The history of India is long, as long as China’s. The first human settlements here go back at least some 9,000 years. In the valley of the river Indus the first organized states were established some 5,000 years ago. The ancient city of Harappa, in today’s Pakistan, traded with Egypt and Mesopotamia, made goods in copper and bronze, and used a primitive form of writing.
India, just as China, is not only a country but a world onto itself. Indeed it is often referred to as a “sub-continent” which today not only includes India but Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well. India has always surprised visitors with the enormous size of its population. By 2030, it is estimated that India will overtake China as the country with the largest population in the world. There are thousands of ethnic groups here, each one with its separate language, customs, and sometimes religion. In fact, India is the origin of two world religions: Hinduism and Buddhism, and of smaller religions too, such as Jainism and Sikhism.
Although both China and India have a long history, China’s is far easier to summarize. From the third century BCE, China called itself an empire and although various dynasties have replaced one another, it is nevertheless possible to tell the history of China as a story of one specific political entity. In the case of India, there is no such continuity. There is no single political subject about which a story can be told. Instead various political entities have replaced each other in the course of the millennia. These different units have been independent of each other, often at war with each other, although there also have been periods when most, or at least much, of the sub-continent has been united under one ruler. Today India is a country, but throughout most of its history it would best be described as an international system of its own. At the same time, it was an international system which always was held together by a strong sense of shared identity — based above all on Hindu practices and beliefs.
Another similarity with China is that India constantly has been menaced by invasions. The invaders have typically swept down from the north-west, across the mountain passes of what now is Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the reason for the invasions was always the same: the extraordinary wealth of the Indian sub-continent. In India everything grew in great abundance and in the fertile rice-fields of the south it was possible to gather no fewer than three harvests per year. The surplus which the agriculture produced paid for an elaborate hierarchy of social classes and for powerful states with rulers famous for their ostentatious displays of wealth. In the Classical period — roughly during the first millennium CE — India was the richest country in the world, with a wealth approximating perhaps half of the world’s total. And well after that — during the Mughal period — India continued to be known as the emporium mundi, the world’s greatest hub for trade and manufacturing. In India it was possible to find whatever one wanted and this was why everyone tried to get here. And those who had nothing to sell to the Indians, like the invading armies coming from the north-west, simply took what they wanted by force.
The first of these invaders were the Indo-Europeans, some two thousand years BCE, then came Alexander the Great, and although his invasion did not in fact happen, Greek culture, centered on today’s Afghanistan, was to have a profound impact on much of Asia. Central Asia was also the staging-post for the invasion undertaken by the Mughals who established themselves as rulers of India in 1526 CE. The Mughals ruled next to all of present-day India during the next three hundred years. Their Muslim culture too was to have a profound impact on Indian society. And when the Europeans arrived in the sixteenth-century it was to the Mughal empire they came. From an Indian point of view, the Europeans were just another wave of invaders, although they came by ship and not across the mountains. The Europeans too, like everyone else, was attracted by India’s immense wealth and the opportunities it offered. It was India after all, not the Americas, that Columbus wanted to reach.
Despite these successive waves of invasions, Indian culture has remained strong, and even the most powerful of foreign armies have had to make compromises with Indian ways of life, eventually merging with the indigenous culture. In addition, India has exercised a strong influence over the rest of Asia, and over Southeast Asia in particular. Starting in the first centuries CE, Indian cultural practices, ideas regarding society and religious beliefs were disseminated all around the Indian Ocean, leading to new cultural combinations. We can talk about this as a process of “indianization.” It is because of indianization that today’s Thailand is a Buddhist country, that Angkor Wat in Cambodia originally was built as a Hindu temple complex, and why a majority of people in Indonesia are Muslims. Indeed the very name of the country — “Indonesia” — reveals some of this history, as does the designation “Indo-China” for the three countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The influence of Indian culture remains strong to this day — although the impact now is felt on a world-wide scale.
