Many have rejected the claim of Indo-Aryan origin outside of India entirely, claiming the Indo-Aryan people and languages originated in India. Other origin hypotheses include an Indo-Aryan Migration in the period 1800-1500 BCE, and a fusion of the nomadic people known as Kurgans. Most history of this period is derived from the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, which help chart the timeline of an era from 1750-500 BCE, known as the Vedic Period.

The Indo-Aryan Migration (1800-1500 BCE)

Foreigners from the north are believed to have migrated to India and settled in the Indus Valley and Ganges Plain from 1800-1500 BCE. The most prominent of these groups spoke Indo-European languages and were called Aryans, or “noble people” in the Sanskrit language. These Indo-Aryans were a branch of the Indo-Iranians, who originated in present-day northern Afghanistan. By 1500 BCE, the Indo-Aryans had created small herding and agricultural communities across northern India.

These migrations took place over several centuries and likely did not involve an invasion, as hypothesized by British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler in the mid-1940s. Wheeler, who was Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1944 to 1948, suggested that a nomadic, Indo-European tribe, called the Aryans, suddenly overwhelmed and conquered the Indus River Valley. He based his conclusions on the remains of unburied corpses found in the top levels of the archaeological site of Mohenjo-daro, one of the great cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, whom he said were victims of war. Yet shortly after Wheeler proposed his theory, other scholars dismissed it by explaining that the skeletons were not those of victims of invasion massacres, but rather the remains of hasty burials. Wheeler himself eventually admitted that the theory could not be proven.

The Kurgan Hypothesis

The Kurgan Hypothesis is the most widely accepted scenario of Indo-European origins. It postulates that people of a so-called Kurgan Culture, a grouping of the Yamna or Pit Grave culture and its predecessors, of the Pontic Steppe were the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language. According to this theory, these nomadic pastoralists expanded throughout the Pontic-Caspian steppe and into Eastern Europe by early 3000 BCE. The Kurgan people may have been mobile because of their domestication of horses and later use of the chariot.

The Vedic Period (c. 1750-500 BCE)

The Vedic Period refers to the time in history from approximately 1750-500 BCE, during which Indo-Aryans settled into northern India, bringing with them specific religious traditions. Most history of this period is derived from the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in the Hindu religion, which were composed by the Aryans in Sanskrit.

Vedic Civilization is believed to have been centered in the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent and spread around 1200 to the Ganges Plain, a 255-million hectare area (630 million acres) of flat, fertile land named after the Ganges River and covering most of what is now northern and eastern India, eastern parts of Pakistan, and most of Bangladesh. Many scholars believe Vedic Civilization was a composite of the Indo-Aryan and Harappan, or Indus Valley, cultures.


The Ganges Plain (Indo-Gangetic Plain). The Ganges Plain is supported by the Indus and Ganges river systems. The Indo-Aryans settled various parts of the plain during their migration and the Vedic Period.

Early Vedic Period (c. 1750-1000 BCE)

The Indo-Aryans in the Early Vedic Period, approximately 1750-1000 BCE, relied heavily on a pastoral, semi-nomadic economy with limited agriculture. They raised sheep, goats, and cattle, which became symbols of wealth.

The Indo-Aryans also preserved collections of religious and literary works by memorizing and reciting them, and handing them down from one generation to the next in their sacred language, Sanskrit. The Rigveda, which was likely composed during this time, contains several mythological and poetical accounts of the origins of the world, hymns praising the gods, and ancient prayers for life and prosperity.

Organized into tribes, the Vedic Aryans regularly clashed over land and resources. The Rigveda describes the most notable of these conflicts, the Battle of the Ten Kings, between the Bharatas tribe and a confederation of ten competing tribes on the banks of what is now the Ravi River in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan. Led by their king, Sudas, the Bharatas claimed victory and merged with the defeated Purus tribe to form the Kuru, a Vedic tribal union in northern India.

Later Vedic Period (c. 1000-500 BCE)

After the 12th century BCE, Vedic society transitioned from semi-nomadic to settled agriculture. From approximately 1000-500 BCE, the development of iron axes and ploughs enabled the Indo Aryans to settle the thick forests on the western Ganges Plain.

This agricultural expansion led to an increase in trade and competition for resources, and many of the old tribes coalesced to form larger political units. The Indo-Aryans cultivated wheat, rice and barley and implemented new crafts, such as carpentry, leather work, tanning, pottery, jewelry crafting, textile dying, and wine making.


Ceramic goblet from Navdatoli, Malwa, c. 1300 BCE. As the Indo-Aryans developed an agricultural society during the Later Vedic Period (c. 1000-500), they further developed crafts, such as pottery.

Economic exchanges were conducted through gift giving, particularly between kings and priests, and barter using cattle as a unit of currency. While gold, silver, bronze, copper, tin, and lead are mentioned in some hymns as trade items, there is no indication of the use of coins.

The invasion of Darius I (a Persian ruler of the vast Achaemenid Empire that stretched into the Indus Valley) in the early 6th century BCE marked the beginning of outside influence in Vedic society. This continued into what became the Indo-Greek Kingdom, which covered various parts of South Asia and was centered mainly in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan.