South India has always laid claim to its own unique history, largely resulting from its insulation, by distance, from political developments up north. The cradle of Dravidian culture, it has a long and colourful historical tapestry of wrangling dynasties and empires, interwoven with an influx of traders and conquerors arriving by sea, all of which have richly contributed to a remarkable mix of southern traditions that persists to the present day.
Indus Valley Civilisation
India’s first major civilisation flourished between about 3000 and 1700 BC in the Indus Valley, much of which lies within present-day Pakistan. Known as the Harappan culture, it appears to have been the culmination of thousands of years of settlement. Some historians attribute its eventual demise to floods or decreased rainfall, which threatened the Harappans’ agricultural base. A more enduring theory, though with little archaeological proof or evidence from ancient Indian texts, is that an invasion from the northwest by Aryans (peoples speaking languages of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family) put paid to the Harappans. Others say that the arrival of the Aryans was more of a gentle migration that gradually subsumed Harappan culture, rather than an invasion. Some nationalist historians argue that the Aryans (the term comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘noble’) were in fact the original inhabitants of India and that the invasion theory was invented by later, self-serving foreign conquerors. Invasion theorists believe that from around 1500 BC Aryan tribes from Afghanistan and Central Asia began to gradually filter into northwest India, eventually controlling northern India as far south as the Vindhya Range (just north of central India's Narmada River), and that, as a consequence, many of the original inhabitants, the Dravidians, were pushed south.
Influences from the North
Aryan culture had a gradual but profound effect on the social order and ethos of South India as well as the north – among other things in literature (the four Vedas, a collection of sacred Hindu hymns), religion (gods such as Agni, Varuna, Shiva and Vishnu), language (Sanskrit) and a social structure that organised people into castes, with Brahmins at the top.
Over the centuries other influences flowed from north to south, including Buddhism and Jainism. Sravanabelagola in modern-day Karnataka (an auspicious place of pilgrimage to this day) is where, tradition says, the northern ruler Chandragupta Maurya, who had embraced Jainism and renounced his kingdom, arrived with his guru around 300 BC. Jainism was then adopted by the trading community (its tenet of ahimsa – nonviolence – disqualified occupations tainted by the taking of life), who spread it across South India.
Emperor Ashoka, a successor of Chandragupta who ruled for 40 years from about 272 BC, was a major force behind Buddhism’s inroads into the south. Once a campaigning king, his epiphany came in 260 BC when, overcome by the horrific carnage and suffering caused by his campaign against the powerful Kalinga kingdom of Odisha, he renounced violence and embraced Buddhism. He sent Buddhist missionaries far and wide, and his edicts (carved into rock and incised into specially erected pillars) have been found in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Stupas were also built in South India under Ashoka’s patronage, mostly in Andhra Pradesh, although at least one was constructed as far south as Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu.
The appeal of Jainism and Buddhism was that they rejected the Vedas and condemned the caste system. Buddhism, however, gradually lost favour with its devotees, and was replaced with a new brand of Hinduism, which emphasised devotion to a personal god. This bhakti (surrendering to the gods) order developed in South India around AD 500. Bhakti adherents opposed Jainism and Buddhism, and the movement hastened the decline of both in South India.
Mauryan Empire & Southern Kingdoms
Chandragupta Maurya was the first in a line of Mauryan kings who ruled what was effectively the first Indian empire. The empire’s capital was in present-day Patna in Bihar. Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara, who came to the throne around 300 BC, extended the empire as far as Karnataka. He seems to have stopped there, possibly because the Mauryan empire was on cordial terms with the southern chieftains of the day.
The identity and customs of these southern chiefdoms have been gleaned from various sources, including archaeological remains and ancient Tamil literature. These literary records describe a land known as the ‘abode of the Tamils’, within which resided three major ruling families: the Pandyas (centred on Madurai), the Cheras (in what is now Kerala and western Tamil Nadu) and the Cholas (Thanjavur and the Cauvery Valley). The region described in classical Sangam literature (written between 300 BC and AD 300) was still relatively insulated from Sanskrit culture, but the literature indicates that Sanskrit traditions were starting to take root in South India around 200 BC.
