Story of Ancient India


This article covers The Story of Indian peninsula and its history from pre-historic age to start of Mughal Empire in India, its not an history write-up rather my understanding  through accounts of various historians and archaeologists of evolution which this peninsula had gone through. Typically 3500 BCE to 1526 AD (5000 years)

Pre-Historic Period (Bronze Age)

Around 3500 BCE was the period when the human settlements around river Indus (Sindhu) had started to organize themselves and realizing the stability of life around Indus river.  If we look at the geography of this region, this valley has got major source of water through Indus, Jhelum and Chenab river. So the natives to these area started building their lives in this valley, although its significantly evident in Harrapa and Mohenjo-daro but I am sure there must have been more such settlements in this entire valley. Slowly by the end of 3rd millennium BCE this civilization gained maturity in terms of urbanization, improving the way of living and matured idea of society life. It was the same period when Egyptian Pharaohs were building Pyramids and by-virtue it signifies that these two ancient civilizations had nothing in common due to lack of cultural exchange. Egyptian history during this period has got evidences of weapons, wars and conflicts for possession but there is no such concrete evidence in Indus Valley civilization. There is also no evidences of monotheistic believes, for that matter any other belief. This also relates to the fact that the living was in peace and were in prosperity.

The civilization that we have evidence of around modern-day India and Pakistan is the Indus Valley Civilization, and it’s right around the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan and northwest India.

As historians say, 2nd millennium till mid 1st millennium BCE was mature period of Indus Valley civilization, a mature Harappan Phase, wherein large cities and urban areas emerged and the civilization expanded, precisely the period when Vedic Era and construction of cast system started to take shape in society. It might have been an influence of other peoples. This next significant period in the history of South Asia, and it involves the migration or the introduction of another group of people, we believe another group of people, and that’s the Indo-Aryans. Indo-Aryans, also referred to as just the Aryans, who we believe began to migrate into modern-day Pakistan and northwest India at right about the same time that the Indus Valley Civilization was declining. Some historians actually believe maybe Indus Valley Civilization declined because of them. Maybe it was some type of an invasion, although this theory is not as widely held anymore. Some historians believe that the Indus Valley Civilization and this Indo-Aryan migration somehow merged. But this period that we’re talking about, with the migration of these Indo-Aryans, this is called the Vedic Period.

Iron Age

It’s called the Vedic Period because we learn about it from a collection of literary works that we get from that time, most famously the Vedas.
Veda comes from Sanskrit, Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas and Vedas, in Sanskrit, means: knowledge. They’re the foundation of, one, what we know about the Vedic Period, but they’re also the foundation of modern Indian culture and religion. The primary pieces of the Vedas are the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. The Rigveda in particular is considered the oldest of the Vedas. It’s believed that it was composed around the early part of that Vedic Period, between maybe 1500 BCE and around 1200 BCE. We’re talking between 3,000 and 3500 years ago, while these three Vedas we believe were composed later. Now, these Indo-Aryans, it’s believed, were essentially pastoralists; they were cattle herders, perhaps nomadic. But as they began to settle not just the Indus River Valley, they actually began to settle the entire Gangetic Plain, which would include this area, which would be northeast India as well as countries like Bangladesh. The Indus and the Ganges are two of the most significant rivers in this area but as they started to settle the Gangetic Plain they also became more traditional farmers. Its believed that the two significant Hindu epics, we believe the events happened around that late Vedic Period. The events of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Now, the Vedas and these epic poems were originally orally transmitted. But then, later, either in the late Vedic Period or after the Vedic Period was when they were actually written down. Just so you have some context here, Sanskrit is considered one of the oldest Indo-European languages we have. Just more about Indo-European languages in a little bit, because it turns out that Sanskrit is related to European languages like Greek and Latin and even Germanic languages. Sanskrit is one of the oldest, alongside Mycenaean Greek and the Hittite Language. Those were all contemporary civilizations of around this period right over here, in the Second Millennium BCE. Just so have you context, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, his life was in one of these Vedic kingdoms in the northeast of India. Now, as I mentioned, the Vedas laid the foundation for much of what we consider to be modern-day India. In fact, the first documented reference to the Indus River we have from the Vedas.