The first written records of Indian history are the Vedas, dating from around 1,500 BCE. The text of the Vedas are based on secret oral teachings provided by gurus, religious teachers, and there is a heavy emphasis on rituals, including sacrifices of various kinds. Because of the importance of the Vedas, this early stage in the history of the sub-continent is often known as the “Vedic period.” Yet the Vedas are written in a very concise language and for that reason difficult to decipher. The Upanishads, commentaries on the Vedas, were written some time around 500 BCE, and they provide far more comprehensive statements of this early version of Hinduism.
The followers of the Vedas were the Indo-Europeans, sometimes known as “Aryans.” The Indo-Europeans, at least according to one prominent theory, came from Central Asia some time around 2,000 BCE and established themselves in northern India, along the plains of the river Ganges as well as on the Deccan plateau in central and southern parts of the sub-continent. The Indo-Europeans were originally nomads and even once they increasingly turned to farming, cattle-breeding continued to be important in their lives. The cow was already at this time a sacred animal. Not that much is known about the Indo-Europeans, but the Vedas contain traces of their rituals. [Read more: “Horse sacrifices“]
During the first millennium BCE there were a large number of different groups and tribes in northern India. They formed janapada, or “nations,” which gradually came to be associated with a particular piece of territory. All major geographical regions of contemporary India can be traced back to these Vedic nations. And already these early societies were divided into social classes which were rigidly separated from each other. The priests, or brahmins, formed the leading class; the warriors or kshatriya, came next, then craftsmen and merchants, and finally the class of servants. These four main groups were later subdivided into a multitude of different castes, each one responsible for a certain task and governed by its respective rules. The caste system as a whole was maintained through religious sanctions. You were born into a certain caste, into a certain job and a social position, and there was basically nothing you could do about it. This was the world which the gods had established.
Around 600 BCE, the very large number of janapada had been reduced to sixteen major ones, known as mahajanapada, “great nations,” located on the plains of the Ganges river. In each mahajanapada there was a king and each king surrounded himself with a court with courtiers, including philosophers, magicians and priests. These courts were centers of culture but also of scholarship and religious learning. Much as in China of the Warring States period, and roughly at the same time, each state had to protect itself against its neighbors and this required more powerful armies. But more powerful armies, in turn, required a more powerful economic base and a more efficient state machinery. This is how the military competition came to force economic and political change.
But, and again much as in China, the competition also produced something akin to a philosophical revolution. Religious thought continued to be important, but there were also rationalists, materialists and atheists, and sciences like astronomy and mathematics flourished. [Read more: “Indian mathematics“] Political thought developed as well. The political leaders needed ideas for how to rule their respective states and for how to defeat their enemies, and such ideas were offered by wandering teachers. One early work on politics is the Arthashastra, famous for the cynical advice it provided to rulers. [Read more: “Arthashastra“] Politics, its author suggested, is a dog-eat-dog world in which only the most ruthless can make it to the top. It was also now — in the late Vedic period, between 500 and 200 BCE — that the great epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were composed. [Read more: “The Mahabharata“]
But religious topics were also discussed. Broadly speaking, two quite different religious traditions developed. To the west — towards today’s Pakistan — a priest-led culture flourished, as originally described in the Vedas, which focused on rituals and on the secrets conveyed by gurus. Here the emphasis was on the sacrifices which the gods required and the rewards you might get if you performed them properly. This is the religious tradition which later came to be known as Hinduism. The leading social class, the brahmins, were the keepers of these traditions and the wisdom they contained constituted the spiritual basis of their secular power.
In the eastern part of the Ganges plains — towards today’s Bangladesh — the emphasis was rather on ascetic practices, on meditation and the religious development of each individual. Much debated questions included the nature of consciousness and the self. There is a brahman, a “world-soul,” some teachers argued, but there is an atman too, a soul of each individual, and the question was how the two related to each other. How can the self remain the same from one moment to the next or from one lifetime to the next? In order to investigate such questions, ascetics engaged in practices which later were to develop into yoga and meditation.
It was in this environment that two schools arose which later were to become full-fledged religions — Jainism and Buddhism. They both explicitly broke with the ritualistic culture of the brahmins. They also rejected many of the traditional social practices of Vedic India — such as the caste system. The Jains are famous for their doctrine of ahimsa, or “non-violence,” which not only made them renounce war but also turned them into vegetarians. Much later, in the twentieth-century, the idea of ahimsa would inspire Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement.
