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A Very Short History of the Ancient World

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Ancient India (The Indus Valley)

Once again, geography played a large part in shaping a civilization. Both the Indus and the Ganges rivers rise in the western Himalayan mountains, the former flowing to the west and south through Punjab and Sindh into the Arabian Sea, the latter to the east and south, ending in the Bay of Bengal. Another striking element is the natural barrier formed by the mountain ranges north of India. These mountains, which are less of a barrier in the west than in the Himalayas, tended to isolate India from its neighbors.

Along the southern edge of this great mountain wall are rich soils with generous rains and a lush and subtropical climate. To the south are the extensive flood plains of the Indus River in the west and the Ganges in the east. Southern India is a large peninsula with a mountain range along the western coast and a large flat plateau called the Deccan in the center of the subcontinent.

The history of India over the centuries is very complex and convoluted, with many overlapping kingdoms and empires. To help put things in context and perspective, I've started with a summary/overview to give the big picture and then followed this up with a more detailed account to fill in the gaps.


The history of India begins with evidence of human activity many thousands of years ago. The Indus Valley civilization of the Harappans, which spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from about 3000 to 1500 B.C., was its first major civilization. This Bronze Age civilization was at its height from 2600-1900 B.C., after which it gradually collapsed. It was followed by Aryan invasions from the north, resulting in the Iron Age Vedic or Hindu civilization, which extended over much of the central and northern Indian plains. This period witnessed the rise of sixteen major states or kingdoms known as the Mahajanapadas. One kingdom -- Magadha in northeast India -- was noted for the 5th century B.C. births of the founders of two Indian religions: Jainism and Buddhism. Also, two of India's greatest empires -- the Maurya Empire (321-185 B.C.) and the Gupta Empire (320-540 A.D.) -- originated in Magadha.

Almost all of the subcontinent was conquered by the Maurya Empire during the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. This empire lasted until about 185 B.C., after which India became fragmented, with various regions ruled over the next 1,500 years by a number of states known as "Middle Kingdoms." This era is known as the classical period of India. During this time, India had the largest economy of the ancient and medieval world, controlling between one-third and one-fourth of the world's wealth up until the 18th century A.D.

Much of northern and central India was once again united under a single state in the 4th century A.D. under the Gupta Empire. This two-century period of Hindu religious and intellectual resurgence has been called the "Golden Age of India." During the same time, and for several centuries afterwards, southern India, under the rule of the Chalukyas, Cholas, Pallavas and Pandyas, experienced its own golden age. This era saw many aspects of Indian civilization, administration, culture and religion (Hinduism and Buddhism) spread to much of the rest of Asia.

The southern Indian state of Kerala had maritime business links with the Roman Empire from around 77 A.D. Islam was introduced in Kerala through this route by Muslim traders. The first instance of Muslim rule in the subcontinent occurred in 712 A.D. when the Arab general Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Sindh and Multan in southern Punjab. This set the stage for several successive invasions from central Asia between the 10th and 15th centuries A.D., leading to the formation of Muslim empires, which included the Delhi Sultanate, the Deccan Sultanates and the Mughal Empire.

Mughal rule covered much of the northern parts of the subcontinent by 1526 A.D. and extended almost to the southern tip of India by 1707 A.D. Mughal rulers introduced middle-eastern art and architecture to India. In addition to the Mughals and various Rajput kingdoms, several independent Hindu states, such as the Vijayanagara Empire, the Maratha Empire and the Ahom Kingdom, flourished contemporaneously in southern, western and northeastern India, respectively. The Mughal Empire suffered a gradual decline in the early 18th century A.D., which provided opportunities for the Afghans and Sikhs to exercise control over large areas in the northwestern part of the subcontinent.

Beginning in the mid-18th century A.D. and extending over the next 100 years, India was gradually annexed by the British East India Company. Later, India was directly administered by the British Crown. Rule of India by Indians did not reappear until after World War II when Great Britain granted independence in 1947 and the country was divided into India and Pakistan.

Now for a more detailed historical account of this fascinating land.

Filling in the Gaps

The earliest imprints of human activities in India go back to the Paleolithic Age, roughly between 400,000 and 200,000 B.C. Stone implements and cave paintings from this period have been discovered in many parts of South Asia. Although agriculture seems to have come late to India, arriving sometime around 5000 B.C., India was one of the first regions to give birth to civilization. One of the first great civilizations -- with a writing system, urban centers, and a diversified social and economic system -- appeared around 3000 B.C. along the Indus River valley in Punjab and Sindh. Known as the Harappan culture, it covered more than 800,000 square kilometers, from the borders of Baluchistan to the deserts of Rajasthan, from the Himalayan foothills to the southern tip of Gujarat. The ancient cities had granaries, citadels and even household toilets. In Mohenjodaro, a mile-long canal connected the city to the sea, and trading ships sailed as far away as Mesopotamia.

The Indus Valley (or Harappan) civilization was the largest in the world during its reign from 3000 to about 1500 B.C. The culture was unique in that its cities were extraordinarily similar throughout a widespread area, yet there is no evidence of a unifying central government. The people were very peaceful, with an emphasis on trade rather than agriculture or war. For unknown reasons, this civilization began to deteriorate around 1900 B.C., with little of it remaining by 1500 B.C.

In 2600 B.C., the Indus Valley was verdant, forested and teeming with wildlife. But by 1800 B.C., the climate had changed. It became significantly cooler and drier. But this alone may not have been enough to bring down the Indus civilization. Some speculate that the crucial factor may have been the disappearance of substantial portions of the Ghaggar-Hakra river system, which feeds into the Indus River from the north and east. An earthquake may have diverted the system's water sources eastward toward the Ganges Plain, thus greatly diminishing the flow of the Indus River.

In any event, it was a mysterious civilization and one with no continuity, for it thrived for just a few centuries and then disappeared. So while Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Chinese Yellow River civilizations lasted for millenia and left their sizeable mark on all subsequent cultures, the Indus River civilization seems to have been merely a blip on the course of human history. And, unlike the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, the Harappan people built no huge monuments so their achievements seem to have disappeared from the record of human experience.

The Aryans

A group of warrior nomads, the Aryans, began to migrate into the Indus Valley region around the time that the Harappan civilization began its decline. There is disagreement on whether the Aryans overtook the Harappanians by force, or simply moved in and coexisted with them. According to some scholars, they came in at least two major waves in Pakistan as well as in small trickles farther eastward. The first wave came sometime between 1600 and 1500 B.C., and the second some six centuries later. After the second wave, when they became dominant, their language spread throughout northern India.

These nomadic Aryans, who originated in the Caucasus mountains in southeastern Europe, were predominately a cattle-breeding society. Possibly this is reflected in the regard for "sacred cows" in today's India. Nevertheless, they learned how to live as settled agriculturists from the Harappan people, absorbing some remnants of that civilization and integrating the people into their own culture to form the Vedic culture, which had the Hindu religion and caste system at its core. Since the Indus Valley civilization left no written records, the transition to the Vedic culture is a mystery. But by 200 B.C., this process of mixing and transforming was more or less complete and the culture we call "Indian" was fully formed.

Based on their heritage as a nomadic people, the Aryans organized themselves in individual tribal or kinship units called the jana. The jana was ruled over by a war-chief. These tribes spread quickly over northern India and the Deccan in the center of the subcontinent. In a process not fully understood, the basic social unit of Aryan culture, the jana, slowly developed from an organization based on kinship to one based on geography. The jana became a janapada, or nation, and the jana-rajya, or tribal kingdom, became the jana-rajyapada, or national kingdom. So powerfully ingrained into Indian culture is the jana-pada that Indians still define themselves mainly by their territorial origins. All the major territories of modern India, with their separate cultures and separate languages, can be dated back to the early jana-padas of Vedic India.

