Indian peninsula — Ancient history

The first modern humans had arrived on the Indian subcontinent 55,000 years ago from Africa, where they had earlier evolved. The earliest known modern human remains in South Asia date to about 30,000 years ago. Nearly contemporaneous human rock art sites have been found in many parts of the subcontinent, including at the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh.

After 6500 BCE, evidence for domestication of food crops and animals, construction of permanent structures, and storage of agricultural surplus, appeared in Mehrgarh and other sites in what is now Balochistan. These gradually developed into the Indus Valley Civilisation, the first urban culture in South Asia, which flourished during 2500–1900 BCE in what is now Pakistan and western India. Centred around cities such as Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Dholavira, and Kalibangan, and relying on varied forms of subsistence, the civilisation engaged robustly in crafts production and wide-ranging trade.

During the period 2000–500 BCE, many regions of the subcontinent transitioned from the Chalcolithic cultures to the Iron Age ones. The Vedas, the oldest scriptures associated with Hinduism, were composed during this period. Most historians also consider this period to have encompassed several waves of Indo-Aryan migration into the subcontinent from the north-west.

In the late Vedic period, around the 6th century BCE, the small states and chiefdoms of the Ganges Plain and the north-western regions had consolidated into 16 major oligarchies and monarchies that were known as the Mahajanapadas. The emerging urbanisation gave rise to non-Vedic religious movements, two of which became independent religions. Jainism came into prominence during the life of its exemplar, Mahavira. Buddhism, based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, attracted a large number of followers. Chronicling the life of the Buddha was central to the beginnings of recorded history in India.

Politically, by the 3rd century BCE, the kingdom of Magadha had annexed or reduced other states to emerge as the Mauryan Empire. The Mauryan kings are known as much for their empire-building and determined management of public life as for Ashoka’s renunciation of militarism and far-flung advocacy of the Buddhist dhamma.

The Sangam literature of the Tamil language reveals that, between 200 BCE and 200 CE, the southern peninsula was being ruled by the Cheras, the Cholas, and the Pandyas, dynasties that traded extensively with the Roman Empire and with West and South-East Asia. In North India, Hinduism asserted patriarchal control within the family, leading to increased subordination of women. By the 4th and 5th centuries, the Gupta Empire had created in the greater Ganges Plain a complex system of administration and taxation that became a model for later Indian kingdoms.

Under the Guptas, a renewed Hinduism based on devotion rather than the management of ritual began to assert itself. Classical Sanskrit literature flowered as well, and Indian science, astronomy, medicine, and mathematics made significant advances.

Medieval India

The Indian early medieval age, 600 CE to 1200 CE, is defined by regional kingdoms and cultural diversity. When Harsha of Kannauj, who ruled much of the Indo-Gangetic Plain from 606 to 647 CE, attempted to expand southwards, he was defeated by the Chalukya ruler of the Deccan. When his successor attempted to expand eastwards, he was defeated by the Pala king of Bengal. When the Chalukyas attempted to expand southwards, they were defeated by the Pallavas from farther south, who in turn were opposed by the Pandyas and the Cholas from still farther south.

In the 6th and 7th centuries, the first devotional hymns were created in the Tamil language. They were imitated all over India and led to both the resurgence of Hinduism and the development of all modern languages of the subcontinent. By the 8th and 9th centuries, the effects of urbanisation were felt in South-East Asia, as South Indian culture and political systems were exported to lands that became part of modern-day Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Java.

After the 10th century, Muslim Central Asian nomadic clans repeatedly overran South Asia’s north-western plains, leading eventually to the establishment of the Islamic Delhi Sultanate in 1206. The sultanate later controlled much of North India and made many forays into South India. By repeatedly repulsing Mongol raiders in the 13th century, the sultanate saved India from the devastation visited on West and Central Asia, setting the scene for centuries of migration of fleeing soldiers, learned men, mystics, traders, artists, and artisans from that region into the subcontinent, thereby creating a syncretic Indo-Islamic culture in the north.

