India has always been a magnet for invaders. Just about everybody from the Greeks, Chinese, Arabs, Persians, and British were drawn by the wealth of riches the country possessed. But the country was always too vast and too diverse for any one raider to hold on to it for very long. India is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with evidence suggesting human inhabitation 200,000 to 500,000 years ago. The earliest recorded people here were those of the Indus Valley civilization, a highly sophisticated culture that had its own system of writing and lived in planned towns.
Some of the earliest, in a long line of invaders, who reached India were the Aryans who came from the northwest and settled here for about 700 years. They were eventually followed by the Persians and the Greeks. It was during this period that Siddhartha Gautama founded the Buddhist philosophy/religion whose influence still resonates more than 2.5 millennia later.
As the Greeks went into decline, a king called Chandragupta established one of India’s greatest dynasties, the Maurya. Under the great Ashoka, the Mauryans extended their presence almost through the entire length of the subcontinent. During a bloody conquest of Orissa, however, a repentant Ashoka washed his hands off warfare and converted to Buddhism, working tirelessly as a missionary to spread Buddhism throughout Central Asia. Over the next few hundred years, conquerors from China and the north came and went with unfailing regularity, none managing to consolidate a base here.
In AD 319, the Gupta dynasty was founded by Chandragupta II whose sphere of influence extended over the entire north and through much of the south. The decline of the Guptas saw the dawn of a Golden Age in Indian culture with the construction of some of the most spectacular temples, including the most visited ones at Bhubaneshwar, Konark, and Khajuraho. This period of prosperity and cultural advancement lasted till the arrival of the Moslems. In 1001, Mahmud of Ghazi and his band of Arabs attacked the region repeatedly over a 26 year period, leaving ruined towns and bloodied corpses in their wake. There was a period of calm for about 150 years and then in 1192, the Arabs came again and stayed. They ruled until 1397 when the Mongols arrived under Timur Lang. After this, the Islamic empire diminished until 1527 when the Mughal emperor Babur came to power and quickly founded the Mughal dynasty. His son Humayun proved to be an ineffectual ruler but Humayun’s son Akbar would prove to be the greatest Mughal of them all. A highly enlightened ruler, Akbar fostered cultural and religious tolerance and married a Hindu princess. After Akbar, the empire passed into the hands of Jahangir and then Shahjehan who built the Taj Mahal and many other extravagant monuments. The empire disintegrated after Shahjehan’s son, Aurangzeb, just as the British began to flex their colonial muscles.
The Advent of the British
In 1610, the British established a small trading post at Surat called the East India Company. This was the beginning of a three hundred year long presence that would change the sub-continent’s history. In 1784, after a series of financial scandals, the Crown assumed control of the East India Company and in effect began to rule a country of 300 million people from afar. In 1857, Hindus and Moslems in the Army revolted against the allegation that the British were greasing bullets with the fat of cows and pigs – the former worshipped by the Hindus and the later reviled by the Moslems. A year long rebellion followed which was soon quelled by the colonial masters. But the seeds of India’s independence movement had been sown. In 1915, a diminutive lawyer named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived on the scene and soon assumed a remarkable leadership role in the movement. Gandhi’s ability to lead India to independence without espousing violence easily made him one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century and influenced later world leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela.
Freedom at Midnight
At midnight on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru was sworn in as independent India’s first prime minister. But independence came at a heavy price. Moslems led by Mohammed Al Jinnah had been calling for the creation of a separate Moslem state called Pakistan. Thus the country’s independence coincided with the carving out of the new Islamic state of Pakistan, a process that included the largest mass migration in modern history as millions of Hindus and Moslems made their way across the borders to settle in the country of their choice. More than 500,000 people died in the mad communal frenzy that followed, and countless families were forever splintered. The following year Gandhi, a fierce critic of partition, was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic who blamed him for the creation of Pakistan. Although India’s post-independence history has been intermittently marked by political upheavals and communal clashes between Hindus and Moslems, the country is today on the threshold of a new chapter in its history as economic liberalization promises to usher in unimaginable prosperity.