When last we left the history of India, Ashoka’s Mauryan Empire had just shattered into a dozen pieces. We hate to see it, but sometimes it is like that. Unfortunately for my love of cartography, what follows are the Classical and Medieval periods, where hundreds if not thousands of small local kingdoms change their borders so rapidly that the map looks like 1700 years of TV static. At first glance, this period looks like an absolute mess, for good reason, but this chapter of Indian history actually tells a cohesive and consistent story. From 200 BC to 1500 AD, small local territories(and the odd regional empire) competed for power and prestige while participating in extensive trade. The result was an intense cultural exchange that cemented India’s legacy of extraordinary demographic, religious, and ideological diversity.
India’s diversity starts with its geography, where there’s mountains and forests and plains, oh my. This regional variation made for a patchwork of distinct local territories, with their own culture and even unique languages. So while dynasties and empires bopped around rearranging the map, these small pockets proved rather sturdy, and often maintained their local culture. This made it pretty tricky for any one state to unify large parts of India for more than a few decades at a time. Before we touch on some notable examples, we should first zoom out to better understand India’s geography. Broadly speaking, we can divvy it up into4 macro-regions: The Indus Valley, the Gangetic Plain, the Deccan Plateau, and the Ghats. Between the Indus and the Ganges rivers, northern India was fertile and easy to navigate, making it well-suited to larger states and the occasional empire. But sometimes that empire was other people, because the Indus Valley opened up to the rest of Asia, and saw everybody from Greeks and Persians to Muslims and Mongols wandering in over the centuries. (Summarized: Classical India and What was the Classical History of India?)
By sea, the coasts of Sindh and Bengal proved extremely popular for trade, as they provided easy access to inland markets. Speaking of inland, we’ll find the Deccan plateau further south along the peninsula. Connected to the coasts by a series of smaller waterways, the Deccan served as a cultural crossover between North and South, and that’s most apparent in Language. Take, for instance, the linguistic variety of a place like Europe, which has Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages spread out over multiple different states, interacting and evolving across time. India isn’t terribly far off from that, but here, the two main language families at work were Sanskritic (or Indic) and Dravidian, and the crossover between them happened predominantly on the Deccan Plateau. So from there, if we go south, or east, or west, we’ll run into the Ghats, two mountain ranges that run up the eastern and western coasts of the peninsula, and converge on the southern edge. This area was an absolute hotbed for trade during the classical period, since it lay smack in the middle of the maritime silk road between the East Indies, China, Africa, and the Mediterranean. Furthermore, in the immortal words of BillWurtz: And They’ve Got Spices.
So, now that I’ve spent a quarter of my run time talking about geography, who of, I have a map problem, let’s actually talk about states and kingdoms and stuff. Contrary to what my last video on Indian history might lead you to believe, Southern India does in fact exist. Let’s address that right now by taking a look at Tamilakam, at the tip of the peninsula. Starting way back before even the Maurya empire, there were dozens of states nestled around the foothills of the Ghats, but a few standouts. The Chera, Chola, and Pandya dynasties became known as the Three Crowned Kings, and though they remained fairly small through the classical period, they’re possibly India’s most successful merchants. With ready access to boatloads of spices, they were able to export their own wares as well as control the traffic through one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes. Double nice. And several centuries later, during the middle ages, the Chola dynasty was able to expand to the island of Sri Lanka and conquer all the way up the eastern coast. (Summarized: Classical India and What was the Classical History of India?)
While the Tamil Kingdoms, unfortunately, didn’t leave much in the way of historical documentation, they had a strong poetic tradition, and they made huge contributions to Indian architecture — I mean literally, these things are massive. Temple complexes steadily grew over time with donations from wealthy patrons and developed into ornate mega structures. Every layer features a sculpted and vibrantly painted representation of a mythical story, and these temples are tallboys too so there’s a lot of narrative meaning packed into each one. And while we’re talking about temples and religion, we should jump back a few centuries to mention the Pallava. dynasty, who ruled over parts of the East Indian coast from the 4th through the 9th centuries. The Pallavas were talented architects, and also generous patrons of their minority Buddhist and Jainist populations — sponsoring their monasteries and also incorporating their art into the Hindu temples.
This taste for religious tolerance may have been an artifact of the Pallavas former fealty to the SAtavAhana dynasty, who ruled most of the Deccan Plateau since the collapse of the Maurya empire up through the 3rd century CE. Though they were primarily Hindu, they had a deep respect for the Buddhism of emperor Ashoka. The SAtavAhanas were the first to start building temples out of stone rather than wood, but funnily enough, it’s all designed to mimic the construction of the wooden temples, so these stone versions were deliberately sculpted to have beams and nails sticking out. Though the empire was broken into pieces in the early 3rd century by incursions of Scythians from the north, many of its successor states continued to be extremely prosperous in the middle ages, as we saw with the Pallavas. And speaking of the north, let’s return to the Indus Valley and Gangetic Plain. Annoyingly, sources from the post-Mauryan period don’t do us any favors, since lots of the architecture hasn’t survived, and most royal inscriptions are so wildly self-congratulatory and embellished that they don’t end up recording anything of historical value.
