Ancient History of India
From the big bang, the primeval swamp to the Indus Valley Civilization. There is a tendency to sometimes include the Indus Valley Civilization in prehistory, since technically prehistory includes everything that happened before the Word happened. However, technically again the Indus Valley Civilization did have a script, although it has not been decoded yet. So, it’s generally included in Ancient History nowadays. For India, it begins from the Indus Valley Civilization (for which the date is a matter of hot debate, but historians have agreed to disagree on 3000BC) to just after the king Harsha Vardhana, which is around 700-800BC.
During or after this period came Aryans who composed these evocative hymns to nature and celebrated life exuberantly referred to themselves as Aryas usually anglicized as Aryan meaning ‘noble’. The 6th Century B.C. was the period of Magadh Kingdom. Chandragupta Maurya ousted the oppressive ruler of Magadh to find his own dynasty that existed from 322 – 298 B.C.
The most famous Maurya King Ashoka the Great ruled from 273 – 232 B.C over a large kingdom stretching from Kashmir and Peshawar in the North and Northwest to Mysore in the South and Orissa in the East. He after witnessing the carnage at the battle field of Kalinga (269 B.C.) in Orissa, dedicated himself to Dharmma ( righteousness ).
In the subsequent centuries, after the Ashoka empire disintegrated, India suffered a series of invasions, and often fell under the spell of foreign rulers – Indo Bactrians, the Sakas and others. After the next 400 years of instability the Guptas established their kingdom.
Kalidas, the famous Sanskrit poet and dramatist, author of Abhijnana Shankuntalam, Kumarsambhavam and Meghadutam is believed to have adorned the Gupta court. Also the great mathematicians like Aryabhatta and astronomers like Varahmihir lived during this period. The dazzling wall paintings of the Ajanta caves too are traced back to this era.
Cholas, Pandayas and Pallavas ruled over the southern part of India during the medieval period of India’s history. Cholas ruled the territory of Deccan (today the districts of Thanjavur and Tiruchirapally) while the Pandyas reined around present day Tirunelvelli and Madurai.
Pallavas of Kanchi rose to prominence in the 4th Century A.D. and ruled unchallenged for about four hundred years. The Nayanar and Alvar saint poets belong to this period. The gemlike shore temples at Mahabalipuram date to this period. The Cholas overthrew the Pallavas were in the 9th Century and regained political primacy in south India. The 15th Century saw the decline of the Pandyas.
Now let’s look in a little more detail…
Indus Valley Civilization
It is without a doubt that the civilization one of the most important finds in the world of archeology. In one stroke the age of Indian history was pushed back by more than a millennium, deep into 3000BC. This effectively exploded the myth that everything in India before the coming of the Aryans was enveloped in the supreme darkness of one primeval swamp. Here was a civilization that was not only well-developed, but actually far more sophisticated than that of the Aryans.
The Indus Valley Civilization said its last hurray roughly in 2200 BC. The beginning and end of the Indus Valley Civilization are both a matter of debate. Obviously there must have been a lead up to it. Suddenly, out of the blue, a people could not have emerged complete with their perfect town planning, neat houses, lovely jewellery and loads of make-up. So where did they come from? and then having come, just where did they disappear?
Popular theory which is accepted by the man on the street is that the people of the civilization (commonly referred to as the Harappans) were chased out by the Aryans and went down south. The present South Indians are their descendants. Recent research also threw up evidence that the Aryans’ descendants actually still survive as santals (tribals) in various jungle areas in India.
The Settlement of Aryans
It took the tall, beautiful, long limbed Aryans surprisingly little time to get used to their new home. Initially, they settled in the area of Sapt-Sindhu, which included Punjab, Kashmir, Sindh, Kabul and Gandhara (Kandhar). The chief sources of this period which have come down to us are The Vedas and the Epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which through their stories and hymns tell us about the expansion of the Aryans. It took them about a thousand years to bring the entire northern region under their control. Then they turned their attention to the south. The epic Ramayana is a symbolic tale which tells of the Aryan expansion to the south – the good, almost godly, aryaputra (an Aryan’s son) king Rama surging forth to finish off the evil Dasyu (that was what the Aryans called the natives) Ravana.
Aryans Political System
The political system of the Aryans in their initial days here was amazingly complex, though quite ingenious. They hung around together in small village settlements (which later grew to kingdoms) and the basis of their political and social organization was, not surprisingly, the clan or kula.
Being of somewhat militant nature, this was very much a patriarchal society, with the man in the house expected to keep his flock in control.
Groups of kulas together formed a Grama or village, which was headed by a Gramina. Many villages formed another political unit called a Visya, headed by a Visyapati. The Visyas in turn collected under a Jana, which was ruled by a Rajana or king. However, the precise relationship between the grama, the visya and the jana has not been clearly defined anywhere.
The King Was The Supreme Power
The king was yet to become that the all-powerful monarch that he eventually became. Although he lived as befitted a king, he was supposed to work in tandem with the people’s wishes.