As noted, the invading Aryans were originally nomadic peoples, not agricultural. They penetrated India from the northwest, settling first in the Indus valley. Unlike the Harappans, however, they eventually concentrated their populations along the Ganges flood plain. The Ganges, unlike the Indus, is far milder and more predictable in its flooding. It must have been a paradise to a people from the dry steppes of central Asia and Iran -- a land full of water and forest. When they arrived, the vast northern plains were almost certainly densely forested. Where now bare fields stretch to the horizon, when the Aryans arrived lush forests stretched to those very same horizons. Clearing the forests over the centuries was an epic project and one that is still preserved in Indian literature.

During the period of Hindu or Aryan rule, India was divided into a number of individual kingdoms or city states. These ancient kingdoms were called Mahajanapadas. Some were republican states not ruled by kings but by assemblies of senior and responsible elders called "Gana-parishad."

Some say that the Aryans were a conquering people when they first spread into India, with a culture oriented around warfare. Their religion was dominated by warring gods, preserved in the later Vedic religion, where the god Indra was portrayed as a conquering deity who smashed cities and killed enemies. In the "Hymn to Parusha" in the "Rig Veda," the god Parusha sacrificed himself to himself, and out of his parts came the different classes of Indian peoples. This became the basis for the socially stratified caste system. Perhaps the Aryans used this creation myth to subjugate the darker-skinned people they conquered (the Harappans). Further, as evidence the Aryans saw themselves as superior is seen in the Indo-European root word of their name, "ar" -- meaning "noble" or "superior." So the argument remains: Either the Aryans and Harappans mixed together and became peaceful, or the Aryans came in as a conquerors, became the ruling class, and instituted the caste system to maintain control.

The Rig Veda is a collection of over 1,000 hymns written between 1300 and 1000 B.C., during the period of Aryan migrations. It contains the mythology of the Hindu gods, and is considered to be one of the foundations of the Hindu religion. While the Rig is the oldest and most important, there are three other Vedas -- the Sama, the Yajur and the Athara. These Vedas were passed on orally for many generations. They were first written in Vedic, an early form of Sanskrit. Then, around 300 B.C., the Vedas were written down in the form in which we have them today.

The theology of the Vedas was later refined in the Upanishads -- texts that directed the people to a philosophical solution to their spiritual dilemmas, questions and problems -- which became the basis of Hinduism. The religion that came from the Vedas helped shape Indian society, including the development of the caste system.

One of the most famous Hindu religious texts is the Bhagavad-Gita or "Song of God." This classic religious poem of India celebrates the experience of god in the context of everyday life. Scholars estimate that it was written between 500 and 200 B.C., although the date cannot be determined with certainty. The teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita is summed up in the maxim that "your business is with the deed and not with the result."

The 1,550-mile-long Ganges is by far the most important river in India, not only because of its tremendous effects on the economy, but also because it has been a symbol of the Hindu religion for more than 2,000 years. The Ganges, according to Hindu mythology, is really a Hindu goddess named Ganga. The Hindu story of Ganga begins when Vishnu, the preserver of worlds, took three huge steps: One step on the underworld; one on the earth; and one on the heavens. His last step made a crack in the heavens. Ganga fell through the crack, and Shiva stood waiting on the Himalayas to catch Ganga in his hair. Ganga went through Shiva's hair and, after wandering in it for many years, she began her long journey across India as a river.

Hindus believe that if they die in Varanasi (also known as Benares), one of India's oldest holiest cities, their souls will be freed of sin and this will end their cycle of reincarnated life. Almost every day, thousands arrive in that city to spend their final minutes. There by the banks of the river, they are cremated and then thrown into the river, which is said to provide a path to heaven.

New Religions: Jainism and Buddhism

In the 6th century B.C., two rivals to Hinduism arose in India: Jainism & Buddhism.


A prince named Mahavira born in 599 B.C. founded the religion now known as Jainism. At the age of 30, he left his family and royal household, gave up his worldly possessions, including clothing, and become a monk.

He spent the next 12 years in deep silence and meditation to conquer his desires and feelings, going without food for long periods. At the end he was said to have realized perfect perception, knowledge, power and bliss. He then spent the next 30 years traveling on bare feet around India preaching to the people his "eternal truth." He attracted people from all walks of life: Rich and poor, kings and commoners, men and women, princes and priests, touchables and untouchables. He organized his followers into a four-fold order known as Jains.

He taught how people can attain total freedom from the cycle of birth, life, pain, misery and death, and achieve the permanent blissful state of one's self. This is also known as liberation, nirvana, absolute freedom or Moksha. At the heart of right conduct for Jains lie five great vows: Nonviolence; truthfulness; non-stealing; chastity (not to indulge in sensual pleasure); and non-possession (complete detachment from people and material things).

At the age of 72, his life's work complete, Mahavira entered a final fast and deliberately died of starvation.


The second religion was Buddhism, whose founder, Siddhartha, was born about 563 B.C. in Nepal into the Gautama family of the Shakaya clan. The Shakayas were members of the priestly-warrior caste. In fact, Siddhartha's father was the head of the tribe so Siddhartha was a prince and seemed destined to rule. He lived a luxurious life and received the best education his father's wealth could provide, but his father also sheltered him from life's hardships.

He married a woman named Yashodhara and they lived in his father's house, still protected from the trials of life. Yashodhara bore a son, and Sidhartha believed that he was happy.

Then, during one of his few excursions from the protection of his father's palace, Siddhartha saw three things that brought home the harsh realities of life. He saw an old man, suffering from the frailties of age. He saw a sick man, suffering from disease. He also saw a dead man, which shocked him greatly. He finally realized that the infirmities of old age and the pain of sickness and death caused suffering that he had never experienced. This revelation caused him to begin a search for truth that drastically changed his life -- and, eventually, the lives of millions.

At the age of 29 he left his home, his wife, his son and his father, giving up his claim to his father's throne. He studied Yogic meditation with two Brahman hermits and, although he achieved high cognitive states in both trance and meditation, his desire for absolute truth was not satisfied.

For the next six years, Siddhartha placed his body under severe asceticism, which included extreme fasting and suspension of breathing. These practices almost killed him, but they did not satisfy his search for truth. He finally ended his acetic lifestyle and began to eat. Siddhartha then decided to meditate ("under a Bodhi tree where he sat facing east") until the absolute truth would lie clearly in front of him.

At the age of 35, on the night of a full moon, Siddhartha is said to have reached enlightenment and became an "enlightened one" -- a Buddha (527 B.C.). He had at last discovered the truth he had sought, and he immediately shared it with five ascetics who had practiced near him. After a few weeks of rest, he decided to teach the way to enlightenment to others and went to the city of Benares where he gave his first sermon, "The turning wheel of Dharma." Sidhartha felt a strong call to teach others the way of enlightenment.

Buddha called his teachings "The Middle Way" because it was between asceticism and indulgence. For the next 45 years, he taught as the Buddha or "Shakyamuni" ("sage of the shakaya"). He also established a community of monks called sanga. The Buddha died at the age of 80 in 483 B.C. However, his teaching gained numerous adherents, first in India and then in China and other parts of the world.

Mahajanapadas & the Middle Kingdoms of India

As noted earlier, following the various invasions of Aryan peoples from the north from somewhere between 1600 and 1500 B.C. onward until around 1000 or 900 B.C., India was divided into individual states or kingdoms called Mahajanapadas. By 600 B.C., there were sixteen of these Mahajanapadas, located as follows: Two were in the northwest (Kamboja & Gandhara); eight were in north and central India (Kuru, Panchala & Kosala in the far north, Shurasena & Matsya in the north-central, and Avanti, Chetiya & Vatsa in the central region); five were in the northeast (Malla, Vrijji, Kashi, Anga & Magadha); and one was in the south (Assaka). Over the next two centuries, these sixteen kingdoms had coalesced into four major ones: Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala and Magadha.

The Kingdom of Magadha

The Kingdom of Magadha (684-424 B.C.) is perhaps one of the more notable of these Mahajanapadas, for it was here that two of India's major religions (Jainism and Buddhism) started. Also, two of India's greatest empires, the Maurya Empire and the Gupta Empire, originated in Magadha. These empires saw advancements in ancient India's science, mathematics, astronomy, religion and philosophy and each was considered one of the Indian "Golden Ages." The Magadha kingdom also included republican communities where villages had their own assemblies under local chiefs.

