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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



Invasions and empires to A.D. 500

The Persian and Greek invasions. The wealth of India, with its fine cities and prosperous villages, attracted the attention of foreign invaders. In 530 B.C., the Persian (Iranian) emperor Cyrus the Great invaded India. The Persians seized Gandhara (modern Afghanistan and parts of the Punjab) as the 20th satrapy (province) of Cyrus's Achaemenid Empire.

Two hundred years later, an even more formidable conqueror invaded India. He was Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia. Alexander defeated and overran the mighty Persian Empire. He founded a number of kingdoms in Asia. His invasion of India in 326 B.C. was the first recorded military encounter between the people of ancient India and the Greeks. At a battle fought near the Hydaspes River (modern Jhelum), he vanquished many Indian warriors. 

The Hindu warrior rulers of India took great pride in their military valour. So the Greeks' triumph came as a considerable shock. However, Alexander had extended his conquests too far. His troops refused to follow him further, and he was forced to turn back. 

A native ruler of northern India, Chandragupta Maurya, took advantage of the political instability created by Alexander's invasion. Chandragupta (called Sandracottas by the Greek historians) began a career of conquest as the king of the small Nanda kingdom (321 B.C.).

The rise of the Mauryas. In India, Alexander left Seleucus Nikator to rule over the Greek-controlled province on the Indus River. After gaining control over the important kingdom of Magadha in the Ganges valley, Chandragupta attacked the Greeks. Parts of the Indus province were handed over to the Mauryan king. 

Chandragupta was succeeded by his son Bindusara in 297 B.C. At Bindusara's death, 25 years later, most of the Indian subcontinent from the north to the far south was ruled by the Mauryas. Bindusara campaigned so successfully in the Deccan that even the Tamil-speaking poets of southern India described the triumphant progress of his war chariots.

Asoka. The Maurya Empire reached the height of its political power with the accession of the emperor Asoka some time after 272 B.C. For the first time, Indian historical literary sources are supported by inscriptions on stone pillars, which were set up throughout India. 

Asoka, a Hindu exercising authority over the whole of India, formally converted to Buddhism. Buddhism teaches its followers to refrain from killing and violence. Asoka's conversion followed the military campaign against Orissa in the southeast in 261 B.C., during which many hundreds of thousands of people were slain. 

After his conversion to Buddhism, Asoka gave up wars of conquest. The inscriptions recording his edicts (laws) describe Asoka as a king favoured by the gods, and one who actively spread the Buddhist religion. His empire was well governed. It was divided into provinces ruled by imperial officials, who collected taxes from prosperous villages.

Central Asian invasions. After the reign of Asoka, the Maurya Empire began to decline slowly. It was replaced in about 180 B.C. by the Brahmanic dynasty of the Shungas. Their capital was Ujjain in western India. This was a period of troubles for India. There were repeated invasions of northern India, by Greeks from Bactria, by Parthians from Persia (Iran), and by various Turkish tribes of central Asia. This led to constant wars and political instability. 

Demetrios, a descendant of one of Alexander the Great's generals, crossed the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan, and founded a Greek kingdom in the Punjab. Its greatest ruler was King Menander, who ruled from about 155 to 150 B.C. Greek rule in northern India was in turn overset by central Asian invasions. These were led by people known as the Sakas or Scythians.

The Kushanas. In the A.D. 100's another central Asian tribe, the Kushanas, invaded India. They established a powerful empire. Under the Kushan ruler Kanishka, this empire extended from Sinkiang (in what is now Chinese Turkestan) to Varanasi in eastern India. The large size of the Kushan Empire, and its political success, were matched by its cultural achievements. The Kushan rulers were influenced in both art and religion by Greek, Persian, and Indian traditions. They minted gold coins in Persian and Greek style. Buddhist religious architecture reached new heights of splendour. Chinese travellers left descriptions of the flourishing state of the Buddhist monasteries.

Cultural and scientific achievements. The history of the Indian subcontinent after the Kushan Empire (from about A.D. 300) is marked by the rise of a number of dynasties (a series of rulers from the same family). These dynasties ruled over fragmented regions. However, this was a period of great intellectual triumphs for Sanskrit learning and of scientific discoveries. Sanskrit grammar was written down in a form which became standard. Brahman linguists (language scholars) worked out all the major rules regarding the science of language and sounds (known today as phonetics). Indian script (writing) was formalized, and could represent all the sounds produced by the human voice. 

Indian mathematicians used the number zero (0) and the concept of negative numbers. Art, literature, and philosophy flourished, providing many fine examples of the genius of ancient India. Sanskrit culture was greatly influenced by Western thought and civilization, through contacts with the Greeks, Romans, and Persians. Varahamihira, an Indian philosopher, wrote that the Greeks, although impure according to the Vedic ritualistic practices, should be honoured because they excelled in science, mathematics, and the arts.

Trade with the West. Western influence was brought to India not only by Greek, Persian, and central Asian invaders, but also through sea and land trade between the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and the Roman Empire. This trade, and the value of India's exports to the West, was large. The Roman historian Pliny, writing in the A.D. 100's, complained that each year a vast quantity of gold and silver left the Roman Empire to pay for spices, textiles, and other luxury goods imported from India. The details of this seaborne trade were described by an unknown sailor or merchant of Alexandria, Egypt, in a book called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. It mentions all the major trading ports in the Red Sea and western India, and also the main articles of trade. These articles included spices, black pepper, cotton and silk cloth, perfumes, aromatic gums, rare woods, and various kinds of grain. Archaeologists excavating sites in western and southern India have confirmed the descriptions in the Periplus. They have found a large quantity of Roman coins, pottery, glass, and other objects at sites that were once important trading ports on the Indian coasts. The author of the Periplus also refers to the Greek discovery of the annual monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean . These winds made it possible for ships to sail to India from the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf, and return within one calendar year. According to the Periplus, a sailor called Hippalos made the first trading voyage.

The Gupta Empire. The rise of the Gupta dynasty in the A.D. 300's brought about a golden age lasting until about A.D. 500. Each Gupta ruler enlarged the empire. India was not a unified nation, or a land with people speaking one language. The ethnic and dynastic divisions were reflected in the existence of numerous separate kingdoms. From time to time in Indian history great imperial powers emerged, and brilliant soldiers and statesmen united the country. The diverse identities of the separate kingdoms, and of the people, were not destroyed. But the emperor claimed universal rule, and demanded submission and allegiance from conquered princes. 

The Gupta dynasty came to prominence with the conquests of Chandragupta I (320-335). Coins minted in his reign bear the title "overlord of great kings." His son, Samudragupta (335-375), was perhaps the greatest imperial conqueror of ancient India. He extended the Gupta Empire from northern India to the far south. One of the inscriptions set up in his reign mentions that he had conquered no fewer than 13 princes of the south. The conquests of the Guptas continued under Chandragupta II (375-415), who assumed the grand title of Vikramaditya (Sun of Power and Majesty). 

After the end of the reign of Kumaragupta in 454, the Gupta Empire began to weaken and break up.

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