A degree of rivalry characterised relations between the main chiefdoms and the numerous minor chiefdoms, and there were occasional clashes with Sri Lankan rulers. Ultimately, the southern powers all suffered at the hands of the Kalabhras, about whom little is known except that they appear to have originated from somewhere north of the Tamil region.
By around 180 BC the Mauryan empire, which had started to disintegrate soon after the death of Emperor Ashoka in 232 BC, had been overtaken by a series of rival kingdoms that were subjected to repeated invasions from the northwest by the Bactrian Greeks and others. The post-Ashokan era did, however, produce at least one line of royalty whose patronage of the arts and ability to maintain a relatively high degree of social cohesion have left an enduring legacy. This was the Satavahanas, who eventually controlled all of modern-day Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Under their rule, between about 200 BC and AD 200, the arts blossomed, especially literature, sculpture and philosophy. Buddhism reached a peak in Maharashtra under the Satavahanas, although the greatest of the Buddhist cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora were built later by the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta dynasties. Most of all, the subcontinent enjoyed a period of considerable prosperity. South India may have lacked North India's vast and fertile agricultural plains, but it compensated by building strategic trade links via the Indian Ocean.
Feature: Ashoka: An Enlightened Emperor
Apart from the Mughals and the British (many centuries later), no other power controlled more Indian territory than the Mauryan empire. It also provided India with one of its most significant historical figures: Emperor Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya.
Emperor Ashoka’s rule was characterised by flourishing art and sculpture, while his reputation as a philosopher-king was enhanced by the rock-hewn edicts he used both to instruct his people and to delineate the enormous span of his territory (they are found from Afghanistan to Nepal to Andhra Pradesh).
Ashoka’s reign also represented an undoubted historical high point for Buddhism: he embraced the religion in 260 BC, declaring it the state religion and cutting a radical swath through the spiritual and social body of Hinduism. The emperor also built thousands of stupas and monasteries across the region. Ashoka sent missions to Thailand, Greece, the Middle East and North Africa, and is revered in Sri Lanka because his son and daughter carried Buddhism to the island.
The long shadow this emperor of the 3rd century BC still casts over India is evident in the fact that the central motif of the Indian national flag is the Ashoka Chakra, a wheel with 24 spokes. Ashoka’s standard (four lions sitting back to back atop an abacus decorated with a frieze and the inscription ‘truth alone triumphs’), which topped many pillars, is also the seal of modern-day India and its national emblem.
The Chalukyas & Pallavas
Following the suppression of the Tamil chiefdoms by the Kalabhras, South India split into numerous warring kingdoms. The Cholas virtually disappeared and the Cheras on the west coast seem to have prospered through trading, although little is known about them. It wasn’t until the late 6th century AD, when the Kalabhras were overthrown, that the political uncertainty in the region ceased. For the next 300 years the history of South India was dominated by the fortunes of the Chalukyas of Badami in northern Karnataka, the Pallavas of Kanchi (Kanchipuram) and the Pandyas of Madurai (these last two in modern-day Tamil Nadu).
The Badami Chalukyas controlled most of the Deccan at their peak under King Pulakesi II in the early 7th century. A related clan, known as the eastern Chalukyas, ruled Andhra Pradesh from Vengi near Eluru. It’s unclear where the Pallavas originated, but it’s thought they may have emigrated to Kanchi from Andhra Pradesh. After their successful defeat of the Kalabhras, the Pallavas extended their territory as far south as the Cauvery River, and in the 7th and 8th centuries were at the height of their power, building major monuments such as the Shore Temple and Arjuna’s Penance at Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram). They engaged in long-running clashes with the Pandyas, who extended their control into Kerala and, in the 8th century, allied themselves with the Gangas of Mysore. By the 9th century significant Pallava power had been snuffed out by the Pandyas and the Rashtrakutas, a dynasty based in Gulbarga, Karnataka, who replaced the Chalukyas as the dominant force on the Deccan from the 8th to 10th centuries.
