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 History & Heritage of Indian Subcontinent

Indian Civilization is almost 5000 years old and before that civilized communities lived in India in planned cities with adequate arrangements. India draws its name from the river Indus flowing through north-west India, but is now a part of Pakistan. The first Aryan settlers in Indian called this great river Sindhu, which means a large sheet of water like the sea. They built houses of brick, wore cotton clothes, made beautiful gold and silver jewellery, pottery and toys. Their fine seals depicted a pictographic script which is yet not fully interpreted. The heritage of India is the result of developments in the social, economic, cultural and political life of the Indian people over a period of thousands of years.

The Land and the People

Two basic components of this heritage, which have at the same time shaped this heritage are the land, the natural and physical environment of India, and the people who have inhabited this land. The generations of people who have inhabited India during various periods of her history have interacted with  their physical and natural environment. They have also interacted among themselves. Through these processes of interaction – between people and their natural and physical environment and among themselves-the people have created their history, their social, economic, cultural and political life. These processes of interaction have been going on for thousands of years, bringing in changes in the life of the people. 

India is a vast country. It extends for nearly 3000 kilometers from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south and for the same distance from its western-most parts to its eastern-most parts. Nature has made it into a distinct geographical entity. The Himalayan ranges in the north and the sea in the east, west and south separate it from the rest of the world. The people inhabiting the country from very early times as well as people of other parts of the world have viewed it as a single integral and distinctive unit. 

These geographical features, however, while making this country a well-defined unit separated from the rest of the world, have not become a barrier to contacts with the rest of the world. Since the time of the Old Stone Age, people from neighboring as well as distant regions have been coming into India through the mountain passes and the seas and making India their home. The people of India have been formed as a result of these migrations over thousands of years. They are the descendants of groups of people belonging to almost all the ‘racial Groups’ which have gone into the making of the Indian population are the Proto-Australoids, the Palaeo-Mediterraneans, the Caucasoids, the Negroid and the Mongoloids in their varying degrees of mixtures. In historical times, the ethnic groups which have come to India and made India their home include the Indo-European speaking people (the Indo-Aryans), the Persians, the Greeks, the Kushanas, the Shakas, the Hunas, the Arabs, the Turks, the Africans and the Mongols. During the past few hundred years, many Europeans have also made India their home. All there ‘racial’ and ethnic groups have intermingled with one another and few of them can be recognized in their original form. Thus, India has been a crucible of various ‘races’ and ethnic groups. They have all contributed to the making of Indian history and culture. 

The migration of people into India has been a major factor in the development of various aspects of India’s life and culture since pre-historic times. In historical times, the importance of this factor is conspicuous in almost every period of India’s history. The people from other cultures and civilizations have brought with them their own traditions, which got intermixed and integrated with the pre-existing traditions. Similarly, people of India have gone to other parts of the world and various elements of culture carried by them have intermixed and have been integrated with the pre-existing cultures there. During the past 2000 years, the influence of various elements of Indian culture has been noticed in many countries of Asia. 

The vastness of the country and the great variations in its geographical features- land forms, natural resourses, climate and others – have provided the bases for a great variety in ways of living from very early times. The mountains and the river systems have been an important factor in the emergence of a number of distinct cultural zones within the country. The Vindhya ranges, for example, divided India into north and south with the people of the Indo-European family of languages predominating in the northern, and those of the Dravidian family of languages in the southern parts of the country. These factors, however, have not made any part of the country isolated from the other parts. The physical barriers between different parts were not insurmountable even in early times when means of travel were not developed. The did not prevent the movement of the people from one part of the country to another. Despite the Vindhya ranges, for example, the movement of people from the north to the south and vice versa has been going on from very early times. Thus while geographical factors have deeply influenced the emergence of distinctive ways of living of people in different parts of the country, the interaction between them has been going on. The availability of different natural resources in the country has also furthered links between its diverse parts. These factors have helped the processes of both unity and diversity. The historical development of the country has brought the people together and has led to the  growth of a common culture to which all parts of the country have contributed. At the same time, each part of the country has developed its own distinct identity. Because of this, the historical and cultural development of India is often described as one of unity in diversity and the culture of the country as a  whole a composite one comprising distinct parts. It has never been a monolith. 

As mentioned above, people of all parts of the country have contributed to the emergence of a common culture. No particular part of region of the country has been the main center or source of Indian culture, and different regions during different periods have played a leading role-setting new trends and influencing developments in other parts of the country. This has been true as much of political history as of other aspects of historical development. The first major political power arose in northern India with its center in the region around modern Patna. In the sunbsequent centuries, powerful kingdom and empires were built in north-western India, the Deccan and the south. The Turkish Sultans and the Mughal emperors ruled over large parts of India with their center at Delhi and, for some time, at Agra. In the eighteenth century, the Marathas, after settings up their kingdom in western India, built a vast all-India empire. In this context, it is important to remember the concept of the chakravartin ruler which was developed in India in ancient times. This ideal envisaged political unification of the entire country. 

Another feature of India’s culture has been that it did not develop into a finished form in any period. Throughout her long history, India’s culture has been changing and developing due to internal factors and contacts with other cultures. This process of change and development continues. The culture of India, as of any other country, is not a fixed entity. Many aspects of culture, if they retard further progress, get discarded, others are changed, sometimes beyond recognition; some others continue to survive and remain important, while many new elements are added.