Siddharta Gautama was a prince born in the small kingdom of Shakya, in today’s Nepal, most likely in the fifth century BCE. At first he lived the regular, luxurious, life of a prince, got married and had children, but at the age of 29, legend has it, he one day left his palace and encountered first an old man, then a sick man and finally a decaying corpse. Realizing that sickness, old age and death awaited also him, he decided to do something about it. He engaged in various strenuous ascetic practices before he eventually settled for a “middle way,” a life of moderation and detachment, which finally brought him nibbana, or “enlightenment.” Siddharta became a “Buddha,” meaning “the awakened one.” The world is an illusion, the Buddha taught, and through our ceaseless desires we make ourselves unhappy. In fact, the self is an illusion too. Enlightenment is a matter of being released from suffering and from our notion of a self.
Out of compassion for his fellow man the Buddha started telling others about his discoveries and this is how a new religion came to be established. It soon spread along the trade routes of inner Asia and across the Indian Ocean and before long there were Buddhists from Afghanistan to Japan. Today Buddhism is a world religion with an estimated 500 followers world-wide and a growing number in Europe and North America. There are many kinds of Buddhism and many kinds of Buddhists, but curiously for a religion it has no notion of a god. Buddhism was also a very egalitarian faith. There were no social classes, and few distinctions were made between men and women. The Buddhist community, the sangha, encompasses anyone who follows Buddha’s teachings, or at least all Buddhist monks.
The Mauryan empire
The Arthashastra is traditionally said to have been written by Chanakya, an adviser at the court of Chandragupta, king of the Mauryan empire. [Read more: “The Arthashastra“] And considering his extraordinary political and military success, Chandragupta Maurya must have been a good student of the text. He and his successors benefited from the political confusion left in northern India in the wake of the retreat of Alexander the Great’s army. The Mauryans overthrew the various mahapadayana kingdoms and between 322 and 180 BCE, they ruled an empire which for the first time encompassed next to all of India — only the southern tip of the sub-continent remained outside of their control. At the time the Mauryan empire was one of the largest political entities in the world. Only the Mughals in the sixteenth-century, the British in the nineteenth-century, and the Republic of India in the twentieth-century, were able to unite the entire Indian landmass in the same fashion.
The most famous of the Mauryan kings was Ashoka, 304-232 BCE, the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, also known as “Ashoka the Great.” [Read more: “Pillars of Ashoka“] Ashoka was the most ruthless of the Maurya kings, or rather, this is how he started his career. In order to make himself heir to the throne, legend has it, he first had to kill no fewer than 99 of his brothers, and once he had assumed power he continued to be both selfish and cruel. Yet he eventually came to regret his behavior. Above all it was the spectacular bloodshed which took place at the battle of Kalinga, 260 BCE, in which, reputedly, no fewer than a quarter of a million soldiers died, that made him change his ways. Remorseful and disgusted with his previous life, Ashoka converted to Buddhism, gave away his possessions to the poor and took up vegetarianism. He also transformed his state so as to better cater to the needs of his subjects. He planted trees along roads, dug wells and canals for irrigation, built rest-houses for travelers and hospitals for the sick, and instructed his officials to keep an eye out for the welfare of the poor, the aged and the widowed. He replaced the traditional hunting parties — a favorite past-time of all previous Indian kings — with religious pilgrimages.
Ashoka also introduced writing to India and put up a large number of pillars made in stone on which he declared himself to be the ruler of the country and explained his policies and aspirations to his people. Ashoka’s religious conversion was crucial for the dissemination of Buddhism not only in India itself but throughout Asia. He sent missionaries to remote parts of his empire, but also to kingdoms abroad, and his own son is said to have been the first Buddhist missionary to Sri Lanka. Yet the state that Ashoka created barely outlived him. After his death, the sub-continent was once again invaded by various armies coming from Central Asia. In 185 BCE, the Maryuan empire was no more.
