Brief history of India summarized
A brief review of the history of India, in summary.
The Indus Valley Civilization
The first Indian civilization arose in the Indus Valley around 2600 BC It actually straddled northwestern India and Pakistan. By 6,500 BC the people of the area had begun to farm. By 5,500 BC they had already invented pottery.
By 2600 BC a prosperous agricultural society had grown. Farmers used bronze tools. They grew wheat, barley, and peas. They also raised cattle, goats and sheep. Water buffalo were used to pull carts.
People spun cotton and traded with other cultures, such as present-day Iraq. Some of the inhabitants of the Indus Valley began to live in villages. The two largest were at Mohenjo-daro and Harrapa.
Mohenjo-daro probably had a population of 35-50,000. By the standards of the ancient world it was very large. It consisted of two parts. One part was a citadel. It contained a public bath and meeting rooms. It also had a barn where grain was stored.
The lower part of the city had streets laid out in a grid pattern. The houses were 2 or even 3 stories high and made of brick, as stone was rare in the area. The bricks were of a standard size and the Indus Valley Civilization had standard weights and measures. The streets had drainage networks.
Life in Mohenjo-daro was obviously very civilized and orderly, although most of the people in the Indus Valley Civilization were farmers outside the cities. The Indus Valley Civilization had a form of writing, but unfortunately it has not been deciphered, so nothing is known of its political system or religion.
However, many engraved seals and terracotta figures have been found. The Indus Valley Civilization was at its height in 2300-1700 BC Then after 1700 BC it broke up.
The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps there was a climate change and the area became colder and drier. It has also been suggested that the rivers changed course. In those days less rain or a change in the course of a river would have had serious consequences for agriculture and of course, like all early civilizations, the Indus Valley depended on agriculture.
Civilization was only possible if farmers made a surplus. They could exchange their surplus with artisans for manufactured goods. They could also exchange some for products from faraway places. However, if the farmers stopped having a surplus, they could no longer support the artisans who lived in the cities.
The populations of the cities moved away towards the countryside. Trade and commerce would decline. As society became less prosperous, people returned to a simpler way of life and the invention of writing disappeared. The Indus Valley Civilization disappeared and was forgotten. It was not rediscovered until the 1920s.
After the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization, a new wave of people entered India. The Aryans came from central Asia and probably entered India through Afghanistan after 1500 BC There were probably waves of invasions over a period of time rather than just one. The Aryans were a semi-nomadic race of herders.
At first they roamed with their herds of cattle instead of living in one place. They had two-wheeled carts that allowed them to subdue the natives. By 1000 BC they had already learned to use iron. However, over time the Aryans settled down and became farmers.
Little by little, a more orderly and settled society evolved. Tribes became kingdoms. The Aryans became priests, rulers and warriors, free peasants and merchants. The subjugated people became slaves, workers and craftsmen.
Over time, this stratified society crystallized into the caste system. The Hindu religion also evolved around this time. The sacred literature called The Vedas was created (at first they were transmitted orally and later they were written down).
Over time, the Aryans learned to grow rice instead of barley. By 600 BC rice cultivation was flourishing in India. With a more settled and orderly society, trade flourished. Over time people began to live in cities again and writing was reinvented. By 600 BC a highly civilized society had emerged in India.
Although Buddha was born in India around 483 BC, the religion he founded failed to take root in the country. At about the same time the Persians captured the northwestern tip of India. Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire and entered the extreme northwest of India.
However, after his death in 317 BC, the Greeks withdrew. The Persians and Greeks had little effect on Indian civilization. The various Indian kingdoms had begun to conquer each other and after 322 BC the first great empire arose.
The Maurya Empire in India
In 322 BC, Chandragupta Maurya became king of the powerful and highly centralized state of Magadha in northern India. Chandragupta founded a great empire. After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire broke up. Seleucus took the eastern part. He attempted to reclaim the Indian provinces that were once ruled by Alexander.
