India’s extraordinary history is intimately tied to its geography. A meeting ground between the East and the West, it has always been an invader’s paradise, while at the same time its natural isolation and magnetic religions allowed it to adapt to and absorb many of the peoples who penetrated its mountain passes. No matter how many Persians, Greeks, Chinese nomads, Arabs, Portuguese, British and other raiders had their way with the land, local Hindu kingdoms invariably survived their depredations, living out their own sagas of conquest and collapse. All the while, these local dynasties built upon the roots of a culture well established since the time of the first invaders, the Aryans. In short, India has always been simply too big, too complicated, and too culturally subtle to let anyone empire dominate it for long.
True to the haphazard ambiance of the country, the discovery of India’s most ancient civilization literally happened by accident. British engineers in the mid-1800’s, busy constructing a railway line between Karachi and Punjab, found ancient, kiln-baked bricks along the path of the track. This discovery was treated at the time as little more than a curiosity, but archaeologists later revisited the site in the 1920’s and determined that the bricks were over 5000 years old. Soon afterward, two important cities were discovered: Harappa on the Ravi river, and Mohenjodaro on the Indus.
The civilization that laid the bricks, one of the world’s oldest, was known as the Indus. They had a written language and were highly sophisticated. Dating back to 3000 BC, they originated in the south and moved north, building complex, mathematically-planned cities. Some of these towns were almost three miles in diameter and contained as many as 30,000 residents. These ancient municipalities 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 as Mesopotamia. At its height, the Indus civilization extended over half a million square miles across the Indus river valley, and though it existed at the same time as the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Sumer, it far outlasted them.
The first group to invade India were the Aryans, who came out of the north in about 1500 BC. The Aryans brought with them strong cultural traditions that, miraculously, still remain in force today. They spoke and wrote in a language called Sanskrit, which was later used in the first documentation of the Vedas. Though warriors and conquerors, the Aryans lived alongside Indus, introducing them to the caste system and establishing the basis of the Indian religions. The Aryans inhabited the northern regions for about 700 years, then moved further south and east when they developed iron tools and weapons. They eventually settled in the Ganges valley and built large kingdoms throughout much of northern India.
The second great invasion of India occurred around 500 BC, when the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius, pushing their empire eastward, conquered the ever-prized Indus Valley. Compared to the Aryans, the Persian influence was marginal, perhaps because they were only able to occupy the region for a relatively brief period of about 150 years. The Persians were in turn conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, who swept through the country as far as the Beas River, where he defeated King Porus and an army of 200 elephants in 326 BC. The tireless, charismatic conqueror wanted to extend his empire even further eastward, but his own troops (undoubtedly exhausted) refused to continue. Alexander returned home, leaving behind garrisons to keep the trade routes open.
While the Persians and Greeks subdued the Indus Valley and the northwest, Aryan-based kingdoms continued developing in the East. In the 5th century BC, Siddhartha Gautama founded the religion of Buddhism, a profoundly influential work of human thought still espoused by much of the world. As the overextended Hellenistic sphere declined, a king known as Chandragupta swept back through the country from Magadha (Bihar) and conquered his way well into Afghanistan. This was the beginning of one of India’s greatest dynasties, the Maurya. Under the great king Ashoka (268-31 BC), the Mauryan empire conquered nearly the entire subcontinent, extending itself as far south as Mysore. When Ashoka conquered Orissa, however, his army shed so much blood that the repentant king gave up warfare forever and converted to Buddhism. Proving to be as tireless a missionary as he had been as a conqueror, Asoka brought Buddhism to much of central Asia. His rule marked the height of the Maurya empire, and it collapsed only 100 years after his death.
After the demise of the Maurya dynasty, the regions it had conquered fragmented into a mosaic of kingdoms and smaller dynasties. The Greeks returned briefly in 150 BC and conquered Punjab, and by this time Buddhism was becoming so influential that the Greek king Menander forsook the Hellenistic pantheon and became a Buddhist himself. The local kingdoms enjoyed relative autonomy for the next few hundred years, occasionally fighting (and often losing to) invaders from the north and China, who seemed to come and go like the monsoons. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans never made it to India, preferring to expand west instead.