Given his many achievements and good deeds, Ashoka’s legacy has been surprisingly mixed. Among Indian nationalists he had admirers such as Mahattma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nerhu, but many twentieth-century Hindu nationalists were skeptical, even hostile, to him. Violence was required, they argued, if India ever was going to get rid of the British. Ashoka was considered too meek. Besides Hindu elites disliked him for his conversion to Buddhism and his rejection of the caste system. Ashoka was an embarrassment, and over the years Indian history textbooks have been rewritten to downplay his achievements.
After the Mauryan empire, new waves of invaders swept in from the north-west. The most successful of these were the Kushans who established a kingdom in northern India during the first four centuries CE. The Kushan empire stretched into Central Asia too and it included Bactria, in today’s Afghanistan. Bactrian culture at the time was a curious mixture of Buddhist and Greek traditions. Once the armies of Alexander the Great withdrew from India in 326 BCE, some of the soldiers remained and there were Greek speaking communities here for centuries. They also continued to produce works of art in the Greek manner. Gold coins were minted with Greek text and enormous statues were erected in which the Buddha was wearing Greek togas. [Read more: “The Buddhas of Bamiyan“]
During the Kushan empire, trade flourished with Central Asia, but also with places much further afield such as Egypt and Rome. In the first centuries CE, rich Romans kept Indian peacocks in their villas and ordinary people complained that the elites were ruining the country by buying expensive Indian fashions. Much of what we know about the Kushan empire is contained in eyewitness accounts left by visitors and merchants coming to India from China. One such traveler was Xuanzang, a Chinese monk, scholar and translator who traveled to India early in the seventh century in order to find more authentic version of the Buddhist scriptures. [Read more: “Journey to the West“] He returned home with many precious manuscripts but also with the Bactrian version of image of the Buddha.
In the fourth century CE, the Kushan empire disintegrated into a number of small kingdoms and instead rulers of the Gupta dynasty, 319–605 CE, came to dominate the northern part of the sub-continent. The Gupta empire was a proper state, with a bureaucracy, a tax system and salaried government officials. The Gupta kings issued coins with their pictures on them, thus spreading their images throughout the kingdom and informing ordinary people who their ruler was. The economy was flourishing — metallurgy in particular, and at the time India was the world-center of iron production. Enormous iron pillars were cast together with Buddha statues in copper. The sciences made great strides too. It was now that Indian mathematicians invented the number zero. Zero is of course not very much, but it was to revolutionize mathematics. They also determined that Π, pi, was equal to 3.14, plus a long string of digits. Meanwhile Indian astronomers calculated the exact number of days in a year and also the circumference of the earth with astonishing precision. [Read more: “Indian mathematics“]
It was during the Gupta period that many of the things we today think of as quintessentially “Indian” first came to be established, including Indian music, architecture, sculpture and paintings. It was now that Hinduism came to be institutionalized and given set texts, rituals and prayers. And it was now that the images of the Hindu gods received their iconic forms – Vishnu with his four arms; the dancing Shiva; Ganesh, the elephant god; Hanuman, the monkey god, and so on. The power of the Gupta empire assured that these new images would be propagated over a vast area. The Kamasutra was also compiled at this time, notorious as a manual on sexual practices but also a discussion of love and relationships. [Read more: “Kama Sutra“] To Hindu nationalists today, the Gupta period was the “golden age” to which they often refer in their propaganda. According to them, the Gupta period was an exclusively Hindu era, when Buddhism was on the wane and when Islam not yet had arrived in the country. Yet the Gupta rulers were quite happy to embrace many truths and to accept complexity. They not only built Hindu temples but performed ancient horse sacrifices and supported Buddhist learning. The large Buddhist monastery at Nalanda, founded in the Gupta period, attracted students from as far away as Tibet, China, Korea and Central Asia. [Read more: “Nalanda, a very old university“]
When the Gupta empire began to decline early in the seventh-century, it was replaced by a number of competing kingdoms, yet none of them was able to conquer the sub-continent as a whole. Contemporary writers described the political situation as one of “fish justice,” a world in which the big fish eat the small. From this state of anarchy two empires arose, albeit in different parts of the sub-continent — the Pala and the Chola.