The Chola Empire
As the Pallava dynasty came to an end, a new Chola dynasty was laying the foundations for what would be one of the subcontinent's most significant empires. From their Tamil capitals at Thanjavur (Tanjore) and, briefly, Gangaikondacholapuram, the Cholas spread north absorbing what was left of the Pallavas’ territory, and made inroads southward. Under Raja Raja Chola I (r 985–1014) the Chola kingdom really started to emerge as a great empire. Raja Raja Chola I successfully waged war against the Pandyas in the south, the Gangas of Mysore and the Eastern Chalukyas. He also launched a series of naval campaigns that captured the Maldives, the Malabar Coast (coasts of Kerala and Karnataka) and northern Sri Lanka, which became a province of the Chola empire. These conquests gave the Cholas control over critical ports and trading links between India, Southeast Asia, Arabia and East Africa. They were therefore in a position to grab a share of the huge profits made from selling spices to Europe.
Raja Raja Chola’s son, Rajendra Chola I (r 1014–44), continued to expand Chola territory, conquering the remainder of Sri Lanka and campaigning up the east coast as far as Bengal and the Ganges River. Rajendra also launched a campaign in Southeast Asia against the Sumatra-based Srivijaya kingdom, and sent trade missions as far as China. Furthermore, the Chola empire produced a brilliant blossoming of the arts. Its legacy includes three magnificent Shiva temples at Thanjavur and near Kumbakonam. Bronze sculpture reached astonishing heights of aesthetic and technical refinement. Music, dance and literature flourished and developed a distinctly Tamil flavour, enduring in South India long after the Cholas had faded from the picture. The Cholas also took their culture to Southeast Asia, where it lives on in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Bali and Cambodia in dance, religion and mythology.
But the Cholas, weakened by constant campaigning, eventually succumbed to expansionist pressure from the Hoysalas of Halebid (Karnataka) and the resurgent Pandyas of Madurai; by the 13th century they were finally supplanted by the Pandyas. The Hoysalas were themselves eclipsed by the Vijayanagar empire, which arose in the 14th century. The Pandyas prospered and were much admired by Marco Polo when he visited in 1288 and 1293. But their glory was short-lived, as they were unable to fend off Muslim invaders from the north. Meanwhile, the Rashtrakutas were replaced by the Yadavas based at Devagiri (Daulatabad) in Maharashtra.
Muslim Expansion & the Vijayanagar Empire
Muslim raiders from the northwest began incursions into northern India in the 11th century and the powerful Delhi sultanate was established in 1206. The sultanate's expansion towards South India began in the 1290s, and by 1323 it was established at Madurai.
In 1328 Sultan Mohammed Tughlaq, in pursuit of his dream of conquering the whole of India, moved his capital 1100km south to Devagiri in Maharashtra, renaming it Daulatabad and forcing the entire Delhi population to move with him, but had to revert to Delhi after two years because of a water shortage. Though Mohammed Tughlaq controlled a very large part of the subcontinent by 1330, his forces became overstretched and scattered revolts had begun by 1327. From 1335 his empire started shrinking. Not only did local Muslim rulers in places such as Madurai and Daulatabad declare independence, but the foundations of what was to become one of South India’s greatest empires, Vijayanagar, were being laid by Hindu chiefs at Hampi.
The Vijayanagar empire is said to have been founded by two brothers who, having been captured and taken to Delhi, converted to Islam and were sent back south to serve as governors for the sultanate. The brothers, however, reconverted to Hinduism and around 1336 established a kingdom that eventually encompassed most of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and all of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Over seven centuries later, the centre of this kingdom – the ruins and temples of Hampi – is one of South India’s biggest tourist drawcards.
The Muslim Bahmani sultanate, initially based at Daulatabad, established its capital at Gulbarga in Karnataka, relocating to Bidar in the 15th century. Its territory eventually included Maharashtra, Telangana and northern Karnataka – and the sultanate took pains to protect it.
Ongoing rivalry characterised the relationship between Vijayanagar and the Bahmani sultanate. Much of the conflict centred on control of trading ports and the fertile agricultural land between the Krishna and Tungabhadra Rivers; at one stage the Bahmanis wrested the important port of Goa from their rivals, but the Vijayanagars seized it back in 1378. The Bahmani empire was eventually torn apart by factional fighting and, between 1490 and 1528, broke into five separate sultanates: Bidar, Bijapur, Berar, Ahmadnagar and Golconda. In 1565 the combined forces of the five sultanates laid waste to Vijayanagar’s vibrant capital at Hampi, terminating Vijayanagar power.
