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Incredible India

There’s simply no other word that captures the enigma that is India. With an ability to inspire, frustrate, thrill and confound all at once, India presents an extraordinary spectrum of encounters for the traveler. Some of these can be challenging, particularly for the first time visitor: the poverty is confronting, Indian bureaucracy can be exasperating and the crush of humanity sometimes turns the simplest task into an energy zapping battle. Even veteran travelers find their sanity frayed at some point, yet this is all part of the India experience. Love it or loathe it and most visitors see saw between the two India will jostle your entire being. It’s a place that fires the imagination and stirs the soul like nowhere else on earth.

Spectacularly Diverse

With its in your face diversity from snow dusted mountains to sun washed beaches, tranquil temples to frenetic bazaars, and lantern lit villages to software supreme cities it’s hardly surprising that this country has been dubbed the world’s most multidimensional. For those seeking spiritual sustenance, India has oodles of sacrosanct sites and thought-provoking philosophies, while history buff s will stumble upon gems from the past almost everywhere grand vestiges of former empires serenely peer over swarming streets and crumbling fortresses loom high above plunging ravines. Meanwhile, aficionados of the great outdoors can paddle in the shimmering waters of one of many beautiful beaches, scout for big jungle cats on blood-pumping wildlife safaris, or simply inhale pine-scented air on meditative forest walks. And then there are the festivals. With its vibrant mix of religious denominations, India is home to a formidable array of celebrations from larger-than-life extravaganzas with caparisoned elephants and body-twisting acrobats to pint-sized harvest fairs paying homage to a locally worshipped deity.

Too Delicious

Brace yourself – you’re about to jump on board one of the wildest culinary trips of your life! Frying, simmering, sizzling, kneading and flipping a deliciously diverse variety of regional dishes, feasting your way through the subcontinent is certainly one hell of a ride. The hungry traveler can look forward to a bountiful smorgasbord of tasty delights, ranging from the spicy goodness of masterfully marinated chicken drumsticks in North India to the simple splendor of squidgy rice dumplings in the steamy south.

The Landscape

India is an incredibly diverse country with everything from steamy jungles and tropical rainforest to arid deserts and the soaring peaks of the Himalaya. At 3,287,263 sq km, it is the second-largest Asian country after China, and forms the vast bulk of the South Asian subcontinent an ancient block of earth crust that carried a wealth of unique plants and animals like a lifeboat across a prehistoric ocean before slamming into Asia about 40 million years ago. Look for the three major geographic features that define modern day India: Himalayan peaks and ridges along the northern borders, the alluvial floodplains of the Indus and Ganges Rivers in the north, and the elevated Deccan Plateau that forms the core of India’s triangular southern peninsula.

The Himalaya

As the world’s highest mountains – with the highest peak in India reaching 8598m – the Himalaya create an impregnable boundary that separates India from its neighbors in the north. These mountains formed when the Indian subcontinent broke away from Gondwanaland, a supercontinent in the Southern Hemisphere that included Africa, Antarctica, Australia and South America. All by itself, India drifted north and finally slammed slowly, but with immense force, into the Eurasian continent about 40 million years ago, buckling the ancient seafloor upward to form the Himalaya and many lesser ranges that stretch 2500km from Afghanistan to Myanmar (Burma). When the Himalaya reached their great heights during the Pleistocene (less than 150,000 years ago), they began to block and alter weather systems, creating the monsoon climate that dominates India today, as well as forming a dry rain shadow to the north. Although it looks like a continuous range on a map, the Himalaya is actually a series of interlocking ridges, separated by countless valleys. Until technology enabled the building of roads through the Himalaya, many of these valleys were completely isolated, preserving a diverse series of mountain cultures.

The Way of Life

For travelers, one of the most enduring impressions of India is the way everyday life is intimately intertwined with the sacred: from the housewife who devoutly performs puja (prayers) at home each morning, to the shopkeeper who regardless of how many eager-to-buy tourists may be in the store rarely commences business until blessings have been sought from the gods. Along with religion, family lies at the heart of Indian society. For the vast majority, the idea of being unmarried and without children by one’s mid-30s is unthinkable. Despite the rising number of nuclear families primarily in larger cities such as Mumbai (Bombay), Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Delhi the extended family remains a cornerstone in both urban and rural India, with males – usually the breadwinners generally considered the head of the household.

With religion and family deemed so sacrosanct, don’t be surprised or miffed if you are grilled about these subjects yourself, especially beyond the larger cities, and receive curious (possibly disapproving) gawps if you don’t ‘fit the mould’. The first question travelers are usually asked is their country of origin. This may be followed by a string of queries on topics that might be considered somewhat inappropriate elsewhere, especially coming from a complete stranger. Apart from religion and marital status, frequently asked questions include age, qualifications, profession (possibly even income) and your impressions of India. This is generally innocuous probing, not intended to offend. National pride has long existed on the subcontinent but has swelled in recent years as India attracts ever-increasing international kudos in various fields including information technology (IT), science, medicine, literature, film and, of course, cricket. In the sporting arena, although there are rising stars on the tennis front, it is cricket that by far reigns supreme, with top players afforded superhero status. The country’s robust economy one of the world’s fastest growing is another source of prolific national pride. Also widely embraced as potent symbols of Indian honor and sovereignty are the advancements in nuclear and space technology in 2008 India joined the elite global lunar club with its maiden unmanned mission to the moon.

Sacred Architecture

India has a remarkable collection of historic and contemporary sacred architecture that draws inspiration from a variety of religious denominations. Although few of the wooden and occasionally brick temples built in early times have weathered the vagaries of time, by the advent of the Guptas (4th to 6th centuries AD) of North India, sacred structures of a new type better engineered to withstand the elements were being constructed, and these largely set the standard for temples for several hundred years.

