India’s extraordinary history owes much of its unfolding to its geography. A meeting ground between the East and the West, it has always been a haven for imperialist conquests and travails. At the same time, its natural isolation and open religions have allowed it to adapt to and absorb many of the peoples who crossed 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 destruction through perseverance and the process of their own tales of conquest and collapse. Local dynasties built upon the roots of a culture well established since the time of the first invaders, the Aryans. However, no single empire or ideology would prevail throughout the country, as India has always been too large and culturally diverse to let any one movement dominate it for long.
As it turned out, the British accidentally uncovered an integral part of India’s most ancient civilization. In the mid 1800’s, railway engineers found ancient, kiln-baked bricks along the path of a new track. Archaeologists subsequently revisited the site in the 1920’s and determined that the bricks were over 5,000 years old. Soon afterward, two important cities were discovered: Harappa on the Ravi river, and Mohenjodaro on the Indus.
Research showed one of the world’s oldest civilizations- the Indus- laid those bricks. A highly sophisticated people, they boasted a written language and built complex, mathematically-planned cities dating back to 3000 BC. 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. Incredibly, the Indus civilization outlasted two of their more famed contemporaries of the time, the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians.
The first group to invade India was The Aryans, coming from the north around 1500 BC. They would end up living alongside the Indus, establishing lasting cultural traditions that are still in force in the area today; not the least of which is the caste system. Their language was Sanskrit, which was later used in the first documentation of the Vedas. Upon traversing much of India, the Aryans would eventually settle the Ganges valley and build large kingdoms throughout northern India.
The second great invasion into India occurred around 500 BC, when the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius conquered the ever-prized Indus Valley. The Persian’s influence was marginal however, partly because they only occupied the region for approximately 150 years. The Greeks under Alexander the Great would put an end to their rule, but failed to extend the legendary conqueror’s empire further east, as soldiers became weary.
In the 5th century BC, Siddhartha Gautama founded the religion of Buddhism. Meanwhile, a king known as Chandragupta swept back through the country from Magadha (Bihar) and conquered his way well into Afghanistan. This marked the inception 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. Ashoka would soon convert to Buddhism, bringing the religion to much of central Asia. His rule proved to be the apex of the Maurya empire, collapsing only 100 years after his death.
After the demise of the Maurya dynasty, the regions it had conquered were fractured into independent dynasties, with the Greeks returning briefly in 150 BC to conquer the Punjab. The Greek king Menander subsequently became a Buddhist himself.
In AD 319, Chandragupta II founded the Imperial Guptas dynasty, which conquered and consolidated the entire north and extended as far south as the Vindya mountains. After the dynasty’s collapse, a golden age of six thriving kingdoms ensued, and at this time some of the most incredible temples in India were constructed in Bhubaneshwar, Konarak, and Khahurajo. It was time of relative stability, and cultural developments progressed on all fronts for hundreds of years, until the dawn of the Muslim era.
It wasn’t until 1001 that the Muslim world began to make their mark on the country. Led by Mahmud of Ghazi, they raided just about every other year for 26 consecutive years.
But the Muslims knew India was still vulnerable and open for the conquering. They returned in 1192 under Mohammed of Ghor, destroying the Buddhist temples of Bihar, and by 1202 conquering the most powerful Hindu kingdoms along the Ganges. Turkish kings later ruled the Muslim acquisition until 1397, when the Mongols invaded under Timur Lang (Tamerlane) and devastated the entire region. A grisly account from one historian described 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.
In 1527, however, the Mughal (Persian for Mongol) dynasty was established, and would prove to be the most successful and influential Muslim period in India.
Six emperors would rule during the Mughal dynasty, while historical grandiose monuments like the Taj Mahal (a tomb for emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite wife) were erected with regularity.
Upon Jahan’s son’s death, his 3 grandchildren disputed over who would rule next, and the Mughal empire crumbled, just as Europe was beginning to execute its imperialistic machine.
The British would end up battling with various Portuguese, Dutch, and French competition in the area, reigning supreme as the British East India Company would establish its own strategic trading outpost at Surat. This small outpost was the beginning of a remarkable presence that lasted over 300 years and eventually dominated the entire subcontinent. With a combination of bitter combat and vital alliances with local princes, the East India Company would monopolize all European trade in India by 1769.
The British would proceed to undertake the hopelessly daunting task of administering a land of over 300 million inhabitants. They would execute using a highly effective and organized system called the Raj. Under this system, treaties and agreements were signed with native princes, and the Company gradually increased its influence in governance and local affairs. Infrastructure was built and Indians were trained for the British military, though in theory they were for India’s own defense. In 1784, the British crown would control half of the East India Company after financial scandals alarmed British politicians.
Despite an Indian mutiny, Britain would sew up their imperial rule, leaving Indian princes to merely rule in name alone. At the same time, tensions between Hindus and Muslims were also developing. The Muslims had always been a minority, and the prospect of an exclusively Hindu government made them weary. In 1915, the venerable Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi called for unity between the two groups as part of a revolutionary display of leadership that would lead the country to independence.
Gandhi left an indelibly enduring mark on India with his ability to gain independence through a totally non-violent mass movement. Indeed, he would be one of the most remarkable leaders the world has ever seen. In tribute, Indians gave him the moniker Mahatma, or Great Soul.
The British promised that they would leave India by 1947, though independence would come at great cost. While Gandhi led a largely Hindu movement, Mohammed Ali Jinnah spurred on a Muslim front and established two separate states in India; one for Muslims, one for Hindus. When the British left, they created the separate states of Pakistan and Bangladesh (known at that time as East Pakistan), and violence would ensue as Muslims and Hindu minorities would trek in opposite directions to get to their respective religious state. Within a few weeks, half a million people had died in the course of the greatest human migration in the world’s history.
Gandhi vowed to fast until the violence stopped- which eventually did occur- as his health was badly degenerating. As all this unfolded, the British returned and helped restore order. The resulting edict was the development of the disputed Kashmir zone, which is still a disputed area to this day- comprised of Muslim and Hindu inhabitants interspersed in territorially governed zones that are highly contentious. Two more wars broke out over the region, in 1965 and 1999.
In sum, India’s history since independence has been blemished by disunity and intermittent periods of violence. In 1948, on the eve of independence, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic prompting his right-hand man, Jawarhalal Nehru, to become India’s first Prime Minister. Upon his death after years of relative peace, violence reigned supreme again with the rule of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who fought Pakistan after it invaded two regions of India. Shastri died in 1966 while being succeeded by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma).
Indira was a powerful, unchallenged leader, until she attempted to censor the press. When the rising opposition began to threaten her power, she called a state of emergency and continued to reform the nation, influencing some positive economic and political changes despite sometimes 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 in1979, however, was assassinated in 1984 by a Sikh terrorist.
Though India’s political climate remains unsettled, the country has attained apparent stability in recent years. Today, India’s burgeoning population and economic development are quickly assuring it the status of an international power.