The Magadha Kingdom lasted until around 424 B.C. when the Nandas usurped the throne of the ruling dynasty and ruled for the next century

The Nanda Empire

Supposedly the Nandan rulers were of low origin, with some sources saying the founder was born of the union of a barber with a courtesan. Nevertheless, the Nandas are sometimes described as the first empire builders in the recorded history of India. Inheriting the large Kingdom of Magadha, they wanted to extend it to yet more distant frontiers. To this end, they built up a vast army consisting of 200,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, 2,000 war chariots and 3,000 war elephants and these were the lower estimates! However, the Greek historian, biographer and essayist Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) declared that the size of the Nanda army was even larger, numbering 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8,000 war chariots and 6,000 war elephants.

But the Nandas never had the opportunity to see their army face-to-face with Alexander, who invaded India in 327 B.C., since Alexander had confined his campaign to the plains of Punjab. Then his forces, frightened by the prospect of facing a formidable foe, mutinied at the Hyphasis River (the modern Beas River) refusing to march any further. This river thus marks the eastern-most extent of Alexander's conquests.

The last Nanda ruler was dethroned after he was defeated by Chandragupta Maurya, a young adventurer born of a Nanda prince and a maid named "Mura." This marked the beginning of the great Maurya Empire in 321 B.C.

The Maurya Empire

In 327 B.C., after conquering Egypt and defeating the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great raised a new army in Bactria (now known as Afghanistan) and set off to the south toward India. He only made it as far as the plain directly west of the Indus River, and it seems Alexander had literally no effect on Indian history, for he left as soon as he reached that area. Two important results, however, arose because of his conquests: First, from this point onwards Greek and Indian culture would intermix. But most importantly, the conquest of Alexander set the stage for the first great conqueror of Indian history, Chandragupta Maurya, who reigned from 321 to 297 B.C., and who, shortly after Alexander left, united all the kingdoms of northern India into a single empire, known as the Mauryan Empire.

He was an adventurer rather than a king. Like Alexander, Chandragupta Maurya began with almost no army whatsoever; but with what he had, he seized the region of Magadha just south of the lower Ganges and then steadily conquered the whole of the Ganges basin. And when Alexander the Great left western India, Chandragupta quickly conquered the entire Indus River Valley. He eventually took over Gandhara and Arachosia (the mountainous region north and west of the Indus) after defeating the Greek rulers of Persia and Bactria, the Seleucids.

Hand in hand with this ambitious conqueror was a shrewd and calculating Brahman named Kautilya. While Chadragupta Maurya built his empire by the force of arms, Kautilya designed the government. Together they created the first unified state in Indian history with strict regulations and harsh laws. The death penalty, for instance, was applied to a myriad of offenses.

Chandragupta's son Bindusara extended the conquests even further south into the Deccan in central India. By the end of his reign, the Mauryan Empire included at least a third of the peninsula and stretched all the way from Bangladesh to the Hindu Kush mountains.

Of the ensuing great conquering kings of the Maurya Empire, the only one we know much about is Ashoka, for it is in his reign that the first samples of Indian writing appear since the fall of the Harappans. Ashoka, who reigned from 273 to 232 B.C., seems to have been forged from the same mold as his illustrious ancestors. Once he rose to the throne, he began an aggressive campaign to conquer the remainder of the subcontinent. However, the conquest of Kalinga in northeastern India on the Bay of Bengal, which extended Mauryan rule to its farthest boundaries, seems to have been a tremendous shock to Ashoka.

It is said that in the aftermath of the Battle of Kalinga, the river running next to the battlefield turned red with the blood of the slain, which included about 100,000 Kalinga civilians and more than 10,000 of Ashoka's own warriors. The whole of Kalinga was plundered and destroyed. As the legend goes, one day after the war was over, Ashoka ventured out and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses, prompting him to cry his famous monologue:

"What have I done? If this is a victory, what is a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other's kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant . . . . What is this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?"

War and conquest are always bloody and cruel, but Ashoka was so troubled by the brutality of this bloody conquest that he underwent a religious revival. Unlike Brahmanism, Buddhism eschews elaborate rituals and magic; unlike the Rig Veda, Buddhism advocates a non-striving, non-coercive and meditative life.

The Buddhist way of life was a way out of Ashoka's crisis. Nominally a Buddhist, he now was motivated to achieve the Buddhist "middle way" between extremes. He became a vegetarian, renounced all warfare, and attempted to build a state based on Buddhist principles. First and foremost, the state would strive for nonviolence, or ahimsa. In place of violence and war, the state would rule by "law" or "right" (dharma).

Although Ashoka could not put all of these reforms into practice, he began a process of transformation in Indian society. He demanded religious toleration; under Ashoka, all religious systems were allowed to co-exist peacefully. The stunning ability of Indian culture to tolerate competing religions throughout its history begins with Ashoka. Finally, although he could never really fully translate Buddhist ideals into government, he began a process of cultural transformation that would completely remake India. By the start of the Gupta dynasty, the bulk of Indian society had become vegetarian and no laws carried the death penalty.

His greatest achievement, however, was cultural. For he was totally dedicated to his new religion and fervently patronized its expansion. Under Ashoka, Buddhist monks were sent out in every compass direction: To Burma, Tibet, Nepal, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Israel. The Eastern evangelical missions were extremely successful; Buddhism spread very quickly from Nepal and Burma into Tibet and China, where it was fervidly embraced, although the western missions were less successful. Nevertheless, Buddhism left traces in Middle Eastern and even European culture. For instance, one of the Catholic saints of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was Barlam, whose life is based on that of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Not only is this Catholic saint the Buddha, but one of the stories of Barlam is the conversion of a cruel king, Iosaphat. This king, in many ways, corresponds to Ashoka, who is presented as intolerant and cruel before his conversion in the Indian epic Ashokavadana.

Needless to say, the spread of Buddhism under Ashoka greatly influenced the religious history of Asia. Ashoka's conversion also produced the first written literature in India; it was not Vedic literature but the Buddhist scriptures that were first committed to writing. Finally, Ashoka's zeal in spreading Buddhism beyond the borders of India ensured its survival, for when the Muslims defeated the Hindus and took control of India after 1100 A.D., Buddhism was destroyed as an organized religion in India.

Ashoka was the last of the great kings of the Mauryan Dynasty; his successors were less energetic and capable. In 185 B.C., the last of the Mauryan kings was assassinated, and the first empire of India came to an end. India once again became a collection of independent kingdoms, with the most powerful kingdoms not in the north, but in the Deccan to the south, particularly in the west. The north, however, remained culturally the most active, where Buddhism was spreading and where Hinduism was being gradually remade by the Upanishadic movements. The Maurya Empire is remembered as one of the golden ages of Indian history, a time when the country was united and independent.

The Kalinga Empire

Kalinga, which abuts the southern border of the Kingdom of Magadha, dates its origins to the 4th century B.C. when it enjoyed considerable power. But its power waned considerably after its bloody defeat by King Ashoka the Great of Maurya in 259 B.C. It would not rebound for another 50 years until the reign of Kharvela, the greatest ruler of Kalinga.

Kharavela, who reigned from around 209 to 170 B.C., restored the power and glory that had been lost during that devastating war with Ashoka. Emperor Kharavela led many successful campaigns against the kingdoms of Magadha, Anga, Satavahana and the south Indian regions of the Pandya kingdom. At its height, his empire stretched across nearly two-thirds of India -- from the Ganges River in the east, across the Deccan plateau in central India to the Arabian Sea, and northwest to an area around the present-day city of Agra (site of the Taj Mahal).

The Sunga Empire

Succeeding the Maurya and Kalinga empires was the Sunga Empire, which controlled north-central and eastern India as well as parts of the northwest (now Pakistan) from around 185 to 73 B.C. War and conflict characterized the Sunga period, with known wars against the Kalingas, Satavahanas, the Indo-Greeks, and possibly the Panchalas and Mathuras. At the same time, art, education, philosophy and other learning flowered during this period. The Sunga dynasty was then briefly replaced by the Kanva dynasty for 50 years before being conquered by the Satavahanas of south-central India on the Bay of Bengal.