For Hindus, the square is a perfect shape, and complex rules govern the location, design and building of each temple, based on numerology, astrology, astronomy and religious principles. Essentially, a temple represents a map of the universe. At the centre is an unadorned space, the garbhagriha (inner sanctum), which is symbolic of the ‘womb-cave’ from which the universe is believed to have emerged. This provides a residence for the deity to which the temple is dedicated. Above a Hindu temple’s shrin erises a tower superstructure known as a vimana in South India, and a sikhara in North India. The sikhara is curvilinear and topped with a grooved disk, on which sits a pot-shaped finial, while the vimana is stepped, with the grooved disk being replaced by a solid dome. Some temples have a mandapa (forechamber) connected to the sanctum by vestibules. The mandapa may also contain vimanas or sikharas. A gopuram is a soaring pyramidal gateway tower of a Dravidian temple. The towering gopurams of various South Indian temple complexes, such as the nine-storey gopurams of Madurai’s Sri Meenakshi Temple, took ornamentation and monumentalize to new levels. Commonly used for ritual bathing and religious ceremonies, as well as adding aesthetic appeal, temple tanks have long been a focal point of temple activity. These often-vast, angular, engineered reservoirs of water, sometimes fed by rain, sometimes fed – via a complicated drainage system by rivers, serve both sacred and secular purposes. The waters of some temple tanks are believed to have healing properties, while others are said to have the power to wash away sins. Devotees (as well as travelers) may be required to wash their feet in a temple tank before entering a place of worship. From the outside, Jain temples can resemble Hindu ones, but inside they’re often a riot of sculptural ornamentation, the very opposite of ascetic austerity. Buddhist shrines have their own unique features. Stupas, composed of a solid hemisphere topped by a spire, characterize Buddhist places of worship and essentially evolved from burial mounds. They served as repositories for relics of the Buddha and, later, other venerated souls. A further innovation is the addition of a chaitya (assembly hall) leading up to the stupa itself. Bodhgaya, where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, has a collection of notable Buddhist monasteries and temples. The gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) found in places such as Ladakh and Sikkim are characterized by distinctly Tibetan motifs.

In 262 BC the Mauryan emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism, and as a penance built the Great Stupa at Sanchi, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It is among the oldest surviving Buddhist structures in the subcontinent. India also has a rich collection of Islamic sacred sites, as its Muslim rulers contributed their own architectural conventions, including arched cloisters and domes. The Mughals uniquely melded Persian, Indian and provincial styles. Renowned examples include Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, Agra Fort and the ancient fortified city of Fatehpur Sikri. Emperor Shah Jahan was responsible for some of India’s most spectacular architectural creations, most notably the milky white Taj Mahal. Islamic art eschews any hint of idolatry or portrayal of God, and it has evolved a rich heritage of calligraphic and decorative designs. In terms of mosque architecture, the basic design elements are similar worldwide. A large hall is dedicated to communal prayer and within the hall is a mihrab (niche) indicating the direction of Mecca. The faithful are called to prayer from minarets, placed at cardinal points. Delhi’s formidable 17th-century Jama Masjid is India’s biggest mosque, its courtyard able to hold 25,000 people. The Sikh faith was founded by Guru Nanak, the first of 10 gurus, in the 15th century. Sikh temples, called gurdwaras, can usually be identified by a nishan sahib (a flagpole flying a triangular flag with the Sikh insignia). Amritsar’s sublime Golden Temple is Sikhism’s holiest shrine.

The Indo-Genetic Plains

Covering most of northern India, the vast alluvial plains of the sacred Ganges River are so seamlessly at that they drop a mere 200m between Delhi and the waterlogged wetlands of West Bengal, where the river joins forces with the Brahmaputra River from India’s northeast before dumping into the sea in Bangladesh. Vast quantities of eroded sediments from the neighboring highlands accumulate on the plains to a depth of nearly 2km, creating fertile, well-watered agricultural land. This densely populated region was once extensively forested and rich in wildlife. Gujarat in the far west of India is separated from Sindh (Pakistan) by the Rann of Kutch, a brackish marshland that becomes a huge inland sea during the wet season; the waters recede in the dry season, leaving isolated islands perched on an expansive plain.

The Deccan Plateau

South of the Indo-Gangetic (northern) plain, the land rises to the Deccan Plateau, marking the divide between the Mughal heartlands of North India and the Dravidian civilizations of the south. The Deccan is bound on either side by the Western and Eastern Ghats, which come together in their southern reaches to form the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu. On the Deccan’s western border, the Western Ghats drop sharply down to a narrow coastal lowland, forming a luxuriant slope of rainforest.

The Islands

Off shore from India are a series of island groups, politically part of India but geographically linked to the landmasses of Southeast Asia and islands of the Indian Ocean. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands sit far out in the Bay of Bengal, while the coral atolls of Lakshadweep (300km west of Kerala) are a northerly extension of the Maldives islands, with a land area of just 32 sq km.

Environmental Issues

With over a billion people, ever-expanding industrial and urban centers, and growth in chemical-intensive farming, India’s environment is under tremendous pressure. An estimated 65% of the land is degraded in some way, most of it seriously degraded, and the government has been consistently falling short of most of its environmental protection goals. Many current problems are a direct result of the Green Revolution of the 1960s when chemical fertilizers and pesticides enabled huge growth in agricultural output, at enormous cost to the environment, wildlife populations and habitat. Despite numerous new environmental laws since the 1984 Bhopal disaster, corruption continues to exacerbate environmental degradation worst exemplified by the flagrant flouting of environmental rules by companies involved in hydroelectricity, mining, and uranium and oil exploration. Usually, the people most affected are low caste rural farmers and advise (tribal people) who have limited political representation and few resources to fight big businesses. Agricultural production has been reduced by soil degradation from over farming, rising soil salinity, loss of tree cover and poor irrigation. The human cost is heart-rending, and lurking behind all these problems is a basic Malthusian truth: there are far too many people for India to support at its current level of development.

