India’s history and culture is dynamic, spanning back to the beginning of human civilization. It begins with a mysterious culture along the Indus River and in farming communities in the southern lands of India. The history of India is punctuated by constant integration of migrating people with the diverse cultures that surround India. Available evidence suggests that the use of iron, copper and other metals was widely prevalent in the Indian sub-continent at a fairly early period, which is indicative of the progress that this part of the world had made. By the end of the fourth millennium BC, India had emerged as a region of highly developed civilization.
The Indus Valley Civilization
The History of India begins with the birth of the Indus Valley Civilization, more precisely known as Harappan Civilization. It flourished around 2,500 BC, in the western part of South Asia, what today is Pakistan and Western India. The Indus Valley was home to the largest of the four ancient urban civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China. Nothing was known about this civilization till 1920s when the Archaeological Department of India carried out excavations in the Indus valley wherein the ruins of the two old cities, viz. Mohenjodaro and Harappa were unearthed. The ruins of buildings and other things like household articles, weapons of war, gold and silver ornaments, seals, toys, pottery wares, etc., show that some four to five thousand years ago a highly developed Civilization flourished in this region.
The Indus valley civilization was basically an urban civilization and the people lived in well-planned and well-built towns, which were also the centers for trade. The ruins of Mohenjodaro and Harappa show that these were magnificent merchant cities-well planned, scientifically laid, and well looked after. They had wide roads and a well-developed drainage system. The houses were made of baked bricks and had two or more storeys.
The highly civilized Harappans knew the art of growing cereals, and wheat and barley constituted their staple food. They consumed vegetables and fruits and ate mutton, pork and eggs as well. Evidences also show that they wore cotton as well as woollen garments. By 1500 BC, the Harappan culture came to an end. Among various causes ascribed to the decay of Indus Valley Civilization are the recurrent floods and other natural causes like earthquake, etc.
The Vedic civilization is the earliest civilization in the history of ancient India. It is named after the Vedas, the early literature of the Hindu people. The Vedic Civilization flourished along the river Saraswati, in a region that now consists of the modern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab. Vedic is synonymous with Hinduism, which is another name for religious and spiritual thought that has evolved from the Vedas.
The Ramayana and Mahabharata were the two great epics of this period.
The Buddhist Era
During the life time of Lord Gautam Buddha, sixteen great powers (Mahajanpadas) existed in the 7th and early 6th centuries BC. Among the more important republics were the Sakyas of Kapilavastu and the Licchavis of Vaishali. Besides the republics, there were monarchical states, among which the important ones were Kaushambi (Vatsa), Magadha, Kosala and Avanti. These states were ruled by vigorous personalities who had embarked upon the policies of aggrandisement and absorption of neighbouring states. However, there were distinct signs of the republican states while those under the monarchs were expanding.
Buddha was born in BC 560 and died at the age of eighty in BC 480. The place of his birth was a grove known as Lumbini, near the city of Kapilavastu, at the foot of Mount Palpa in the Himalayan ranges within Nepal. Buddha, whose original name was Siddhartha Gautama, was the founder of Buddhism, the religion and the philosophical system that evolved into a great culture throughout much of southern and eastern Asia.
In 326 BC, Alexander invaded India, after crossing the river Indus he advanced towards Taxila. He then challenged king Porus , ruler of the kingdom between the rivers Jhelum and Chenab. The Indians were defeated in the fierce battle, even though they fought with elephants, which the Macedonians had never before seen. Alexander captured Porus and, like the other local rulers he had defeated, allowed him to continue to govern his territory. During this trip to rivers Hydaspes and Indus in the south, Alexander sought out the Indian philosophers, the Brahmins, who were famous for their wisdom, and debated with them on philosophical issues. He became legendary for centuries in India for being both, a wise philosopher and a fearless conqueror.
One of the villages in which the army halted belonged to the Mallis, who were said to be one of the most warlike of the Indian tribes. Alexander was wounded several times in this attack, most seriously when an arrow pierced his breastplate and his ribcage. The Macedonian officers rescued him in a narrow escape from the village.
Alexander and his army reached the mouth of the Indus in July 325 BC, and turned westward for home.
After the Kushanas, the Guptas were the most important dynasty. The Gupta period has been described as the Golden Age of Indian history. The first famous king of the Gupta dynasty was Ghatotkacha’s son Chandragupta I. He married Kumaradevi, the daughter of the chief of the Licchavis. This marriage was a turning point in the life of Chandragupta I. He got Pataliputra in dowry from the Lichhavis. From Pataliputra, he laid the foundation of his empire and started conquering many neighbouring states with the help of the Licchavis. He ruled over Magadha (Bihar), Prayaga and Saketa (east Uttar Pradesh). His kingdom extended from the river Ganges to Allahabad. Chandragupta I also got the title of Maharajadhiraja (King of Kings) and ruled for about fifteen years.
Chandragupta I was succeeded by Samudragupta in about 330 A.D., who reigned for about fifty years. He was a great military genius and is said to have commanded a military campaign across the Deccan, and also subdued the forest tribes of the Vindhya region.
Samudragupta’s successor Chandragupta II, also known as Vikramaditya, conquered the extensive territories of Malwa, Gujarat and Kathiawar. This provided exceptional wealth, which added to the prosperity of the Guptas. The Guptas in this period engaged in sea trade with the countries of the west. It was most probably during his reign that Kalidas, the greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist, as well as many other scientist and scholars flourished.
With the commencement of the 7th century, Harshavardhana (606-647 A.D.) ascended the throne of Thaneshwar and Kannauj on the death of his brother, Rajyavardhana. By 612 Harshavardhana consolidated his kingdom in northern India.
In 620 A.D. Harshavardhana invaded the Chalukya kingdom in the Deccan, which was then ruled by Pulakesin II. But the Chalukya resistance proved tough for Harshavardhana and he was defeated. Harshavardhana is well known for his religious toleration, able administration and diplomatic relations. He maintained diplomatic relations with China and sent envoys, who exchanged ideas of the Chinese rulers and developed their knowledge about each other.
The Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, who visited India during his reign, has given a vivid description of the social, economic and religious conditions, under the rule of Harsha spoke highly of the king. Harsha’s death, once again, left India without any central paramount power.
The politics of India takes place within the framework of the country’s constitution. India is a federal parliamentary democratic-republican which the President of India is the head of state and the Prime Minister of India is the head of government. India follows the dual polity system, i.e. a double government (federal in nature) that consists of the central authority at the center and states at the periphery. The constitution defines the organizational powers and limitations of both central and state governments, and it is well recognized, rigid and considered supreme; i.e. the laws of the nation must conform to it.
There is a provision for a bicameral legislature consisting of an upper house, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), which represents the states of the Indian federation, and a lower house, the Lok Sabha (House of the People), which represents the people of India as a whole. The Indian constitution provides for an independent judiciary, which is headed by the Supreme Court. The court’s mandate is to protect the constitution, to settle disputes between the central government and the states, to settle inter-state disputes, to nullify any central or state laws that go against the constitution and to protect the fundamental rights of citizens, issuing writs for their enforcement in cases of violation.
Governments are formed through elections held every five years (unless otherwise specified), by parties that secure a majority of members in their respective lower houses (Lok Sabha in the central government and Vidhan Sabha in states). India had its first general election in 1951, which was won by the Indian National Congress, a political party that went on to dominate subsequent elections until 1977, when a non-Congress government was formed for the first time in independent India.