Medieval India refers to the period of Indian history that is between ancient India and modern India. The start of the medieval period marks a slow collapse of the Gupta Empire (240 – 590) that resulted at the end of Ancient India.
This period can be divided into:
- Early Medieval Period – 6th and 13th century.
- Late Medieval Period – 13th and 16th century.
Phase I of the Medieval Period
The beginning of the Early Medieval Period is said to be characterized by rulers and dynasties who were taking care of their own regions without much connection with each other as a country, a whole unit. Gradually the things began to change and the period saw some strong rulers who tried to unite the kingdoms for better administration and governance. Some important dynasties during the early period are:
Dynasties during the Early Medieval Period in the Southern Part of India
The Chalukya dynasty was an Indian dynasty that ruled large parts of southern and central India between the 6th and the 12th centuries. The earliest dynasty, known as the “Badami Chalukyas”, ruled from Vatapi (modern Badami) from the middle of the 6th century.
Eastern Chalukyas, also known as the Chalukyas of Vengi, were a dynasty that ruled parts of South India between the 7th and 12th centuries. They started out as governors of the Chalukyas of Badami in the Deccan region. Subsequently, they ruled the Vengi region as feudatories of the Cholas until 1189 CE.
Pallavas became a major power during the reign of Mahendravarman I (571 – 630 CE) and Narasimhavarman I (630 – 668 CE) and dominated the Telugu and northern parts of the Tamil region for about 600 years until the end of the 9th century. Throughout their reign, they were in constant conflict with both Chalukyas of Badami in the north and the Tamil kingdoms of Chola and Pandyas in the south and were finally defeated by the Chola kings in the 9th century CE. Pallavas are most noted for their patronage of architecture, the finest example being the Shore Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mahabalipuram.
The Pala Empire was an imperial power during the Late Classical period on the Indian subcontinent, which originated in the region of Bengal. It is named after its ruling dynasty, whose rulers had their names ending with the suffix of Pala which means “protector” in Sanskrit. The Pala stronghold was located in Bengal and Bihar. Their army was known for its huge war elephant troop. They patronized classical Indian philosophy, literature, painting, and sculpture. They built astounding temples and monasteries. Somapura Mahavihara was one of them. The great universities of Nalanda and Vikramashila were supported by them.
The Chola dynasty was one of the longest-ruling dynasties in South India. The earliest record of their rule comes from the inscriptions left by Ashoka, of the Maurya Empire around 3rd century BC. Rajaraja Chola I and his successors Rajendra Chola I, Rajadhiraja Chola, Virarajendra Chola and Kulothunga Chola I made South Asia and southeast India into a military, economic and cultural power.
Various other dynasties include:
- Empire of Harsha – a brief period from 601 to 647, under Harsha of the Pushyabhuti dynasty.
- Western Chalukya Empire – ruled most of the western Deccan and some of South India, between the 10th and 12th centuries.
- Kalachuri dynasty – ruled in Central India during the 10th-12th centuries.
- Western Ganga dynasty was an important ruling dynasty of ancient Karnataka, often under the overlordship of larger states, from about 350 to 1000 AD.
- Eastern Ganga dynasty – royal dynasty ruling Odisha region, descendants of Kannada Western Ganga Dynasty and Tamil Chola Empire. They built the famous Konark Sun Temple and Jagannath Temple, Puri.
- Hoysala Empire – a prominent South Indian Kannadiga empire (present-day) Karnataka – 10th and the 14th centuries.
- The Kakatiya Kingdom a Telugu dynasty, (present-day) Andhra Pradesh, – 1083 to 1323
- The Sena dynasty was a Hindu dynasty, Bengal – 11th and 12th centuries.
South India saw the most powerful kingdom of Cholas emerge as rulers during this period. The Cholas were successful in bringing large parts of South India together under one rule and uniting the otherwise scattered states that were in desperate need of one strong ruler. It was during the rule of Cholas that India was introduced to the new religion of Islam. It so happened that the Arab Traders had started pouring in, in search of new trading avenues in India.
Beginning of Phase II of The Medieval Period
During the early 8th century the Arabs conquered Sind. By the 10th century, the Turks were the most powerful in Central and West Asia. The Turks’ first invasion was in the state of Punjab during the late 10th and early 11th centuries. It was as early as this that the state of Punjab came under Turkish rule.
Later at the end of the 12th and early 13th century, the Turkish invaders took control over Delhi. There they established the Sultanate of Delhi. Thus Zahiruddin Muhammad Babar was the founder of the Mughal Empire in India and their rule started from 1526. Within a few centuries after the rise of Islam in Arabia it became the second most popular religion in India with followers in every part of the country.
The establishment of the Delhi Sultanate was the beginning of a new phase in the history of medieval India. It led to the unification of northern India and parts of the Deccan. Towards the end of the 14th century, the Delhi Sultanate began to disintegrate. This led to the emergence of a number of kingdoms in different parts of the country. A few like Bahmani and Vijaynagar kingdoms emerged as the powerful ones.
By now India had the presence of Mughals and the original inhabitants all over in almost every kingdom in India. This led to the formation of a new mixed kind of society that had new groups that included the Turks, the Persians, the Mongols and the Afghans besides the Arabs who had settled in India. There were important changes in economic life also. Trade and crafts received a stimulus and many new towns arose as centers of administration, trade, and crafts. New elements of technology were also introduced during this period.
Dynasties during the Late Medieval Period
- Delhi Sultanate – from 1206 to 1526
- Bengal Sultanate– 1352 to 1576 ruled over Bengal and much of Burma
- Ahom Kingdom -1228–1826, Brahmaputra valley in Assam
- Reddy Kingdom -1325 to 1448 in Andhra Pradesh.
- Seuna (Yadava) dynasty – 1190-1315 as independent rulers from the Tungabhadra to the Narmada Rivers, including present-day Maharashtra, north Karnataka and parts of Madhya Pradesh.
- Rajput States – a group of Rajput Hindu states that ruled present-day Rajasthan, and at times Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh, Western Uttar Pradesh, and Central Uttar Pradesh.
- Vijayanagara Empire 1336–1646, a Hindu-kannadiga empire based in Karnataka.
- Gajapati Kingdom – a medieval Hindu dynasty that ruled over Kalinga (the present-day Odisha).
A very interesting development took place in this period. It was the rise of a self-sufficient village economy where production was according to the requirements of the local residents of the villages. There was no interest taken to produce more than required and no or little trade took place outside the villages.
This sort of subsistence economy of the village led to a decline in trade. The other reasons for the decline in trade include the emergence of a wide range of local weights and measures and unstable political conditions and internal fighting.
Culture and Religion during the Medieval Period
The culturally medieval period is known for its architectural marvels and exquisite art which is an integral part of both the phases in their own special ways. Both, the dynasties in the south and the Mughals are central and northern India laid their impressions on whatever they touched.
This is the period which is also known for its literature and languages that developed due to the fusion of Indian and Muslim cultures. Birth of Urdu, poetry, ghazal, music, musical instruments like Tabla and Sarangi and Kathak dance form, all are the contributions of this period to not just India but the whole world. The two new languages that became part of Indian linguistic baggage are Arabic and Persian. Historical writings which provide us the evidence to this most treasured history was the gift of this period.
This period saw two great religious movements- The Bhakti movement and the Sufi Movement
Both the movements disapproved of religious narrow-mindedness, superstitions, and rituals that had little or no meaning. The Bhakti saints condemned caste inequalities. They said all humans are but the children of God and thus Equal and brothers.
In fact, the Sufis of the Muslim mystics preached the message of love and human brotherhood through their Sufi music and dance.
There was this new religion that took birth during the medieval period –Sikhism. This was based on the teachings of Guru Nanak and later other Gurus of Sikhism.
Akbar, the greatest Mughal Emperor, played a very important role in bringing the Hindus and Muslims together and become the emperor of all, loved by all and hailed by all equally as their ruler. After being influenced by various saints of Bhakti and Sufi origin, he introduced a new system called Sulhkul (peace with all). It was an open session meant to be a forum where preachers, saints, Sufis, and Gurus could all come together under one roof and discuss spiritualism without any fear thus promoting love, trust, and inclusiveness.