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History of India

April 2, 2016

Ancient Indian history in a nutshell
- Padma Mohan Kumar, freelance writer

Reading Indian history is very much like unfolding a roll of fabric with multiple hues and designs. Right from the dawn of time, India had been exposed to other cultures either due to migration, invasion or trade. These races included the Aryans, Greeks, the Turks, Mongols and the British.

Indian civilization traces its antiquity right back to 5000 years. The history of the country began with the birth of the Indus Valley Civilization and the Aryan invasion in the second millennium BC. These two eras are described as the pre-Vedic and the Vedic periods. The beginning of the Indus Valley civilization can be traced back to 2500 BC. The people who occupied the Indus river valley were thought to be Dravidians.  Their descendants migrated to South India.

The Aryan tribes came in from the north-west frontier. They started moving towards the east and settled along the banks of the Ganga and the Yamuna. These tribes merged to give rise to the Sanskrit-speaking Vedic civilization. This era which witnessed the birth of Hinduism spanned the centuries from 1500 BC to 500 BC.

By 500 BC the people of Northern India had acquired knowledge of iron implements. A number of states had risen up with increasing populations and abundance of wealth. Border disputes between these states were quite frequent.

The famous Mauryan dynasty lasted from 322–185 BCE. Founded by Chandragupta Maurya, the empire occupied entire north-western India. It was one of the largest empires in its time. Under the rule of Chandragupta and his successors, trade and agriculture flourished. The empire enjoyed peace and prosperity. Chandragupta was a follower of Jainism. The greatest monarch of this dynasty was Asoka, the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. Buddhism flourished under Asoka’s rule (273 - 232 BCE). The decline set in about 50 years after his death.

The rule of the next line of kings, which was the Gupta dynasty, spanned a period starting from the 3rd century CE till the 6th CE. It was a golden era in Indian history. This dynasty was originally founded by Sri Gupta in 270 CE. He was a petty ruler in Magadha who established Pataliputra as his capital. His rule lasted till 290 CE. But the might of the Gupta dynasty was built up by his successors.

His grandson who also had the name Chandragupta (ie Chandragupta the 1st) was a renowned warrior and conqueror. He and after him, his son Samudragupta extended their control over the neighbouring kingdom through both marriage alliances and conquests. Chandragupta appointed Samudragupta as his successor sometime in 330 CE. By the year 380 CE the empire had stretched eastwards to include present day Myanmar, all kingdoms right up to the Himalayas in the north including Nepal and the whole Indus Valley in the west. The Guptas allowed the vanquished rulers of the distant territories to continue as vassal rulers. Under the Guptas, administration achieved an unsurpassed standard of excellence. The entire empire was unified under the monarchy. The dynasty lasted till the end of the 6th century.

After the fall of the Gupta Empire, the next great Emperor was Harshavardhana who brought Northern India under his sway. His capital was at Kannauj from where he ruled his empire for 41 years (606 CE till 647 CE). At the height of his power, his military resources consisted of an army of 100,000 cavalry and 60,000 elephants. However he received a setback when he was defeated by the south Indian emperor Pulakesin II of the Chalukya dynasty.

Harsha’s empire enjoyed a long period of prosperity under his rule. His administration was just, and he spared no efforts to ensure that the poor benefited. Officials were paid regularly and merchants could travel freely in his empire. Land revenue was fixed at one-sixth of the land produce. Taxation was light.

The Later Dynasties
The other important dynasties of the period were the Pala, Rashtrakuta, Chalukya, Chola, and the Pandya dynasties

The Palas and after them, the Senas
ruled Bengal. The Pala king Dharmapala ruled from the late 8th century CE till the early 9th century CE. He founded Nalanda University and Vikramshila University. This dynasty lasted till the middle of the 12th century, when they were overthrown by the Senas.

With the decline of the Palas, the Sena dynasty succeeded to the throne of Bengal. This dynasty was founded by Samantasena. The greatest conqueror of this dynasty was Vijayasena who captured the whole of Bengal. He was succeeded by his son Ballalasena who kept his empire intact though he was a scholarly and a peace-loving king. The last ruler of this dynasty was Lakshmanasena who failed to stave off the Muslim invasion, which led to the collapse of the kingdom.
The illustrious Rashtrakuta dynasty, which ruled from Karnataka over a vast area, was famed not only for its military prowess but also for the encouragement given to learning. The kings were great lovers of art and literature. Under their rule religious tolerance was practiced throughout the empire.

