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Ancient India History - History of India

The Bronze Age
Vedic Civilization The Rise of Kingdoms Maurya Dynasty Shunga Dynasty
The Golden Age
Satavahana Empire Kushan Empire Gupta Dynasty
The Classical Age
Harsha's Empire The Chalukyas, Pallavas, and Pandyas Chola Empire
Pratiharas - Palas - Rashtrakutas The Rajputs Vijayanagar Empire
The Islamic Sultanates Delhi Sultanate The Mughal Empire
The Maratha Confederacy The Kingdom of Mysore The Punjab - Sikh Empire
Company Rule & The British Raj The Independence Movement

The Bronze Age

Vedic Civilization

Indian civilization and culture is not only ancient but it is also extensive and varied. Many races and peoples have contributed and enriched it. Vedic civilization is the earliest civilization in Indian history. It is named after the Vedas, the early literature of the Hindu people. This civilization is the foundation of Hinduism and the associated Indian culture that is known today.

The kingdom of the Kurus marks flowering of the Vedic civilization, corresponding to the Black and Red Ware and the beginning of the Iron Age in Northwestern India begins, around 1000 BC, likely also contemporary with the composition of the Atharvaveda.


Mahajanapadas literally means "Great kingdoms". The word has taken from Sanskrit Maha = great, Janapada = foothold of tribe = country. By 500 BC, sixteen monarchies and 'republics' known as the Mahajanapadas stretched across the Indo-Gangetic plains from modern-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh.

The Buddhist and other texts only incidentally refer to sixteen great nations (Solasa Mahajanapadas) which were in existence before the time of Buddha. They do not give any connected history except in the case of Magadha. The Buddhist Anguttara Nikaya, at several places, gives a list of sixteen nations:

  1. Kasi
  2. Kosala
  3. Anga
  4. Magadha
  5. Vajji (or Vriji)
  6. Malla
  7. Chedi
  8. Vatsa (or Vamsa)
  9. Kuru
  10. Panchala
  11. Machcha (or Matsya)
  12. Surasena
  13. Assaka
  14. Avanti
  15. Gandhara
  16. Kamboja

The Rise of Kingdoms

The end of the Vedic Age (1500 BC-600 BC) was followed by the rise of small kingdoms and republics in the northern parts of India and especially in the Gangetic plains of Bihar.

Maurya Dynasty

The Mauryan Empire was the first major empire in the history of India and ruled the land from 322 BC to 185 BC. Important rulers of this dynasty were Chandragupta Maurya, Bindusara, and King Ashoka. Bindusara was succeeded by his son Ashoka, the most famous of the Mauryan Kings who reign from- 273 - 232 B.C. He extended the boundaries of his empire considerably - stretching from Kashmir and Peshawar in the North and Northwest to Mysore in the South and Orissa in the East - but his fame rests not so much on military conquests as on his celebrated renunciation of war. After witnessing the carnage at the battle field of Kalinga (269 B.C.) in Orissa, Ashoka resolved to dedicate himself to Dhamma - or righteousness. The war of Kalinga was the turning point in the life of Ashoka to the extent that he shunned all forms of violence and became a strict vegetarian.

As Ashoka became a devout Buddhist, he began to spread the teachings of Buddha by issuing edicts. These edicts were sent to different parts of the empire, where they were engraved on rocks or pillars, for the common people to see and read them. These edicts were written in different scripts. Most of them were in Brahmi, which was common in most parts of the empire. The language was generally Prakrit (ancient language), as it was spoken by the common people, whereas Sanskrit was spoken by educated upper caste people.

The great Mauryan Empire did not last long after the death of Ashoka and ended in 185 BC. Weak kings on one hand and the unmanageability of a vast empire on the other caused the rapid decline of the Mauryas.

Shunga Dynasty

Ashoka died around 232 B.C. and the empire began to disintegrate under weak successors. Pushyamitra Shunga, a Brahmin general usurped the throne after slaying the last Maurya king and presided over a loosely federal polity. In subsequent centuries India suffered a series of invasions, and in the absence of a strong central authority, often fell under the spell of foreign rulers - Indo Bactrians, the Sakas and others.