The Pala empire, ruled in Bengal and today’s Bangladesh, from the eighth- to the twelfth-century CE. The Pala were Buddhists, but far more war-like than once Ashoka, and their army was particularly famous for its war elephants. The Pala had skilled diplomats and traded far and wide. Coins from the Abbasid caliphate have been found in archaeological sites. It was by means of these commercial contacts that Islam for the first time was introduced into India and it was now that Indian science and mathematics was exported to the Muslim world. [Read more: “The translation movement“] The Pala rulers were patrons of architecture, the arts and of the Buddhist university in Nalanda. The Pala empire is considered as the “golden age” of Bengal and when it declined in the twelfth-century it meant the end of the last Buddhist rulers in the sub-continent.
The Chola dynasty, meanwhile, dominated the eastern coast of the sub-continent, where a substantial part of of the population were Tamil speaking. Although the Chola kingdom dates from the third century BCE, it was only in the latter half of the ninth-century CE that it became a vast empire. The Chola were fishermen, seafarers and traders, and they maintained close contact with lands beyond the sub-continent – from the islands of the Maldives in the south to the Indonesian archipelago in the east. They even ventured as far as to China and Chinese coins have been discovered here. The Indian influences which reached Southeast Asia during this period was more than anything the Chola version of Indian culture.
The Chola kings, much as the Gupta before them, were the leaders of a centralized state with a professional and disciplined bureaucracy. They constructed great buildings, including many temples, and they too were patrons of the arts. It was now that a body of literature written in Tamil first came to be developed. In the tenth century CE, the Chola invaded Sri Lanka and most of the island was occupied. Today’s ethnic division of Sri Lanka — where Tamils constitute some 11 percent of the population — dates from the Chola period. The Chola declined in the thirteenth-century. Tamils still look back on it as their version of a “golden age.”
Although the Indian sub-continent repeatedly was invaded by various armies, Indian empires themselves never sought to expand abroad. Despite this fact, India has had a profound impact on societies throughout Asia. The power exercised in this way was civilizational rather than political and it relied on commerce rather than on the force of arms. This process is often referred to as “indianization.” Indianization, in other words, refers to the process whereby the cultural practices of the Indian sub-continent, together with aspects of its political and social system, came to influence the rest of Asia — Southeast Asia most directly, but China, Japan and Central Asia too.
Since indianization never was a matter of an official policy, it is difficult to say exactly when the process began and how it developed. Indian influences spread above all along the first trade-routes, both those in Central Asia and in the Indian Ocean. In the Indian Ocean you traveled by boat, and thanks to the monsoons — the so called “trade winds” — it was surprisingly easy to cover even large distances. Since the winds changed with the seasons, a trader in southern India could set sail for, say, the Malacca peninsula in the summer and just as easily return home in the winter when the direction of the winds changed.
In the third century CE there were already well-established contacts between ports all around the Indian Ocean and this was where Indian merchants came to settle. Together with the trade and the traders came various Indian religious practices but also ideas regarding politics and society together with some of the institutions required to implement them. In Southeast Asia, a strong influence from India is detectable from the eighth century CE, and it was to continue for at least some five hundred years. This was when Hinduism spread, followed by Buddhism and then Islam. But this was also how the Pali and Sanskrit languages were exported, together with Indian music, theater and dance, food, ways of dressing, and much else besides. [Read more: “Thaipusam“]
But it is at the same time clear that the indigenous populations of Southeast Asia were far more than the passive recipients of these influences. For one thing, they often traveled to India themselves, to southern India in particular, and they were active importers both of goods and cultural practices. Many aspects of Indian society were highly elaborate and urbane and thereby quite alien to the agricultural, and rather rustic, traditions which characterized Southeast Asian societies. Far-away India seemed sophisticated whereas the local culture seemed hopelessly backward. Not surprisingly competition ensued regarding who among the locals that would become the most Indian.
This logic mattered in particular for the local rulers. An East-Asian king who could surround himself with the trappings of Indian civilization was quite automatically regarded as both powerful and legitimate. As such he would stand out from his competitors — at least as long as they did not copy the same Indian models. In addition the local rulers were eager to adopt any institution or technique than might help them strengthen their hold on power. This included Indian manuals on statecraft, political institutions and the Indian legal system.
