Four major eras of ancient Indian history

1 Pre-historic era: until c. 2000 BC

• We are all Africans. South Asians are descendants of those who first

migrated from Africa.

• The first South Asians were hunter-gatherers who made stone tools during

the Old and Middle Stone Ages – from 500,000 bc to 11,000 bc, and

drew the cave paintings at Bhimbetka.

• South Asian farming first began at Merhgarh, in Baluchistan, during the

New Stone Age – 11,000 bc to c. 3000 bc.

• The great cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa – from 2500 bc to 1900 bc

– provide us with much archaeological evidence of a refined, indigenous

Indian civilization.

2 Vedic and post-Vedic era: 2000 BC to 300 BC

• There was no Aryan invasion, but there was a migration of an Indo-

European speaking group of nomadic people from Iran and Afghanistan,

who called themselves Arya, or the noble. The Indo-Aryan culture has

developed uniquely within India herself over the last four millennia, but

its origins lie in the fusion of values and heritages of the Arya and the

indigenous peoples of India.

• The Rig-Veda is the oldest text of the Indo-European language family. It,

along with three other Vedas and much complementary Vedic literature,

is a key text of Vedic Hinduism.

• The Indo-Aryans expanded from the Punjab to the Ganga basin, cut down

the forests and created conditions for the vast agricultural infrastructure of

north India that we have today.

• The Vedic polity was consolidated in sixteen mahajanapadas (great states),

of which Magadha was the dominant state. Both the Persians and the

Greeks invaded north west India during the later part of this period.

• Vedic Hinduism was strongly challenged by the religious dissenters, such

as Ajivakas, Buddhists and Jains, who objected to the caste system, animal

sacrifices, brahman dominance and the Vedas.

3 The era of the Great Empires: from c. 300 BC to c. AD 500

• The Mauryan Empire, founded from Magadha by Chandragupta Maurya

in 321 bc, was a highly centralised pan-Indian political authority, the

principles of which may be understood from Kautalya’s Arthashastra, a

great manual of political economy. The empire was humanised by Emperor

Ashoka who propagated Buddha’s principles in many rock and pillar


• The smaller Shaka, Kushan and Satavahana kingdoms followed the

Mauryan Empire. Indian prosperity greatly increased during this era,

owing to flourishing agriculture and trade, both internal and external.

China and Rome were India’s great trading partners.

• The Gupta Empire followed a model of decentralised power, based on the

samanta principle of tolerant neighbourliness. Under the Guptas the

Hindu–Buddhist–Jain civilisation reached the heights of elitist excellence.

That is called the Classical culture of India.

• Buddhism remained popular but changed into Mahayana Buddhism, with

its emphasis on the Bodhisattavas. Sanskrit literature, mathematics and

Buddhist architecture, as at Ajanta, all flourished during this era.

4 The feudal era: from c. AD 500 to c. AD 1200 (and beyond)

• Among the post-Gupta regional and feudal kingdoms the most distinguished

were those of King Harsha, the early Chalukyas and the Pallavas.

The kings maintained their power by making large land grants and

creating feudatory systems of power and patronage.

• The inter-Indian wars of the ninth and the tenth centuries, waged by the

Gurjara–Pratihara, Pala and the Rashtrakuta kingdoms, exhausted India,

thereby making it easier for the aggressive and iconoclastic Turco-Afghans

to invade India during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

• Under the Pallavas and the Cholas the deep south remained highly

dynamic and very Hindu in character.

• Vedic Hinduism gradually gave way to Puranic and devotional Hinduism,

while Buddhism was fast disappearing from India.

• From 1206 onwards Muslim power, in the form of the Slave dynasty of

Qutb-ud-Din Aybak, entrenched itself in north India, clearing the way for

the future development of the Indo-Islamic culture.

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