While the Indian government could undoubtedly do more, some blame must also fall on Western farm subsidies that artificially reduce the cost of imported produce, undermining prices for Indian farmers. Western agribusinesses also promote the use of no propagating, genetically modified (GM) seed stocks. As anywhere, tourists tread a fine line between providing an incentive for change and making the problem worse. For example, many of the environmental problems in Goa are a direct result of years of irresponsible development for tourism. Always consider your environmental impact while travelling in India, including while trekking and diving.

Climate Change

Changing climate patterns linked to global carbon emissions have been creating dangerous extremes of weather in India. While India is a major polluter, in carbon emissions per capita it still ranks far behind the USA, Australia and Europe.Increased monsoon rainfall has caused a cycle of ever-worsening flooding and destruction, including the devastating Gujarat and Maharashtra floods in 2005 and widespread flooding across northern India in 2010. The Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has estimated that by 2030 India will see a 30% increase in the severity of its floods and droughts. In mountain deserts of Ladakh, increased rainfall is changing time honored farming patterns and threatening traditional mud brick architecture, while glaciers on nearby peaks are melting at alarming rates. Conversely, other areas are experiencing reduced rainfall, causing drought and riots over access to water supplies. Islands in the Lakshadweep group as well as the low-lying plains of the Ganges delta are being inundated by rising sea levels.


Since Independence, some 53,000 sq km of India’s forests have been cleared for logging and farming, or damaged by urban expansion, mining, industrialization and river dams. Even in the well-funded, highly protected Project Tiger parks, the amount of forest cover classified as ‘degraded’ has tripled due to illegal logging. The number of mangrove forests has halved since the early 1990s, reducing the nursery grounds for the fi sh that stock the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. India’s first Five Year Plan in 1951 recognized the importance of forests for soil conservation, and various policies have been introduced to increase forest cover. Almost all have been flouted by officials or criminals and by ordinary people clearing forests for firewood and grazing in forest areas. Try to minimize the use of wood-burning stoves while you travel (this is less of an issue in areas with fast-growing pine species in the hills). Officially, states are supposed to earmark an equivalent area for a forestation when an area is cleared, but enforcement is lax and the land set aside is sometimes unsuitable for forestry. On another front, invasive eucalyptus and other foreign plant species are swamping indigenous flora. Numerous charities are working with rural communities to encourage tree planting, and religious leaders like the Dalai Lama have joined the movement.

Water Resources

Arguably the biggest threat to public health in India is inadequate access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation. With the population set to double by 2050, agricultural, industrial and domestic water usage are all expected to spiral, despite government policies designed to control water use. The World Health Organization estimates that, out of more than 3000 cities and towns in India, only eight have adequate wastewater treatment facilities. Many cities dump untreated sewage and partially cremated bodies directly into rivers, while open defecation is a simple fact of life in most rural and many urban areas.

Rivers are also affected by runoff, industrial pollution and sewage contamination – the Sabarmati, Yamuna and Ganges are among the most polluted rivers on earth. At least 70% of the freshwater sources in India are now polluted in some way. In recent years, drought has devastated parts of the subcontinent (particularly Rajasthan and Gujarat) and has been a driving force for rural-to-urban migration. Water distribution is another volatile issue. Since 1947 an estimated 35 million people in India have been displaced by major dams, mostly built to provide hydroelectricity for this increasingly power hungry nation. While hydroelectricity is one of the greener power sources, valleys across India are being sacrificed to create new power plants, and displaced people rarely receive adequate compensation.


India’s story is one of the grand epics of world history. Throughout thousands of years of great civilizations, invasions, the birth of religions and countless cataclysms, India has time and again proved itself to be, in the words of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads’. Indian history has always been a work in progress, a process of reinvention and accumulation that can prove elusive for those seeking to grasp its essential essence. Generally speaking, Brahmanical empires and Hindu Buddhist dynasties dominated for over a millennium before the arrival of the Islamic sultanates, which, along with the Mughals, established Muslim control over the region for several hundred years; they were overtaken by the Europeans especially, of course, the British, who managed to conquer the peninsula. But even this chronology is deceptive: small dynasties emerged, passed away and emerged again in the shadow of larger empires; power centers shifted subtly, control changed hands back and forth between rivals, and territories expanded and contracted; religion was a big deal or not a big deal, depending on the era. Like a river, you haven’t ever been able to enter the same India twice. And yet, from its myriad upheavals, a vibrant, diverse and thoroughly modern nation has emerged, as enduring as it is dynamic and increasingly geared to meet the multifarious challenges of the future.

Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley, straddling the modern India–Pakistan border, is the cradle of civilization on the Indian subcontinent. The first inhabitants of this region were nomadic tribes who cultivated land and kept domestic animals. Over thousands of years, an urban culture began to emerge from these tribes, particularly from 3500 BC. By 2500 BC large cities were well established, the focal points of what became known as the Harappa culture, which would flourish for more than 1000 years. The great cities of the Mature Harappan period were Moenjodaro and Harappa in present-day Pakistan, and Lothal near Ahmedabad. Lothal can be visited, and from the precise, carefully laid-out street plan, some sense of this sophisticated 4500-year-old civilization is still evident. Harappa cities often had a separate acropolis, suggesting a religious function, and the great tank at Moenjodaro may have been used for ritual bathing purposes. The major Harappa cities were also notable for their size estimates put the population of Moenjodaro at as high as 50,000. By the middle of the 3rd millennium BC the Indus Valley culture was arguably the equal of other great civilizations emerging at the time. The Harappa traded with Mesopotamia, and developed a system of weights and measures, along with a highly developed art in the form of terracotta and bronze figurines. Recovered relics, including models of bullock carts and jewellery, offer the earliest evidence of a distinctive Indian culture.