The Golden Age

Satavahana Empire

The fall of the Mauryan empire and the confusion caused due to it gave birth to a new dynasty called Satavahanas, also called as Andhra dynasty. Satavahanas is one of the most celebrated dynasties of ancient India. Satavahanas ruled over large area of modern western and southern India. King Simuka, belonging to the Satavahana family in present day Andhra Pradesh founded the Satavahana dynasty after defeating the Mauryan rule in the Deccan. Satavahana kings ruled much of Deccan plateau from 50 B.C to 250 A.D. But it was his son or nephew Satakarni I who made Satavahanas as most formidable power of western and southern India.

There were twenty-nine rulers of this dynasty according to Matsya Purana. The kings of this dynasty were great patrons of art and architecture. Buddhism flourished throughout the period and the rulers were also devoted to Vedic ritualism. They constructed several Buddhist Stupas, Viharas and Chaityas.

The decline and fall of the Satavahana Empire left the Andhra country in a political chaos. Local rulers as well as invaders tried to carve out small kingdoms for themselves and to establish many dynasties. During the period from AD 180 to AD 624 Ikshvakus, Vishnukundins, Vakatakas, Pallavas, Anandagotras, Kalingas and others ruled over the Andhra area with their small kingdoms.

Kushan Empire (ca. 2nd century b.c.-3rd century a.d.)

The post-Mauryan period from 185 BC to AD 300 saw the emergence of a number of kingdoms all over the Indian subcontinent. Some of these states were small, while others like that of the Kushans were large. This period witnessed a spurt in migrations into India, rise in foreign trade, and development of art. In short, the time scale between 1st century BC and 3rd century AD was a period of flux.

The Kushans originated from the Turkistan region of China. They moved towards Afghanistan in the 1st century AD and after displacing the Indo-Greeks, the Parthians and the Sakas, they established themselves in Taxila and Peshawar. The name Kushan derives from the Chinese term Guishang, used in historical writings to describe one branch of the Yuezhi-a loose confederation of Indo-European people who had been living in northwestern China until they were driven west by another group.

A number of foreigners came to India in successive waves of migrations between 200 BC and AD 100. These people settled down in different parts of India. They brought with them their own distinct cultural flavor, which, after mixing with the local cultures, enriched the cultural ethos of India. The foreigners who came into India were the Bactrian Greeks (also called the 'Indo-Greeks'), the Parthians, the Sakas, and the Kushans. With the exception of the Greeks, all others came from Central Asia. Under the rule of the Kushans, northwest India and adjoining regions participated both in seagoing trade and in commerce along the Silk Road to China.

The rule of Kanishka, the third Kushan emperor who flourished from the late first to the early/mid-second century A.D., was administered from two capitals: Purushapura (now Peshawar) near the Khyber Pass, and Mathura in northern India. Under Kanishka's rule, at the height of the dynasty, Kushan controlled a large territory ranging from the Aral Sea through areas that include present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into northern India as far east as Benares and as far south as Sanchi.

Gupta Dynasty

Gupta dynasty was ruled from around 320 to 600 CE and covered most of Northern India. It was one of the largest political and military empires in the world. The time of the Gupta Dynasty is referred to as Golden Age of India. It signaled the emergance of a leader, a Magadha ruler, Chandragupta I. Chandragupta successfully combated the foreign invasion and laid foundation of the great Gupta dynasty, the emperors of which ruled for the next 300 years, bringing the most prosperous era in Indian history. Srigupta I (270-290 AD) who was perhaps a petty ruler of Magadha (modern Bihar) established Gupta dynasty with Patliputra or Patna as its capital.

Samudragupta was perhaps the greatest king of Gupta dynasty. He ruled from around 335 to 380 AD. But the most detailed and authentic record of his reign is preserved in the rock pillar of the Allahabad, composed by Harisena.

Samudragupta's son, Chandragupta II tried to be better than his father, and most historians agree he was certainly successful. Vikramaditya is THE LEGENDARY emperor of India. During his reign India was at the prosperity and luxuriousness, so he also took a title of 'Vikramaditya'. Vikramaditya's reign was perhaps the most prosperous and progressive reign in the entire Indian history.

Vikramaditya was succeeded by his able son Kumargupta I. He maintained his hold over the vast empire of his forebears, which covered most of India except southern four states of India. He ruled from 415-455 AD. He performed the Ashwamegha Yagna and proclaimed himself to be Chakrawarti, king of all kings. During his reign the Gupta Empire was at its zenith.

After Kumargupta I, Skandagupta has succeeded the Gupta Dynasty. When Skandagupta took over the Gupta Empire, he had faced formidable enemies, the Huns. He successfully repelled their early invasions and proved to be able king and administrator in time of crisis. In spite of heroic efforts of SkandaGupta, Gupta empire did not survive long the shock it received from invasion of the Huns and internal uprising of Pushyamitras.

