- 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
- EPISODE 4:
Ages of Gold
300 CE–1000 CE
- EPISODE 5:
The Meeting of Two Oceans
1000 CE–1700 CE
1700 CE –2009 CE
This last episode covers the British East India Company, the 1857 "Mutiny," the subsequent British Raj, and finally India's partition and independence in 1947.
Read more about Episode 6
- Themes and Events
- Cultures and Locations
- People and Gods
- Arts, Language & Religion
- Science & Education
Scale: 1 column = 100 years
- 1784: Asiatic Society founded
- 1786: William Jones discovers Sanskrit's relationship to Latin and Greek
- 1828–1858: Rani of Jhansi, heroine of "the Mutiny"
- 1829–1912: A.O. Hume
- 1850–1853: Scientists discover first evidence of Indus Valley Civilization
- 1857: First Indian Rebellion, "the Mutiny"
- 1858–1947: British Raj
- 1869–1948: Mohandas Gandhi
- 1876–1948: Mohammad Ali Jinnah
- 1885: Indian National Congress founded
- 1889–1964: Jawaharlal Nehru
- 1906: Muslim League founded
- 1918: Gandhi holds first satyagraha in Bihar
- 1919: Amritsar Massacre
- August 14/15, 1947: India and Pakistan gain independence from Britain
- 1949–1950: India adopted constitution and Lion Capital of Ashoka as official emblem
- 1966–1984: Indira Gandhi serves as prime minister
An ancient Indo-European language, Sanskrit is widely believed to have been introduced to the Indian subcontinent by outsiders who called themselves "Aryans" (or noble ones) and who progressively migrated to the Indian subcontinent from the northwest starting around 2000 BCE. Sanskrit's first written record can be found in the Rig-Veda (c. 1500 BCE). It is divided into two general categories, the more ancient Vedic Sanskrit (approximately 1500–200 BCE) and Classical Sanskrit (approximately 500 BCE–1000 CE).
The writing of the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (c. 400 BCE) is thought to have taken place between 400 BCE and 100 BCE. Between 200 CE and 1000 CE Sanskrit developed into an international scholarly and liturgical language across south Asia, rather like Latin in the medieval West.
In the 18th century, Sir William Jones, a judge and language scholar, theorized that Sanskrit was linked to Greek and Latin through a common original language. His work, along with that of others interested in Asian history and culture, advanced philology and European knowledge and awareness of India.
Many of the languages spoken in India today are descended from Sanskrit, including Sindhi, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu. Used primarily for religious and ceremonial purposes in modern India, Sanskrit is one of the country's 23 official languages (which includes English).
Rani of Jhansi (or Lakshmi Bai)
Lakshmi Bai (1835-1858 CE) was a rani (queen) of the Maratha state of Jhansi (in Uttar Pradesh) and a leading figure in the struggle for Indian independence. As a child, Lakshmi Bai's education included fencing, weaponry, and horsemanship. Following the death of her husband, the Raja of Jhansi, in 1853, the British East India Company refused to recognize the Raja's adopted heir and seized Jhansi by invoking the "doctrine of lapse." Under this doctrine, the Company could annex states without male heirs, a practice that was among the grievances that led to the Great Rebellion of 1857. The Rani repeatedly petitioned the British for her adopted son's rightful inheritance, but her pleas were rejected. When British army sepoys (Indian-born soldiers) rebelled in Jhansi, killing British women, children and soldiers, the Rani was held accountable despite her lack of involvement in the mutiny. In March 1858, the British Bombay army attacked Jhansi. The Rani defended her city until she was forced to flee after the storming of Jhansi Fort. In June, the Rani—along with the military command of a fellow resistance leader, Tatya Topi—seized Gwalior in northern India. They had held Gwalior Fort for less than a month when the Rani was killed during a British assault. Reports of her death vary, with some indicating she was killed while scouting from the fort's ramparts and others that she was shot in battle while leading her army. The Rani became a symbol of resistance against British rule and is widely considered a heroine and martyr in India. In the 1940s, an all-women unit of the Indian National Army, formed to fight British colonial rule, was named after her.