The Indus Valley Civilization, we haven’t been able to decipher their writing. They didn’t wrote down the word Indus. It was in the Vedas that we have the word Sindhu, and Sindhu was later changed or mispronounced or pronounced differently into other words that we now associate with India. Words like Hindu, Indus, and India, they all derived from Sindhu, which was the River referred to in the Vedas, and then changed into Hindu, Indus, and things like India. Now, also in the Vedas is the first time that we have reference to a stratified social structure, and we see that with the Varnas that are referred to. You could view these as social roles or classes. At the top you have the Brahmins: the priests, the scholars, and the teachers. Then the next you have the kings and the warriors referred to as the Kshatriyas. Then the Vaishyas, who are the farmers, the merchants, the artisans. Then the Shudras: the labourers. Now, some historians and Vedic scholars believe that these reference to the Varnas were added after the Vedic Period to things like the Rigveda; and some believe that these weren’t traditional casts, as it’s sometimes perceived today, but just a reference to different social strata, that it wasn’t necessarily inherited. We are not actually sure about that, but just to give a feel of what was in the Rigveda.

I encourage you to go look at the actual primary text, and there’s a lot out there to read. It includes prayers; it includes praise of the gods; it includes rituals; but it also has a lot of interesting philosophy. I find it really interesting because it shows a fairly mature philosophical attitude. This is actually the origin hymn, and this is just a part of it. We’re talking about the origin of the universe. “Who really knows? “Who will here proclaim it? “Whence was it produced? “Whence is this creation? “Gods came afterward, with the creation of this universe. “Who then knows whence it has arisen? “Whether God’s will created it, or whether He was mute. “Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. “Only He who is the overseer in highest heaven knows. “Only He knows, or perhaps He does not know.” I just find it interesting because it takes a very philosophical view towards this very fundamental question of the origin of the actual universe.

Coming back to the Vedic Period, very important period in India. It really lays the foundation for what we consider to be modern Hinduism, modern-day India. It starts as really a Bronze-Age civilization, but as we get into the later Vedic Period, we see them smelting iron, and creating iron tools, and things like that. The language of the Vedas, the Sanskrit, when Western scholars started to discover it.

This era of 9th Century to 5th century BCE was the period when the Vedic arrangement in this peninsula gets some more thoughts of divulgence giving new ideas to life and being, giving source to religion like Jainism and Buddhism and are the oldest practiced religions in the world. This changed the entire dynamics and also consolidation to monotheistic culture. This period was also the start and consolidation of Great Kingdoms in shape of Janpads and MahaJanpads.

The southern part of this peninsula, where the Dravidians, native to this land, were also  experiencing dynasties like Pandyas and some smaller establishments culturally accumulative and sufficient. Its this period when expansion drive from Indo-Aryan lands having been consolidated into  Janpads, crossed the Vindhys and started their influence to some extent. The story of southern India moreover remains self sufficient with respect to outside influence in this era whereas the northern peninsula started experiencing invasions of bloody nature from west and first known invasion happened in this era from Persian region. The current region of Punjab (Indo-Pak) and Sindh (Pakistan) has started absorbing the outside influence after King Darius from Persia expanded to this region and included this region in scope for the upcoming invasive migrations from his land.

The most prominent and important event in the history of inter-civilization exchange happened in this region with the onset of Alexander in first quarter of 3rd century BCE, where his army intruded but never established themselves in this region but started an era of Indo-Greek influence, at almost in the same era when Chandragupta (Maurya) was on his way to establish the Great Mauryan Empire.

Mauryan Empire (Medieval Period)

Chandragupta being a Jain by religion gave a boost to non Vedic ideology and the homogeneity of Indo-Greek continued to an extent that he even married to Macedonian general’s daughter. His son Bindusara consolidated the empire and passed his legacy to “The Great Ashok”, is what he is called, who not only held the empire but also expanded it. This was the Mauryan period in 3rd-2nd century BCE when the boundaries expanded along with propagation of Buddhism and Jainism. Ashok even called “Chand Ashok” because of his bloody expeditions, but later while at his consolidation phase, he institutionalized cultural exchange which gave enough space to Greeks, who had already gained and adopted from Egyptians. 

