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History of India — the Most Important Eras and Empires You Should Know

History of India — the Most Important Eras and Empires You Should Know

By CarolUpdated Oct. 13, 2022

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.


  • 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.

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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.

This period of Indian history was also the time of the Mahabharata epic, which describes the great battle of Kurukshetra between two groups of brothers, the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Krishina In the great battle of Kurukshetra, Krishina acts as the chariot driver for the master warrior, Arjuna

Society during the Vedic Age largely consisted of pastoral and tribal groups. Holy books called the Vedas were largely followed and required sacrifices and rituals to appease the gods, which became a part of daily life. 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, or classes, which is also known today as the caste system. In this system, society was divided into levels by inherited occupation.

On top were the Brahmins (priests), followed by the Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), then the Vaishyas (farmers and merchants), and finally the Shudras (servants and laborers). Those who handled meat and human waste were considered the "untouchables" and occupied the lowest part of this social hierarchy.

The caste system is illegal today in India although many people still know what caste their family belongs to and the "untouchables" are still marginalized. Caste-based social systems have also been practiced in other religions such as Islam and Judaism, and have long been challenged by many reformist movements.

flower seller A flower seller sit at one end of the street

The Vedic Age lasted until the defeat of the Vedic tribes in the Battle of the Ten Kings. This made way for 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.

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The age of Mahavira and Gautama Buddha

Later Vedic literature includes a remarkable set of Sanskrit writings called the Upanishads. The first Upanishads were written around 400 BCE and laid the theoretical basis of classical Hinduism. The spiritual teachings of the Upanishads center on a philosophical quest for truth through inquiry.

With urbanization, came also the new wave of early-Hindu movements, which eventually led to the birth of Jainism and Buddhism. Jainism was founded by Mahavira (c. 549-477 BCE) and Buddhism by Gautama Buddha (c. 563-483 BCE), who became the Buddha.

The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was the prince of the kingdom of Kapilavastu. He was born in Nepal, but his most important teachings took place in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India. Early Hinduism created the concept of the cycle of death and rebirth, samsara, and liberation.

The extremeness of some of the beliefs of early Hinduism was counteracted by Buddha who sought to find a middle ground. Buddha’s footsteps in India from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath and other places he visited regularly have now become part of a well-traveled circuit for Buddhist pilgrims.

buddhist A buddhist monk walks in Bodh Gaya

Both Jainism and Buddhism had particularly wide appeal, as they required neither caste nor ritual sacrifice, rejected the notion of a creator, and discussed the laws of the universe.

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.

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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.

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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.

Bindusura took the throne of the Maurya Empire in 297 BCE. He was then succeeded by Ashoka, who reigned for 37 years and brought long-lasting peace. Ashoka is considered to be one of India’s greatest rulers as he extended the Mauryan Empire from Afghanistan to present-day Karnataka.

Ashoka was a great patron of Buddhism and recorded his ethical code on rocks and pillars all over the empire. He also built many stupas to enshrine Buddhist relics including the Great Stupa in Sanchi and the Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath.

the-great-stupa Ashoka built many stupas to enshrine Buddhist relics including the Great Stupa in Sanchi

According to the Ashokavadana, the story of Ashoka, the king ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas and viharas. Thanks to Ashoka, Buddhism spread all over Southeast Asia and Mediterranean Europe. The king was well-known for sending monks to faraway regions to share the teachings of the Buddha.

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.

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.

After Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire began to decline. Local Kingdoms arose across North India while from the northwest a series of invaders from Central Asia established successive dynasties.

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.

The Gupta period saw a great cultural flowering with fine Sanskrit poetry and drama and advanced writings on mathematics and astronomy. At this time, the two Hindu sects of Vaishnavism and Shaivism (followers of Vishnu and Shiva) became prominent.

This is also the period in which the Buddhist University of Nalanda was established on a sacred site. The university housed over 5,000 students and teachers along with a library containing nine million manuscripts.

In 712 CE, Muhammed bin Qasim conquered northern India and although he was unable to maintain control, his rule ended the indigenous empires of India. Independent city states became the new standard model of government and the Islamic Sultanates arose in modern-day Pakistan.

During the early years of the Delhi Sultans, a number of independent kingdoms such as the Solankis in Gujarat, the Eastern Gangas in Odisha, and South India had been absorbed into the Sultanate.

As the rule of the Delhi Sultans declined, its nobles and governors rebelled and founded their own kingdoms in Bengal, Gujarat, Mandu, and Jaunpur. In Rajasthan too, several Rajput kingdoms such as Mewar (contained present-day Udaipur) and Marwar (contained present-day Jodhpur) achieved independence.

Despite the turbulent fight for independence and rule, the Muslim rulers brought new ideas around agricultural technology, irrigation, and art. Many of India’s most famous mosques, tombs and forts were built by the Delhi Sultans.

During this period, trade flourished with Iran, the Arab countries, Southeast Asia, and China.

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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 the famed ruler Babur who was a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan. His grandson, Akbar the Great, a brilliant administrator and enlightened ruler, spent his rule establishing a good relationship between Hindus and Muslims.

Akbar wanted to fuse the Persian culture of their kingdom with the ancient Indian styles. The architecture of Fatehpur Sikri, built by Akbar between 1571 and 1585, is a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles reflecting the ruler’s secular vision.

Fatehpur Sikri Fatehpur Sikri

This created a unique mixed culture which is evident in the numerous examples of the Indo-Saracenic architecture throughout the country.

The next emperor, Shan Jahan, expanded the territory to the southern border by a victory conquered the Deccan regions of southern India. During Shan Jahan’s reign, the empire was stable and prosperous, attracting artisans from other parts of India, Persia, and Central Asia. These artisans came to build luxurious forts, palaces, and mausoleums.

The Taj Mahal, one of the world’s most famous buildings, was built by Shah Jahan, in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. This sublime garden-tomb along with the nearby Agra Fort have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Taj Mahal Taj Mahal

The Mughal Empire reached its zenith during the reign of Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal who expanded the empire by adding new territories in the south. The empire began to decline after Aurangzeb’s death and the Rajputs of Rajasthan, the Nizams of Hyderabad, and the Wodeyars of Mysore began to establish independent states.

During the decline, the two new powers to emerge were the Marathas in the Deccan regions and the Sikhs in North India. In 1737, during the Battle of Delhi, the Maratha army 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.

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English colonialism

The East India Trading Company first entered India in 1617, when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir granted them permission to trade in the Indian. The Company continued acquiring territory in North India by gaining trade concessions from the Mughal emperors.

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 Raj (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.

Rashtrapati Bhavan Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Viceroy House, was during the period of the British Raj

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.

Learn more about the effect of the British rule on the country.

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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