However, his army was stopped by Chandragupta in 305 BC Seleucus was forced to cede most of Afghanistan to Chandragupta, who also conquered parts of central India.
This new empire was rich and trade prospered. Its capital was one of the largest cities in the ancient world. In 296 Chandragupta abdicated in favor of his son Bindusara, who pushed the border of the empire further south. The greatest Maurian ruler was Ashoka or Asoka (269-232 BC).
He conquered Kalinga (modern Orissa). He later declared that he was horrified by the suffering caused by the war and decided not to conquer again. Asoka also converted to Buddhism. He decreed that the Buddhist principles of right conduct should be engraved on stone pillars or rocks throughout his kingdom to teach the people how to live.
Asoka dedicated himself to pacifying and consolidating his empire. However, despite his conversion to Buddhism, the Mauryan government was authoritarian and punishments for wrongdoers were severe.
After his death, the Maurya Empire declined, like all empires. It suffered economic decline and political instability as different brothers tried to become kings. A general assassinated the last Maurya ruler in 185 BC The general then took control of the empire and founded the Shunga dynasty.
However, in 73 BC, the last Shunga ruler was himself assassinated. They were replaced by the Kanva dynasty that ruled from 73-28 BC.
The influence of the Maurians penetrated into South India. In the time of the Mauryas the farmers there became more advanced. By the 1st century BC organized kingdoms had grown and trade and commerce were flourishing there.
The Indo-Greeks in India
After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was divided among his generals. The various successor states fought each other until a strong state emerged in Bactria (roughly modern Afghanistan). The Greek rulers of Bactria attempted to control northwestern India.
Around the year 185 BC King Demetrius invaded India. Around 160 BC one of his successors, King Menander conquered most of northern India. However, after Menander’s death, this empire was divided into separate states and the Indian civilization developed without European influence.
India now faced a new invader. Central Asian nomads conquered Bactria around 120 BC They then settled down and left their nomadic lifestyle.
They were divided into 5 tribes. One of the tribes, the Kushans conquered the others. They then turned their attention to northern India. Little by little they conquered more and more territory. Successive kings carved out an ever larger empire in northern India.
The Kushan Empire reached its height under the reign of Kanishka (around 78 AD to 114 AD). During his reign North India was prosperous and did much trade with the Roman Empire. Kanishka was also a patron of the arts, which flourished. However, after his death, the empire declined and fell apart. At the beginning of the third century AD, India was again divided into small states.
India in the Middle Ages
The Gupta Empire in India
A new empire was founded in the early fourth century AD by Ghandragupta. After his death in AD 335, his son Samudragupta (335-375) conquered all of northern India and much of central India.
India became prosperous and stable again, and much of the trade was with China. Mathematics, astronomy, and medicine flourished. Literature also flourished. It was the time of the great poet Kaidasa.
However, the Gupta rule was less strict than the Mauryan. The punishments were less severe and the provinces of the empire had some autonomy. The Gupta Empire reached its height under Chandragupta II 375-415 AD However, it then went into decline. The Gupta Empire was dissolved in the early 6th century.
In the mid-5th century AD, the Huns, a fierce and warlike people of Central Asia, invaded northwestern India. However, around the year 460 AD they were rejected by Skandagupta (454-467). However, the Huns returned at the end of the 5th century. This time they conquered most of northwestern India.
However, his rule did not last more than 30 years. Around 528 AD the Indians, led by a ruler named Yashodharman, defeated them in battle and drove them out.
The next great ruler in Indian history was King Jarsha Vardhana (606-647). He created an empire to rival the Guptas. Jarsha began as ruler of the kingdom of Thanesar in northern India. He later built an empire in northern India.
However, in 630, when he attempted to conquer South India, he was severely defeated by a king named Pulakesin (610-643). (By then South India was definitely equal to North.)
