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Indian Subcontinent >> India >> History of India

History of India

Indian history can be roughly divided into the 6 periods of Ancient India, Medieval India, the years of the Company, colonial times as part of The British Raj, the struggle for Independence and finally, post-Independence. India, the geopolitical entity as she stands today is a post-Independence phenomenon. It was as recently as "the stroke of the midnight hour" on 15th August 1947 when Nehru pronounced her "tryst with destiny" that India woke "to life and freedom".

One of man’s oldest civilizations was the settlement at the Indus Valley. The degree of sophistication that archaeologists found in their settlements almost belies the fact that these people lived almost 4000 years ago. The civilization had meticulously planned cities; streets met at right angles, the sewage system puts present day India to shame, and the tools and large granaries show that they knew more than a thing or two about agriculture. Seals of the Indus Valley have on them the only ancient script that is yet to be deciphered. The most important Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro are in present day Pakistan.

The civilization died out in the 1500 BC. The reasons are a still a matter of contention and they range from the coming of the central Asian Aryan tribes to the changing of the course of the Indus River. While both these are true, it’s difficult to ascertain that these are what brought the end of the Dravidian civilization in the Indus valley. By 300 BC the previously nomadic Aryans had settled down in the region of north India. They had brought with them Sanskrit, a member of the Indo-European family of languages akin to Latin and Greek. They also brought the spoken literature of the Hindu life-philosophy, horse-driven chariots and a social system of caste differentiation.

The following millennium saw the waxing and waning of empires. In the north the great dynasties were those of the Mauryas (300-200 BC) during which period Buddhism received royal patronage, and the Guptas during whose reign the subcontinent is said to have enjoyed a "golden period" (300-500 AD). The intervening period had new settlers like the Shakas and Kushanas forming lesser kingdoms in the area around the Ganges. The influence of these Aryan kingdoms rarely reached the south. Regional dynasties like the Andhras, Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas ruled kingdoms in the south of the Deccan Plateau and lower down the peninsula. When unable to withstand the pressures of central Asian invaders the Gupta Empire crumbled, the north got divided into strong regional kingdoms (except for a brief period from 606 to 647 under the poet king Harshavardhan). This was the time that the Rajputs grew to prominence in the west.

Within 300 years of being founded in the 7th century, Islam had reached the western parts. But it wasn’t until the coming of Turkish-Afghan raiders like Mahmud of Ghazni (997 to 1030 AD) and Muhammad Ghauri (in 1192) that Islam made significant inroads to the heart of north India. The first Muslim empire was set up by a general of Ghauri’s, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, which is when the Delhi Sultanate came into being. The temptation of privileges extended to the faithful, and Hinduism’s own severe caste system made many convert.

The Delhi Sultanate was ridden with internal strife and saw no less than 5 dynasties come to power between 1206 and 1526. In 1526 a young Central Asian warlord who had already captured Kabul, set his eyes on the vast land that lay to the south. Tales of riches had reached his ears and Babur, descendent of Genghis Khan and Timurlane made good his ancestral legacy by defeating the Sultanate’s armies in the Battle of Panipat.

In a land of oppressive heat, and such a variety of people that he could hardly make sense of it, Babur founded the Mughal dynasty. Babur began the work of bringing the delicate patterns of Islamic art, the detailed craft of miniature painting, the severe symmetry of formal garden craft to Delhi. Till Aurangzeb, the 6th king of the dynasty, the Mughals had a liberal policy of religious tolerance and that helped them weave together a largely stable and tight knit kingdom that spanned a larger territory than any previously had. It was a time of plenty and emperors like Jehangir (1605-1627) and Shah Jehan (1628-1657) could focus their attentions on art, architecture and culture. It was the time when the Taj Mahal was built, as was the Red Fort, and the coffers contained the Koh-i-Noor and the ruby and emerald studded Peacock Throne. Aurangzeb’s religious zeal won him widespread resentment. The Mughal Empire began unravelling, unable to withstand the Maratha chieftain Shivaji’s guerrilla warfare. The last really effective Mughal king was Bahadur Shah (1707-1712). After him Mughal power and prestige declined steadily.

The first British East India Company officials landed in India in 1602. Eventually their interests ceased to be purely mercantile as they assumed more political roles. After the Revolt of 1857, the Crown took over the reigns and India officially came to be a part of the vast British Empire. The Raj settled into ruling this vast dominion and did so till in 1947 when the country was handed back to the leaders of the freedom movement. Gandhi and Nehru led the largely non-violent movement from the front with the backing of Congress and the entire nation. However, partly because of the British ‘divide-and-rule’ policy and internal contradictions in the national movement itself, a communal divide came to be. When India finally achieved freedom, it was combined with the trauma of partition and the formation of Pakistan - a major blow to the History of India.

Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India on 15th August 1947 at the head of a Congress government. The Congress hegemony ended in the late 60s, but it came to power intermittently through the 70s and 80s. The Nehru legacy was strong enough to make both his daughter Indira (who declared the infamous internal Emergency), and grandson Rajiv, Prime Minister. In the 90s the era of coalition politics had begun and democracy had come of age.


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