Allan Octavian Hume
A. O. (Allan Octavian) Hume (1829-1912 CE) was a Briton who served in the civil service in India and helped found the Indian National Congress. Born in 1829, he was the son of Joseph Hume, a Scottish doctor and radical politician. After studying medicine and surgery, Hume joined the Bengal Civil Service at Etawah, in Uttar Pradesh, in the mid-19th century and steadily rose within its ranks, becoming the central government's Director-General of Agriculture in 1870.
Throughout his career, he advocated for and initiated progressive social reforms, such as free primary education in Etawah, and was an unabashed critic of the British government, especially when its policies contributed to the unwarranted suffering of the Indian population. In 1883, a year after retiring from the civil service, he called on the graduates of Calcutta University to form an Indian political organization that would seek greater independence for their country and better treatment of its people from the British. This was the impetus for the creation of the Indian National Congress, which held its first meeting in Bombay in 1885.
Hume left India in 1894, but remained a committed supporter of Indian independence. While in India, Hume also gained renown as an ornithologist and amassed an important collection of botanical and bird specimens. He died in 1912. The Indian Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor in 1973.
Great Rebellion of 1857
The Great Rebellion of 1857 (also called the Indian Mutiny, Sepoy Rebellion, and First War of Independence) began as a mutiny by Bengal army soldiers, or sepoys, against their commanders in the army of the British East India Company. The rebellion came out of the sepoy's long-held grievances about unfair assignments, low pay, limited opportunities for advancement, and the reorganization of Awadh, a region from which a third of them had been recruited. A more immediate cause of insult to the sepoys was the new Lee Enfield rifle that required soldiers to reload by biting off the ends of cartridges greased with pig and cow fat, substances offensive to both Muslim and Hindu religions.
On May 10, 1857, the sepoys posted in Meerut attacked officers and marched on Delhi after their colleagues had been punished for refusing to use the new cartridges. Once in Delhi, the uprising gained legitimacy when the sepoys made the 82-year-old Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II the leader of their rebellion. Other soldiers, primarily those stationed in northern India, joined the revolt, and popular uprisings also broke out in the countryside. Central India and the cities of Delhi, Lucknow, and Cownpore (Kanpur) became the primary areas of unrest while areas further south, where the Bombay and Madras armies and many princes and elites remained loyal, were largely untouched by the rebellion.
By September, the British had regained control of Delhi, exiled Bahadur Shah, and killed both of his sons. After the siege of Gwalior in the summer of 1858, the British regained military control, and those sepoys who had revolted were severely punished—a number of captured sepoys were fired from cannons. The army was reorganized to include a higher ratio of British to Indian soldiers, recruitment focused on regions that had not revolted, and units were composed of soldiers representing many Indian ethnicities, so as to prevent social cohesion among sepoys.
Loss of British revenue as a result of the rebellion was severe, and in 1858, an act of the British Parliament transferred the East India Company's rights in India to the Crown. The new administration of India included a British secretary of state, viceroy, and 15-member advisory council. In 1876, Queen Victoria declared herself Empress of India.
The British Raj (Hindi for rule) under England's Queen Victoria began in 1858 after the Great Rebellion of 1857 and subsequent transfer, through an act of Parliament, of administrative power from the British East India Company to the Crown. British rule extended over present-day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan together about a fifth of the world's population. Under the new administration, a governor-general with a five-member council governed in India, while a secretary of state and 15-member council oversaw Indian affairs in Britain. Provincial governments included executive and legislative councils and were divided into districts, each overseen by a commissioner. The Indian Civil Service, composed of magistrates, revenue officials, commissioners, and other bureaucratic positions, formed a fundamental segment of the new government. After 1923, examinations required for entry into the civil service were held in India, not only Britain, and by 1947, most Civil Service officials were Indian.
