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Home > Explore by Theme > Culture & Heritage > Historical Background
 
 
 
 
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Historical Background
  ANCIENT INDIA
 

Pre-history and Indus Valley. History is a record of community life based on facts and thus differs from legends. In the Indian context, it is well known that the various parts of the country were inhabited by people, five hundred thousand years ago, but the only traces they have left behind are the stones and cave paintings. Numbers of racial groups had immigrated to India in various periods of time and it would be reasonable to infer that the development would have been gradual, with each new group bringing along its knowledge skill and resources. Closer to our times, Indus valley civilisation which flourished about 3500 BC and lasted for almost 1500 years, marks an outstanding example of an advanced town planning. Much of the evidence is from the excavations in Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Alas the script unlike the Egyptian has not yet been deciphered. What is known for sure is that these were pre Aryan and was a prosperous trading community.

   
 
The Aryans. Aryans a derivative of the sanskrit word for noble, seem to have come from north west. The oldest book–the Rigveda–gives a clue to their origin and early history. The famous historian RC Majumdar states that the generally accepted view is that the forefathers lived as a common stock with the Greeks and others known as Indo-Europeans. Rigvedas was supposed to be composed around 2000 BC and by 800 BC they had colonised the indo – gangetic planes and whole of north India and later spread over to Deccan. The Aryans seem to be fun loving, ate meat and drank soma. They also bequeathed Vedas the oldest and sublime literary work which has been looked upon by the Hindus as a sacred revealed world of God. One of the features is the participation of wife in religious worship who was held in high regard. Varna or the caste system also formed an essential part of there society. This would be dealt in greater detail later.
   
 
The Maurya Empire and Deccan. Chandragupta rose from a humble beginning (probably a lower caste) and because of his military genius and the help of Chanakya dove the Greeks from Punjab and Sindh and thereafter overthrew Nanda to ascend the throne of Magdha by about 322 BC. The Maurya Empire was the first all India kingdom. Ashoka the famous king who had a change of heart after the battle of Kalinga belongs to this dynasty. He was a patron of Buddhism as Chandragupta was of the Jains. Buddhism and its spread owe a lot to Ashoka. In all ten kings ruled till 184 BC. Pushyamitra the commander in chief of the last Mauryan king usurped the throne and founded Sunga dynasty which ruled for 112 years till 73 BC. Then came the two foreign tribes Saka and Kushans. The Kushan Empire came to an end in second century AD. Kanishka was a great emperor of this dynasty who converted to Buddhism. The political disintegration starting from 150 BC to 350 AD saw lot of foreign invasions. During this long period Satavahans from the Deccan rose to prominence. The far south was divided into few independent states the prominent amongst them being Cholas, Cheras and the Pandayas.
   
 
The Gupta age. India was once more politically united by the powerful dynasty known as Guptas. Chandragupta the third king shifted his capital to Pataliputra and his succession in 320 AD marked the new era. The greatness of the empire remained till 468 AD. It gradually disintegrated under the pressure of the barbarous tribe of Huns. Samudragupta and Vikramaditya are the prominent Kings and the famous poet Kalidas graced the court of the latter. The Gupta age was one of the most brilliant period. It witnessed a resurgence of intellectual activity manifested in various forms. Fa-hien, a Chinese, visited India during the reign of Vikramaditya and left interesting account of the country.
   
 
Review and Retrospect. The Himalayas in the north and the seas makes India a well defined geographical unit. The spread of Aryan culture would have been aided by the great political unity forged by the Mauryan dynasty. But such integration was of short duration and soon became a thing of past, though theoretical conception of India as a geographical and cultural unit was never altogether absent, for we find it echoed in literary works. There was no sign of a popular impulse to political or national integration. The barriers of language, economic interests, social and cultural differences, have come in the way of national unity, though it is neither unexpected nor unnatural. India has every reason to feel proud as regards the developments in religion, philosophy, art, literature, social and political institutions, moral and spiritual life, material progress indicated by trade, industry and commerce leading to accumulation of wealth, a high standard of living without its accompanying evil, namely miserable condition of the masses, and above all, a spirit of toleration and assimilation which allowed all types of religion to flourish without hindrance and absorbed millions of foreign people from Europe and different parts of Asia into her society.
 