Despite this setback, Jarsha remained a powerful ruler. During his reign his biography was written. He was called Harschacharita. However, Jarsha’s kingdom really depended on his personality to hold it together. After his death it quickly broke up.
India again became a land of several kingdoms, which were often at war with each other. The three most important dynasties were the Rajputs, the Pallavas and the Chalukyas. However, in the 9th century a new empire arose in South India, the Cholas.
At the end of the 10th century, the Chola king Rajaraja I began to expand his kingdom. He conquered his neighbors and took Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The next king, Rajenda I, took more territory, including the Ganges and the Andaman Islands.
The Chola were a prosperous empire with many merchants organized into guilds to protect their interests. Trade with Southeast Asia prospered. So did trade with the Arabs.
The Chola empire, while powerful, was less centralized than older empires like the Gupta. The rulers, once conquered, were often reinstated as vassals called samantas and allowed a certain autonomy. In a way, this political system resembles European feudalism. Of course, there was always a risk that a samantha would rebel!
In the 10th century, the Turks from Central Asia conquered Afghanistan. Under their ruler Mahmud 971-1030 they conquered the Punjab. He led raids deep into India and pillaged temples. The Turks returned in 1191, this time as conquerors, not raiders.
They were led by Sultan Muhammad. He was defeated in 1191 at the Battle of Tarain, but returned the following year. This time he prevailed. The Turks managed to conquer much of northern India and created a powerful state – the Delhi Sultanate.
The Delhi Sultanate
Under sultans Qutubuddin 1206-1211 and Iltutmish 1211-1236 the sultanate flourished. However, Iltumish was succeeded by his daughter Raziyyat. She reigned for only 3 years before being deposed and later assassinated. The Sultanate reached its height under Alauddin 1296-1316.
In 1298 he conquered Gurjarat. In 1309 he invaded South India. He sacked cities in the south and forced the rulers to submit to him and become vassals.
Meanwhile, a new threat came from the North – the Mongols. In 1296-97 they attacked northwestern India. The Mongols returned in 1299. This time they penetrated as far as Delhi then, like a swarm of locusts, disappeared. The Mongols returned in 1306, but this time they were repulsed.
Muhammad Tughluq 1324-1351 further expanded the Sultanate. He decided that he wanted a new and more central capital and moved it to Daulatabad. However, he was later forced to move his capital to Delhi. The Delhi Sultanate declined rapidly in the late 14th century.
The final blow came in 1498 when Timurlane, a descendant of Genghis Khan, sacked Delhi and massacred many of its inhabitants. Independent sultanates appeared in the early 15th century and the Delhi Sultanate became one of several.
Under Sultans Bhalul 1451-1489 and Sikander Lohdi 1489-1517 Delhi was revived to some extent but never regained its former importance. Meanwhile, another empire arose in the South – the Vijayangar.
The Vijayanagar Empire was founded by two brothers, Harihara and Bukka. According to legend, they were officers of Muhammad Tughluq. They were sent to crush a rebellion in the South. Instead, they split off and founded their own kingdom. Harihara was crowned king in 1346. His brother Bukka I ruled after him, 1357-1377.
The Vijayanagar Empire is named after its capital (its name means city of victory). The Vijayanagar rulers conquered more and more territory and the empire reached its height in the early 16th century. However, in 1564 Vijaynagar was totally defeated in battle. By then a new empire had arisen: the Mughals.
The Mughal Empire in India
The rise of the Mughal Empire
This great empire was founded by Babur 1483-1530, a descendant of Genghis Khan. From 1504 he was ruler of part of what is now Afghanistan. From the Turks he had learned to use cannons and muskets.
The weapons allowed him to win great victories over the Indians who still used traditional methods of warfare. He too had learned new cavalry tactics from the Turks. Instead of attacking the enemy’s cavalry directly, Babur’s cavalry moved to his flanks and attacked from the rear.