A remarkable feature of Indian historical and cultural development has been its continuity. This continuity has few parallels in the history of other civilizations. For example, the cultures of some of the earliest civilizations in human history left little evidence of their influence over subsequent cultural developments of the countries in which they had developed. In India, on the other hand, some elements of the Harappan culture continue to exist to this day.

It is interesting to know the story of the name of our country. The ancient Indians referred to their country as ‘Jambudvipa’ or the continent of the Jambu tree. The ancient Persians referred to our country as the land beyond the river Sindhu (Indus). They, however, pronounced it as ‘Hindu’. The word spread westward and the whole country came to be known by the name of its river. The Greeks called it ‘Inde’ and the Arabs ‘Hind’. In medieval times, the country was called ‘Hindustan’ from the Persian word. The English called it ‘India’ from the Greek ‘Inde’. The present name ‘Bharat’, derived from the ancient usage, means ‘the land of the Bharatas’, an ancient Indian tribe.

Before studying the development of a few selected aspects of India’s culture, it may be worthwhile to recapitulate broad features of Indian historical development. 

The Ancient Period

India was one of the oldest centers of the prehistoric cultures of the world. India was also the cradle of one of the earliest civilizations in history-the Harappan culture. The Harappan culture was the first urban culture to emerge in India. Many of its features distinguished it from all its contemporary cultures in other parts of the world, and made it distinctly Indian. Larger in extent than any of its contemporary civilizations, it was spread over parts of Baluchistan, Sind, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat and had links with some other parts of India as well as with contemporary civilizations in West Asia. After its decline, India did not have cities for about a thousand years. However, all that this civilization had built was not forgotten and many of its features became a part of the Indian culture in the subsequent years. 

The next major phase in ancient Indian history is the Vedic age which began with the coming of the Indo-European speaking people (the Indo-Aryans) and ended in about seventh century B.C. Initially, this phase marked a reversal in some respects. For example, it marked the end of city life, reversal to a pastoral economy and the predominance of a tribal system of political organization. However, with the knowledge and use of iron technology, it saw the beginning of the spread of agriculture throughout the country. It thus laid the foundations of a civilization in all parts of the country, whereas the Harappan  culture had been confined to parts of north-western India. The culture that began to emerge during this phase was the result of the intermixing of the Indo-Aryans with the pre-existing inhabitants of India. It is interesting to remember that some element of the culture of this period have survived over a period of 3000 years and continue to be a part of Indian culture today. The next phase, covering the period from about the sixth century B.C. to about 200 B.C., is marked by far-reaching changes in almost every aspect of life in India. This period saw the spread of agriculture over large parts of the country, the rise of cities and the formation of states. the period also saw the rise and decline of the first all-Indiaempire in Indian history. This period is important not only for political unity but also for cultural unity. Two major religions –Jainism and Buddhism – which arose in the sixth century B.C.left a lasting influenced religious beliefs and practices which, grouped together, are known as Hinduism. Hinduism as it developed, included many Vedic beliefs and practices but had many other features which distinguished it from the religion of the Vedas. This period saw the spread throughout the country of beliefs and practices associated with Hinduism, including Vedic religion, as well as Buddhism and Jainism. Alongside these, a large number of other beliefs and practices also continued. The Varna system, the system of social organization popularly known as the caste system, which had arisen in the Vedic Age now became well-established and gradually became the dominant form of social organization throughout the country. This form of social organization was peculiar to India. The rise of cities, crafts and trade also furthered the process of cultural unity. This process is best exemplified by Ashoka. He unified almost the entire country under one empire but renounced the use of war as state policy. Instead he declared the victory of righteousness as the real victory. In him we also find a change in the ideal of kingship. Ashoka, in one of his edicts, said, “whatever exertions I make, I strive only to discharge the debt that I owe to all living creatures”. Most of his inscriptions spread over different parts of the country are in Prakrit, which seems to have become the lingua franca of the country, and in Brahmi script, the earliest known Indian script, and mother of Indian Scripts. However, in areas where the language and script were different, the Ashokan edicts were inscribed in the local language and the local script. Though he himself became a Buddhist, Ashoka made no effort to impose it on others. In one of his edicts, he said, “One who reveres one’s own religion and disparages that of another from devotion to one’s own religion and to glorify it over all other religions, does injure one’s own religion most certainly”. 

The next phase in ancient Indian history covers the period form about 200 B.C. to about A.D. 300. This phase is extremely important for the changes that took place in economic and political life, and significant developments in various aspects of culture, including religion, art and science and technology. In economic life, this period is significant for advancement in India’s international trade, both by land and sea routes, and the emergence of crafts and towns, unknown to earlier phases of ancient Indian history. In political life, large parts of north-western, northern and western India were ruled by dynasties of non-Indian origin. These were the Indo-Greeks, the Shakas, the Parthians and the Kushanas. These political contacts facilitated developments in the economy mentioned above and brought India into close contact with the cultures of Central and West Asia and with the Graeco-Roman world. This interaction played an important role in the flowering of Indian culture during this phase. Most of the foreign rulers of Indian territories adopted one or the other Indian religions. A significant event was the growth of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which the Kushana ruler Kanishka patronized, and the development of the great Buddhist art associated with it. In the Deccan and the south, a number of states emerged, including the powerful kingdom of the Satavahanas. These states also developed close trade relations with other parts of the world. There was significant progress of Buddhist art in the south. India’s first contact with Christianity is believed to have taken place during this period, though it was many centuries later that Christianity came to have a significant following in India.

