A place to settle

The mountain ranges of Europe and Asia

When the Great land masses of Africa and India collide with Europe and asia, about 100 million years ago, they cause the crust of the earth to crumple upwards in a long almost continuous ridge of high ground - from the Alps, through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to the Himalayas. This barrier will have a profound influence on human history.

To the south and east of the mountain range are various fertile regions, watered by great rivers flowing from the mountains. By contrast, north of the mountain range is a continuous strip of less fertile grasslands - the steppes, on which a horseman can ride almost without interruption from Mongolia to Moscow.

This unbroken stretch of land north of the mountains, reaching from the Pacific in the east to the Atlantic in the west, means that the boundary between Asia and Europe is a somewhat vague concept. Indeed Europe is really the western peninsula of the much larger mass of Asia.

In the south there is a natural barrier, long accepted as a dividing line - formed by the waters of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. North from here the boundary is notional. In recent times it has been accepted as passing east from the Black Sea to the Caspian and then stretching north from the Caspian along the eastern slopes of the Ural mountains.

The unsettling and the settled: from 8000 BC

Only nomads can live on the steppes north of Asia's mountain ranges, moving with their flocks of animals to survive together on the meagre crop of grass. It is a tough life, and the steppes have bred tough people - pioneers in Warfare on horseback.

From the Indo-european tribes of ancient times to the Mongols and turks of more recent history, the people of the steppes descend frequently and with devastating suddeness upon their more civilized neighbours. There are many tempting victims. Beneath the mountain ridges Asia offers ideal locations for civilized life.

On a map showing the fertile plains of Asia, between the mountains and the sea, three such areas stand out: Mesopotamia, watered by the Tigris and the Euphrates; the valley of the Indus; and the plains of north China, from the Hwang Ho (or Yellow River) down to the Yangtze.

Other waterways, such as the Ganges or the Mekong, are in areas too heavily forested to make agriculture easy. But in Mesopotamia, western India and northern China, great rivers flow through open plains, providing ample flood water for the nurturing of crops. These regions of Asia become the sites of three of the early Civilizations.

The regions bordering the Asian shores of the Mediterranean are where mankind appears first to have settled in villages and towns - a development requiring at least the beginnings of Agriculture. Two of the earliest settlements to deserve the name of towns are Jericho in Palestine and Catal Huyuk in Anatolia.

For the emergence of a more developed society, justifying the name of civilization, history suggests that there is one incomparable advantage, indeed almost a necessity - the proximity of a large river, flowing through an open plain. In several places Asia provides this.


The Indus valley: 5000 - 1800 BC

Towns of some sophistication are built from the fifth millennium BC by people practising agriculture on the banks of the Indus. They shelter within protective walls; they have drainage systems, and an oven within each mud-brick house. By 3200 BC there are settlements of this kind along the length of the river.

In about 2500 BC the river becomes the lifeline of a much more highly developed civilization, based on two places which are unmistakably cities - Harappa and mohenjo-daro. These cities, and their civilization, vanish without trace from history until discovered in the 1920s.

Life in the Indus valley cities seems to have been highly regulated. Streets are laid out on a rectangular grid pattern, and there is a sewage system with household drains leading into main sewers of baked brick. These even have inspection holes for maintenance.

The larger houses, of two or occasionally three storeys, show blank walls to the outer world but have an inner courtyard - possibly with wooden balconies giving onto it.

The public buildings of these cities also suggest a high degree of social organization. The great granary at Mohenjo-daro is designed with bays to receive carts delivering crops from the countryside, and there are ducts for air to circulate beneath the stored grain to dry it. The granary at Harappa has a series of working platforms close to barrack-like dwellings, suggesting that workers live here (very possibly government slaves) and that they grind corn on the platforms for the city's supply of bread.

At Mohenjo-daro, close to the granary, there is a building similarly civic in nature - a great public bath house, with steps down to a brick-lined pool in a colonnaded courtyard.

The seals of the Indus valley: from 2500 BC

As in the other great early civilizations, the bureaucrats of the Indus valley have the benefit of writing to help them in their administration. The Indus script, which has not yet been deciphered, is known from thousands of seals, carved in steatite or soapstone.

Usually the centre of each seal is occupied by a realistic depiction of an animal, with above it a short line of formal symbols. The lack of longer inscriptions or texts suggests that this script is probably limited to trading and accountancy purposes, with the signs establishing quantities and ownership of a commodity.

Cotton rice and sesame: 2500-1700 BC

The local produce of the Indus civilization includes three crops of great significance in subsequent history, each of which is possibly first cultivated here.

Yarns of spun Cotton have been found at Mohenjo-daro. There is evidence of the growing of Rice in the region of Lothal. And sesame, the earliest plant to be used as a source of edible oil, also seems to make its first appearance here as an agricultural crop. Engravings of Elephants on the Indus valley seals, sometimes with ropes around the body, suggests that this civilization is also the first to tame the world's most powerful beast of burden.

Peak and decline: 2000 - 1700 BC

The reach of the Indus civilization is extensive. After the discovery of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, further sites have been revealed - as far down the coast as Lothal, making the spread of the Indus civilization greater than that of Egypt and Mesopotamia together.

