India During the Classical Period

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

India During the Classical Period

When the Gupta Empire fell in 550, it gave way to a scattering of independent kingdoms throughout northern and central India. By the year 600, the Pushyabhuti dynasty had risen to supremacy. Pushyabhuti leader Harsha would be the last ethnically Indian ruler to try to take over the entire subcontinent; his troops did succeed in conquering the north, but not the south. Harsha’s reign was characterized by the production of many great works of Sanskrit literature.

A system that strongly resembled the feudal system of medieval Europe would characterize India from this time until about the eleventh century. At the head of each independent kingdom was a strong military leader. Below him were his retinues of vassals, warriors who paid him financial tribute and served in his army in exchange for his protection. The king and his army would wage war on other kings in the region; when one king had subdued all his neighbors, he became known as a maharaja. The history of India at this time is chaotic because no one maharaja ever held onto his power for long. His kingdom would usually collapse promptly after his death, usually because his heirs were incapable of effective administration or managing crises or leading troops into battle. As one kingdom fell, another would rise to take its place.

The Ganges River valley was a rich agricultural region and was therefore considered a prize; several dynasties competed for supremacy in this area during the first millennium. The Rashtrakuta dynasty began a period of rule in 753 in this region. Krishna II, who succeeded to the throne late in the tenth century, was its most notable maharaja. Krishna and his warriors overpowered most other kingdoms in the region, but the Rashtrakutas fell from power almost immediately after his death.

The Huns had invaded India from the north around AD 510 and had remained there ever since. Their descendants, known as the Rajputs, converted to Hinduism in another instance of the typical Indian/Near Eastern assimilation of an invading people into the native culture. In 727, the Rajputs, whose military skills were greatly admired, were formally welcomed into the Hindu warrior caste. They became politically dominant in the region. The Chola dynasty began to rule in southern India in 740; the Cholas’ geographical location gave them control of international trade, and they were also notable for their impressive navy. The Pala dynasty of Bangladesh in the northeastern corner of India is notable for being India’s only Buddhist dynasty; it began in 750 and would last for three hundred fifty years. The Palas presided over what became a study center for Buddhism that attracted scholars from all over the known world. During this era, however, Buddhism would more or less die out throughout India. As Hinduism evolved, it began to incorporate many ideas and concepts from Buddhism. This can be seen as another instance of a great religion adapt- ing itself to the needs and expectations of the people.

India’s guilds and the wealthy merchant families who headed them drove the Indian economy in this post-Gupta era. The merchants occupied positions of great social and political power, similar to the European Medici or Rothschilds in later centuries. Members of the Indian merchant caste served as the maharajas’ bankers, and they often had their own armies. India was something of a hub of international trade, positioned as it was between China and the Near East.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Rise of Islam and African Civilization to AD 1000 Practice Test

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