He had an elaborate court of many officials, including the chief queen (Mahishi) who was expected to help in the decision making process. Two assemblies, Sabha and Samiti further assisted the king. The Samiti was roughly equivalent to our modern Lower House or the Lok Sabha, with members that represented the people, and the Sabha was a permanent body of selected men.
So everything was very proper and democratic. This was obviously speedily amended. As one Jana swallowed another and kingdoms arose out of their ashes, the king became increasingly the despot that we are all more familiar with. Women seemed to have had it good at this time, but then through almost all of the ancient period of Indian history women continued to command respect and considerable pull in society. Although by the time of the Mahabharata their position had fallen enough for them to be treated as a man’s property, as is evinced by the episode where Yudhistra gambles away his wife (see Mahabharata).
No Rigidity In Caste System
The caste system as is known now does not seem to have evolved yet. and even when it did, it was not the rigid thing it became by the time of the Guptas but was a loose social system where people could move up and down the social scale. Aryan’s worshipped nature gods – they prayed to the Usha (Dawn), Prajapati (The Creator), Rudra (Thunder), Indra (Rain), Surya (Sun) and so on. These gods and goddesses were appeased by prayers and sacrifices.
As time went this idyllic life among the beautiful wooded country with a benevolent monarch, a democratic senate and an open social system failed to survive. Power won over all else.
Period of Social Reform
By the sixth century BC things had become complicated and rigid enough for socio-religious reformers like the Buddha and Mahavira to want change. The priestly class, as happened the world over, became increasingly the real masters in the socio-economic-political scheme of affairs. Rituals became rigid, sacrifices elaborate and religion increasingly expensive.
Birth of Mahavira [550 BC]
Vardhamana Mahavira was not the founder of Jainism, but he reformed and refined previous teachings of the Jaina tradition. Mahavira was born in 599 BC in Kaundinyapura near modern Patna. Scholars debate the birth date and place. Some claim it to be as late as 490 BC in Kundapura near Vaishali or in Vaishali, which is in present day Bihar. Mahavira was born to a high-ranking family and received an education fit for a nobleman. He learned about literature, art, philosophy, and military and administrative sciences. Mahavira married a princess named Yasoda and had a daughter named Anojja. When Mahavira was 28, his parents died, and Mahavira wanted to abandon everything and everyone.
To please his brother, Mahavira decided to stay at his home until the age of 30. For those two years, Mahavira practiced self-discipline and gave up luxuries by giving charity to beggars.
When Mahavira left his family at the age of 30, he also gave up all property, wealth, and pleasures. He left his home and mediated, fasted, and went without water. After all this, Mahavira tore out his hair and wandered naked with a piece of cloth on his shoulder. Mahavira essentially became a homeless man. This did not bother Mahavira, because he was going to teach the Jain Religion. Vardhamma Mahavira became the 24th Tirthankara or “ford-maker” of the Jain or Jaina Religion.
Mahavira traveled naked to various parts of northern India, teaching and preaching. These parts included Bihar, western Bengal, and western Uttar Pradesh. Mahavira attracted all kinds of people, including kings, queens, rich, poor and both men and women.
Mahavira taught that the center of right conduct was the five great vows of which he preached until his death. Four were from the previous teacher Parshva, and the fifth was his own. The vows were (asteya) to not take anyone’s private possessions, (satya) to always tell the truth, (aparigraha) to not own any property, (ahimsa) to not injure or annoy any living thing, and (brahmacarya) to have complete celibacy. Parshva let his followers wear clothing, but Mahavira did not want his followers to wear any. In this, Mahavira was very faithful to his teachings. The most noticeable extent of these vows was that Mahavira let vermin inhabit his body, because it was wrong to kill any living creature. Mahavira vowed to neglect his body and agreed to suffer all things that could happen. “Mahavira taught 73 methods for exertion in goodness by which many creatures, who believed in and accepted them, studied, learned, understood, and practiced them, and acted according to them, obtained perfection, enlightenment, deliverance, beatitude, and an end to all misery”. This was the very extreme form of the vow. He gave up all he had and was celibate.
Mahavira’s quest, for himself and others, was to finally reach nirvana or salvation. Nirvana is the attainment of the blissful state of one’s self and of total freedom from the cycle of birth, death, life, pain, and misery. The final step for Mahavira and all that follow him was the final removal of the karma or self. Mahavira attained nirvana the 13th year of his new Jain life. This happened while he was fasting, not drinking water for two days, and meditating. Not only did Mahavira attain nirvana but he also attained kevala. Kevala is the absolute knowledge and is the highest awareness.
Vardhamma Mahavira finally died in 527 BC at the age of 72. Mahavira is believed to have become Siddha, never to go through the cycle of birth and death. Mahavira was able to rid himself of karma by destroying it and won his soul’s salvation by never returning to earth.
Gautama Buddha [563-483 BC]
Sidhartha was born (c. 563 BC; Kapilavastu, Nepal) into the Gautama family of the Shakaya clan. The Shakayas were members of the priestly-warrior caste. In fact, Sidhartha’s father was the head of the tribe so Sidhartha was a prince and seemed destined to rule. He lived a luxurious life and the received the best education his father’s wealth could provide, but his father also sheltered him from life’s hardships.
