Earliest physical proof of India's heritage can be found at the sites of the ancient cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, two cities that belong to the Indus Valley civilization. These excavations, have shown that people at the time had a sophisticated lifestyle, a highly developed sense of aesthetics and an astonishing knowledge of town planning. The people of this civilization also had a script language - however attempts to decipher it have, unfortunately, largely been unsuccessful. At its height, the Indus civilization extended nearly a million square kilometres across the Indus river valley, and though it existed at the same time as the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Sumer, it far outlasted them.
Records of Indian people and their culture are also found in the four Vedas, ancient books of knowledge. The Rig Veda, the first of the Vedas, is the oldest book humanity possesses. It is supposed to have been written in 1500 BC. The other Vedas, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Athar Veda, all date back to 1000 BC. The Vedas are written in Sanskrit and were brought to India by the Aryans. They were nomadic people who came to India from various places and settled along the banks of of the Indus. However, Aryans were conquerors and they soon took over the north and moved to the east. Dravidians migrated to the south.
Over a period of time, the Aryan and Dravidian cultures began to merge and a new civilization began to surface. Aryan thought blended with the philosophy of the older civilization. A combination of socio-economic divisions that existed within the society of the two cultures gave rise to a stratified, hierarchical caste system that governs Indian society today. The term Hindu, signifying the people of the land of the Indus, a highly organized civilization that discovered the use of iron and built cities across the north of India, now applies to a comprehensive Indian culture.
One distinctive feature of these times, which later on led to their downfall, was the division of the land into smaller (and more manageable) pieces. India was divided into several territorial states, who had their own kings with a measure of autonomy. The most powerful of these states was Pataliputra (now called Patna), was ruled over by the Nandas. In 326 BC, Alexander, the Greek emperor, invaded India and ruled over most of north India. However, Alexander was more of a soldier than a king. Instead of staying back to consolidate his conquest, he left India and died shortly thereafter in Babylon. Seven years after the invasion, Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Empire, routed the Nandas and took over their throne. He was assisted by the brilliant Brahmin statesman, Chanakya, with whose help he established a vast empire which was spread all across India until Kabul (in present day Afghanistan).
The best known Mauryan emperor was Emperor Ashoka, Chandragupta's grandson. During his reign, only the southern tip of India and Kalinga (now Orissa) was not a part of the Mauryan empire. After a victorious but devastating battle at Kalinga, in which thousands of people were slaughtered, he was deeply shocked and distressed. He adopted non-violence and became a Buddhist. His creed advocated non-violence and vegetarianism which certainly influenced the Hindus, the majority of whom do not eat meat anymore. The Ashoka pillar at Sarnath has been adopted by India as its national emblem and the Dharma Chakra on the Ashoka Pillar adorns the National Flag.
Fifty years after Ashoka's death, the Mauryan empire disintegrated and faded away. North India was in a state of confusion, however in the South the Andhra kings became powerful and they reached northward, occupying the holy city of Ujjain. Later India was again invaded by the Greeks and their interaction with Indian cultures gave rise to the Greco-Buddhist art. According to many historians, image worship in India came from Greece. India was later invaded by the Scythians who established what is now known as Gujarat.
The fourth century was the age of the Guptas who ruled over India for 150 years, during which the established a powerful and widespread empire, completing the Mauryan design of unity and consolidated the whole of India under the governance of a centralized state. This period, the Gupta period, is often termed as the Golden Age of the arts in ancient India. Its emperors were responsible for an incredible flourishing of Indian art, literature and learning. They created schools and universities where learning and cultural & scientific developments were encouraged. The great university of Nalanda was established during this time. The Puranas, the Panchtantra Tales, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were rewritten and edited during this time. Kalidasa, the great Sanskrit poet and playwright, wrote his famous Shakuntala at the court of Chandragupta Vikramaditya. Bharata's Natyashastra, the great treatsie on the dance, music and theatre traditions of India was written during this period.
The Guptas were defeated by the White Huns in the sixth century. A barbarous tribe, they were quickly defeated by another tribe, the Gurjaras, who settled in Rajasthan and Gujarat. India soon turned into a fragmented nation with dozens of small states. In 606 AD, Harshvardhana dominated much of North India and proclaimed himself Emperor of Five Indias. Amongst the more important dynasties after Harshvardhana are the Pratihara, ancestors of todays Rajputs. In the South the scene was different with the Pallavas, of present day Tamil Nadu, and the Chalukyas, fighting each other to gain control. After them, the Cholas ruled for over 500 years and dominated the whole of the east coast to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It was during this period that arts, crafts, painting and architecture achieved a summit of perfection.
Indians were avid travellers and settled in distant lands. The Cholas encouraged and organized expeditions through which the religion and culture of the land was carried beyond India's borders. The ancient name for Java is Yava Dvipa, the Island of Millet - the Indian word for millet is Java. Cambodia was once called Kambhoja, named after the Indian city in ancient Gandhara in today's Kabul region. The epic, Ramayana, is a part of mythology of Thailand and Indonesia, Balinese and Thai dance forms are of Indian origin.