South Indian Kingdoms

The southern part of the Indian peninsula was ruled by four Dravidian or Tamil peoples (the Pandyas, Chola, Chera and Pallava Dynasties) from before 300 B.C. until the 14th century A.D. The first, the Pandyan Empire, ruled initially from Korkai, a seaport on the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula. Pandyan was well known from ancient times, with contacts, even diplomatic, reaching the Roman Empire. Marco Polo, who visited India in 1288 A.D., mentioned it as the richest empire in existence.

The Pandyas

The Pandyas of southern India can be dated to as early as 550 B.C. Emperor Augustus of Rome at Antioch knew of the Pandyan of Dramira and received a Pandyan ambassador with letters and gifts from this ancient Tamil Kingdom. Strabo (64 B.C.-24 A.D.), a Greek historian, geographer and philosopher, described an ambassador to Emperor Augustus Caesar from a South Indian King called Pandyan. The country of the Pandyas was described by Ptolemy (90-168 A.D.), a Roman citizen of Greek or Egyptian ancestry who was a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer and a poet.

The early Pandyan Dynasty faded into obscurity upon the invasion of the Kalabhras, who ruled over the entire ancient Tamil country between the 3rd and the 6th century A.D. in an era of South Indian history called "the Dark Age." The Kalabhras displaced the kingdoms of the early Cholas, Pandayan and Chera dynasties. The Pandyans revived around 590 A.D., pushing the Kalabhras out, but again went into decline with the rise of the Cholas in the 9th century A.D. The Pandyas allied themselves with the Sinhalese and the Cheras in harassing the Chola Empire until they were able to once again revive their fortunes during the late 13th century A.D. Following a successful invasion of Sri Lanka in 1251 A.D., the Pandyan Kingdom finally became extinct after an invasion by a Muslim Sultanate in the 14th century A.D.

The Cholas

The Chola Dynasty (another Tamil people) was one of the oldest and longest that ruled over parts of southern India. The earliest references to Chola were inscriptions from the 3rd century B.C. left by Ashoka, a ruler from northern India, and the Chola Dynasty continued to reign over varying territory in the area until the mid-13th century A.D.

The heartland of the Cholas was the fertile valley of the Kaveri River, but they ruled a significantly larger area at the height of their power from the later half of the 9th century A.D. till the beginning of the 13th century A.D. During the period from 1010 to 1200 A.D., Chola territories stretched from the islands of the Maldives in the south to as far north as the banks of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh. The Chola kings were avid builders and envisioned the temples in their kingdoms not only as places of worship but also as centers of economic activity. The Chola Dynasty came to an end in 1250 A.D. with the rise of the Pandyas, who ultimately caused its downfall.

The Cheras

The Chera Dynasty was another Dravidian Tamil dynasty that ruled in southern India from before 300 B.C. until the 12th century A.D. Chera rulers engaged in frequent warfare as well as constant intermarriage with the nearby Pandyas and Cholas. Throughout the reign of the Cheras, trade continued to bring prosperity to the then Tamil country (part of which was modern-day Kerala), with spices, ivory, timber, pearls and gems being exported to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Phoenicia and Arabia.

While Cheras had their own religion (Hinduism), other religious traditions like Buddhism came to this area during the period of the Chera kings. Jainism came to Chera Kingdom by the 2nd century B.C. Some adhered to Islam as well; notably a king who ruled in the late 8th century A.D.

The Pallavas

The Pallava Dynasty was a Tamil people of South India whose rule began as early as 275 A.D. over the northern Tamil Nadu region and eventually the whole of Andhra Pradesh in east- central India on the Bay of Bengal. The word Pallava in Sanskrit means branch and the Pallava Dynasty was an offshoot of the Chola rulers. Pallavas rose in greatest power during the reign of two kings from 571 to 668 A.D. and dominated northern parts of the Tamil region until the end of the 9th century A.D. Throughout the reign of the Pallava Dynasty they were in constant conflict with both their northern neighbors as well as the Tamil kingdoms of Chola and Pandyas in the south. They were finally defeated by the Chola kings around 888 A.D.

The Tamraparni Kingdom of Sri Lanka

Also in the south was the Tamraparni Kingdom on the island of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. Inhabited by Sinhalese peoples, the island was invaded at times by South Indian kingdoms and parts of the island were ruled intermittently by the Chola Dynasty, the Pandya Dynasty, the Chera Dynasty and the Pallava Dynasty. The island was also invaded by the kingdoms of Kalinga and others from the Malay Peninsula. Buddhism arrived from India in the 3rd century B.C., brought by Bhikkhu Mahinda, who is believed to have been the son of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Mahinda's mission won over the Sinhalese monarch, who embraced the faith and propagated it throughout the Sinhalese population.

The Satavahana Empire

In south-central India on the Bay of Bengal, somewhat north of these four Tamil kingdoms and the island Kingdom of Tamraparni, was the Satavahana Empire, which dates its origins to its status as subjects of the Mauryan Empire. But sometime after the death of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in 232 B.C. as the Maurya Empire began to weaken, the Satavahanas (also known as the Andhras) declared independence. The Satavahanas are credited for establishing peace in the country and resisting the onslaught of foreigners after the decline of Mauryan empire.

During the 2nd century B.C., the sixth Satavahana emperor (who ruled for 56 years from 180 to 124 B.C.) defeated both the Sunga Empire in northeastern India and the Kalinga Kingdom in central-eastern India, taking territory from both. The Satavahana Dynasty lasted about 450 years, until around 220 A.D. when its lands were divided among several different kingdoms including an area in east-central India on the Bay of Bengal, several separate regions in south India, and the Western Satraps in the northwestern part of the Satavahana Empire.

The Western Satraps

The Western Satraps (35-405 A.D.) were Saka (or Sythian) rulers of parts of the west- central region of India. They were successors to the Indo-Scythians, and were contemporaneous with the Kushans who ruled the northern part of the Indian subcontinent (and were possibly their overlords) and the Satavahana Empire that ruled in central India. They are called "Western" in contrast to the "Northern" Indo-Scythian Satraps who ruled in the area of Mathura. Altogether, there were 27 independent Western Satrap rulers during a period of about 350 years. The word "satrap" means viceroy or governor of a province.

It is thought that the Western Satraps may have been viceroys of the Kushans, but later became independent, although they retained the name of Satraps. Their wars and intermarriage with the Satavahanas were notable aspects of their kingdom.

Northwestern Kingdoms

Much of the northwestern subcontinent (present day eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan) came under the rule of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 520 B.C. during the reign of Darius the Great, and remained so for two centuries thereafter until the arrival of Alexander the Great.

The ensuing early northwestern cultures/kingdoms of the subcontinent included the Indo-Greeks, the Indo-Scythians, the Indo-Parthians and the Indo-Sassinids. The first of these, the Indo-Greek Kingdom, founded when the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius invaded the region in 180 B.C., extended over various parts of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Lasting for almost two centuries, it was ruled by a succession of more than thirty Greek kings, who were often in conflict with each other.

The Indo-Scythians were a branch of the Indo-European Sakas (Scythians), who migrated from southern Siberia. First coming into Bactria (or Afghanistan), they subsequently moved southward into Sogdiana, Kashmir, Arachosia, Gandhara and finally into India. Their kingdom lasted from the middle of the 2nd century B.C. to the 1st century B.C..

Yet another kingdom, the Indo-Parthians (also known as Pahlavas) came to control most of present-day Afghanistan and northern Pakistan from about 20 to 135 A.D., after fighting many local rulers. Eventually, they succeeded in taking control of the Gandhara Kingdom (located primarily in the vale of Peshawar), but soon fell to another group from Central Asia: The Kushans (known as Yuezhi by the Chinese).

The Kushan Empire

The Kushan Empire (60-240 A.D.) originated in the territories of ancient Bactria (in what is now northern Afghanistan) and southern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Around 75 A.D., one of the Kushan tribes gained control of Gandhara and other parts of what is now Pakistan.