He married a woman named Yashodhara and they lived in his father’s house. Sidhartha was still protected from the trials of life. Yashodhara bore a son, and Sidhartha believed that he was happy.
Then, during one of his few excursions from the protection of his father’s palace, Sidhartha saw three things which opened the harsh realities of life to him. He saw an old man, suffering from the frailties of age. He saw a sick man, suffering from disease. He also saw a dead man, which shocked him greatly. He finally realized that the infirmities of old age, and the pain of sickness and death caused suffering that he had never experienced. This revelation caused him to begin a search for truth that drastically changed his life, and, eventually, the lives of millions.
At the age of twenty-nine he left his home, his wife, his son, and his father. He gave up his claim to the succession of his father’s throne and left the palace. He studied Yogic meditation with two Brahman hermits and achieved high cognitive states in both trance and meditation, but his desire for absolute truth was not satisfied.
For the next six years, Sidhartha placed his body under severe asceticism, which included extreme fasting and suspension of breathing. These practices almost killed him, but they did not satisfy his search for truth.
He finally ended his acetic lifestyle and began to eat. Sidhartha decided to meditate until the absolute truth would lie clearly in front of him. He meditated under a Bodhi tree where he sat facing east.
At the age of thirty-five, on the night of the full moon, Sidhartha reached enlightenment and became an “enlightened one”–a Buddha (c. 528 BC) He had at last discovered the truth he had sought, and he immediately shared it with five ascetics who had practiced near him.
After a few weeks of rest, he decided to teach the way to enlightenment to others and went to Deer Garden where he held his first sermon, ” The turning wheel of Dharma.” Sidhartha felt a strong call to teach others even though he could never teach the content of enlightenment, only the way of enlightenment. Buddha called his teachings “the middle way”, because it was in the middle between asceticism and indulgence.
For the next forty-five years he taught as the Buddha or “Shakyamuni” (sage of the shakaya”). He also established a community of monks called sanga.
The Buddha died after forty-five years of teaching at the age of eighty.
Bimbisara- The Magadhan Ruler of Sisunga Dynasty
The first important Magadhan king who emerges into the limelight wasBimbisara (544-491 BC) of the Sisunga dynasty. He was an extremely polished diplomat and crafty statesman.
While the earlier rulers had brought Magadha out of clear and present danger, it was Bimbisara who consolidated and increased that power and really gave it the identity of a kingdom.
Through some clever marital and martial policies he pushed the frontiers of Magadha over, according to a source, eighty thousand villages. Bimbisara was a contemporary of the Buddha and met him twice, thanks to his wife Khema’s reverence for the teacher. We learn that when he met him the second time, in Rajgriha (which is an important Buddhist pilgrimage today), Bimbisara converted to Buddhism.
Assasination of Bimbisara
Apparently Bimbisara was assasinated by his impatient son Ajatsatru, who was a good friend of the Buddha’s cousin Devadutta. This Devadutta, not to be judged by his cousin’s credentials, was very much a blot on his family name and talked Ajatsatru into killing his father in the first place.
However, there is evidence that his crime weighed on Ajatsatru’s mind, and in the end he confessed his crime to the Buddha before converting to Buddhism. Apart from this, Ajatsatru was very much his father’s son and continued his imperialist policies. One particularly bitter, acrimonious and prolonged rivalry went on between him and the Lichchavi dynasty that ruled Vaishali (in Bihar), which he eventually managed to conquer.
Ajatsatru was obviously a colorful character and a man of sentiment. There are tales of his passionate affair with the chief courtesan of Vaishali, called Amrapali. Then, when the Buddha attained parinirvana (nirvana from all births and bonds), Ajatsatru insisted upon a part of his relics be buried in a stupa (shrine) that he got erected in Rajgriha. He said, “The lord was a kshatriya (the warrior caste of the Varna system), so am I. Therefore I am worthy of a share of his relics upon which I will erect a stupa.”
The Fading Glory of Sisunga Dynasty
The Sisunga dynasty faded fast after Ajatsatru; having produced two rulers with force enough for twenty, the dynasty bowed out. The last recorded ruler of the family was Kakavarna who was put to death by Mahapadmananda, of the Nanda dynasty which followed the Sisungas.
The Nandas could never be popular rulers despite their airs of magnificence and immense wealth (which they amassed by huge taxation). They were of lowborn sudra stock and hence had the odds stacked against them right from the start. By now the kings had become the more familiar despots and were becoming increasingly unapproachable.
The Nandas, though very powerful with a huge standing army and a grand court, were apparently a very vain lot. Indeed, traditional sources give us a very unflattering picture of the kings of this family. Much of this can be discounted – the Nandas were sudras to start with (which queered them with the Aryan Brahmins who were writing one half of these sources) and never bothered to associate with the Buddhists and Jains (who were writing the other half).
The Nanda who unwittingly became the most famous of the entire dynasty was Dhanananda. He started his own downfall by insulting a certain unsightly looking Brahmin, who unfortunately for Dhanananda, turned out to have surprising vision, intellect and Machiavellian cunning.
Chanakya – The Man With Master Mind
This Brahmin was called Chanakya. This was time (around 326BC) when Alexander came visiting India’s northwest borders along Taxila where the king, called Ambhi, laid out the red carpet for him. There was an active concern among all except the king Dhanananda himself that Alexander would come all the way to Magadha. The first thing that Chanakya tried to achieve was to raise a confederacy against the foreign invader. Though this attempt, to a large extent failed, what it did manage was to bring Chanakya into political limelight of the day. He made many friends in high places, which set him off on a bigger goal – to overthrow the Nandas.
One of the main reasons the confederacy against Alexander never got going was that Magadha, as the most powerful kingdom and the obvious leader for the rest to follow, simply refused to fall in. Dhanananda apparently not only flatly refused to spend good cash on a mad project like this, but also managed to offend Chanakya so thoroughly by his insolent behavior that the Brahmin went away convinced that the king deserved to be overthrown. It was a good thing that Chanakya’s concerns were in vain; Alexander never did come all the way to Magadha; in fact, he didn’t even get close. Long before that summer set in and his armies started grumbling, while he himself fell ill (this illness would eventually be the end of the great king in 323BC, at a tragically early age of 32). So the Greek armies turned around after leaving Seleucus Nikator as Alexander’s general in the region.
The Greeks established a colony along the border who eventually mingled with the local populace, thus forming a new stock of people. This meant not only political, but also cultural and social exchange with the Greek which influenced Indian warfare, painting and sculpture (a whole school of art called Gandhara School of art come up of the amalgam), trade and economy. While we, in turn, influenced their science, astronomy, art and philosophy.
In these exciting times, Chanakya was going about with a single-minded focus to find a replacement for Dhananada. This, he found in young Chandragupta Maurya (324-298BC).
Conquest of Alexander in India [327 BC]
The throne of Macedon in south-east Europe has been occupied by Alexander. Having defeated the last of the Persian rulers and conquered the Acharmenian empire, Alexander has vowed to conquer the Indian satraps. His army has crossed the Hindukush mountains and is strengthening its position near Kabul. He has captured the fortresses of Massaga and Aornos. Alexander is from a far off land called Greece. This is reportedly beyond the horizon.
The astonishing fact about this he is just 21 years old! It’s known from well-placed sources that he is planning to launch a major attack on the Pauravan king across the Jhelum river. The Pauravan king is planning a massive counter attack.
India, 326 BC: Alexander moves through the dense jungles of Ohind. Then, having crossed the Indus river and secured the help of the Ambhi, king of Taxila, Alexander marches on to the Jhelum. The Pauravan king with an army of 30,000 soldiers, horses and elephants provided fierce resistance but was eventually defeated.
When Alexander asked the Pauravan king to bow, the latter answered, “Act like a King”. Impressed by the Pauravan king’s efforts he has given him back his kingdom. Alexander has moved further. He concentrated on capturing the Chenab and Ravi plains upto Beas. This strategy of Alexander is typical of the great Greek rulers. Having conquered several tribes and satraps, Alexander has received many presents including brocades, gems, tigers, etc. He wanted to move further towards the Ganges valley, but has been stopped by his tired troops.
So with a heavy heart, Alexander has retraced his steps to the Jhelum. He has been severally wounded while storming one of the citadels of the powerful tribe of Malavas. Through the desserts of Baluchistan and with terrible sufferings, he has reached Babylon. And in 323 BC , not very long after his return to Babylon, Alexander dies.
“The hold of the great king [Alexander] on the Indian frontier slackened considerably in the fourth century BC. The arduous campaigns of Alexander restored the fallen fabric of imperialism and laid the foundation of a closer contact between India and the Hellenic world. The Macedonian empire in the Indus valley no doubt perished within a short time. But the Macedonian had welded the political atoms into one unit and thus paved the way for the permanent union under the Mauryas.”
The Mauryan Dynasty (The first Indian Empire)
Chandragupta Maurya [322-298 BC]
Chandragupta, with the help Chanakya (Kautilya), who is also known as the Indian Machiavelli, destroyed the Nanda rulers of Magadha and established the Mauryan empire. It is said that Chanakya met Chandragupta in the Vindhya forest, after being insulted by the Nanda king.
Alexander’s invasion prompted Indians to develop a centralised state. Chandragupta declared war and defeated Selucus Nicator, the Macedonian ruler of the Northwestern territories captured by Alexander the Great.
Along with the the astute advice of Chanakya, Chandragupta also seized Punjab, Kabul, Khandahar, Gandhara and Persia from Seluces. Seluces’ daughter was married to Chandragupta.