 
But this bright picture is marred by a few black spots and the one that stands out is the caste system. It was known by the name of varn ashram and seems to have been pervasive and found the sanction from scriptures. It may not have been as rigid in the beginning but we find Buddhism and Jainism standing up in revolt to the orthodoxy as early as 500 BC. There are notable exceptions and we have the evidence of a Vedic seer born out of wedlock and hence belonging to the lowest rung of the caste. So is the case of Nanda dynasty who were Sudra, the Mauryas and the Guptas who heralded the golden period of Indian history were Vashiyas. But on the whole it would be fair to say that it retarded progress and led to superstition and bigotry which was one of the contributing factors to the downfall.
 
 
The second is the gradual growth of narrow spirit of self- adulation which made Indians feel they were superior to the rest of the mankind and averse to gain knowledge of the outside world. It is no coincidence that while we have accounts of India written by Greeks, Romans, Arabic and Chinese travellers to India, we have no record about any foreign country written by an Indian. Hindus also showed a lamentable lack of interest in writing their own history. They had to pay dearly for this folly, for they were kept ignorant of their glorious past. The caste distinctions stood in the way of national or political solidarity. Ignorance of foreign countries made the Hindus an easy prey to foreign invasions as they were usually ignorant of the latest developments in the art of warfare. The brave Rajput Rana had to fight with spear and sword against Babur’s artillery.
 
 
MEDIEVAL INDIA
 
 
Muslim Invasion and Turks. The Muslim conquest of India is an epoch making event and the most important episode in the history of India since the invasion of Aryans. It began with the incursions of Gazani & Ghouri but it was Qutd-ud-din who founded the Slave Dynasty in twelfth century AD. This was followed by khalji dynasty of whom Ala-ud-din Khalji was the most prominent ruler. His death in 1316 AD led to a period of anarchy which was a result of his ruthless rule. Ghayas-ud-din Tughluq ascended the throne in 1320 AD. His son Muhammad Tughluq was one of the most eccentric rulers. The invasion of Timur led dealt a death blow to Turkish rule and founding of Lodhi dynasty in 1451 AD. Ibrahim Lodhi and his defeat in 1526 led to the Mughal rule in India.
 
 
The Mughal Empire. The Mughal Empire founded by Babur in AD 1526 reached its zenith during the reign of King Akbar. He co-opted the Rajputs with the exception of Rana Pratap and established a great Empire founded on sound organisation and administration. He was a catholic ruler and had thirst for knowledge. The kingdom under him was as prosperous as Great Britan and achieved a high degree of excellance in fine arts. Archetecture during Mughal rule and especially in the reign of Shahjahan became proverbial. The decline of the Mughal rule started with death of Aurangzeb (1696) and came to an end in AD 1857 after the Sepoy Mutiny. This period also saw the rise of Marathas whose founder Shivaji is a well known figure and they contributed to the fall of Mughals.
 
 
BRITISH COLONIAL RULE
 
European Trading Companies. The opening of the direct sea route by Vasco da Gama led to European trade with India. Though started by the Portuguese it was the French and the British who seized on the opportunity. But the foundation of later day colonial rule was probably laid by Dupleix, the French Governor of Pondicherry who discovered two Indian traits which were more important from the Indian point of view than the discovery of Vasco da Gama. He noticed the utter inefficiency of Indian armies and boldly conceived the idea that a handful of Indian soldiers, disciplined in the European fashion, would be more than a match for the vast undisciplined hordes of Indian rulers. He further observed the instability of political dynasties in India and constant struggles between Indian rulers. His theory was put to test after the French had captured Madras from the British and the Nawab of Carnatic sent an force of 10,000 strong to recapture Madras. Dupliex with 500 men completely routed them. He tested his second theory when the Nizam Asaf Jah of Hyderabad died. Dupleix helped the rival candidate in the struggle of succession who, appointed Dupleix the Governer of all the Mughal territories south of the Krishna river and ceded Masulipattanam and its dependencies to French.
   
 
British Supremacy. Robert Clive pursued the same policy and in support of rival claimant, defeated Chanda Sahib, the Nawab of Carnatic, with a small force. This raised the power and prestige of the British in Decan where the French had hitherto wielded great power. He pursued the same policy in Bengal and won the battle of Plassey with the help of the well known treachery of Mir Jaffar which was the starting point of the British Empire. This period of history is relatively well known and hence we can now explore the question of Indian Identity.
   
 
 
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