Policies of nonintervention in religion and recognition of regional princes—numbering approximately 675—were among the first issued under the British administration, perhaps reflecting the religious causes of the Great Rebellion of 1857. A newly restructured army that included more British officers had the foreign policy responsibility of keeping Russia out of Central Asia, leading to the Anglo-Afghan Wars during much of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
By 1910, India had the fourth largest railway system in the world, one that unified the country geographically and economically. However, under British rule, the generally positive advances of social reforms, public works, and unification of the India's disparate regions were coupled with racism and economic exploitation. Lack of Indian representation in government and an economic system that was perceived as a drain on India's wealth were the primary causes of agitation against British rule in India.
In 1885, the first meeting of the Indian National Congress, composed of 73 self-appointed delegates, was held in Bombay. Nationalist opposition increased following World War I and World War II, and in 1946/7, the Congress, guided by its leader Mahatma Gandhi, negotiated Indian independence from Britain.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), known as Mahatma ("Great Soul"), was the great political leader and social reformer who founded India's nonviolent movement against British colonial rule. Born the son of a state minister in Gujarat in 1869, Gandhi moved to South Africa after studying law in London. While practicing law in South Africa, between 1893 and 1914, he became a social reformer and mobilized diverse South African communities to protest British laws, such as the poll tax, that discriminated against Indians. While in Africa, he developed the practice of satyagraha, or nonviolent protest, based on the ethical ideal of ahimsa ("no-harm" or non-violence) a precept deeply rooted in the three faiths that originated in India—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In 1909, he wrote his landmark work, Hind Swaraj, or Freedom of India, that discussed nonviolent non-cooperation as a means to end British colonial rule.
After returning to India in 1915, Gandhi organized satyagrahas against poverty and unfair taxes, championing boycotts and peaceful strikes. In the 1920s, Gandhi reorganized the Indian National Congress and wrote its constitution that prioritized Congressional representation for rural India and created a permanent committee to agitate for independence. He also adopted a simpler way of life, eschewing European clothes for the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, which he spun on a charkha; adhering to a strictly vegetarian diet; and undertaking fasts that he also employed in social protest.
From 1920 to 1948, Gandhi organized a series of campaigns that successfully mobilized Indians across the country against British rule. A non-cooperation movement in the early 1920s that urged citizens to boycott civic services and withhold tax revenues led to thousands of arrests and a government ban on public meetings. In 1930, he led a satyagraha against the British salt tax, marching 240 miles from his Sabarmati ashram to Dandi beach, in Gujarat. After picking up a lump of sea salt on the beach, Gandhi was arrested for breaking the law and 60,000 to 90,000 others would be arrested over the next few months. Before Gandhi could organize a "Quit India" campaign against British rule in 1942, he was arrested and detained in jail for the duration of World War II.
On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by a radical Hindu nationalist, Naturam Godse. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru famously said after Gandhi's assassination: "The light has gone out of our lives." His methods of nonviolence would influence civil rights movements around the world and figures including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah
Mohammad Ali Jinnah was Pakistan's first governor-general following the partition of Britain's South Asian colony into India and Pakistan in 1947. In 1896, Jinnah joined the Indian National Congress but by 1913 he had left the Congress and joined India's Muslim League, the leading organization for Muslims. Jinnah became popular for winning both Indian National Congress and League support for the Lucknow Pact, a proposal that called for Britain to give India dominion status at the end of World War I.
Disillusioned with politics, disunity in the Muslim League, and the Congress under Mahatma Gandhi, Jinnah left political life in 1931. He returned to the League in 1934 and became its head in 1937. A charismatic and eloquent politician, Jinnah was elected the League's permanent president and given the title Qaid-e-Azam, or "great leader," by his followers. In subsequent years, Jinnah would increasingly lose faith in the Congress's ability to represent Muslim interests and distanced himself from the idea of a united Hindu-Muslim independent state of India.
