The Home & The World Read Along Indian History – Part I

As many of you are aware, I am hosting The Home and The World Read Along for the Month of August, both to celebrate Indian Independence which happens to fall on 15th Aug but also to mark the centenary anniversary of this masterpieces publication. Now for the non-Indian reader, also may be some Indian readers, the book while a thin novella is a complex work because of the socio-political background in which the narrative is set as how it plays a critical factor in plot development. Therefore, I had promised by fellow readers a crash course in Indian history and women’s empowerment to better understand the nuances of the novel. Towards this end, I present, a capsule of Indian History, focusing primarily on Indian Independence movement.

Capsule is a very very adventurous term for trying to summarize 5000+ years of history, in 5 line paragraphs, but our focus is the novel and its background and not stand alone Indian history, therefore, one’s gotta do what one’s gotta do! For those, who are interested to know more, please let me know and I can share a more comprehensive bibliography for your edification.

The pre-historic remains found in Southern India point towards presence of Homo Erectus about 500,000-200,000 years ago. The homo erectus must have liked the place, because they hung around to evolve through the  Mesolithic period and Neolithic period to potentially help develop one of the first urban civilizations of the world – the Indus Valley civilization.From 7000 BC to 1300 BC, there flourished in the North Western part of India one of the most sophisticated civilizations of the world with such “modern” marvels as urban sanitation systems, waste water management and multistoreyed houses. It was scintillating civilization with advance metallurgy and hydraulic science capabilities.

The Great Bath
The Great Bath excavated at Mohenjodaro, one of the primary sites of Indus Valley Civilization
The Dancing Girl
The Dancing Girl -a bronze statuette dating around 2500 BC, Mohenjodaro

Unfortunately, the script of this civilization remains indecipherable and much of its life and times remains locked. The civilization began to decline in about 1500-1300 BC and the reasons for that remain speculative. The invasion of the Indo-Aryan tribes from Middle Asia was often cited as a common cause, but has been almost abandoned by many historians and now the theory states that the Aryans came in waves rather than a full blown “invasion”; furthermore, it seems difficult to grasp that such a sophisticated and advanced civilization would have been completely desiccated by what was essentially a nomadic primitive community. Change of seasons including the drying up of one of fabled rivers of India – Saraswati has been cited as a reason. There have been some adventurous commentaries on how Aryans where actually the people of Indus Valley civilization. The latter theory has been completely dismissed as there are far too different cultural markings between the two ages and people to consider Aryans as the natural inheritors of Indus Valley Civilization.The most agreed upon thought is the Indus Valley civilization gradually decline due to the climate changes and the coming of Aryans did kind of hurry the process along.

The Aryan or the Vedic Civilization (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE) began with the slow migration of the Indo Aryan tribes into Northern and then north eastern India. These were primarily pastoral, nomadic tribes, who developed the great Vedic system on which rests the very foundation of Hinduism. The Vedic beliefs were closely related to the hypothesized Proto-Indo-European religion and the Indo-Iranian religion, though there are clear historical evidence, that the Vedic practices eventually adopted some part of the last remains of the Indus Valley people.The early Vedic society was a more tribal community divided into a caste system, originally derived as a labor classification system which sustained itself through agriculture and pastorialisim. It was during this period that Sanskrit as a language emerged and the Devnagri script, the primary script of all North Indian languages developed.It was during this period, that the great epics of Ramayana and Mahabharta were also scripted.

As the Vedic civilization developed there was second wave of Urbanization of city states, very much in Greek style called the Mahajanapadas. These early republics coexisted and waged wars among each other and developed a very urbane and liberated culture , including legal prostitution, where the women were given full rights and citizenships. It was during this phase that the commentaries on the vedic books – The Upanishads were written and Gautam Buddha, was born as the august son to one of prominent families of the republic, who would eventually leave all material comforts to preach a simple contemplative life and found Buddhism. 

The rule of the republics came to a halt as one republic from North Eastern India gained power over the other confederacies and led to the establishment of Kingdom of Magadh. It was during this time, that there were significant development in science, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy. In one of first form of federal governments, a lot of power was deployed at the grassroot level to villages and the administrations were divided into executive, judicial, and military functions.

