The sixth century BC was
a time of turmoil, of political and social
transformations in India. It was during this
period that Vardhaman Mahavira
(599 BC-527 BC) founded Jainism while Gautama
the Buddha (560
BC- 480 BC) propounded Buddhism.
These religions, preached
non-violence towards all living creatures,
tolerance and self-discipline. In the centuries
that followed, the Buddhist monk-missionaries
and monks spread their religion to other Asian
countries including Sri Lanka China, Japan,
Korea, to name a few, where it is practiced
With land becoming property and society
being divided on the basis of occupations
and castes, conflicts and disorders were
bound to arise. Organized power to resolve
these issues therefore emerged, gradually
leading to the formation of full-fledged
state systems, growing into mighty empires.
By the end of the third century BC, most
parts of Northern India were knit together
into an empire by Chandragupta Maurya
who ruled between 322-298 BC.
In 327 BC, Alexander the Great (356-323
BC), of Macedonia (modern Greece) crossed
into northwest India. He conquered a large
part of the Indian territory before his disgruntled
generals, tired of war, forced him to return
home. Alexander left behind Greek governors
to rule over Indian territories won by him.
These regions gradually got merged with the
Indian states owing to wars and political
However, the contact between the two cultures
left an indelible impact on Indian art. The
legendary Gandhara School of Art flourished
in the Gandhara region (modern Afghanistan).
It was the hallmark of Indo-Greek fusion
Chandragupta’s son Bindusara
(ruled between 298-272 BC) further extended
the Mauryan empire over the entire subcontinent.
The greatest Mauryan emperor was Ashoka
the Great ( 286 BC-231 BC) the watershed
of whose political career was the gory, gruesome
war of Kalinga (modern Orissa).
Overcome by the horrors unleashed by this
war, he renounced weapons and violence forever.
He became a Buddhist and zealously propagated
and promoted the faith without any violence
and coercion. He got his messages engraved
on rocks and tablets using the local dialects
and Brahmi a post-Harappan script.
Following Ashoka's death in 232 BC, the
Mauryan empire began to disintegrate. This
situation encouraged invaders from Central
Asia to enter India in quest of power and
fortune. As a result, several small kingdoms
came into being, which soon passed into oblivion.
After the gap of a few
centuries another mighty empire which arose,
was the Gupta empire in the
4th century AD In fact this period is considered
the golden age of Indian history. This empire
lasted for more than two centuries, spanning
a large part of the Indian subcontinent, with
its administration much more decentralized
than that of the Mauryas. By means of wars
and matrimonial alliances with the smaller,
neighbouring kingdoms, the empire's boundaries
kept getting extended further.
The Gupta rulers patronized Hinduism which
led to the resurgence of orthodox Hinduism.
A famous Chinese traveler, Fa Hien, visited
India during this period and recorded his
experiences in the form of interesting chronicles.
The world famous treasure troves of art namely
Ajanta and Ellora caves were created during
The Gupta period witnessed
the revival of literature and culture. Several
important treatises were written on a vast
range of subjects – grammar, mathematics,
astronomy medicine and erotica (The Kamasutra).
The luminaries of this period include Kalidasa
the famous playwright who created master pieces
in Sanskrit, Varahamihira
(505 AD-587 AD), a famous astronomer and Aryabhatta
(476 AD-550 AD), the renowned mathematician
At the fag end of the Gupta period,
there arose what maybe hailed as the last
empire in northern India. Harshavardhan
(590-647AD) had inherited a small
state in the upper Ganges valley in the year
606AD. But by the year 612 AD he had built
up a vast army with which he forged nearly
the entire territory lying north of the river
Narmada, into an empire, which he ruled efficiently,
for almost 42 years. He was an outstanding
military leader, who tasted defeat only once
in his lifetime, at the hands of the Chalukya
king Pulakesin II when he
attempted to invade the Deccan in the year
Harsha’s capital, Kannauj (modern
Uttar Pradesh) was a flourishing centre of
art and literature. Harsha himself was a
distinguished poet and dramatist. He is well-known
for two dramatic compositions Ratnavali and
Naganada, written in Sanskrit
Born a Hindu, Harsha later became a devout
Buddhist and forbade the killing of animals
in his kingdom.His contribution to the society
at large, include a number of stupas, monasteries,
and several state hospitals to offer health
services to the general public. The great
Buddhist Convention, organised
by Harsha at Kannauj
in the year 643 AD turned out to be a grand
event, reportedly attended by 20 kings and
thousands of pilgrims from all over the country.
The life and times of Harsha are described
in the Harsha-Charita, a
brilliant literary work by Bana Bhatta,
the former’s court poet, and in the
Si-yu-ki (Records of
the Western world) written by the Chinese
scholar- pilgrim, Hiuen-Tsang.
After Harsha's death, the entire northern
India once again plunged into anarchy and
chaos, after nearly four decades of peace
The invasions of the Huns
(nomadic herdsmen, war-like people from the
grasslands of Mongolia who terrorized, ransacked
and destroyed much of Asia and Europe between
the 3rd and 5th centuries AD) from the west,
signalled the end of this glorious chapter
of history, although initially they were defeated
by the Guptas. After the decline of the Gupta
empire, north India got fragmented into a
number of petty kingdoms ruled by Hindu kings.
The next wave of unification came only with
the Muslims invasions.