The last phase of the ancient period of Indian history starts in early fourth century A.D. and ends in about the eighth century. The Guptas built a large kingdom during this period which remained powerful for about a century. In the Deccan and the south, there were two major kingdoms during this period – of the Pallavas and of the Chalukyas. In some respects, this was also a period of reversals, which witnessed a gradual decline of towns and trade, of strong centralized states, and the beginning of the system of land grants. These developments, according to some scholars, mark the beginning of feudalism in India. Some of the finest achievements in various fields of culture-art, architecture, literature, philosophy, science, technology – can, however, be dated to this period. Because of these achievements, this period is often described as the classical age of Indian civilization. In religion, this is a period of decline of Buddhism and the rise of Brahmanical religion or Hinduism as we know it today. Idol worship became popular and building of temples on a large scale started in the south and the Deccan as well as in the north. Art inspired by Buddhism also continued, particularly in sculpture and painting. Great progress was made in literature, both religious and secular, in Sanskrit which also became the language of the courts in most parts of the country. Tamil literature also made great progress and the Alvars and Nayanars, the Vaishnavite and Shaivite saints, made lasting contributions to it. In spite of the dominant position of Sanskrit in most parts of the country, this period marks the beginning of many modern Indian languages as well as distinct scripts in different parts of the country. The period is also important for some of the most significant advances in science and technology. Most of the major works in astronomy, mathematics and medicine belong to this period. 

By the time the ancient period of Indian history came to a close, India had developed a culture which was marked by features that have characterized it ever since.

The Medieval Period

During the medieval period, some of the achievements of the ancient times were carried forward and new and magnificent structures were built on those foundations. Many new elements appeared in Indian society which influenced the growth of various aspects of culture. 

The period from the eighth to the twelfth century in political life is dominated mainly by the presence of a large number of states. The bigger ones among them tried to establish their supremacy in northern India and the Deccan. The main contenders in this struggle for supremacy were the Pratiharas, the Palas and the Rashtrakutas. In the south, the most powerful kingdom to emerge during this period was that of the Cholas. The Cholas brought about the political unification of large parts of the country but the general political picture was that of fragmentation, particularly in northern India. The process of decline in trade and of urban centers had continued. In social life, there was greater rigidification of the caste system than before. In some respects, the period was characterized by stagnation and insularity. Seen as a whole, however, the situation was not so dismal. Some of the most splendid temples in India were built, in a variety of regional styles, during this period, both in the north and the south. The period is also important for the growth of modern Indian languages. Architecture, sculpture, literature, and philosophy flourished under the patronage of the Chola Kings. Trade and cultural contact with the countries of South-East Asia received an impetus in the Chola kingdom. New trends towards cultural unity also emerged during this period. One of these trends is associated with the name of the philosopher Shankaracharya who set up his maths or monasteries in different parts of the country. The other was the beginning of the Bhakti cult throughout the country. It had originated with the Alvars and Nayanars, this cult became a major feature of the religious life of the people in most parts of the country.

It was in this period that India’s contact with the new religion of Islam began. The contacts began late in the seventh century through the Arab traders. Later, in early eighth century, the Arabs conquered Sind. In the tenth century, the Turks emerged as a powerful force in Central and West Asia and carved out kingdoms for themselves. They conquered Persia but, in turn, their life was deeply influenced by the old and rich Persian culture. The Turks first invaded India during the late tenth and early eleventh century and Punjab came under Turkish rule. Another series of Turkish invasions in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century led to the establishment of the Sultanat of Delhi. Within a few centuries after the rise of Islam in Arabia, it became the second most popular religion in India with followers in every part of the country. 

The establishment of the Sultanat of Delhi marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of medieval India. Politically, it led to the unification of northern India and parts of the Deccan for almost century. Its rulers, almost from the time of the establishment of the Sultanat, succeeded in separating in from the country from which they had originally come. The Sultanat disintegrated towards the end of the fourteenth century leading to the emergence of a number of kingdoms in different parts of the country. Some of these, for example, the Bahmani and Vijaynagar kingdoms, became very powerful. In society, the period is important for the introduction of new elements – the Turks, the Persians, the Mongols and the Afghans, besides the Arabs who had settled sown in some coastal regions- into India. There were important changes in economic life also. Trade and crafts received a stimulus and many new towns arose as centers of administrations, trade and crafts. New elements of technology were also introduced during this period. 

Culturally, this period marks the beginning of a new stage in the growth of India’s composite culture. It saw the introduction of new features in art and architecture of India and their diffusion to all parts of the country. The architecture that developed during this period was the result of the synthesis of the traditions of Central Asia and Persia with the pre-existing Indian styles. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, distinctive styles of art and architecture also developed in the regional kingdoms, which had emerged with the disintegration of the Sultanat. During this time notable advances were made in the development of languages and literature. Modern Indian languages, which had started developing earlier, became major vehicles of literature. 