The sultanate’s raiding and weakening of the regional kingdoms of South India paved the way for the indigenous Vijayanagara Empire. Embracing a strong Shaivite tradition and building upon the military technology of the sultanate, the empire came to control much of peninsular India and was to influence South Indian society for long afterward.

Early modern India

In the early 16th century, northern India fell again to the superior mobility and firepower of a new generation of Central Asian warriors. Eschewing tribal bonds and Islamic identity, especially under Akbar, the Mughals united their far-flung realms through loyalty, expressed through a Persianised culture, to an emperor who had near-divine status. During the time, the economic policies, deriving most revenues from agriculture and mandating that taxes be paid in the well-regulated silver currency, caused peasants and artisans to enter larger markets. The relative peace maintained by the empire during much of the 17th century was a factor in India’s economic expansion, resulting in greater patronage of painting, literary forms, textiles, and architecture.

Expanding commerce during Mughal rule gave rise to new Indian commercial and political elites along the coasts of southern and eastern India. As the empire disintegrated, many among these elites were able to seek and control their own affairs.

By the early 18th century, a number of European trading companies, including the English East India Company, had established coastal outposts.

The East India Company’s control of the seas, greater resources, and more advanced military training and technology-led it to increasingly flex its military muscle and caused it to become attractive to a portion of the Indian elite.

India was then no longer exporting manufactured goods as it long had, but was instead supplying the British Empire with raw materials, and many historians consider this to be the onset of India’s colonial period. By this time, with its economic power severely curtailed by the British parliament and effectively having been made an arm of British administration, the company began to more consciously enter non-economic arenas such as education, social reform, and culture.

Modern India

In 1848, Lord Dalhousie was appointed as Governor-General of the East India Company, setting the stage for changes essential to a modern state. These included the consolidation and demarcation of sovereignty, the surveillance of the population, and the education of citizens.

Technological changes were introduced not long after their introduction in Europe. However, disaffection with the company also grew during this time and set off the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Although the rebellion was suppressed by 1858, it led to the dissolution of the East India Company and the direct administration of India by the British government. Proclaiming a unitary state and a gradual but limited British-style parliamentary system, the new rulers also protected princes and landed gentry as a feudal safeguard against future unrest. In the decades following, public life gradually emerged all over India, leading eventually to the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885.

After the First World War, in which approximately one million Indians served, a new period began. It was marked by British reforms but also repressive legislations, by more strident Indian calls for self-rule, and by the beginnings of a nonviolent movement of non-co-operation, of which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi would become the leader. During the 1930s, slow legislative reform was enacted by the British; the Indian National Congress won victories in the resulting elections. The next decade was beset with crises: Indian participation in the Second World War, the Congress’ final push for non-co-operation, and an upsurge of Muslim nationalism. All were capped by the advent of independence in 1947, but tempered by the partition of India into two states: India and Pakistan.

Vital to India’s self-image as an independent nation was its constitution, completed in 1950, which put in place a secular and democratic republic. It has remained a democracy with civil liberties, an active Supreme Court, and a largely independent press.

August 15, 1947 marked the end of colonial rule in India and the country found itself standing on the threshold of a new era with the task to build a strong nation.

Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of Independent India on August 15, 1947.

The Indo-Pakistani War of 1947-1948, known as the First Kashmir War, was fought between India and Pakistan over the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu.

Rajendra Prasad was elected as the first President of India in the year 1950. He is the only Indian president to have served two terms.

In July 1951, the Planning Commission issued the draft outline of the First Five Year Plan for the period April 1951 to March 1956. It was presented to the parliament in December 1952 by the Planning Commission.

Democracy took a giant step forward when the first general elections were held post-independence. The elections were held over a four-month period on October 15, 1951 to February 21, 1952, with the Indian National Congress winning 364 seats out of 489.

The First Lok Sabha was constituted on April 17, 1952, after India’s first general election. It lasted its full tenure of five years and was dissolved on April 1957.