The Classical Age

Harsha's Empire

Harsha or Harshavardhana was an Indian emperor who ruled Northern India for over forty years. He was the son of Prabhakar Vardhan and younger brother of Rajyavardhan, a king of Thanesar. He ruled from 590-647 AD. Harshavardhana made efforts at empire building in the second half of the seventh century. He belonged to the Pushabhukti family, who ruled in Thaneshwar, north of Delhi. Harsha was perhaps one of the greatest conquerors of Indian history, and unlike all of his conquering predecessors, he was a brilliant administrator. He was also a great patron of culture.

His reign is comparatively well documented by his court poet, Bana, who composed an account of his rise to power, Harshacharita. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Hieun Tsang, who visited India during his reign, also left a lengthy account of his travels. Hieun Tsang noticed that at the time of Harsha, Buddhism was not as popular in all parts of India as he had thought it would be. But in eastern India, it was still popular. Nalanda University was still a famous center of Buddhism. He also recorded the existence of a rigid caste system.

The most significant achievements of this period, however, were in religion, education, mathematics, art, and Sanskrit literature and drama. Soon after Harsha's death, apparently without any heirs, his empire died with him. After Harsha Vardhana North and north west part of India was mostly controlled by Pratihara Kings while Central India and part of South was mostly under Rashtrakutas dynasty (753-973 AD ) Pala Kings (750-1161 AD) ruled the Eastern part of India (present Bengal and Bihar).

The Chalukyas, Pallavas, and Pandyas

After Satvahan, the next great empire in the Deccan was the Chalukya Empire. Pulakesin I, first ruler of the Chalukya dynasty. Pulakesin II was the greatest ruler of the Chalukya dynasty. The Chalukyas built their kingdom on the ruins of the Vakatakas, who in turn had built theirs on the remains of the Satavahanas. They established their capital at Vatapi (modern Badami). The Chalukyas were sworn enemies of the Pallavas and rose to power in Karnataka. The first great ruler of the Chalukya dynasty was Pulakesin I. The kingdom was further extended by his sons Kirtivarman and Mangalesa by waging many successful wars against the neighbours including Mauryans of the Konkans. They were overthrown by a chief named Dantidurga who laid the foundation of the next great empire of Karnataka and Maharashtra, that of Rashtrakutas.

Pallavas established a capital at Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu state) and came to hold sway in the south. Sivaskandhavarman who ruled in the first part of the fourth century CE was an independent ruler. He established his capital at Kanchi which continued as Pallava capital for centuries. Huen Tsang the Chinese monk-scholar, who visited Kanchi in 642 CE, writes that the Pallava country was more than thousand miles in area and calls it Dravidanadu. They were defeated by the Guptas in about 360 AD but continued to rule until the Cholas finally conquered their lands. Later, in the 9th century, the Pallava themselves were definitely conquered by the Chola from Tanjore and became their vassals.

Pandyas were the longest ruling dynasty of Indian history. They ruled the southern most part of India and the capital of the Pandya kings was Madurai (Tamil Nadu). First Indian Ambassador from Pandya Dynasty is sent to Rome in 26 BC. After defeating the kalabhras the Pandya rulers ruled between 550 AD to 950 AD. They were called as first Pandyas. After the fall of the great pallavas and the cholas once again the Pandyas ruled the Tamil country from 1190 AD to 1310 AD. The first Pandyan Empire continued till the beginning of the Tenth Century A.D. The Cholas defeated the Pandyan ruler, Rajasimha II. Later, Veerapandya (A.D. 946-966), the last ruler of the first Pandyan Empire had been defeated and killed by Adhithya Chola. It was the end of the first Pandyan Empire.

Chola Empire

The Cholas are the earliest and the most ancient among the South Indian royal houses. The artifacts of the period found in South India mention Mahabharata as well as Ashokan edicts. They conquered Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Srivijaya, Malaya, and the Maldives islands. They had powerful navy and their marine trade and commerce extended to far east. Their art and architecture have their impact in Sumatra and Java islands of Indonesia, and in many parts of Malaysia.

The two greatest Chola kings were Rajaraja I (reigned 985-1014) who invaded Northern Cyprus and his son Rajendra Cholavarma who reigned from 1014-1044. During their reigns, Chola military expeditions were sent to the Ganges valley and the Malay archipelago, and magnificent temples were built at Tanjore. The revenue of the Cholas came from 'tax on land' and 'tax on trade'. Trade was carried on with west Asia, China and Southeast Asia. The high volume of trade led to the rapid development of towns from the 11th century onwards.