In 1526 Babur crushed Ibrahim Lodhi’s army at the Battle of Panipat. Babur made a barricade of carts. Behind them he placed his cannons and musketeers. The enemy attacked, but were met with withered cannon and musket fire. Babur’s cavalry then rode around the enemy army and attacked from the rear. The Indians were defeated.
Other Indian rulers now rallied against Babur but were crushed at the Battle of Khanau in 1527. Babur placed his cannons and guns behind the walls. The Indians attacked on horseback again and again, but were shot down. Babur then became ruler of North India.
He was succeeded by his son Humayun 1508-1556. However, in the 1530s an Afghan ruler named Sher Shah attacked the empire. In 1540 Sher Shah prevailed and became ruler of much of northern India. Humayan went into exile and wandered from one place to another. In 1542 his son Akbar was born.
Humayan moved to Persia. Sher Shah was killed in battle in 1545 and his empire was divided. Humayan was then able, with Persian help, to reconquer the Mughal empire. He invaded India in 1554 and by 1556 he was in control of the North. He unfortunately died after falling down the stairs.
However, his son Akbar 1556-1605 was perhaps the greatest Mughal ruler. He took Gujarat in 1574, Bengal in 1576, Kashmir in 1586, Orissa in 1592, and Baluchistan in 1595. Akbar also reorganized the government and created an efficient civil service.
Akbar was a Muslim, but he was tolerant in matters of religion. He abolished a tax that previous rulers levied on non-Muslims. He also gave Hindus high office.
Akbar admired Persian culture and promoted it in India. Persian literature flourished in India during his reign (although Hindu literature also flourished). Persian and Hindu painting styles merged to form a new Mughal painting style.
Akbar was succeeded by his son Selim, who called himself Jahangir. Under his Mughal influence South India increased and the empire flourished. His wife’s name was Mehrunissa (later she was called Nur Jahan or light of the world). She was Persian and because of her Persian culture she became even more influential in the Mughal kingdoms.
During Jahangir’s reign the arts continued to flourish. An elaborate and intricate school of painting existed. It was also a great time for architecture. When Jahangir died in 1627, his wife was forced into retirement, but she took it upon herself to build a magnificent mausoleum for her father in Agra.
The Mughal Empire at the top
The Mughal Empire reached its height in the 17th century, its only weakness being power struggles between the ruling family and occasional rebellions. Shah Jahan became ruler in 1627. Under him the empire prospered. He is famous for building the Taj Mahal, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
It was erected in memory of his queen Mumtaz Mahal between 1594 and 1630. Shah Jahan was devastated when she died. After his death he began to build the Taj Mahal. It took an ‘army’ of 20,000 craftsmen and workers for 22 years to build it. It was started in 1631 and finished in 1653.
Aurangzeb (1658-1707) greatly expanded the empire. He conquered almost all of South India in 1687. Under him the empire became so vast that it was difficult for one man to rule. However, he undid the religious toleration of his predecessors.
In 1664 he forbade the repair of Hindu temples and in 1669 he forbade his subjects to build new ones. Furthermore, in 1679 he reintroduced a poll tax on Hindus called the Jizira. Aurangzeb also heavily taxed his subjects. The result was a series of rebellions.
Aurangzeb’s greatest enemy was Shivaji, leader of the South Indian marathoners. Shivaji led a form of guerrilla warfare. His bases were in the mountains, but mounted on horses, his men could raid caravans and then fall back into the mountains.
In the year 664 his men stormed the port of Surat. Aurangzeb sent an army to intimidate Shivaji, then invited him to the capital Delhi and tried to make a deal with him by offering him a position in the empire.
However, the two men fell out and Shivaji escaped from Delhi by hiding in a basket. He then returned to the raid. Shivaji was succeeded by his son Sambhaji. He was captured by the Mughals and executed in 1689, but guerrilla warfare continued.
The decline of the Mughal Empire
Aurangzeb was succeeded by his son Bahadur Shah 1707-1712. In his time, cracks were appearing in the empire. The oppressive taxes caused more and more rebellions. After 1712, the powerful nobles of the empire began to break away and form virtually independent states.
