Ever since ancient times, India has been subjected to waves of people who have come to settle in its fertile lands. From the Greeks to the Turks to the Portuguese, several civilizations have heard of our country’s wealth and decided that they wanted some of it. The results of these incursions were mixed. Great cruelty was shown, and great atrocities were committed, creating rifts in society that still exist today. On the other hand, different lifestyles and cultures fused together to create the vivid and diverse culture that India is known for to this day.
The first incursion into India from outside the country came from the Aryans. By 1500 BCE, the Aryans, large groups of nomadic cattle herders, crossed the Hindu Kush and settled in northern India, around the time of the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization. The Aryans were originally nomadic, but they soon settled down in small villages. Slowly, the villages became cities. The descendants of the Aryans still live in north India.
The Aryan Migration has had several positive effects. It led to the creation of religious texts such as the Vedas, as well as texts on philosophy, healing and several other topics, which are a great source of information about the time period. They also brought their language with them, and it is those languages that we speak to this day.
Three hundred and twenty-six years before the birth of Christ, northern India was invaded by that famous Greek warrior, Alexander the Great. He and his army, with had already brought the mighty Persian Empire to its knees, crossed the Indus river and faced his first real foe from the country, the powerful ruler Paurava. Legend says that when a captured Paurava, whom the Greeks called Porus, was brought before Alexander, he was asked how he would like to be treated. The proud and brave Paurava asked to be treated as they would treat a king. They say that Alexander was so impressed with his answer that he released him and made him an independent ally.
Alexander’s invasion left the Greeks as a presence in north India for over three hundred years, where they mingled with Indians, leading to a composite culture that can be seen in ancient sculptures, coins and architecture. Greeks took up Indian religions such as Buddhism, and a distinct Greco-Buddhist style sprang up, a mixture of Indian and Greek elements. Indian philosophies influenced those of the Greeks, and vice-versa.
Fast-forward to 712 CE where Arab general Muhammad Bin Quasim attacked and conquered Sind and Multan. During the early eleventh century, Mahmud, ruler of a small Central Asian kingdom called Ghazni, attacked north India, plundering its magnificent riches. The rulers of the time were a fierce but fractious lot, and none of them were willing to band together against Mahmud. Mahmud proved to the world that India was like a low-hanging fruit – it was waiting to be plucked. And pluck it was exactly what someone did. Muhammad Ghori attacked India in 1191, and though he was briefly repudiated by Rajput Ruler Prithviraj Chauhan, he was eventually able to triumph and took over Delhi. Thus, began the period of the Delhi Sultanate. Various dynasties such as the Khiljis, Mamluks, Sayyids, Lodis and Tughlaqs ascended the throne until 1526, when Ibrahim Lodi, the last Delhi Sultan, was defeated by Babur, the king of Kabul, founder of the Mughal Empire. The Mughals ruled India for over three hundred years, leaving an indelible mark on its culture. They were a mixed bunch-strong, weak, just, cruel, liberal, and intolerant. But no one can deny that they did contribute to the country. Emperor Akbar built many magnificent works of architecture such as the magnificent sandstone city of Fatehpur Sikri. He also patronized several musicians, writers, poets and painters. He introduced a fair and efficient taxation system. He translated several Hindu texts into Persian, and although he was illiterate, his personal library contained over twenty thousand books. Under Emperor Jahangir, new advances in the art of painting animals and plants were made. And Shah Jahan built several buildings such as the Red Fort, Delhi’s Jama Masjid, and, of course, the Taj Mahal.
Rewind back to 1498, when Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama found a direct sea route to India. He was received and lavishly treated by the Zamorin of Calicut and came back to Portugal with a cargo worth the cost of his journey sixty times over. The Portuguese returned, set up trading links with several local rulers. For a time, they had autonomous control of trade over the Indian Ocean, as well as control over Goa, Daman, Diu, Salsette and vast swathes of the Indian coastline. But they soon had stiff competition from other European nations. The British, the French, the Dutch…they all struggled to gain power. In the end, the one to come out on top was the British East India Company, and, after the Mutiny of 1857, the British Raj.
India’s colonization by Europe had several effects, both positive and negative. Irrespective of their positions, Indians found that they were discriminated against, considered an inferior, uncivilized race. They were banned from using parks, clubs, hospitals, railway coaches etc. that were solely reserved for the British. Indians were not allowed to hold any important positions in the administration system, and those who did have important positions had no real power. India’s traditional industries were destroyed, and its abundant resources were plundered to serve the interests of the British Empire. Indians were forced to sell their raw goods to the British at low prices, and finished products from Britain were sent to India to be sold at exorbitant prices. For the Indian masses, this led to impoverishment, famine and starvation, which was received by the Raj with apathy.
That is not to say that the Raj had no positive effects. When the Europeans first arrived in India, it was a country living in the past. Society was stagnant, corrupt and degenerate. But the shock of enslavement was a wake-up call, galvanizing people to make several reforms for the betterment of society. Western education also imparted to Indians new ideas like nationalism and democracy. People learned about freedom movements in other countries and dreamed of a free, unified India. The English language also acted as a link between educated people in linguistically different parts of the country, and a common language fostered a sense of unity and oneness among people. The British also helped by setting up roads, railways and the telegraph and postal system. This caused social mobility and interactions increased. People from different parts of the country grew closer together. They also discovered India’s glorious heritage – the efficiency and genius of the Harappans, the intellectual wealth of the Vedas, the political unity of the Mauryans, the golden age of the Guptas. These discoveries fostered in us pride of our identity as Indians inspired dreams of a free, resurgent India.
For centuries India has accepted all those who came here and many more. India’s interactions with these individuals and communities have enriched its cultural identity and the inherent identity of India has changed these people as well. India absorbed their cultures along with many others, transmitting it into a sprawling, diverse, colorful and inclusive civilization. India is known worldwide for its diverse culture. This inclusive and all-encompassing mindset is something that we should continue as well and take great pride in.
-Rhyan Aneev (One of the Prize Winners of Article Writing Competition 2020 in the 13-34 Years Age Group)
Picture Credits: indiafacts.org