- EPISODE 1:
60,000 BCE–500 BCE
- EPISODE 2:
The Power of Ideas
500 BCE–200 BCE
- EPISODE 3:
Spice Routes & Silk Roads
200 BCE–300 CE
Ages of Gold
300 CE–1000 CE
Episode Four is the story of India in the Middle Ages, when India had a series of great flowerings of culture, both in the north and the south. In this episode Michael Wood shows us some of the amazing achievements of medieval India.
Read more about Episode 4
- Themes and Events
- Cultures and Locations
- People and Gods
- Arts, Language & Religion
- EPISODE 5:
The Meeting of Two Oceans
1000 CE–1700 CE
- EPISODE 6:
1700 CE–2009 CE
Scale: 1 column = 100 years
- c. 300–550: Gupta Empire
- c. 319–335: Chandragupta I ("King of Kings") rules
- c. 300–400: Kalidasa writes plays and poetry
- c. 375–413: Chandragupta II rules
- 400–411: Chinese Buddhist monk Fa Hsien visits India
- c. 400: Kama Sutra composed
- 454: Huns defeated in NW India
- c. 500: Aryabhata describes the orbits of the planets
- c. 600–700: Islam introduced to India by Muslim traders
- 871–907: Rise of the Cholan Empire
- c. 900: Cholan bronze sculpture period begins
- 981: Mahamastak Abhishek festival first celebrated
- c. 985–1014: Rajaraja rules in south
- 997–1030: Mahmud of Ghazni rules in north
Although preceded by two Guptan rulers, Chandragupta I (reign 320-335 CE) is credited with establishing the Gupta Empire in the Ganges River valley in about 320 CE, when he assumed the name of the founder of the Mauryan Empire. The period of Gupta rule between 300 and 600 CE has been called the Golden Age of India for its advances in science and emphasis on classical Indian art and literature. Gupta rulers acquired much of the land previously held by the Mauryan Empire, and peace and trade flourished under their rule.
Sanskrit became the official court language, and the dramatist and poet Kalidasa wrote celebrated Sanskrit plays and poems under the presumed patronage of Chandragupta II. The Kama Sutra, a treatise on romantic love, is also dated to the Gupta era. In 499 CE, the mathematician Aryabhata published his landmark treatise on Indian astronomy and mathematics, Aryabhatiya, which described the earth as a sphere moving around the sun.
Detailed gold coins featuring portraits of the Gupta kings stand out as unique art pieces from this period and celebrate their accomplishments. Chandragupta's son Samudragupta (r. 350 to 375 CE) further expanded the empire, and a detailed account of his exploits was inscribed on an Ashokan pillar in Allahabad toward the end of his reign. Unlike the Mauryan Empire's centralized bureaucracy, the Gupta Empire allowed defeated rulers to retain their kingdoms in return for a service, such as tribute or military assistance. Samudragupta's son Chandragupta II (r. 375–415 CE) waged a long campaign against the Shaka Satraps in western India, which gave the Guptas access to Gujarat's ports, in northwest India, and international maritime trade. Kumaragupta (r. 415–454 CE) and Skandagupta (r. c. 454–467 CE), Chandragupta II's son and grandson respectively, defended against attacks from the Central Asian Huna tribe (a branch of the Huns) that greatly weakened the empire. By 550 CE, the original Gupta line had no successor and the empire disintegrated into smaller kingdoms with independent rulers.
Kalidasa was a renowned Sanskrit dramatist and poet. He is best known for several plays, written in the 4th and early 5th century CE, the earliest of which is probably the Malavikaagnimitra (Malavikaa and Agnimitra), a work concerned with palace intrigue. It is of special interest because the hero is a historical figure, King Agnimitra, whose father, Pushhpamitra, wrested the kingship of northern India from the Mauryan king Brihadratha about 185 BCE and established the Sunga dynasty, which held power for more than a century. The Vikramorvashiiya (Urvashii Won Through Valor) is based on the old legend of the love of the mortal Pururavaas for the heavenly damsel Urvashii. The legend occurs in embryonic form in a hymn of the Rig Veda and in a much amplified version in the Shatapathabrahmana.
