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The Medieval History of India

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

The existence of ancient kingdoms in India beyond 7000 years ago has been established using satellite imagery and planetarium software. The name ‘India’ originated from the river Indus, and the Indian civilization began in antiquity (before 10,000 B.C.E.) along the Indus and Saraswati rivers. Archaeological sites have confirmed several towns along the basins of these rivers, now called the Indus-Saraswati valley civilization. Previously, it was known as the Indus valley civilization only, but now since more sites have been found along with the now-defunct river Saraswati, archeologists have added ‘Saraswati.’


The once-popular, Aryan invasion theory is now thoroughly debunked. It was first put forward by German Indologist Friedrich Max Müller and others in the mid 19th century. The theory holds that a Caucasian race of nomadic warriors known as the Aryans, originating in the Caucasus mountains in Central Asia, invaded Northern India and Iran somewhere between 1800 and 1500 B.C.E. The Invaders entered the Indian sub-continent from the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush mountains, possibly on horseback, bringing with them the domesticated horse into the sub-continent. The theory further proposes that this race displaced the indigenous Dravidian people and their Indus Valley Culture. The bulk of the indigenous people moved to the Southern reaches of the subcontinent. The Aryans brought their Vedic religion, which was codified in the Vedas around 1500 to 1200 B.C.E. Upon arrival in India, the Aryans abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and intermixed with the Dravidians remaining in the north of India. The victory of the Aryans over the Indus Valley Civilization was quick and complete, resulting in the total domination of Aryan culture and language over the northern part of the subcontinent and considerable influence on parts of the south.


However, the archaeological evidence suggests that the Indian civilization originated along the Indus and Saraswati rivers banks and not due to the influx of nomads from the Caucasus mountains. Nowadays, most scholars have rubbished the Aryan invasion theory and attributed it to the biased western researchers of the 19th century who couldn’t reconcile that an advanced civilization could develop indigenously in India.


The sites along rivers Saraswati and Indus exhibit signs of an advanced civilization, with the discovery of structures such as public baths, granaries, drainage systems, pottery, and stone seals. Their achievements in fields of engineering, architecture, and trade are considered highly innovative. The river Saraswati disappeared following geological events circa 1900 B.C.E, and only small parts of it remain today.


In the 4th century B.C.E., the Mauryan Empire unified the majority of India under one rule and excelled in its people's welfare. Its subjects outshined in the field of science, art, math, and business. The Mauryan Empire also defeated the Macedonians and the Greeks who had invaded India during Alexander’s conquests. In the 3rd century B.C.E., ‘Ashok the great’ was a mighty Mauryan emperor. He expanded his kingdom's boundaries from Afghanistan to the West to Myanmar to the east and from Nepal to the north to the Chola dynasty boundary in southern India. The Indian national flag bears the “Ashok Chakra,” a 24-spoked wheel at its center. Emperor Ashok adopted non-violence and embraced Buddhism after he won a bloody battle with the Kalinga kingdom.


In the south of India, beyond the boundaries of Ashok’s Empire, the Sangam period that spanned from the 5th century B.C.E. to the 3rd century C.E. saw art, music, and literature flourish.


Sanskrit and Tamil are two of the oldest languages in the world.


In the 4th century C.E., the Gupta empire was described as an era when honey and milk poured from civilians' faucets; it was called ‘The Golden Period.’ India was ruled then by a long line of benevolent kings, who adopted the policy of welfare of their subjects over military invasion to expand the boundaries of India. King ‘Harshavardhan’ of Thanesar in the 7th century C.E. was one of the most charitable kings. He had given his wealth to the poor and needy. Chinese scholar Hsuan Tsang, who visited during Harshavardhan’s period, has documented the king's contributions.


In the 12th century C.E., King Prithviraj Chauhan ruled India from Delhi and Ajmer. He defeated ‘Muhammad Ghori,’ an Afghan invader, in the 1st battle of Tarain. However, King Chauhan spared his life and released him. Ghori returned a year later, and defeated Prithviraj in the 2nd battle of Tarain, captured and took Prithviraj back to Afghanistan in chains. Meanwhile, Ghori installed his slave, Qutubuddin, on the throne of Delhi.


