India Feature


History You Can See

India's history is marked by periods of cultural and economic exchange and lively empire building. Among the obvious results are the ruins of ancient planned cities and the chaos of modern India's skyrocketing growth.

Blessed with an abundance of natural resources, geographical diversity, and many access points along its coasts, India has historically been an attractive place for settlers and conquerors. Part of the reason for the subcontinent's continued diversity of culture and people is that residents have always been influenced by different forces at each of the area's different boundaries, which themselves have been rather fluid over the centuries. At various points, Indian empires have been some of the richest and most cultured in the world. Though its history is marked by cycles of destruction and construction, and despite a tendency to neglect all things old, India's past is very much alive in fabulous myths, recorded documents, and phenomenal physical artifacts and archaeological sites.

Ages of Architecture

Mughal architecture is a mélange of influences—vaulted spaces recalling Central Asian campaign tents, Persian domes topped with Hindu lotus finials, and Rajput-style pavilions with umbrella-like overhangs. The British adopted what they saw, adding Gothic and art deco touches. Examples of British construction include Victoria Terminus, the Gateway of India, and Rashtrapati Bhavan.


The subcontinent's oldest significant archaeological finds are from the planned cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, which peaked in western India, Pakistan, and points north in the period around 2600–1800 BC. Delhi's National Museum has a large collection of artifacts (pottery, toys, copper tools) from this era. Around 1500 BC, Indo-Europeans from Central Asia began to migrate to the region; their Indo-Aryan language was likely influenced by the subcontinent's indigenous Dravidian dialects to form Sanskrit. This gave rise to the Vedic Iron Age, characterized by the oral composition of Sanskrit texts—the underpinnings of Hinduism. Urban centers such as Kashi (modern-day Varanasi, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world) emerged, and India began to be cut up into various monarchies and republics.

Ancient Empires

Succeeding a handful of ancient kingdoms and forays by Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, the Hindu Maurya Empire (India's first) was founded in 321 BC. At its peak, under the Buddhist convert Emperor Ashoka, the kingdom encompassed most of the subcontinent. Ashoka built Buddhist shrines and temples at Sarnath (where the Buddha preached his first sermon) and at Sanchi. He also furthered the religion through edicts, often inscribed on pillars. The Ashokan pillar at Sarnath, with four lions at the top, later provided the inspiration for modern India's state emblem.

Farther south lay the Dravidian kingdoms of the Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas. These eventually gave way to other dynasties, while the decline of the Maurya Empire in the north led to smaller kingdoms with ever-shifting boundaries and incursions from the northwest. Most of the north was again united by the Gupta Empire during India's "Golden Age" from the 4th to 6th centuries. Under the tolerant administration of the Guptas, the arts and sciences flourished: the concept of zero, the heliocentric model, and the game of chess are all said to have been invented during this period. Meanwhile, the grandeur of the Vijayanagar Empire in the south, which was strong until the 17th century, is evident in the ruins at Hampi. The rest of India was ruled by other "Middle Kingdoms," like the Vakatakas in central India, who created the Buddhist cave paintings at Ajanta. By the 8th century, martial Rajput clans were a dominant ruling force in north India. Rajput factions built Gwalior's clifftop fort and Khajuraho's erotically embellished temples; their descendents would go on to build forts and palaces in Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, and other centers of power in Rajasthan.

Muslim Rulers

India's first Islamic states were several Turkic and Afghan territories, collectively called the Delhi Sultanate. The first, the Mamluk (Slave) Dynasty, was founded by Qutb-ud-din Aibak in the early 13th century. A slave-soldier whose leader had made incursions into north India, Aibak and his successors built Delhi's Qutub Minar. Next, the Turkic-Afghan Khilji rulers took over, expanding their territory west from the Ganges River and building Delhi's Siri Fort. Around the same time, the breakaway Bahmani Sultanate, which eventually fragmented into smaller kingdoms, carved out parts of the south's Vijayanagara Empire. In 1321, the Tughlaqs sultans came to power, ruling from Tughlaqabad (now in Delhi). Their rule was weakened in 1398, when Timur (Timurlane), a descendent of Genghis Khan, sacked the city. The Sayyid Dynasty ruled briefly, followed by the Afghan Lodhi sultans, some of whom are buried in the tombs in Delhi's Lodhi Gardens.

Relative stability came to north India with the first Mughal Emperor, Babur, who hailed from Central Asia and had Persian, Turkic, and Mongol ancestry. He established his rule in 1526, having defeated the Lodis and neighboring Rajputs. Babur's son was Humayun, whose tomb in Delhi is an example of the mixing of Islamic and Hindu cultures under the Mughals; it's considered a precursor to the Taj Mahal. Humayun's son, Akbar, reigned for half a century, starting in 1556. Based in Agra and nearby Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar expanded and consolidated Mughal power through marriage, conquest, and feudal ties. Greatly influenced by Sufi saints, Akbar was curious about and tolerant of other religions. The syncretic Mughal arts and architecture blossomed under his grandson, Shah Jahan, who built his city, Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), including the Lal Qila (Red Fort) and the Jama Masjid, as well as Agra Fort and, of course, the Taj Mahal.


Following the expansionist policies of the puritanical Emperor Aurangzeb (1658-1707), Mughal power was compromised by war, especially against the strong Maratha Empire, which had its center in Raigad, south of Mumbai.

Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth I chartered the British East India Company, arguably the world's first corporation, in 1600. Competing with the Dutch, Portuguese, and French for mercantile control, the British East India Company opened trading posts and spread out, building India's railroads, from its forts in Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay (now Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai). The company steadily gained control over the subcontinent by pitting princely states against each other, leveraging economic power, installing governing and educational institutions, and through outright battle. In 1857, the company's Indian troops revolted. Variously called the Sepoy Mutiny or the First War of Independence, the rebellion's ripple effect gave the British government an excuse to clamp down. Raj architecture persists in Delhi, which succeeded Calcutta as the capital and is packed with imperial buildings, especially in the India Gate area. South Mumbai, too, is littered with Raj reminders; must-sees are the Prince of Wales Museum and Crawford Market.

Independence and Statehood

In 1947, after nearly a century of British Raj, India gained independence in the aftermath of World War II. Leading the push for independence through nonviolent resistance was Mohandas K. Gandhi, known as Mahatma (Great Soul). Gandhi and other leaders are honored at museums and memorials across the country, including Delhi's National Gandhi Museum, the Gandhi Smriti (where he was assassinated), and the Nehru Memorial Museum.

Independence came at a price, however. Before their soldiers sailed out from Mumbai's Gateway of India, the British partitioned the country, carving out West and East Pakistan (the latter now Bangladesh) as Muslim nations. The violence of Partition (the largest human migration in history, with a population exchange of millions), an early India-Pakistan war, and the problem of incorporating hundreds of princely states were huge challenges. The first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, set about building a socialist nation—creating infrastructure, universities, and nationalized industries, and taking an active part in the fledgling Non-aligned Movement. In its first few decades, India also saw an agricultural revolution, war with China over disputed territory, and more conflicts with Pakistan. When Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, became prime minister, she reacted to the threat of secessionist groups and economic problems by declaring a state of emergency in 1971. The backlash against her and her sons' leadership led to a more dynamic but less predictable coalition-driven Parliament and increased politicization of religion and caste. In the 1990s, economic reforms and the privatization of government-run corporations led to a booming economy and participation in global trade. Although its economy is still largely agrarian, India has become an offshore provider of skilled services with a large middle class, evident in the call centers and glittering malls that have sprouted around Delhi, Hyderabad, and elsewhere.

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