What Did They Eat in Ancient India?

Although ancient Indians primarily ate grains and wheat, meat and fish were also part of the diet.
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The people of Ancient India, a population historians and anthropologists refer to as the Indus Valley Civilization (3300–1400 B.C.) , had a fairly varied diet. While wheat and barley were the staple foods of the Indus Valley, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and milk were also consumed depending on region and local religious dietary laws. For those who could afford to consider their diet as a spiritual practice, food consumption was dependent on religious values.

1 Religiosity of Food

In ancient India, great importance was placed on food as it was believed that the purity of the individual was synonymous with the purity of the things they consumed. The religious traditions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, eventually established rules, rituals and regulations surrounding food. There was a widely regarded belief in the connection between mental health and nutrition. Thus foods considered detrimental to psychological wellbeing were avoided.

2 Dietary Laws

Historical Indian literature on Hindu dietary laws illuminate the extent to which food was culturally valued. Specific instructions are outlined regarding what kinds of animals and vegetables are fit or unfit for consumption, and with whom and under what circumstances food can be taken. Foods prohibited by Hindu law were mainly carnivorous animals and garlic. In addition, the texts advise Hindus to abstain from food contaminated by hair, insects or impure people.

3 What They Ate

Grains and milk products have always occupied a significant place in the Indian diet. Vegetarian dishes were consumed by all sectors of society while meat was eaten by some. Remains found in homes and tombs indicate that fish was a significant dietary element in the Indus Valley Civilization. Various fishing devices such as net sinkers and and fish hooks have been discovered by archaeologists. Spices and oils were used to flavor food.

4 The Sacred Cow

Although the exact origin of the practice of abstaining from eating cattle remains a matter of debate, beginning in around 1200 B.C., Hindus implemented the practice of venerating cows and abandoning them as a food source. The Brahmin elite caste secured the sanctity of the cow. This is not to say that all Hindus in Indian society didn’t continue to eat beef as many did, particularly the lower castes.

Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.