Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Brief History of India

3000BC to 1700BC Ancient Civilization

This is the period of the Harappan civilization, the first known civilization of India, and a contemporary of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Archeological excavations uncover a sophisticated society that lived in towns that were the first to be planned around the grid pattern supported by an integrated sewerage network. The Harappans pioneered the spinning and weaving of cotton for the manufacture of textiles and by the middle of the first millennium this had become widespread within the whole of India. Discoveries of many ox-drawn wagon artifacts and the existence of wide, straight streets suggest they may have also been the first in the world to use wheeled transport. They developed a simple written language to facilitate internal and international trade. The Harappan civilization spread from all the way along the Indus River from the north west of India, through Pakistan to Afghanistan, the most extensive of all the early civilizations, and included many different racial types. Widespread uniformity within the region along with the use of administration systems, gives the notion of a state or the world's first empire. The reasons for their eventual demise are, as yet, not known but an over-dependence on foreign trade is believed to be one possible cause.

1700BC to 700BC Aryan Migrants to India

The study of language families, including India's rich Sanskrit language, has shed much light on India's history during this period. Commonalities found in the Sanskrit language identify it with the Aryan language and race. The homeland of the Aryans is most favored to be around southern Russia and the Ukraine or the shores of the Caspian. These nomadic pastoralists migrated over many centuries taking their language, gods, horses and herds through Iran, Syria, Greece, and Eastern Europe and to northern India, around Panjab, where they finally settled. This also explains why many similarities are found between the gods and mythologies of Latin, Greece, Persia and India. Over the course of the next 1,000 years, this pre-modern society learned about arable farming, assimilated or repulsed neighbors, discovered new resources, developed new technologies, adapted to a settled life, organized itself into functional groups, opened trade links as well as developed a cash economy, endorsed frontiers, developed a written language, built cities and eventually subscribed to the structures and authority associated with statehood. Over time, Aryan influence gradually developed to varying degrees further into the peninsula.

In their nomadic lifestyle, the Aryans called themselves ksatriyas (warriors), the head clansman the raja, and the indigenous people dasas (inferior). As they settled into agriculture, the rajas had to find alternative ways to prove their superiority and they did this by ritual indulgence of surplus products. The offerings to the Gods had to be made with ritual precision to ensure future prosperity and so protect the superiority of the raja. The people that gained expertise in this craft were referred to as Brahmans and their purity and cleanliness was of great importance. This gave the Brahmans immense power as the rajas looked to them for approval and confirmation of their status. This gave rise to the hierarchical caste system, and the association of cleanliness or purity attached to the order, that is still so entrenched in today's Indian society. The preoccupation with the precise minutiae of the process of orientation and dissection of the sacrifice led to the studies of astronomy and anatomy. These rituals and beliefs, known as the Vedas, went on to underpin the development of Hinduism. As the different crafts and professions developed, they were grouped into the fourth caste, the vaisyas.

700BC to 200BC India's First Conquerors

India received her first foreign conquerors from Persia and Greece, both attracted by India's mineral wealth. Alexander the Great arrived in 327BC but failed to make any significant impact and so returned having only progressed as far as the Panjab. The mid-fifth century is cited as the approximate date of the birth of Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha who, after his enlightenment, gave birth to Buddhism. His contemporary, Mahavira Nattaputta, gave birth to India's third religion, the Jain religion (combining elements of both Hinduism and Buddhism).

The vacuum left by the exodus of Alexander the Great and the fall-out of weak kings paved the way for India's first dynasty, the Maurya, which reigned over an empire that stretched from Bengal to Afghanistan to Gujrat. The third Mauryan king, Ashoka, converted to Buddhism and is considered responsible for facilitating the spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, China and beyond. His inscriptions on rock faces and pillars emphasize his human values, his belief in non-violence, moral regeneration, values that spoke to tolerance and inclusion across the different religions and castes. He was the first to advocate the concept of living to attain dharma. The innovation he pioneered of appealing across barriers would be revived by a host of other reformers, not least Guru Nanak of the Sikhs and eventually Mahatma Gandhi.

200BC to 800

This period is often referred to as the Dark Age as it is not well documented. No such strong dynasties emerge after the decline of the Mauryas but India continued to be ruled by many smaller kingdoms. She experienced invasions from many different sources: Persians, Greeks, Romans and the Huns from China, but Indians also migrated out to trade and influence developments within all these areas and further towards central Asia. It's also a period of strong advances in arts, sciences, architecture (especially monasteries and temples) and road links to enhance trade in a wealth of spices, pearls, diamonds, ivory, and skilled manufacturers. The southern part of India, less influenced by Aryanization, continued to uphold its Dravidian language (predating Aryan language in India) and develop its international trade with the west and east through its coastal ports. Thomas the Apostle arrived in India approximately 52AD, bringing about the first Christian conversions in India, and eventually died there in Chennai. Hinduism and Buddhism (especially as its doctrine encourages investment and trade) continued to flourish in India.