Indeed, many elements of Harappa culture would later become assimilated into Hinduism: clay figurines found at these sites suggest worship of a Mother goddess (later personified as Kali) and a male three-faced god sitting in the pose of a yogi (believed to be the historic Shiva) attended by four animals. Black stone pillars (associated with phallic worship of Shiva) and animal figures (the most prominent being the humped bull; later Shiva’s mount, Nandi) have also been discovered.

Early Invasions & the Rise of Religions

The Harappa civilization fell into decline from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. Some historians attribute the end of the empire to floods or decreased rainfall, which threatened the Harappa’s’ agricultural base. The more enduring, if contentious, theory is that an Aryan invasion put paid to the Harappa’s, despite little archaeological proof or written reports in the ancient Indian texts to that effect. As a result, some nationalist historians argue that the Aryans (from a Sanskrit word for ‘noble’) were in fact the original inhabitants of India and that the invasion theory was invented by self serving foreign conquerors. Others say that the arrival of Aryans was more of a gentle migration that gradually subsumed Harappa culture.

Those who defend the invasion theory believe that from around 1500 BC Aryan tribes from Afghanistan and Central Asia began to filter into northwest India. Despite their military superiority, their progress was gradual, with successive tribes fighting over territory and new arrivals pushing further east into the Ganges plain. Eventually these tribes controlled northern India as far as the Vindhya Hills. Many of the original inhabitants of northern India, the Dravidians, were pushed south. The Hindu sacred scriptures, the Vedas, were written during this period of transition (1500–1200 BC), and the caste system became formalized.

As the Aryan tribes spread across the Ganges plain in the late 7th century BC, many were absorbed into 16 major kingdoms, which were, in turn, amalgamated into four large states. Out of these states arose the Nanda dynasty, which came to power in 364 BC, ruling over huge swathes of North India. During this period, the Indian heartland narrowly avoided two invasions from the west which, if successful, could have significantly altered the path of Indian history. The first was by the Persian king Darius (521–486 BC), who annexed Punjab and Sindh (on either side of the modern India-Pakistan border). Alexander the Great advanced to India from Greece in 326 BC, but his troops refused to go beyond the Beas River in Himachal Pradesh. Alexander turned back without ever extending his power into India itself. The period is also distinguished by the rise of two of India’s most significant religions, Buddhism and Jainism, which arose around 500 BC. Both the Buddha and Jainism’s Mahavir questioned the Vedas and were critical of the caste system, although, unlike Buddhism, the Jain faith never extended beyond India.

The Mauryan Empire & its Aftermath

If the Harappa culture was the cradle of Indian civilization, Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the first great Indian empire. He came to power in 321 BC, having seized the throne from the Nandas, and he soon expanded the empire to include the Indus Valley previously conquered by Alexander. From its capital at Pataliputra (modern-day Patna), the Mauryan empire encompassed much of North India and reached as far south as modern day Karnataka. The Mauryas were capable of securing control over such a vast realm through the use of an effi cient bureaucracy, organized tiers of local government and a well-defined social order consisting of a rigid caste system. The empire reached its peak under emperor Ashoka. Such was Ashoka’s power to lead and unite that after his death in 232 BC, no one could be found to hold the disparate elements of the Mauryan empire together. The empire rapidly disintegrated, collapsing altogether in 184 BC. None of the empires that immediately followed could match the stability or enduring historical legacy of the Mauryans. The Sungas (184–70 BC), Kanvas (72–30 BC), Shakas (from 130 BC) and Kushanas (1st century BC until 1st century AD, and into the 3rd century in a diminished form) all had their turn, with the last briefl y ruling over a massive area of North India and Central Asia. Despite the multiplicity of ruling powers, this was a period of intense development. Trade with the Roman Empire (overland, and by sea through the southern ports) became substantial during the 1st century AD; there was also overland trade with China.

The Golden Age of the Guptas

The empires that followed the Mauryans may have claimed large areas of Indian territory as their own, but many secured only nominal power over their realms. Throughout the subcontinent, small tribes and kingdoms effectively controlled territory and dominated local aff airs. In AD 319 Chandragupta I, the third king of one of these tribes, the little known Guptas, came to prominence by a fortuitous marriage to the daughter of one of the most powerful tribes in the north, the Liccavis. The Gupta empire grew rapidly and under Chandragupta II (r 375–413) achieved its greatest extent. The Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien, visiting India at the time, described a people ‘rich and contented’, ruled over by enlightened and just kings. Poetry, literature and the arts flourished, with some of the finest work done at Ajanta, Ellora, Sanchi and Sarnath. Towards the end of the Gupta period, Hinduism became the dominant religious force, and its revival eclipsed Jainism and Buddhism; the latter in particular went into decline in India and would never again be India’s dominant religion. The invasions of the Huns at the beginning of the 6th century signaled the end of this era, and in 510 the Gupta army was defeated by the Hun leader Toramana. Power in North India again devolved to a number of separate Hindu kingdoms.

