India’s Ancient Influence: Food to Architecture
mehrangarh fort in jodhpur

Dholavira is an ancient city in India, commencing around 3,500BCE, which has some amazing influences that show continuity with later Indian culture.

1. Highly-polished pillars, not unlike the later Mauryan Pillars were found, with interesting bases. Polished statues such as the Priest-King and Red Sandstone Bust from other areas of the Indus culture also reveal this, and preceded the Hellenic world by well over 1,000 years in such techniques.

2. Large stadiums, holding up to 10,000 people have also be found. This also shows influences from India that, possibly, through trade via areas in Gujarat where Dholavira is located, as well as the influences of later Universities such as Takshashila west, influence the Greco-Roman world.

3. Hemispherical mounds were found, over rock-cut areas, not unlike later Stupas. Rock-cut architecture in Dholavira, in the form of these and also large reservoirs show the continuity of later architecture such as rock-cut cave-temples, to the amazing Kailasa Temple.

These mounds appear to be precursors to what became Buddhist Stupas – dome-shaped funerary mounds. Ruins at Kaushambi (800BCE-600BCE period) show of true-arch formations/basements with such, and also a large dome that was atop the palace. Later Stupas and Mauryan Architecture around 300BCE also sport these archways and domes – thus as early as 1,000 years before the advent of Islam, let alone so-called “Indo-Islamic” architecture in India (15thC AD).

True archways are also seen over deities on Indus-Valley seals around 2,500BCE. Ancient people as the Todas of southern India have also built their huts in such styles for thousands of years. Corbelled archways are seen all over the Indus cities, especially at Dholavira, via sewage drains and storm-drains.

4. Large step-wells also originated in Dholavira. These also show continuity with later step-wells in India, and also their grand designs. It appears in the past 5,000 years, not much has changed.

5 The world’s oldest sign-board was also found at Dholavira, and originally went over the entranceway. Along with the stone-cut architecture that continues into later India, this reveals much more about ancient India.

Kalibangan in Rajasthan is another amazing city.

1. Tandoor ovens (known as kandu in texts such as Sushruta Samhita) – and the process of cooking meats like tandoori chicken have been found here. It was earlier thought such came to India via Central Asian influences, but it is clear such influences continued in India (as in present-day Sindh and Panjab), and spread to Central Asia etc., much like how South Indian cuisine and influences shaped SE-Asian cultures, especially Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. Central Asia was once also Buddhist and Indian Universities attracted many students from there. It appears breads such as naan originated here and also spread to Central Asia as well, since the inhabitants ate much wheat; naan and kebabs are noted by Arabs in the 13th century, 400 years before the Mughals; Arabs and Persians also translated many Ayurvedic and other works which influenced their Unani system of medicine and contained many recipes; Arabs also dominated the spices from India and would have taken back some of the Indian culinary delicacies. Recipes would have also influenced this.

There is often a misconception that some dishes from Mughals, due to Hindi terms popularised by invaders. Yet, even common words in Hindi for foodstuffs, viz. goat (gosht), chicken (murgh), onion (pyaj), vegetables (subji), world (duniya), life (zindigi), heart (dil), and even book (kitab) derive from foreign sources; it doesn’t mean they aren’t native to India! Invaders often used their local terms for food etc. that were popular with them – as we see, even common every-day items used by Hindus were replaced with Turkic, Arabic and Persian loanwords in Hindi. The Greeks, for example, identified Krishna as Herakles and Shiva with Dionysus. Even kismet (fate) is commonly used in Hindi to denote karmic fate – hence Hindi, as a common language, uses foreign terms for even things Hindu replacing Sanskrit.

Various dishes such as Pilaf (from which Paella originates) originated in ancient India, from blended dishes, taken back to Europe by Alexander the Great’s soldiers. Other classic dishes from kebabs to biryani have their origin in India, as well; The ancient figure and cook Nala of the Indian epics notes of Mamsodana or “meat-rice”, cooked with various fragrant spices (in his Paka-Darpana), as does the 12th Century text, Manasollasa, which also notes of recipes from modern-day idli in South India, to curries like pasanda, koftas, bondi and even chaats in the North. One recipe notes of pork balls and bacon in curds. The early Sangam literature in southern India, which also dominated the spice-trade also notes of Oon Soru, a dish of meat-rice with fragrant spices added around 200AD.

Again, the important fact to remember is that rice and spices as pepper, long pepper, cinnamon, cassia, star anise, cardamom, cumin, cloves turmeric, ginger etc. came from India to Central Asia and Arabia, where they were then transmitted west. It is thus no wonder we find such dishes originating in India, itself. As noted, Arabs (via spice trade and later influences from Ayurvedic books, trade, astronomy and mathematics from India) and Central Asians (via Buddhism, especially in the early centuries BCE and via the Silk Road trade routes) were influenced by cuisine etc. from Northern India as much as SE Asia was from southern Indian culture and cuisine.