The Vijayanagar empire is notable for its prosperity, which was the result of a deliberate policy of giving every encouragement to traders from afar, combined with the development of an efficient administrative system and access to important trading links, including west-coast ports. Hampi became quite cosmopolitan, with people from various parts of India as well as from abroad mingling in the bazaars.
Portuguese chronicler Domingo Paez arrived in Vijayanagar during the reign of one of its greatest kings, Krishnadevaraya (r 1509–29), under whom Vijayanagar enjoyed a period of unparalleled prosperity and power. Paez recorded the achievements of the Vijayanagars and described how they had constructed large water tanks and irrigated their fields. He also described how human and animal sacrifices were carried out to propitiate the gods after one of the water tanks had burst repeatedly. He included detail about the fine houses of wealthy merchants and the bazaars full of precious stones (rubies, diamonds, emeralds, pearls) and textiles (including silk).
Like the Bahmanis, the Vijayanagar kings invested heavily in protecting their territory and trading links. Krishnadevaraya employed Portuguese and Muslim mercenaries to guard the forts and protect his domains. He also fostered good relations with the Portuguese, upon whom he depended for access to trade goods, especially the Arab horses he needed for his cavalry.
As a result of the weakening of Vijayanagar, governors at Gingee, Thanjavur and Madurai in Tamil Nadu – the Nayaks – began to proclaim their independence from the second half of the 16th century. The Nayaks ruled until the early 18th century, with Madurai's Tirumalai Nayak being their most important leader, responsible for such architectural gems as Madurai's Meenakshi Amman Temple.
Arrival of the Europeans & Christianity
Vasco da Gama’s arrival in Kerala in 1498 ushered in a new era of European contact. He was followed by Francisco de Ameida and Alfonso de Albuquerque, who established an eastern Portuguese empire that included Goa (first taken in 1510). Albuquerque waged a constant battle against the local Muslims in Goa, finally defeating them. But perhaps his greatest achievement was in playing off two deadly threats against each other: the Vijayanagar empire (for whom access to Goa’s ports was extremely important) and the Bijapur sultanate (which controlled part of Goa).
The Bijapuris and Vijayanagars were sworn enemies, and Albuquerque skilfully exploited this by supplying both sides with Arab horses for their warring cavalries. The horses died in alarming numbers once on Indian soil, so a constant supply had to be imported, keeping Portugal’s Goan ports busy and profitable.
The Portuguese also introduced and forcefully spread Catholicism, and the arrival of the Inquisition in 1560 marked the beginning of 250 years of religious suppression in the Portuguese-controlled areas on the west coast of India.
Today the Portuguese influence is most obvious in Goa, with its chalk-white Catholic churches, Christian festivals and unique cuisine, although the Portuguese also had some influence in Kerala in towns such as Cochin (now Kochi), and landed at what was to become Madras (now Chennai) in the 16th century, before the British. By the mid-16th century Old Goa had grown into a thriving city said to rival Lisbon in magnificence: now only a ruined shadow of that time, its churches and buildings are still a stunning reminder of Portuguese rule.
In 1580 Spain annexed Portugal and, until Portugal regained its independence in 1640, its interests were subservient to Spain’s. After the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the sea route to the east lay open to the English and the Dutch. The Dutch were more interested in trade than in religion and empire. Indonesia was their main source of spices; trade with South India was primarily for pepper and cardamom. The Dutch East India Company set up a string of trading posts (called factories), which allowed them to maintain a complicated trading structure all the way from the Persian Gulf to Japan. They set up trading posts at Surat (Gujarat) and on southeast India's Coromandel Coast, and entered into a treaty with the ruler of Calicut (now Kozhikode). In 1660 they captured the Portuguese forts at Cochin and Kodungallor.
The English also set up a trading venture, the British East India Company, to which in 1600 Queen Elizabeth I granted a monopoly on trade east of Africa's Cape of Good Hope. Like the Dutch, the English were initially mainly interested in Indonesian spices. But the Dutch proved too strong there and the English turned instead to India, setting up a trading post at Madras in 1639. The Danes traded at Tranquebar (Tharangambadi; on Tamil Nadu's Coromandel Coast) from 1616, and the French acquired Pondicherry (now Puducherry) in 1673.