The Hindu South

Southern India has always laid claim to its own unique history. Insulated by distance from the political developments in the north, a separate set of powerful kingdoms emerged, among them the Satavahanas who ruled over central India for about 400 years beginning in 230 BC and, though predominantly Hindu, patronized Buddhist art at Amaravathi and Sanchi as well as the Kalingas and Vakatakas. But it was from the tribal territories on the fertile coastal plains that the greatest southern empires – the Cholas, Pandyas, Chalukyas, Cheras and Pallavas – came into their own. The Chalukyas ruled mainly over the Deccan region of south-central India, although their power occasionally extended further north. With a capital at Badami in modern day Karnataka, they ruled from 550 to 753 before falling to the Rashtrakutas. An eastern branch of the Chalukyas, with its capital at Kalyani in Karnataka, rose and ruled again from 972 to 1190. In the far south, the Pallavas ruled from the 4th to 9th centuries and pioneered Dravidian architecture, with its exuberant, almost baroque, style. The surviving architectural high points of Pallava rule can be found across Tamil Nadu, including in the erstwhile Pallava capital at Kanchipuram.

The south’s prosperity was based on long-established trading links with other civilizations, among them the Egyptians and Romans. In return for spices, pearls, ivory and silk, the Indians received Roman gold. Indian merchants also extended their influence to Southeast Asia. In 850 the Cholas rose to power and superseded the Pallavas. They soon set about turning the south’s far-reaching trade influence into territorial conquest. Under the reign of Rajaraja Chola I (985–1014) they controlled almost the whole of South India, the Deccan plateau, Sri Lanka, parts of the Malay peninsula and the Sumatran-based Srivijaya kingdom. Not all of their attention was focused overseas, however, and the Cholas left behind some of the fi nest examples of Dravidian architecture, most notably the sublime Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjavur and Chidambaram’s stunning Nataraja Temple. Both Thanjavur and Chidambaram served as Chola capitals. Throughout, Hinduism remained the bedrock of South Indian culture.

The Muslim North

While South India guarded its resolutely Hindu character, North India was convulsed by Muslim armies invading from the northwest. At the vanguard of Islamic expansion was Mahmud of Ghazni. Today, Ghazni is a nondescript little town between Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan. But in the early years of the 11th century, Mahmud turned it into one of the world’s most glorious capital cities, which he largely funded by plundering his neighbours’ territories. From 1001 to 1025, Mahmud conducted 17 raids into India, most infamously on the famous Shiva temple at Somnath in Gujarat. The Hindu force of 70,000 died trying to defend the temple, which eventually fell in early 1026. In the aftermath of his victory, Mahmud, not particularly intent on acquiring new territory at this stage, transported a massive haul of gold and other booty back to his capital. These raids effectively shattered the balance of power in North India, allowing subsequent invaders to claim the territory for themselves. Following Mahmud’s death in 1033, Ghazni was seized by the Seljuqs and then fell to the Ghurs of western Afghanistan, who similarly had their eyes on the great Indian prize. The Ghur style of warfare was brutal: the Ghur general, Ala-ud-din, was known as ‘Burner of the World’. In 1191 Mohammed of Ghur advanced into India. Although defeated in a major battle against a confederacy of Hindu rulers, he returned the following year and routed his enemies. One of his generals, Qutb ud-din Aibak, captured Delhi and was appointed governor; it was during his reign that the great Delhi landmark, the Qutb Minar complex, was built. A separate Islamic empire was established in Bengal and within a short time almost the whole of North India was under Muslim control. Following Mohammed’s death in 1206, Qutb ud-din Aibak became the first sultan of Delhi. His successor, Iltutmish, brought Bengal back under central control and defended the empire from an attempted Mongol invasion. Ala-ud-din Khilji came to power in 1296 and pushed the borders of the empire inexorably south, while simultaneously fending off further attacks by the Mongols.

North Meets South

Ala-ud-din died in 1320, and Mohammed Tughlaq ascended the throne in 1324. In 1328 Tughlaq took the southern strongholds of the Hoysala empire, which had centres at Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur. India was Tughlaq’s for the taking. However, while the empire of the pre-Mughal Muslims would achieve its greatest extent under Tughlaq’s rule, his overreaching ambition also sowed the seeds of its disintegration. Unlike his forebears (including great rulers such as Ashoka), Tughlaq dreamed not only of extending his indirect influence over South India, but of controlling it directly as part of his empire. After a series of successful campaigns Tughlaq decided to move the capital from Delhi to a more central location. The new capital was called Daulatabad and was near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Tughlaq sought to populate the new capital by forcefully marching the entire population of Delhi 1100km south, resulting in great loss of life. However, he soon realized that this left the north undefended and so the entire capital was moved north again. The superb hilltop fortress of Daulatabad stands as the last surviving monument to his megalomaniac vision. The days of the Ghur Empire were numbered. The last of the great sultans of Delhi, Firoz Shah, died in 1388, and the fate of the sultanate was sealed when Timur (Tamerlane) made a devastating raid from Samarkand (in Central Asia) into India in 1398. Timur’s sacking of Delhi was truly merciless; some accounts say his soldiers slaughtered every Hindu inhabitant. After Tughlaq’s withdrawal from the south, several splinter kingdoms arose. The two most significant were the Islamic Bahmani sultanate, which emerged in 1345 with its capital at Gulbarga, and later Bidar, and the Hindu Vijayanagar empire, founded in 1336 with its capital at Hampi. The battles between the two were among the bloodiest communal violence in Indian history and ultimately resolved nothing in the two centuries before the Mughals ushered in a more enlightened age.

