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Indian History - Introduction

India's extraordinary history is intimately tied to its geography. A meeting ground between the East and the West, it has always been an invader's paradise, while at the same time its natural isolation and magnetic religions allowed it to adapt to and absorb many of the peoples who penetrated its mountain passes. No matter how many Persians, Greeks, Chinese nomads, Arabs, Portuguese, British and other raiders had their way with the land, local Hindu kingdoms invariably survived their depradations, living out their own sagas of conquest and collapse. All the while, these local dynasties built upon the roots of a culture well established since the time of the first invaders, the Aryans. In short, India has always been simply too big, too complicated, and too culturally subtle to let any one empire dominate it for long.

Human colonization in India encompasses a span of many thousands of years and is divided into two broad periods, namely the prehistoric (before the emergence of writing) and the historic (after writing). The prehistoric period is divided into stone, bronze and iron ages. The stone age is further divided into palaeolithic, mesolithic and neolithic periods. As the name suggests, the technology in these periods was primarily based on stone. Economically, the palaeolithic and mesolithic periods represented a nomadic, hunting-gathering way of life, while the neolithic period represented a settled, food-producing way of life. Subsequently copper was introduced as a new material and this period was designated as the chalcolithic period.

The invention of agriculture, which took place about 8000 years ago, brought about dramatic changes in the economy, technology and demography of human societies. Human habitat in the hunting-gathering stage was essentially on hilly, rocky and forested regions, which had ample wild plant and animal food resources. The introduction of agriculture saw it shifting to the alluvial plains which had fertile soil and perennial availability of water. Hills and forests, which had so far been areas of attraction, now turned into areas of isolation. Agriculture led to the emergence of villages and towns and brought with it the division of society into occupational groups.

The first urbanization on the sub-continent took place during the bronze age in the arid and semi-arid region of northwest India in modern day Pakistan. Many sites are found in the valleys of the Indus and the Saraswati rivers, the latter represented by the now dry Ghaggar-Hakra bed. This urbanization is known as the Indus or Harappan civilization which flourished during 3500-1500 BC. The rest of India during this period was inhabited by neolithic and chalcolithic farmers and mesolithic hunter-gatherers.

With the introduction of iron technology about the year 1000 BC, the focus of development shifted eastward into the Indo-Gangetic divide and the Ganga valley. The location of the Mahabharata epic, which is set in the beginning of the first millennium BC, is the Indo-Gangetic divide and the upper Ganga-Yamuna doab (land between two rivers). Iron technology enabled pioneering farmers to clear the dense and tangled forests of the middle and lower Ganga plains. The focus of development now shifted further eastward to eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar which witnessed the events of the Ramayana epic and rise of the first political entities known as Mahajanapadas as also of Buddhism and Jainism.

The second phase of urbanization of India, marked by trade, coinage, script and birth of the first Indian empire, namely Magadha, with its capital at Pataliputra (modern Patna) also took place in this region in the sixth century BC. The imposition by Brahmin priests of the concepts of racial and ritual purity, pollution, restrictions on sharing of food, endogamy, anuloma (male of upper caste eligible to marry a female of lower caste) and pratiloma (female of upper caste ineligible to marry a male of lower caste) forms of marriage, karma (reaping the fruits of the actions of previous life in the present life), rebirth, varnashrama dharma (four stages of the expected hundred-year life span) and the sixteen sanskaras (ceremonies) on traditional occupational groups led to the birth of the caste system- a unique Indian phenomenon.

While the Persians and Greeks subdued the Indus Valley and the northwest, Aryan-based kingdoms continued developing in the East. In the 5th century BC, Siddhartha Gautama founded the religion of Buddhism, a profoundly influential work of human thought still espoused by much of the world. As the overextended Hellenistic sphere declined, a king known as Chandragupta swept back through the country from Magadha (Bihar) and conquered his way well into Afghanistan.

This was the beginning of one India's greatest dynasties, the Maurya. Under the great king Ashoka (268-31 BC), the Mauryan empire conquered nearly the entire subcontinent, extending itself as far south as Mysore. When Ashoka conquered Orissa, however, his army shed so much blood that the repentant king gave up warfare forever and converted to Buddhism. Proving to be as tireless a missionary as he had been as conqueror, Asoka brought Buddhism to much of central Asia. His rule marked the height of the Maurya empire, and it collapsed only 100 years after his death. After the demise of the Maurya dynasty, the regions it had conquered fragmented into a mosaic of kingdoms and smaller dynasties. The Greeks returned briefly in 150 BC and conquered the Punjab, and by this time Buddhism was becoming so influential that the Greek king Menander forsook the Hellenistic pantheon and became a Buddhist himself. The local kingdoms enjoyed relative autonomy for the next few hundred years, occasionally fighting (and often losing to) invaders from the north and China, who seemed to come and go like the monsoons. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans never made it to India, preferring to expand west instead.

In AD 319, Chandragupta II founded the Imperial Guptas dynasty, which conquered and consolidated the entire north and extended as far south as the Vindya mountains. When the Guptas diminished, a golden age of six thriving and separate kingdoms ensued, and at this time some of the most incredible temples in India were constructed in Bhubaneshwar, Konarak, and Khahurajo. It was time of relative stability, and cultural developments progressed on all fronts for hundreds of years, until the dawn of the Muslim era.