These languages were enriched by the Bhakti saints and this gave the literature of these languages many common features: Two new languages – Arabic and Pesian – became a part of India’s linguistic heritage. Of these, Arabic was mainly the language of Islamic learning. For literature and in its widespread use, Pesian was more important. In many areas, it replaced Sanskrit as the court language and throughout the country, along with Sanskrit, it became the language of learning. Historical writings for the first time became an important component of Indian literature. Under the influence of Persian, new forms of literature such as the ghazal were introduced. 

The period saw two great religious movements, besides the spread of a new religion. The Bhakti movement which had started many centuries earlier, spread throughout the country. Significantly, the Bhakti movement, best represented by Kabir and Nanak, disapproved of religious narrow-mindedness, superstitions ad observance of formal rituals. The Bhakti saints condemned caste inequalities and laid stress on human brotherhood. 

The other was the Sufi movement. The Sufis, or the Muslim mystics, preached the message of love and human brotherhood. These two movements played a leading role in combating religious exclusiveness and narrow-mindedness and in bringing the people of all communities together. Sikhism began to emerge as a new religion based on the teachings of Guru Nanak and other saints. 

The growth of a composite culture reached its highest point under the Great Mughals in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Mughals built an empire which once again brought about the political unification of a large part of the country. Like Ashoka earlier, Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, followed a policy of Sulh-kul (‘peace with all’). He said, “The various religious communities are Divine treasures enthused to us by God. We must love them as such. It should be our firm faith that every religion is blessed by Him, and our earnest end avour to enjoy the bliss of the evergreen garden of universal toleration. The Eternal King showers his favours on all men without distinction. Kings who are ‘Shadows of God’ should never give up this principle”. Some of the finest specimens of Indian architecture and literature belong to this period. A new significant art form was painting which flourished under the patronage of the Mughal court. Influenced by the Persian traditions, the Mughal painting developed into a distinct Indian style. It later spread to other parts of the country in various regional styles. Another significant development was the emergence of anew language –Urdu- which became the lingua franca of the people of the towns in many parts of the country. 

The Indus Valley Civilisation

The Indus Valley Civilisation is the oldest civilization of Indian history. Its remains are found in Mohenjodaro and Harappa in Pakistan and Kalibangan, Lothal, and Sukortada and some other cities in India. Lothal was a prosperous seaport in Gujarat. One can see in these cities a process of continuous development in the form of cereal cultivation, animal husbandry, crafts, architecture and ideology. The firmness of construction in cities like Mohenjodaro is evident by the fact that it has survived the damages of time for over 5,000 years. The Indus Civilisation was firmly based on a prosperous agricultural economy. Apparently, the Indus region had a fertile soil and bountiful rain. Apart from the Indus, the Ravi and the Saraswati rivers, the Sutlej and the Beas flowed though the fertile region of the Indus Valley. Saraswati has since vanished due to climatic changes. The Vedas frequently refer to Saraswati river.

History of India, Indus Valley Civilisation

The Aryans

The highly urbanized people of the Indus Valley disappeared from the scene but the reasons behind this are not known yet. They were perhaps submerged by the migration of Aryans in India during 1500 B.C. through the mountains in the north–west. The Aryans, who were newcomers, learnt the use of iron and tamed their horses. This knowledge gave them a superiority in Warfare over the pre-Aryans, whom they defeated. In the course of time, a new pattern of life emerged from the blend of the two kinds of people.

The sports-loving Aryans developed a type of rural life which remains unchanged even to this day. They worshipped the sun, the moon and the rivers and composed songs in praise of them. The poems addressed to usha (dawn) are considered some of the finest in the world’s literature. Their spiritual efforts are preserved in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the two famous epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which have had a powerful impact on the people of India through the ages. Their contribution to science includes the decimal system of notation and the concept of zero. They also developed a system of medicine and surgery. The Aryans were founders of the sciences of Mathematics, Astronomy and Medicine which reached the west through the Arabs. 


Birth of Buddha & Mahavira

With the passage of time, many undesirable practices appeared among the Aryan (Hindu) society. The name “Hindu” for the people of India has come from Sindhu and was perhaps given by the Greeks and others who followed them. Extreme ritualism deprived it of its earlier simplicity and the Religion became for normal people more complicated.  Gautam, the Buddha, who founded Buddhism in the 6th century B.C., and Mahavira, the first Jain Guru reformed the religion and advised the people to lead a principled life and follow the principles of the Golden Mean. Mahavira laid emphasis on ahimsa (complete non violence). Originally they did not believe in the worship of idols, but later their followers kept the idols in their temples.Though both the religions had their roots in India Buddhism has been spread abroad unlike Jainism.