There were many indianized states throughout East Asia. This is only a small sample:
Langkasuka, 200s-1500s CE, was the oldest kingdom in the Malay Peninsula thought to have been created by descendants of Ashoka the Great. Mixing Hindu, Buddhist and Malay culture, Langkasuka was a part of the Chinese international system and their tribute bearers are mentioned in imperial Chinese records. [Read more: “China and East Asia“]
Srivijaya, 650-1377 CE, was a kingdom on the island of Sumatra in today’s Indonesia, heavily influenced by Indian culture. Srivijaya was a thalassocracy, an empire stretching across the sea, with strong connections to the Malacca peninsula and societies bordering on the South China Sea. Srivijaya attracted pilgrims from other parts of Asia and was home to more than a thousand Buddhist scholars.
Medang, 800s-1100s, was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom on Java in today’s Indonesia. They built the Borobudur, a Buddhist temple complex, and the Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex. The Medang rulers oversaw the translation of Indian texts but the culture included distinct Javanese influences. Medang buildings are known for their bas-reliefs which often contain quotations from Buddhist sutras.
Champa, 192 to 1832 CE, was a kingdom located in southern and central Vietnam which adopted Sanskrit as a scholarly language and made Hinduism into a state religion, although Indian influences here too were heavily mixed with local religious lore. In 1832 the Champa were conquered by the Viet, a society with far closer cultural ties to China. There are still people in Vietnam today who speak Chamic, a language related to Malay.
The Khmer was a Hindu empire which existed between the 9th and 13th centuries in today’s Cambodia. Its political and religious center was the Angkor Wat, an enormous complex of more than 900 temples. The kings were considered as incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu god. [Read more: “Angkor Wat“]
Kingdom of Tondo, 900s to 1589, was an Indianized kingdom in today’s Philippines. They traded with China and participated in the Chinese international system.
Pagan, 849-1297 CE, was a kingdom in central Burma, predominantly Buddhist but also incorporating Hindu beliefs. They were invaded by the Mongols in 1297 and never quite recovered.
Ayutthaya, 1351-1767, a kingdom in today’s Thailand. They engaged in extensive trade, sent ambassadors to foreign courts, and expanded into the Malay peninsula. The Ayutthaya kings combined Hinduism and Buddhism and were considered semi-divine rulers. Their armies made extensive use of war elephants. [Read more: “War elephants“]
Majapahit, 1293-1527, was another thalassocratic empire, based in Java in today’s Indonesia. They had some 98 states paying tribute to them from areas including Malaysia, southern Thailand, the Philippines and New Guinea. Majapahit rose to power in the wake of the Mongol invasion. [Read more: “The Mongol khanates“] The Majapahit built stupas in red brick, statues in terracotta, and figurines in gold. They made no real difference between Hinduism and Buddhism.
Bali, in today’s Indonesia, an island strongly influenced by Hindu culture from the first century CE. Unusually for Southeast Asia, an Indian-style caste-system was in place here, although it was vastly simplified. Hinduism is practiced in Bali to this day but it is combined with many Buddhist beliefs and indigenous religious practices.
But it was rarely the case that Indian cultural practices were taken over in their entirety. Rather, they were adopted and then adapted to suit local needs. For example: although the local rulers often were keen on the idea of castes, they were not, with the exception of Bali, able to impose the system on society at large. In the Khmer kingdom, for example, the caste system was only implemented within the temple compound of Angkor Wat itself. Clearly this way of organizing social relations, with its many fine-tuned gradations between social classes and professional groups, fit badly in societies where next to everybody was a farmer. This also shows that there were limits to how far Indian cultural references could spread. In many cases, it was only the local elite that was thoroughly steeped in Hinduism.
We see the same mixing of cultural references among other religious practices. For one thing, the nuclear family was more powerful in Southeast Asia than in Indian society itself. Thus in Bali reincarnation is thought to happen within the family lineage and not randomly in society at large. Women have often also played a more prominent role in Southeast Asian societies than they did, or do, in India, and the adoption of Indian cultural practices did not change this fact. Or consider the use of Sanskrit. Today languages such as Thai and Burmese are written with letters that may remind us of Sanskrit, but they have been thoroughly modified and are entirely different. [Read more: “Shadow puppets“].