The third play, Abhijnanasakuntala (Shakuntalaa Recognized by the Token Ring), is the work by which Kalidasa is best known not only in India but throughout the world. It was the first work of Kalidasa to be translated into English from which was made a German translation in 1791 that evoked the often quoted admiration by Goethe. The influence of the Shakuntala outside India is evident not only in the abundance of translations in many languages, but also in its adaptation to the operatic stage by Paderewski, Weinggartner, and Alfano. In addition to these three plays Kalidasa wrote two long epic poems, the Kumaarasambhava (Birth of Kumaara) and the Raghuvamsha (Dynasty of Raghu). Finally there are two lyric poems, the Meghaduuta (Cloud Messenger) and the Ritusamhaara (Description of the Seasons).
A Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Fa Hsien at the age of 65 walked to India from China starting in 399 and returning by sea in 413 CE. He journeyed down the Ganges plain stopping at numerous monasteries to study their customs and to copy sacred Buddhist texts. He wrote an account of his travels that has provided modern scholars insight into the governance of the Gupta Empire, where light taxation and enlightened policies towards caste and religion lead to prosperity and to what Fa Hsien describes as a contented citizenry.
Related Web Sites:
Record of the Buddhist Country by Fa Hsien
Attributed to the sage Vatsyayana, the Kama Sutra is a treatise on erotic love thought to have been written under the Gupta Empire in the fourth or fifth century CE. Kama means love, desire, or pleasure in Sanskrit, and the Sutra is the earliest surviving example of the kama shastra, or science of erotica genre, that would become popular in later centuries. Kama is one of the four goals of human life described in the Vedas, the other three being dharma (duty and social obligation), artha (power and success), and moksa (religious liberation).
The Kama Sutra is composed of seven books with two or more chapters each, and much of the book gives advice to the urban male or nagaraka about courtship. Women were encouraged to learn 64 practices of the kama shastra, including singing, dancing, and even carpentry, and solving riddles. The Kama Sutra treats sex as both an art and a science and divides men and women into sexual types, discusses sexual positions, details appropriate conduct for married women and provides advice for courtesans. The Kama Sutra became the archetype for subsequent works on the subject of erotic love in India and influenced later Sanskrit erotic poetry. In 1883, a translation of the work into English published by English explorer and anthropologist Sir Richard F. Burton and Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot popularized the work in the West.
Astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and religion were closely linked in ancient India. Astronomy developed out of the need to determine solstices, equinoxes, and phases of the moon for Vedic rituals. Eighteen early astronomical texts or siddhantas, of which only the Surya-Siddhantha, written around 400 BCE, survives, discuss topics including lunar and solar eclipses, astronomical instruments, and the phases of the moon. The Vedanga Jyotisha composed by the astronomer Lagadha about 500 BCE outlines a calendar based on a five-year cycle or yuga with 62 lunar months and 1,830 days. India's earliest calendar, the Saptarshi calendar is broken into 2,700-year cycles and a version counting back to 3076 BCE is still in use in parts of India today.
Astronomy flourished under the Gupta Empire (c. 320-550 CE) during which time Ujjain in central India emerged as a center for astronomical and mathematical research. In 499 CE, Aryabhata, an Indian astronomer and mathematician who was also head of the university at Nalanda in Magadha (an ancient region located in what is now Bihar), composed the Aryabhatiya, a significant treatise about mathematics and astronomy written in Sanskrit. Aryabhata described a spherical Earth that rotates on its own axis and the orbits of planets in relation to the sun. He dated the universe to approximately 4,320,000 years and calculated the length of the solar year. India's first space satellite, launched in 1975, was named Aryabhata in his honor.
Islam is a monotheistic religion founded by the prophet Muhammad in Mecca in the early seventh century CE. Adherents of the faith, called Muslims, revere the God of the Old Testament, in Arabic, Allah, and the Koran, a sacred text that followers believe is Allah's word revealed to the prophet Muhammad.
All Muslims are expected to fulfill five major duties, the pillars of Islam, or Arkan al-Islam. The pillars include shahada, profession of Muslim faith; salat, ritual prayer performed five times a day in a prescribed manner; zakat, almsgiving; sawm, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and the hajj, pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca.
By the eighth century CE, Islam had spread to Europe, across Central Asia, and to India, where Muslim traders settled along the southwest coast in the seventh century CE. The Cheraman Juma Masjid in Cranganore (in Kodungallur, Kerala) is believed to be the first mosque in India and dates to this period. Beginning in the eleventh century CE, Turkic and Afghan armies spread Islam into northern India. During the first half of the 10th century CE, Mahmud of Ghazni conquered the Punjab region and two centuries later, Muhammad of Ghor invaded Delhi and established the Delhi Sultanate.