In 1940, the League adopted a Muslim homeland resolution calling for the establishment of Pakistan (an acronym for the proposed territories in the provinces of Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sind, and Baluchistan). In 1946, the British, the League, and Congress came to an agreement that divided the territory united under British rule into India and Pakistan. The partition led to a mass migration of Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs to India, which was accompanied by unprecedented communal violence that led to the deaths of between 500,000 and 1 million people. It was also the source of the territorial disputes that characterized the relationship between the two countries for decades.
Jinnah was a proponent of parliamentary democracy and was against the idea of Pakistan as a theocracy. Considered the father of the nation, Jinnah led the independent nation of Pakistan for just over a year before dying in 1948.
Indian National Congress
Founded in 1885, the Indian National Congress political party was central to India's independence movement and has been the dominant ruling party since 1947. Over 70 self-appointed delegates from across India participated in the Congress's first meeting in December 1885. By 1887, the Congress included 600 members, a number that grew to 2,000 in 1889; delegates were Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, and Jain and belonged to the middle or upper classes. In its first decades, the Congress agitated for increased Indian representation in the civil service and government, jobs held at the time mostly by British citizens.
Under Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s and 1930s, the Congress Party made purna swaraj (complete independence) and a representative form of government its primary objectives. To that end, the Congress supported satyagraha, civil disobedience campaigns, against British taxes. After Britain unilaterally declared Britain and India at war with Germany in World War II, the Congress passed a "Quit India" resolution in 1942 that demanded the British government give all political power to the Indian people in return for India's cooperation in the war effort. Instrumental in negotiations for independence, the Congress became independent India's first ruling party. By 1947, the Congress was a diverse party, including members of various castes and linguistic and religious groups.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first Prime Minister, led the Congress from 1946 until his death in 1964. He championed state-led economic reforms and a foreign policy of nonalignment while in office. In 1966, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, assumed the party's mantle until she was defeated in 1977, bringing to a close 30 years of Congress rule. Over the following decades, the party would be in and out of power; Indira Gandhi would again lead the party (1980-1984) as would her son, Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1989). In the election of 2004, at which nearly 400 million people voted, Congress was returned to power.
Jawaharlal Nehru (Panditji or Pandit Nehru), India's first prime minister, was a committed social reformer, skilled orator and Mahatma Gandhi's political heir. Born into a wealthy family and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge (England), Nehru succeeded his father, Motilal Nehru, as leader of the Indian National Congress in 1929. Imprisoned nine times by the British for his nationalist campaigns during the 1930s and 1940s, Nehru wrote his first book, The Discovery of India, a history of India, during a prison term.
Nehru served as prime minister from 1947 to 1964, and the first two decades of India's independence might be called the Age of Nehru. Social reforms during this period included land redistribution, removal of barriers to inter-caste marriage, and women gaining the right to sue for divorce. To advance his economic ideals, Nehru formed and headed a National Planning Commission that developed three five-year economic plans focused on state-directed rural development, agriculture, and industry.
In foreign policy, Nehru advocated nonalignment, taking the side of neither capitalism nor communism in the Cold War. Noninterference and peaceful co-existence were his goals with countries in the region, including China. However, that stance was untenable after China invaded Tibet in 1959, after which India gave the Dalai Lama asylum. Although still controversial, Nehru's legacy is one of faith in democracy, constitutional authority, and secularism. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, served as prime minister of India from 1966 to 1984.
The Muslim League was a political organization formed in December 1906 to defend the rights of Muslims in India during British colonial rule. The League helped establish the independent nation of Pakistan.
In 1916, the League entered into an agreement, the Lucknow Pact, with the Indian National Congress that called for greater Indian self-government, with separate Hindu and Muslim electorates. After 1920, the relationship between the two organizations grew more contentious as their interests and methods to achieve self-rule diverged. (The League did not support Congress leader Gandhi's calls for non-violent resistance against the British.)
