History of India

 

With its millenarian history, India is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world. Its long history began about 3000 BCE, and, after the fundamental Vedic Age. The country has seen a long succession of small and larger kingdoms, some indigenous some not, until the British rule, that lasted for almost a century.

Today, Indian is a vast country that is diverse and rich in culture, that is awaiting to be discovered and treasured.

Highlights

  • India’s history is rich and dynamic
  • Knowing its history is an excellent way to understand the beauty of its culture
  • The Vedic age laid down the foundation for the Indian culture we know today
  • During its long history, India has seen the birth and the end of numerous powerful kingdoms
  • The British rule began around the end of the 17th century and ended only after the end of WWII

Early history (ca. 2000 BCE)

The early evidence of mankind in India dates back 2 million years ago. During the Neolithic period, the first extensive settlements appeared. The Bronze Age began around 3300 BCE: the civilization present in the Indus Valley was the most expansive one, with a population of over five million.

The beginning of the urban civilization began around 2000 BCE, with urban centers appearing in Dholavira, Kalibangan, Lothal, etc.

A gradual decline, mostly caused by a draught, began to emerge around 1700 BCE. Indo-Aryan tribes entered the Indian subcontinent, and this caused the birth of brand-new cultures in north-west India.

Vedic Age (1500 - 500 BCE)

A lot of what we know of the Vedic Age is written in the Vedas, a large body of religious texts and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. The Vedic Period played a pivotal role in the creation of numerous cultural aspects of the Indian subcontinent.

The Vedic society was largely formed by pastoral and tribal groups. By the end of the Rigvedic period, the Aryan society began to expand northwest and agriculture became the main activity.

Society was divided into four “Varnas” (i.e. classes), also known as “the caste system”: priests on top; warriors; farmers and merchants; and finally, laborers. Those who handled meat and wastes were considered the “untouchables” and occupied the lowest point of this social hierarchy.

The Vedic tribes were then defeated in the Battle of the Ten Kings, which saw the uprising of the Kuru Kingdom.

Second Urbanization (ca. 500 BCE)

The second urbanization started around 500 BCE: new urban settlements were created along the Ganges. The plains around the river saw the birth of the Mauryan Empire which, even though it was influenced by the Vedic culture, it was largely different from the Kuru Kingdom.

The age of Mahavira and Gautama Buddha

The first Upanishads were composed around 400 BCE, which laid the theoretical basis of classical Hinduism. With urbanization, came also the new ascetic of Sramana movements, which eventually led to the birth of Jainism and Buddhism, founded respectively by Mahavira (c. 549-477 BCE) and Gautama Buddha (c. 563-483 BCE).

Sramana created the concept of the cycle of birth and death, samsara and liberation. The extreme asceticism of the Sramana religions was enriched by the middle way found by Buddha.

Mahajapanadas (600 - 300 BCE)

From 600 BCE to 300 BCE India witnessed the rise of the Mahajanapanas, 16 powerful kingdoms located from Gandhar to Bengal. The culture of these kingdoms corresponds to the Northern Black Polished Ware culture, characterized by large cities, massive fortifications, huge population, trade, architecture, etc.

The language used by the gentry was Sanskrit, while the general population used Prakrits.

Around 400 BCE, these sixteen kingdoms converged to form four major ones - Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala, and Magadha – which are usually associated with the life of Gautama Buddha.

Persians and Greeks

Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 327 BCE and then, after defeating King Porus, he conquered much of the Punjab. He continued east and confronted the Nanda and Gangaridaj Empires. Alexander’s army, exhausted and fearful of the large Indian army, refused to march further, forcing Alexander to retreat.

These invasions had great repercussions in the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent. Present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan became a melting pot of Indian, Persian, Asian and Greek cultures, from which originated the Greco-Buddhist culture.

This new, hybrid culture will last until the 5th Century CE and contributed to the development of Mahayana Buddhism.

Maurya Empire (322 - 185 BCE)

From 322 to 185 BCE, the Maurya Empire unified most of the Indian subcontinent into one state and was the largest empire that ever existed on the Indian subcontinent. The founder of the empire was Chandragupta Maurya, who overthrew the Nanda Dynasty. His influence extended towards the west and, by 317 BCE, he fully occupied Northwestern India.

His son Bindusura took the throne in 297 BCE, and was then succeeded by Ashoka, who reigned for 37 years and brought long-lasting peace. After his death, the Empire began to decline: he was killed by Pushyamitra Shunga and established the Shunga Empire.

Internal and external trade, as well as agriculture and economic activities all prospered during the long Maurya Empire, which also saw the creation of an efficient system of finance, administration and security. During this period, the rulers built the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s oldest and longest major roads.

Buddhism –thanks to Ashoka, spread all over Southeast Asia and Mediterranean Europe by sending monks to the regions to share the teachings of the Buddha.

Rising of Islam

When the Gupta Empire, during which every aspect of Indian culture reached its peak, began to decline, around 550 CE, Harshavardhan (590-647) ruled the region for 42 years. He was a man of culture and a devout Buddhist.

During his reign north of Indian flourished, but his kingdom collapsed after his death. India fell into chaos and was fragmented into several small kingdoms that lacked the necessary unity to fight invasions.