At Lothal there is even a specially designed dockyard, of kiln-baked bricks, from which vessels trade along the coast and possibly up the Persian Gulf as far as Mesopotamia.

The sense of order, so evident in the Indus cities, begins to diminish after about 1900 BC. Less imposing buildings, of more flimsy construction, are inhabited now by a declining population. Many reasons have been suggested - an impoverished agricultural base due to over-exploitation, or a succession of devastating floods. The discovery of several unburied bodies in a street in Harappa has led to suggestions of a sudden and violent end.

Certainly the Indus civilization is followed by a violent intrusion into northwest India, that of the Aryans. But they do not arrive until about 1500 BC. The cities of the Indus seem to have declined before then into their long spell of invisibility.

Aryans and Alexander

The spread of the Aryans: 15th - 4th century BC

The Indo-European group known as the Aryans (from their own word for themselves) becomes established in northwest India from about 1500 BC. As a nomadic people of the steppes, fighting with bow and arrow from light and speedy chariots, their advance proves hard to resist on open ground - as proves to be the case with other Indo-European tribes elsewhere. (This has recently become a controversial topic. Some archaeologists claim that the lack of any visible change in the archaeological record disproves Aryan invasion of south Asia. Linguists reply that the Indo-European elements in north Indian languages can have no other explanation.)

Aryan society is divided into three groups - priests, warriors and those who look after the cattle. This division later becomes an important part of India's caste system.

Little is known historically about the Aryans, other than what can be gleaned from their holy texts called veda ('knowledge'). The earliest of these, the Rigveda, is a collection of more than 1000 hymns in Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans. The hymns are for the use of priests in the temple rituals of sacrifice.

The hymns, dating from well before 1000 BC, survive in oral form for hundreds of years (Sanskrit does not acquire a script until about 500 BC). They are the beginning of a religious tradition which will evolve, with much borrowing from the Aryans' neighbours in the subcontinent, into the complex religion known now as Hinduism.

The region first settled by the Aryans is the Punjab ('five rivers', from the five great tributaries of the Indus which make it fertile), an area now on the border between Pakistan and India. From this secure homeland their influence gradually spreads eastwards along the Ganges and south down the coast of west India.

Throughout its history India has seen a succession of small independent kingdoms developing, fighting each other, coalescing into larger groups (occasionally even large enough to deserve the name of empire), then breaking up again into small units for the process to be repeated. The spread of Aryan influence progresses, over the centuries, in just such a manner.

By about 600 BC the two most powerful kingdoms in India are neighbours on the Ganges - Kosala, and downstream from it Magadha. Both are rigid societies, with the Brahman priesthood wielding a great deal of power through their knowledge of the Vedas and their control of the Vedic rites. Impulses for religious reform develop in these regions in the 6th century, resulting in Jainism and Buddhism.

By the 4th century Magadha has emerged as the dominant power in the whole of northern India, with a capital city at Pataliputra (modern Patna). But any chance of stability is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Alexander the Great.

Alexander in the east: 330 - 323 BC

For two years Alexander moves through his newly acquired empire (which stretches north beyond Samarkand and eastwards through modern Afghanistan) subduing any pockets of opposition and establishing Greek settlements. Then he goes further, in 327, through the mountain passes into India.

One of the towns founded by Alexander in India is called Bucephala. It is named to commemorate his famous horse, Bucephalus, which dies here at what turns out to be the furthest point of this astonishing expedition. Alexander's troops threaten to mutiny in the Indian monsoon. At last, in 325, he turns for home.

With his army reinforced by some Indian elephants, Alexander is back in Persia. In 324 he holds a great feast at Susa to celebrate the capture of the Persian empire. During the festivities, to emphasize that Greece and Persia are now one, he and eighty of his officers marry Persian wives. His own bride on this occasion is one of the daughters of Darius. Another daughter is married to Hephaestion

Later that year Hephaestion dies of a fever at Ecbatana. Alexander mourns extravagantly for his most intimate friend, ordering great shrines to be built in Hephaestion's honour. But in the following year, 323, after a banquet at Babylon, he himself is suddenly taken ill and dies. The greatest conqueror in history, he is still only thirty-two.

Mauryans and Guptas

Chandragupta Maurya: c.321 BC

The plains of north India are in a politically unsettled state when Alexander the great marches into the subcontinent in 327 BC. But it is the dissatisfaction of his own soldiers, rather than any defeat at Indian hands, which turns him back. And for the next twenty years northwest India remains under Greek control.

Soon after the conqueror's departure, one of India's greatest dynasties is established by Chandragupta Maurya. In about 321 he seizes the throne of Magadha (now Patna). By 305 he is strong enough to force the withdrawal of Alexander's successor in the region, Seleucus. The Greek retreat through the Khyber Pass is sweetened by a gift from Chandragupta of 500 elephants.

