An informal pre-departure orientation from a participant’s perspective.
In the beginning.
The first civilization to form in South Asia formed along the Indus River Valley at least 5000 years ago. They developed mathematically planned cities, written language, extensive trade routes, and innovations like universally uniform bricks.
India’s first of many invasions came from the Aryans, a northern group who invaded around 1500 BC. Aryans brought with them the language Sanskrit, which is the basis for modern Hindi. It was under Aryan rule that the caste system developed, and the earliest religious texts of Hinduism were recorded.
Around 500 BC, the Persians invaded northern India but were only able to hold the territory for about 150 years, when they were in turn conquered by Alexander the Great.
Meanwhile, Aryan kingdoms developed in the east and south, giving rise to a series of empires. The Mauryas ruled a large part of northern and central India between 321 BC and 184 BC, followed by several centuries of fragmented kingdoms and short-living empires. Next, the Gupta dynasty was founded in 319 AD and lasted for about 200 years.
The next five centuries are often perceived as a golden period of Indian cultural development. Elaborate Hindu temples were built around the region, and six major kingdoms ruled the divided subcontinent.
The earliest Muslim invasions were quick, successful, and brutal. Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, a series of raids from Muslims tribes to the north ravaged Indian cities and left hundreds of thousands dead.
However, all of this changed in 1526, when a ruler from Afghanistan conquered much of northern India and founded the Mughal dynasty. For the next 180 years the descendents of this line consolidated their hold on India, and patronized the fine arts and cultural development. Although the Mughal period was brief, it had a lasting impact on Indian architecture, art, literature, food, and politics.
Photo: The Taj Mahal, built by Moghul Emperor Shan Jahan, has become an internationally recognized symbol of India.
While the Mughal Empire crumbled naturally, Europeans began to have a more significant presence in the region. The Portuguese are active in Goa from about 1500 AD onwards, and in 1600, Queen Elizabeth of England granted a monopoly on British trade with India to the East India Company.
By the beginning of the 19th century, India was effectively under the rule of Britain. After an Indian uprising in 1857 (alternately termed a mutiny of the first war of independence), the British government took power away from the East India Company, and instated direct colonial rule.
During this period, British Raj made significant changes to the social organization, political structure, laws, and citizenship rights in India. The economy was restructured towards cash crops and the export of primary goods to European markets. The British invested heavily in infrastructure, including railroads, ports, and roads, to expedite the export economy.
British rule was a very mixed blessing: it provided the structures and institutions that continue to shape Indian politics and economics, but only at the cost of Indians’ human rights, including religious and cultural freedom and political self-determination. Indians abhorred this oppression, and quite understandably still harbour resentment towards the racist policies of the British government.
Fighting for Independence
India's independence struggle was rooted in the rejection of foreign hegemony. British brutality, such as the massacre of over 1000 unarmed protesters in Amritsar in 1919, further fueled the struggle for self-rule.
The leading figure in India's independence movement was undoubtedly Mohandas K. Gandhi, often known as Mahatma (Great Soul). He fought for equal rights in South Africa before using his unique strategy of non-violence and compassion to mobilize Indians against British rule. Gandhi has achieved near-legendary status both in India and abroad, in recognition of his wisdom and strength. His campaign of non-cooperation played a huge role in convincing Britain to relinquish control. Sadly, Gandhi was murdered shortly after independence by a Hindu fanatic.
Looking for more detail? Try this Concise History of India.
The Lonely Planet history section also covers the key events in India's past.
Updated: 2006 November 16