Arab traders had visited the western coast since 712, but it wasn't until 1001 that the Muslim world began to make itself keenly felt. In that year, Arab armies swept down the Khyber pass and hit like a storm. Led by Mahmud of Ghazi, they raided just about every other year for 26 years straight. They returned home each time, leaving behind them ruined cities, decimated armies, and probably a very edgy native population. Then they more or less vanished behind the mountains again for nearly 150 years, and India once again went on its way.

But the Muslims knew India was still there, waiting with all its riches. They returned in 1192 under Mohammed of Ghor, and this time they meant to stay. Ghor's armies laid waste to the Buddhist temples of Bihar, and by 1202 he had conquered the most powerful Hindu kingdoms along the Ganges. When Ghor died in 1206, one of his generals, Qutb-ud-din, ruled the far north from the Sultanate of Delhi, while the southern majority of India was free from the invaders. Turkish kings ruled the Muslim acquisition until 1397, when the Mongols invaded under Timur Lang (Tamerlane) and ravaged the entire region. One historian wrote that the lightning speed with which Tamerlane's armies struck Delhi was prompted by their desire to escape the stench of rotting corpses they were leaving behind them.

Islamic India fragmented after the brutal devastation Timur Lang left in Delhi, and it was every Muslim strongman for himself. This would change in 1527, however, when the Mughal (Persian for Mongol) monarch Babur came into power. Babur was a complicated, enlightened ruler from Kabul who loved poetry, gardening, and books. He even wrote cultural treatises on the Hindus he conquered, and took notes on local flora and fauna. Afghan princes in India asked for his help in 1526, and he conquered the Punjab and quickly asserted his own claim over them by taking Delhi. This was the foundation of the Mughal dynasty, whose six emperors would comprise most influential of all the Muslim dynasties in India.

Babur died in 1530, leaving behind a harried and ineffective son, Humayun. Humayun's own son, Akbar, however, would be the greatest Mughal ruler of all. Unlike his grandfather, Akbar was more warrior than scholar, and he extended the empire as far south as the Krishna river. Akbar tolerated local religions and married a Hindu princess, establishing a tradition of cultural acceptance that would contribute greatly to the success of the Mughal rule. In 1605, Akbar was succeed by his son Jahangir, who passed the expanding empire along to his own son Shah Jahan in 1627.

Though he spent much of his time subduing Hindu kingdoms to the south, Shah Jahan left behind the colossal monuments of the Mughal empire, including the Taj Majal (his favorite wife's tomb), the Pearl Mosque, the Royal Mosque, and the Red Fort. Jahan's campaigns in the south and his flare for extravagant architecture necessitated increased taxes and distressed his subjects, and under this scenario his son Aurungzebe imprisoned him, seeking power for himself in 1658.

Unlike his predecessors, Aurungzebe wished to eradicate indigenous traditions, and his intolerance prompted fierce local resistance. Though he expanded the empire to include nearly the entire subcontinent, he could never totally subdue the Mahrattas of the Deccan, who resisted him until his death in 1707. Out of the Mahrattas' doggedness arose the legendary figure of Shivagi, a symbol Hindu resistance and nationalism. Aurungzebe's three sons disputed over succession, and the Mughal empire crumbled, just as the Europeans were beginning to flex their own imperialistic muscles.

The Portuguese had traded in Goa as early as 1510, and later founded three other colonies on the west coast in Diu, Bassein, and Mangalore. In 1610, the British chased away a Portuguese naval squadron, and the East India Company created its own outpost at Surat. This small outpost marked the beginning of a remarkable presence that would last over 300 years and eventually dominate the entire subcontinent. Once in India, the British began to compete with the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the French. Through a combination of outright combat and deft alliances with local princes, the East India Company gained control of all European trade in India by 1769.

How a tiny island nation, thousands of miles away, came to administer a huge territory of 300 million people is one of history's great spectacles. A seemingly impossible task, it was done through a highly effective and organized system called the Raj. Treaties and agreements were signed with native princes, and the Company gradually increased its role in local affairs. The Raj helped build infrastructure and trained natives for its own military, though in theory they were for India's own defense. In 1784, after financial scandals in the Company alarmed British politicians, the Crown assumed half-control of the Company, beginning the transfer of power to royal hands.

In 1858, a rumor spread among Hindu soldiers that the British were greasing their bullets with the fat of cows and pigs, the former sacred animals to Hindus and the latter unclean animals to Muslims. A year-long rebellion against the British ensued. Although the Indian Mutiny was unsuccessful, it prompted the British government to seize total control of all British interests in India in 1858, finally establishing a seamless imperialism. Claiming to be only interested in trade, the Raj steadily expanded its influence until the princes ruled in name only.

The Raj's demise was partially a result of its remarkable success. It had gained control of the country by viewing it as a source of profit. Infrastructure had been developed, administration established, and an entire structure of governance erected. India had become a profitable venture, and the British were loath to allow the Indian population any power in a system that they viewed as their own accomplishment. The Indians didn't appreciate this much, and as the 20th century dawned there were increasing movements towards self-rule.