Asoka: c.272-232 BC

The Mauryan kingdom is the first in India's history to deserve the broader title of empire. It reaches its greatest extent under Chanadragupta's grandson, Asoka, who defeats his brothers in a battle for the throne in about 272 BC. According to later Buddhist chronicles he murders them all, but this may be a pious legend. A great sinner is the most welcome of converts.

More certain is that Asoka brings the eastern coast of India under his control in a campaign of considerable savagery. According to his own inscriptions, disgust at what he sees on this campaign causes him to adopt the Buddhist principle of non-violence. (Asoka's dates, like the Dates of buddha himself, are uncertain and controversial.)

Asoka puts up pillars and rock inscriptions throughout his empire (and particularly round the borders), referring to himself under the title Piyadassi, meaning 'of benevolent aspect'. Most of our knowledge of his reign comes from these inscriptions, which emphasize his care for the welfare of his people.

Official inscriptions by kings on the subject of their own benevolence should be taken with a pinch of salt. Asoka does, nevertheless, preside over a vast empire largely in a state of peace. But benevolence is perhaps not a valid long-term policy in imperial matters. On his death in about 232 BC, after a reign of nearly half a century, the Mauryan empire begins to crumble.

Incursions from Bactria: 2nd century BC - 2nd century AD

The Mauryan dynasty ends in about 185 BC. The last king is assassinated by one of his own military commanders, who seizes the throne.

During the next four centuries India suffers a series of invasions from the northwest. The first intruders are Greeks from Bactria, a distant outpost of Greek culture ever since Alexander's conquest of Persia. The Greeks sometimes penetrate as far down the Ganges as Patna, but for the most part they are confined to the northwest corner of the subcontinent. It is possible that the Greek influence on this region, seen in its Sculpture, begins this early. But a more lasting link between India and the west is introduced in the 2nd century AD by the Kushans.

The Kushan dynasty, founded in Bactria by one of the chiefs of a nomadic tribe, presses southeast into India from the end of the first century AD. Its greatest successes are achieved in about AD 120 by the third king in the line, Kanishka.

His capital is at Peshawar, roughly at the centre of a realm which stretches from Bukhara to beyond Varanasi on the Ganges. This empire straddles the Silk road, the trade route from China to the Mediterranean - a fact of great significance for Buddhism. The religion finds favour with Kanishka, and his active support (he is a great patron of architects, sculptors and scholars) contributes largely to the spread of Buddhism from India to China.

The classical India of the Guptas: 4rd - 6th century AD

The first native dynasty of north India since the Mauryas, bringing to an end four centuries of dominance by intruders from the west, is established in the 3rd century. Its central territory is the same as that of the Mauryas, along the lower stretch of the Ganges around Patna. The ruling family is the Guptas.

Chandra Gupta - coming to the throne in about AD 320 - extends his territory so successfully, to include most of the plain of the Ganges from Allahabad to its mouth, that he begins calling himself maharajadhiraja, meaning king of kings or emperor.

The Gupta empire is further extended by Chandra's son, Samudra Gupta, who by the end of his long reign receives homage and tribute from regions as far afield as the Punjab in the west, Assam in the north east and Madras in the south.

The coins and inscriptions of Samudra reveal that the India of his time is a culmination of the ancient Aryan traditions, justifying its reputation as India's classical period. Samudra personally performs the ancient Vedic horse sacrifice, but he is also proud of his skills as musician and poet.

Sanskrit literature in the Gupta empire: 4th - 6th c. AD

The final flowering of Sanskrit literature takes place at the courts of the Gupta dynasty. By this time the spoken languages of India have long been evolving in their own separate directions. Sanskrit has become a literary language, known and used only by a small educated minority - much like Latin in medieval Europe.

The poems and plays of the Gupta period are correspondingly artificial in style, but at their best they have considerable charm. Shakuntala, a play of about AD 400 by Kalidasa, has been popular far beyond India's borders ever since its translation into English and German in the 18th century.

Kalidasa is the most distinguished of India's Sanskrit authors. He is believed to have lived at the court of Chandra Gupta II, son of Samudra Gupta, in the late 4th century. This is a time of peace and prosperity in India, and Kalidasa's work is sophisticated and courtly.

In epic poetry and drama, often with elaborate metrical schemes, he recreates stories from traditional Sanskrit literature. Raghuvamsha celebrates the exploits of Rama, as described in the Ramayana. Kalidasa's most famous work, Shakuntala, dramatizes in elegantly languid fashion a complex incident from the Mahabharata. A ruler loves a beautiful hermit girl who turns out, happily, to be the daughter of a famous warrior.

Rival kingdoms and a latent threat: 8th - 11th century

The gradual collapse of the Gupta empire is followed by a period when many small principalities compete for power. The odd one out is a portent of the future - though as yet seemingly insignificant.

In 712 the Arabs move along the coast from Persia, through Baluchistan, to occupy Sind. The region becomes Muslim and has remained so ever since. But this area round the mouth of the Indus, separated by desert from the main body of the subcontinent, is a poor stepping stone for further conquest. Three centuries will pass before the Hindu kingdoms of north India, still lacking any unity, face the real thrust of Islam.

