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History of India

Early History
Invasions and empires to A.D. 500
From A.D. 500 to the Mughal Empire
The arrival of Europeans
British India
Independent India



From A.D. 500 to the Mughal Empire

Hunas and Rajputs. Between 470 and 520, China, India, and the Roman world were faced by a new threat from the Huna, or Huns, of central Asia. These people were descendants of the earlier Turkish-speaking warriors, and they were near-invincible in battle. They could shoot arrows while mounted on horseback and riding fast, and their tough war horses enabled them to campaign rapidly. The Hunas founded major kingdoms in Europe, for example in Hungary, and also moved into India. 

The last Gupta ruler to hold out against the Hunas was Skandagupta (about 454-467). The remnants of Gupta power in northern India were wiped out by the Huna ruler Mihirakula (520), although he was eventually defeated and driven out to Kashmir. 

The Hunas were followed by other central Asian nomads. These people lived by herding horses, camels, and sheep. They refused to settle down in villages and cultivate land as the bulk of the Indian population did. The newcomers followed their traditional occupation of animal herding in the dry desert regions of Rajasthan. Eventually the descendants of the nomads were incorporated into Hindu society. 

Scholars believe that the various tribes and clans of Rajputs, the warrior rulers, chiefs, and landowners of northern India, were descended from the original Huna people. The Hunas also imported a large quantity of gold from central Asia, and gave their name to a particular type of gold coin.

Harsha. The last great Hindu king of India was Harsha, who reigned from 606 to 647. Harsha's biography was written by his court poet, the Sanskritic writer Bana. Life in India during Harsha's rule was also described by a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim called Hsuan Tsang. 

Harsha ruled for 41 years. He was lord over the rulers of the Punjab, Kashmir, Nepal, and central India. However, unlike the Guptas, Harsha was not able to extend his power to southern India, which was ruled at that time by three powerful dynasties, the Pallavas, Pandyas, and Cholas. The Cholas were a formidable military power on land and sea.

Expansion of Indian influence. Hindu Sanskritic culture was not able to expand much beyond Afghanistan, because of the influence of the powerful Persian and Greek-Roman civilizations. Buddhism, which had its spiritual roots in Nepal, did spread to central Asia and China through the northern trade routes from India. However, it was in the eastern Indian Ocean and in southern India that ancient Indian civilization expanded most of all. 

From about the 600's, Brahmanic and Buddhist influence began to spread to Southeast Asia, to the ancient island kingdoms of Java, Sumatra, and what is now Indochina. Southeast Asian princes built Hindu and Buddhist temples modelled on the Indian pattern. They also adopted Indian court traditions. There were close political, commercial, and artistic links between the Chola kings and the rulers of Sumatra. But relations were not always friendly. An inscription dated 1025 claims that one of the greatest kings of the Chola dynasty, Rajendrachola (1014-1044), led a naval expedition to the Sumatran kingdom of Srivijaya and defeated its ruler. Such an expedition across the dangerous Bay of Bengal would not have been possible without mastery of the sea routes and shipbuilding technology gained over many centuries in the course of trade between India and Southeast Asia. 

The intellectual and artistic vigour of Hindu India was noted by foreign visitors. These travellers included Chinese pilgrims visiting Buddhist holy places, and Muslim Arabs who went to India to trade and to spread their religion, Islam.

The coming of Islam. At first, Islam had spread as the Arabs moved from Arabia toward the Mediterranean and the Iranian highlands. But in 712 the Muslims sent an overland military expedition to Sind. This expedition, by the Umayyad caliph in Damascus, succeeded in founding an Islamic kingdom in that part of India. Sind was an important trading area. Goods from India passed through its port of Daybul, at the mouth of the Indus River, to Islamic cities close to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. 

This first Muslim expedition was only a half-hearted attempt at conquest. The Arab caliphs made no serious effort to push the frontiers of Islam toward the Indian subcontinent. But commercial and cultural ties between the Islamic Middle East and India continued to grow. Many Muslim merchants trading with the ports of Gujarat and the Malabar coast settled in these cities. Eventually their families formed sizable colonies in India. The local rulers allowed the Muslims to build mosques and practise their own religion. In the 800's al-Jahiz, an Arab writer from Baghdad, left a remarkable account of Indian intellectual achievements. The Indians, he wrote, led the world in science and mathematics. "They possess a script capable of expressing the sounds of all languages, as well as many numerals. They have ... many long treatises, and a deep understanding of philosophy and letters." 

