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It is generally said that history has two eyes – one is chronology and the other is geography. In other words, time and space are significant factors in determining the historical process. In particular, a country’s geography largely determines its historical events. The history of India is also influenced by its geography. Hence, the study of Indian geographical features contributes to the better understanding of its history.

Physical features of India

The Indian subcontinent is a well-defined geographical unit. It may be divided into three major regions: the Himalayan Mountains, the Indo-Gangetic Plains and the Southern Peninsula. There are five countries in the subcontinent – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. India is the largest among them and it comprises twenty-eight states and six Union Territories. 

The Himalayan Mountains

The Himalayan Mountains are situated in the north of India. Starting from the Pamir in the extreme northwest of India, the mighty Himalayan range extends towards northeast. It has a length of nearly 2560 kilometers with an average breadth of 240 to 320 kilometers. The highest peak of the Himalayas is known as Mount Everest with its height being 8869 meters. It acts as a natural wall and protects the country against the cold arctic winds blowing from Siberia through Central Asia. This keeps the climate of northern India fairly warm throughout the year. The Himalayan region is mostly inhospitable in winter and generally covered with snow.

It was considered for a long time that the Himalayas stood as a natural barrier to protect India against invasions. But, the passes in the northwest mountains such as the Khyber, Bolan, Kurram and Gomal provided easy routes between India and Central Asia. These passes are situated in the Hindukush, Suleiman and Kithara ranges.

From prehistoric times, there was a continuous flow of traffic through these passes. Many people came to India through these passes as invaders and immigrants. The Indo-Aryans, the Indo-Greeks, Parthians, Sakas, Kushanas, Hunas and Turks entered India through these passes. The Swat valley in this region formed another important route. Alexander of Macedon came to India through this route. Apart from invading armies, missionaries and merchants came to India using these routes. Therefore, these passes in the northwest mountains had facilitated trade as well as cultural contacts between India and Central Asia.

In the north of Kashmir is Karakoram Range. The second highest peak in the world, Mount Godwin Austen is situated here.  This part of the Himalayas and its passes are high and snow-covered in the winter. The Karakoram highway via Gilgit is connected to Central Asia but there was little communication through this route 

The valley of Kashmir is surrounded by high mountains. However, it could be reached through several passes. The Kashmir valley remains unique for its tradition and culture. Nepal is also a small valley under the foot of the Himalayas and it is accessible from Gangetic plains through a number of passes. 

In the east, the Himalayas extend up to Assam. The important mountains in this region are Pat Koi, Nagai and Lushai ranges. These hills are covered with thick forests due to heavy rains and mostly remain inhospitable. The mountains of northeast India are difficult to cross and many parts of this region have remained in relative isolation.

The Indo-Gangetic Plain

The Indo-Gangetic plain is irrigated by three important rivers, the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra. This vast plain is most fertile and productive because of the alluvial soil brought by the streams of the rivers and its tributaries.

The Indus river rises beyond the Himalayas and its major tributaries are the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas. The Punjab plains are benefited by the Indus river system. The literal meaning of the term ‘Punjab’ is the land of five rivers. Sind is situated at the lower valley of the Indus. The Indus plain is known for its fertile soil.  The Thar Desert and Aravalli hills are situated in between the Indus and Gangetic plains. Mount Abu is the highest point (5650 ft.) in the Aravalli hills. The Ganges river rises in the Himalayas, flows south and then towards the east. The river Yamuna flows almost parallel to the Ganges and then joins it. The area between these two rivers is called doab – meaning the land between two rivers. The important tributaries of the Ganges are the Gomati, Sarayu, Ghagra and Thar Desert Gandak.

In the east of India, the Ganges plain merges into the plains of Brahmaputra. The river Brahmaputra rises beyond the Himalayas, flows across Tibet and then continues through the plains of northeast India. In the plains, it is a vast but a slow-moving river forming several islands. The Indo-Gangetic plain has contributed to the rise of urban centres, particularly on the river banks or at the confluence of rivers. 

The Harappan culture flourished in the Indus valley. The Vedic culture prospered in the western Gangetic plain. Banaras, Allahabad, Agra, Delhi and Pataliputra are some of the important cities of the Gangetic plain. The city of Pataliputra was situated at the confluence of Son river with the Ganges. In the ancient period Pataliputra had remained the capital for the Maurya, Sunga, Guptas and other kingdoms.

The most important city on the western side of the Gangetic plain is Delhi. Most of the decisive battles of Indian history such as the Kurukshetra, Tarain and Panipat were fought near Delhi. Also, this plain had always been a source of temptation and attraction for the foreign invaders due to its fertility and productive wealth. Important powers fought for the possession of these plains and valleys. The Ganga-Yamuna doab proved to be the most coveted and contested Area. 

The rivers in this region served as arteries of commerce and communication. In ancient times it was difficult to make roads, and so men and material were moved by boat. The importance of rivers for communication continued till the days of the East India Company.