Feature: Enter the Portuguese
On 20 May 1498 Vasco da Gama dropped anchor off the southwest Indian coast near the town of Calicut (now Kozhikode, in modern-day Kerala). It had taken him 23 days to sail from the east coast of Africa, guided by a pilot named Ibn Majid, sent by the ruler of Malindi in Gujarat – the first time Europeans had made the voyage across the Indian Ocean from Africa to India. The Portuguese sought a sea route between Europe and the east so they could trade directly in spices. They also hoped they might find Christians cut off from Europe by the Muslim dominance of the Middle East, including the legendary kingdom of Prester John, a supposedly powerful Christian ruler with whom they could unite against the Middle East's Muslim rulers. In India they found spices and the Syrian Orthodox community, but no Prester John.
Vasco da Gama was well received by the ruler of Calicut. The Portuguese engaged in a limited amount of trading, but became increasingly suspicious that Muslim traders were turning the Calicut ruler against them. They resolved to leave Calicut, in August 1498. Within a few years other Portuguese expeditions began arriving on India's west coast not just to trade but also to conquer, resulting in an empire of scattered Portuguese possessions around India's coasts which lasted until 1961 when India invaded Goa, Daman and Diu.
The Mughals & their Legacy
During the 17th century the Delhi-based Mughal empire made inroads into South India, especially under Emperor Aurangzeb (r 1658–1707), gaining the sultanates of Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda (including Hyderabad) before moving into Tamil Nadu. Among the rivals the Mughals came up against were the Marathas – Hindu warriors originating from near Pune in Maharashtra, who controlled much of the Deccan by 1680, the year their first emperor Shivaji died. Pressing on southward in a series of guerrilla-like raids, the Marathas captured Thanjavur and in the 1690s set up a capital at Gingee near Madras. The Mughal-Maratha wars (1680 to 1707) ended with the Marathas very much on top. By the mid-18th century the Marathas controlled a huge swath of territory extending from the Punjab and Gujarat in the northwest to Odisha in the east and Karnataka in the south; Mughal power barely extended beyond Delhi.
In the Deccan and the south the Marathas had plenty of rivals. One was the Asaf Jahi dynasty (later the nizams of Hyderabad), which broke away from the Mughal empire in 1724 to control much of the Deccan, with its capital initially at Aurangabad (Maharashtra) and then, from 1763, at Hyderabad. Another was Mysore, a landlocked kingdom until a cavalry officer, Hyder Ali, assumed power in 1761 and set about acquiring coastal territory. Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan eventually ruled a kingdom that included southern Karnataka and northern Kerala. Tipu conducted trade directly with the Middle East through the west-coast ports he controlled. The other important players were the British East India Company, based at Madras, and the French, at Pondicherry. The 18th century saw a constantly shifting succession of alliances and conflicts between these five rivals. The British won out over the French in the three Carnatic Wars fought between 1744 and 1763, and their control over the eastern seaboard denied both Hyderabad and Mysore access to trading ports there. Meanwhile, the Portuguese retained control of Goa.
Down in the far south, the kingdom of Travancore (occupying what is now the southern half of Kerala and a bit of Tamil Nadu) was also trying to consolidate its power by gaining control of strategic trade links. Ruler Martanda Varma (r 1729–58) created his own army and tried to keep the local Syrian Orthodox trading community onside by limiting the activities of European traders. Trade in many goods, with the exception of pepper, became a royal monopoly, especially under Martanda’s son Rama Varma (r 1758–98).
Feature: Mighty Shivaji
The name Chhatrapati Shivaji is revered in Maharashtra, with statues of the great warrior astride his horse gracing towns, and many streets and monuments being named – or renamed, as in the case of Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus – after him.
Shivaji founded the powerful Hindu Maratha kingdom, which controlled much of the Deccan region and beyond from the late 17th to early 19th centuries, and which played a big part in the decline of the mighty Delhi-based Mughal empire in the early 18th century. A courageous warrior and charismatic leader, Shivaji was born in 1627 to a prominent Maratha family at Shivneri. As a child he was sent to Pune with his mother, where he was given land and forts and groomed as a future leader. With a very small army, Shivaji seized his first fort at the age of 20 and over the next three decades continued to expand Maratha power around his base in Pune, holding out against Muslim rivals from the north (the Mughal empire) and the south (the sultanate of Bijapur), and eventually ruling much of the Deccan. He was shrewd enough to play his enemies (among them Mughal emperor Aurangzeb) off against each other. In a famous 1659 incident, he killed Bijapuri general Afzal Khan in a face-to-face encounter at Pratapgad Fort.
