"If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India!"
- Romaine Rolland (French scholar)
It’s tough, nay, impossible, to visit India and not be affected by its history. India’s history is not just a text-book account of events that took place in the country; the country’s past is still alive and jumps at you in places where you least expect it. If you wish to discover India, experience the country through its past to truly appreciate its spirit. Here is a time-line of India’s story, a diary of what created the India of today.
There’s evidence that humans inhabited parts of India, especially along the present Narmada River, even 500,000 years back. Cave drawings and artifacts support the fact.
The Indus Valley Civilization, 3300 BC – 1600 BC
Along with the other great civilizations of that period like Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley civilization formed along the River Indus, flourished in the period between 2500 BC and 1500 BC. At one point of time, it was the largest empire in the world, surpassing even Egypt. There are also records of active trade with other civilizations like Mesopotamia.
The first planned cities and towns and the earliest known drainage system were a part of the Indus Valley. Ruins of two great cities of that time, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro provide an insight on the level of planning and creativity that existed in those days; large granaries, big heated public baths and fascinating bronze statues express the story of a civilized population far better than any written work from that age.
Another important feature of this period is religion; Hinduism, one of the most important religions in India, was found during this period. Bronze and terracotta statues of various Hindu Gods from this period prove this, though it’s believed that religion and worship became popular much later, in the Vedic age.
The Vedic Period, 1700 BC – 150 BC
The arrival of immigrants from regions between India and Europe and the decline of the Indus Valley civilization happened at the same time though historians are still not sure if there is a connection between these two happenings. The new-comers, called the Aryans, introduced the horse and chariot, a new means of transport.
The horse and cart wasn’t however their greatest contribution; the Aryans were also skilled at song and verse. The oldest and most sacred scriptures of Hindu religion, the Vedas, were born during this period and it continues to be the doctrine of the Hindu religion. The Vedas shouldn’t be dismissed as just religious text; these scriptures also have profound observations on astronomy, science and medicine; Ayurveda, a popular stream of Indian herbal medicine that’s still popular throughout the world is just a branch of these scriptures.
India’s greatest epics Mahabharata and Ramayana were composed in this period. This age also saw the rise of the caste system, which in the beginning was used only for convenience, and later became rigid and dominated society life. The Vedic period came to an end by 500 BC by when large states and settlements where formed throughout India. The rise of two other religions, Buddhism and Jainism, along with foreign invasions weakened the rigid structure of the Vedic era.
Jainism and Buddhism
In the 6th Century BC, both Buddhism and Jainism arose and spread throughout and outside India as two major religions that questioned the rigidity of the Vedic doctrine. Jainism is still popular in India and has its roots in Hinduism while Buddhism is now more popular outside India and has its own doctrines and principles.
The Mauryan Dynasty, 500 BC – 200 BC
The greatest Indian empire in the history of the sub-continent, the Mauryan regime started with Chandragupta Maurya’s brave conquests that captured the entire land between the Himalayas in the North till the Narmada River in the South. The empire was further nourished after Chandragupta’s time by his grandson, Ashoka, popularly called Ashoka the great. The story of Ashoka is a favorite tale in India for here is a prince who was first known for his valor and thirst for war; later he started repenting the bloodshed and became one of the most popular propagators of Buddhism, along with its teachings of Ahimsa or non-violence.
His principles, inscribed on stone, on non-violence, respect, society living and decency raised the level of civilization and his lion symbol on a sandstone sculpture has been adopted as India’s national emblem now.
After The Mauryas
Following the decline of the great Mauryan Empire, the Gupta regime brought back Hinduism to the front and played a major role in developing arts and crafts in the country. Examples of the artistic ability of this period are visible in today’s Ajanta, Ellora and Sanchi.
The South of India was ruled by strong Kingdoms of the Cheras, Cholas, Pandiyas and the Chalukyas during this time. Architecture flourished and was considered a matter of pride; the strong temples and monuments built then stand strong even today and are popular tourist haunts. The shore temple of Mahabalipuram, the Brihadeswara Temple of Tanjavur and the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram are the best examples of the intricate workmanship and aesthetic sense of those days.
It was around 200 BC that Tamil, the language of the Dravidians in South India, rose to fame with the Tholkapiyam, the earliest written work on Tamil literature. With the South’s extensive trade relations with countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia, the language spread beyond borders and is still spoken and treated as one among other official languages in those countries.
