Shifty Lines: South Asia

This installment of Shifty Lines takes us to another region of Asia.  After looking at ethnolinguistic divides in north Asia, the Persosphere, and the Caucasus, we move now to the region known variously as the Indian subcontinent, “India,” and (most correctly) South Asia.

A Succession of Empires

South Asia has been the seat of empires throughout its history, starting from before the Indo-Aryan invasion with the Indus Valley Civilization.  Almost universally based in the north, these empires differed in how far into the subcontinent they conquered.  The early Mahajanapadas only edged into southern India, while the Maurya and Gupta Empires controlled virtually all of South Asia, including the Maldive Islands.  The rest of the time, southern, Dravidian India was independent under the Chola, Chera, and Pandya dynasties, with the Cholas managing to conquer much of India and parts of Indonesia and Southeast Asia in the 10th century CE as well.  Sri Lanka was part of some of these South Indian empires, establishing a Dravidian minority alongside its Indo-Aryan majority.  During these periods of empire, the characteristic native religions of South Asia, Hinduism and Buddhism, became established, with Buddhism spreading into East and Southeast Asia as well.
Empires based in South Asia rarely crossed the Himalaya and Arakan mountains that separate modern India from Burma and China, while their borders with the Persian Empire were much more fluid.  The Himalayan regions of Nepal and Bhutan likewise retained their independence throughout most or perhaps even all of these imperial periods.  Thus, while the empires of India were the equals of any of their better-known neighbors and trading partners, they did not succeed in conquering a region vastly outside the currently recognized boundaries of South Asia.  These geographical limitations set up the next phase of India’s history: the Muslim conquests.
Between the 7th and the 15thcenturies CE, South Asia faced repeated invasions from Muslim powers, including the Umayyad Caliphate that conquered Spain.  The combination of invading armies from Persia and Central Asia and Arab mariners establishing trading posts along India’s western coast introduced Islam to India, which would eventually become home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of Muslims.  Numerous kingdoms became sultanates ruled by Persian and Central Asian conquerors, most notably in Delhi, while the south responded by uniting into the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire to repel further attackers. 
Muslim dominion in South Asia culminated with the Mughal Empire, during which Central Asian conquerors gained control over almost all of South Asia extending into Afghanistan and even further northwest, while never penetrating the southern tip of the Deccan.  Like many ancient empires, the Mughals exerted their power through vassals and tributary states, rather than having direct control over their vast holdings.  This decentralization, combined with Mughal appreciation for South Asian culture, led to the development of numerous syncretic and idiosyncratic forms of Islam in South Asia, many of which persist as the majority religions of various South Asian groups to this day.  Still, Islam was still widely viewed as a foreign intruder in Hindu-majority India, especially when subsequent Mughal rulers began rigidly enforcing Islamic norms and legally penalizing non-Muslims.
The Mughal period collapsed into a series of smaller empires much like the ones that had preceded them.  Former vassal states became ascendant, conquering virtually the entire region over the ensuing century.  In particular, the Maratha Empire emerged from central India to usurp Mughal control over most of South Asia, and the Sikh Empire became a formidable military force that conquered Punjab, Kashmir, Himachal, and nearby regions.  The Marathas were the last Hindu empire to rule in India, and their navy kept Arab, Portuguese, and other invaders at bay until the British conquest.
{Warning: This is a LONG one.}

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Shifty Lines: South Asia