History of India

India's extraordinary history is intimately tied to its geography. A meeting ground between the East and the West, it has always been an invader's paradise, while at the same time its natural isolation and magnetic religions allowed it to adapt to and absorb many of the peoples who penetrated its mountain passes. No matter how many Persians, Greeks, Chinese nomads, Arabs, Portuguese, British and other raiders had their way with the land, local Hindu kingdoms invariably survived their depradations, living out their own sagas of conquest and collapse. All the while, these local dynasties built upon the roots of a culture well established since the time of the first invaders, the Aryans. In short, India has always been simply too big, too complicated, and too culturally subtle to let any one empire dominate it for long.

1. Ancient India

True to the haphazard ambiance of the country, the discovery of India's most ancient civilization literally happened by accident. British engineers in the mid-1800's, busy constructing a railway line between Karachi and Punjab, found ancient, kiln-baked bricks along the path of the track. This discovery was treated at the time as little more than a curiosity, but archaeologists later revisited the site in the 1920's and determined that the bricks were over 5000 years old. Soon afterward, two important cities were discovered: Harappa on the Ravi river valley, and Mohenjodaro on the Indus river valley.

The civilization that laid the bricks, one of the world's oldest, was known as the Indus. They had a written language and were highly sophisticated. Dating back to 3000 BC, they originated in the south and moved north, building complex, mathematically planned cities. Some of these towns were almost three miles in diameter and contained as many as 30,000 residents. These ancient municipalities had granaries, citadels, and even household toilets. In Mohenjodaro, a mile-long canal connected the city to the sea, and trading ships sailed as far as Mesopotamia. At its height, the Indus civilization extended over half a million square miles across the Indus river valley, and though it existed at the same time as the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Sumatra, it far outlasted them.

The first groups to invade India were the Aryans, who came out of the north in about 1500 BC. The Aryans brought with them strong cultural traditions that, miraculously, still remain in force today. They spoke and wrote in a language called Sanskrit, which was later used in the first documentation of the Vedas. Though warriors and conquerors, the Aryans lived alongside Indus, introducing them to the caste system and establishing the basis of the Indian religions. The Aryans inhabited the northern regions for about 700 years, then moved further south and east when they developed iron tools and weapons. They eventually settled the Ganges valley and built large kingdoms throughout much of northern India.

The second great invasion into India occurred around 500 BC, when the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius, pushing their empire eastward, conquered the ever-prized Indus Valley. Compared to the Aryans, the Persian influence was marginal, perhaps because they were only able to occupy the region for a relatively brief period of about 150 years. The Persians were in turn conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, who swept through the country as far as the Beas River, where he defeated king Porus and an army of 200 elephants in 326 BC. The tireless, charismatic conqueror wanted to extend his empire even further eastward, but his own troops (undoubtedly exhausted) refused to continue. Alexander returned home, leaving behind garrisons to keep the trade routes open.


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