During these unsettled centuries many kingdoms, large and small, struggle against each other, merge, grow and decline. The most extensive in northern India is the dynasty known as Gurjara-Pratihara. From their capital at Kannauj, the rulers of this kingdom control a territory stretching across the subcontinent, in the 9th and 10th century, from Gujarat to northern Bengal.

In the 10th and 11th century, in southern India, the Tamil kingdom of the Cholas is of equally impressive extent - reaching at its peak from the Deccan down to the southern tip of Sri lanka.

This same period sees the emergence of tribal groups in northwest India calling themselves Rajput, from the Sanskrit raja-putra ('son of a king'). Their origin is disputed among scholars, but they see themselves as the descendants of the warrior caste of ancient India.

Their fierce commitment to warfare and deeds of honour causes the Rajputs to fight constantly among themselves if no alien enemy is available. This leads to chaos in northern India and makes the Muslim incursion of the 11th century relatively easy. But it also means that the Muslim invaders find it impossible to suppress the Rajputs once they withdraw to their desert fortresses in Rajasthan.

11th - 16th century

Muslims from Ghazni: 10th - 11th century AD

The long-standing threat to India from Muslim invaders is renewed when an aggressive Turkish dynasty wins power in Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. On several occasions Subuktigin, the first of these Ghazni rulers, makes raids on the region around Peshawar. Under his son, Mahmud, expeditions into India become a regular policy. During a 33-year reign, the number of his campaigns in the subcontinent is somewhere between twelve and seventeen.

Many of them are sorties for plunder and booty among the riches of India, sometimes as far down the Ganges as Kannauj. But Mahmud's most famous undertaking, in 1025, is different in kind. It is undertaken in a mood of religious zeal as much as for plunder.

India is the first place where invading Muslims are confronted with a highly developed cult of idolatry. The Hindu profusion of Sculpted gods and goddesses, often provocative or weird in the disposition of their limbs, is well calculated to outrage any attentive reader of the Qur'an - with its prohibitions against idols and graven images. Mahmud's strenuous effort in marching an army across the desert south from Multan, in 1025, has a holy purpose.

His destination is the great temple at Somnath, where Shiva's linga is washed daily in water brought by runners from the Ganges.

The temple has 1000 Brahmin priests and 600 musicians, dancers and other attendants. Countless pilgrims bring it vast wealth (the removal of which adds to the pleasure of pious indignation). When Mahmud arrives to destroy the place, it is said that 50,000 Hindus die in defence of it. No trace is allowed to remain of the building or its sacred contents.

In the annals of Muslim India, Mahmud acquires a heroic status for this act of destruction. It is the first in the long series of sectarian outrages which have marred the 1000-year relationship between Muslims and Hindus.

Since most of Mahmud's expeditions have been in the nature of raids, he and his heirs never extend their control beyond the Punjab - the territory closest to Afghanistan. But this foothold beyond the Khyber Pass gives easy access to the rich north Indian plain. In leaving the door ajar, Mahmud creates an opening for countless Muslim adventurers from central Asia.

This northwest region of the subcontinent will never again be Hindu. For the next five centuries, Muslim marauders push eastwards through the Punjab to find their fortunes in India. Some of them (in particular the Moghuls) settle down as the most spectactular of India's rulers.

The sultanate of Delhi: 13th - 16th century AD

The descendants of Mahmud are expelled first from Ghazni and then from the Punjab by another Afghan dynasty, from Ghor. With their Turkish slave army, this second wave of Muslim invaders presses further east and captures Delhi in 1193. In 1211 a member of the Turkish army sets himself up as an independent sultan.

His dynasty, known as the Slave kings, lasts only until 1290. But the sultanate of Delhi survives much longer, in four successive dynasties (Khalji 1290-1320, Tughluq 1320-1413, Sayyid 1414-51, Lodi 1451-1526), until replaced in the 16th century by the Moghul emperors.

The power of the Delhi sultanate grows during the Khalji period and reaches its greatest extent under the Tughluqs, when most of the rulers in the subcontinent accept the sultan as their overlord.

Delhi itself is devastated by the violent arrival of Timur in 1398. Thereafter the sultanate is little more than one power among many in the north Indian plain - a situation which makes possible the surprisingly rapid success of Babur in 1526.

Vijayanagara: 14th - 16th century AD

During the declining years of the Delhi sultanate, a great Hindu empire is established in the south. Founded in about 1336 with its capital at Vijayanagara (meaning 'city of victory'), it is a worthy successor to the empire of the Cholas and controls much the same area (the whole of India south of the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers).

The site of Vijayanagara is at Hampi - now just a village surrounded by a ruined city of temples and palaces. Deserted in 1565, after a catastrophic defeat by a coalition of neighbouring Muslim rulers in the Deccan, the full extent of this great Hindu city has only been rediscovered in the 20th century.

16th - 17th century

Babur in India: AD 1526-1530

By the early 16th century the Muslim sultans of Delhi (an Afghan dynasty known as Lodi) are much weakened by threats from rebel Muslim principalities and from a Hindu coalition of Rajput rulers. When Babur leads an army through the mountain passes, from his stronghold at Kabul, he at first meets little opposition in the plains of north India.