When two rival kingdoms both claim to have won the same battle, you know that someone is lying. So let’s take this occasion to be thankful for how much easier our lives can be when historians take the time to write things down. In this case, our most helpful source is coinage. Also, many Roman coins found their way into northern India as well — some were melted and reminted, but others were allowed to circulate if a gash was carved into the emperor’s face, to show that Nero had no authority in India. This actually makes India the second civilization to stab Nero. Good on ‘em. So, while the avenues of trade between northern and southern India were distinct, business was good on both ends of the peninsula. The Indus Valley, in particular, remained engaged, for better and for worse, with their neighbors to the northwest, over the Hindu Kush mountains. From Alexander and the Indo-Greeks onward, it is a veritable revolving door of imperial neighbors, with Scythians, Parthians, Kushans, Sassanids, Arabs, Persians, Mongols, and Timurids. When these empires weren’t playing Villain-of-the-Week, they sometimes tried to integrate into Indian society by marrying into royal families and adopting aspects of Indian culture. Now, since we’re already up north, let’s. (Summarized: Classical India and What was the Classical History of India?)
Discuss an Indian empire for a change. Over on the Ganges river, transportation was easy, resources were plentiful, and it was the ideal base to launch an empire — the problem was that lots of small kingdoms were aware of this, so the competition was fierce ever since the Maurya collapsed. It wasn’t until the early 4th century that the Guptas slowly extended their control over the Gangetic Plain, and by the year 400 their empire reached across the Ganges, down the Indus, and along the Eastern Ghats. Not Bad. For the next century, the Gupta empire dominated the entirety of northern India and all the trade that came with it. And lucky for all of us, they spent much of their empire money on art, literature, and science.
We’re talking about the apex of classical Indian sculpture, codified editions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, a decimal numbering system, and the concept of Zero. Good. Stuff. Even though the Gupta empire dwindled throughout the 500s because of external invasions, and northern India went right back to the imperial drawing board for the next several centuries, India would continue to benefit from the cultural legacy of the Guptas. So with our painfully un-chronological tour of Classical India complete, let’s take a look at an easily overlooked source of India’s diversity, Religion. Though it can seem like we’re just following the story of Hinduism with special cameo appearances by Buddhism and Jainism, India’s extensive trade routes brought multiple unique religious communities into the peninsula. For instance, Persian refugees fleeing the Muslim Conquest settled in Gujarat in the 600s and created a strong Zoroastrian diaspora culture. Maritime trade also brought multiple Jewish communities to the peninsula, and they similarly became a valued part of their local societies. However, many Indian Jewish migrated to Israel after its independence in 1948. (Summarized: Classical India and What was the Classical History of India?)
There was also a community of Nestorian Christians from the Sassanid Empire who made their way to India. But by far, the most consequential arrival was Islam. Starting from the 600s, Muslim merchants brought their new religion along pre-existing Arabian trade routes to the west Indian coast, and a century later, Muslims from the Abbasid Caliphate arrived into the Indus Valley. Now, this might go without saying, but Hinduism and Islam are rather distinct. One is a polytheistic religion that draws from a plurality of traditions, cultures, and beliefs, whereas Islam is a monotheistic religion that engages with the Quran as its central text. However, shocking as it may sound, these two communities typically got along very well, and the cultural exchange between them was quite rich — But for the sake of my comments section, I’m gonna leave it at that. Jumping ahead a bit here, the third main way that Islam came to India was through the Delhi Sultanate. It was established in 1206 as an offshoot of a larger Muslim Empire (which collapsed very soon after, it’s not super relevant) and ruled from, as the name suggests, the city of Delhi.
Their main military advantage was Cavalry since horses weren’t really a thing in India before this, it was actually mostly Elephants, so they made short work of the land around the Indus and Ganges rivers, and managed to actually repel the invading Mongols throughout the 1200s. That is no small feat, and Delhi, in turn, became a haven for merchants, artists, and aristocrats who fled the Mongols, so double nice. For the next 300 years, the 5 dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate ruled over India’s north, and for a couple decades there in the 1300s, most of India’s south too. Though many Indians in the Sultanate did convert to Islam, their Muslim population mostly resided in the north and around the coasts. All told, the Delhi Sultanate had a pretty solid run through the 12 and 1300s, but unfortunately, all empires are mortal, and in 1398, the Mongol-ish, Persian-ish, Turkish-ish emperor Tamerlane sacked Delhi and yoinked their artisans, administrators, and most of the imperial treasury. (Summarized: Classical India and What was the Classical History of India?)
So the Sultanate languished through the 1400sand was later conquered— ( Portugal sails in from the south) OH! Hey there Portugal, fancy seeing you on the other side of Africa… Is it Colony Time already? Geez, we covered a lot in this video, let’s recap shall we? SO, between the classical and medieval periods of Indian history, a lot went down. I’ll be honest here, whether you look at a map, or a timeline, even just a list of the states that are active at any given time, this period is tough. The players to keep track of are numerous, small, and somehow always on the move for 1700 straight years. But as I hope I’ve been able to show, the picture becomes a lot clearer when we zoom out, take it one piece at a time, focus on geography, and look at the overarching trends. Classical Medieval India is interconnected, prosperous, and fantastically diverse. Look, sometimes history can feel almost deliberately incomprehensible, especially in cases like this, but in those scenarios, we have a responsibility to try and puzzle it out, because sometimes the outcome is not only unique but also exceptional.
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