The Mughals

Even as Vijayanagar was experiencing its last days, the next great Indian empire was being founded. The Mughal Empire was massive, at its height covering almost the entire subcontinent. Its signifi cance, however, lay not only in its size. Mughal emperors presided over a golden age of arts and literature and had a passion for building that resulted in some of the finest architecture in India: Shah Jahan’s sublime Taj Mahal (p 350 ) ranks as one of the wonders of the world. The founder of the Mughal line, Babur (r 1526–30), was a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). In 1525, armed with this formidable lineage, he marched into Punjab from his capital at Kabul. With technological superiority brought by firearms, and consummate skill in simultaneously employing artillery and cavalry, Babur defeated the numerically superior armies of the sultan of Delhi at the Battle of Panipat in 1526. Despite this initial success, Babur’s son, Humayun (r 1530–56) was defeated by a powerful ruler of eastern India, Sher Shah, in 1539 and forced to withdraw to Iran. Following Sher Shah’s death in 1545, Humayun returned to claim his kingdom, eventually conquering Delhi in 1555. He died the following year and was succeeded by his young son Akbar (1556–1605) who, during his 49-year reign, managed to extend and consolidate the empire until he ruled over a mammoth area. True to his name, Akbar (which means ‘great’ in Arabic) was probably the greatest of the Mughals: he not only had the military ability required of a ruler at that time, but was also a just and wise ruler and a man of culture. He saw, as previous Muslim rulers had not, that the number of Hindus in India was too great to subjugate. Although Akbar was no saint – reports of massacres of Hindus at Panipat and Chitrod tarnish his legacy – he remains known for integrating Hindus into his empire and skillfully using them as advisers, generals and administrators. Akbar also had a deep interest in religious matters, and spent many hours in discussion with religious experts of all persuasions, including Christians and Parsis. Jehangir (1605–27) ascended to the throne following Akbar’s death. Despite several challenges to the authority of Jehangir himself, the empire remained more or less intact. In periods of stability Jehangir spent time in his beloved Kashmir, eventually dying en route there in 1627. He was succeeded by his son, Shah Jahan ( 1627–58), who secured his position as emperor by executing all male relatives who stood in his way. During his reign, some of the most vivid and permanent reminders of the Mughals’ glory were constructed; in addition to the Taj Mahal, he also oversaw the construction of the mighty Red Fort (Lal Qila) in Delhi and converted the Agra Fort into a palace that would later become his prison.

The last of the great Mughals, Aurangzeb (1658–1707), imprisoned his father (Shah Jahan) and succeeded to the throne after a two-year struggle against his brothers. Aurangzeb devoted his resources to extending the empire’s boundaries, and thus fell into much the same trap as that of Mohammed Tughlaq some 300 years earlier. He, too, tried moving his capital south (to Aurangabad) and imposed heavy taxes to fund his military. A combination of decaying court life and dissatisfaction among the Hindu population at inflated taxes and religious intolerance weakened the Mughal grip. The empire was also facing serious challenges from the Marathas in central India and, more significantly, the British in Bengal. With Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the empire’s fortunes rapidly declined, and Delhi was sacked by Persia’s Nadir Shah in 1739. Mughal ‘emperors’ continued to rule right up until the First War of Independence (Indian Uprising) in 1857, but they were emperors without an empire.

The Rajputs & the Marathas

Throughout the Mughal period, there remained strong Hindu powers, most notably the Rajputs. Centred in Rajasthan, the Rajputs were a proud warrior caste with a passionate belief in the dictates of chivalry, both in battle and state aff airs. The Rajputs opposed every foreign incursion into their territory, but were never united or adequately organized to deal with stronger forces on a long-term basis. When they weren’t battling foreign oppression, they squandered their energies fighting each other. This eventually led to their territories becoming vassal states of the Mughal empire. Their prowess in battle, however, was acknowledged, and some of the best military men in the Mughal armies were Rajputs. The Marathas were less picaresque but ultimately more effective. They first rose to prominence under their great leader Shivaji, also known as Chhatrapati Shivaji, who gathered popular support by championing the Hindu cause against the Muslim rulers. Between 1646 and 1680 Shivaji performed heroic acts in confronting the Mughals across most of central India. Shivaji was captured by the Mughals and taken to Agra but, naturally, he managed to escape and continue his adventures. Tales of his larger-than-life exploits are still popular with wandering storytellers. He is a particular hero in Maharashtra, where many of his wildest adventures took place. (Today, you’ll see Shivaji’s name all over Mumbai.) He’s also revered for the fact that, as a lower-caste Shudra, he showed that great leaders don’t have to be of the Kshatriya (soldier) caste. Shivaji’s son was captured, blinded and executed by Aurangzeb. His grandson wasn’t made of the same sturdy stuff , so the Maratha empire continued under the Peshwas, hereditary government ministers who became the real rulers. They gradually took over more of the weakening Mughal empire’s powers, first by supplying troops and then actually taking control of Mughal land. The expansion of Maratha power came to an abrupt halt in 1761 at Panipat. In the town where Babur had won the battle that established the Mughal empire more than 200 years earlier, the Marathas were defeated by Ahmad Shah Durrani from Afghanistan. Maratha expansion to the west was halted, and although they consolidated their control over central India and the region known as Malwa, they were to fall to India’s final imperial power the British.

The Rise of European Power

The British weren’t the fi rst European power to arrive in India, nor were they the last to leave – both of those ‘honors’ go to the Portuguese. In 1498 Vasco da Gama arrived on the coast of modern-day Kerala, having sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. Pioneering this route gave the Portuguese a century-long monopoly over Indian and far-Eastern trade with Europe. In 1510 they captured Goa, followed by Diu in 1531, two enclaves the Portuguese controlled until 1961. In its heyday, the trade flowing through ‘Golden Goa’ was said to rival that passing through Lisbon. In the long term, however, the Portuguese didn’t have the resources to maintain a worldwide empire and they were quickly eclipsed and isolated after the arrival of the British and French.In 1600 Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to a London trading company that gave it a monopoly on British trade with India. In 1613 representatives of the East India Company established their first trading post at Surat in Gujarat. Further British trading posts, administered and governed by representatives of the company, were established at Madras (Chennai) in 1639, Bombay (Mumbai) in 1661 and Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1690. Strange as it now seems, for nearly 250 years a commercial trading company and not the British government ‘ruled’ over British India. By 1672 the French had established themselves at Pondicherry, an enclave they held even after the British departed and where architectural traces of French elegance remain. The stage was set for more than a century of rivalry between the British and French for control of Indian trade. At one stage, under the guidance of a handful of talented and experienced commanders, the French appeared to hold the upper hand.