The first serious Islamic invasions of the Indian subcontinent happened between the 800's and the 1000's, under the leadership of Turkish warrior princes of Afghanistan. This period of Indian history is dominated by powerful Rajput princes. These princes had a formidable military reputation. The Arabs, particularly the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, were reluctant to come into conflict with the Rajputs.

The Hindu government system during this medieval period is often described as feudalism . The king created a large class of feudal vassals by granting land and its produce to them. These vassals gradually became either semi-independent rulers, or members of a landowning aristocracy. The divisions in India made it difficult for individual rulers, who were bitterly opposed to one another, to resist the Muslim Turkish warriors from the north.

Turkish raids. Turkish rulers in the region north of the Oxus River were looking for new areas to conquer. They themselves were under military pressure from the Mongol tribes to the northeast in central Asia. Between 1000 and 1030 Mahmud of Ghazni led a series of devastating raids into India. He was a soldier of remarkable ability, and inspired his followers with zeal for conquest and financial reward. He destroyed the magnificent temples of Kanauj, Mathura, and Somnath. These shrines had become rich in land over the centuries, and now their sacred treasures were captured by the Muslim invaders. The gold and silver looted from the Hindu temples greatly enriched Sultan Mahmud and the Ghaznavid kingdom in Afghanistan. This booty also helped the Muslim economy in the Middle East, through an increased money supply. Mahmud was less successful in maintaining a grip on his conquests. When he died in 1030, he left a kingdom in the Punjab, but the rest of India remained independent of Muslim rule.

The Delhi Sultanate. The Islamic conquest of India really began in 1192. Another Turkish ruler of Afghanistan, Muhammad of Ghor, invaded the Punjab. He defeated the Rajput chief Prithvi Raj Chauhan at the battle of Panipat. Within ten years his generals had overrun most of northern India as far as Bengal. Muhammad appointed a Turkish slave leader, Qutb al-Din Aybak, to be viceroy in Delhi. Between 1200 and 1210 this founder of the so-called "slave dynasty" consolidated Muslim conquests in India. He founded an empire, now known as the Delhi Sultanate. Like Mahmud of Ghazni, Qutb was a fanatical Muslim. He destroyed over a thousand temples in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. In Delhi, he constructed a great mosque from stones taken from ruined Hindu temples, and commemorated his victories with a column 78 metres high. 

The Rajput rulers of northern India were unable to offer any real resistance to the Delhi sultans. This was partly because they were disunited, and partly because the Turkish military tactics, based on cavalry, were new to them. Indian rulers still relied on infantry, with war-elephants to put fear into enemy troops. However, Muslim political power was mainly confined to the Ganges valley. It was not until 1294 that the Muslim rulers of Delhi began another round of political expansion in India, this time to the south. The attacks were led by the Turkish general, and later sultan, Ala-ud-din Khallji. Muslim cavalry raided the Hindu kingdoms of the Deccan and Gujarat. They even reached Madura in the southern tip of the subcontinent. Once again these military expeditions brought large financial rewards to the Delhi Sultanate in the form of tribute paid by the Hindu princes, and treasure looted from the rich cities. 

In 1258 the Mongols had conquered Baghdad and murdered the last of the Abbasid caliphs. Thereafter, the Mongols conquered large parts of the Middle East and began to turn their attention toward India. The Muslim rulers of Delhi were in danger of being overwhelmed by the Mongols. They needed money to pay for a large army. The richest coastal province of India, Gujarat, was brought under the permanent control of Delhi. Increased financial resources from the southern Indian campaigns, and a better taxation system, enabled the Delhi Sultanate to resist the Mongols.

The Tughluqs. The most famous Turkish dynasty during the period of the Delhi Sultanate is that of the Tughluqs. The founder of this dynasty was Ghiyas al-Din. When he arrived in India from central Asia, he was a poor cavalry officer. As a general in the Indian army, he won 27 battles against the Mongols. His son, Muhammad Tughluq, was a strange, possibly insane man, whose actions bewildered people. Muhammad was a tireless soldier and administrator. At court, he encouraged poets, men of learning, and artists. But he punished his enemies and opponents with deaths so cruel as to horrify everyone. Among Muhammad's administrative innovations was the introduction of a currency of copper tokens, which had the same value as silver coins. The experiment proved a costly failure. He also tried to transfer the capital from Delhi to Devagiri (renamed Daulatabad) in the Deccan to the south. He forced all the city's people to move to the new capital. But after two years, he had to return to Delhi. Muhammad was succeeded by Firuz Shah Tughluq, a just and devout ruler. For the next 50 years the Delhi Sultanate enjoyed peace and prosperity. 