The Rashtrakuta kings came into conflict with the Pratihara dynasty of the north and the Pala kings of Bengal. The Pala kingdom had its capital at Monghyr, the Gurjara Pratihara's capital was at Kannauj, while the Rashtrakuta's capital was at Manyakhet.  These three powers had dominated east, north and central India during the 8th and 9th centuries.

Both the Palas and the Rashtrakutas wanted to capture the city of Kannauj from the Pratiharas so that they could control the upper Gangetic valley which was not only agriculturally prosperous but had abundant resources. The Pratiharas clashed with the Rashtrakutas over Gujarat and Malwa while the wealthy area extending from Benaras to South Bihar formed the bone of contention between the Palas and the Pratiharas.

The struggle for supremacy between these three powers during the 8th and 9th centuries greatly weakened them as it emboldened their feudatory states to assert their independence. By the middle of the 10th century all the three powers were in a state of decline.

In 1018 CE the Turkish invader, Mahmud of Ghazni invaded and plundered Kannauj. This led to the disintegration of the Gurjara Pratihara Empire and the establishment of independent Rajput states. The Rashtrakutas had been supplanted by the Chalukyas in the western Deccan. The Pala dynasty was succeeded by the Sena dynasty which was ultimately overthrown by the Muslim invaders. As a result of the decline of the three great powers, northern India broke up into several small states.

The Cholas
The Chola Empire of the south which had been established in the middle of the 9th century CE, covered a large part of Indian peninsula, as well as parts of Sri Lanka and the Maldives Islands. It was a major power. The important kings of this dynasty were Rajaraja Chola I and his son and successor Rajendra Chola.  They carried out the policy of annexation. Rajaraja Chola led expeditions to Bengal, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. The later Chola kings were weak and inefficient rulers and could not prevent the decline of the empire. It finally came to an end with the invasion of Malik Kafur, a Turkish slave in the early 14th century.

The Pändyas / Pandyas
The Pandyan dynasty was among the dominant powers of the south. The source of the word ‘Pandyan’ has given rise to much discussion and debates among scholars. Some believe that it could have originated from the word ‘Pandavas’.  The early Pandyas were believed to have fought on the side of the Pandavas during the war at Kurukshetra. Others feel that the name could have come from the term ‘Pandi’ which was the original name of the Tamil kingdom. According to yet another theory, Pandya originated from the word ‘Pandi’ which means bull. The ancient Tamil belief was that the bull was a symbol for masculinity.

The Pandya kingdom comprised certain regions which are now in present-day Tamilnadu.  Historical evidence suggests that the dynasty had established friendly relations with Roman Empire as far back as 550 BC. The other countries with whom the Pandyans had diplomatic ties were Greece, China and Egypt under Ptolemy. The Pandyas had friendly relations with the Mauryas in Northern India. Travellers such as Yu Huan and Marco Polo mentioned the riches of the Pandyan kingdom in their works. During the early years this dynasty was vanquished by the Kalabhras, but in the 6th century their fortunes revived when Emperor Kadungon inflicted a defeat on the Kalabhras and ascended the throne. Initially, their capital was at Korkai a seaport on the southernmost tip of India but later on the capital was shifted to Madurai. They controlled the areas corresponding to modern day Madurai and Tirunelveli and certain areas in southern Kerala.

Trade flourished during Pandyan rule. Business was carried on with countries as far off as Greece and Rome. The important ports were Dhanushkodi, the seashore of Ramanathapuram and Poompuhar. The Pandyan kingdom was famous for the pearl fisheries along the South Indian coast. However in the 9th century CE they were vanquished by the Cholas only to revive again in the 12th century. The Pandyas met with their ultimate defeat at the hands of Malik Kafur, a general of the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji in 1311 CE. They subsequently became a part of the Vijayanagar Empire. Later on they were reduced to the status of local chieftains who owned some land around Tirunelveli.