The decisive battle against Ibrahim, the Lodi sultan, comes on the plain of Panipat in April 1526. Babur is heavily outnumbered (with perhaps 25,000 troops in the field against 100,000 men and 1000 elephants), but his tactics win the day.

Babur digs into a prepared position, copied (he says) from the Turks - from whom the use of Guns has spread to the Persians and now to Babur. As yet the Indians of Delhi have no artillery or muskets. Babur has only a few, but he uses them to great advantage. He collects 700 carts to form a barricade (a device pioneered by the Hussites of Bohemia a century earlier).

Sheltered behind the carts, Babur's gunners can go through the laborious business of firing their Matchlocks - but only at an enemy charging their position. It takes Babur some days to tempt the Indians into doing this. When they do so, they succumb to slow gunfire from the front and to a hail of arrows from Babur's cavalry charging on each flank.

Victory at Panipat brings Babur the cities of Delhi and Agra, with much booty in treasure and jewels. But he faces a stronger challenge from the confederation of Rajputs who had themselves been on the verge of attacking Ibrahim Lodi.

The armies meet at Khanua in March 1527 and again, using similar tactics, Babur wins. For the next three years Babur roams around with his army, extending his territory to cover most of north India - and all the while recording in his diary his fascination with this exotic world which he has conquered.

Humayun: AD 1530-1556

Babur's control is still superficial when he dies in 1530, after just three years in India. His son Humayun keeps a tentative hold on the family's new possessions. But in 1543 he is driven west into Afghanistan by a forceful Muslim rebel, Sher Shah.

Twelve years later, renewed civil war within India gives Humayun a chance to slip back almost unopposed. One victory, at Sirhind in 1555, is enough to recover him his throne. But six months later Humayun is killed in an accidental fall down a stone staircase. His 13-year-old son Akbar, inheriting in 1556, would seem to have little chance of holding on to India. Yet it is he who establishes the mighty Moghul empire.

Akbar: AD 1556-1605

In the early years of Akbar's reign, his fragile inheritance is skilfully held together by an able chief minister, Bairam Khan. But from 1561 the 19-year-old emperor is very much his own man. An early act demonstrates that he intends to rule the two religious communities of India, Muslim and Hindu, in a new way - by consensus and cooperation, rather than alienation of the Hindu majority.

In 1562 he marries a Rajput princess, daughter of the Raja of Amber (now Jaipur). She becomes one of his senior wives and the mother of his heir, Jahangir. Her male relations in Amber join Akbar's council and merge their armies with his.

This policy is very far from conventional Muslim hostility to Worshippers of idols. And Akbar carries it further, down to a level affecting every Hindu. In 1563 he abolishes a tax levied on pilgrims to Hindu shrines. In 1564 he puts an end to a much more hallowed source of revenue - the jizya, or annual tax on unbelievers which the Qur'an stipulates shall be levied in return for Muslim protection.

At the same time Akbar steadily extends the boundaries of the territory which he has inherited.

Akbar's normal way of life is to move around with a large army, holding court in a splendid camp laid out like a capital city but composed entirely of tents. His biographer, Abul Fazl, describes this royal progress as being 'for political reasons, and for subduing oppressors, under the veil of indulging in hunting'.

A great deal of hunting does occur (a favourite version uses trained cheetahs to pursue deer) while the underlying political purpose - of warfare, treaties, marriages - is carried on.

Warfare brings its own booty. Signing a treaty with Akbar, or presenting a wife to his harem (his collection eventually numbers about 300 - see Harems), involves a contribution to the exchequer. As his realm increases, so does his revenue. And Akbar proves himself an inspired adminstrator.

The empire's growing number of provinces are governed by officials appointed only for a limited term, thus avoiding the emergence of regional warlords. And steps are taken to ensure that the tax on peasants varies with local circumstances, instead of a fixed proportion of their produce being automatically levied.

At the end of Akbar's reign of nearly half a century, his empire is larger than any in India since the time of Asoka. Its outer limits are Kandahar in the west, Kashmir in the north, Bengal in the east and in the south a line across the subcontinent at the level of Aurangabad. Yet this ruler who achieves so much is illiterate. An idle schoolboy, Akbar finds in later life no need for reading. He prefers to listen to the arguments before taking his decisions (perhaps a factor in his skill as a leader).

Akbar is original, quirky, wilful. His complex character is vividly suggested in the strange palace which he builds, and almost immediately abandons, at Fatehpur sikri.

Jahangir: AD 1605-1627

Akbar is succeeded in 1605 by his eldest and only surviving son, Jahangir. Two other sons have died of drink, and Jahangir's effectiveness as a ruler is limited by his own addiction to both alcohol and opium. But the empire is now stable enough for him to preside over it for twenty-two years without much danger of upheaval.

Instead he is able to indulge his curiosity about the natural world (which he records in a diary as vivid as that of his great-grandfather Babur) and his love of painting. Under his keen eye the imperial studio brings the Moghul miniature to a peak of perfection, maintained also during the reign of his son Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb: AD 1627-1707

During the reigns of Shah Jahan and his son Aurangzeb, the policy of religious toleration introduced by Akbar is gradually abandoned. It has been largely followed by Shah Jahan's father, Jahangir - though at the very start of his reign he provides the Sikhs with their first martyr when the guru Arjan is arrested, in 1606, and dies under torture.

