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India before the Europeans

The Bronze Age

According to historians of ancient Indian history, civilisation on the subcontinent began around 2,300 BC. In the1920s, archaeologists discovered the ruins of two flourishing Bronze Age cities in the Indus Valley, Harappa and Mohenjadaro. Bronze tools were found there, along with copper, pottery, gold and silver items, showing that the settlements were considerably wealthy. The cities were described as being well-planned, with similar layouts.

Map of ancient India - opens new window
India in the 18th Century
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Seals from the Indus Valley Civilisation - opens new window
Early Evidence of Writing from the
Indus Valley Civilisation
Harappa and Mohenjadaro were part of a network of urban centres occupying nearly half a million square miles in the area of the Punjab and Sind. Historians have suggested that the economy of the Indus Valley was based on farming, which was dependent on the flooding of the River Indus to irrigate the land. And it was probably by flooding and earthquake, which caused the Indus to change its course, that Harappa and Mohenjadaro were eventually destroyed, around 1,700 BC.
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The Aryans and the Caste System

In about 1,500 BC the Aryans, a nomadic, pastoral people, migrated into India, perhaps from Persia. They gradually settled over northern India, sometimes conquering the existing inhabitants, and sometimes assimilating more peacefully.

The Aryan or Glossary - opens new windowVedic civilisation created a new culture. Early Indians were literate and considerably knowledgeable about astronomy and mathematics. Aryan society seems to have been divided into groups on a socio-economic basis. A 'war chief' was in charge together with a high priest of the polytheistic Aryan religion. The social groups comprised: priests or Brahmans, nobles and warriors, artisans and merchants, and servants. These groupings became known as 'the caste system'. Social classes became completely inflexible, with little or no mobility. For example, an individual was unable to move up from the merchant caste to the warrior caste.

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Religion and the Coming of Islam

It was in the Aryan period that Glossary - opens new windowHinduism became the central religious force in India. Later, from the 6th century BC, Glossary - opens new windowBuddhism spread throughout India and other parts of Asia. Christianity came to southwest India in the 1st century AD, brought, according to legend, by the apostle St Thomas.

Islam, which was founded in the 7th century AD, reached India through a series of conquests. The first of these began in AD 771 when the governor of Iraq launched a successful expedition to conquer Sind, in northwest India. Over the following centuries Islamic forces from the north took over large areas of the Indian subcontinent, which came to be ruled by competing dynasties, some Muslim, some Hindu.

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The Mughal Empire

From the 15th century, the Islamic Mughal emperors arrived in India and created a certain amount of political unity. The Mughals ruled over a population in India that was two-thirds Hindu, and the earlier spiritual teachings of the Vedic tradition remained influential in Indian values and philosophy. The early Mughal empire was a tolerant place.

Unlike the preceding civilisations, the Mughals controlled a vast area of India. They were wealthy and politically powerful, renowned for building great palaces and monuments. But this wealth and power did not last for ever. The Mughal empire began to disintegrate. Tolerance waned, and wars overstretched its resources.

European traders contributed to the decline of the Mughal empire. European control of early modern India began with merchants establishing forts and factories along the periphery of this ancient dominion. The Portuguese arrived first, in Kerala in 1498. The first Dutch possession was on the Coromandel Coast and in 1600 the British entered the Asian trade, establishing a settlement at Surat in 1619. In 1674 the French established a settlement at Pondicherry.

The splendour of Mughal architecture and the magnificence of their state pageantry and Glossary - opens new windowdurbars had the Europeans spellbound.


Indian miniature painting of Shah Jahan in his durbar,1628-58 - opens new window
Shah Jahan in his Durbar
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References and Further Reading

Bayly, C. A. (ed.), The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947, London, 1990

Lawrence, J., Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, London, 1997

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