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India - Historical Setting

All maps are lies. This timeline table vastly over-simplifies the history of India, depicting the forest but not the trees. Other more granular timeline tables are possible, and largely incomprehnsible to those who are not students of this field.

Indus Valley
North India
Ganges Valley
South India
Deccan / Ghats
2500 BC 1900 BC Indus
1900 BC 1500 BC
1500 BC 1000 BC Rig-Vedic Period
1000 BC 600 BC
700 BC
600 BC
700 BC
400 BC Achaemenid / Persian Sixteen Mahajanapadas
320 BC 184 Alexander the Great
Indo-Greek Kingdom
Mauryan Period Sangam Period

200 BC 320 AD Kushan / Indo-Scythian Period Middle Kingdoms
Indo-Parthian Kingdom
320 550 Southern Kingdoms
465 552
510 650 Rai Dynasty Vardhana period
648 AD 1192 AD Umayyad Caliphate

Ghaznavid Empire
Rajput Period Imperial Cholas

Eastern Chalukyas
1211 1527 Dehli Sultanate Vijayanagar period

Bahmani Sultanate
1504 1857 Mughal Empire

Southern Kingdoms

Qutb Shahi
Nizams of Hyderabad
1857 1947 British Raj
1947 India's Freedom

History has two eyes – one is chronology and the other is geography. In other words time and space are significant factors in determining the historical process. In particular, a country’s geography largely determines its historical events. The history of India is also influenced by its geography. Hence, the study of Indian geographical features contributes to the better understanding of its history. India is crossed from east to west by the Vindhya chain of mountains, at the base of which flows the Nerbudda.

The country to the north of this river is generally designated Hindostan, and that to the south the Deccan. The paramount power in early times, when it existed, invariably had its seat in Northern India — the region of the Gangetic plain lying to the north of the great barrier of jungle-clad hills which shut off the Deccan from Hindustan. That barrier may be defined conveniently as consisting of the Vindhyan ranges; or may be identified, still more compendiously, with the river Narmada, or Nerbudda, which falls into the Gulf of Cambay. The ancient kingdoms of the south, although rich and populous, inhabited by Dravidian nations not inferior in culture to their Aryan rivals in the north, were ordinarily so secluded from the rest of the civilized world, including Northern India, that their affairs remained hidden from the eyes of other nations; and, native annalists being lacking, their history, previous to the year 1000 of the Christian era, has almost wholly perished.

In Europe history was divided into sacred and profane history, another name for profane history being civil history, or the account of the rise and progress of civil society in different nations. Sacred History was that which was contained in the Holy Scriptures, or the Old and New Testaments. Profane History was divided for convenience, into Ancient, Medieval, and Modern history. Medieval signifies a middle era or period; instead of medieval history, sometimes the history of the "middle ages" is used. Everything from the fall of the Roman Empire in 456 to the beginning of the rennaissance around 1450 was termed medieval. Chinese history is periodized by the rise and fall of Dynasties, which is a reassuringly parsimonious periodization, even if the earlier dynasties are entirely fictional.

James Mill in 1818 provided a Tripartite periodization of Indian history, when he divided it into Hindu, muslim and British period. This tripartite division was replaced by the Indian nationalist historians to Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, that is, Hindu, Muslim, and British. The periodization, as was done by early nationalist historians, was mostly based on the dynastic histories. Chauvinistic Hindu nationalism violently replays this periodization, as it grants to modern Hindusim the pedigree of all that came before the Muslims, glossing over the Buddhist interlude, and confounding modern Hinduism with ancient and rather different Brahminican practices. The history of Medieval India is said by one writer to run from 1000 AD to 1707 AD, by another 1000-1526, by a third 1200-1500, while yet another writer places the history of Medieval India under Mohammedan rule to run from 712 to 1764.

