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


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 relics 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, Asoka (reign: 268-232 BCE). Asoka 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, Asoka 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 Asoka that have been found at many sites in northern India and Nepal. The kingdom would, however, decline following the death of Asoka, and eventually fractured into numerous small states.

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 is the Tamil Chola Dynasty (c. 300 BCE-1279 CE). 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.


Indus Valley Civilisation[edit]

Hellenistic Period[edit]

Maurya Empire[edit]

Gupta Empire[edit]

Chola Dynasty[edit]

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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