 Arrival of Greeks to India

In 326 B.C., Alexander- the Great attacked India by a large Greek army. This Greek invasion was the West's first contact with India and it left a lasting impact on Indian art and mythology. The Greeks borrowed a lot from Indian science, mathematics and philosophy, which reached the other parts of Europe through them. A historian once wrote, “Indians grow wool on trees” and he basically referred to cotton. Before that, the Greeks had no knowledge about cotton. They wore animal skins to cover their bodies or cloth made out of wool of the animals. The first Indian empire took shape soon after Alexander left. Its founder was Chandragupta Maurya. Assisted by Chanakya, he defeated the Greek General, Seleucus Nikator and transformed India into a single and strong political country. 


Ashoka -  The Great Emperor

When Ashok came to the throne in 273 B.C., his empire included almost the whole of India and Afghanistan. The invasion of Kalinga (modern Orissa), created a deep revolt against war and violence in the emperor’s heart and mind. He started following Buddhism and decided to capture men’s minds with love rather than by sword. He wanted monolithic stone pillars to be created all through his extensive empire. To spread the dharma, he had them inscribed with a code of morals based on the teachings of the Buddha. He forbade the killing of animals on certain days of the week. This kindhearted emperor sent missionaries to Central Asia, Burma and Sri Lanka to spread the principles of Buddha. 


Indians go abroad

With the beginning of the Christian era commenced another fascinating age of Indian History. Merchants and adventurers left the shores of their home land to set up colonies in Java, Sumatra, Bali Cambodia, Thailand and Malaya. They were followed by princes, missionaries, architects and artists. With the passage of time, the Indian colonies expanded into kingdoms and empires. The inhabitants of these lands adopted the Indian way of life. Indian philosophy, religion, art and architecture became an integral part of their daily existence. From the 1st to the middle of the 15th century, the entire South-East Asia was under Indian cultural and political influence. 


The Golden age of Indian History

The rule of the Guptas (A.D. 320 to 495), known as the Golden Age of Indian history, was a period of significant achievements in the field of arts, literature and material prosperity. The finest paintings and sculptures in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora belong to this period. Kalidasa’s Shakuntala and Meghadoot and many others belong to this period. Aryabhatta, the famous astronomer, argued that earth circled around the sun. He was ignored but not killed. An iron pillar erected at Delhi during the Gupta period still stands upright to this day without being effected by rust. This gives evidence of the Indians’ advanced knowledge of metallurgy. A Chinese traveller, Fa-Hien, who visited India during this period, has given a graphic account of the peace and prosperity that prevailed in India.


Impact of Islam on Indian Society

The next vital period of Indian history began with the impact of Islam in the 8th century. First came the Arabs, then the Turks and the Afghans and, finally, the Mughals. The Mughals were great builders and some of their well-known monuments include the Taj Mahal at Agra, the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid at Delhi and the majestic palaces of Akbar at Fathepur Sikri. They attained excellence in paintings, specifically in miniatures, music, dance and poetry. But, Islam did not upset the continuity of Indian life. The rulers came, destroyed cities and left. For instance the Mughals stayed back and made India their home. They married Hindu princesses and the Hindu princes fought for the Mughal empire. In fact, Akbar encouraged the this for blend of Hindu and Muslim ways of life into a single national culture. Unfortunately, his efforts were of no use as his successors thought differently.

Aurangzeb, who had no time for finer things in life, was keen on setting up an ‘Islamic’ state in India, which was much against the strategy of his predecessors like Akbar and Shahjahan. For  the sake of sitting on the throne, Aurangzeb killed all his brothers and imprisoned his father Shahjahan in the Agra Fort.



India’s heritage in languages and literature is one of the richest in the world. Through the many centuries of India’s history, many languages have grown and have influenced one another. Some of the languages that were spoken in India in ancient times and had a rich literature have become extinct; others remain important. For example, Sanskrit, though no longer a spoken language, is still a language of many religious rituals and of literature. However, the old languages have left their mark on the languages which we speak today and which began to develop towards the close of the ancient period. These languages have bequeathed a very rich literature to us. 


Besides many small groups, there are two man groups of languages – the Indo-European or Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian. Most of the languages spoken in the northern parts of India belong to the former group and those of the southern parts to the latter. However, these two groups have not developed in isolation from each other.

The Harappan script has not yet been deciphered. We also do not know what language the Harappans spoke. Sanskrit was the language of the Indo-Aryans who came to India and belongs to the Indo-European group of languages. Sanskrit was gradually standardized and given a highly scientific grammar by Panini, the great grammarian, in about fourth century B.C. Sanskrit was the language of religion, philosophy and learning and was used by the upper castes, the brahmanas and the kshatriyas. The common people spoke a number of dialects which are called Prakrits. Buddha, as you already know, preached in the language of the people. Buddhist literature was written in Pali, one of the Prakrits. Ashoka had his rock and pillar edicts inscribed in the popular languages. 

Among the Dravidian languages Tamil is the most ancient. The others developed during the first millennium of the Christian era. 

Though Sanskrit again became the predominant language of learning in the period of the Guptas, the Prakrits continued to develop. The various spoken languages that developed are called Apabhramshas. These formed the basis of the modern Indian languages which developed in the various regions of India during the medieval period.

During the period of the Turks and the Mughals, two new languages –Arabic and Persian – entered India. Of these Persian is more important. It was the court language for hundreds of years and continued to be used widely right up to the nineteenth century. A rich tradition of Persian literature grew in India during this period and led to the growth of a new language – Urdu- based on the dialects of Hindi and drawing much of its vocabulary from Persian. 
It became the common language of towns all over northern India and the Deccan and developed a very rich literature in poetry and prose. 