In 1746 they took Madras (only to hand it back in 1749), and their success in placing their favored heir to the throne as Nizam of Hyderabad augured well for the future. But serious French aspirations effectively ended in 1750 when the directors of the French East India Company decided that their representatives were playing too much politics and doing too little trading. Key representatives were sacked, and a settlement designed to end all ongoing political disputes was made with the British. The decision effectively removed France as a serious influence on the subcontinent.

Britain’s Surge to Power

The transformation of the British from traders to governors began almost by accident. Having been granted a licence to trade in Bengal by the Mughals, and following the establishment of a new trading post at Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1690, business began to expand rapidly. Under the apprehensive gaze of the nawab (local ruler), British trading activities became extensive and the ‘factories’ took on an increasingly permanent (and fortified) appearance. Eventually the nawab decided that British power had grown large enough. In June 1756 he attacked Calcutta and, having taken the city, locked his British prisoners in a tiny cell. The space was so cramped and airless that many were dead by the following morning. The cell infamously became known as the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’. Six months later, Robert Clive, an employee in the military service of the East India Company, led an expedition to retake Calcutta and entered into an agreement with one of the nawab’s generals to overthrow the nawab himself. He did this in June 1757 at the Battle of Plassey (now called Palashi), and the general who had assisted him was placed on the throne. With the British effectively in control of Bengal, the company’s agents engaged in a period of unbridled profiteering. When a subsequent nawab finally took up arms to protect his own interests, he was defeated at the Battle of Baksar in 1764, a victory that confirmed the British as the paramount power in east India.

In 1771 Warren Hastings was made governor in Bengal. During his tenure the company greatly expanded its control. His astute statesmanship was aided by the fact that India at this time was experiencing a power vacuum created by the disintegration of the Mughal empire. The Marathas, the only real Indian power to step into this gap, were divided among themselves. Hastings concluded a series of treaties with local rulers, including one with the main Maratha leader. From 1784 onwards, the British government in London began to take a more direct role in supervising affairs in India, although the territory was still notionally administered by the East India Company until 1858. In the south, where Mughal influence had never been great, the picture was confused by the strong British–French rivalry, and one ruler was played off against another. This was never clearer than in the series of Mysore wars in which Hyder Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan, waged a brave and determined campaign against the British. In the Fourth Mysore War (1789–99), Tipu Sultan was killed at Srirangapatnam and British power took another step forward. The long-running struggle with the Marathas was concluded in 1803, leaving only Punjab (held by the Sikhs) outside British control. Punjab finally fell in 1849 after the two Sikh Wars (1845–46 and 1848–49)

British India

By the early 19th century, India was effectively under British control, although there remained a patchwork of states, many nominally independent and governed by their own rulers, the maharajas (or similarly titled princes) and nawabs. While these ‘princely states’ administered their own territories, a system of central government was developed. British bureaucratic models were replicated in the Indian government and civil service a legacy that still exists. Trade and profit continued to be the main focus of British rule in India, with far-reaching effects. Iron and coal mining were developed, and tea, coffee and cotton became key crops. A start was made on the vast rail network that’s still in use today, irrigation projects were undertaken, and the zamindar (landowner) system was encouraged. These absentee landlords eased the burden of administration and tax collection for the British but contributed to the development of an impoverished and landless peasantry. The British also imposed English as the local language of administration. For them, this was critical in a country with so many different languages, but it also kept the new rulers at arm’s length from the Indian populace.

The Road to Independence

The desire among many Indians to be free from foreign rule remained. Opposition to the British increased at the turn of the 20th century, spearheaded by the Indian National Congress, the countries oldest political party, also known as the Congress Party and Congress (I). It met for the first time in 1885 and soon began to push for participation in the government of India. A highly unpopular attempt by the British to partition Bengal in 1905 resulted in mass demonstrations and brought to light Hindu opposition to the division; the Muslim community formed its own league and campaigned for protected rights in any future political settlement. As pressure rose, a split emerged in Hindu circles between moderates and radicals, the latter resorting to violence to publicize their aims. With the outbreak of WWI, the political situation eased. India contributed hugely to the war (more than one million Indian volunteers were enlisted and sent overseas, suffering more than 100,000 casualties). The contribution was sanctioned by Congress leaders, largely with the expectation that it would be rewarded after the war. No such rewards transpired and disillusion followed. Disturbances were particularly persistent in Punjab, and in April 1919, following riots in Amritsar, a British army contingent was sent to quell the unrest. Under direct orders of the officer in charge, they ruthlessly fired into a crowd of unarmed protesters. News of the massacre spread rapidly throughout India, turning huge numbers of otherwise apolitical Indians into Congress supporters.

At this time, the Congress movement found a new leader in Mohandas Gandhi. Not everyone involved in the struggle agreed with or followed Gandhi’s policy of nonviolence, yet the Congress Party and Gandhi remained at the forefront of the push for independence. As political power-sharing began to look more likely, and the mass movement led by Gandhi gained momentum, the Muslim reaction was to consider its own immediate future. The large Muslim minority realized that an independent India would be dominated by Hindus and that, while Gandhi’s approach was fair-minded, others in the Congress Party might not be so willing to share power. By the 1930s Muslims were raising the possibility of a separate Islamic state. Political events were partially disrupted by WWII when large numbers of Congress supporters were jailed to prevent disruption to the war effort.