Meanwhile the old enemy, the Marathas attacked the Mughal Empire led by a man named Baji Rao. The Mughals were forced to cede territory to them. Then, in 1739, disaster struck when the Persians launched an attack on the Mughal Empire. They sacked Delhi.
The empire continued, but its power was fading fast. Delhi was sacked again in 1761, this time by an Afghan kingdom.
European imperialism in India
The decline of the Mughal Empire caused a vacuum into which the Europeans moved. The first Europeans to reach India by sea were the Portuguese who arrived in 1498 and began importing spices from India. They formed a base at Goa in 1510. However, in the 17th century the Portuguese declined and the English and Dutch took their place.
The English East India Company was formed in 1600 to trade with India. In 1639 the English established a trading base in India. It became Madras. In 1662 the English king married a Portuguese princess and was given Bombay.
In 1668 it was sold to the East India Company. In 1690 the British established a base in Bengal, which became Calcutta. At the end of the 17th century the Dutch also declined and the French replaced them. In 1673 the French established a base at Pondicherry.
In the 18th century, the French and the English became bitter rivals and both began to interfere in Indian politics. The Seven Years’ War between Britain and France began in 1756. With the outbreak of the war the Nawab (ruler) of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah captured the British base of Calcutta.
He forced the captives into a small cell and most of them suffocated overnight. This became known as the Calcutta Black Hole. The East India Company sent a force led by Robert Clive (1725-1774) to recapture Calcutta. They soon did.
However, Clive was not satisfied and decided to take all of Bengal. Clive won a major victory at Plassey in June 1757 (the battle was largely won because one of the Bengali army commanders, Mir Jafar, changed sides and refused to join the battle).
Clive then overthrew the Bengal ruler Siraj-ud-Daula and replaced him with Mir Jafar. However, Mir Jafar was just a puppet.
In 1765 the company began to rule over Bengal directly. Clive’s victory at Plassey ensured that India would become a British colony and not a French one. However, the company did not immediately take over India. It was a gradual process, which lasted several decades. The East India Company eliminated French influence in India and began to subjugate other Indian states.
British imperialism was strongly resisted by the Mysore state under the two rulers Haidar Ali 1761-1782 and Tipu Sultan 1782-1799. The Mysore Army was a formidable fighting force. In the years 1767-1769, 1780-1784, 1790-1792 and 1799 a series of wars were fought. Mysore’s resistance finally ended in 1799 and Mysore was forced to surrender half of its territory.
The British seized more territory in India. The Indian states were forced to accept British ‘protection’. One state, Hyderabad, signed a treaty with the British in 1798 and maintained some independence, but other states were forced to accept British rule.
In 1803 war broke out between the British and the Marathas. The British were led by Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington). Wellesley was Governor General 1798-1805 and was a shameless imperialist.
In 1803 the marathon chiefs were disbanded and the British achieved some victories. They took Agra and Delhi. (At that time Delhi was still ruled by the last Mughal. When the British took over the city, the Mughal Empire finally died out.)
However, in 1804 the British suffered some defeats and made peace. In 1817 another war broke out. This time the Maratha chiefs were defeated and they were forced to accept British rule. By 1819, the East India Company controlled most of India except the North West.
Assam was annexed in stages between 1826 and 1838. There were riots in some parts of India between 1819 and 1839, but most of them were peaceful. The British began to impose their culture on India.
In 1829 the custom of suttee or sati, which consisted of a widow throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, was abolished. In 1835 English became the official language of government and education.
Outside of British control was a powerful Sikh kingdom. However, the leader of the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh, died in 1839 and the struggle for succession began. In 1845-46 the British waged war against the Sikhs. After a fierce fight, they capture Lahore.
The Sikhs were forced to give up Kashmir and parts of the Punjab. However, a second war was fought in 1848-49. The fighting was bitter, but in March 1849 the East India Company took control of all of Punjab.
