Archaeological excavations have brought to light the remains of a highly developed urban civilisation in ancient India, that stretched across approximately 1520 kilometres, extending from the area on the upper Sutlaj in contemporary Punjab to Lothal in Gujarat. Historians are of the view that this civilisation flourished in the third millennium before the birth of Christ.
It is known by the name of the two of its great cities - Harappa and Mohenjodaro situated on the left and the right bank respectively of the river Ravi in Punjab. The two cities were built on a similar plan - houses constructed with standard burnt bricks arranged in squares, along roads intersecting at right angles. The houses varied in size but were all based on the same plan - a small courtyard surrounded by rooms with entrances in side alleys, often multistoried with no windows opening out to the street. The houses had bathrooms and the drains flowing out were connected to covered sewers with soak-pits. This unique sewage system is amongst the most impressive achievements of the Indus people and sets them apart from all other ancient civilisations.
By about 1500 B.C. an important change began to occur in the northern half of the Indian sub-continent. The Harappa culture in the Indus Valley had declined by about 1750 B.C, and the stage was being set for a second and more continuous urbanisation in the Ganges Valley.
The earliest literary source that sheds light on India's past is the Rig Veda. It is difficult to date this work with any accuracy on the basis of tradition and ambiguous astronomical information contained in the hymns. It is most likely that Rig Veda was composed between 1,500 B.C. and 1,000 B.C.
The people who composed these evocative hymns to nature and celebrated life exuberantly referred to themselves as Aryas usually anglicised as Aryan meaning 'superior'.
The 6th Century B.C. was a period of great ferment in India. The kingdom of Magadh -one of the 16 great janapadas - polities - had established paramountcy over other kingdoms of the Ganges Valley. This was the time when Buddhism and Jainism emerged as popular protestant movements to pose a serious challenge to Brahmanic orthodoxy. The fluid political situation, made it possible for Chandragupta Maurya (reign - 322 - 298 B.C.) to oust the oppressive ruler of Magadh and found his own dynasty.
The most famous of the Mauryas is Ashoka the Great (reign - 273 - 232 B.C.). He extended the boundaries of his empire considerably - stretching from Kashmir and Peshawar in the North and Northwest to Mysore in the South and Orissa in the East - but his fame rests not so much on military conquests as on his celebrated renunciation of war. After witnessing the carnage at the battle field of Kalinga (269 B.C.) in Orissa, Ashoka resolved to dedicate himself to Dhamma - or righteousness.
Ashoka died around 232 B.C. and the empire began to disintegrate under weak successors. Pushyamitra Shunga, a Brahmin general usurped the throne after slaying the last Maurya king and presided over a loosely federal polity. In subsequent centuries India suffered a series of invasions, and in the absence of a strong central authority, often fell under the spell of foreign rulers - Indo Bactrians, the Sakas and others.
For the next four hundred years, India remained politically disunited and weak. It was repeatedly raided and plundered by foreigners. Stability was restored by the Guptas. Exploits of Samudra Gupta (reign - 335 - 380 A.D.) - an illustrious ruler of this line - are recorded on a stone inscription at Allahabad.
It was Chandra Gupta II (reign - 380 - 412 A.D.) - Samudra Gupta's successor - who finally defeated the Sakas and re-established a strong central authority. His reign registered the high watermark in Indian culture. His accomplishments in war and peace were glorious enough for him to claim the title Vikramaditya - the resplendent, great and good king of legends. Fa-hien, a Chinese traveller who was in India from 399 - 414 A.D. has left an interesting account of contemporary India. This age of peace and prosperity witnessed an unprecedented flowering of art, literature and the sciences.
Kalidas, the famous Sanskrit poet and dramatist, author of Abhijnana Shankuntalam, Kumarsambhavam and Meghadutam is believed to have adorned the Gupta court. Mathematicians like Aryabhatta and astronomers like Varahmihir lived during this period. The dazzling wall paintings of the Ajanta caves too are traced back to this era. This period also saw the beginning of Hindu temple architecture.
The twilight of the Gupta Empire saw the setting in of decay. Powerful feudal governors in the provinces declared their independence. Trade and commerce suffered and social evils crept in. There was only a brief afterglow in the time of Harshavardhan (reign - 604 - 647 A.D.) - of Kannauj - who is famous for his philanthrophy and patronage of Buddhism. Himself an accomplished writer, he encouraged eminent dramatists like Bana. A Chinese traveller Huen-tsang visited India from (629 - 645 A.D.) during the rule of Harshavardhan. His account gives us an opportunity to note the changes that had taken place in the lives of the Indian people since the days of the Guptas.
In the Deccan, the Cholas ruled over what today are the districts of Thanjavur and Tiruchirapally. In the 2nd Century B.C. a Chola prince conquered Sri Lanka. The Pandyas reigned around present day Tirunelvelli and Madurai. A Pandyan king sent an ambassador to the court of the Roman emperor Augustus in first Century B.C. The territory under the Cheras was what constitutes the present day central and northern Kerala.
Pallavas of Kanchi rose to prominence in the 4th Century A.D. and ruled unchallenged for about four hundred years. The Nayanar and Alvar saint poets belong to this period. The gemlike shore temples at Mahabalipuram date to this period.
The Cholas overthrew the Pallavas in the 9th Century and regained political primacy in south India. The exquisitely crafted Chola bronzes - the resplendent Natraja - the Dancing Shiva - have introduced the world to the glory of the Cholas. The tide of political fortunes turned once again in the 13th Century to make the Pandyas dominant. Their kingdom became a great centre of international trade. Art, literature and culture flourished under generous patronage. The 15th Century saw the decline of the Pandyas.
Foreign invasions had little impact on the life in southern India and this region remained unaffected by political upheavals that convulsed the north.