Throughout the course of the development of Indian languages, various foreign languages have played a significant part and helped Indian languages to enrich their vocabulary. This happened as a result of close contacts with the cultures of many peoples outside India. 

Thus the languages that we speak today have a long history behind them. There are eighteen languages which have been mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India. In addition to these, hundreds of other languages are spoken by people in various parts of the country. This variety of languages has made India a multilingual country. The languages spoken today have grown over a period of centuries and have influenced and enriched one another.


Ancient Indian Literature

The earliest known work of the Aryans in India was the Rig Veda which is a collection of 1028 hymns are in praise of different Vedic deities and were intended for recitation at the Yajnas (sacrifices). Many of them are beautiful descriptions of nature. Some of the most enchanting are addressed to Ushas, the goddess of dawn, like this one: In the sky’s framework she has gleamed with brightness: The goddess has cast off the robe of darkness. Rousing the world from sleep, with ruddy horses, dawn in her well-yoked chariot is arriving. 

The Rig Veda was followed by three more Vedas – Yajur Veda which gives directions for the performance of the Yajna, the Sama Veda which prescribes the tunes for the recitation of the hymns of the Rig Veda, and the Atharva Veda which prescribes rites and rituals. After the four Vedas, a number of works, called the Brahmanas, grew which contained detailed explanation of Vedic literature and instructions. The Aranyakas, which are an appendix to the Brahmanas, prescribed certain rites and also laid the basis of a body of more philosophical literature. It was the Upanishadic literature which dealt with questions like the origin of the universe, birth and death, the material and spiritual world, nature of knowledge and many other questions. The earliest Upanishads are the Brihad-Aranyaka and Chanddogya. The Upanishads are in the form of dialogues and express the highest thoughts in simple and beautiful imagery. Another body of literature to grow in the early period was the Vedangas which, besides rituals, were concerned with astronomy, grammar and phonetics. One of the most outstanding works of this period was a classic on Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhayi by Panini.

All these works were in Sanskrit. They were handed down from generation to generation orally and were put to writing much later. 

The two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were developed over a period of centuries and were perhaps put to writing in their present form in the second century A.D. The Mahabharata Contains about 100,000 verses and is the longest single poem in the world. Besides the main story of the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, a number of other interesting stories are woven into this epic. The Bhagvad Gita, a later addition to the Mahabharata, enshrines a philosophical doctrine and in it are described the three paths to salvation, viz. Karma, Gyan and Bhakti. The Ramayana, the story of Rama, is shorter than the Mahabharata and is full of interesting adventure and episodes. These two epics have influenced the thinking of millions of people for centuries. 

This period abounds in both religious and secular literature in Sanskrit. The Puranas are important, for they were the main influence in the development from early Vedic religion to Hinduism. There were many other shastras and smritis. The shastras contained works of science and philosophy. 
For example, the Arthashastra by Kautilya was a treatise on the science of governance. There were shastras on art, mathematics and other sciences. The smrities dealt with the performance of duties, customs and laws prescribed according to dharma. The most famous of these is the Manusmriti. 

The early Buddhist literature was in Pali and consists of two sections. The Suttapitaka consists mainly of dialogues between the Buddha and his followers. The Vinayapitaka is concerned mainly with the rules of the organization of the monasteries. The Milinda-panha is another great Buddhist work consisting of dialogues between the Indo-Greek king Menander and the Buddhist philosopher Nagasena. Another great Buddhist work consists of hundreds of Jataka stories which became the subjects of Buddhist sculpture and are popular all over the world for their wisdom. Later many Buddhist works were written in Sanskrit. Of these the most famous is the Buddhacharita or ‘Life of Buddha’ by Ashvaghosha. 
The period beginning a little before the reign of the Guptas ushered in the glorious period of Sanskrit literature, particularly secular. This was the greatest period for the growth of poetry and drama. The great writers of this period are well known-Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bharavi, Bhartrihari, Bana, Magha and many others. Of these, Kalidasa is known all over the world. His works – the Kumarasambhava, the Raghuvamsha, the Meghaduta, the Abhijnanashakuntalam and others- are unrivalled for their poetry and style. Bana wrote the Harshacharita, a biography of King Harsha, and Kadambari. 
Among the other famous works of the period are Bhavabhuti’s Utter-Ramacharita, Bharavi’s Kitarjuniya, Vishakhadatta’s Mudra Rakhshasa, Shudraka’s Mricchakatika. Dandin wrote the Daskumaracharita or the ‘tales of the Ten Princes’. The subjects of these and other works were political events, romances, allegories, comedies and philosophical questions. Besides these, there was also a growing body of philosophical literature. The most famous of these in the later period are the great commentaries of Shandaracharya. There were also great collections of tales and stories. The most famous collections are the Panchatantra and the Kathasarit-sagar which have been translated into many languages all over the world. 