Along with the desire for independence, tensions between Hindus and Muslims had also been developing over the years. The Muslims had always been a minority, and the prospect of an exclusively Hindu government made them wary of independence; they were as inclined to mistrust Hindu rule as they were to resist the Raj. In 1915, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came onto the scene, calling for unity between the two groups in an astonishing display of leadership that would eventually lead the country to independence.

The profound impact Gandhi had on India and his ability to gain independence through a totally non-violent mass movement made him one of the most remarkable leaders the world has ever known. He led by example, wearing homespun clothes to weaken the British textile industry and orchestrating a march to the sea, where demonstrators proceeded to make their own salt in protest against the British monopoly. Indians gave him the name Mahatma, or Great Soul. The British promised that they would leave India by 1947.

Independence came at great cost. While Gandhi was leading a largely Hindu movement, Mohammed Ali Jinnah was fronting a Muslim one through a group called the Muslim League. Jinnah advocated the division of India into two separate states: Muslim and Hindu, and he was able to achieve his goal. When the British left, they created the separate states of Pakistan and Bangladesh (known at that time as East Pakistan), and violence erupted when stranded Muslims and Hindu minorities in the areas fled in opposite directions. Within a few weeks, half a million people had died in the course of the greatest migration of human beings in the world's history. The aging Gandhi vowed to fast until the violence stopped, which it did when his health was seriously threatened. At the same time, the British returned and helped restore order. Excepting Kashmir, which is still a disputed area (and currently unsafe for tourists), the division reached stability.

India's history since independence has been marked by disunity and intermittent periods of virtual chaos. In 1948, on the eve of independence, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. The euphoria of independence was short-lived as partition brought disastrous consequences for India in the wake of communal conflict. Partition unleashed untold misery and loss of lives and property as millions of Hindu and Muslim refugees fled either Pakistan or India. Both nations were also caught up in a number of conflicts involving the allocation of assets, demarcation of boundaries, equitable sharing of water resources, and control over Kashmir. At the same time, Indian leaders were faced with the stupendous task of national integration and economic development.

When the British relinquished their claims to paramountcy, the 562 independent princely states were given the option to join either of the two nations. A few princely states readily joined Pakistan, but the rest--except Hyderabad (the largest of the princely states with 132,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 14 million), Jammu and Kashmir (with 3 million inhabitants), and Junagadh (with a population of 545,000)--merged with India. India successfully annexed Hyderabad and Junagadh after "police actions" and promises of privileges to the rulers. The Hindu maharajah of predominantly Muslim Jammu and Kashmir remained uncommitted until armed tribesmen and regular troops from Pakistan infiltrated his domain, inducing him to sign the Instrument of Accession to India on October 27, 1947. Pakistan refused to accept the legality of the accession, and, as a result, war broke out. Kashmir remains a source of friction between the neighbors. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948, in New Delhi, by a Hindu extremist opposed to Gandhi's openness to Muslims ended the tenuous celebration of independence and deepened the hatred and mutual suspicion in Hindu-Muslim relations.

Gandhi's right-hand man, Jawarhalal Nehru, became India's first Prime Minister. Nehru was a successful leader, steering the young nation through a period of peace that was contrasted by the rule of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who fought Pakistan after it invaded two regions of India. Shastri died in 1966 after only 20 months in power, and he was succeeded by Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi.

Linguistic regionalism eventually reached a crisis stage and undermined the Congress' attempts at nation building. Whereas in the early 1920s, the Congress had deemed that the use of regional vernaculars in education and administration would facilitate the governance of the country, partition made the leaders, especially Nehru, realize how quickly such provincial or subnational interests would dismantle India's fragile unity. However, in the face of widespread agitation for linguistic separation of states, beginning with the Telangana Movement in 1953, in 1956 Nehru reluctantly accepted the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission, and the number of states grew by reorganization along linguistic lines. The states became the loci for democratization of political processes at district levels, for expression of regional culture and popular demands against a national culture and unity, for economic development at strategic localities in the rural areas, and for proliferation of opposition parties that ended the possibility of a pan-Indian two-party system.

Economic backwardness was one of the serious challenges that India faced at independence. Under three successive five-year plans, inaugurated between 1951 and 1964 under Nehru's leadership, India produced increasing amounts of food. Although food production did not allow self-sufficiency until fiscal year 1984, India emerged as the nation with the seventh largest gross national product in the world.

With the name Gandhi (though no relation to Mahatma), Indira was a powerful, unchallenged leader, and opposition remained negligible until she abused her power by trying to suppress the press. When the rising opposition began to threaten her power, she called a state of emergency and continued to reform the nation, actually making some positive economic and political changes despite her questionable tactics. Her most unpopular policy was forced sterilization, and she was eventually defeated at the polls in 1977 by Morarji Desai of the Jenata party. She won back power in '79, however, but was later assassinated in 1984 by a Sikh terrorist. Although India's political climate remains divisive, the country has attained apparent stability in recent years. Today, India seems poised to realize its potential as an international economic power.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:14:02 ZULU