There are of course further divisions of these periods. This more granular pattern of periodization gives great importance to ruling dynasties and foreign invasions and is based, presumably, on the professed religions of the dynasties of northern India. The Mauryan period (322 BC-185 BC) was followed by a period of foreign invasions (Greeks, Shakas, Pahlavas, Kushanas, etc.). This period, mainly known for the Shaka, Kushana and Satavahana dynasties, appears to have no accepted name, though the term Middle Kingdoms seems appropriate. The following period is known as the Gupta period (320 AD-600 AD).

The principal materials from which to construct a purely Hindu history are to be found in the four Vedas, the two epics of the Maha Bharata and Ramayana, the laws of Manu, and the eighteen puranas. Of these the most important are the hymns of the Rig-Veda, the two epics, and the laws of Manu. It has, however, been asserted by friendly critics, that these two volumes, however interesting in themselves, ought not to be called history; that properly speaking they are not history, but prolegomena to history. Possibly such criticisms are correct. But still the Maha Bharata and Ramayana are accepted by the people of India as history; and the two former volumes have enjoyed an extensive popularity among Hindu readers, as well as among those Europeans who are familiar with India. At the same time some knowledge of the Vedic hymns, and especially of the laws of Manu, is essentially needful to a right understanding of Vedic and Brahmanic India.

The chronology of events of Indian history is very complex, and history books often present this chronology in such a way as to render a synoptic view of Indian history extremely difficult. A history of India, if it is to be read, must necessarily be the story of the predominant dynasties, and either ignore, or relegate to a very subordinate position, the annals of the minor states. Twice, in the long series of centuries, the political unity of all India was nearly attained; first, in the third century BC, when Asoka's empire extended almost to the latitude of Madras; and again, in the fourth century AD, when Samudragupta carried his victorious arms from the Ganges to the borders of the Tamil country. Other princes, although their conquests were less extensive, yet succeeded in establishing, and for a time maintaining, empires which might fairly claim to rank as paramount powers.

It is worthy of note that the exploration of practically the whole of India had been completed in or about the 4th century BC and the people felt the necessity of a comprehensive term for the territory extending from the Himalayas in the north to the sea in the south. The term was Jambudvipa that was then used. In Sanskrit Buddhist texts we have references to Jambudvipa. The Minor Rock Edict No. 1 of Ashoka mentions Jambudvipa that denotes the vast country ruled by the great emperor. By the 6th and 7th centuries of the Christian era the whole of the Indian continent with its major divisions and sub-divisions, cities, countries, provinces, rivers, mountains, etc., had become widely known to its people. In fact, Claudius Ptolemy’s “Geographica” written in the 2nd century AD gives detailed information about towns, rivers and mountains of India and their coordinates that in many respects is surprisingly accurate. Since the Greek and Macedonian visitors saw little of the country for themselves, this information must have come from local inhabitants who knew their country well.

At no period perhaps did the country acknowledge sovereignty of one power so completely as under the British. On the other hand it appears to have been divided into a large number of kingdoms and principalities with rulers of their own, who sometimes owed a nominal allegiance to a common head, but were otherwise independent sovereigns within their respective territories. In the time of the Mahabharata there were upwards of two hundred and fifty kingdoms and principalities, both Aryan and Non-aryan. Megasthenes the great ambassador at the court of Chandra Gupta, king of Pataliputra, says that India comprised one hundred and twenty two kingdoms. Hiouen Thsang, the Chinese traveller, reckoned seventy in India proper. Each of these kingdoms was independent.

Sometimes a hero or conqueror appeared and brought the neighboring princes under control. In most of these cases nothing beyond a tribute in money or kind was exacted of the vanquished, who were left untouched in the internal administration of their territories. Usually, however, the conqueror satisfied himself with a general plunder of the enemy's capital, and never thought of the expensive and troublesome question of retaining the country for the purpose of government. It was in this way that a kingdom which was overun by a powerful neighbor or had its chief killed In battle, did not for that fact alone lose its independence.

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