In 1674 Shivaji was crowned Chhatrapati (Emperor or Great Protector) of the Marathas at Raigad Fort. He died six years later. His son and successor, Sambhaji, suffered serious reversals at the hands of the Mughals, but the resilient Marathas bounced back and by the mid-18th century controlled a large proportion of the subcontinent.
Shivaji is an icon to the modern Maharashtrian-nationalist and Hindu-nationalist political party Shiv Sena (Shivaji's Army) which, among other things, opposes immigration into Maharashtra by non-Maharashtrians. For this reason the widespread use of his name is not wholly welcomed by everybody in Maharashtra.
The British Take Hold
Initially the British East India Company was supposedly interested only in trade, not conquest. But Mysore’s rulers proved something of a vexation. In 1780 Hyder Ali formed an alliance with the nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas to attack all three British bases in India (Bombay, Madras and Bengal). It came to nothing but left the British keen to quash the Mysore menace. This time the Marathas and Hyderabad allied with the British against Mysore, now led by Tipu Sultan, whose river-island citadel, Seringapatam (now Srirangapatnam), fell in 1793 after a year-long siege.
Within the East India Company there was a growing opinion that only total control of India would satisfy British trading interests. This was reinforced by fears of a renewed French bid for land in India following Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798–99. The company's governor-general, Lord Richard Wellesley, ordered a new strike against Mysore, with an ally in the nizam of Hyderabad (who was required to disband his French-trained troops in return for British protection). Tipu Sultan, who may have counted on support from the French, was killed when the British stormed Seringapatam in 1799.
Wellesley restored the old ruling family, the Wodeyars, to half of Tipu’s kingdom; the rest went to Hyderabad and the East India Company. Thanjavur and Karnataka were also absorbed by the British, who, when the rulers of the day died, pensioned off their successors. By 1818 the Marathas, racked by internal strife, had collapsed and most of India was under British influence. In the south, the East India Company had direct control over the Madras Presidency, which stretched from present-day Andhra Pradesh to the southern tip of the subcontinent, and across to northern parts of the Kerala coast. Travancore, Hyderabad and Mysore and other, smaller, chunks of the interior kept their nominal independence as 'princely states', but they were closely watched by their British Residents (de facto governors). Similarly, much of Maharashtra was part of the Bombay Presidency, but there were a dozen or so small princely states scattered around, including Kolhapur, Sawantwadi, Aundh and Janjira.
The First War of Independence (Indian Uprising)
In 1857, half a century after establishing firm control over India, the British suffered a serious setback. To this day, the causes of the Uprising (known at the time as the Indian Mutiny and subsequently labelled by nationalist historians as a War of Independence) are the subject of debate. Key factors included the influx of cheap goods, such as textiles, from Britain that destroyed many livelihoods; the dispossession of territories from many rulers; and taxes imposed on landowners.
The incident that’s popularly held to have sparked the Uprising, however, took place at an army barracks in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh on 10 May 1857. A rumour leaked out that a new type of bullet was greased with what Hindus claimed was cow fat, while Muslims maintained that it came from pigs; pigs are considered unclean to Muslims, and cows are sacred to Hindus. Since loading a rifle involved biting the end off the waxed cartridge, these rumours provoked considerable unrest.
The commanding officer in Meerut lined up his soldiers and ordered them to bite off the ends of their issued bullets. Those who refused were marched off to prison. The following morning, the garrison's soldiers rebelled, shot their officers and marched to Delhi. Of the 74 Indian battalions of the Bengal army, seven (one of them Gurkhas) remained loyal, 20 were disarmed and the other 47 mutinied. The soldiers and peasants rallied around the ageing, reluctant Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar in Delhi. They held Delhi for some months and besieged the British Residency in Lucknow for five months before they were finally suppressed. The incident left festering sores on both sides.
Almost immediately the East India Company was wound up, and direct control of the country was assumed by the British government, which announced its support for the existing rulers of the princely states, claiming they would not interfere in local matters as long as the states remained loyal to the British. Though not felt as strongly in the south as in the north, the First War of Independence kicked off calls for self-rule all over India.