Islam in India continued to flourish under the Mughal Empire, which succeeded the Delhi Sultanate and reached its height in the 16th century under the Emperor Akbar the Great, who promoted religious tolerance. Under the Mughals, Islamic culture and religion mixed with Indian and Hindu traditions, leaving an enduring legacy in art and architecture, including the Taj Mahal.
In 1947, differences between Hindus and Muslims led to the partition of India by the departing British colonialists into the countries of India and Pakistan. The division sparked mass migrations across the borders of both countries, with Muslims heading north to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs south into India. Violence between both groups resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. A secular nation, India's constitution guarantees freedom of religion to its citizens, the majority of whom are Hindu.
Islam is the second most practiced religion in India; in 2008, over 13% of Indians identify themselves as Muslim and India has one of the largest populations of Muslims in the world. Pakistan today is an Islamic republic, with a population of approximately 170 million, of which only 3 million are Hindus. After Indonesia, Pakistan has the second largest Muslim population in the world, closely followed by India (156 million) and Bangladesh (132 million out of 150 million and approximately 15 million Hindus).
The Cholas, a people living in southern India, first appear in the written record in a 3rd century BCE rock inscription of Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great. A Tamil–speaking people, the Cholas held the east coast of modern Tamil Nadu and the Cauvery delta region. They eventually gained supremacy over other southern tribes in the area, the Pandyas of Madurai and the Pallavas of Kanchi. The empire's earliest king Karikala (r. about 100 CE) is celebrated in Tamil literature, but the empire reached its height under Rajaraja (r. 985–1014 CE), who conquered Kerala, northern Sri Lanka, and in 1014 CE acquired the Maldive Islands.
To commemorate his rule and the god Shiva, Rajaraja built a magnificent temple, Rajarajeshvara or Brihadeesvarar Temple at Tanjore, which was completed in 1009 CE. The temple, the tallest building in India at the time, includes inscriptions describing Rajaraja's victories and was a massive ceremonial space, with a central shrine measuring 216 feet high. Fresco murals that depict military conquests, the royal family, Rajaraja, and Shiva decorate the temple. Villages in the empire and from as far away as Sri Lanka sent tributes that would be redistributed and used in support of the vast retinue of dancers, servants, singers, carpenters, goldsmiths, and others living in the temple's court.
Rajaraja's son, Rajendra I (r. 1014–1044 CE), would continue to increase Cholan power by defeating rivals in southern India and expanding Cholan territory north. In 1023 CE, Rajendra sent his army north toward the Ganges River and defeated the Bengal kingdom of the Pala ruler. A few years later he sent overseas expeditions to the Malay Peninsula, occupying parts of Java, perhaps to protect a sea route to China. Rivalries with other southern tribes would lead to the dynasty's fall when in 1257 CE, the Pandyas defeated the Cholas. The dynasty ended in 1279 CE with the last Chola ruler, Rajendra IV (r. 1246–1279 CE).
Cholan Bronze Sculptures
The Cholas formed south India's first major empire. Under Chola rule, between the 9th and the 13th centuries CE, the arts—poetry, dance, art, and temple building—flourished. But the Cholan artistic legacy is most evident in the bronze sculptures that were perfected during this time and continue to be made even today.
Cholan bronzes were typically of deities, royalty and the politically powerful people of the day—all in a distinctive Cholan style, classically representative of the human form, and perfectly proportioned. The sculptures are recognizable by the way the bodies are posed. They are always graceful, elegant and sensuous—particularly if a sculpture is that of a couple, such as Shiva and Parvati. The bronzes also depict the "mudras" or gestures derived from classical dance.
Cholan master sculptors created their works with the cire perdure, or lost wax process, which is still in use today.
Taking place every 12 years, this Jain festival celebrates the life of saint Bahubali. Millions of devotees travel to Shravana Belagola in the Indian state of Karnataka, in South India, for the ritual anointing of a 57 foot statue of Bahubali, also known as Gomateshwara. The gigantic statue of the nude saint was carved out of a single piece of granite from the hill, known as Vindhyagiri or Indragiri, where it's located.