During the 1st and early 2nd centuries A.D., the Kushans expanded rapidly across the northern part of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as Benares where inscriptions have been found dated to the first few years of the era of the most famous Kushan emperor, Kanishka I, who ruled a huge territory encompassing virtually all of northern India.

Under Kanishka I, who began his rule around 127 A.D., the Kushans had two capitals: Peshawar in the summer and Mathura in the winter. Megasthenes (350-290 B.C.), a Greek traveler and geographer who became an ambassador of Seleucus I of Syria (one of the three generals who divided the empire of Alexander the Great after his death) to the Kushan Empire in the early 3rd century B.C., describes Mathura as a great city. At that time, it served as the capital of the Mauryva Empire under Chandragupta, the first Mauryan Emperor.

The Kushans or Indo-Scythians (also known as Sakas or Shakas) first took the area around Mathura from its Indian kings in 60 B.C. The rule of the Kushans linked the seagoing trade of the Indian Ocean with the commerce of the Silk Road through the long-civilized Indus Valley. At the height of the dynasty, the Kushans loosely oversaw a territory that extended from the Aral Sea through present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan into virtually all of northern India. The loose unity and comparative peace in such a vast expanse encouraged long-distance trade, brought Chinese silks to Rome, and created strings of flourishing urban centers.


The Sassanid Empire of Persia, contemporaneous with the Guptas (230-550 A.D.), expanded into the region of present-day Pakistan, where the mingling of Indian and Persian cultures gave birth to the Indo-Sassanid culture. The Indo-Sassanids were a branch of the Sassanid Persians who established their rule in the northwestern Indian subcontinent during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. at the expense of the declining Kushans. They were in turn displaced in 410 A.D. by the invasions of the Huns. Although they were able to re-establish some authority in 565 A.D., their rule collapsed under Arab attacks in the mid 600's.

The Gupta Dynasty (320-540 A.D.)

The dream, however, of a universal Indian empire had not disappeared. It would be realized by a northern kingdom and would usher in one of the most creative periods in Indian history.

Under Chandragupta I (320-335 A.D.), the empire was revived in the north. Like Chandragupta Maurya, this king first conquered Magadha, set up his capital where the Mauryan capital had stood (Patna), and from this base consolidated a kingdom over the eastern portion of northern India. In addition, Chandragupta revived many of Ashoka's principles of government. It was his son, however, Samudragupta (335-376 A.D.), and later his grandson, Chandragupta II (who ruled from 376 to 415 A.D.), who extended the kingdom into an empire over the whole of north India and the western Deccan. Chandragupta II was the greatest of the Gupta kings; called Vikramaditya ("The Sun of Power"), he presided over the greatest cultural age in India.

Chandragupta II's rise to power has an interesting twist. Before he took the throne, his elder brother, Ramagupta, was the Gupta king. According to legend, Ramagupta decided to expand his kingdom by attacking the Sakas (Western Satraps) in Gujarat, a region in western India bordering the Arabian Sea. But this ill-fated campaign soon took a turn for the worse and the Gupta army was trapped. The Saka king, Rudrasimha III, demanded that Ramagupta hand over his wife Dhruvswamini in exchange for peace. Ramagupta was inclined to accept these terms, to the outrage of both his wife and his brother. To avoid the ignominy, the Guptas decide to send a courtesan and a beloved of Chandragupta II, disguised as the queen. However, Chandragupta II changes the plan and, disguised as the queen himself, goes to the Saka King, who he kills. He later kills his own brother, Ramagupta, and subsequently marries Dhruvadevi, who reigns as his queen. The Western Satraps were eventually conquered by Emperor Chandragupta II, thus bringing an end to the rule of the Sakas on the subcontinent.

The era of the Gupta Empire is regarded as a golden age of Indian culture. The high points of this cultural creativity are magnificent and creative architecture, sculpture and painting. The wall-paintings of Ajanta Cave in the central Deccan are considered among the greatest and most powerful works of Indian art. The paintings in the cave represent the various lives of the Buddha, but also are the best source we have of the daily life in India at the time. There are forty-eight caves making up Ajanta, most of which were carved out of the rock between 460 and 480 A.D., and they are filled with Buddhist sculptures. The rock temple at Elephanta (near Bombay) contains a powerful, 18-foot statue of the three-headed Shiva, one of the principle Hindu gods. Each head represents one of Shiva's roles: That of creating; that of preserving; and that of destroying. The period also saw dynamic building of Hindu temples, all of which contain a hall and a tower.

The greatest writer of the time was Kalidasa. Poetry in the Gupta age tended towards a few genres: Religious and meditative poetry, lyric poetry, narrative histories (the most popular of the secular literatures) and drama. Kalidasa excelled at lyric poetry, but he is best known for his dramas, which are full of epic heroism and comedy. The plays all involve misunderstanding and conflict, but each ends with unity, order and resolution.

The Guptas tended to allow kings to remain as vassal kings; unlike the Mauryas, they did not consolidate every kingdom into a single administrative unit. This would be the model for later Mughal rule as well as British rule built off of the Mughal model.

The Guptas fell prey, however, to a wave of migrations by the Huns, a people who originally lived north of China. The Hun migrations would push all the way to the doors of Rome. Beginning in the 5th century A.D., the Huns began to put pressure on the Guptas. In 480 A.D., they defeated the Guptas and took over northern India. Western India was overrun by 500 A.D., and the last of the Gupta kings, presiding over a vastly dimished kingdom, perished in 550 A.D. A strange thing happened to the Huns in India as well as in Europe. Over the decades they gradually assimilated into the indigenous population and their state weakened.

Period of Political Instability

Following the invasion of the Huns, who seem to have been incorporated into the native population during the last half of the 6th century A.D., India mainly consisted of a number of small kingdoms and states. There were some exceptions.

In south-central India, the Chaluka Kingdom (543-753 A.D.) arose in the western Deccan. In 753 A.D., the clan known as the Rashtrakutas came to power in South India. At the same time, the Pala Dynasty of Bengal and the Prathihara Dynasty of Malwa were gaining force in eastern and northwestern India, respectively.

After more than 200 years of dormancy when much of the Deccan was under the Rashtrakutas, the Chalukyas invigorated their fortunes in 973 A.D. when they overthrew the Rashtrakutas king, re-established the Chalukyan kingdom and recovered most of the Chalukya Empire, which came to be known as the Western Chalukya Dynasty or Later Chalukya Dynasty. These Western Chalukyas ruled for another 200 years and were in constant clashes with the Cholas and their cousins, the Eastern Chalukyas of Vengi.

In the north, Harsha, who was a descendant of the Guptas, united the small republics from Punjab to central India and they, at an assembly, crowned him king in April 606 A.D. when he was merely 16 years old. From 606 to 647 A.D., he ruled over an empire that stretched across northern India. Harsha was perhaps one of the greatest conquerors of Indian history and, unlike many of his conquering predecessors, he was also a brilliant administrator and a great patron of culture. His capital city, Kanauj, extended for 4 or 5 miles along the Ganges River and was filled with magnificent buildings. Only one-fourth of the taxes he collected went to administration of the government. The rest went to charity, rewards and especially to culture: Art, literature, music and religion.

After Harsha's death in 647 A.D., apparently without any heirs, his empire died with him and rapidly disintegrated into small states.

Because of extensive trade, the culture of India became the dominant culture around the Bay of Bengal, profoundly and deeply influencing the cultures of Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. In many ways, the period during and following the Gupta dynasty was the period of "Greater India," a period of cultural activity in India and surrounding countries that built off the base of Indian culture. But this medieval flowering of Indian culture would radically change course in the Indian Middle Ages. For from the north came Muslim conquerors out of Afghanistan, and the age of Muslim rule started around 1100 A.D.

What do we eventually owe to the civilizations that began and evolved in India? As one historian put it, "those who wear cotton clothes, use the decimal system, enjoy the taste of curried chicken, play chess or roll dice, and seek peace of mind or tranquility through meditation are indebted to India."

