Divine India

  |  Gorp.com

The word is "India" apparently comes to us from the Greeks, who in turn adopted it from a Persian form of the Sanskrit sindhu, or river, possibly referring to the land east of the Indus River. The India of the past, more commonly called Hindustan (from the Muslim vision of it as the land of the Hindus), is a massive area only roughly defined by the political borders of modern-day India (see map). However, India past was never unified or even imagined as a single entity the way India present is. There is no evidence to suggest that in all the years of the tit-for-tat conquest and retreat by the various rulers, anyone ever attempted to push the limits to those of the present. Thus, the history of India is made more complex by the independent but overlapping spheres of influence and people and religion and culture. Nevertheless, a brief glimpse of some of the major players and places will help.

Although the recorded history stretches as far back as the Indus Valley civilization (2500 - 1500 BC) and the arrival of the northern Aryan invaders in 1500 BC, we will begin long after the birth of Hinduism and Buddhism with the rise to power of the Guptas in the north (319 AD) and the Chalukyas in the south (550 AD).

The North

The Gupta period of northern India lasted from 319 to 606 AD. Direct inheritors of the great Buddhist empire built by the much-celebrated Mauryan ruler, Ashoka, the Guptas were the primary force behind the magnificent stone and fresco work done at Ajanta and Ellora and the resurgence of Hinduism. Appreciation for poetry and literature also went through a period of revival, as many of the great founding texts of Indian Hinduism were written, including the Puranas (encyclopedias), Dharmasastra (law books), and Tantras (religious formularies). The Gupta reign but not the religious prominence of Hinduism ended with the incursions of the White Huns from central Asia.

It was not until the turn of the first millennium that northern India felt the true unifying forces of another great power. This time it came from the west: the Muslims. After repeated raids during the 11th and 12th centuries, by 1206, Muslim armies had established control over the whole of the Ganges basin and set themselves up as the Sultanate of Delhi with Delhi as the capital. Despite foolhardy leadership and further threats from the north, the territory survived under a variety of sultans until it entered a period of slow decline beginning in the 1400s.

The final and greatest regional power arrived once again from the north. From 1527 to 1707, a series of great emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar the Great, Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb oversaw the establishment, expansion, consolidation and flourishing of the Muslim Mughal Empire. These years saw a renaissance in literature and art, advancement in the sciences, and building unlike anything before experienced. Most of the greatest of India's historical monuments including the Taj Mahal date from this period. The Mughals eventually lost ground to the Hindu Marathas who, in turn, surrendered control in our modern era to the British.

The South

At a good distance from the troubling and disruptive influence of raids from the north, the south remained firmly rooted in Hindu tradition. That said, the give-and-take power struggle was no less well developed. Far in the south, the Pallavas followed by the Cholas played an important role in increasing the reach of Hinduism, carrying it well east into Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. The Pallavas are also remembered for having developed the distinctive and exuberant Dravidian architectural style.

North of these empires but still south of the turbulent north, the Chalukyas, with their incredible capital at Badami and Aihole, were the on-and-off dominant force for almost 600 hundred years until 1190, hindered only by the 200-year domination of the Rashtrakutas (753 - 972 AD).

The Hoysala Empire, with great centers at Belur and Halebid, unified the region in the 13th century only to see their rule end when the other local kingdoms unified in opposition. Two other kingdoms worthy of mention rose and fell in this area. Vijayanagar, founded in 1336 and centered at modern-day Hampi, grew to become the strongest southern Hindu kingdom while the sultans were in control of the north at Delhi. There was also the later Bahmani Muslim kingdom, which conquered Vijayanagar in 1556. They later fell to the Mughals.


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