The festival has been regularly observed since 981 CE, when the statue was completed, and involves the anointing of the colossal figure with a multitude of substances beginning with sanctified water from 1,008 small metal vessels. Then it is showered with a series of other libations, such as milk, sugarcane juice, pastes of saffron and sandalwood, as well as powders of coconut, turmeric, saffron, and vermilion. These are followed by offerings of gold, silver, precious stones, petals, and coins, culminating with a cascade of flowers.
Priests and select devotees ascend 700 stairs to reach the top of the statue in order to conduct the ceremony, while masses of pilgrims watch from the foot of the colossus and are drenched by the materials being showered on the figure.
Jains revere Bahubali, who, according to legend, renounced his kingdom after winning a battle with his brother Bharata because he was disillusioned by the desire for power that set him against a family member. Bahubali decided to seek spiritual enlightenment and stood meditating for so long that vines began to grow on his legs and spread to his arms, which is how he is represented in the statue at Shravana Belagola.
Rajaraja ruled the Cholan Empire in India's southern region from 985 to 1015 CE and, along with his son Rajendra, is credited with securing the kingdom's dominance from the 10th to the 13th centuries CE. The emperor successfully defeated his main rivals, the Pandyas and the Cheras tribes, in South India, acquiring Kerala in the process. Rajaraja's strength derived from a strong administration, large army, and a unique naval force, which he used to extend his empire to northern Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands, in 1014 CE. These victorious invasions secured a steady flow of tribute into his kingdom and contributed to the most enduring monuments of the Cholan dynasty, the great royal temples like those at Tanjore.
To commemorate his rule and personal god, Shiva, Rajaraja built the magnificent Rajarajeshvara or Brihadishvara temple at Tanjore, which was completed about 1010 CE. The tallest building in India at the time, the temple includes inscriptions describing Rajaraja's victories and was a massive ceremonial space, with a central shrine that was 216 feet high. Fresco murals that depict military conquests, the royal family, Rajaraja, and Shiva decorate the temple. Methodical records of donations made to the temple provide extensive information about the temple and the empire. Rajaraja's son Rajendra succeeded him in 1014/15 CE and continued to expand the empire north and east, even sending a naval expedition to occupy coastal regions in Java and the straits of Malacca.
Mahmud of Ghazni
Under Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030 CE) the Ghaznavid Empire, an Islamic dynasty centered in the Afghan city of Ghazni, reached its height. Mahmud's father, a Turkish slave named Sebüktigen, founded the kingdom in the 10th century CE, and Mahmud ruled as sultan from 998 CE to 1030 CE. Invading the Sind and Punjab regions at least once a year between 1000 CE and 1026 CE, the sultan, known as the "Sword of Islam," waged ruthless campaigns into northern India.
Mahmud's invasions of India, which never extended to the central, south, and eastern portions of the region, were exceedingly ruthless. He is said to have carried away huge amount of booty on each visit, and among other Indian dynasties, the Chandellas of Khujaraho, the Pratiharas of Kanauj, and the Rajputs of Gwalior all succumbed to his formidable military. Places such as Kanauj, Mathura, and Thaneshwar were plundered, but it is the destruction of the Shiva temple at Somnath, on the southern coast of Kathiawar in Gujarat, which most people in India remember him by even today. Some Muslim chronicles claim that 50,000 Hindus died in the sack of Somnath, and it is said that the Shiva lingam (the main symbol of the god) was destroyed by Mahmud himself. After the battle, Mahmud and his troops are described as having carried away across the desert the equivalent of 6.5 tons of gold. Modern historians have questioned some of the assumptions of the "black legend" of Mahmud.
Though there can be no doubt that Mahmud of Ghazni waged ruthless campaigns and terrorized the people who came in his way, there is nothing to suggest that he only attacked Hindus. The Muslim ruler of Multan, an Ismaili, and his subjects were dealt with just as ruthlessly. Revisionist historians argue that Mahmud pillaged Hindu temples because of the wealth in them, that he had Hindus among his commanders, and that Hindu temples were still allowed to function under his rule. But Mahmud remains a deeply controversial and divisive figure in the perceptions of history across the subcontinent today.
With the plunder acquired from his raids into India, Mahmud made Ghazni a great cultural center, home to an extensive library and scholars such as Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a mathematician and philosopher whose Kitab al-Hind was among the earliest literature about India's religious and philosophical traditions. The Muslim Ghorid dynasty succeeded Ghaznavid rule in the 12th century CE and was followed by the Delhi Sultanate, a series of five successive Muslim dynasties that ruled northern India into the 16th century CE.