This mixing of religions was further facilitated by the fact that neither Hinduism nor Buddhism are monotheistic faiths. A religion with only one, omnipotent, god will always reject the possibility of there being other competing divinities and as a result the deity in question has problems accepting claims put forward by other gods. For Buddhism and Hinduism, however, there were no such problems, and both religions happily borrowed references from each other. You could be a Buddhist part of the day, or part of your life, and a Hindu the rest of the time. Or, more likely, you simply not make sharp distinction between the two.
“Indianization” is consequently a somewhat contested term. Indeed, the first ones to use it were Indian nationalists in Bengal in the 1920s, at the time when India itself still was a British colony. Inspired by French excavations of Angkor Wat and other ancient temple sites, they began to speculate regarding the existence of an ancient “greater India” which had spread out over much of East Asia. [Read more: “Angkor Wat“] This had not been a political entity, they explained, but a civilizational one. India had brought progress and prosperity to its neighbors but not, like the British, through military conquest but instead through trade and peaceful exchange. Yet as we have seen, Indian traditions were often diluted, or completely reconfigured, or perhaps they maintained their original form while being filled with entirely different cultural content. If we go on using the term, we should think of indianization as a process of hybridization — such as when two plants interbreed to form a unique combination of the two. Indianization is not the spread of Indian culture as much as the creation of new species of culture. Indian civilization has continued to have a profound impact on other societies, but today its influence is nothing short of global. [Read more: “Curries, the Beatles in India and Bollywoodization“]
The Mughal empire
Between the tenth and the twelfth centuries CE, another great wave of invasions swept down on northern parts of the Indian sub-continent. Once again it was a question of nomads coming from Central Asia, but this time around they were Muslim. Between 1206 and 1526, a Muslim regime — the Sultanate of Delhi — came to dominate much of northern India. However, the most important of the invaders were the Mughals.
The Mughal empire, 1519-1857, was a Muslim kingdom with its origins in today’s Uzbekistan. There were altogether 19 Mughal rulers in one continuous line of succession. Mughal India made money from trade and manufacturing and the 16th and 17th centuries in particular were times of prosperity. The Mughals built impressive palaces — of which the Taj Mahal is the most famous — and organized the administration and the army on a continent-wide scale. [Read more: “Taj Mahal“] Despite the alien creed of the invaders, Hindu religion and culture remained strong, and in India too, much as in the Muslim caliphates of the Middle East, both Christians and Jews had a protected position.
Babur, 1483-1530, was the first Mughal ruler. He was a 13th generation descendant of Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai, and also a relative of Timur Lenk, who had created a vast, if short-lived, empire in Central Asia in the fourteenth-century. Not surprisingly, Babur found it difficult to live up to his family traditions. Born in the fertile Fergana valley in today’s Uzbekistan, he settled in Samarkand where he surrounded himself with a small band of retainers. Pushed out of Samarkand by the advancing Uzbeks, he moved on to Afghanistan and eventually settled in Kabul. From here his armies began making incursions into northern India where he gradually established more of a foothold. The Mughal soldiers used guns to great effect and eventually Babur settled in India itself. He was a great supporter of libraries and learning, and he wrote a famous autobiography. As he confessed, he regarded life in India as something of a temporary exile and remained homesick for Central Asia to the end of his day.
Humayun, 1508-1556, was Babur’s son. His name means “the lucky one,” but he was clearly quite inappropriately named. He temporarily lost the Mughal throne and was exiled to Iran, but with Persian support he reconquered it in 1555. He died, only 48 years old, when falling down a staircase — according to one version, while running to get to Friday prayer on time.