In AD 319, Chandragupta II founded the Imperial Guptas dynasty, which conquered and consolidated the entire north and extended as far south as the Vindhya mountains. When the Guptas diminished, a golden age of six thriving and separate kingdoms ensued, and at this time some of the most incredible temples in India were constructed in Bhubaneshwar, Konarak, and Khahurajo. It was the time of relative stability, and cultural developments progressed on all fronts for hundreds of years, until the dawn of the Muslim era.
Arab traders had visited the western coast since 712, but it wasn’t until 1001 that the Muslim world began to make itself keenly felt. In that year, Arab armies swept down the Khyber pass and hit like a storm. Led by Mahmud of Ghazi, they raided just about every other year for 26 years straight. They returned home each time, leaving behind them ruined cities, decimated armies, and probably a very edgy native population. Then they more or less vanished behind the mountains again for nearly 150 years, and India once again went on its way.
But the Muslims knew India was still there, waiting with all its riches. They returned in 1192 under Mohammed of Ghor, and this time they meant to stay. Ghor’s armies laid waste to the Buddhist temples of Bihar, and by 1202 he had conquered the most powerful Hindu kingdoms along the Ganges. When Ghor died in 1206, one of his generals, Qutb-ud-din, ruled the far north from the Sultanate of Delhi, while the southern majority of India was free from the invaders. Turkish kings ruled the Muslim acquisition until 1397, when the Mongols invaded under Timur Lang (Tamerlane) and ravaged the entire region. One historian wrote that the lightning speed with which Tamerlane’s armies struck Delhi was prompted by their desire to escape the stench of rotting corpses they were leaving behind them.
Islamic India fragmented after the brutal devastation Timur Lang left in Delhi, and it was every Muslim strongman for himself. This would change in 1527, however, when the Mughal (Persian for Mongol) monarch Babur came into power. Babur was a complicated, enlightened ruler from Kabul who loved poetry, gardening, and books. He even wrote cultural treatises on the Hindus he conquered, and took notes on local flora and fauna. Afghan princes in India asked for his help in 1526, and he conquered the Punjab and quickly asserted his own claim over them by taking Delhi. This was the foundation of the Mughal dynasty, whose six emperors would comprise most influential of all the Muslim dynasties in India.
Babur died in 1530, leaving behind a harried and ineffective son, Humayun. Humayun’s own son, Akbar, however, would be the greatest Mughal ruler of all. Unlike his grandfather, Akbar was more warrior than a scholar, and he extended the empire as far south as the Krishna river. Akbar tolerated local religions and married a Hindu princess, establishing a tradition of cultural acceptance that would contribute greatly to the success of the Mughal rule. In 1605, Akbar was succeed by his son Jahangir, who passed the expanding empire along to his own son Shah Jahan in 1627.
Though he spent much of his time subduing Hindu kingdoms to the south, Shah Jahan left behind the colossal monuments of the Mughal empire, including the Taj Majal (his favorite wife’s tomb), the Pearl Mosque, the Royal Mosque, and the Red Fort. Jahan’s campaigns in the south and his flare for extravagant architecture necessitated increased taxes and distressed his subjects, and under this scenario his son Aurungzebe imprisoned him, seeking power for himself in 1658.
Unlike his predecessors, Aurungzebe wished to eradicate indigenous traditions, and his intolerance prompted fierce local resistance. Though he expanded the empire to include nearly the entire subcontinent, he could never totally subdue the Mahrattas of the Deccan, who resisted him until his death in 1707. Out of the Mahrattas’ doggedness arose the legendary figure of Shivagi, a symbol of Hindu resistance and nationalism. Aurungzebe’s three sons disputed over succession, and the Mughal empire crumbled, just as the Europeans were beginning to flex their own imperialistic muscles.
East India Company
The Portuguese had traded in Goa as early as 1510, and later founded three other colonies on the west coast in Diu, Bassein, and Mangalore. In 1610, the British chased away a Portuguese naval squadron, and the East India Company created its own outpost at Surat. This small outpost marked the beginning of a remarkable presence that would last over 300 years and eventually dominate the entire subcontinent. Once in India, the British began to compete with the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the French. Through a combination of outright combat and deft alliances with local princes, the East India Company gained control of all European trade in India by 1769.
