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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
A place to settle
Aryans and Alexander
Mauryans and Guptas
     Chandragupta Maurya
     Incursions from Bactria
     The classical India of the Guptas
     Sanskrit literature
     Rival kingdoms

11th - 16th century
16th - 17th century
18th century
To be completed

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Chandragupta Maurya: c.321 BC

The plains of north India are in a politically unsettled state when Alexander the Great marches into the subcontinent in 327 BC. But it is the dissatisfaction of his own soldiers, rather than any defeat at Indian hands, which turns him back. And for the next twenty years northwest India remains under Greek control.

Soon after the conqueror's departure, one of India's greatest dynasties is established by Chandragupta Maurya. In about 321 he seizes the throne of Magadha (now Patna). By 305 he is strong enough to force the withdrawal of Alexander's successor in the region, Seleucus. The Greek retreat through the Khyber Pass is sweetened by a gift from Chandragupta of 500 elephants.


Asoka: c.272-232 BC

The Mauryan kingdom is the first in India's history to deserve the broader title of empire. It reaches its greatest extent under Chanadragupta's grandson, Asoka, who defeats his brothers in a battle for the throne in about 272 BC. According to later Buddhist chronicles he murders them all, but this may be a pious legend. A great sinner is the most welcome of converts.

More certain is that Asoka brings the eastern coast of India under his control in a campaign of considerable savagery. According to his own inscriptions, disgust at what he sees on this campaign causes him to adopt the Buddhist principle of non-violence. (Asoka's dates, like the dates of Buddha himself, are uncertain and controversial.)


Asoka puts up pillars and rock inscriptions throughout his empire (and particularly round the borders), referring to himself under the title Piyadassi, meaning 'of benevolent aspect'. Most of our knowledge of his reign comes from these inscriptions, which emphasize his care for the welfare of his people.

Official inscriptions by kings on the subject of their own benevolence should be taken with a pinch of salt. Asoka does, nevertheless, preside over a vast empire largely in a state of peace. But benevolence is perhaps not a valid long-term policy in imperial matters. On his death in about 232 BC, after a reign of nearly half a century, the Mauryan empire begins to crumble.


Incursions from Bactria: 2nd century BC - 2nd century AD

The Mauryan dynasty ends in about 185 BC. The last king is assassinated by one of his own military commanders, who seizes the throne.

During the next four centuries India suffers a series of invasions from the northwest. The first intruders are Greeks from Bactria, a distant outpost of Greek culture ever since Alexander's conquest of Persia. The Greeks sometimes penetrate as far down the Ganges as Patna, but for the most part they are confined to the northwest corner of the subcontinent. It is possible that the Greek influence on this region, seen in its sculpture, begins this early. But a more lasting link between India and the west is introduced in the 2nd century AD by the Kushans.


The Kushan dynasty, founded in Bactria by one of the chiefs of a nomadic tribe, presses southeast into India from the end of the first century AD. Its greatest successes are achieved in about AD 120 by the third king in the line, Kanishka.

His capital is at Peshawar, roughly at the centre of a realm which stretches from Bukhara to beyond Varanasi on the Ganges. This empire straddles the Silk Road, the trade route from China to the Mediterranean - a fact of great significance for Buddhism. The religion finds favour with Kanishka, and his active support (he is a great patron of architects, sculptors and scholars) contributes largely to the spread of Buddhism from India to China.


The classical India of the Guptas: 4rd - 6th century AD

The first native dynasty of north India since the Mauryas, bringing to an end four centuries of dominance by intruders from the west, is established in the 3rd century. Its central territory is the same as that of the Mauryas, along the lower stretch of the Ganges around Patna. The ruling family is the Guptas.

Chandra Gupta - coming to the throne in about AD 320 - extends his territory so successfully, to include most of the plain of the Ganges from Allahabad to its mouth, that he begins calling himself maharajadhiraja, meaning king of kings or emperor.


The Gupta empire is further extended by Chandra's son, Samudra Gupta, who by the end of his long reign receives homage and tribute from regions as far afield as the Punjab in the west, Assam in the north east and Madras in the south.

The coins and inscriptions of Samudra reveal that the India of his time is a culmination of the ancient Aryan traditions, justifying its reputation as India's classical period. Samudra personally performs the ancient Vedic horse sacrifice, but he is also proud of his skills as musician and poet.


Sanskrit literature in the Gupta empire: 4th - 6th c. AD

The final flowering of Sanskrit literature takes place at the courts of the Gupta dynasty. By this time the spoken languages of India have long been evolving in their own separate directions. Sanskrit has become a literary language, known and used only by a small educated minority - much like Latin in medieval Europe.

The poems and plays of the Gupta period are correspondingly artificial in style, but at their best they have considerable charm. Shakuntala, a play of about AD 400 by Kalidasa, has been popular far beyond India's borders ever since its translation into English and German in the 18th century.


Kalidasa is the most distinguished of India's Sanskrit authors. He is believed to have lived at the court of Chandra Gupta II, son of Samudra Gupta, in the late 4th century. This is a time of peace and prosperity in India, and Kalidasa's work is sophisticated and courtly.

In epic poetry and drama, often with elaborate metrical schemes, he recreates stories from traditional Sanskrit literature. Raghuvamsha celebrates the exploits of Rama, as described in the Ramayana. Kalidasa's most famous work, Shakuntala, dramatizes in elegantly languid fashion a complex incident from the Mahabharata. A ruler loves a beautiful hermit girl who turns out, happily, to be the daughter of a famous warrior.


Rival kingdoms and a latent threat: 8th - 11th century

The gradual collapse of the Gupta empire is followed by a period when many small principalities compete for power. The odd one out is a portent of the future - though as yet seemingly insignificant.

In 712 the Arabs move along the coast from Persia, through Baluchistan, to occupy Sind. The region becomes Muslim and has remained so ever since. But this area round the mouth of the Indus, separated by desert from the main body of the subcontinent, is a poor stepping stone for further conquest. Three centuries will pass before the Hindu kingdoms of north India, still lacking any unity, face the real thrust of Islam.


During these unsettled centuries many kingdoms, large and small, struggle against each other, merge, grow and decline. The most extensive in northern India is the dynasty known as Gurjara-Pratihara. From their capital at Kannauj, the rulers of this kingdom control a territory stretching across the subcontinent, in the 9th and 10th century, from Gujarat to northern Bengal.

In the 10th and 11th century, in southern India, the Tamil kingdom of the Cholas is of equally impressive extent - reaching at its peak from the Deccan down to the southern tip of Sri Lanka.


This same period sees the emergence of tribal groups in northwest India calling themselves Rajput, from the Sanskrit raja-putra ('son of a king'). Their origin is disputed among scholars, but they see themselves as the descendants of the warrior caste of ancient India.

Their fierce commitment to warfare and deeds of honour causes the Rajputs to fight constantly among themselves if no alien enemy is available. This leads to chaos in northern India and makes the Muslim incursion of the 11th century relatively easy. But it also means that the Muslim invaders find it impossible to suppress the Rajputs once they withdraw to their desert fortresses in Rajasthan.


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