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India Background | History

Recent findings suggest that India is possibly the world’s oldest civilization. Compressing this extensive history into a brief timeline produces a limited and inexact glimpse into the formation of an ancient nation. But the summary knowledge is a useful introduction for any brand trading, or contemplating trading, in India.


The Dravidians, a group of people who shared a common language, were among the earliest inhabitants of the territory of modern India, starting perhaps 4,000 years ago. But in 2002, scientists discovered an enormous city, dated to 7,500 BCE, 100 feet deep in the Gulf of Cambay, off of the India’s west coast, near Gujarat. The discovery suggests that civilization in India may have formed much earlier.

The Beginning | 4000 BCE

Historians generally believe that the populations of India and much of the West are rooted in the same place, around the Black Sea, with the Indo-European people, who spoke similar languages and lived perhaps in the area of modern-day Turkey or Ukraine. Some of these people moved west into Europe and others migrated south through what is now Iran, arriving ultimately in India.

The Indus Valley Civilization | 2500 BCE to 1700 BCE

In the migration south, the Indo-European language evolved into Indo-Iranian and then Indo-Aryan. Along the Indus River, in what is now Pakistan and northern India, the Indo-Aryans came in contact with what’s considered the largest civilization of the ancient world, with a population exceeding that of Egypt or neighboring Mesopotamia. These people introduced the Vedas, collections of devotions to various gods, written in Sanskrit. A collection of Vedas called the Upanishads influenced the development of Hinduism. The Dravidians may have populated the Indus Valley.

The Axial Age | 800 BCE to 200 BCE

This period of history marks a radical transformation in human consciousness, with the emergence of a new sense of self that changes how people view morality, life, and death.

In inventing the term Axial Age, German philosopher Karl Jaspers noted that this change happens almost simultaneously and independently in different parts of the world. In Iran, Zarathustra establishes Zoroastrianism. Hinduism evolves from the earlier Vedic texts. Jainism appears. The Buddha is born. Confucius is born in 551 and Laozi, the founder of Daoism, a few years later. The Hebrew Bible is redacted during the exile in Babylonia. In Greece, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others establish the foundation of western philosophy.

Conquest and Unification | 500 BCE to 185 BCE

When the king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, set out to conquer the known world, he followed roughly the same route as the Indo-European migration south. After conquering the Persians, who had extended their empire into the area that today is Pakistan and Afghanistan, he reached the Hydaspes River in Punjab. But after defeating the Indian armies led by King Porus, Alexander, his troops exhausted, ended this conquest of India.

The Golden Age | 320 BCE to 550 CE

Subsequently, the Maurya Dynasty unified India under the rule of Ashoka the Great. Buddhism flourished during this period. And maritime trade with Rome began. For about three hundred years, much of India enjoyed peace and prosperity during the Gupta Empire. During this period, Hinduism became the major religion and Indians made major advances in science and mathematics, inventing the concept of zero and the decimal system.

Empires and Invasions | 500 to 1500

With the end of the Gupta Empire, India fractured into several kingdoms. Arab Muslims conquered Persia and then the areas now Pakistan and Afghanistan, but Hindu rulers repelled advances further south. Later, Turkic and Afghan invaders established the Delhi Sultanate in northern India and exerted influence in other parts of the country, adding Islam to the mix of religions.

Mughal Era | 1500 to 1857

Mughal invaders defeated the Muslim rulers of northern India, adding more ingredients to the country’s cultural mix. Turkic-Mongols from central Asia, the Mughals traced their lineage to Genghis Khan. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they controlled most of India. A Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal. In 1499, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a new sea route to India, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602. Subsequently, the Danish, French, and Portuguese set up similar mercantile businesses. Britain established its East India Company in 1612.

British Rule | 1858 to 1947

With these developments, India became not only a trading partner for the Europeans, but also another theater of war. Following Britain’s victory in the Seven Year’s War, which broke out in 1756, its East India Company controlled most of India for about a century, until an Indian rebellion against the company in 1857. Then the British government asserted control. It installed modern governance institutions, helped build the economy, and encouraged an emerging middle class. At the same time, much of India remained impoverished. By the early 1920s, the Indian National Congress called for self-government. Relying on principles of non-violent protest, Mahatma Gandhi led a movement for independence.

Independence | 1947 to 1991

In the global geo-political reorganization following World War II, India achieved independence, on August 15, 1947, and Jawaharlal Nehru became the nation’s first prime minister. Britain partitioned the land into a Muslim state, Pakistan, and a predominately Hindu state, India. Massive migration and violence ensued. Tensions between India and Pakistan deteriorated to the point of war several times. Internal divisions resulted in the assassinations of two prime ministers, Indira Gandhi in 1984, and her son Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. India’s economy neared default in 1991. This trauma forced the government to advance more inclusive policies and loosen its central control of the economy.

Rising India | 1991 to Today

Some sectors, such financial services and telecommunications, experienced reform, while other sectors lagged. Having nationalized banks in 1966, the Indian government allowed more private ownership, in 1996. Regulatory reform of insurance, in 2000, attracted foreign investment. For similar reasons, the telecom sector grew exponentially. In contrast, the retail sector remains highly protected and fragmented. Although GDP grew by over 10 percent in 2010, the economy slowed to half that rate in 2013. The overwhelming rejection of the long-time ruling party, and the vote in favor of Narendra Modi, in India’s national election, in May 2014, signaled impatience with the pace of reform and affirmed a desire for greater opportunity.