The word ‘India’ derives from Sindhu, the Sanskrit name of the great river – known in English as the Indus – that flows into the Arabian Sea from its source in the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. The ancient Persians, unable to pronounce the initial ‘S’, used the word Hindu to denote both the land and the people beyond the river’s eastern bank. The term then passed to the Greeks and into Europe generally, resulting in the word Indu, which in turn became ‘India’ in English. Muslim invaders from Afghanistan and beyond adopted the term Hindustan (meaning ‘Place of Hindus’) – a sobriquet sometimes applied by British and other European interlopers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is appropriate that India’s modern name should derive from the Sindhu/Indus, for it was in the fertile watershed of that river that an agrarian civilization, the Indus Valley Civilization, developed in prehistoric times – in much the same way as other such civilizations germinated along the banks of the Nile in Egypt, the Euphrates in Mesopotamia and the Yellow River in China. On modern atlases, of course, the Indus flows through Pakistan, which came into existence in 1947. Before that year, however, ‘India’ – or what is meant by ‘India’ in most of this book – was a vast subcontinent, bounded by the jungles and hills of Myanmar (Burma) in the east, the Himalayas to the north, Persia and other central Asian empires to the northwest and west, and by the apron of the Indian Ocean to the south. Within this frame, a rich diversity of peoples and cultures, empires, kingdoms and republics, have flourished – not just in the luxuriant northern plains, but also in the peninsular southern plateau.
Even in prehistoric times India’s population was ethnically diverse, ranging from Negritos (dwarfish negroid peoples who must originally have come from Africa by sea) to Proto-Australoids, Mongoloids and what is sometimes called the ‘Mediterranean type’. Each of these groups, all members of the species homo sapiens sapiens, has survived into the present day – pockets of Negritos, for instance, can still be found in the far south. At the dawn of prehistory, the Proto-Australoids formed the core element in the subcontinent, speaking tongues belonging to the widely diffused Austronesian language family – among them Munda, still spoken by the eponymous Munda tribes of east-central India. On the northeastern and northern fringes of India were Mongoloid peoples, whose speech forms part of the Sino-Tibetan group. But while Mongoloids and Proto-Australoids are likely to have arrived at approximately the same time – from 70,000 BC onwards – it is the later Mediterranean type that is most closely associated with the Indus Valley Civilization and the subcontinent’s Dravidian culture. Following later conquests these races were joined by Aryans, Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Huns, Afghans, Turks, Mongols and some modern Europeans. The result is a melting-pot of unrivalled complexity.
Indo-Aryans achieved major conquests from around 1500 BC onwards. They were followed by Muslim tribes, who arrived from the Arabian peninsula and then Central Asia from the 8th century AD onwards; then by the Muslim Mughals (the term used for Mongols in Central Asia), who appeared in the 16th century. The last major invaders were the British, whose 1757 military victory at Plassey, Bengal, opened the way for a political dominance that lasted nearly two centuries.
The Aryans were decisive in shaping the religious makeup of the Indian subcontinent. They brought with them their customs and their religion, Vedism or Brahmanism, which, over a period of two thousand years, transmuted into Hinduism. This transformation occurred against the background of the emergence of two major religions, Buddhism and Jainism, around the turn of the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Under Emperor Ashoka (r. 273–232 BC) – India’s first great ruler, whose domains included modern Afghanistan as well as most of the subcontinent – Buddhism became the state religion. Facing the rising popularity of Buddhism, Vedic brahmins (priests) simplified and reformed their elaborate rituals – if only for their political survival. In the end they were so successful that while Buddhism spread successfully to China and other parts of Asia, it became a minority faith in India and remains so; some four-fifths of Indians are Hindu.
While this first recorded wave of invaders resulted in an amalgamation of beliefs, no such synthesis occurred in the case of the next ones – the Muslim Arabs from the Arabian peninsula, and later Muslim tribes from Afghanistan and beyond. Pantheistic Hinduism and monotheistic Islam were antithetical, and remain so. Nonetheless, cultural amalgamation occurred – most notably in architecture, painting, music and dance. This reached a high point in the 16th and 17th centuries during the reign of Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan.