Impact of Geography on Indian History

The nature has endowed its choicest gifts to this wonderful land called India. In the last episode of this program on Indian History we showed you some of the great rivers of this country. The Himalayan rivers – the Sindhu, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra; and the peninsular rivers – Krishna, Kaveri, Godavari and the Mahanadi.

These rivers, along with their numerous tributaries, fulfil one of the most basic needs for life survival –water. That is why we find all ancient civilizations of the world taking birth on the banks of major rivers. Similar is the case with India whose first recorded civilization is the Harappan on the banks of the river Indus.

Impact of Geography on Indian History

Throughout its early History, mankind constantly moved from one hostile environment to more favourable living conditions. The topography of the land, availability of water, and the climate are the factors that have played a crucial role in the growth of human settlements.

Once man’s basic needs – food, water, clothing and shelter – are taken care of, he seeks refinement in his living conditions as well as his thought process. Both, however, are substantially affected by his environment – land conditions and climate.

In this episode we shall see how geographical factors affect the course of history.

India is well-known for her vast dimensions and the varied physical features. It has a winding chains of hills and high mountain ranges that are covered with snow and thick forests. Its vast plains are covered with fertile land yielding rich harvest year after year. Its rivers criss-cross the entire length and breadth of the country, providing life sustaining water to its inhabitants. Its arid deserts seem almost untouched by the feet of man. Its dense forests are the sanctuaries of a multitude of floral and faunal varieties.

India also has every variety of climates, from polar to temperate to tropical. The highlands of the North India have icy winds and snowy weather. The plains of Rajasthan experience scorching heat and dust-stroms. The coastal areas brave high velocity wind storms. And the evergreen rainforests of the north-east are result of high rainfall in the region.

All these natural conditions divided India into different territorial units – each with its own history.

The history of India developed in essence as the history of its various regions. In the process of historical evolution these regions acquired cultural features of their own. Regions had their distinct languages; their art forms differed; even their social customs and practices were different from each other. Thus great dissymmetry in historical change are witnessed between regions of this country.

In the north of the Indian sub-continent lie the formidable Himalayas. Geographically these can be divided into three broad regions, namely:

• The Eastern Himalayas
• The Central Himalayas, and
• The Western Himalayas

The eastern branch of the Himalayas, the Patkai hills with its extension in the form of the Khasi, Garo and the Jaintia hills, closes the Brahmaputra valley from the south, adding to the isolation of Assam. South of Manipur, the Lushai and the Chin hills narrow into a long range of hills of the Arakan Yoma range, which demarcate the border with Myanmar and take it to Cape Negaris situated on the mouth the Irrawaddy river.

Although the routes through the eastern mountains are difficult, that has not prevented the flow of cultural influence from Southeast Asia and South China. The region has also witnessed a few military invasions from the east as also the gradual and partly peaceful penetration by people like the Ahoms, from Arakan into the Assam valley.

Ethenic and Cultural Expansion in the North-East: Process and Impact

The central Himalayan region, extending from Bhutan to Chitral, lies at the fringe of the great table-land of Tibet. There have been trade and other contacts between India and Tibet across this frontier.

In the west lies the Hindukush range of mountains, which extends south-westward from the Himalayas and goes deep into Afghanistan. Between the western end of the Himalayas and the Hindukush, lie the Karakorum mountains with the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges as an extension to the southeast. However, these western and north-western mountain chains have not been able to keep out the flow of people. Peaceful travellers, traders and a series of invaders entered India through this barrier during pre-historic and historic times. Thus Shortugai in southeast Afghanistan was a trading outpost of the Harappan civilization, while the ancient towns of Kabul and Kandahar were situated on the trade routes between India and Iran. The Greeks, the Sakas, Kushanas, the Hunas, the Turks and the Afghans made their entry into India through these routes, while Buddhism and other aspects of Indian culture entered Afghanistan and Central Asia through these passes.