In 1632 Shah Jahan signals an abrupt return to a stricter interpretation of Islam when he orders that all recently built Hindu temples shall be destroyed. A Muslim tradition states that unbelievers may keep the shrines which they have when Islam arrives, but not add to their number.

Direct provocation of this kind is untypical of Shah Jahan, but it becomes standard policy during the reign of his son Aurangzeb. His determination to impose strict Islamic rule on India undoes much of what was achieved by Akbar. An attack on Rajput territories in 1679 makes enemies of the Hindu princes; the reimposition of the jizya in the same year ensures resentment among Hindu merchants and peasants.

At the same time Aurangzeb is obsessed with extending Moghul rule into the difficult terrain of southern India. He leaves the empire larger but weaker than he finds it. In his eighties he is still engaged in permanent and futile warfare to hold what he has seized.

In the decades after the death of Aurangzeb, in 1707, the Moghul empire fragments into numerous semi-independent territories - seized by local officials or landowners whose descendants become the rajas and nawabs of more recent times. Moghul emperors continue to rule in name for another century and more, but their prestige is hollow.

Real power has declined gradually and imperceptibly throughout the 17th century, ever since the expansive days of Akbar's empire. Yet it is in the 17th century that news of the wealth, splendour, architectural brilliance and dynastic violence of the Moghul dynasty first impresses the rest of the world.

Europeans become a significant presence in India for the first time during the 17th century. They take home descriptions of the ruler's fabulous wealth, causing him to become known as the Great Moghul. They have a touching tale to tell of Shah Jahan's love for his wife and of the extraordinary building, the Taj mahal, which he provides for her tomb.

And as Shah Jahan's reign merges into Aurangzeb's, they can astonish their hearers with an oriental melodrama of a kind more often associated with Turkey, telling of how Aurangzeb kills two of his brothers and imprisons his ageing father, Shah Jahan, in the Red Fort at Agra - with the Taj mahal in his view across the Jumna, from the marble pavilions of his castle prison.

Indian and Japanese castles: 16th - 17th century AD

By a coincidence of history some of the most spectacular castles of the world date from the same period in India and Japan. These buildings of the 16th and 17th century are fortified palaces, with superbly decorated pavilions rising above secure walls.

The Indian tradition develops from the example of Hindu princes and is brought to a peak by the Moghul emperors. The Japanese castles evolve from the small fortresses of local feudal chieftains, which are a practical necessity during the civil wars of the Ashikaga shogunate.

The best early example of an Indian castle is the fortress of Gwalior, built in the early 16th century. The entrance road, climbing a steep hill, makes its way through heavy walls to an elevated plateau and an exquisite palace of carved sandstone and decorative tilework.

The great 17th-century forts of Rajasthan, such as Amber and Jodhpur, follow the same pattern of delicacy within massively strong defences. The theme is taken to its most famous conclusion in the Red forts of Delhi and Agra, where the Moghul emperors and their harems dwell in white marble pavilions surmounting vast red sandstone walls.

The greatest of the Japanese castles are created in the late 16th century by the warlords Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, who restore unified rule over Japan after the anarchy of the previous period. The splendour of their castles, richly decorated with carved and painted ornament, reflects their power.

The most impressive surviving castle of this period is at Himeji, rebuilt on earlier foundations for Hideyoshi. Five storeys of pavilions, forming a pyramid of white walls and elegant oriental roofs, seem concerned only with the pleasures of peace - until one notices the height of the sturdy walls on which they perch.

Europeans in India: 16th - 17th century AD

During the first century of the Moghul dynasty three European nations - Portugal, Netherlands, England - gradually establish a strong presence (that of aggressively armed traders) around the coasts of India. The Portuguese are by far the first in the field, with safe ports of call down the west coast of India in the early 16th century and (from 1537) a factory at Hooghly for trading in the Ganges delta.

The Dutch and the English begin to challenge this Portuguese monopoly in the early 17th century. Success depends on maritime strength, and the decisive issue is control of the Indian Ocean.

Until the arrival of the Portuguese the Indian Ocean has been the preserve of Arab ships. Apart from the usual problems of piracy, the Arabs pose no threat to Indian Muslims sailing on pilgrimage to Arabia. But from 1514 the Portuguese control these waters, after seizing and fortifying the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.These new masters even have the effrontery to make Muslim pilgrims carry passports printed with images of Jesus and Mary.

Portuguese sea power goes unchallenged for a century - until, in 1612 and again in 1615, English ships defeat the Portuguese in engagements off the west coast of India.

The English victory of 1615 coincides with the arrival of Thomas Roe, England's first official ambassador to India, at the court of Jahangir. He warns the emperor, with some justification, that 'the King my master would be lord of all these seas and ports to the prejudice of his subjects'.

