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
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
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
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 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
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.