In 712 CE, Muahmmed bin Quasim conquered northern Indian, de facto ending the indigenous empires of India. Independent city states became the new standard model of government, and the Islamic Sultanates rose in modern-day Pakistan.

Early modern period: Foreign Empires (1527 – 1858 CE)

The early modern period corresponds to the rise and fall of the Mughal Empire, the growth of Maratha and Sikh imperial powers and the final birth of the British Raj.

Mughal Empire

The Mughal Empire was established by Babur, a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan. His grandson, Akbar the Great, tried to establish a good relationship with the Hindus and attempted to fuse the Turko-Persian culture of their kingdom with the ancient Indian styles. This created a unique Indo-Persian culture which is evident in the numerous examples of the Indo-Saracenic architecture.

Akbar’s son, Jahangir, followed his father’s policy. The dynasty ruled the Indian subcontinent, becoming the second largest empire to have ever existed in the Indian subcontinent. It managed to control up to 24.4% of the world economy, surpassing even China.

It reached its zenith during the reign of Aurangzeb, but began its decline due to Maratha military resurgence.

In 1737, during the Battle of Delhi, the Maratha army finally defeated the Mughal Empire.

Maratha Empire

By the beginning of the 18th century, the Marathas ruled over much of South Asia. The kingdom was founded by Chatrapati Shivaji, but the incredible power nationality was created by Peshwa Bajirao I.

After defeating the Mughals, the Maratha Empire kept stretching across the Indian subcontinent. Madhavrao I granted semi-autonomy to the strongest knights, creating a confederacy of states.

The intervention of the East India Company intervened in a succession struggle in Pune, and this led to the First Anglo-Maratha War, won by the Maratha.

The Maratha remained in power until their defeat during the Second and the Third Anglo-Maratha Wars (1805-1818), after which the East India Company began to control most of India.

Sikh Empire

The Sikh Empire (1799 – 1849) ruled the Northwestern regions of the subcontinent, and it was mostly based around the Punjab region. Maharaja Ranjit Singh trained his army with European techniques and proved himself to be a master strategist.

He added several provinces to his empire but, after his death, the Sikh Empire weakened and began a conflict with the East India Company.

The first and the second Anglo-Sikh Wars marked the end of the Sikh Empire, and the British conquered large parts of the Indian subcontinent.

English colonialism

The East India Company first entered India in 1617 when Jahangir, a Mughal Emperor, granted permission for them to trade in Indian Ocean region.

The Company ended up seizing control over large parts of the Indian subcontinent - taking advantage of the internal divisions among the various states and religious groups. They later colonized parts of South-East Asia, and colonized Hong Kong after a war with China.

Rebellion (1857)

The rebellion was started by soldiers employed by the East India Company due to the usage of new gunpowder cartridges, which was insensitive to local religious prohibition.

Mangal Pandey was the key mutineer. Soon after, he was joined by dozens of units of the Indian army, and member of the Indian nobility. Everything stared in Meerut, and shortly after the rebels reached Delhi.

They managed to capture large areas in Oudh, where the rebellion took on the attributes of a patriotic revolt against the British.

The Company reacted promptly, but it took them almost one full year to suppress the rebellion. As a result, all the power of the Company was transferred to the British Crown, which began to administer the country and the Company’s land.

British Rajh (1858 – 1947)

The colonial government expanded its infrastructure and the Indian Penal Code was created. Schooling became a priority for the Raj. The economy (as well as the population) grew at about 1% per year for about 40 years consecutively. The British Raj invested heavily in infrastructure – the railway system was the fourth largest one in the world at the time.

In 1905, the British split Bengal in two, a Hindu western half, and a Muslim eastern half. The people of Bengal were outraged, and this discontent marked the beginning of the anti-colonial movement. Bengal was later reunified in 1911.

Anti-colonialist movement

British presence in India were few, however they ruled on 52% of the Indian subcontinent. They had a considerable leverage over the princely states that governed the remaining 48% of the area.

The 19th century saw the rise of Indian nationalism, which wanted “self-rule” and “complete independence”. The first step towards independence was the appointment of Indian councilors, and to establish a large British Indian Army.

In 1907, the Congress was split into two factions: the radical that wanted direct revolution; and the moderates, that wanted to reform the system within the British rule. The British responded with a “carrot stick” approach: they introduced a dual mode of administration where Indian and British shared power; but, at the same time, in 1919 a British colonel opened fire on peaceful protestors – the infamous Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

The Non-Cooperation Movement launched on 1 August 1920, was significant but short phase of the Indian independence movement. It was led by Mahatma Gandhi, from 1920 to February 1922, after the Jillianwala Bagh Massacre. It aimed to resist British rule through non-violence.

The Partition of India was the division of British India in 1947 which accompanied the creation of two independent dominions, India and Pakistan. The Dominion of India is today the Republic of India, and the Dominon of Pakistan is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The partition was set forth in the Indian Independence Act 1947, and resulted in the dissolution of the British Raj, or Crown rule in India. However, it came with heavy losses as riots broke out between the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims in the provinces of Punjab and Bengal that resulted in 500,000 dead.

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