Saturday 3 September 2016

India's First Empire

From their northeast heartland, the Mauryans came to dominate India's massive subcontinent with what became it's first real empire. This empire reached it's greatest extent and enjoy it's greatest cultural flowering under the rule of Ashoka, who also played a major part in the spread of Buddhist religion.

The Vedic Period(c.1500 - 500 BC) is named after the Vedas - ancient Indo - Aryan texts that were produced during this time and that are central to the Hindu faith. Many local dynasties came into being, and by 8th century BC, India was divided unto many small, competing kingdoms.

Around the 8th century BC large urban states known as mahajanpadas started to take shape in northern India. The northeastern Magadha area came to dominate the various warring regional powers. Its strategic position in the Ganges valley aided trade and linked it with flourishing ports in the Ganges river delta.

In the 5th century BC, just a few states, including Magadha dominated India. By the 4th century, after countless wars, Magadha had emerged as the most powerful. Ruled by prosperous  Nanda Dynasty, it set up complex irrigation projects and efficient administration system, built a strong army, and established a royal center at the city of Pataliputra(modern Patna).

Great Stupa of Sanchi

Four magnificent gateways lead to the Great Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. Dating from the 1st century BC, these torans are decorated with intricate carvings that is one of the greatest artistic achievement of ancient Indian art. They show scenes from the life of Buddha and feature motifs such as Ashoka's famous four lions.

Around 321 BC, the Nanda dynasty was toppled by Chandragupta Maurya, founder of Mauryan Dynasty and what would become the great Mauryan Empire(321 - 185 BC). The empire of the first Mauryan king embraced much of the Indian subcontinent and part of Afghanistan. Lands into which Chandragupta expanded included the parts of the Macedonian Empire  won by Alexander The Great by his successors the Seleucid.

Statue of Chandragupta Maurya

Emperor Chandragupta presented 500 elephants to Seleucus I Nicator in 305 BC, in return for giving up his claims to Indian lands. Seleucus used the elephants in battles fought between Alexander's "successors", notably in the defeat of Antigonus at Ipsus in 301 BC. His highly efficient centralized system of administration owed much to his minister, Chanakya ,who produced one of the greatest treatises on politics, administration, and economics ever written - Arthashashtra. 

Chandragupta died around 297 BC, as a covert to Jainism he spent his final days in ascetic repentance for a terrible famine that struck his people. The second emperor was his son Bindusara(c.297 - 265) BC. He consolidated  empire won by Chandragupta, so that only southern tip of India and Kalinga in the East remained unconquered.

Bindusara's son Ashoka(c.265 - 232 BC)  was the last major ruler of Mauryan dynasty and one of the great figures of ancient history. It was Ashoka who brought the empire to its greatest extent, gaining the Kalinga region after a particularly bloody battle.

A relief representing Emperor Ashoka 

As Ashoka's empire prospered, he promoted arts and sciences and instigated a vast building programme. It included a great many stupas, build to house supposed relics of Buddha. At some point in his reign Ashoka converted to Buddhism, he sent missionaries to spread the word far and wide throughout Asia, including Sri Lanka, in so doing played a major role in spreading of Buddhism.

Lord Buddha

The peace and prosperity of Ashoka's reign did not continue long after his death, Subsequent rulers lost territories and prestige, and there were squabbles over succession. The last Mauryan emperor, Brihadratha, was assassinated c.185 BC by his chief aide, Pusyamitra, founder of Sunga dynasty which ruled India till c.73 BC.

State Emblem of India 

Ashoka made this four-lion motif his symbol of Imperial authority and it is now used as India's official emblem. The four Asiatic lions standing back to back symbolize power, courage, confidence and pride. At the bottom is relief of an elephant(East), bull(West), horse(South) and a lion(North) and a wheel called dharma chakra.  

Indian mathematics advanced greatly under the Mauryans and the Guptas. By 4th century BC, scholars were developing the ideas of using combinations of units of different sizes. By the first century CE, they had devised a decimal like system using the symbols and redefined the concept of zero as a "placeholder" to add or multiply numbers. The concept spread from India to Islamic world and finally to the west, where it underlies the modern number system.

Around 320 CE, the region of Magadha gave birth to another great dynasty and empire, the Guptas, who dominated Northern India until c.540 CE. The Gupta dynasty's real empire builder were its two emperors: Chandra Gupta I(c.320 - 330  CE) and his son, Samudra Gupta(c.330 - 380 CE). 

Coins issued by Samudra Gupta

Great artistic achievements of well-administrated, prosperous Gupta Empire(c.320 - c.540 CE) include the Ajanta caves in western India. Some of these shows episodes from the life of Buddha. 

Ajanta Cave paintings

The Gupta era is often seen as the "classical" period of Indian culture. especially of Hindu and Buddhist art. The Guptas had a strong Hindu leaning, but Jainism and Buddhism also flourished. Buddhist monks created wonderful sculpted friezes at the Udayagiri caves. 

Udayagiri caves

Under the Guptan ruler, Kumara Gupta(c.415 - 455), cracks began to appear in the Empire as it faced incursions by Hephthalite nomads(White Huns) from the North. By the 6th century CE, they had pulled back to their original heartland, taking India back to patch works of small kingdoms.

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