Indus Plains

The passes of the western Himalayas lead to the Great Plain of Hindustan which extends from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, stretching over 3,000 kms in length and between 250 and 300 kms in width. Its north-western part is formed by the rich plains of the Indus, comprising,

• The Punjab, and
• The Sindh

The Punjab, literally the land of five rivers, today lies divided between India and Pakistan. The five rivers – Satluj, Jhelum, Ravi, Beas and Chenab, have made this region the ‘Bread-Basket’ of the sub-continent. The prosperity of this region coupled with its strategic location has always lured invaders. As a result, a number of intrusive elements have fused into the existing culture and so Punjab is sometimes also referred to as the ‘Melting-pot of Cultures’.

The lower Indus valley and the delta formed by it constitute Sindh. This region has been historically linked with Gujarat. The prosperity of this region can be gauged by the fact that it was in this region that the first urban culture of the sub-continent emerged during the 2nd millennium BC. Thus Harappa, the famous and the first excavated site of the Indus Valley Civilization is situated in the Sahiwal district of Punjab, while Mohan-jo-daro is located in the Larkana district of Sindh, both in present day Pakistan.

Ganga Plains

Bounded on the north by the Himalayan foot-hills and the Terai, on the west by the Aravali range, on the south by the Central Indian Plateau, and on the east by the Rajmahal hills, lie the Ganga plains of northern India.

The upper plains in south Uttaranchal and western and central Uttar Pradesh largely include the Doab, literally the land of two rivers namely, the Ganga and the Yamuna. This area has been marked by conflicts and cultural synthesis since ancient times. The Harappan culture also made inroads into this region. This was also the centre of the Painted Grey Ware or PGW culture and the scene of pulsating activities during the Later Vedic period. The terminal point of the Doab is Prayag, now known as Allahabad, situated at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna. This confluence or Sangam witnesses a swarm of devotees taking bath on auspicious days even today.

The middle Ganga plains correspond to eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This is where the ancient Mahajanapadas of Kosal, Kasi and Magadh were situated. It was Magadh which was the seat of the Mauryan imperial power which witnessed the earliest manifestation of the political unity in the country. Magadh remained at the centre of history of this country till the Gupta period or the 5th Century A.D.

The lower Ganga plains terminate with the province of Bengal. Here rainfall in low-lying plains created forests and marshlands making settlements in early Bengal a difficult proposition. It was only with greater utilisation and control of iron technology that the fertility of the heavy alluvial soil of this region could be exploited, leading to the spread of urban culture, into this region.

The Ganga plains nurtured a number of human settlements, and have constituted the heartland of Indian Civilisation from the first millennium B.C.

Central India

The Vindhya and the Satpura hills lying in an east-west orientation divide India horizontally in the centre. It has often impeded the movement from northern part to the south and vice versa. The central Indian belt, especially Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and eastern Madhya Pradesh has been an area of tribal concentration, which may be a result of the absence of the cultural influences from the adjoining regions. Two important routes generally utilised to bypass the Vidhyas were along both its extremities. The western or the ‘Barada’ gap lying through Gujarat was given greater preference due to its strategic location. This gap was used by the Aryans to penetrate into south. The Sakas used it to invade the Satvahanas while the Chalukyas used it to stop the imperial designs of Harsha. Ujjain, too, developed into an important commercial trade and political centre, as it gave access to Gujarat as well as to the Gulf of Khambat, bypassing the Vindhyas and the Satpuras.

Western India

Western India comprises the great regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Rajasthan is divided into two equal halves by the Aravalis, which run diagonally across it.

The eastern half is more habitable; Mewar and its surroundings, which form its lower part, are almost as fertile as the Ganga plains. The towns of Ajmer and Udaipur in particular enjoy locational and strategic advantages, which enabled the Rajputs to retain full or partial independence. The ravines and valleys of Mewar enabled the Ranas to defy the Muslim rulers of Delhi with their deeds of bravery recounted in a thousand songs and ballads.

The western part of Rajasthan consists largely of desert and is therefore, less habitable. However, the towns of Jodhpur, Bikaner and Jaisalmer, provided safe habitat to the Rajputs of the eastern half, whenever they faced hostile pressure.