Adopting non-violence and compassion towards enemies by previous Hindu Kings, even though seemed righteous for the human cause, didn’t fare well for India's protection from foreign invasions.


Since antiquity, India had been a land ruled by Hindu Kings, but that changed at the end of the 12th - century C.E. Marauders from Central Asia and Afghanistan invaded India from the 12th – 16th centuries C.E., established and shaped the Delhi Sultanate. For 344 years (1192 C.E. – 1527 C.E.), the sultanates passed from one dynasty to another, following a bloody trail of murder and rebellion. Mainly ministers with ambitions revolting against their sultan and usurping power.


In the year 1337 C.E., the Sultan from Delhi, ‘Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq’ mandatorily migrated his kingdom 650 miles south, to the Deccan plateau, to the city Deogiri. Tughlaq felt that it would protect his sultanate from the continued invasions from the north. Thousands of people died during the migration, only to realize that Deogiri lacked a permanent water source. Finally, Tughlaq reversed his decision and decided to return to Delhi. Another wave of massive carnage followed on the return journey. During this, one of his generals, Bahman Shah, revolted, stayed behind, and established the Bahmani Sultanate in Deccan.


Meanwhile, the bloodshed and transfer of power continued in the Delhi sultanate from one generation to the next and from one dynasty to another.


Whereas, in the south, the disintegration of the Bahmani Sultanate led to the formation of the five Deccan Sultanates. The five Deccan sultanates, although skirmished among themselves, unified against the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar and defeated King Ram Raya, gaining control over most of southern India.


In the early 16th century, ‘Babar’ the Moghul from Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the then Delhi Sultan from the Lodi dynasty, and established the Moghul Empire.


In the early 17th century, the Moghuls ruled northern India, whereas the five Deccan Sultanates controlled southern India. These rulers conducted massive atrocities on Hindu-majority India. Some of the injustices included forced conversions to Islam, the kidnapping of Hindu women and children, destruction of Hindu temples and replacing them with mosques in some cases, imposing heavy taxes on the Hindu subjects, bullying and looting of the masses, and murder. India was then under Islamic rule for over 400 years.


The time was ripe for a Hindu hero to rise, and a hero did come along!!


‘Shivaji Raje Bhonsale,’ gathered and rallied peasants to form a mighty empire opposing the Deccan Sultanates and the Moghul Emperor, ‘Aurangzeb.’ Shivaji Raje was coronated in 1674 C.E. and became Chhatrapati Shivaji Raje (Chhatrapati: Lord of the Umbrella). The mighty Maratha Empire was born! Shivaji’s Son Chhatrapati Sambhaji Raje was equally powerful and brave as his father. Both Shivaji and Sambhaji were inspired by Jijabai’s teachings, who was Shivaji’s mother. When Sambhaji was captured by Aurangzeb using treachery, he endured torture but didn’t convert to Islam. Aurangzeb was furious and eventually put him to death, but it gave Hinduism a boost for a king who bore suffering but held on to his beliefs. Chhatrapati Sambhaji became a martyr and is considered as the protector of dharma – the Hindu way of life.


From 1707 C.E. onwards, after Aurangzeb’s death, the Maratha Empire underwent a massive expansion and became a dominant power in India, especially in the west and central India. The Maratha Empire eventually became the protector of the Delhi throne and a kingmaker. The Delhi throne was the most coveted post in India.


In the early 18th century, more than a third of India was under the Peshwa regime. Peshwa ruled from the city of Pune, the epicenter of Maratha power. Peshwa (Prime Minister) was the caretaker regent of the Maratha Empire. Sambhaji’s son, Chhatrapati Shahu, had transferred the reigns of the empire to the Peshwas, who were based in Pune.


The foreign invasions of India had continued; while the Macedonians and the Central Asian plunderers had invaded India by land, the renaissance period Europeans had sailed by sea, using trade as a subterfuge. Their goal, too, was to pillage and profit at the expense of the Indian populace, just like termites devouring wood over time.



References: 1. http://www.fact-index.com/a/ar/aryan_invasion_theory.html

2. The historic city of Delhi, Amar Chitra Katha by Anant Pai.


The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, previously called the Prince of Wales Museum

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