During this period, several regional languages branched off from Sanskrit. Marathi evolved from the local Prakrit, while Tamil, Telugu and Kannada stemmed from a Dravidian root, but owed much to Sanskrit. More important than the kings and their conquests is the cultural and artistic record of those times. The temple was the cultural and social center, where people used to gather.

Pratiharas - Palas - Rashtrakutas

The Pratiharas are believed to be the clan of Rajputs. The greatest ruler of the Pratihara dynasty was Mihir Bhoja. He recovered Kanauj (Kanyakubja) by 836, and it remained the capital of the Pratiharas for almost a century. The Pratihara dynasty started well under the ruler Nagabhatta-I. Though initially he had hiccups with the Rashtrakutas, he was able to leave behind a strong State comprising Malwa, parts of Rajputana and Gujarat. His successor Nagabhatta-II (805 - 839 AD) showed his military capabilities by checking out Muslim advancement and the victory over Andhra, Vidharbha, Vatsa, Sindhu and Kalinga. Towards the end of 10th century, the prestige of the Pratiharas came to and end with the humiliating submission of Rajyapala to Mahmood in 1018 AD. The successors of Pratiharas like Trilochanapala, Yasapala continued reigning for another century.

The Pala empire was founded in 730 AD. They ruled over parts of Bengal and Bihar. Dharmapala (780-812 AD) was one of the greatest kings of the Pala dynasty. He did much to restore the greatness of Pataliputra. The Nalanda University was revived under their rule. The Palas had close trade contacts and cultural links with South-East Asia.

Dantidurga laid the foundation of Rashtrakuta Empire. The Rashtrakuta's empire was the most powerful of the time. They ruled from Lattaluru (Latur), and later shifted the capital to Manyaketa (Malkhed).

The Rajputs

The Rajput who held the stage of feudal rulers before the coming of the Muslims, were a brave and chivalrous race. The name rajputs was originally taken from Raj-Putra i.e. prince or literally "king's son". In actual fact although they were Kshatriyas in the Hindu caste hierarchy, they seem to have genetically descended from the Shakas and Hunas who had invaded north India during the Gupta period and had subsequently settled down in North India and due to their war-like attitudes and been absorbed as Kshatriyas into Hindu society. Prithviraj Chouhan, Maharana Pratap was great rajput kings. According to a mythical narration, the Rajputs originated from the sacrificial fire performed by Vashistha and other saints near the Nakhi Lake on Mount Abu with a view to containing the growing strength of demons.

Vijayanagar Empire

After the departure of Muhammad bin Tughlak from the Deccan, Harihara declared independence. He and his brother Bukka I under the guidance of famous Hindu saint and the head of Sringeri Math, Vidyaranyasvami, who is also identified with the distinguished jurist Madhav Mantri, established the mighty Hindu Kingdom of Vijaynagar (the City of Victory) in 1336 AD. Vijaynagar illuminated the landscape of Deccan History for 229 years (1336-1565 AD). By 1347 AD, Malerajya and Palasige of the Goa Kadambas were incorporated into the Vijaynagar Empire. Goa formed a strategically and commercially important province on the western border of the Vijaynagar Empire.

The Islamic Sultanates

The Mughal emperors were from Afghanistan, northwest of India. Their family came from somewhere else, and they spoke Turkish and Persian, not Indian languages. Even so, they stayed in India and built their power there.

Delhi Sultanate

During the last quarter of the twelfth century, Muhammad of Ghor invaded the Indo-Gangetic plain, conquering in succession Ghazni, Multan, Sindh, Lahore, and Delhi. Qutb-ud-din Aybak, one of his generals proclaimed himself Sultan of Delhi. In the 13th century, Shams ud din Iltumish (1211 - 1236), a former slave-warrior, established a Turkic kingdom in Delhi, which enabled future sultans to push in every direction; within the next 100 years, the Delhi Sultanate extended its way east to Bengal and south to the Deccan, while the sultanate itself experienced repeated threats from the northwest and internal revolts from displeased, independent-minded nobles. The sultanate was in constant flux as five dynasties rose and fell: the Slave dynasty (1206-90), Khalji dynasty (1290-1320), Tughlaq dynasty (1320-1413), Sayyid dynasty (1414-51), and Lodi dynasty (1451-1526).

