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South Asia, also known as the Indian subcontinent, is one of the world's cradles of civilisation, with its first civilisations dating back to approximately 3400 BCE.


Ancient India[edit]

See also: Indus Valley Civilisation, On the trail of Alexander the Great, Maurya Empire

The Indus Valley Civilisation was the first civilisation to form in what is today India and Pakistan. The Indus Valley had vast trade networks. Merchants traded with Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, Southern India, Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Dilmun (modern-day Bahrain) and possibly even as far as Crete. Although they have left behind impressive ruins of their cities as reminders of their existence, their writing system has yet to be deciphered, limiting further knowledge of their culture or history. Virtually all Indus Valley cities were abandoned by 1700 BCE.

1500 BCE marks the Indo-Aryan migration into the subcontinent and beginning of the Vedic Period. The Indo-Aryan people brought with them the Vedic Sanskrit language and the Vedas, initially passed down orally. Early Vedic peoples were originally pastoral but over time turned into an agricultural society. The Vedic Period eventually gave rise to the Janapadas, 16 political units in the form of republics or kingdoms that controlled Northern and Central India. At this time, the varna or caste/social class system developed, in which the Brahmins, the highest varna, were the priests, the Kshatriyas were the kings, warriors and nobility, Vaishyas were peasants, craftsmen and merchants and Shudras, the lowest varna, were traditionally the labourers and servants. Below the Shudra varna, were the outcastes, also known as the Dalits or "untouchables". Dalits performed jobs such as cleaning, tanning and dealing with corpses, and were shunned by people with a caste as their work was considered too dirty. Outside of the caste system were the Adivasis, also referred to as tribal or indigenous people. Although regarded as primitive, unlike Dalits, Adivasis were not considered impure by the rest of society and enjoyed greater levels of autonomy for much of South Asian history. Their autonomy and relative isolation were gradually brought to an end during the advent of the Mughal and British empires in the subcontinent.

The Shramana (ascetic) movement emerged from 800 BCE which was distinct from and challenged Vedic culture and orthodoxy. Many new philosophical traditions were formed, from determinist Ajivika to atheistic and materialist Charvaka, but the two most famous Shramana philosophers were without a doubt, Gautama Siddartha, founder of Buddhism, and Mahavira, founder of Jainism, whose teachings continue to be influential to this day.

From 530 BCE onwards, the Achaemenid Empire crossed the Hindu Kush mountains in what is now Afghanistan, and began conquering large portions of territory in northwestern South Asia. This would be the first of many times that a Persian political presence was established in North India and Pakistan. A few centuries later, the first European presence followed, with Alexander the Great invading and defeating the Kambojas in modern-day Afghanistan and then defeating King Porus (Puru) in the epic Battle of the Hydaspes. Alexander's army reached the Beas River in Himachal Pradesh before revolting and turning back for fear of facing much larger and stronger armies further east, in particular the Nanda Empire. For another couple of centuries, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and Indo-Greek kingdom blossomed in the northwestern areas, where a hybrid Greek-Buddhist culture thrived. The Indo-Greek kingdoms were pivotal in spreading Mahayana Buddhism through Central and East Asia.

The Maurya Empire (322-180 BCE), the first empire to cover a large area in what is today northern India and Pakistan, was founded by Chandragupta Maurya (reign: 321-297 BCE) after he overthrew the Nanda Dynasty and defeated the surviving forces of Alexander the Great. It would be expanded further under his son, Bindusara (reign: 297-273 BCE), and his grandson, Ashoka (reign: 268-232 BCE). Ashoka was said to have been deeply remorseful after personally witnessing the destruction and cost in human lives resulting from his conquest of Kalinga (located in what is today the coastal regions of Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh), following which he renounced any further conquests and converted to Buddhism. Following his conversion, Ashoka would send Buddhist missionaries far and wide, accelerating the spread of the religion to China and Southeast Asia. His reign would also see the erection of some of South Asia's most famous Buddhist monuments, most notably the famed Pillars of Ashoka that have been found at many sites in northern India and Nepal. The empire would, however, decline following the death of Ashoka, and eventually fractured into numerous small states.

Classical India[edit]

Shore Temple (c. 700 CE), Mamallapuram

The next powerful large state to emerge was the Gupta Empire (late 3rd century-590 CE). The Gupta Empire would reach its zenith under the kings Chandra Gupta I (reign: 319-335 CE), Samudra Gupta (reign: 335-350 CE) and Chandra Gupta II (reign: 380-415 CE), during which the empire was expanded to cover much of northern India, and even extended into parts of southern India. The Gupta period is often said to be India's golden age, and saw a flourishing of Sanskrit literature. Panini's grammar, which continues to be the authoritative treatise on Sanskrit grammar to this day, was written during the Gupta period. Shakuntala, arguably the most famous Indian play, was written by the Gupta-era poet Kalidasa.