This peace ended in 1398, when the ferocious Mongol conqueror Tamerlane sacked Delhi. This brought the sultanate's golden age to an end. The Muslim empire in India broke up into a number of smaller warring kingdoms, each ruled by its own sultan. 

About 1350 the Hindu state of Vijayanagar was founded on the Deccan plateau. This brought the whole of the south under Hindu control, and created a barrier against Muslim advance. The capital of the Vijayanagar Empire was one of the largest cities in India at the time. Its ruins cover an area about 15 kilometres wide. The city contained many beautiful temples, palaces, and parks with ornamental pools and water channels.

Foundation of the Mughal Empire. Historians describe the break-up of the Delhi Sultanate as an example of the alternating swing in India between fragmentation into small states and imperial unity. During the next two hundred years, the conquests of the Mughal rulers created one of the best administered, centralized empires that India had known. The first Mughal conqueror was Babar. In 1526 Babar, a descendant of Tamerlane, invaded India from Kabul, Afghanistan, and defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the Delhi sultan, at Panipat. After failing to conquer Samark in central Asia, the kingdom of his ancestors, Babar led a wandering soldier's life in Afghanistan. The conquest of Hindustan, as India was then known, promised to revive his fortunes. He was so skilful a general that within a few years he had conquered most of northern India. 

Babar died in 1530, and was succeeded by his son Humayun. This was the only period when Mughal rule in India seemed to be threatened. In 1539 Sher Shah (originally Farid, or Sher Khan), an able Muslim ruler from eastern India, defeated Humayun and drove him into exile. Sher Shah's successors fought among themselves, and this enabled Humayun and his Mughal followers to return and claim the Delhi throne in 1555. He was succeeded a year later by his son Akbar.

Akbar the Great. Akbar is remembered as the greatest of the Great Mughal emperors. He had the same qualities of leadership as Babar, and was a fine, if ferocious, soldier. He enjoyed the company of scholars and artists, and built vast monuments and palaces and entire cities. 

Akbar built a new capital at Sikri (known as Fatehpur Sikri) to mark the birth of his first son, Sultan Salim, and his conquest of Gujarat. The new capital was abandoned about ten years later, when the emperor returned to Agra, but its buildings display an impressive combination of Islamic and Hindu architecture. Akbar's conquests subdued the powerful Rajput princes, particularly after his army captured the apparently impregnable fortress of Chitor in 1567, using mines and artillery. Akbar's reorganization of the army gave the Mughal Empire in India a permanent, powerful instrument of control. But his finest achievement was the organization of a system of land taxation. This was administered by his able Hindu minister, Raja Todar Mal.

Mughal government. The wealth of the Indian princes and Indian states had always depended on taxing crops grown by peasant farmers. Agriculture was highly productive. Many areas grew two, or even three, crops a year. These included crops such as wheat, barley, and millet, as well as rice, cotton, and sugar cane, which needed a considerable quantity of water. 

Akbar and his finance ministers decided to reorganize the land taxation system and link it to the administration of the empire. This was done in two ways. Firstly, Akbar's officials made a detailed land survey to measure how much land was under cultivation, its fertility, and the kinds of crops grown. Standard rates of taxation were then imposed. The peasants cultivating the fields knew exactly how much their taxes were, and when they had to pay. Secondly, Akbar started a new administrative system known as jagirdari. A military or civil officer in charge of a district was given a certain quantity of land for a limited period, instead of being paid a salary from the central treasury. A military officer was also expected to keep a certain number of cavalry soldiers, and he had to pay for these soldiers out of his jagir, or land grant. These units of cavalry made up the Mughal standing army. The holders of the jagir were moved from place to place every two to three years so that they did not become local landowners, with selfish interests. The success of the system depended on the accuracy of the land survey, and the calculation of the value of the agricultural production of each village. 