At this time, India was largely fragmented with the Cholas ruling over the South, Palas over Bihar and Bengal by the Sena dynasty. Prithviraj Chauhan was the flamboyant ruler of Delhi, who despite routing the Afghans in 1191, is largely remembered as the most romantic king in Indian history. He fell in love with the daughter of his most bitter rival, Jaichandra, and carried her off despite the opposition. A year later, Muhammad Ghur returned and in the battle that ensued, Prithviraj lost his life and the battle. Ghur's lieutenant, Qutb-uddin Aibak later ruled India and founded India's first Muslim ruling dynasty. He ruled over India for fourteen years, consolidating his power by annexing the territories of Delhi and eventually defeating Jaichandra. His son-in-law constructed the famous Qutb Minar, a mosque and minaret, in his memory.
The Delhi Sultanate, as it was known, was ruled by the Kiljis, and then the Tughlaqs. An eccentric ruler, Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq decide that Delhi was unsafe as a capital and transferred the entire city to Dualatabad, a good thousand miles south of Delhi. He had to come all the way back again because the people were unhappy with the change. he introduced copper coins but failing to control counterfeit coinage, had to give up on the scheme. Most of his experiments ended in a disaster and by the time he died, he had lost most of the India he had conquered.
After his death, the Sultanate was in a disarray and it lost all its power. It was then that Timur of Samarkahand chose to invade India. A barbarian, he butchered people mercilessly but fortunately returned as quickly as he came. The Tughlaqs tried to make a comeback but were ousted by the Sayyids who were then defeated by the Lodis. Sikander Lodi was peace-loving man and a poet and a musician. He spent most of his life making improvements to his territories.
At the battle of Panipat, Babar, the Mughal, defeated the last of the Lodis. Panipat was a major battlefield where India defended itself against many invaders: the Afghans, the Mughals and the British. Babar laid the foundation of the Mughal empire that ruled India for nearly 350 years until 1857. Babar's grandson Akbar fought many battles to prove he was fit to be king. His closest neighbors, the Sisodia and the Rajputs of Mewar, remain un cowed despite the fact that Akbar took their stronghold at Chittor. A terrible battle, every man went to his death in defending his kingdom, all the women performed the rite of jauhar (collective death by fire) to protect their honor. During his reign, Akbar achieved a political unification of nearly the whole of India by frequent annexations and matrimonial alliances. A liberal at heart, he married the princess of Amber, a Rajput. His grandson was Shah Jahaan, who is famous for building the Taj Mahal at Agra. However he spent most of the last years of his life imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb.
A fanatic anti-Hindu, Aurangzeb destroyed temples replacing them with mosques and banned Hindus from celebrating their festivals. having a talent to alienate everybody, he re-imposed jizya, tax on unbelievers, that had been abolished by Akbar. Many Hindus bowed to Islam to avoid this exorbitant tax. His fighting with the Rajputs and Marathas cost him much. The great Maratha leader, Shivaji, gave Hindus the much needed faith in themselves. He constantly fought the Mughals, the Portuguese and the British. The nascent nationalism of the Marathas acted as a magnet for the Hindu rulers who joined the fight against the Mughals in the Deccan. Later on, the Marathas posed a significant threat to the British supremacy.
Aurangzeb's lack of political diplomacy soon disintegrated the Mughal empire led to the rule of Nadir Shah, the Persian invader. After plundering India, he left with all the wealth of Delhi. The last of the Mughal, Bahadur Shah, lived his reign as a prisoner of the British who had by then assumed control in Delhi. India was then ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English. The British ruled over all of India and divided India into governable districts, reorganized the Indian administrative system, created India railway system (which remains the largest in the world today), improved the postal system, and undertook major public works.
In 1857, Indian soldiers in the British army revolted in what is called the Revolt of 1857 and succeeded in bringing together all of the princely states and civilians against the British. This is largely believed to be India's first war of independence. Mangal Pandey, a lone but brave dissident, fired at his officers in amove that was then considered insignificant. This led to mutinies all over India and soldiers marched to Delhi and proclaimed Bahadur Shah as the Emperor of India. In retrospect, had the Indians been better organized they could have easily driven out the British. However, the mutiny led to great massacres all over India by the British in which thousands of people lost their lives. The Revolt of 1857 succeeded in shaking the British complacency and making the considerably less secure and arrogant. The Queen's Proclamation in 1858 assured the rights of people and princes of India and guaranteed religious non-interference.
The Revolt managed to sow the seeds of national consciousness and the beginnings of a more organized national movement. In 1915, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came onto the scene, calling for unity of the country in an astonishing display of leadership that would eventually lead the country to independence. The profound impact Gandhi had on India and his ability to gain independence through a totally non-violent mass movement made him one of the most remarkable leaders the world has ever known. He led by example, wearing homespun clothes to weaken the British textile industry and orchestrating a march to the sea (the Dandi March), where demonstrators proceeded to make their own salt in protest against the British monopoly. Indians gave him the name Mahatma, or Great Soul. The British had to bow down to the calls for independence and they would leave India by 1947.
Independence came at great cost. While Mahatma Gandhi was for India gaining independence as a united country, Mohammed Ali Jinnah was fronting a Muslim one through a group called the Muslim League. Jinnah advocated the division of India into two separate states: Muslim and Hindu. When the British left, they created the separate states of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and violence erupted when stranded Muslims and Hindu minorities in the areas fled in opposite directions. Within a few weeks, half a million people had died in the course of the greatest migration of human beings in the world's history. Mahatma Gandhi vowed to fast until the violence stopped, which it did when his health was seriously threatened. The irony of this incident is that today India has a far greater size of Muslim population than Pakistan.
Today, as the world's largest democracy, India is poised to realize its potential as an international economic power.