The four Dravidian languages- Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam – developed their own distinct sctipts and literature. Tamil is the oldest of these with its literature going bank to the early centuries of the Christian era. According to traditions, three literary gatherings or Sangams were held at which many sages and poets recited their compositions. This body of literature consists of many themes like politics, war and love. The famous works of this body of literature include the Ettutogai (‘Eight Anthologies’), the Tolkappiyam (a work of Tamil grammar) and the Pattuppattu (‘the Ten Songs’). Thiruvalluvar wrote the famous Kural which, in verse, deals with many aspects of life and religion. The Silappadikaram and the manimekalai are some of the other most famous works of early Tamil literature. 


Literature in the Medieval Period

In the early medieval period in northern India, Sanskrit continued to be the language of literatue. This is the period of the works of two writers in Kashmir-Somadeva’s Katha-sarit-sagar which we have already mentioned and Kalhana’s Rajataringing. The later, a history of Kashmir, is a work of great importance as this is the first proper historical work in India. Another famous work of this period is the Gitagovinda by Jayadeva, which is one of the finest poems in Sanskrit literatue. As mentioned earlier, this was the period when the Apabhramaha languages had started developing into modern Indian languages. One of the earliest works in an early form of Hindi was Prithviaraj Raso by Chandbardai. This work which marks the beginning of bardic literature deals with the heroic deeds of Prithviraj Chauhan. 

In the southern parts, this period saw the flourishing of Sanskrit literatue. We have already mentioned the philosophical commentaries of Shankara. Another important Sanskrit work of this period is Bilhana’s Vikramankadeva-charita, a biography of the Chalukya king Vikramaditya 6th. However, this period is more important for the growth of literature in the Dravidian languages. Nripatunga wrote a great work of poetry in Kannada called the Kavirajamarga. For a few centuries, the Kannada literature was deeply influenced by Jainism. Pampa wrote the Adipurana and the Vikramarjana-Vijaya, the former dealing with the life of the first Jain tirthankara and the latter based on the Mahabharata. Poonna wrote the Shantipurana a legendry history of the sixteenth tirthankara. Another great Kannada writer was Ranna, a contemporary of Pampa, Ponna and Ranna are known as the Three Gems of the early Kannada literature. Kamban wrote the Ramayanam in Tamil. In Tamil, this was the period of the composition of the great hymns of the Alvars and the Nayanars. The hymns of the Alvars are collected into the Nalayira-Divya Prabandham. Some of the Nayanar works are the Thiruvasagam, the Thiruttondattogai. Telugu also produced great religious and secular literature in this period. This included translations of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, works of grammar, science and other secular literature. Literature in Malayalam also started growing. 

The period of the Sultanat of Delhi saw a great advance in the growth of modern Indian languages and literature. Braj Bhasha and khari Boli, forms of Hindi, began to be used in literary compositions. Many devotional songs were composed in these languages. Heroic literature was written in Gujarati. The famous ballad Alha Udal and the Vishaldeo Raso belong to this period. The literature in other modern Indian languages called Chandayana. 
Commentaries on ancient scriptures, however, continued to be written in Sanskrit. 

Persian was the court language of the Sultanat. Because of its literature many Persian words became part of the vocabulary of Indian languages. 
A very notable contribution of the Turks was in the field of historical literature in Persian. In ancient India, there was no tradition of historical writing. The Turks introduced the Arab and Persian traditions of historical writing in India and with them we get a fairly systematic account of Indian history beginning with the Sultanat of Delhi. There were many historians in this period. Ziauddin Barani wrote the Tarikh-i-Firozshahi which gives a detailed account of the reigns of the Khaljis and the Tughlaqs. He also wrote a work on political theory called the Fatawa-i-Jahandari. Perhaps the most outstanding literary figure of this period was Amir Khusrau. He was a poet, historian, mystic and composer of music. He was also a disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya. He wrote the Ashiqa, the Nuh Sipihr, the Qiranal-Sadayan, the Khazain-ul-Futuh and several works of poetry. He symbolizes the composite culture which was growing under the new impact. He took great pride in his being an Indian and praised India as the ‘Earthly Paradise’. He praised India’s fauna and flora, its beauty, its buildings, its knowledge and learning. He believed that in many respects the essence of Hinduism resembled Islam. He considered Hindawi, the Hindi spoken around the region of Delhi, his mother tongue and composed many verses in it. He composed a number of bilingual quatrains and verses in Hindi and Persian. The healthy tradition started by him continued for centuries after him. 

The regional kingdoms provided a great stimulus to regional languages and literature. The Sultans of Bengal, Gujarat and other states patronized local languages and literature. Bhakti saints preached in the language of the people. Many of them like Kabir were great poets. There were two main forms of Hindi in this period Bhojpuri and Awadhi. Kabir wrote in Bhojpuri and his dohas (Dohas are two to four line melodious verses giving a social or religious message ) or couplets have become a part of the folklore. Malik Muhammad Jayasi wrote the Padmavat in Awadhi. The famous Ramacharitamanas by Tulsidas was also written in Awadhi in this period. There were many other poets of Qutban, a disciple of the Sufi Saint Shaikh Burhan, wrote the Mrigavati. 

Literature in other languages also developed in this period. In Bengali the Ramayana by Krittivasa and the hundreds of lyrics by the famous poet Chandiddas were written under the patronage of the rulers. With Chaitanya, the tradition of writing devotional songs began. Narasi Mehta wrote devotional songs in Gujarati and Namdev and Eknath in Marathi. There were important developments in Kashmir under Zainul Abidin, under whose patronage many Sanskrit works like the mahabhatata and the Rajataringini were translated into Persian. 

Under the Vijayangar Kingdom, Sanskrit literature continued to grow. However, this was an important period for the growth of Telugu literature. 
Krishnadeva Raya, the greatest of Vijayanagar rulers, was also a Telugu and Sanskrit writer. He wrote the Vishnuchittiya. There were many poets in his court, the most famous of whom was Allasani Peddana who wrote the Manucharita. Dhurjati wrote the Kalahasti Mahatamya. 

As in art and architecture the Mughal period also saw great developments in literature. Many Mughal emperors and members of the royal family were great men of letters. Babar, the first Mughal ruler, was one of the pioneers of Turkish poetry and also the author of a very valuable autobiography in Turkish, Babar Nama which was later translated into Persian. Gulbadan Begum, sister of Humayun, wrote the Humayun Nama. Jahangir, the great connoisseur of painting, wrote his autobiography, the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Aurangzeb also was a prolific writer and the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah 
‘Zafar’ was a notable Urdu poet. 

Hindi literature made significant progress during Akbar’s reign. Tulsidas, who has already been mentioned, and the Keshavdas, a gret poet, wrote on themes of love. Rahim’s Dohas or couplets are extremely popular in many parts of the country. It was also in Akbar’s time that the great Sanskrit work on styles of writing, the Alankarashekhara by Keshava Misra, appeared. 

This was a period of many notable writings in the Persian language. Abul Fazl wrote the Ain-i-Akbari and the Akbar Nama. Ain-i-Akbari gives details of Indian customs and manners, religions and philosophy, economic conditions and almost every other aspect of life. As a historical work, it is perhaps unparalleled. Abul Fazl’s brother Faizi was a great poet of Persian and was responsible for the translation of many Sanskrit works into Persian. 
Akbar had started a whole department for translation of works like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana the Atharva-Veda, the Bhagvad Gita and the Panchatantra.

Many important historical works were produced under the emperors after Akbar. Some of the most important historians of this period were Abdul Hamid Lahori, Khafi Khan, Muhammad Kazim and Sujan rai Bhandari. Literature in modern Indian languages also continued to grow. The famous book of Bihari Lal called the Satsai in Hindi belongs to this period.
One of the most Significant developments during the medieval period was the birth of the Urdu language. This new language soon developed one of the richest literatures as a modern Indian languages. It produced great poets like Wali, Mir Dard, Mir Taqi Mir, Nasir Akbarabadi, Asadullah Khan Ghalib and, in the twentieth century, Iqbal and others. Urdu prose also developed early in the eighteenth century when the translation of most of the historical works from Persian and Sanskrit into Urdu began. At the same time many original prose works in Urdu Azad’s Darbar-i-Akbari. The Urdu novel was one of the earliest to develop in the Indian languages. Urdu became the language of the urban people of northern India and the Deccan and is one of the best examples of the growth of a common culture.


The Modern Period

The eighteenth century marks the beginning of the modern period of India’s history. Politically, the period saw the decline of the Mughal empire and the rise of a number of small and big independent states in different parts of the country. None of these states was able to replace the Mughal empire which had politically unified a large part of the country for about 150 years. In spite of this, however, the process of the growth of composite culture continued. This is evident from the new schools of painting which arose as a result of the influence of the Mughal painting, literature in various Indian languages, including Urdu, and the continuing process of the coming together of people belonging to different communities. 

This period, when looked at in the context of changes taking place in some other parts of the world, is one of stagnation. You have read before about some of the developments that had been bringing about far-reaching changes in the social, economic, cultural and political life of Europe. Significant advancements had taken place in the field of science, and soon new technologies were to further transform the social, economic and political life in many countries of Europe. The process of colonization of vast areas of the world by a few European counties had been underway since the sixteenth century. Changes of a comparable nature failed to take place in India, as also in other countries of Asia and Africa. There was also no awareness of the importance of the changes taking place in Europe in spite of contacts with European traders, missionaries and others. From about the middle of the eighteenth century, the conquest of India by Britain began. It was completed in a few decades and by the middle of the nineteenth century, the entire country was under the direct or indirect rule of the British. For the first time in her history, India came under foreign rule. She was ruled by foreigners who had not come to settle but to rule in the interest of their mother country. A new system of exploitation of one country by the dominant classes and groups of another country came into being. Under the new conditions created by foreign rule, the people of India were awakened and this awakening expressed itself, finally, in the struggle for independence, the end of imperialist exploitation of India the early decades of the nineteenth century, various social, religious, cultural and intellectual movements took root which aimed at removing the state of stagnation of Indian society. These movements were influenced by the modern democratic, humanistic and scientific though and played an important role in promoting national consciousness and in laying the foundations of a new phase in India’s cultural development. The nationalist movement united the Indian people on a new basis. It recognized and cherished the unity in diversity and the composite nature of India’s culture as its unique feature. Te nurturing of this feature was an integral part of the nationalist movement’s objective of building an independent, united and forward-looking Indian.

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