Muslim Rule

India was no stranger to Islam, for it had been invaded by Muslim forces as early as the 7th century A.D. In the 10th century A.D., the Punjab was conquered by the Turkish chieftain Mahmud. In the 13th century A.D., another Turk invaded the Punjab and established the Delhi Sultanate, which remained in power from 1206 to 1526 A.D.

Muslim rule in south-central India came in 1347 A.D. with the establishment of the Bahmani Sultanate in the Deccan. Also called the Bahmani Empire, it was one of the great medieval Indian kingdoms and the first independent Islamic kingdom in south-central India.. The Bahmani Sultanate, which reached the peak of its power from 1466 to 1481 A.D., contested for control of the Deccan with the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire to the south. After 1518 the sultanate broke up into five states: Ahmednagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda, known collectively as the Deccan Sultanates.

Although generally rivals, they did ally against the Vijayanagar Empire in 1565, permanently weakening that state in the Battle of Talikota. The sultanates, however, fell prey to the Mughal Empire, which conquered them one by one starting in 1596 A.D. and 1687 A.D.

Hindu Holdouts: Ahom Kingdom & the Vijayanagara Empire

The Ahom Kingdom (also called the Kingdom of Assam) was located in the Brahmaputra valley in northeastern India bordering the Himalayas. This Hindu state maintained its sovereignty for nearly 600 years (1228-1826 A.D.) and successfully resisted Mughal expansion in northeast India. The kingdom came under repeated Mughal attacks in the 17th century A.D., and on one occasion in 1662, the Mughals occupied the capital but were unable to keep it. Later in 1672, the Ahom Kingdom not only fended off a major Mughal invasion, but extended its boundaries westward.

Though it called itself the Ahom Kingdom (while others called it Assam), it was largely multi-ethnic, with the Ahom people constituting less than 10 percent of the population toward its end. A rebellion that began in 1769 and continued for another 37 years greatly weakened the kingdom and it subsequently fell to a succession of Burmese invasions. And when the British defeated the Burmese in 1826, the kingdom passed into the hands of the British East India Company where it came to be known as the province of Assam.

Another Hindu state -- this one in southern India -- managed to hold off the Mughals, but eventually fell under their control. The Vijayanagara Empire was a south Indian empire based in the Deccan Plateau. Established in 1336 A.D., it lasted until 1646 although its power declined after a major military defeat in 1565 A.D. by the Deccan Sultanates. The Vijayanagara Empire created an epoch in south Indian history that transcended regionalism by promoting Hinduism as a unifying factor.

The Kingdom of Mysore in south India, founded by the Wodeyar Dynasty in 1399, existed as a small kingdom within the Vijayanagara Empire. Later, after the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1565, the Kingdom of Mysore became independent and remained so until 1799. The Wodeyar Dynasty reached its peak from1673 to 1704 A.D.

In 1761, an innovative warrior chieftan named Hyder Ali Khan took over and he and his son, Tippu Sultan (also known as "the Tiger of Mysore), became de facto rulers of the Kingdom of Mysore. Under their rule, Mysore fought a series of wars sometimes against the combined forces of the British and Marathas, but mostly against the British with some aid or promise of aid from the French.

Most of Tippu Sultan's campaigns resulted in successes and he managed to subdue all the petty kingdoms in the south. He defeated the Marathas and the Nizams and was also one of the few Indian rulers to have defeated British armies. He was a devout Muslim but the majority of his subjects were Hindus. Tippu Sultan died defending his capital in May 1799 and the British took over.

The Great Mughal Empire

The Mughals were the last powerful descendants of the Mongol stock in Turkestan. By this time, however, the Mughals had become Islamic, for the Mongol invaders had converted to Islam long before. They had also thoroughly absorbed Middle Eastern culture, especially Persian culture (the Persian word for Mongol is "Mughal," from which we get the English word, "mogul," meaning "tycoon"), and their wars of invasion spread Persian culture throughout India.

The founder of the Mughal dynasty was Babur "The Tiger," who ruled from 1483 to 1530 A.D. Babur was not fully a Mongol, for although his mother was descended from Genghis Khan, his father was descended from Timur Shah (or Tamerlane as he is also known), who conquered and ruled the ancient city of Samarkand. And, like his ancestors, Babur rose from comparative obscurity to become one of the great conquerors of his time.

Starting with a small kingdom in Turkestan, he attacked Afghanistan and captured Kabul in 1504 A.D. From there he crossed over the mountains into Hindustan and attacked the Delhi Sultanate. With an army of only 12,000 men (outnumbered 10 to 1), he defeated the Delhi Sultan at Panipatin in 1525 A.D., captured Agra and Delhi, and established himself as Sultan. He then attacked a confederation of Rajput states. By the time he died in 1530 A.D., he had conquered all of Hindustan and controlled an empire that extended from the Deccan to Turkestan. Besides his fierce military genius, his conquest of this vast territory was aided by technological superiority. He was the first Islamic conqueror to employ muskets and artillery and, even though these weapons were somewhat primitive, they were more than a match for the armies of the Hindustan. For this reason, Western historians have dubbed the Mughal Empire as the first gunpowder empire.

At the same time that Babur was aggressively expanding his territory, however, Europeans began their slow and steady invasion of India. Initially begun by the Portugese (who conquered the island of Goa in 1509 A.D.), the process would be brought to completion by the British who, in the 1850's, annexed India into the British Empire. The history of the Mughal Empire is intimately tied to the history of European expansion and territorial invasions.

Babur was succeeded by his son, Humayun, who inherited one of the largest empires in the world. However, in the next 10 years, he managed to lose all of it to rebellions, from Afghanistan to India. He went into exile in Persia, and slowly put together an army to reconquer his lost territory. By 1555 A.D., he had managed to do this, but just as he was on the verge of complete re-conquest, he fell down a flight of stairs and broke his neck.

Humayun's defeat, however, had a profound influence on Mughal culture. In his years of exile in the Persian court, Humayun developed a deep understanding and love for Persian culture, which he instilled in his son Akbar. After their reconquest of India, the culture that they built around themselves was based heavily on Persian models. Humayun, you might say, almost made it. The task of finishing the reconquest fell to his son and successor, Akbar, whose name in Arabic means "The Great."

Muslim, Indian and Western historians all see Akbar as the greatest ruler of Indian history. When his father, Humayun, died in 1556 A.D., Akbar became padshah ("ruler of the empire") at the age of thirteen. Under the guidance of Bairam Khan, who had been instrumental in Humayun's reconquests of Panipat, Delhi and Agra, Akbar instantly began seizing more territory throughout Hindustan. Bairam Khan fell from power in 1560 A.D., but Akbar continued his conquest of India and Afghanistan. By the time he died in 1605 A.D. (his reign, 1556 to 1605 A.D., corresponds almost exactly to that of Elizabeth I of England), his empire was greater than that of Babur and included almost all of northern India.

In order to govern this territory, Akbar developed a bureaucracy and a system of autonomy for the imperial provinces. Akbar's bureaucracy was among the most efficient in the world. A large part of Akbar's administrative success came about by winning over Hindu populations. He allowed Hindu territories to retain a large degree of autonomy, retaining their own law and courts, rather than falling under Muslim law. This loose style of government, in which territories were under the control of the emperor but still largely independent, became the model that the British would emulate as they slowly built their colonial model of government in the 18th and 19th centuries A.D.

Akbar also included vast number of Hindus in the official bureaucracy. He cemented relations with the various kingdoms by marrying the daughters of the kings. By the end of this process he had more than 5,000 wives, almost all of whom he married for political reasons. His favorite wife, however, was a Hindu, and she gave birth to his successor, Jahangir, the first of the last three Mughal emperors..

Akbar had put in place an efficient administration and a set of political relationships that ensured a peaceful empire for the remainder of his life. He was followed by three more great emperors, each with his own faults, who expanded Akbar's empire through conquest and built Mughal culture to its highest point. But expansion of the empire spread Mughal government and military administration too thin. And the incredible expense of the Mughal court and building projects, particularly under Shah Jahan, impoverished the country and built up long-standing and volatile hostility towards the lavish life of the emperors.