The Greek invasion of Alexander happened during this period – Alexander came all the way from Greece, conquering Persia and Bacteria and defeating the Northern republics of India, only to turn back from the gates of Magadh – his solider tired of fighting and the great conquer himself beginning to fall in the throes of the illness which would finally lead to his death.The coming of Alexander did not create much disturbance in the Indian society, except create a confusion, which would be exploited smartly by one of the most brilliant political minds ever – Chanakya whose mind makes Machiavelli seem like a high school novice. He along with a brave and adventurous, albeit outcast youth, called Chandragupta would seize power and establish the first of many dynasties of India called the Maurya Dynasty. This is one of the first “Golden Eras” of Indian history and the Maurya empire saw immense development of economy, trade with Egypt, Mesopotamia and China and a very “modern” form of government where free trade ruled the day, unless the ruler intervened to prevent black marketing or to ensure the poor got their share!

Sanchi Stupa
The Sanchi Stupa, originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great, third ruler from the Maurayan Dynasty in the 300 BC

With the decline of the Maurya Dynasty, which lasted from 322 till about 185 BCE, India saw the rise of once again smaller kingdoms while there was significant strides made in literature and philosophy, but no single kingdom really stands out until the rise of what is termed as the Gupta Empire, circa 320-650 CE. The Gupta period was the second phase of the Golden Era which showcased extensive achievements in the fields of  science, technology, engineering,art, literature, logic, mathematics, especially the latter since it saw the modern numerals system as well as the  positional numeral system, originated in India and was later transmitted to the West through the Arabs. It was also during this rule that caste system moving away from an economic division of labor system became a social hierarchy where one could only be born to a caste and not inherit through his profession.However Buddhisim continued to flourish with all the support under the umbrella of freedom of religion despite an openly proclaimed religion of Hinduism by the state. More to a trivia, the much debated and infamous Kamasutra was also written in this era by a doctor/scholar called Vātsyāyana. Strong maritime trade also developed and colonies were established in East Asia including Java and Cambodia.

The Borobudur Temple Complex in Java, Indonesia, showcasing influence of Gupta architecture and colonialist aims
Qutub Minar, the tallest minaret in the world, started in 1200 by Qutb al-Din Aibak and completed in 1220 by his son-in-law Iltutmish, both rulers of Delhi Sultanate

Post the decline of the Guptas, primarily due to invasion by Huns, India again receded to a smaller kingdom form of governance, with flashes of brilliant leaders including Harsha and the Chalukya Empires, the Pratiharas and the rise of the Rajput dynasties, the  ancestors of the Jaipur/Jodhpur/Udaipur clans. The Arabs, newly unified under the leadership of Prophet Mohammad, began raids to India, but for 300 years there was no significant impact, until the invasion by Mohammad Ghazni from Afghanistan, 1001 CE with which began the Muslim history of India. For the next 700 odd years, Muslim rulers from West – Afghanistan/Iran/Samarkand, would seek out an empire in India, establishing a syncretism that reflects in the society with a mix of Hinduism and Islam culture, which become the core identity of India. The Delhi Sultanate was the first in line of Muslim ruler, often called the Slave dynasty, since the founder was freed slave; this dynasty gave India her first Muslim woman ruler as well as the famous Qutub Minar. The Slave dynasty was then topped by the Khilji Dynasty, a hardline Islamist rule where Hindu women were put behind purdah to evade the kidnap/convert/marry law of the rulers and jaziya, a religious tax was imposed on all non Muslims. There were some powerful regional powers including the Great Vijayanagar Empire that grew during this time, but they were not strong enough to challenge the The Delhi Sultanate and were soon destroyed or occupied. The last of the Delhi Sultanate Dynasties was the Lodhi Dynasty, which would be completely destroyed in 1526, when a descendant of Timur and Chengiz Khan would sweep down from Central Asia in search of an empire to rule – his name was Babur and he founded the Mughul Empire of India, kick-starting the next golden era.

Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahail built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between 1632–53 in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal

The Mughal Empire once again consolidated India, and brought great development in commerce and literature and especially architecture. It was during the rule of the Mughals, the Red Fort of Delhi and the very symbol of India – The Taj Mahal was constructed. Their rule was of benevolent despots who led their Hindu subjects be and even eradicated such discriminatory practices like the “jaziya” tax (The Great Akbar revoked the tax though his son Shah Jahan would reimpose it again) and were given equal places in the court. However with ascendance of Aurangzeb the fifth ruler, to the Mughal throne, this benevolent rule ended, and the hard line position was again adopted. The greatest tragedy was that Aurgangzed unified for the first time what was modern India, but his policies and practices had disenchanted even the staunchest of allies and with his death came the lowest point of India’s history where medieval archaic barbaric practices took to front, the country was divided among many petty illiterate chiefs and time was rife for a foreign intervention.

I will conclude the remaining 300 years in the next post and will bring into focus, the actual events that formed the backdrop of Tagore’s novel. These 1400 words were merely an attempt to give all the readers a flavor of the baggage that this country carried before the eruption of the events in twentieth century.

P.S. I have not cited any particular sources, but my essay is based on readings which  include A History of India by Romila Thappar, The Penguin History of Early India by Romila Thappar,The Wonder that was India by Al Basham, India by John Kaye, The Mughal World (Vol. 1 and Vol 2.) by Abraham Eraly, The Lost River by Michel Danino, Wikipedia and class lecture notes from my Graduate school days under the brilliant scholarship of the inimitable Prof. Emeritus Dr. Romila Thappar.

P.S.S. Stefanie, Cleo, Jane, Brona and all others who are joining me in this read along…I thank you in advance for your patience with the nerd me spewing Indian history till blood runs out of  the ears!!




15 thoughts on “The Home & The World Read Along Indian History – Part I

  1. Thank you so much for this. All of my history was taught from a British perspective and it is lovely to learn the other side of the story without having to give hours of my life to a long and serious book.

    I should say that I have nothing against long and serious books, but reading hours are seriously lacking at the moment.

    1. Thanks a tton Jane for those kind words! I was kind a worried that I over did it….I pretty sure I have, but you are awesome as always! History is one subject where I think its next to impossible to be objective, each narrative has its own history which influences the interpretations! 😀

      1. Congratulations on such a lively and useful capsule history of India. Like Jane my perspective on Indian history is very much from British perspective. Fascinating stuff about how the old Aryan invasion story does not add up.

      2. Thank You Ian! There are oodles and oodles of stuff on Aryan migration , even ones that say Aryans never came and the Indus valley folks turned intro Nomad!! Despite DNA evidence to the contrary! Very interesting this phase of Indian History!

  2. Wow, I will definitely come back to this post again and again. All my Indian history came from Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World, so some of the names are familiar but their rules are a bit fuzzy.

    Well, here I thought the Arabs were credited with inventing our numeric system, and it actually originated in India! Wow!

    You have me very curious about Chanakya now, especially after you compared him to Machiavelli.

    And thank you sooooo much for going to all the work of posting all this background. It’s very much appreciated!

    1. Thank You Cleo! Yeah….India in the past did great things, including inventing zero! High time we got up and did something as a nation again! Chanakya wrote a politico-economic treatise (actually a mammoth volume) called Arthshartra. Trust me when I say this man took politics to a whole new level.

  3. Wow! This is great! So very fascinating. I knew about some of it but not nearly as much as I had thought. Is there a particular history you would recommend as being most readable for a non-academic audience?

    1. Thank You Stefanie. Penguin History of Ancient India by Romilla Thapar is a good place to start; while she is a premier historian, this book specifically is very easy to understand and absorb. If you are looking for something folksy meets travelouge then Age of Kali by William Dalrymple is a good place to start. Its not history, but dives a lot into history!

  4. This is fabulous cirtnecce!

    I’ve read lots of Indian fiction over the years, but not much non-fiction. So this has been fabulous. Thanks.

    1. You made my day! I am so happy this helped with some basic information. I have really skimmed more than 5000 years of history, but I wanted to share the kind of burden India as a nation was carrying before the events that unfolds in the novel happenes

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