Mamsodana or rice with meat and clarified butter, especially beef/veal (thus, beef biryani) is noted in Brihanaranyaka Upanishad (VI.4.18) around at least 3,200 years ago, said to be a recipe for providing a great son as a great scholar, able to hold debates etc. Interestingly, the modern Saint, Swami Vivekananda who brought Hinduism to the west, is known to have eaten beef! Such appears to do with the fact that Vrisha (the term for bull) also denotes strength, shakti or power – as seen by horned figures in ancient times from the Indus-Valley onwards. In the Vedas, beef or bulls was offered to Rudra (later Bhairava), who himself is often described as a bull in the Rig Veda. Shatapatha Brahmana (XII.7.2.3/6) states bulls are offered to Indra (later Shiva), since bulls as strength (indriya – also senses), as well as speech.

This may give us some clues as to the origin of biryani dishes in India, and their purpose, also.

Charaka, around 3,000 years ago (Charaka, Samhita, Sutrasthana, XXVII. 250 – 256) describes different types of rice preparations, including that with ghee, marrow, meats and fruits – not unlike variations in biryanis today. Likewise, Ashtanga Hridayam of Vagbhat around 600AD (Sutra, VI. 30 – 31) also notes of odana or boiled rice dishes with milk, meat etc (mamsa-odana, biryani), being hard to digest.

Sushruta around 3,500BCE, drawing from older works, also mentions various meat dishes that spread across the globe (along with India’s spices, just as Indian textiles and fashions did):

Mamsa Vilepi or a rice-gruel dish of meats, fruits, sour tastes and vegetables.

-Milk-Meat, processed in meat with fragrant spices, vi. cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger etc. (Su. Sam. Sut. XLVI.352). This is much like modern-day korma recipes, that pre-date Mughals by 3,000 years! Sweetened Vesavara Mamsa (ibid, 365) is similar; it is boneless meat, made into a paste, added with jaggery, ghee, Indian long pepper, black pepper and dry ginger.

Parisushka Mamsa, meat fried in ghee, processed with water, cumin and others. Pradigdha Mamsa is the same meat, placed in milk (ibid, 353). This is not unlike later variants such as keema dahi vada. Vadas themselves are mentioned (ibid 294-295) as vataka and sthunika and noted as being hard to digest, and of many varieties (“sarva vataka” – “all types of vataka“) – showing there were numerous forms and preparations; one form of discs of wheat and green-gram, as also filled with meat are noted (ibid 399). The vegetarian form of keema dahi vada also originated in Manasollasa. Preparations in buttermilk sauces etc. are noted (ibid, 449-457) where Sushruta notes various containers for storage of food preparations.

Here, we see the ideas of stuffed balls and cakes of various kinds, as also keema-parathas as originating in the time of Sushruta, 3,000 years ago or more. We recall that he was also from the more royal dynasties of Benares (Kashi), and hence mentions the foods of the kshatriya castes more.

Ullupta Mamsa or minced meat, often made into kebabs etc. (ibid, 354). It appears such also made its way into the middle-east as well. As noted, Manasollasa states of these recipes later, just in more detail. As tandoors originated in India, as also continuity in such dishes even in Sushruta’s times, shows kebabs originated in India and spread to Central Asia and Persia – perhaps by way of Gypsies, or trade, Indian scholars, or universities. Indian colonies, as via the Silk Road to Baghdad also established colonies where such influences would have existed.

Shulya Mamsa, meat roasted over coals etc. – basically, like kebab meat, or kebab-meat (ibid, 355), also called Pratapta meat, made by adding ghee, cumin, sea-salt and pepper, before roasting. Kebabs come from the ancient Akkadian term kebabu, which may derive from Sanskrit kandava (lit, “cooked in an oven/over coals”) or from kandu. Mahabharat first makes mention of roasting large pieces of meat with spices, juices etc. on spits. Harivamsa (c.400AD) elaborates on this (II.89.55 – 65), stating various substances such as fruit juices of pomegranate, vinegar, salt and black pepper used as marinades were cooked over coals on spikes; sauces of mangoes, vinegar, ghee, salt and pepper with sour fruit pastes, also.

-Bharjita-Mamsa (meat fried in fats, minced and made into pancakes – basically “meat-balls”) and finally, Kandu-pachita, basically tandoori-meat (ibid, 356), meat smeared with mustard powder, fragrant powders after being roasted. Again (ibid, 408), Sushruta mentions foods cooked on coals and mud-pans.

Many such influences were also taken west by the Romani (Gypsies) from India to Europe and the Middle East (by the Domari).

2. Fire-Altars which show continuity with the Vedic-culture to the modern-day. Ancient India’s Fire-cult as seen as early as the Rig-Veda reveals the origin of this, and also goes with the tandoors and the ancient sacred art of cooking.

3. The world’s earliest ploughed field came from Kalibangan also, around 2,800BCE. It shows a high-degree of agricultural sophistication.

4. Tiled floors are seen on houses, much like later and modern-day India. Latticework, not unlike that of later windows, palaces and temples is also found, of alabaster in some Indus cities.

