Geography and Indian History

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Reconstructing the Past - 01

Geography and Indian History

The geography of a region tends to play a very important part in shaping the region's history. India's history, in particular, has been greatly affected by geography.

The concept of the nation-state has come up only in modern times. The current territory of India did not have an identity in the past. For the purpose of analysing the influence of geography on history, it makes more sense to consider the Indian sub-continent, or South Asia, which includes the current territories of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

The Northern Region

The Indian sub-continent is prominently demarcated, bounded by the seas towards the south, while the Himalayas in the north and associated mountain ranges of the east and west separate it from the rest of Asia (see Fig. ).

Fig 1: South Asia. (Source: Walsh 2006, India, p. 2)

In spite of this, the isolation of the sub-continent had never been total. High mountain passes allowed links with the rest of Asia. In the northwest, the Bolan, Gomal and Khyber passes allowed the early migration of Aryans into the subcontinent. Later, these very passes allowed other races from central and west Asia, like the Greeks, Huns, Turks and Mughals, to invade India. Passes along the northern mountains linked with central Asia and Tibet, which assisted in the spread of Buddhism into these regions. In the northeast mountains, there are fewer passes, which effectively kept China separated from India.

The name India was given by the Greeks who used the name of the Indus river to name the region. Incidentally, the Indians of those times used the name Sindhu for Indus, which the Persians pronounced as Hindu, and during the times of the Muslim invasion towards the end of the ancient period, the region came to be known as Hindustan, and the inhabitants Hindus.

However, the importance of Himalayas and associated mountain ranges has more to do with the fact that the two great perennial river systems, of the Indus and the Ganges (Ganga), arise from them. Each of these systems gave rise to the fertile northern plains on which arose ancient civilisations. The Himalayan ranges are also responsible for forcing the monsoon rains onto the northern plains of the subcontinent from June to September, at the same time also preventing the very cold and dry winds of central Asia from flowing into South Asia. Not only do the monsoon rains add to the fertility of the northern plains, they also provide much needed rains to most of the rest of the subcontinent every year.

The Indus Valley Civilisation, which existed around 2500 BC, stands testimony to the high level of urban culture reached by the indigenous population in the north-western portions of the northern fertile plains. Later, following the advent of the Aryans into the subcontinent around 1500 BC, the rural Vedic Culture took root and spread across the northern plains.

The navigability of the northern rivers helped internal trade and commerce, and ancient river ports like Kanauj, Benares (Varanasi), Pataliputra (Patna) and Prayag (Allahabad) became centres of commerce. This, coupled with the productivity of the fertile plains, helped the growth of many large kingdoms in the past.

The Southern Region – the Deccan

South of the Gangetic plain are highlands which rise to form the Vindhya range cutting across the middle of the subcontinent. This range is not very high, but had served historically as sufficient barrier between the northern and the southern parts of the subcontinent to result in two distinct cultures – the Vedic culture of the north and the Dravidian culture of the south. Still, it was not barrier enough to prevent the percolation of the Vedic culture southwards.

The Dravidian culture, which becomes more entrenched the further south one goes from the Vindhya, is believed to be the indigenous culture of the inhabitants of the subcontinent before the advent of the Aryans from the north west. The Dravidian people of South India are of a different ethnicity than those of the north, and their languages and culture are likewise different.

The region south of the Vindhya is a peninsulaA peninsula is a body of land surrounded by water on three sides., called Deccan. It is mostly dry and hilly plateau, higher in the west and sloping towards the east. The western portion of the Deccan rises to form a range of hills called the Western Ghats, which slope steeply in the west to a narrow coastal plain adjoining the Arabian Sea. The eastern fringe of the Deccan joins the Eastern Ghats, more discontinuous than the Western Ghats and of lesser height. It borders a wider coastal plain adjoining the Bay of Bengal in the east.

Because of the general west-to-east slope of the Deccan, the four major peninsular rivers, the Mahanadi, the Krishna, the Godavari and the Cauvery all flow eastwards into the Bay of Bengal. These are non-perennial rivers, fed mostly by the monsoon rains. There are, however, two other major rivers at the northern boundary of the Deccan which flow westwards into the Arabian sea – the Narmada and the Tapti. The Deccan region has always had scarcity of water, due to which the people of South had practised irrigation since ancient times.

The coastline of the subcontinent, although lacking in natural harbours, is quite extensive. Through the ancient ports on the western coastline, maritime trade and commerce exchanges occurred with Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and East Africa. The eastern coastline permitted maritime trade and traffic with South-East Asia. Some colonies and kingdoms were also established in South-East Asia, helping export aspects of the language, religion and culture of the subcontinent.

Sri Lanka, geographically, is a continuation of the subcontinental landmass, and culturally, of the Dravidian culture.

A Pan-Indian culture

Even though two different cultural types – the Vedic and the Dravidian – (and their various hues) are visible across the subcontinent, the relative isolation of the region from the rest of the world has helped develop a Pan-Indian sentiment, and a way of life different from elsewhere. The social customs and social setups have many aspects of similarity all across, providing an undercurrent of unity in the cultural outlook of the people.

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List of References

Walsh, JE, A Brief History of India, NY: Facts on File, 2006.


Avari, B, India: The Ancient Past – A history of Indian sub-continent from c. 7000 BC to AD 1200, Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2007.
Basham, AL, The Wonder that was India – A survey of the culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the muslims, 1st evergreen edn, NY: Grove Press, 1959.
Kulke, H & Rothermund, D, A History of India, 4th edn, Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2004.
Robb, P, A History of India, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave, 2002.
Roy, SL, History of India – for classes IX & X, 3rd edn, Calcutta: Calcutta Book House, 2002.
Walsh, JE, A Brief History of India, NY: Facts on File, 2006.