Jahangir's powerful neighbour in Persia, Shah abbas, uses to his advantage this perceptible change in sea power. With English help, in 1622, he drives the Portuguese from their fortified island of Hormuz. He builds on the mainland a new port named after himself (Bandar Abbas), where he grants special trading privileges to the English East India Company.

Persia, with its relatively short coastline, resists further intrusion by seafaring Europeans. India proves more vulnerable. The English are established in Surat by 1613. They are joined there by the Dutch in 1616 and by the French in 1668 - after the founding of the French East India Company in 1664. By 1690 the French have six settlements round the coast of India, including Pondicherry in the southeast and Chandernagore in the Ganges delta.

The Dutch also have a settlement on the Ganges (at Chinsura, founded in 1653), but their interests are mainly focussed on Southeast asia. By the end of the 17th century the main European rivalry round India's coasts is between the French and English East India Companies.

Surat remains the English headquarters on the west coast until it is gradually replaced, between 1672 and 1687, by Bombay (given to Charles ii in 1661 as part of the dowry of his Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza, and leased by him to the company in 1668).

Meanwhile the English are establishing secure footholds on the east coast. Fort St George is begun at Madras in 1640 and is completed in 1644. Calcutta is eventually selected, in 1690, as the best site for a trading station in the Ganges delta; it is fortified, as Fort William, in 1696. By the end of the 17th century the three English presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta are securely established.

Bombay and the Parsees - from the 17th century

When Bombay becomes the seat of government of the East India Company in western India, complete religious toleration is declared to be the policy of the new territory. This immediately attracts the Parsee community of Gujarat, eager to adapt their talents to the entrepreneurial skills of commerce, trade and shipbuilding. They become the leading partners of the British in the development of Bombay.

The city has remained the centre of modern Zoroastrianism. The Zoroastrian rituals of sacred fire are maintained, and until recently the dead have been exposed to vultures in Bombay's famous 'towers of silence'.

18th century

The Moghuls after Aurangzeb: 18th century AD

When the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb is in his eighties, and the empire in disarray, an Italian living in India (Niccolao Manucci) predicts appalling bloodshed on the old man's death, worse even than that which disfigured the start of Aurangzeb's reign. The Italian is right. In the war of succession which begins in 1707, two of Aurangzeb's sons and three of his grandsons are killed.

Violence and disruption is the pattern of the future. The first six Moghul emperors have ruled for a span of nearly 200 years. In the 58 years after Aurangzeb's death, there are eight emperors - four of whom are murdered and one deposed.

This degree of chaos has a disastrous effect on the empire built up by Akbar. The stability of Moghul India depends on the loyalty of those ruling its many regions. Some are administered on the emperor's behalf by governors, who are members of the military hierarchy. Others are ruled by princely families, who through treaty or marriage have become allies of the emperor.

In the 18th century rulers of each kind continue to profess loyalty to the Moghul emperor in Delhi, but in practice they behave with increasing independence. The empire fragments into the many small principalities whose existence will greatly help the British in india to gain control, by playing rival neighbours off against each other.

In the short term, though, there is a more immediate danger. During the 1730s a conqueror in the classic mould of Genghis khan or Timur emerges in Persia. He seizes the Persian throne in 1736, taking the title Nadir shah.

Later that year he captures the stronghold of Kandahar. The next major fortress on the route east, that of Kabul, is still in Moghul hands - a treasured possession since the time of Babur. Nadir shah takes it in 1738, giving him control of the territory up to the Khyber Pass. Beyond the Khyber lies the fabulous wealth of India. Like Genghis khan in 1221, and Timur in 1398, Nadir shah moves on.

In December 1738 Nadir shah crosses the Indus at Attock. Two months later he defeats the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammed Shah. In March he enters Delhi. The conqueror has iron control over his troops and at first the city is calm. It is broken when an argument between citizens and some Persian soldiers escalates into a riot in which 900 Persians are killed. Even now Nadir shah forbids reprisals until he has inspected the scene. But when he rides through the city, stones are thrown at him. Someone fires a musket which kills an officer close to the shah.

In reprisal he orders a massacre. The killing lasts for a day. The number of the dead is more than 30,000.

Amazingly, when the Moghul emperor begs for mercy for his people, the Persian conqueror is able to grant it. The killing stops, for the collection of Delhi's valuables to begin.

Untold wealth travels west with the Persians. The booty includes the two most spectacular possessions of the Moghul emperors - the Peacock Throne, commissioned by Shah Jahan, and the Koh-i-Nur diamond. Nadir shah is able to send a decree home from Delhi remitting all taxes in Persia for three years. In addition to the jewels and the gold, he takes with him 1000 elephants, 100 masons and 200 carpenters. The parallel with the visit of Timur, 341 years previously, is almost exact.

Europeans in the fragmenting empire: AD 1746-1760

The raid by Nadir Shah is the greatest single disaster to have struck the Moghul empire, but a more serious long-term threat soon becomes evident. In 1746 open warfare breaks out between European nations on Indian soil, when a French force seizes Madras from the British.