“Selucus failed and had to conclude a treaty with Chandragupta by which he surrendered a large territory including, in the opinion of certain writers, the satrapies of Paropanisadai (Kabul), Aria (Herat), Arachosia (Qanadahar) and Gedrosia (Baluchistan), in return for 500 elephants. The treaty was probably cemented by a marriage contract. A Greek envoy was accredited to the Court of Pataliputra.”– An Advanced History of India
by RC Majumdar, HC Raychaudhri & Kalinkar Datta
The most important result of this treaty was that Chandragupta’s fame spread far and wide and his empire was recognised as a great power in the western countries. The kings of Egypt and Syria sent ambassadors to the Mauryan Court.
Chandragupta Maurya’s origins were shrouded in mystery. Having been brought up by peacock tamers, he could be of low caste birth. According to other sources, Chandragupta Maurya was the son of a Nanda prince and a dasi called Mura. It is also possible that Chandragupta was of the Maurya tribe of Kshatriyas.
Maurya empire was the first really large and powerful centralised state in India. It was very well governed, with tempered autocracy at the top and democracy at the city and village levels. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador at the court of Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra, had expressed his admiration for the efficient administration of the empire. His book ‘Indica’ is a collection of comments of other Roman & Greek travelers, and Megasthenes wrote about the prosperity of the Mauryan cities.
He further reported that agriculture was healthy, water abundant and mineral wealth was in plenty. Speaking of the general prosperity, Megasthenes wrote, “the Indians, dressed in bright and rich colors, they liberally used ornaments and gems.” He also spoke of the division of society according to occupation and the large number of religious sects and foreigners in the empire.
Chandragupta Maurya’s son Bindusara became the new Mauryan Emperor by inheriting an empire including the Hindukush, Narmada, Vindhyas, Mysore, Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Baluchistan & Afghanistan.
Mauryan Empire – Bindusara [298 BC]
After ruling for about twenty five years, Chandragupta left his throne to his son Bindusara and became a Jain ascetic. Bindusara inherited an empire including the Hindukush, Narmada, Vindhyas, Mysore, Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Baluchistan & Afghanistan. He was called Amitraghata which means “slayer of foes” by Greek writers.
Bindusara extended his empire further as far as south Mysore. He conquered sixteen states and extended the empire from sea to sea. The empire included the whole of India except the region of Kalinga (modern Orissa) and the Dravidian kingdoms of the south. The Dravidians kingdoms of the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras were very friendly with the Mauryan empire and so the king felt no need to conquer them. However, Kalinga was not friendly with the Mauryans and so a war was fought between the people of Kalinga and Mauryans led by Bindusara’s son Ashoka.
Administration during Bindusara’s Reign
Bindusara maintained good relations with Selucus Nicator and the emperors regularly exchanged ambassadors and presents. He also maintained the friendly relations with the Hellenic West established by his father. Ambassadors from Syria and Egypt lived at Bindusara’s court. He preferred the Ajivika philosophy rather than Jainism.
Mauryan Empire – Ashoka [273 BC]
Ashoka, the most trusted son of Bindusara and the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, was a brave soldier. He was the most famous of the Mauryan kings and was one of the greatest rulers of India. During his father’s reign, he was the governor of Ujjain and Taxila. Having sidelined all claims to the throne from his brothers, Ashoka was coronated as an emperor. Ashoka extended the Maurya Empire to the whole of India except the deep south and the south-east, reaching out even into Central Asia.
The Kalinga War [261 BC]
Ashoka succeeded in conquering Kalinga after a bloody war in which 100,000 men were killed, 150,000 injured and thousands were captured and retained as slaves. The sight of the slaughter involved in his conquest deeply distressed Ashoka and deeply affected his mind. This was a turning point in his life. He renounced war and sought peace in Buddha’s preachings of love and ahimsa(non-violence). The war also developed in him a hatred for all kinds of violence. So he gave up hunting and slaughtering of animals. He became a strict vegetarian.
Under his reign Buddhism spread to Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Central Asia, Burma. For propagation of Buddhism, he started inscribing edicts on rocks and pillars at places where people could easily read them. These pillars and rocks are still found in India, spreading their message of love and peace for the last two thousand years. To his ideas he gave the name Dharma. Ashoka died in 232 BC. The capital of Ashoka pillar at Sarnath is adopted by India as its national emblem. The “Dharma Chakra” on the Ashoka Pillar adorns our National Flag.
Fall of Mauryas
Emperor Ashoka ruled for 37 years. He died in 232 BC. During his reign he gave up war and preached peace in the kingdom. Seven kings (some say 10) followed Ashoka within a period of 50 years. The Mauryan empire was breaking up. There are different opinions about the fall of the kingdom. Some say that since the later part of Ashoka’s reign was devoid of wars, the military were inactive and this weakened them. Others say after Ashoka there were no strong kings to rule such a vast empire.
The last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty was Brithadratha. He was killed by his own commander-in-chief Pushyamitra Sunga in 185 BC.
With the fall of Mauryas, India lost its political unity. Pushyamitra Sunga became the ruler of the Magadha and neighbouring territories. The north-western regions comprising Rajputana, Malwa and Punjab passed into the hands of the foreign rulers. The kingdom of Pushyamitra was extended upto Narmada in the south, and controlled Jalandhar and Sialkot in the Punjab in the north-western regions.
