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HISTORY OF INDIA - THE SUBCONTINENT
 
 


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The spread of the Aryans: 15th - 4th century BC


The Indo-European group known as the Aryans (from their own word for themselves) becomes established in northwest India from about 1500 BC. As a nomadic people of the steppes, fighting with bow and arrow from light and speedy chariots, their advance proves hard to resist on open ground - as proves to be the case with other Indo-European tribes elsewhere. (This has recently become a controversial topic. Some archaeologists claim that the lack of any visible change in the archaeological record disproves Aryan invasion of south Asia. Linguists reply that the Indo-European elements in north Indian languages can have no other explanation.)

Aryan society is divided into three groups - priests, warriors and those who look after the cattle. This division later becomes an important part of India's Caste system.
 










Little is known historically about the Aryans, other than what can be gleaned from their holy texts called veda ('knowledge'). The earliest of these, the Rigveda, is a collection of more than 1000 hymns in Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans. The hymns are for the use of priests in the temple rituals of sacrifice.

The hymns, dating from well before 1000 BC, survive in oral form for hundreds of years (Sanskrit does not acquire a script until about 500 BC). They are the beginning of a religious tradition which will evolve, with much borrowing from the Aryans' neighbours in the subcontinent, into the complex religion known now as Hinduism.
 







The region first settled by the Aryans is the Punjab ('five rivers', from the five great tributaries of the Indus which make it fertile), an area now on the border between Pakistan and India. From this secure homeland their influence gradually spreads eastwards along the Ganges and south down the coast of west India.

Throughout its history India has seen a succession of small independent kingdoms developing, fighting each other, coalescing into larger groups (occasionally even large enough to deserve the name of empire), then breaking up again into small units for the process to be repeated. The spread of Aryan influence progresses, over the centuries, in just such a manner.
 







By about 600 BC the two most powerful kingdoms in India are neighbours on the Ganges - Kosala, and downstream from it Magadha. Both are rigid societies, with the Brahman priesthood wielding a great deal of power through their knowledge of the Vedas and their control of the Vedic rites. Impulses for religious reform develop in these regions in the 6th century, resulting in Jainism and Buddhism.

By the 4th century Magadha has emerged as the dominant power in the whole of northern India, with a capital city at Pataliputra (modern Patna). But any chance of stability is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Alexander the Great.
 






Alexander in the east: 330 - 323 BC

For two years Alexander moves through his newly acquired empire (which stretches north beyond Samarkand and eastwards through modern Afghanistan) subduing any pockets of opposition and establishing Greek settlements. Then he goes further, in 327, through the mountain passes into India.

One of the towns founded by Alexander in India is called Bucephala. It is named to commemorate his famous horse, Bucephalus, which dies here at what turns out to be the furthest point of this astonishing expedition. Alexander's troops threaten to mutiny in the Indian monsoon. At last, in 325, he turns for home.
 








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