The Road to Independence & the Partition of India
The desire of many Indians to be free from foreign rule remained. Opposition to the British began to increase at the turn of the 20th century, spearheaded by the Indian National Congress (Congress Party), the nation’s oldest political party, formed in 1885. The fight for independence gained momentum when, in April 1919, following riots in Amritsar (Punjab), a British army contingent was sent to quell the unrest. The army ruthlessly fired into a crowd of unarmed protesters attending a meeting, killing an estimated 1500 people. News of the massacre spread rapidly throughout India, turning huge numbers of otherwise apolitical Indians into Congress supporters. The Congress movement found a new leader in Mohandas Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi.
After three decades of intense nonviolent campaigning for an independent India, Gandhi’s dream finally materialised. However, despite his plea for a united India, the Muslim League’s leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, demanded a separate state for India’s sizeable Muslim population, and the decision was made to split the country.
The Partition of India in 1947 contained all the ingredients for an epic disaster, but the resulting bloodshed was far worse than anticipated. Massive population exchanges took place. Train-fulls of Muslims, fleeing westward into Pakistan, were held up and slaughtered by Hindu and Sikh mobs. Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to the east into India suffered the same fate at Muslim hands. By the time the chaos had run its course, more than 10 million people had changed sides and at least 500,000 had been killed.
India and Pakistan became sovereign nations under the British Commonwealth in August 1947, but the violence, migrations and uncertainty over a few states, especially Kashmir, continued. The violence over Kashmir – then a predominantly Muslim-populated state with a Hindu maharaja, which officially became part of India in October 1947 – continues today, and is estimated to have killed around 47,000 people so far. Many of the terrorist attacks that have hit tourist spots in India have a Kashmiri link, including the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
The Constitution of India was at last adopted in November 1949 and went into effect on 26 January 1950 when, after untold struggle, independent India officially became a republic.
One of the great figures of the 20th century, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 in Porbandar, Gujarat. After studying in London (1888–91), he worked as a barrister in South Africa. Here, the young Gandhi became politicised, railing against the racial discrimination he encountered. He soon became the spokesperson for South Africa's Indian community, championing equality for all.
Gandhi returned to India in 1915 with the doctrine of ahimsa (nonviolence) central to his political plans, and committed to a simple and disciplined lifestyle. He set up the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, which was innovative for its admission of Untouchables (now known as Dalits).
Within a year, Gandhi had won his first victory, defending farmers in Bihar from exploitation. It’s said that this was when he first received the title ‘Mahatma’ (Great Soul) from an admirer. The passage of the discriminatory Rowlatt Acts (which allowed certain political cases to be tried without juries) in 1919 spurred him to further action and he organised a national protest. In the days following this hartal (strike), feelings ran high throughout the country. After the massacre of unarmed protesters in Amritsar (Punjab), a deeply shocked Gandhi immediately called off the movement.
By 1920 Gandhi was a key figure in the Indian National Congress, and he coordinated a national campaign of satyagraha (passive resistance) to British rule, with the effect of raising nationalist feeling while earning the lasting enmity of the British. In early 1930 Gandhi captured the imagination of the country, and the world, when he led a march of several thousand followers from Ahmedabad to Dandi on the coast of Gujarat. On arrival, Gandhi ceremoniously made salt by evaporating seawater, thus publicly defying the much-hated British-imposed salt tax; not for the first time, he was imprisoned. Released in 1931 to represent the Indian National Congress at the second Round Table Conference in London, he won the hearts of many British people but failed to gain any real concessions from the government.
Disillusioned with politics, Gandhi resigned from the Congress Party in 1934. He returned spectacularly to the fray in 1942 with the Quit India campaign, in which he urged the British to leave India immediately. His actions were deemed subversive and he and most of the Congress leadership were imprisoned.
In the frantic Independence bargaining that followed the end of WWII, Gandhi was largely excluded and watched helplessly as plans were made to partition the country – a dire tragedy in his eyes. Gandhi stood almost alone in urging tolerance and the preservation of a single India, and his work on behalf of members of all communities drew resentment from some Hindu hardliners. On his way to a prayer meeting in Delhi on 30 January 1948, he was assassinated by a Hindu zealot, Nathuram Godse.
In 21st-century India, including the south, Mahatma Gandhi continues to be an iconic figure, still widely revered as the ‘Father of the Nation’.