There has been much similarities of the extent of influence from Achaemenid Empire (a Persian empire) to Lion Capital of Ashoka which especially shows obvious Achaemenid and Sargonid connection. Mauryans and Academicians had been in close contact since the Achaemenid conquest of the Indus Valley, from 500 BCE till 300 BCE.

The subsequent phase of 2nd century BCE for next 500 years, Indian historians termed it as “Dark Age”, but with account of Buddhist texts, this period was the transformation phase of history of this region.

Post Mauryan ERA

On the northern side of this peninsula, Indo-Greeks / Bactrians had a stable influence and it gave start to SAKA era which had an enormous influence which is still evident. The Hindu calendar in current form named as Saka calendar. Sakas were migrant tribe from north-central-asia also called Scythians who in turn were in great influence of Thracian and other nomadic tribes of region around black sea, caspian  sea and mediterranean sea.

This dark age as so called because of no single empire in this region rather was the age of, Sakas in north-west, Shungas in north-east and Satavahanas in central and southern part of this peninsula who collectively created a mixed culture and the era was moreover peaceful, in my view this 500 years had a very healthy period of cultural and knowledge exchange.

The book Indica written by Megasthenese mention a powerful tribe named Andarae possibly is identified with the Andhras, considered evidence of Satavahana rule in the 1st century BCE.  Apart Megasthenese the most prominent extract of history of this era comes from Jain and Buddhist texts. This era of 500+ years gave a boost to culture, language and possibly start to Hinduism evolved from Vedic arrangement after the end of Mauryan empire in the period of Dark age (called so by Indian historians) and by the rise of Satavahanas, a Dravidian expansion from mid-southern peninsula. Its a debatable subject but the texts from this era suggests so, that this era from of another 250+ years (1st century BCE to 2nd century CE) also gave precedence to Hinduism over Buddhism and Jainism and led further precedence of persecution of these religions forcing them be exiled to surrounding regions.

(This peninsula being origin place of Jainism and Buddhism, have very less population as there are many views of Buddhist persecution in this region and even their temples converted to Hindu temples.)

This is the same era around end of 1st century BCE when Roman Empire started taking shape, though Roman empire’s influence in this peninsula was none, but it had given fire and fuel to current day middle eastern world to be aggressive on the approach of existence and supremacy.

Common ERA (CE) or mostly termed as AD (Anno Domini) As we all know, as per our current, universally accepted Gregorian Calendar, a upgraded version of Roman Calendar reckoned the year of the birth of Jesus Christ, with AD counting years from the start of this epoch. 

The area around mediterranean sea was fully under the umbrella of Roman Empire and even had foot holds into Egypt as well, their being also opened trade across the lands and oceans, established permanent trade routes to the eastern world. This peninsular region during the late 1st century BCE and early periods of Common Era was quietly absorbing within the region. The 1st century CE (or AD) left a huge impact and influence on globe with the start of monotheistic belief into a new Abrahamic religion named “Christianity”.

While in the same period Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian, Indo-Scythians and Satavahanas were into conquest for dominance. The Kushan dynasty in particular had diplomatic and trade contacts with the Romans, Persians,  Aksumites (North-East Africa) and Hans (China).

In the third century CE a major shift in power happened with the rise of Gupta Empire, the most important tenure or reign also also called by some historians as the Golden Age of History.

Gupta Empire

In first quarter of 3rd century CE, started by Sri Gupta succeeded by Chandragupta-I (different from Chandragupta from Mauryan empire) then by Samudragupta, the 4th century CE was the period of expansion and consolidation by Guptas which was majorly done by Samudragupta and Chandragupta II also known as Vikramaditya and this era of Gupta setup Hindu dominance to this region along side Cholas who continued their dominance to southern part of peninsula.