Entry of Muslim Rule
While the South held on to its Hindu faith, the North was slowly, but steadily taken over by Muslim rulers from the 10th Century AD. In the year 1000 AD, Mahmud of Ghazni started from his capital city of Ghazni, now a small town in Afghanistan, to invade and plunder various parts of North India. Following his successes in pillaging gold and money from India, other Muslim invaders followed suit. In 1206, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, a general under Mohammad of Ghor, established his rule in Delhi and in his short regime until his death, managed to build the Qutb Minar, one of the most popular landmarks of today’s Delhi. The next major Muslim rulers to take control of the north were Ala-Ud-Din Khilji and Mohammed Tughlaq. Tughlaq succeeded in conquering a widespread area extending to the south.
Babur, a successor of two greats, Genghis Khan and Timur established the Mughal rule in India and it was this empire that was to hold control of the sub-continent for centuries and build some of its most important monuments. Babur started his rule after the Battle of Panipat in 1526 which is known for its use of superior firearms and weapons. He was succeeded by his son Humayun who ruled for a short span, but it was Humayun’s son Akbar who actually took the Mughal Empire to its days of glory.
From 1556 to 1605, Akbar’s rule saw the largest expanse of India under a single ruler after King Ashoka. Trade with Europe flourished and different religions lived in harmony with superb standards of living. Akbar is known for his love for arts and the court discussions he held with people of different faiths. Jehangir succeeded Akbar and stabilized the Kingdom; he is famous for his “chain of Justice” that promised a just hearing to anyone who wanted a personal appointment with the emperor.
Jehangir’s son, Shah Jahan was the next ruler and he is better known as the King who built the iconic Taj Mahal for his wife as a symbol of love. Shah Jahan was passionate about architecture and also built the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, other historic treasures of the country. While all these rulers were known for their tolerance and rule of democracy, the next in the Mughal line, Aurangzeb, was not so tolerant towards other religions. He imprisoned his father to ascend the throne and went on a spree to rampage and destroy Hindu temples. He brought in more area under his control, but was continually opposed by the Marathan ruler Shivaji. The Mughal Empire collapsed after Aurangzeb’s demise and the country saw a succession of strong Rajput and Maratha rulers.
Even when the Mughals were launching their rule over the country under Akbar, a seemingly small commercial enterprise was set up in Surat, Gujarat. This was the East India Company, a British establishment, which was to command the country for the next three centuries on behalf of its motherland, England. In the first half of the 19th century, India was almost completely under the rule of the British who effectively got rid of competition from other Europeans like the French and Portuguese and prevented rebellions from the locals by actively following a policy of “divide and rule”.
With the Zamindari system that favored landlords and punished peasants, puppet rulers who were controlled by the British and frequent religious tiffs, unity among Indians was almost entirely absent and they couldn’t form a coalition to question the European rulers. Of course, British rule in India also had its benefits; the railway system in the country was built and developed and the entire administration was streamlined with uniform principles, yet, little was done for the betterment of the masses. It took several leaders like Mohandas Gandhi, Subash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhagat Singh to lead a united front towards an independent India. Finally, after two world wars, a weakened England gave in and signed the Declaration of Independence.
Sadly, by this time, religious discontent was too high and two independent countries were formed, one for Hindus and the other for Muslims; India and Pakistan.
Independent India is the world’s largest democracy, a country of contrasts, divided by languages, religions and customs and yet united by its will to move forward, battling against all odds stacked against its journey forward.
Today’s India doesn’t have the gift of wealth in the form of gold and precious stones as it did in the age of the Cholas, nor is it suffering from abject misery as it did under the Zamindari (landlord) system. The country is now a mix of old and new; forward-looking buildings spring up each day next to revered old monuments and both are equally crowded.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. This is the message we get from today’s India. On one hand there are unbelievably crowded slum dwellings, while on the other there are luxurious palace hotels and monuments; in India, both these extremes are tourist attractions. Yes, the crowd can be overwhelming, but when you get into the skin of the country, it only seems natural and even enjoyable. People here are friendly and passionate about a lot of things. Cricket is a religion, as is cinema; don’t be surprised if you see temples built for leading actors. People are traditional and respect customs of the land; yet, ambition is also a major driving force.
If you are planning a holiday in India, leave behind your inhibitions and dive into the heart of the country; savor the rich flavors of Indian food, experience authentic hospitality at one of the many homestays in the country and blend into the population to enjoy India’s powerful culture. Only then will you be able to appreciate the innate beauty of the country.