The Mughal Empire

The first Battle of Panipat gave a deathblow to the Lodhi Empire and marked the end of the Delhi Sultanate's rule in India. It led to the establishment of the Mughal Empire in India. Babar defeated Lodi at Panipat, not far from Delhi, and so came to establish the Mughal Empire in India. Babar ruled until 1530, and was succeeded by his son Humayun, who gave the empire its first distinctive features. But it is Humayun's son, Akbar the Great, who is conventionally described as the glory of the empire. Akbar reigned from 1556 to 1605, and extended his empire as far to the west as Afghanistan, and as far south as the Godavari river. Akbar was succeeded by his son Salim, who took the title of Jahangir. In his reign (1605-1627), Jahangir consolidated the gains made by his father. The Mughal Empire survived until 1857, but its rulers were, after 1803, pensioners of the East India Company. The last emperor, the senile Bahadur Shah Zafar, was put on trial for allegedly leading the rebels of the 1857 mutiny and for fomenting sedition.

The Maratha Confederacy

The Maratha Kingdom was founded by Shivaji in 1674. The tiny Maratha kingdom, established by Chattrapati Shivaji was expanded by the Peshwas, who were the Brahmin Prime Ministers. The real credit for expanding the Maratha kingdom goes to Bajirao Peshwa I (1721-1740). The Peshwas subsequently ruled the Maratha Kingdom as defacto rulers. The Maratha Kingdom come end with the defeat of Maratha's by an Afghan army at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761.

The Kingdom of Mysore

Mysore is correlated to the ruling of the Wodeyar dynasty, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan though several prominent South Indian dynasties have ruled this place. The traditional founding of the Wodeyar dynasty took place in 1399 with Yaduraya. Since then, 24 rulers have succeeded in the dynasty, the last being Jayachamaraja Wodeyar. Till the year 1610, when Srirangapatna was acquired, Mysore was the center of Wodeyar administration. It became the capital of the Kingdom of Mysore after the death of Tippu Sultan at the end of the Anglo-Mysore Wars in 1799.

The Punjab - Sikh Empire

The Sikhs established their empire in the Punjab after the death of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir in 1707. Charat Singh, who was the head of one of Sikh Clans, established his stronghold in Gujranwala in 1763. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the most powerful of all the Sikh Rulers and ruled over for complete 40 years. Ranjit Singh was also known as "The Lion of the Punjab," he died of paralysis on the 27th of June 1839. After his death the Sikh Empire was divided into small principalities looked after by several Sikh Jagirdars.

Company Rule & The British Raj

The company first established a toehold in India in 1612, when the Mughal emperor Jahangir granted them the right to establish a trading post (called a factory by the company) in Surat. Later in the century, the British East India Company opened permanent trading stations at Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, each under the protection of native rulers. A settlement at Calcutta was established in 1690, again with the permission of the Mughal Empire. The company vied with the Portuguese and rival Dutch, French, and Danish companies. The French set up base along with the British in the 17th century. They occupied large parts of southern India. The British Empire in India - A multiplicity of motives underlay the British penetration into India: commerce, security, and a purported moral uplift of the people. The "expansive force" of private and company trade eventually led to the conquest or annexation of territories in which spices, cotton, and opium were produced.

The Independence Movement

The feeling of nationalism had started growing in the minds of Indians as early as the middle of the nineteenth century but it grew more with the formation of the Indian national Congress in 1885. Though the Congress started on a moderate platform but with the passage of time and apathetic attitude of the British government, the national movement began to shape well. The first of a series of national movements was the Non-cooperation movement (1920-1922AD). It was followed by the civil disobedience movement, after a lull. The struggle for independence continued in the 1930s but the real momentum came with the Second World War. The Congress, under the leadership of Gandhi began to prepare for the "Quit India Movement" in 1942. With the pace of developments all over the world (after the Second World War), the British came to realize that it was not possible to rule India any more and they decided to quit.

In the March of 1947 Lord Mountbatten came to India and recommended a partition of Punjab and Bengal in the face of civil war. Gandhi was very opposed to the idea of partition and urged Mountbatten to offer Jinnah leadership of a united India instead of the creation of a separate Muslim state. But this arrangement was not acceptable to many nationalist leaders, including Nehru. In July Britain's Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act. According to it August 14 and 15 were set for partition of India. Thus came into existence two independent entities- Indian and Pakistan.