Culture, art and knowledge sharing peaked in this era and many of the mythological literary such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, were written/re-written during this period. Kalidasa, Aryabhata, and Vatsyayana who made academic fields such as science, art and culture to new heights. The poems of Purans, are also supposedly written around this period.

With fall of Gupta empire during 6th century which later was somewhat consolidated by Harshvardhan in 7th century, this was an important period in world history where there were huge consolidation of nomadic tribes happening in entire region around middle eastern world as is the period of start of third Abrahamic religion “Islam” which changed the entire dynamics of entire world.

By the end of seventh century, this region was divided where Chalukyas dominated south west and central peninsula, Cholas/Pandyas in south and a fragmented north and eastern region in terms of stability in post Gupta empire.  The next 100 years [ 8th century ] was a bloody period where the dynamics of middle eastern World has changed and Islamic consolidation was formalised, the rule of Khalifa (Caliphate) was established. The same period of time when Indian peninsula were divided into, if not less, more than 15 kingdoms and also in the middle of 8th century, first Islamic invasion happened and from there on north peninsula experiences multiple invasions from Arab and Persian region. South peninsula was mostly secured by Chalukyas and Cholas.

The events of invasion by different Commanders under Caliphate continued for next 250-300 years first by Muhammad Bin Quasim and then by various commanders. Mahmud Ghazni  was one of the notable regular invader to Pubjab and Sindh region with only intention of increasing their wealth for their conquests. While Chola and Chalukya kings during their reign were extending their influences and were one of the most powerful dynasties in Asia during his period. This southern dynasty has the greatest influence in current form of Hinduism being practiced as they were least exposed to cultural exchange from persian and arab world.

Historians believe that this period of Post Gupta Empire till 1000 CE also called Early medieval India was the period of Start and rise of Hinduism, where earlier influences of Indo-Scythian, Indo-Greek cultures got homogeneous adaption into native Dravidians resulting current day practices of Hinduism.

Delhi Sultanate

Prior to the rise of Muhammad, Arab world was dominated by self governing nomadic tribes with polytheistic believes and after the unification of these tribes under Islam, the region became unified and most of the tribes adopted Islam with formation of Caliphate (Khalifa) who’s generals and commanders expanded their territories for about 500 years. Indian peninsula started experiencing these, as early as, middle of 8th century and formally with multiple invasions of Muhammad of Ghor by end of 12th century, these Persians formally extended their territory further to Punjab and Sindh region to current day Delhi to formally establish The Delhi Sultanate. It started with Mamluk (Slave) dynasty who’s rulers were no more invaders, rather they settled on this area and further started consolidation to other parts of Indian peninsula. The boundaries of this Sultanate kept varying for next 200 years as its rulers, mostly Turks/Persians, kept on changing. Major dynasties in this next 200 years were Slave, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayed and finally Lodi.

During this period of Delhi Sultanate, Khilji and Tughlaq era were most effective ones and also had the major control over the peninsula, South India continued its immunity with northern invaders, especially Vijayanagar empire who continued their legacy with previous Chola, Pandya, Chalukas etc.

Ever-since the trade routes flourished between Europe – through – Middle East to China, it had also opened doors for the Mangols (descendants  of Genghis Khan) and to keep striking in the north-western part of this peninsula, Khilji’s fought several battles to keep them away from this land and.  The era of Delhi Sultanate during Tughlaqs were the most prosperous in terms of trade and development also this period of 200 years were full of conflicts between then kingdoms, for survival and religious reluctance.

This period was also part of a trending spread of Islam. During and in the Delhi Sultanate, there was a composition of native civilization with that of Islam and the further integration had a significant impact on Indian culture and society. This era, inculcated a mixed culture, greater use of mechanics, economic growth and the emergence of the Hindi and Urdu language and on the flip side started a permanent religious divide which is still a major cause of conflict. This Islamic conquest further continued post Lodi era when Mughals (Mongols) take control of the sultanate and the start of Mughal era in this region.

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