South India would later also give rise to various kingdoms, the best known of which are the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and Vijayanagara who ruled from present day Karnataka and the Pallavas, Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas who ruled from present day Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Among them, the Cholas (c. 300 BCE-1279 CE), who ruled from various capital cities including Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, are widely recognised to be the most powerful of the South Indian kingdoms, with their territory stretching as far north as Pataliputra and their influence spreading as far east as Sumatra, western Borneo and southern Vietnam at the height of their power. Some of the grandest Hindu and Jain monuments that exist in India were built during this time in South and East India.

The Cholas would reach their zenith under the reigns of Rajaraja Chola I (reign: 985-1014), often referred to as Rajaraja the Great, and Rajendra Chola I (reign: 1014-1044), during which their empire would cover virtually the whole of southern India, and they would have tributary states as far as Southeast Asia. The Chola period also saw the construction of many of southern India's greatest monuments, as well as a flourishing of Tamil literature.

North-Eastern India was also fairly isolated from the rest of South Asia until the colonial period. The largest and longest kingdom to rule over the Northeast were the Ningthouja dynasty (33–1891 CE) of Manipur, followed by the Ahoms who, from the 13th to 19th centuries, successfully defended Assam and neighbouring regions from Mughal expansion.

Medieval India[edit]

See also: Mughal Empire

Islamic incursions in South Asia started in the 8th century. Gradually the raiders started staying as rulers, and soon much of North India was ruled by Muslims. The most important Muslim rulers were the Mughals that at its peak covered almost the entire subcontinent (save the southern and northeastern extremities), while the major Hindu force that survived in the North were the Rajputs. The bravery of the Rajputs in resisting invasion of their land is legendary and celebrated in ballads all over the forts of Rajasthan. Prominent among the Rajputs was Maharana Pratap, the ruler of Chittorgarh, who spent years in exile fighting Akbar, the third of the Mughals. Eventually, however, the Rajputs were subdued. Some Mughal armies had a high proportion of Rajput officers, although some Rajput rebellions still occurred during the reign of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. This period of North India produced the monumental gems of Rajasthan and the Taj Mahal. Hindi and Urdu also took root in medieval North India. During the Islamic period, there were Hindus that converted to Islam, often forcibly, or to avoid the Jizya tax, as told by Muslim chroniclers.

Conflict between the Sikhs and the Mughals was one of the causes for the eventual decline of the Mughal Empire. Another reason was the rise of the Maratha Empire in Maharashtra, which was started by Shivaji and carried on by the Peshwas. The Marathas established a short-lived confederacy that was almost as large as the Mughal Empire. Marathas lost their command over India after the third battle of Panipat, which in turn paved a way for British colonialism.

Colonial India[edit]

See also: British Raj

European traders started visiting India beginning in the late 16th century. Prominent among these were the British, Danish, Dutch, French and the Portuguese. Although it was the British who ruled most of South Asia, parts of the subcontinent were ruled by other European nations and independent kingdoms.

The British East India Company made Calcutta their headquarters in 1772. They also established subsidiary cities like Bombay and Madras. Calcutta later went on to become 'the second city of the empire after London'. By the 19th century, the British had, one way or the other assumed political control of virtually all of India, though the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French too had their enclaves along the coast. The British would send Indian labourers, policemen and soldiers all over the Empire, resulting in the establishment of Indian diaspora communities all over the world.

There was an uprising by South Asian rulers in 1857 which was suppressed, but which prompted the British government to take over from the Company and make India a part of the empire. This period of rule by the crown, 1858–1947, was called the British Raj. It was a period in which some Indians converted to Christianity, though forcible conversions ended in the British Raj after 1859, and Queen Victoria's proclamation promised to respect the religious faiths of Indians.

Resistance to British colonialism, led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru etc., led to India's independence on 15 August 1947. The same year, British India was partitioned into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Post-Colonial South Asia[edit]

The partition of India eventually proved to be a major disaster in South Asian history. Several million people were uprooted, Muslims migrated from their homes in areas that would be part of India to live in Pakistan, with Hindus and Sikhs moving the other way. Mobs attacked migrants going both ways; most estimates of the death toll are a few hundred thousand, but some say well over a million.

Neither the Indian nor the Pakistani government was happy with the border as the British defined it; some areas, notably Kashmir, are still disputed today and the two countries have fought several wars over these disputes. India continues to experience occasional terrorist attacks, many of which are widely believed to originate in Pakistan and be ordered or assisted by its military-intelligence complex.

In 1948, Burma and Ceylon gained independence from Britain, which became Myanmar and Sri Lanka respectively.

In 1950, the Dominion of India was declared a republic after adopting its constitution, while Pakistan did the same in 1956. Pakistan initially had two parts and the eastern part spun off from Pakistan to become Bangladesh in 1971.

In 1953, the Portuguese colony of Dadra and Nagar Haveli was incorporated to India, while the French government gave off their South Asian colonies to India in 1956. In 1961, the Portuguese colonies of Goa, Daman and Diu were incorporated to India.

See also[edit]

  • South Asian cuisine — the food of India and surrounding countries is an important part of the region’s culture.
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