The first humans are thought to have migrated to the Indian subcontinent around 70,000 BC, and there are several archaeological sites for Stone Age India. One important one is in Mehrgarh (Pakistan), with the oldest known evidence of agriculture on the subcontinent, around 7000 BC.
The Indus Valley Civilisation (3300-1300 BC) was one of the first Bronze Age civilisations in the world and very advanced for its time. At its peak (2600-1900 BC), it covered most of what is now Pakistan, as well as part of northern India and eastern Afghanistan. The two most important archaeological sites, both in Pakistan, are Mohenjo-daro and Harappa.
Sometime after 2000 BC, the region was invaded and conquered by the Aryans, shepherds from the northwest. Around the same time, related groups invaded Greece (Hellenic Greeks who displaced the Minoans), Anatolia or Turkey (the Hittites), Persia and other areas. All the invaders spoke related languages, and many modern languages, including most spoken in northern India and Europe and some in Central Asia, are descended from them. Linguists place them all in the Indo-European language family.
Indians date their history from the Vedic period, around 1500-500 BC, after the Aryan invasion. This is the time when the Vedas, the oldest and most sacred books of Hinduism, were compiled. They were written in an Indo-European language, Sanskrit. Some rituals of Hinduism took shape during this period.
The Vedic civilisation continues to influence India to this day. Today’s Hinduism traces its roots to the Vedas, but is also strongly influenced by the literature that came after, such as the Upanishads, the Puranas, the great epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita. According to tradition, these books claim only to expand and distil the knowledge already present in the Vedas.
In the 1st millennium BC, various philosophical schools of thought developed that greatly enriched Hinduism. Most of them claimed to derive from the Vedas. However, two of these schools – Buddhism and Jainism – challenged the authority of the Vedas and are now recognised as independent religions.
Many great empires were formed between 500 BC and 500 AD. Notable among them were the Mauryas and the Guptas, both with their capital in the city of Pataliputra, now called Patna. Further west, the Gandharan civilisation (an independent kingdom, later part of the Maurya Empire) ruled over much of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their city of Taxila was a great centre of Buddhist and other scholarship.
Later, there was a gradual decline of Buddhism and Jainism. The practice of Buddhism in particular disappeared from the Indian heartland, although Buddha himself was included in the Hindu pantheon. Jainism continues to be practised by a significant number of people who are not entirely sure whether they consider themselves Hindus or not. Hinduism itself underwent significant changes. The importance of Vedic deities such as Indra and Agni declined and Puranic deities such as Vishnu, Shiva, their various avatars and family members gained prominence.
The Islamic invasions began in the 8th century. Gradually, the raiders began to remain as rulers and soon much of northern India was ruled by Muslims. The most important Muslim rulers were the Mughal Empire, which at its peak encompassed almost the entire subcontinent (except for the southern and eastern extremities), while the major Hindu force that survived in the north were the Rajputs. The bravery of the Rajputs in resisting the invasion of their country is legendary and celebrated in ballads throughout the forts of Rajasthan. Prominent among the Rajputs was Maha Rana Pratap, the ruler of Chittorgarh, who spent years in exile fighting Akbar, the third of the Mughals. Eventually, however, the Rajputs were subdued, and the alliance between Rajputs and Mughals remained strong until the end of the empire. During this period North India experienced a golden age of Indian art, architecture and literature, which produced the monumental treasures of Rajasthan and the Taj Mahal. Both Hindi and Urdu also took root in medieval North India. During the Islamic period, some Hindus also converted to Islam. Today, about 13% of India’s population follows Islam.
Sikhism, another major religion, was established in Punjab during the Mughal period. The relationship between Sikhism and the Mughals varied over time. The Golden Temple in Amritsar was built and recognised throughout the world as the most important pilgrimage centre of the Sikhs. However, by the time of their tenth Guru – Guru Gobind Singh – relations were hostile, mainly due to the hostility of Aurangzeb, the most intolerant and bigoted of the Mughals. The conflict between the Sikhs and the Mughals was one of the causes of the eventual decline of the Mughal Empire. The other cause was the challenge of the Marathas in Maharashtra, started by Shivaji and continued by the Peshwas. Marathas created the confederation that was short-lived and was nearly as large as the Mughal Empire. After the Third Battle of Panipat, the Marathas lost their rule over India, which in turn paved the way for British colonialism.
South India followed a different development and was less affected by Islamic rule. The period from 500 to 1600 AD is known as the classical period, which was dominated by large South Indian kingdoms. Prominent among them were the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and Vijayanagara kingdoms that ruled from present-day Karnataka, and the Pallavas, Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas that ruled from present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Among them, the Cholas, who ruled from various capitals, including Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, are widely recognised as the most powerful of the South Indian kingdoms. At the height of their power, their territory extended as far north as Pataliputra and their influence reached as far east as Sumatra, West Borneo and South Vietnam. Some of the grandest Hindu and Jain monuments that exist in India were built in South and East India during this period.
From the late 16th century onwards, European traders visited India. They went to India in the eighteenth century. Prominent among them were the British, French and Portuguese. The British East India Company made Calcutta its headquarters in 1772. It also founded subsidiary cities like Bombay and Madras. Calcutta later became “the second city of the Empire after London”. By the 19th century, the British had taken political control of virtually all of India in one way or another, although the Portuguese and French also had their enclaves along the coast.
In 1857, there was a rebellion by the Indian rulers, which was put down but led the British government to relieve the Company and make India part of the Empire. This period of rule by the Crown, 1858-1947, was called the British Raj. Many Indians converted to Christianity during this period, for pretty much the same reasons as they converted to Islam, although forced conversions in British India ended after 1859 and Queen Victoria’s proclamation promised to respect the religious beliefs of Indians.
On Aug. 15, 1947, nonviolent resistance to British colonialism under the leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi led to independence. However, independence was granted simultaneously to the Hindu-majority secular state of India and the smallest Muslim-majority state of Pakistan. The orgy of bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims that followed partition resulted in the deaths of at least half a million people and the migration of 12 to 14 million.
India achieved food self-sufficiency in the 1970s and ensured that the large-scale famines that were common in the past were a thing of the past. However, this policy also led to shortages, slow growth and large-scale corruption. After a balance-of-payments crisis in 1991, the country introduced market-based reforms that have continued at a meandering pace ever since, fuelling strong growth. The IT and business outsourcing industries are driving growth, while manufacturing and agriculture, which have not seen reforms, are lagging behind. About 60 % of Indians depend on agriculture for their livelihood and about 36 % live in poverty.
Relations with Pakistan are frosty. The two countries were engaged in a series of four wars, three of which were over the status of Kashmir. the third war between the two countries in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. India continues to struggle with occasional terrorist attacks, widely believed to originate in Pakistan and to be ordered or supported by its military-intelligence complex.
China and India went to war in 1962 over a border dispute. Although current relations are peaceful, a military rivalry still exists and no land crossings are allowed between the two countries, although a border crossing between Sikkim and Tibet was reopened for trade in 2006. Security concerns about Pakistan and China prompted India to conduct two nuclear weapons tests (including the 1974 tests, which were described as “peaceful explosions”). India wants to be accepted as a legitimate nuclear power and is applying for a permanent seat on the Security Council.
India is proud of its democratic record. Constitutional government and democratic freedoms have been preserved for most of its 66 years as an independent country.
Current concerns in India include corruption, poverty, overpopulation, environmental degradation, ongoing border disputes with Pakistan and China, cross-border terrorism, and ethnic and religious unrest that occurs from time to time. India’s current obsession, at least among the educated elite, revolves around whether India will be able to overtake China in economic growth and become an economic and military superpower.