In the south, where Aurangzeb spent his Last years trying to impose imperial control, French and British armies now march against each other in shifting alliances with local potentates. India begins a new role as a place of importance to the European powers, and in particular to Britain. The development does not bode well for the Moghul emperors in Delhi.

Both the French and the English East India Companies, to advance their commercial interests, offer military support in dynastic struggles within powerful Indian states. Helping a candidate to the throne opens a new region of influence, a new market.

The death in 1748 of the Moghul viceroy in Hyderabad is followed by French and English assistance for rival sons of the dead ruler. Soon the two European nations are also fighting on opposite sides in a war of succession in the Carnatic (the coastal strip north and south of Madras).

The French candidate succeeds in Hyderabad, and the English favourite prevails in the Carnatic. But the most striking event in either campaign is a dramatic intervention by Robert Clive in 1751. With 200 British and 300 Indian soldiers he seizes Arcot (the capital of the Carnatic) and holds it through a seven-week siege.

His action, and his subsequent defeat of a French and Indian force in battle, wins the throne for his candidate. It also has the effect of diminishing the prestige in Indian eyes of the French army. Until now the French have had the better of the British in India (most notably in their capture of Madras in 1746).

France and Britain remain rivals in southern India for the rest of the century. It is in the north that the balance changes significantly in Britain's favour, after a disaster of 1756. In that year the nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, overwhelms the British settlement in Calcutta and locks some of his captives overnight in a room of the fort. The details of precisely what happened that night are obscure, but the event becomes known to the British as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

To recover Calcutta, Clive sails north from Madras in October 1756. The fort is back in British hands by January 1757. But Clive now decides to intervene further in the politics of Bengal.

He aims to place a more compliant nawab, Mir Jafar, on the throne of Bengal, and he achieves his purpose after defeating Siraj-ud-Daula at Plassey in June 1757. For the next three years Clive virtually rules the rich province of Bengal, using Mir Jafar as his political puppet. In doing so he establishes the pattern by which British control will gradually spread through India, in a patchwork of separate alliances with local rulers.

In 1760 Clive returns to England, the possessor of vast and rapidly acquired wealth. Here too he sets a pattern, this time an unmistakably bad one. He is the first of the 'nabobs', whose fortunes derive from jobbery and bribes while administering Indian affairs.

Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan: AD 1761-1799

The main threat to British interests in India in the late 18th century remains in the south. It centres on Mysore where two rulers, father and son, use to their advantage the rivalry between the intruding European powers, France and Britain. The British East India Company fights four wars against Mysore between 1767 and 1799.

The Company's first opponent is Hyder Ali, a Muslim officer in the Mysore army. In about 1761 Hyder seizes the Hindu raja and makes himself ruler in his place. In subsequent years he overwhelms several neighbouring states. A campaign against him in 1767-9, by British troops in alliance with the ruler of Hyderabad, results in a peace treaty and a promise of British aid if Mysore is attacked.

In 1771 the British fail to live up to this promise, and by the end of the decade Hyder Ali is making efforts to secure French support. In a second and much more destructive war (1780-84), there is considerable French involvement on Hyder's side. But when Hyder dies, in December 1782, the advantage of the campaign is with the British.

Hyder's son Tipu makes peace with the East India Company in 1784 and is rewarded with recognition of his title as Tipu Sultan. In subsequent years he becomes as uneasy as his father with a British alliance and makes unsuccessful attempts to win French support. But in 1789 he provokes a third war with the Company when he attacks their ally the raja of Travancore.

For two years Tipu proves himself a match for the British, keeping them at bay in a brilliant campaign. But in March 1792 he is forced to come to terms. In his main fort, Seringapatam, he agrees to the terms of a treaty by which he surrenders half his territories.

This humiliation intensifies Tipu's search for foreign allies. Emissaries go to Afghanistan (a major power in the region since the time of Nadir Shah), to Istanbul, to Paris and to Mauritius. They achieve little success except with the revolutionary authorities in the French colony of Mauritius. A small French force arrives from Mauritius early in 1799.

To greet his allies Tipu throws himself into the spirit of French revolutionary symbolism. A tree of liberty is planted and Tipu, now styling himself Citoyen Tipou, exchanges his turban for a cap of liberty when receiving French representatives.

The French find themselves in a highly flamboyant court. Tipu sees himself as the tiger prince, fearless in the cause of Islam (and on one occasion responsible for the forced circumcision of several thousand Indian Christians), and this self-perception is reflected in an obsession with the tiger. Images of the animal feature on a wide range of objects at his court, and there is a living menagerie of tigers in Seringapatam.

No doubt one tiger is shown with particular delight to Tipu's French guests. It is a lifesize toy in which the animal stands over a prostrate officer of the British East India Company. The victim's arm rises and falls in his terror, while his groans are imitated by a hidden mechanical organ.

Tipu's flirtation with the French gives the East India Company good reason for a fourth attack on his kingdom. This time, after a campaign of just three months, Seringapatam is stormed, in May 1799, and Tipu is killed in the fighting. One of the Company's spoils is 'Tippoo's Tiger', which is still today in working order (in the Victoria and Albert Museum).

This History is as yet incomplete.
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