The Southern Peninsula

The Vindhya and Satpura mountains along with Narmada and the Tapti rivers form the great dividing line between northern and southern India. The plateau to the south of the Vindhya Mountains is known as the Deccan plateau. It consists of volcanic rock, which is different from the northern mountains. As these rocks are easier   to cut into, we find a number of rock-cut monasteries and temples in the Deccan.

The Deccan plateau is flanked by the Eastern Ghats and Western Ghats. The Coromandel Coast stands between the Eastern Ghats and the Bay of Bengal. The Western Ghats runs along the Arabian sea and the lands between these are known as Konkan up to Goa and beyond that as Kanara. The southernmost part is known as Malabar Coast. The passes in the Western Ghats like Junnar, Kanheri and Karle linked the trade routes to the western ports. The Deccan plateau acted as a bridge between the north and south India. However, the dense forests in the Vindhya Mountains makes this region isolated from the north. The language and culture in the southern peninsula are preserved intact for a long time due to this geographical isolation.

In the southern end remains the famous Palghat Pass. It is the passage across the Ghats from the Kaveri valley to the Malabar Coast. The Palghat Pass was an important trade route for the Indo-Roman trade in the ancient times. The Anaimudi is the highest peak in the southern peninsula. Doddabetta is another highest peak in the Western Ghats. The Eastern Ghats are not very high and have several openings caused by the eastward flow of the rivers into the Bay of Bengal. The port cities of Arikamedu, Mamallapuram and Kaveripattinam were situated on the Coromandel coast. The major rivers of the southern peninsula are almost running parallel. Mahanadi is at the eastern end of the peninsula. Narmada and Tapti run from east to west. Other rivers like the Godavari, Krishna, Tungabhadra and Kaveri flow from west to east. These rivers make the plateau into a fertile rice producing soil. Throughout history, the region between Krishna and Tungabhadra (Raichur Doab) remained a bone of contention between the major kingdoms of the south. The deltaic plains formed by these two rivers at their mouths became famous under the Satavahanas. A number of towns and ports flourished in these plains in the beginning of the Christian Era.

The Kaveri delta constitutes a distinct geographical zone in the far south. It became the seat of the Chola power. The Kaveri basin with its rich tradition, language and culture has flourished from the ancient times.

As the southern peninsula is gifted with a long coastline, the people of this region took keen interest in the maritime activities. A great deal of trade and commerce went on through the seaways from the earliest times. In the east, mariners reached countries like Java, Sumatra, Burma and Cambodia. Apart from trade, they spread Indian art, religion and culture in these parts of the world. The commercial contacts between south India and the Greco-Roman countries flourished along with cultural relations.

India – A Land of Unity in Diversity

The history of ancient India is interesting because India proved to be a melting pot of numerous races. The pre-Aryans, the Indo-Aryan, the Greeks, the Scythians, the Hunas, the Turks, etc., made India their home. Each ethnic group contributed its might to the making of Indian culture. All these peoples mixed up so inextricably with one another that at present none of them can be identified in their original form. Different cultures mingled with one another through the ages. Many pre-Aryan or Dravidian terms occur in the Vedic texts. Similarly, many Pali and Sanskrit terms appear in the Sangam literature.

Since ancient times, India has been the land of several religions. Ancient India witnessed the birth of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.  But all these cultures and religions intermingled with one another. Although Indians people speak different languages, practice different religions, and observe different social customs, they follow certain common styles of life throughout the country. Therefore, our country shows a deep underlying unity in spite of great diversity. In fact, the ancients strove for unity. They looked upon this vast subcontinent as one land. The name Bharatavarsha or the land of Bharata was given to the whole country, after the name of an ancient tribe called the Bharatas. Our ancient poets, philosophers and writers viewed the country as an integral unit. This kind of political unity was attained at least twice during the Mauryan and Gupta Empires. 

The unity of India was also recognized by foreigners. They first came into contact with the people living on the Sindhu or the Indus, and so they named the whole country after this river. The word Hind is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu, and in course of time the country came to be known as ‘India’ in Greek, and ‘Hind’ in Persian and Arabic languages. 

Efforts for the linguistic and cultural unity of the country were made through the ages. In the third century B.C Prakrit language served as the lingua franca of the country. Throughout the major portion of India, Asoka’s inscriptions were written in the Prakrit language. Also, the ancient epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were studied with the same zeal and devotion throughout the country. Originally composed in Sanskrit, these epics came to be presented in different local languages.  Although the Indian cultural values and ideas were expressed in different forms, the substance remained the same throughout the country.  Hence, India has emerged a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. However, the underlying unity and integrity and the plural character of Indian society remain the real strength for the development of the country.


Sources

  1. Module-1 Ancient India by NIOS
  2. India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma
  3. Class-11 Tamil Nadu State Board History Book

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