Jahangir, who ruled the empire from 1605 to 1628 A.D., did not pursue military conquest as forcefully as his father, but he did manage to assert Mughal rule over the Bengal in eastern India. Jahangir lavishly patronized the arts: Painting, architecture, philosophy and literature, while ignoring military conquest. The period of Jahangir's tenure as emperor is considered the richest period of Mughal culture; Indian, Muslim and Western scholars have named this period "the age of Mughal splendor."

Jahangir's successor, Shah Jahan (ruled 1628-1658 A.D.), inherited his grandfather's obsession with wars of conquest. The new emperor put down a Muslim rebellion in Ahmadnagar, repulsed the Portugese in the Bengal, and conquered parts of the Deccan. By the end of his reign, the empire was again expanding and the Mughals seemed firmly in charge.

One of Shah Jahan's major innovations was moving the capital from Agra to Delhi, the traditional seat of Muslim power. Dehli was one of the largest cities in India and its status as capital increased its wealth and power. Through much of modern Indian history, Delhi has been the most economically and politically important city in India.

Shah Jahan also began a series of incredible, resplendent and monumental architectural projects in Delhi. The city itself was surrounded by 60-foot walls. In the middle of the city he built a magnificent palace for himself itself contained within the Red Fort (so called because it was made of red sandstone), which housed the palace as well as all the buildings associated with imperial administration. He built for himself an extravagant throne, the Peacock Throne, all in gold and covered in rare jewels. In 1739 A.D., the Afghani conqueror of Persia invaded Hindustan, burned down Shah Jahan's palace and seized the Peacock Throne, which has remained in Iran ever since.

Shah Jahan's most famous building project, however, was the Taj Mahal in Agra. When his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal ("Ornament of the Palace"), died at the age of 39 while giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631 A.D., the grief-stricken emperor set about building for her the most lavish tomb he could manage. The Taj Mahal took more than 20 years to build and demanded the labor of over 20,000 men. Combining both Persian and Indian architectural styles, the tomb and the grounds are meant to bring into reality the Muslim idea of paradise.

The Mughals had no clear set of rules regarding succession to the throne. Like the Ottomans, they believed that God would choose the most worthy successor. In reality, this produced serious conflicts. The conflict between Shah Jahan's sons ended with the victory of Aurangzeb, who imprisoned his father in 1658 A.D. (he died 8 years later) and executed his older brother.

Aurangzeb ruled for 49 years (1658-1707 A.D.) and under his tenure, the Mughal Empire expanded to its greatest limits, largely driven by wars of conquest. In particular, he led Mughal forces in the conquest of the Deccan, seizing first the Golkunda and Bijapur Sultanates, and then attacking the Maratha chieftains. He annexed all the Maratha territories, but he never managed to conquer the Marathas, who continued to fight using guerilla tactics. While Aurangzeb was the last great conqueror of Mughal history, the empire had grown too large for good administration.

Driven by an intense Muslim piety, Aurangzeb insisted that the Shari'a or Muslim law become the law of the land, and forbade all drinking and gambling. The Hindu majority, accustomed to living according to Hindu law, now found themselves facing Islamic law courts. Aurangzeb outlawed the Hindu practice of suttee in which widows voluntarily killed themselves by throwing themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. Most seriously, however, was Aurangzeb's repeal of all taxes that were not specifically authorized in Islamic law or tradition. This move depleted the Mughal Empire of much-needed revenue, so Aurangzeb reinstituted the tax on non-believers, that was customary in every other Islamic state. Since the majority of Mughal subjects were Hindu, this created unrest throughout the empire.

Post-Mughal/Pre-Colonial Era

Individual states rebelled against the new policies, but the most serious opposition came from two groups: The Marathas and the Sikhs. Together, these two, in their opposition to the Mughals and their establishment of independent kingdoms contained within the Empire, would form the basis of Mughal government in the 18th century A.D. and the nature of British colonialism. Even though under the control of the Mughals, the Marathas (1674-1818 A.D.) continued to rule over their Kingdom of Mysore in southern India as a separate state within a state.

The Maratha Empire

The post-Mughal era was dominated by the rise of the Maratha Empire in 1674 A.D. By 1760 A.D., this empire, a Hindu country of the Marathi people, stretched across practically the entire subcontinent. It expanded greatly after the death of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 A.D., only to lose the Punjab region at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 A.D. when the Marathas were defeated by an army of the Durrani Empire (1747-1823 A.D.), which was also known at the Afghan Empire.

In the late 18th century, the Kingdom of Mysore and the Maratha confederacy were major obstacles in the British attempt to control the economy of India. The East India Company, originally started as a trading company, had become an official arm of the British Empire. Its objective was to control the economy of India and, if necessary, control the administration of its territories. It turned to the Mughal Empire for its model of ruling India, but the Marathas were very resistant to British imperialism. The British, under General Arthur Wellesley, defeated the Maratha chieftains, Scindia and Holkar, but the Marathas continued to rebel throughout the early decades of the 19th century A.D.

Later, the empire was divided into a confederacy of Maratha states that eventually were lost to the British in the Anglo-Maratha wars by 1818. Most of the former Maratha Empire was absorbed by British India, although some of the Maratha states persisted as quasi-independent princely states until India became independent in 1947.

The Durrani Empire

The Durrani Empire, established at Kandahar in 1747 A.D. by a Pashtun military commander named Ahmad Shah Durrani, was centered in modern Afghanistan and included northeastern Iran and Pakistan as well as the Punjab region of India. Next to the Ottoman Empire, the Durrani was the greatest Muslim Empire in the second half of the 18th century A.D. The Durrani Empire is often considered to be the origin of the country of Afghanistan.

Ahmad Shah declared a jihad (or Islamic holy war) against the Marathas, and warriors from various Pashtun tribes, as well as other Muslim tribes, answered his call. Early skirmishes were followed by victory for the Afghans, and by 1759 A.D. Ahmad and his army had reached Lahore and were poised to confront the Marathas. Once again, Panipat (about 90 kilometers north of Delhi) was the scene of a confrontation between two warring contenders for control of northern India. The Third Battle of Panipat (January 1761 A.D.), fought between largely Muslim and largely Hindu armies (as many as 100,000 troops each), was waged along a 12-kilometer front. Despite decisively defeating the Marathas, the Durrani empire began to unravel.

By the end of 1761 A.D., the Sikhs had gained power and taken control of much of the Punjab. The next year, Ahmad Shah crossed the passes from Afghanistan for the sixth time to subdue the Sikhs, assaulting Lahore and, after taking the Sikh holy city of Amritsar where he massacred thousands of Sikh inhabitants, he destroyed their revered Golden Temple. Within two years, though, the Sikhs rebelled again. Ahmad Shah tried several more times to subjugate the Sikhs, but each time he failed. By the time of his death in 1773 A.D., he had lost all but nominal control of the Punjab to the Sikhs, who remained in charge of that area until defeated by the British in the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1846 A.D.

Ahmad Shah's successors governed so ineptly that within 50 years of his death, the Durrani empire came to an end, and Afghanistan became embroiled in civil war.

The Sikhs

The Sikhs were one of the most prosperous and politically important religious minorities in India, with their origin dating from the time of Babur. The gradual decline of the Mughals saw the establishment of the Sikh Empire in northwestern India in 1799 A.D. By the 18th century A.D., the Sikhs had established a separate kingdom with its capital in Lahore.

The Punjabi Kingdom, ruled by members of the Sikh religion, was a political entity that governed the region of modern day Punjab in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent (one of the last areas to be conquered by the British) from 1799 to 1849. The period from 1716 to 1799 A.D. in Punjab was a highly turbulent time politically and militarily, caused by the overall decline of the Mughal Empire, particularly in Punjab. This left a power vacuum that was eventually filled by the Sikh Confederacy, made up of individual kingdoms ruled by Sikh barons. Each had his own army, or fighting clan, which was commanded by and loyal to him.