Mahatma Gandhi

One of the great figures of the 20th century, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 in Porbandar, Gujarat. After studying in London (1888–91), he worked as a barrister in South Africa. Here, the young Gandhi became politicized, railing against the discrimination he encountered. He soon became the spokesperson for the Indian community and championed equality for all. Gandhi returned to India in 1915 with the doctrine of ahimsa (nonviolence) central to his political plans, and committed to a simple and disciplined lifestyle. He set up the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmadabad, which was innovative for its admission of Untouchables. Within a year, Gandhi had won his first victory, defending farmers in Bihar from exploitation. This was when it’s said he first received the title ‘Mahatma’ (Great Soul) from an admirer (often said to be Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore). The passage of the discriminatory Rowlatt Acts (which allowed certain political cases to be tried without juries) in 1919 spurred him to further action, and he organized a national protest. In the days that followed this hartal (strike), feelings ran high throughout the country. After the massacre of unarmed protesters in Amritsar, a deeply shocked Gandhi immediately called off the movement.

By 1920 Gandhi was a key fi gure in the Indian National Congress, and he coordinated a national campaign of noncooperation or satyagraha (nonviolent protest) to British rule, with the eff ect of raising nationalist feeling while earning the lasting enmity of the British. In early 1930, Gandhi captured the imagination of the country, and the world, when he led a march of several thousand followers from Ahmadabad to Dandi on the coast of Gujarat. On arrival, Gandhi ceremoniously made salt by evaporating sea water, thus publicly defying the much-hated salt tax; not for the first time, he was imprisoned. Released in 1931 to represent the Indian National Congress at the second Round Table Conference in London, he won the hearts of many British people but failed to gain any real concessions from the government.

Disillusioned with politics, he resigned his parliamentary seat in 1934. He returned spectacularly to the fray in 1942 with the Quit India campaign, in which he urged the British to leave India immediately. His actions were deemed subversive, and he and most of the Congress leadership were imprisoned. In the frantic Independence bargaining that followed the end of WWII, Gandhi was largely excluded and watched helplessly as plans were made to partition the country – a dire tragedy in his eyes. Gandhi stood almost alone in urging tolerance and the preservation of a single sentiment from some Hindu hardliners. On his way to a prayer meeting in Delhi on 30 January 1948, he was assassinated by a Hindu zealot, Nathuram Godse. There’s a memorial at the spot where he was shot, known as Gandhi Smriti.

Independence & the Partition of India

The Labour Party victory in the British elections in July 1945 dramatically altered the political landscape. For the first time, Indian independence was accepted as a legitimate goal. This new goodwill did not, however, translate into any new wisdom as to how to reconcile the divergent wishes of the two major Indian parties. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, championed a separate Islamic state, while the Congress Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, campaigned for an independent greater India. In early 1946 a British mission failed to bring the two sides together, and the country slid closer towards civil war. A ‘Direct Action Day’, called by the Muslim League in August 1946, led to the slaughter of Hindus in Calcutta, which prompted reprisals against Muslims. In February 1947 the nervous British government made the momentous decision that Independence would come by June 1948. In the meantime, the viceroy, Lord Archibald Wavell, was replaced by Lord Louis Mountbatten.

The new viceroy encouraged the rival factions to agree upon a united India, but to no avail. A decision was made to divide the country, with Gandhi the only staunch opponent. Faced with increasing civil violence, Mountbatten made the precipitous decision to bring forward Independence to 15 August 1947. Dividing the country into separate Hindu and Muslim territories was immensely tricky; the dividing line proved almost impossible to draw. Some areas were clearly Hindu or Muslim, but others had evenly mixed populations, and there were ‘islands’ of communities in areas predominantly settled by other religions. Moreover, the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions were on opposite sides of the country and, therefore, Pakistan would inevitably have an eastern and western half divided by a hostile India. The instability of this arrangement was self-evident, but it was 25 years before the split finally came and East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

An independent British referee was given the odious task of drawing the borders, well aware that the effects would be catastrophic for countless people. The decisions were fraught with impossible dilemmas. Calcutta, with its Hindu majority, port facilities and jute mills, was divided from East Bengal, which had a Muslim majority, large-scale jute production, no mills and no port facilities. One million Bengalis became refugees in the mass movement across the new border. The problem was worse in Punjab, where intercommunity antagonisms were already running at fever pitch. Punjab, one of the most fertile and affluent regions of the country, had large Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities. The Sikhs had already campaigned unsuccessfully for their own state and now saw their homeland divided down the middle.

The new border ran straight between Punjab’s two major cities, Lahore and Amritsar. Prior to Independence, Lahore’s population of 1.2 million included approximately 500,000 Hindus and 100,000 Sikhs. When the dust had finally settled, roughly 1000 Hindus and Sikhs remained. Punjab contained all the ingredients for an epic disaster, but the resulting bloodshed was far worse than anticipated. Huge population exchanges took place. Trains full of Muslims, fleeing westward, were held up and slaughtered by Hindu and Sikh mobs. Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to the east suffered the same fate at Muslim hands. The army that was sent to maintain order proved totally inadequate and, at times, all too ready to join the sectarian carnage. By the time the Punjab chaos had run its course, more than 10 million people had changed sides and at least 500,000 had been killed. India and Pakistan became sovereign nations under the British Commonwealth in August 1947 as planned, but the violence, migrations and the integration of a few states, especially Kashmir, continued. The Constitution of India was at last adopted in November 1949 and went into effect on 26 January, 1950, and, after untold struggles, independent India officially became a Republic.

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