Ancient Indian dress also inspired many across the world also, since cotton and other textiles arose in, and were exported from India since ancient times, to Mesopotamia, Egypt and later Greece and Rome, where such styles were influenced; the Roman toga derived from the Indian dhoti with upper draped garment over the shoulder as seen from Indus Valley times until the time of the Buddha and beyond; the Indus Valley also sports various types of turbans and tunics which spread across the western and eastern world, as well as numerous other headdresses, and hair-styles!

Just as we see later the Buddha sporting various knots, hair-styles and such, so also these are found in the Indus around 2800BCE onwards. Later military and royal tunics seen around 200BCE, as well as royal robes by Satavahana Kings on the older Ajanta Cave paintings, had their origin in the Indus. Tunics are also seen in The sculpture dubbed “Lady of the Spiked Throne” – a kind of bull-shaped ship, or vimana (flying chariot) sports men with tunics/robes and turbans as her guards/attendants, much as we see with later guards depicted in carvings and paintings in the Buddhist-era. Such are also seen on rock-art in Central and Eastern India, going back to 10,000BCE.

Like the art and architecture of India, these would have spread west. The use of dice, from one to six dots and the origin of chess are also from Indus cities – just as our modern numerals (1 – 9) replacing the cumbersome Roman system, zero, trigonometry, medicine and surgery, astronomy etc. spread etc. also was transmitted west via trade and also Indian universities where people studied – especially Takshashila in the western part of ancient India (Gandhara), which attracted many Persians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Egyptian students from 600BCE onwards. Here, the spread of Buddhism, Buddhist Monks and also the Sindhi-trade route would have influenced many dress-styles via being exported from India as ready-made textiles and their mode of wearing. Even buttons, for example originated in ancient India, and from the Egyptians to Romans, Indian gold and jewelry made its way west!

The Panchatantra, a work around 200BCE was translated into many languages from Latin to Arabic, and became the basis of fairy tales across the globe; like India’s numerals, integer system and decimal-place system, it is one of her most valuable contributions to the world’s culture – along with chess. Such tales in turn have their origin in the Ithihasa-purana literature – which is seen in the Brahmanas (1900BCE), and stories in the Indus-Valley motifs.

The ancient Indian system of Shilpa-Shastra or Stapathya Veda stands out as a purely Vedic model and is what has made Indus Valley cities famous; their grid-like and town-planning system, as well as hydraulic engineering, flush sit-down toilets, separate bathrooms etc. leading into large sewers – and even public rubbish bins on streets! Such is much as ancient hospitals and such are described in later times by authors such as Charaka, relative to public hygiene.

Thus, many styles of art, architecture, dress etc., especially in Central Asia (once Buddhist, and some regions even belonging to the Indus Culture) simple adapted these when converting to Islam; the once-Buddhist past was superimposed upon their new religion – which once dominated (and originated, from the Indus, spread via trade and education) from Sindh to deep into Central Asia.

The ancient name of the area, the Hindu Kush or Hindu-Killer, relates to the thousands of Hindu craftsmen slaves taken via this route to Samarkand and Bukhara, to build the capitals there.

In the East – India influenced China, Korea, Japan as well as Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines through Buddhism, Hinduism, Sanskrit literature as well as Indian scripts via southern India – the basis of SE Asian scripts, as well as dress-styles, just as Rome in the west influenced Europe. Epics as the Ramayana and Mahabharata are still performed throughout Asia and sung; ancient Cambodia boast’s the ancient Hindu Temple to Vishnu (Angkor Vat), and Thailand with it’s variants of south-Indian curries, dress and customs, scatterings of Hindu Brahmins (as also in Bali, in Indonesia) boasts southern-influences of architecture and Sanskrit-derived names for their rulers and place-names.

Even down to the anointing of the Thai rulers (Rajapisek, from Sanskrit: Rajyabhisheka – lit. “royal consecration/anointing”), the practices continue, as well as others to Hindu deities as Shiva (notably Triyampawai ceremony).

Just as the south-Indian scripts, dynasties with clothing and architecture, as also curries and spices influenced SE Asia, so also, as we see, Northern India, from things originating in Vedic times in the Indus-Valley, continued onwards and also influenced people west, such as the Arabs and Persians – translators of the Hindu texts, especially thus also gastronomical, as also influences as dress and belly-dancing from the Gypsies, Indian traders and their contact with Indian Universities. Just as the southern Gopura-style influenced SE Asia, so the northern dome and arch-styles influenced the west from the ancient and Indus origins, as also tunics, robes and such.

As with textiles originating in India and being exported, so also thus, North and South, India as the land of exporting rice and spices to the world also generated many delicacies along with these over thousands of years. Some became staples in Buddhist periods in Central-Asia and also the Arab world influenced from India – which were this popularised even more by their local names upon such invaders taking power of India; yet, we see the indigenous origin of such things “Mughal” as 5,000 years old in India, with continuity from later times (500AD – 1200AD), as we do with south Indian influences and those given to SE Asia.

From the naan and kebab, to tandoori dishes and biryani, Northern India has had such an influence on the western world, just as south India did with coconut and tamarind-based curries and such!