The Indian Mutiny
The East India Company had long employed Indians as soldiers. There were supposed to be no more than 4 Indian soldiers for every one British. However, the British had withdrawn their troops to serve in conflicts elsewhere. In 1857 there were only 40,000 British soldiers in India and 311,000 Indians.
The riot began on May 10, 1857. The spark that ignited the fire was the fact that the soldiers received a new rifle: the Enfield. The cartridge was said to be greased with fat from a cow (holy to Hindus) or from pigs (impure to Muslims).
The mutiny started in Meerut or Mirat, 60 miles from Delhi, the soldiers massacred the British and the uprising spread rapidly. The rebels took Delhi and proclaimed the restoration of the old Mughal Empire.
The rebellion spread across central and northern India, but the south did not rise. The Madras and Bombay soldiers remained loyal to the British. Eventually the British were able to reestablish control.
The rebels besieged the British at Cawnpore and Lucknow. The British at Cawnpore surrendered on June 27, 1857. They were then massacred. However, the British quickly sent reinforcements to India. Sir Henry Havelock led a force to relieve Lucknow.
He defeated the rebel leader Hana Sahib at Cawnpore on July 16, 1857. Havelock reached Lucknow on September 25, 1857. However, he then found himself besieged by rebels. A relief force was sent under the direction of Sir Colin Campbell (1792-1863).
He reached Lucknow on November 16, and the garrison escaped. Campbell decisively defeated a rebel force outside Cawnpore on December 6.
Meanwhile, the British recaptured Delhi in September. The British recaptured Lucknow in March 1858. Sir Hugh Rose took the rebel stronghold of Jahnsi on April 3. On June 19, 1858, at the Battle of Gwalior, he decisively defeated a rebel leader, Tantia Topi. This blow broke the back of the rebellion.
The British then ‘cleaned up’ the remaining rebels. By the end of 1858 the rebellion was over. However, the East India Company lost control of India. On September 1, 1858 control was transferred to the British government.
India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
After the lesson of the Indian mutiny, the British became a bit more respectful of Indian culture. However, the desire for independence did not die. On the contrary, it grew slowly. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885. The Muslim League was founded in 1906.
In 1861 legislative bodies were formed for India. However, the members were not elected. They were appointed by the governor general or by the provincial governors. Most of its members were British. Also, after the mutiny, the ratio of British soldiers to Indians increased. In 1877 Queen Victoria was appointed Empress of India.
At the end of the 19th century, the British created a network of railways in India. In 1900 there were 25,000 miles of railway in India. The first Indian-made train was built in Bombay in 1865. The British also built new roads across India.
Improved communications meant that different parts of India were bought closer to each other and Indians began to feel a greater sense of national identity. At the end of the 19th century, many newspapers were founded that helped mobilize public opinion.
In 1905 the British divided Bengal. They did this to make it easier to rule. This move caused riots in Bengal. People demonstrated and boycotted British products.
At the end of the 19th century, India was an agricultural society. Jute, raw cotton, and tea and coffee were exported to Great Britain. In return, textiles and other manufactured goods were imported from there. The Indian textile industry could not compete with cheap, mass-produced British products.
However, at the beginning of the 20th century, Indian industries began to develop. It was still an overwhelmingly agricultural country, but it was just beginning to change.
At the same time, Britain was in decline. In the mid-19th century, Britain was the most powerful country in the world, but by the end of the century other powers such as Germany and the United States had caught up.
Britain was weakened by the first world and continued to decline in the 1920s and 1930s. As Britain declined, Indian nationalist sentiment grew stronger.
Indian public opinion was embittered by the Amristar massacre, which took place on April 13, 1919. Crowds of thousands gathered in a square called Jallianwalla Bagh to protest against the recent legislation. General Reginald Dyer decided on a show of force. Dyer told his men to open fire. They did, killing 379 people and injuring some 1,200 more.