Pushyamitra died after ruling for 36 years (187-151 BC). He was succeeded by son Agnimitra. This prince is the hero of a famous drama by India’s greatest playwright, Kalidasa. Agnimitra used to hold his court in the city of Vidisa, modern Besnagar in Eastern Malwa. The power of the Sungas gradually weakened. It is said that there were ten Sunga kings.
Kanva Dynasty (75BC – 30BC)
The last ruler of the Sunga dynasty was overthrown by Vasudeva of the Kanva dynasty in 75 BC. The Kanva ruler allowed the kings of the Sunga dynasty to continue to rule in obscurity in a corner of their former dominions. Magadha was ruled by four Kanva rulers. In 30 BC, the southern power swept away both the Kanvas and Sungas and the province of Eastern Malwa was absorbed within the dominions of the conqueror.
The Satvahana Dynasty
After the decline of the Mauryan empire the Satvahanas established their kingdom in the Deccan. They were also known as Andhras. They first rose to power in present Maharashtra on the banks of the Godavari. The founder of the Satvahanas was Simuka. But the man who raised it to eminence was Satakarni I. The Satvahana dynasty began its rule in about 40 or 30 BC, and continued until the 3rd century AD.
Satakarni I allied with powerful Marathi chieftain and signalled his accession to power by performing ashvamedhas (horse-sacrifice). After his death, the Satvahana power seemed to have been submerged beneath a wave of Scythian invasion.
Reign of Gautamiputra (AD 80-104)
Gautamiputra Satakarni was the famous king during the Satvahana dynasty. He defeated the Sakas (Scythians), Yavanas (Greeks) and Pahlavas (Parithans). His empire extended upto Banavasi in the south, and included Maharashtra, Konkan, Saurashtra, Malwa, west Rajasthan and Vidharbha. His son, Vasishtiputra, ruled at Paithan on the banks of Godavari.
Two other cities, Vaijayanti (in North Kanara) and Amravati (in the Guntur district), attained eminence during the Satvahana period. Kings succeeding Gautamiputra lost many of their territories. But the power of Satvahanas revived under Sri Yajna Satakarni, who was the last great king. After him, the empire began to decline.
Some scholars say the there were 19 kings of this dynasty which ruled for 300 years, while others say there were 30 kings who ruled for 456 years. The dynasty came to an end about the middle of the third century AD. (after AD 220). Their empire broke up into small states ruled by the Abhiras, Chutus, Ikshvakus, Pallavas.
Establishment of Kushans (AD 50)
The Kushans were a branch of the nomadic Yeuhchi tribe of China. The Yeuhchi tribe was in conflict with another tribe and so was forced to leave China. They came to Central Asia and then spread to Bactria, Paritha and Afghanistan. Gradually they were divided into five branches. One of these branches — Kouel Chougang (Kushans) — was superior to all. The Kushans under Kujala attacked the Parithans, took possessions of Ki-pin and Kabul and became the complete master of the Indian borderland.
Kujala became the first king of the Kushans and was known as Kadphises I. He was a great warrior. He was succeeded by his son Wima Kadphises known as Kadphises II. He conquered the north-western region of India. He defeated Saka Satraps in the north-west. Punjab and Sind were his dominions.
Reign of Kanishka (AD 120)
Kanishka was the most famous of the Kushan kings. It is not known how he became the king but he ascended the throne in AD 120. When Kanishka ascended the throne, his empire consisted of Afghanistan, Sind, Punjab and portions of the former Parithan and Bactrian kingdoms. His empire extended from the north-west and Kashmir, over most of the Gangetic valley. He annexed three provinces of the Chinese empire, namely, Tashkand, Khotan and Yarkhand. He was the only king who ruled over these territories. He had two capitals at Purushpura (Peshawar now in Pakistan) and at Mathura in west Uttar Pradesh. Kanishka proved that he was a great conqueror.
Successors of Kanishka
Kanishka’s immediate successor was Vashiska who was then succeeded by Huvishka. Mathura became the centre of Kushans. Many monuments were erected during Huvishka’s reign. The last great king of Kushans was Vasudev I. The Kushans were overthrown by the Sassanians of Persia in the north-west and the Guptas in the north. The rule of Kushans ended almost at the same time as that of the Satavahans in the south.
Buddhism during the Kushans
Kanishka embraced Buddhism towards the middle of his reign. He is said to have been Zoroastrian before he became Buddhist. He spent his resources in spreading Buddhism. Mahayana was the new form of Buddhism that was followed during this period where the Buddha was worshipped as God. Old monastries were repaired and many new ones were built.
Art, Science and Literature
Kanishka was a great patron of art and literature. A new form of art Gandhara Art was developed. Beautiful images of Buddha were developed in a Greek-Roman style. These images were carved in a realistic way, with graceful bodies and curly hair.
Kanishka’s court was adorned by many scholars like Ashvaghosha, Vasumitra, Nagarjuna and Charaka. Ashvaghosha was a great poet and a master of music. He wrote Buddhacharita, a biography of the Buddha. Charak was a great physician and he wrote a book Charak Samhita, which is based on the Ayurvedic system of medicine.