How a tiny island nation, thousands of miles away, came to administer a huge territory of 300 million people is one of history’s great spectacles. A seemingly impossible task, it was done through a highly effective and organized system called the Raj. Treaties and agreements were signed with native princes, and the Company gradually increased its role in local affairs. The Raj helped build infrastructure and trained natives for its own military, though, in theory, they were for India’s own defense. In 1784, after financial scandals in the Company alarmed British politicians, the Crown assumed half-control of the Company, beginning the transfer of power to royal hands.
In 1858, a rumor spread among Hindu soldiers that the British were greasing their bullets with the fat of cows and pigs, the former sacred animals to Hindus and the latter unclean animals to Muslims. A year-long rebellion against the British ensued. Although the Indian Mutiny was unsuccessful, it prompted the British government to seize total control of all British interests in India in 1858, finally establishing a seamless imperialism. Claiming to be only interested in the trade, the Raj steadily expanded its influence until the princes ruled in name only.
The Raj’s demise was partially a result of its remarkable success. It had gained control of the country by viewing it as a source of profit. Infrastructure had been developed, the administration established, and an entire structure of governance erected. India had become a profitable venture, and the British were loath to allow the Indian population any power in a system that they viewed as their own accomplishment. The Indians didn’t appreciate this much, and as the 20th century dawned there were increasing movements towards self-rule.
Along with the desire for independence, tensions between Hindus and Muslims had also been developing over the years. The Muslims had always been a minority, and the prospect of an exclusively Hindu government made them wary of independence; they were as inclined to mistrust Hindu rule as they were to resist the Raj. In 1915, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came onto the scene, calling for unity between the two groups in an astonishing display of leadership that would eventually lead the country to independence.
The profound impact Gandhi had on India and his ability to gain independence through a totally non-violent mass movement made him one of the most remarkable leaders the world has ever known. He led by example, wearing homespun clothes to weaken the British textile industry and orchestrating a march to the sea, where demonstrators proceeded to make their own salt in protest against the British monopoly. Indians gave him the name Mahatma, or Great Soul. The British promised that they would leave India by 1947.
Independence came at great cost. While Gandhi was leading a largely Hindu movement, Mohammed Ali Jinnah was fronting a Muslim one through a group called the Muslim League. Jinnah advocated the division of India into two separate states: Muslim and Hindu, and he was able to achieve his goal. When the British left, they created the separate states of Pakistan and Bangladesh (known at that time as East Pakistan), and violence erupted when stranded Muslims and Hindu minorities in the areas fled in opposite directions. Within a few weeks, half a million people had died in the course of the greatest migration of human beings in the world’s history. The aging Gandhi vowed to fast until the violence stopped, which it did when his health was seriously threatened. At the same time, the British returned and helped restore order. Excepting Kashmir, which is still a disputed area (and currently unsafe for tourists), the division reached stability.
India’s history since independence has been marked by disunity and intermittent periods of virtual chaos. In 1948, on the eve of independence, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. His right-hand man, Jawarhalal Nehru, became India’s first Prime Minister. Nehru was a successful leader, steering the young nation through a period of peace that was contrasted by the rule of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who fought Pakistan after it invaded two regions of India. Shastri died in 1966 after only 20 months in power, and he was succeeded by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi.
With the name Gandhi (though no relation to Mahatma), Indira was a powerful, unchallenged leader, and opposition remained negligible until she abused her power by trying to suppress the press. When the rising opposition began to threaten her power, she called a state of emergency and continued to reform the nation, actually making some positive economic and political changes despite her questionable tactics. Her most unpopular policy was forced sterilization, and she was eventually defeated at the polls in 1977 by Morarji Desai of the Jenata party. She won back power in ’79, however, but was later assassinated in 1984 by a Sikh terrorist. Although India’s political climate remains divisive, the country has attained apparent stability in recent years. Today, India seems poised to realize its potential as an international economic power.