After the unexpected death of Humayun, it was quite unclear who would succeed him, but eventually his son Akbar, 1542-1605, did. He was only 13 years old at the time and he was to rule India for the next 50 years. Akbar was the Mughal ruler who more than all others put his mark on the empire. He loved hunting, horse-riding and archery, and although he remained illiterate all his life, he was clearly an exceptionally capable leader. During Akbar’s reign trade and manufacturing flourished and the country grew rich. This was a time of great expansion in world trade, and Mughal India was its hub. As far as relations between the religions were concerned, Akbar abolished the jizya, the tax imposed on non-Muslims, and he raised the status of women in the eyes of the law. He moved closer to Shiism than to the Sunni version of Islam, and he took several Hindu wives. He even tried to amalgamate the faiths of the country into one religion, known as Din-e Ilahi. [Read more: “Din-e Ilahi“]
Akbar embarked on far-reaching administrative reforms and imposed uniform rules on the bureaucracy. He also reformed the military, organizing the cavalry into the same units of ten soldiers which had been a feature of Genghis Khan’s armies. He also established an elephantry, units of war elephants. [Read more: “War elephants“] Akbar made a serious attempt to conquer all of the Indian sub-continent. He was constantly on the move, and much as Genghis Khan before him, he took his bureaucrats with him wherever he went. In the end only a small tip in the very south of India remained outside of his grasp. Akbar’s reign was also a time of cultural flourishing. Persian culture was influential at his court, with Persian-style music, poetry and illuminated manuscripts as primary art forms.
Jahangir, 1569-1627, was the oldest surviving son of Akbar’s and the fourth Mughal emperor. Jahangir means “conqueror of the world” and he tried his best to live up to his name, although to posterity he is more remembered for his active love life. The economy of the country remained strong and so did the Mughal administration. He too encouraged religious debates and tolerance of other faiths.
Shah Jahan, 1592-1666, was Akbar’s grandson. He took a great interest in architecture and left a number of prominent buildings to posterity. He constructed the Red Fort in Delhi and made Agra into his capital. It was also he who commissioned the Taj Mahal as a monument to commemorate his beloved wife. [Read more: “Taj Mahal“] In addition, Shah Jahan is famous for the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-Noor diamond. It was on the Peacock Throne, in the Red Fort, that the Mughal emperors were seated on ceremonial occasions. The throne was an extravagant affair even for the Mughals. It was covered in gold and diamonds — of which the Koh-i-Noor, one of the largest diamonds ever discovered, was the most striking. The Peacock Throne cost twice as much as the construction of Taj Mahal itself.
As for the remaining 14 descendants in the line, they were less distinguished, even though the empire continued to expand — it reached its greatest extent only in 1707. By now, however, it was becoming clear that the Mughals had overreached themselves. The country was too large, their forces too thin on the ground, and the supply lines too difficult to maintain. Economically the country continued to prosper, but there were revolts against higher taxes and discontent regarding religious matters. In the course of the eighteenth-century the Mughal rulers became increasingly dogmatic defenders of the Muslim faith. Yet they continued to build palaces, mosques and libraries and made Delhi, with its white marble buildings, into their permanent capital.
This was also when the next wave of invaders appeared in the country, this time traveling by boat. The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese, then came Holland, France and eventually the agents of the English East India Company. This, however, is a story which we will return to in our last chapter. [Read more: “The European expansion“] As a result of internal divisions and foreign pressure, the Mughal empire gradually fell apart, even though it formally lasted until 1857.
But the Europeans did not conquer India right away. In 1799, the Sikhs, led by its king Ranjit Singh, established an empire based in the Punjab, in the north-west, which for a few decades became a dominant force on the sub-continent. Sikhism is yet another domestic religion which, much like Buddhism and the Jains, have sought to break with the rigid Hindu caste system. The Sikhs were egalitarian, emphasizing self-help and the pursuit of social justice. They were also quite ready to use military force in order to fight for their beliefs. They are famous for their swords, their uncut hair and their turbans. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the center of Sikh worship and a place of pilgrimage to this day.
In appearance Ranjit Singh was far from impressive. He was short and had lost sight in one of his eyes already as a child. Yet at the time of his first military successes, he was only 18 years old. He was generally known as “the Lion of Punjab.” When he died in 1839, we are told, his four wives and seven concubines voluntarily threw themselves on his funeral pyre. The Sikh empire fell apart soon afterwards, and it was only then that Great Britain colonized the entirety of the Indian sub-continent. But that, as we said, is another story.