After the Kushans, the Guptas were the most important dynasty. The information about Guptas is known from the archaeological remains, inscriptions and coins. Early in the beginning of the fourth century, a chief called Sri Gupta ruled a small kingdom in Magadha. He was then succeeded by his son Ghatokacha. They were mostly minor rulers in east Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Reign of Chandragupta I (AD 320-335)
The first famous king of the Gupta dynasty was Ghatokacha’s son Chandragupta I. He married Kumaradevi, the daughter of the chief of the Lichhavis. This marriage was a turning point to Chandragupta I. He got Patliputra in dowry from the Lichhavis. From Patliputra, he laid the foundation of his empire and started conquering many neighbouring states with the help of the Lichhavis. 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.
An important act of Chandragupta I was the holding of an assembly of councillors and members of the royal family at which Prince Samudragupta was formally nominated as the successor of the Gupta empire.
Samudragupta was the son of Chandragupta I and though the exact date of his birth is not known, it seems he must have ascended the throne after the death of his father Chandragupta I in AD 335. The information about his reign is on an inscription engraved on a pillar at Allahabad. The text of this inscription was recorded by Harishena, the court poet of Samudragupta. Part of the inscription was lost in the course of time. Harishena’s inscription tells us about Samudragupta’s various conquests and small kingdoms existing at that time. Samudragupta also left an extensive coinage which supports the information of the inscription.
Samudragupta was a great warrior. His passion of conquest was so great that he did not rest till he captured almost whole of India. It seems Samudragupta first waged wars against the neighbouring kingdoms of Shichchhatra (Rohilkhand) and Padmavati (in Central India), then ruled by Achyuta and Nagasena. Then he incorporated in the Gupta empire the kingdom of Kota kings by defeating him. He also waged wars against tribal states like those of Malvas, the Yaudheyas, the Arjunayanas, the Maduras and the Abhiras. The descendants of Kushanas, many chieftains of Sakas, the Ceylonese hastened to propitiate the great Gupta by offering homage and tribute or presents.
Samudragupta’s daring adventure was his military expedition to the south along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. He defeated Mahendra of Khosla, Mantaraja of Kurala, Mahendragiri of Pithapuram, Svamidatta of Kottura, Damana of Erandapalla, Vishnugupta – the Pallava king of Kanchi, Kubera of Devarashtrain the Vizagapatam district and Dhananjaya of Kushthalapur possible in North Arcot. Samudragupta did not go beyond the river Krishna.
Towards the west, Samudragupta subdued Palaghat, Maharashtra and Khandesh. He did not annex any part of the Deccan to his empire as he knew that it would be difficult to control those territories situated so far from Patliputra.
Samudragupta’s territories extended from the Himalayas in the north to the river Narbada in the south and from the Brahamaputra river in the east to the Yamuna river in the west. Then there were other kingdoms like Assam, Nepal, Devaka, Kartipura.
Samudragupta is considered as one of the greatest rulers in Indian history. He is also compared to Alexander or Napoleon as a conqueror. He performedAshwamedha Yajna (horse sacrifice) after defeating nine kings in the north and twelve kings in the south to underline the importance of his conquest of almost the whole of India. He also assumed the title of Maharajadhiraja (King of Kings) and Chakravartin (Universal Monarch).
Samudragupta was not a only a great warrior but also a great patron of art and literature. He gathered around himself a galaxy of poets and scholars, the most prominent ones being Harishena, Vasubandhu and Asanga. He himself was a great poet and musician. In one of his coins, he is shown playing the Veena. Samudragupta was a staunch believer of Hinduism and was a worshiper of Lord Vishnu. He also respected other religions like Buddhism and also allowed the Buddhist king of Ceylon to build a monastery at Bodh-Gaya.
Empire of Chandragupta II [AD 380-413]
Chandragupta succeeded his father Samudragupta. He got the title ofVikramaditya (son of power), so he is also known as Chandragupta Vikramaditya. Chandragupta II proved to be of the same military mettle of his father and brought large amounts of territory in Western India under the Gupta empire.
From the inscription of the Mehrauli Iron Pillar of Chandragupta II situated in Delhi, it is learnt that he waged successful wars against several chiefs of Vanga (Bengal). However Chandragupta II’s greatest achievement was the victory over the Saka Satraps of Malwa, Gujarat and Saurashtra.
Chandragupta’s Biggest Achievement
Chandragupta marched against the Saka Satraps about AD 389. After six years of courageous fighting, he killed the Sakas chieftains. He killed Rudrasena III, a Saka king of West India. He annexed all the three kingdoms of Satraps under Gupta empire and made Ujjain a second capital, and called himself Vikramaditya — a combination of words valour and sun. Chandragupta’s empire had both the Arabian Sea coast and that of the Bay of Bengal under its control. He also captured Bactria and concluded marital alliances with the Nagas, Vakatakas and Kadamba dynasties.