The Sikh Empire extended from the Khyber Pass in the west to Kashmir in the north, to Sindh in the south and to Tibet in the east. The religious demography of the Sikh Empire was 80 percent Muslim, 10 percent Sikh and 10 percent Hindu. After a series of wars with the British, the Sikh Empire finally dissolved in 1849 A.D. into separate princely states and the British province of Punjab. Later, the Sikhs were a major force in the British army as the British gradually annexed the whole of India in the 1850's.

Rule of India by Indians did not reappear until after World War II when Great Britain granted independence in 1947 and the country was divided into India and Pakistan.


India Timeline:

Prehistoric Period (3000-1200 B.C.):
  • 3000-2600 B.C. - Indus Valley civilization -- Harappan civilization
  • 2600-2500 B.C. - Harappan civilization at its height
  • 2000-1500 B.C. - Harappan civilization collapses
  • 1600-1500 B.C. - Aryans migrate into the Indus River valley
  • 1000-900 B.C. - Aryans migrate into the Ganges River valley
  • 876 B.C. - Hindus invent the zero
Vedic Era (Hinduism established):
  • 1300-1000 B.C. - Rig Veda written
  • 900-500 B.C.- Later Vedas and early Upanishads written (Bhagavad-gita composed sometime between 500 & 200 B.C.
Rivals to Hinduism:
  • 550 B.C. - Birth of Mahavira, founder of Jainism (500 B.C.)
  • 527 B.C. - Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 B.C.) is enlightened and becomes the Buddha
Mahajanapadas (750 B.C.-1 A.D.):
  • 750 B.C. - Indo-Aryans rule over sixteen Mahajanapadas in northern India, from the Indus to the Ganges
  • 700 B.C. - Beginning of the caste system, with Brahman priests at the top
  • 684-424 B.C. - Magadha Empire (northeast India)
  • 550 B.C.-250 A.D. & 590-1323 A.D. - Pandyan Empire (south India)
  • 521 B.C. - Darius the Great of Persia expands the Persian Empire beyond the Indus River into Punjab and Sindh
  • 424-321 B.C. - Nanda Empire (northern India)
  • 327 B.C. - Alexander the Great invades the Indus River valley
  • 321-185 B.C. - Maurya Empire (all India except for southernmost tip)
    • 321-297 B.C. - Chandragupta Maurya, first great Indian conqueror, establishes the Mauryan Empire
    • 273-237 B.C. - Ashoka expands Mauryan Empire
    • 259 B.C. - Ashoka converts to Buddhism, sends out Buddist missionaries
  • 321-170 B.C. - Kalinga Kingdom/Empire (northeast/north & central India)
    • 209-170 B.C. - Kalinga Empire greatly expanded under Emperor Kharavela
  • 300 B.C.-1200 A.D. - Chera Empire (south India)
  • 300 B.C.-1250 A.D. - Chola Empire (south India)
    • 846 A.D. - Cholas regain independence from the Pallavas
    • 985 A.D. - Chola Empire extended to all of south India
    • 1014 A.D. - Cholas defeat the Palas in Bengal
    • 1017 A.D. - Cholas conquer Shi Lanka; are expelled in 1970 A.D.
    • 1050 A.D. - Chola Empire conquers Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula and the Maldives
    • 1250 A.D. - End of the Chola Dynasty as it is defeated by the Pandyans
  • 230 B.C.-220 A.D. - Satavahana Empire (south-central India)
  • 200 B.C. - The Manu Code sets the rules of everyday Indian life and divides Hindus into four castes: Brahmins, warriors, farmers/traders & non-Aryans
  • 200 B.C.-400 A.D. - Indo-Scythian Kingdom (northwest India)
  • 185-73 B.C. - Sunga Empire (north-central & northeast India)
  • 180 B.C.-10 A.D. - Indo-Greek Kingdom (northwest India)
Middle Kingdoms (1-550 A.D.):
  • 21-135 A.D. - Indo-Parthian Kingdom (also known as Pahlavas; northwest India)
  • 35-405 A.D. - Western Satraps (west-central India)
  • 50 A.D. - Thomas, an apostle of Jesus, visits India
  • 60-240 A.D. - Kushan Empire (from Afghanistan into northwest and north India)
  • 230-410 A.D. & 565-650 A.D. - Indo-Sassanid Kingdom (northwest India)
  • 275 - 888 A.D. - Pallava Empire (south India; greatest power, 571 to 668 A.D.)
  • 320-540 A.D. - Gupta Era (almost all of India from the Indus River eastward except for the Deccan plateau)
    • 320-335 - Chandragupta I establishes empire
    • 335-376: Samudragupta expands empire
    • 376-415: Chandragupta II; greatest extent of empire
    • 540 A.D. - End of Gupta Dynasty
  • 380 A.D. - Monks carve two giant statues of Buddha at Bamiya in Afghanistan
  • 454-500 A.D. - Hun invasions
  • 499 A.D. - Hindu mathematician writes first book on algebra
Period of Political Instability (550-1001 A.D.):
  • 543-753 A.D. - Rise of Chalukya Kingdom in south-central India
  • 606-647 A.D. - Harsha Empire in northern India
  • 650 A.D. - Pallavas are defeated by the Chalukyas
  • 700-800 A.D. - Buddhism spreads to Tibet and Nepal
  • 711 A.D. - Arabs invade Sind (modern-day southeast Pakistan on the Arabian Sea)
  • 750-1120 A.D. - Pala Empire (Buddhist) established in Bengal in eastern India
    • 810-850 A.D. - Greatest extent of Pala Empire (much of north & central India) under Emperor Devapala
  • 753 A.D.- Rise of imperial Rashtrakutas (south India) and Pratiharas (northwest India)
  • 846 A.D. - Rise of Cholas and defeat of Pallavis (south India)
  • 973-1189 A.D. - Revival of Western Chalukyas and defeat of Rashtrakutas (south- central India)
Period of Muslim Dominance (1000-1707 A.D.):
  • 1001 A.D. - Raids by Mahmud of Ghanzi from Afghanistan
  • 1206-1526 A.D. - Delhi Sultanates (north India)
  • 1228-1826 A.D. - Hindu Ahom Kingdom (Assam; northeast India) resists Mughal invasions
  • 1288 A.D. - Italian explorer Marco Polo visits India
  • 1336-1646 A.D. - Hindu Vijayanagara Empire (southern India)
  • 1347-1687:A.D. - Deccan Sultanates (southwest India)
  • 1498 A.D.- Vasco da Gama (Portuguese explorer) arrives in India
  • 1502 A.D. - Portuguese establish colony at Cochin
  • 1510 A.D. - Goa captured and annexed by Portugal
  • 1526-1707 A.D. - The Mughal Empire (all of India except the southernmost tip)
    • 1526-1530: Reign of Babur
    • 1556-1605: Reign of Akbar
    • 1605-1627: Reign of Jahangir
    • 1628-1658: Reign of Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal)
    • 1658-1707: Reign of Aurangzeb, last Mughal emperor; Mughal Empire expanded to greatest limits
  • 1600: British East India Company is chartered
Post-Mughal/Pre-Colonial Era (1708-1858 A.D.):
  • 1674-1818 A.D. - Maratha Empire (north & central India)
    • 1758 A.D. - The Marathas conquer Punjab in northwest India
    • 1761 A.D. - The Marathas rule over most of northern India, but a defeat by the Afghans at Panipat marks the beginning of the Maratha decline
    • 1776 A.D. - The Marathas conquer Mysore in south India
    • 1794 A.D. - The Marathas conquer Delhi
    • 1818 A.D. - British defeat the Marathas and absorb most of the empire
  • 1744-1748: War between French and British
  • 1747-1823 A.D. - Durrani Empire (also called the Afghan Empire; northwest India & Punjab)
  • 1799-1849 A.D - Sikh Empire (Punjab; northwest India)
  • 1799 A.D. - British defeat Tippu Sultan, defacto ruler of Mysore in south India
India under British Rule (1858-1947 A.D.)
  • 1876 A.D. - Queen Victoria proclaimed Empress of India

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