Carving up the South
While the chaos of Partition was mostly felt in the north – mainly in Punjab, Kashmir and Bengal – the south faced its own problems. Though most of the princely states acceded to India peacefully, an exception was Hyderabad state, where the Indian army moved in and forcibly took control in 1948. Tens of thousands of Muslims were massacred by Hindus during and after this so-called 'police action'.
In the 1950s the princely states and British-delineated provinces were dismantled and South India was reorganised into states along linguistic lines. Mysore state was extended in 1956 into the Kannada-speaking state of Greater Mysore, which was renamed Karnataka in 1972.
Malayalam-speaking Kerala was created in 1956 from Travancore (except for its Tamil-speaking far south), Cochin (now Kochi) and Malabar (formerly part of the Madras Presidency). The maharajas in both Travancore and Cochin were especially attentive to the provision of basic services and education, and their legacy today is India’s most literate state. Kerala also blazed a trail in post-Independence India by becoming the first state in the world to freely elect a communist government in 1957.
Andhra Pradesh was created in 1956 by combining the Telugu-speaking Andhra state (the northern parts of the old Madras Presidency) with Telugu-speaking areas of the old Hyderabad state. In 2014 the latter were separated off as the new state of Telangana, after years of complaints that they were neglected and exploited within Andhra Pradesh; Hyderabad remains capital of both states until Andhra Pradesh's new capital, Amaravati, is eventually completed.
Tamil Nadu was the name given in 1968 to the former Madras state, which since 1956 had comprised the Tamil-speaking areas of the old Madras Presidency plus the southernmost areas of the former Travancore kingdom (also Tamil-speaking).
The creation of Maharashtra was one of the most contested issues of the language-based demarcation of states. After Independence, western Maharashtra and Gujarat were joined to form Bombay state, to which Marathi-speaking parts of Hyderabad and Madhya Pradesh states were added in 1956. In 1960, after agitation by both Marathis and Gujaratis, Bombay state was divided into the existing states of Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The French relinquished Puducherry (Pondicherry) in 1954 – 140 years after reclaiming it from the British. It’s a Union Territory (controlled by the government in Delhi), though largely self-governing. Lakshadweep was granted Union Territory status in 1956, as were the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Throughout most of this carve-up, Goa was still under Portuguese rule. Although a rumbling independence movement had existed in Goa since the early 20th century, the Indian government was reluctant to take Goa by force, hoping the Portuguese would leave of their own volition. The Portuguese refused, so in December 1961 Indian troops crossed the border and liberated the state with surprisingly little resistance. It became a Union Territory of India, but after splitting from Daman and Diu (Gujarat) in 1987, it was officially recognised as the 25th state of the Indian Union.
Feature: The 1948 Hyderabad State Massacre
Upon Independence in 1947, the Muslim nizam of Hyderabad refused to join India. Although only he and about 10% of his subjects were Muslims, the nizam was friendlier with Islamic Pakistan than with India, and favoured the idea of Hyderabad remaining an independent state (a concept that independent India's new Nehru-led government opposed). Following a communist-led rebellion and attacks on Hindus by the Muslim Razakar Militia, the Indian Army seized power in Hyderabad state in September 1948 in what was called 'police action'. The nizam quickly surrendered, but, during and after the 'police action', Muslims across Hyderabad state were terrorised, with allegations of looting, arson, abduction, mass rape and mass murder at the hands of some members of the Indian Army and, mostly, local Hindus. However, an investigating team of mixed religion, led by Hindu congressman Pandit Sunderlal, also reported that most Indian Army soldiers had protected Muslims. According to BBC reporting, an estimated 27,000 to 40,000 people are believed to have died, though others claim the figures may have reached 200,000.
It is only in recent years that details about this massacre – a seemingly forgotten, violent chapter of Indian history – have started to trickle out. In its immediate aftermath, Sunderlal's team rushed to Hyderabad to put together a report on the carnage – but it was never published. Some historians argue that Nehru's government covered up what happened, probably because it feared the revelation would lead to retaliatory attacks on Hindus by Muslims and yet more widespread violence across India. There have been some recent calls from the Indian press to make the Sunderlal report more widely available, but, in general, the 1948 Hyderabad events remain surprisingly untalked about in modern-day India.