Like his grandfather, Chandragupta married the Lichhavi princess Kumaradevi. He gave his daughter Prabhavati in marriage to Rudrasena II, the Venkata king of Central India. Rudrasena had helped him in his campaign against the Saka Satraps.
Administrations and Coins
The account of administration of Chandragupta’s reign is known from the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hein who came to India during that period. The administration was very well organised with very light taxes. The empire was divided into many provinces which were ruled by independent governors. The provinces were further divided into districts. Land revenue was the main source of income of the state and was normally one-sixth of the produce of the land.
The emperor also issued a host of gold, silver and copper coins to celebrate his reign. His coins featured Vishnu and his garuda, as well as images of himself killing a lion, among others. Experts say that Chandragupta II’s coin are of a finer quality than had been seen thus far.
Chandragupta II was succeeded by his son Kumargupta who was also a great ruler.
Reign of Kumaragupta [AD 415-455]
Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya) was succeeded by his son Kumaragupta. Like his father, Kumaragupta was also a very great and able ruler. He was able to keep the vast empire, which extended from North Bengal to Kathiawar and from the Himalayas to the Nerbudda, intact. He ruled efficiently for nearly forty years. However, the last days of his reign were not good. The Gupta empire was threatened by the invasions of Pushyamitras. The Pushyamitras were a tribe of foreigners who were settled in Central India. However, Kumaragupta was successful in defeating the invaders and performedAshvamedha Yajna (horse sacrifice) to celebrate his victory. He issued new coins with images of Lord Kartikeya.
Skandagupta becomes the King
Kumaragupta died in AD 455 and was succeeded by his son Skandagupta. During his reign, the invasions of the Huns became more frequent. Skandagupta repelled their early invasions and recovered most of the imperial provinces.
But the continuous attack of the Huns weakened the Gupta empire. Skandagupta died in AD 467. After his death, the Gupta empire began to decline.
Decline of the Gupta Empire
Inscriptions prove that the Gupta sovereignty was acknowledged in the Jabbalpur region in the Nebudda valley as late as AD 528, and in North Bengal till AD 543-544. Kumaragupta is known to have been ruling in AD 473-474, Buddhagupta from AD 476-495, Vainyagupta in AD 508 and Bhanugupta in AD 510-511. The Gupta empire became to disintegrate and till the middle of the sixth century AD, they had merely became petty chiefs.
Harsha Vardhana — The Ruler of Vardhana Dynasty
The final important ruler of Ancient Indian history was Harsha Vardhana (606-646AD), who ruled not from Magadha but Thanesar (in modern Haryana area) of the Vardhana dynasty. He was a Buddhist and convened many Buddhist assemblies. The second Chinese traveller to come to India, Huien Tsang, arrived during his reign.
By all accounts Harsha was all the usual things that one associates with a good king. However, lots of petty dynasties like the Maukharis and the Vakatakas had started springing up all over the place, and the confusion which is generally associated with the absence of a strong central dynasty was rife.
The south presented a medley of dynasties around the time of Harsha Vardhana. There were the Pandyas (in regions of Mudurai, Travancore and Tinnevelly), the Chalukyas (in present Maharashtra region) and Pallavas (in modern Tamil Nadu region), who had this terrific battle of supremacy going constantly. Pulakesan II (610-642AD) was the ablest of the Chalukyan kings and for a time managed to keep the Chalukyan flag flying above the others. But strictly for a time being.
The Chalukyas gained Importance
The Chalukyas rose to power in the Deccan from the fifth to eighth century and again from the tenth to twelfth century. They ruled over the area between the Vindhyan mountain and the river Krishna. The Chalukyas were sworn enemies of the Pallavas and rose to power in Karnataka. The first great ruler of the Chalukya dynasty was Pulakesin I. He founded Vatapi (modern Badami in Bijapur district) and made it his capital. He is said to have performed Ashwamedha Yagna (horse sacrifice). The kingdom was further extended by his sons Kirtivarman and Mangalesa by waging many successful wars against the neighbours including Mauryans of the Konkans.
Reign of Pulakesin II
Pulakesin II was the son of Kirtivarman. He was the the greatest ruler of the Chalukya dynasty. He ruled for almost 34 years. In this long reign, he consolidated his authority in Maharashtra and conquered large parts of the Deccan from the banks of the Nerbudda to the reign beyond the Kaveri. His greatest achievement was his victory in the defensive war against Harshvardhan in 620. In 641, the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang, visited the kingdom and said that the king was served by his nobles with perfect loyalty.
However the last days of the king were not happy. Pulakesin was defeated and killed by the Pallav king Narasimhavarman in 642. His capital Vatapi was completely destroyed.
End of Chalukya Dynasty
Pulakestin was succeeded by his son Vikramaditya who was also as great a ruler as his father. He renewed the struggle against his southern enemies. He recovered the former glory of the Chalukyas to a great extent. Even his great grandson Vikramaditya II was also a great warrior. He actually entered the Pallava capital. In 753, Vikramaditya and his son were overthrown by a chief named Dantidurga who laid the foundation of the next great empire of Karnataka and Maharashtra, that of Rashtrakutas.