In addition, Akbar's officials divided the empire into provinces and districts. A military officer, often a prince belonging to the royal house, acted as the viceroy (governor) of the provinces. A separate official, called the dewan, collected taxes, and sent the money to the central treasury in Delhi. The economic prosperity of Mughal India was greatly helped by these reforms, and there was a big expansion of trade. New towns and cities were built, and the production of basic goods such as cotton cloth increased.

The later Mughal emperors. Akbar was succeeded by Jahangir (1605-1627), Shah Jahan (1628-1658), and Aurangzeb (1658-1707). During the reigns of these princes, the Mughal Empire was at the height of its power. 

Shah Jahan was noted for his support of the arts, especially architecture. At Agra he built the famous monument, the Taj Mahal, as a tomb for his favourite queen, who died young . He also built a new city near old Delhi and shifted the capital from Agra. But his last years were troubled by a rebellion organized by his son Aurangzeb. 

Aurangzeb murdered his three other brothers, including the crown prince Dara Shukoh, and deposed Shah Jahan, the reigning emperor, to seize the throne for himself. Shah Jahan died a prisoner in the fortress of Agra. Aurangzeb's reign was one of the longest in the history of the Mughal dynasty. His rebellion and acts of cruelty toward his family at first aroused public horror and dislike. Yet there was no law recognized in Islamic states to nominate a legal successor to the king. The succession was often settled by wars and by murders. 

The empire after Aurangzeb. After Aurangzeb's death in 1707, the Mughal Empire faced increasing difficulties, leading to its decline and disintegration. By 1730, many provincial governors acknowledged the Mughal emperor in name only. For all practical purposes, they were independent rulers. The nawab of Oudh in the north and the nizam of Hyderabad in the south became powerful rulers. The Marathas under the leadership of Shivaji, a daring and able ruler of western India, had clashed with the Mughal army, raided Mughal towns and cities, and collected taxes. The Marathas had a very good cavalry and used it to capture the fortresses held by the Mughals. The other southern kingdoms, such as Golconda and Bijapur, also defied the Mughals. Aurangzeb had to spend considerable time in the south to fight these powers, which affected his control over the nobles in northern India. 

The final blow to the Mughal Empire came in 1739. The Afghan-Persian conqueror Nadir Shah invaded India and sacked Delhi, humiliating the Mughal emperor in public. Nadir Shah carried off to Persia (Iran) rich treasures taken from the people of Delhi and from the government treasury. The treasure included the Peacock throne, used by later rulers of Iran, and the Koh-i-noor, one of the largest known diamonds. This diamond is now part of the British crown jewels, kept in the Tower of London. 

The breakdown of the administrative and economic management, and internal revolts, were mainly responsible for the decline of the Mughal Empire. The Mughal capital, Delhi, became a scene of rivalry and strife and emperors after Aurangzeb became puppets in the hands of provisional satraps (provincial governors). The European trading companies took advantage of this political situation to procure trading privileges to begin with and to eventually establish political and territorial power.

The new emperor, Aurangzeb, was a strict Muslim. To begin with, he followed the policy of making peace with the non-Muslim peoples he conquered and bringing them into the imperial service. But the policy broke down, and in the latter part of his reign, Aurangzeb imposed a much stricter form of Islamic rule. In 1679, he reintroduced the jiziya, a poll tax on non-Muslims. Militarily, Aurangzeb set out to protect his northern borders and subdue the independent Muslim kingdoms in the Deccan and south India. By 1690, the whole of the Indian subcontinent lay within the Mughal Empire. 

Aurangzeb won swift political and military success, through his abilities as a soldier and politician. But his conquests brought him great trouble toward the end of his reign. The wars were expensive and the military officers were rewarded for their service by the grant of new jagirs. The jagir-holders taxed the peasants mercilessly, causing many to flee from the villages. Much land was left uncultivated as a result. 

Aurangzeb's reign was troubled by developments in west and south India. As early as the 1660's, Shivaji, a Hindu chief of western India, had built up a strong private army and begun to raid Mughal towns and cities. He captured and sacked the great port of Surat. Shivaji's followers, known as the Marathas, were very good cavalry fighters. They took all the strong fortresses from the Mughal governors. Aurangzeb had to fight the Marathas, and many other local chiefs in the south, who were constantly rebelling against Mughal rule and trying to reestablish their independence.

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