The League's political activity gained momentum in the 1930s under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who became its president in 1934, and after the introduction of the Government of India Act of 1935, which allowed for the election of Indian representatives to provincial assemblies. The League won few seats in the elections of 1937; most went to the Congress, which retained the support of India's Muslims. However, the Congress's governance in the provinces came to be viewed as too preferential to Hindus and led many Muslims to switch allegiance to the League. Jinnah increasingly lost faith in the Congress's ability to represent Muslim interests, and in 1940, the League adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of an independent Muslim nation, Pakistan, comprised of the northwestern and northeastern areas of India.
During the years that Britain fought in World War II, membership in the League increased, thanks to Jinnah's advocacy, as did Muslim support for an independent Muslim state. (At the same time, the Congress's leaders were jailed for engaging in civil disobedience campaigns.) In the 1946 provincial elections, the League won the vast majority of the Muslim vote, and subsequently reached an agreement with the British and the Congress to partition the subcontinent into the separate nations of India and Pakistan upon independence. On August 14, 1947, Pakistan was established and Jinnah became its first governor general, with Liaquat Ali Khan as the nation's first prime minister.
Hindi for "holding fast to the truth" or "truth force," satyagraha was a form of civil disobedience against British rule in South Africa and India advocated by India's Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha draws on traditions of non-violence in Buddhism and Jainism and influenced 20th-century activists including Martin Luther King, Jr. Peaceful marches, picketing, and non-cooperation are among satyagraha tactics used to persuade the opposition to accept the ideal or right way of behavior.
Gandhi's first satyagraha in 1918 focused on residents in Bihar who were forced to grow and sell indigo for very low prices. Organized protests and strikes against landlords in Bihar led to agreements between the British government and the farmers. In 1919, another satyagraha focused on excessive taxes levied by the British on famine-stricken peasants in Gujarat. After Gujarati farmers waged a tax revolt, the British government seized their lands. In the wake of continued protest, the government eventually met farmers' demands by suspending taxes for two years and returning their lands.
Gandhi's most famous satyagraha, in 1931, targeted the British-imposed salt laws that punished individuals who manufactured their own salt. At 61 years old, Gandhi and a group of followers marched 240 miles from Sabarmati to the coast at Dandi, encouraging people he met along the way to use their own salt. When he reached the coast, he picked up a lump of salt from the beach, breaking the salt laws. The crowd then marched on a salt depot, and Gandhi was arrested. Between 60,000 and 90,000 Indians, including the entire Indian National Congress, were arrested in subsequent months. The march mobilized citizens across India but failed to garner concessions from the British.
Another critical satyagraha, Gandhi's Quit India Movement, culminated in the All India Congress Committee's passage of a 1942 Quit India resolution that called for the immediate withdrawal of the British from India. Gandhi and many other protesters, including members of the Indian National Congress, were imprisoned. The British would begin independence talks with the Indian National Congress in 1946, and granted India its independence in 1947.
India is the world's largest democracy, with a diverse population—at least 22 different language groups are represented—of over one billion people. Federalism is integral to India's government, and the capital in New Delhi shares power with 28 states and 7 territories. The country's system of parliamentary democracy includes a parliament with two houses, Lok Sabha (House of the People) and Rajya Sabha (Council of States). Members of the Lok Sabha are directly elected by the people, while those in the Rajya Sabha are elected mostly by state and territorial legislatures. The majority party in the lower house elects a prime minister while the president is elected by members of both houses. Although the Indian National Congress has been the dominant political party, in power since India's independence in 1947, approximately 200 political parties exist in the country.
India's constitution, developed between 1947 and 1950, incorporates ideas from Western democracies, including universal suffrage, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. The constitution also guarantees citizens freedom from caste discrimination, although caste continues to strongly influence an individual's social status. Nehru conceived of India as a secular democracy in which the state does not participate in or promote religious activities. To support that principle, Nehru chose a lion from the age of Ashoka as the national symbol, evoking the religious tolerance that proliferated under that emperor's rule.