Gujarat lies to the south of Rajasthan, on the western fringe of the central Indian belt. It consists of Saurashtra, which experienced an extension of Harappan culture because of its closeness to Indus. The Northern part of Gujarat is known as Anant. It is characterised by semi-arid wind-blown soils. Its southern part is known as Lata; it largely comprise of fertile land and covers the entire western coast. The central peninsula of Gujarat is known as Kathiawar. The Rann of Kachchh lying between the south western end of the Aravalis and the Gulf of Kachchh was once an inlet of the Arabian Sea but is now a saline marsh which is barely above sea level.

The lengthy coastline of Gujarat is dotted with several ports, which have been engaged in overseas trade since the 3rd millennium B.C. Lothal was one such flourishing Harappan port. Dwarka and Bhrigukachchha (Broach) were active trading ports during the Vedic times. many more ports came into existence during the later centuries. Any flourishing maritime trade requires good communication with the hinterland. Thus the routes leading to the Deccan, to the eastern end of the Ganga plain, to the middle and the western part of the Aryavrata, and into Rajasthan were in use since early historical times. This, in turn, further gave a fillip to the commercial activities in these regions.

Importance of Gujarat Ports in trade and commerce in Ancient India

Eastern India

The coastal plains of Orissa, lying to the south west of the delta of Ganga at the eastern end of the Central Indian Plateau, are centred largely on the Mahanadi basin. The narrow strip of the Orissa coast between the Garhjat hills and the sea offers an easy access from eastern India to the eastern part of the Deccan Plateau.

Protected by extensive forests and mountains in the mainland and bound by the sea on the east, Orissa remained immune from invasions from the Ganga plain over long periods of time. Nevertheless several incursions did take place from the Ganga plains into Orissa along this route. Asoka used the direct route from Magadha to Kalinga for his famous Kalinga War. King Kharvela later used it for the reverse direction – from Kalinga to Magadha. By late first millennium A.D. Orissa had begun to develop her distinct linguistic and cultural identity.

Peninsular India

The Deccan Plateau and the surrounding coastal plains define the contours of Peninsular India. The Plateau is divided into three major regions which largely correspond to the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The fertile black soil of Maharashtra helped in the growth of agriculture-based chalcolitic communities in northern Deccan. The red soil of the Telangana region of Andhra required manual irrigation, and thus resulted in pastoral life style of the Neolithic settlers of the south-western Andhra. In contrast, the Krishna-Godavari delta of Andhra, has a fertile land. This area, known in earlier times as Vengi, is considered as the rice bowl of the south. Karnataka includes south-western Deccan, and is divided into two parts – the southern part is better watered and more hospitable for human settlement than the north. Here Mangalore is an important harbour, situated on an inlet formed by the Netravati river. While there is no natural division between Maharashtra and Karnataka, the Nilgiris form a natural division between the Kannadigas and the Tamils, as well as the Malayalees.

The Extreme South

The area occupied by the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala constitute the southern extreme of the Indian sub-continent. Geographically, linguistically and culturally, Tamil Nadu has evolved an individuality of its own. At times, interrelated ways of life are attested to in the earliest literature of the land – the Sangam literature.

Kerala has a history of spice trade with the west since the post Mauryan times. Relatively isolated by land, its Malabar Coast saw the emergence of a number of flourishing international ports, like Kochi (or Cochin) and Kozikhode (or Calicut). It is therefore, not surprising that Kerala became the first region in the South Asia to witness the direct influence of the sea faring Christians and later of the Arabs. It also had maritime interaction with China, as is evident from the use of Chinese fishing boats in coastal Kerala.

The famous geographer Richard Hakluyt once said that geography and chronology are the sun and the moon, the right eye and the left eye, of the history. As we have seen the impact of geography or the history of our country had been varied – from startling to latent. The environmental setting and the availability and utilisation of resources in different regions has resulted in uneven patterns of growth. Therefore, the unfolding of the historical process too has neither been even or uniform through out the country.

As we move along with our journey, you will witness the triumphs and turbulence of our people in its entire historical process.

But for now, its Goodbye!

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