600 to 1500 India's first Moslem Conquerors

Within 60 years of the Prophet Mohammad's death in 632AD, his followers had carried his teachings out to conquer three continents, stretching from the Atlantic to the Indus and from the Nile to the Aral Sea, providing India her first Moslem frontier. India's economy, probably the most sophisticated in the world at this time, proved very attractive and lucrative to the strong, and often brutal, Moslem incursion that took place from 663. A progression of sultanates from Persia, Afghanistan and Turkey ruled northern India but none achieved the pan-Indian supremacy they desired. Their rule was driven overwhelmingly by destroying and plundering, especially many of the wealthy temples and monasteries. Such severe destruction of the latter drove the Buddhist monks abroad to the extent that, despite Buddhism being a major world religion, from that time it ceased to be a major religion in India. Buddhism is the only world religion today that is no longer a major religion in the country of its origin. Other Moslems did, however, enter India peacefully through its coastal ports for trade, bringing with them the spinning wheel and paper. Both these would have incalculable value to the Indian economy in trade and communication proliferation.

In spite of all the invasions to date, India continued to develop strong independent states based on ancient identities of lineage, language, dynastic tradition and economic interest. By the 15th century, Christians from the west had begun to make their first appearance as traders and, through them and the Moslems, artillery was first introduced into Indian wars.

1600 to 1800 The Moghal Empire

Early 16th century saw the invasion and subsequent rule of the Moghal Empire. With India's long history of fragmented regional rule and cultural autonomy, the Moghals were the first to unite India under one rule. Through their reign, the Moghals left a rich legacy of the arts, literature, architecture, and state administration. Images of their wealth and opulence spread quickly even to the west. The late 15th century saw the birth of Sikhism, India's fourth major religion, through the teachings of Guru Nanak, its first disciple. The Sikhs, of the Panjab, would go on to play a strong part in the Moghal and British empires. By the late 16th century, the westerners, particularly the British, had begun to flex their influence and intentions.

1800 to 1947 The British Raj

The Portuguese, the French and the British arrived to promote western trade through India's coastal ports. Although parts of southern India still carry Portuguese and French influences, the British East India Company soon gained dominance. The East India Company gained control, initially, by nurturing dependence amongst the Maharajas and the Moghals for both military and financial support. This in time led to total governance of major states in the west and north but even those states remaining were tied in by strong loyalties. By 1858 the British government had proclaimed its rights to the East India Company, thereby transferring sovereignty of India to the British crown, making Queen Victoria the Empress of India. Immense national wealth was gained by Britain but less well known are the many personal fortunes also made. Amongst those gaining wealth were William Pitt, the British parliamentarian, and the Yale brothers. Elihu Yale later endowed his fortune to the Connecticut university that bears his name.

On the other hand, the British left a strong legacy of extensive networks of railways, the telegraph, legal administrations and irrigation systems. The Christian missionaries helped put in place the educational infrastructure, even though their intention initially was just to encourage conversion. After the decline of Buddhism, Christianity has become India's third major religion (80% are Hindu, 13.4% are Moslem, 2.3% are Christian and 1.9% are Sikhs). Despite these advances, the British prospered and the Indians largely remained in poverty. Added to this, the British withdrew from their accommodating, compassionate, assimilative attitude to one that was aggressive, oppressive and less respectful.

The movement to gain Indian independence started as far back as 1858, led by the efforts of Motilal and his son Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas (Mahatma) Ghandi, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. They attacked British rule politically through the regional councils, economically through rejecting imported goods, and socially through demonstrations and strikes. Gandhi achieved international acclaim and support through his non-violence approach as he took up the values espoused by King Ashoka of old. Despite the united campaign against British rule, there still remained strong religious and cultural differences between the Hindu and Moslem populations of India. Hindus wanted a secular state of India but Moslems, led by Jinnah, believed they would never have full representation within it. These irreconcilable differences meant that when India did finally achieve independence in 1947, it did so with partitioned Moslem states of Pakistan and East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh).

1947 to present Independent Republic

India entered its independence with great optimism and tremendous heart under the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru committed India to a democratic political structure that placed itself in the center, hoping to govern with the best of both socialist and capitalist values. But the bureaucracy of the socialist structure eventually strangled economic advances until the reforms of the 1990s finally unleashed India's entrepreneurial spirit. India's entrenched regional fragmentation aligned to language and culture still prove to be an immense challenge as more states, increasing from 12 to 27 by 1990, demand greater autonomy. These strong regional differences make it impossible for India to have one official national language; consequently there are a number of official languages depending on the region. The democratic political system designed to eliminate religious and caste discrimination has instead accentuated them as each group forms its own individual party. India continues to face the challenges of poverty and now also of environmental damage.

Today's India continues to be the largest democracy in the world, the second fastest growing world economy and is widely renowned as a global technology center. Its new-found identity, combined with a greater percentage of the population who are literate and globally aware, will enable India to eventually unite to overcome its past challenges of fragmentation and discrimination. As India launches herself again on the world's stage, perhaps this time she will indeed realize her dream: to ride the strong wave of opportunity without losing sight of her historical and regional riches.

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