(The defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan at the hands of Muhammad Ghori resulted in the foundation of Muslim rule in India)

Three Kingdoms

The period between the death of Harsha (in the mid-seventh century A.D.) and the establishment of Delhi Sultunate (in the 12th century A.D.) covers a span of 500 years. In political life this period was dominated by the presence of a larger number of states. That’s why the general political picture was that of fragmentation. These centuries also witnessed rise of some important kingdoms:

  • in the east there were Palas 
  • in the Deccan there were Rashtrakuts 
  • in the north there were Gurjara Pratiharas.
These kingdoms acted as a bridge between different regions because the cultural traditions of these kingdoms remained stable as they often fought among themselves. This was perhaps because the changes in these areas took place more gradually than the changes in political spheres. The close interaction among various regions resulted in the formation of definite forms of some common cultural traditions which can be seen in the literature, education, art, and architecture of the period.

Gurjara Pratiharas

The Gurjara Pratiharas were the early Rajputs who began their rule from Gujarat and south western Rajasthan. Later they ruled from Kanauj. Nagahata I was the 1st great ruler of the dynasty. He defeated the Muslim forces of Arab. Then, Bhoja I (A.D. 836-885) succeeded in restoring the territories of the kingdom which was lost for a short time to the Palas of Bengal. He was a devotee of Vishnu and adopted the title of Adivaraha, which has been incorporated as a legend on some of his coins. During the reign of Mahendrapala I, son and successor of Bhoja I, the Pratihara Empire stretched almost from the Himalayas in the north to the Vindhyas in the south and from Bengal in the east to Gujarat in the west. The Pratiharas ruled over north India for more than 300 years. The Arab travellers, such as Sulaiman and Masudi, who visited India in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D., wrote about the power and prestige of the Pratiharas and the vastness of their empire. The great Sanskrit poet Rajasekhar adorned the court of Mahendrapala I. His famous work is Kavyamimansa.


The history of Bengal from the death of Harsha up to the ascendancy of the Palas around the end of 8th century A.D. remains obscure. At this time West Bengal known as Gauda and East Bengal as Vanga. Bengal was witnessing an internal disorder termed as Matsyanyaya in which the rule of the strong devouring the weak prevailed. This led to an unrest after which Gopala was elected by the people to put an end to Matsyanyaya. Gopala restored peace in the kingdom and laid the foundation of Pala dynasty. Dharamapala and Devapala were the most famous rulers of this dynasty. The Palas ruled over Bihar, Bengal, and parts of Odisha and Assam with many ups and downs in their fortune for over four centuries.
The Arab traveller Sulaiman calls the Pala Kingdom Ruhma (or Dharma, short for Dharmapala). He wrote, in Bhoja’s kingdom exchanges are carried on with silver and gold. He also wrote there is no country in India safe from robbers. Dharmapala founded the famous Buddhist monastery at Vikramshila, which became 2nd only to Nalanda in fame as a Centre for higher learning. During Pala’s reign the fame of Nalanda University spread all over the world. During Devapala’s reign the king of Suvarnadvipa (South East Asia) Balaputradeva built a monastery in Nalanda and requested Devapala to endow the income of 5 villages for the maintenance of the monastery.


Dantivarman, also known as Dantidurga, was the founder of the Rashtrakuta dynasty in the Deccan. His capital was at Manyakhet or Malkhed, near modern Sholapur in Maharashtra. Dantivarman was succeeded by his uncle Krishna-I who extended his kingdom up to Karnataka. Then, Dhruva and Govinda-III extended the empire further and waged war for supremacy over the Palas and Pratiharas in east and north India. Dhruva added the emblem of Ganga and Yamuna to his imperial insignia. Amoghavarsha-I (A.D. 814-878) ruled for 64 years. He wrote Kavirajamarga, which is one of the earliest Kannada works on poetics. Krishna-III launched a campign against the Chola ruler of Tanjore and his armies reached up to Rameshwaram, where he built a pillar of victory and a temple. Thus, Rashtrakutas ruled for more than 300 years. They equally patronised Sanskrit, Prakrit and Kannada languages. They not only patronised Saivism and Vaishnavism, but also Jainism, Buddhism, and Islam. The Muslim merchants were permitted to settle in their kingdom, build mosques and preach their religion. The rock cut temples excavated at Ellora belonging to Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jain sects are the symbols of their religious tolerance and are one of the splendours of Indian arts. The Kailash temple at Ellora built by the Rashtrakuta king Krishna-I, is an unrivalled and magnificent piece of art.

Tripartite Struggle

The struggle among the above 3 dynasties for supremacy over each other is known as tripartite struggle. It is said that the main cause for this struggle was the desire to possess the city of Kanauj, which was then a symbol of Sovereignty. In this struggle their military equipment, administrative machinery and the strategic concepts were more or less the same. Due to this balance of power the victory of one king over the other did not last very long. The defeated powers often regained their position.


Rajput Powers emerged in 11th century

Around the end of the 10th century A.D. the powers of the Pratiharas, Palas and Rashtrakuts declined almost simultaneously. Over these territories other dynasties came into existence. Most of them were Rajputs. According to tradition there are four Rajput clans namely Paramara, Pratihara, Chauhan and Chalukya who were born from fire altars. Therefore, they are also known as Agnikulas. Famous Rajput dynasties includes, The Gahadhavalas of Kanauj, Paramaras of Malwa, Chandellas of Khajuraho, Chauhans of Ajmer, Kalachuris of Tripuri, Chalukyas of Gujarat and Tomars of Delhi. 

Tomar king Anangapala built the city of Delhi (Dhilika) in 736 A.D. During this period Bengal was ruled by Senas. The Ahoms ruled over Assam. Odisha was ruled by the Kesaries from Bhubaneswar and then by the Gangas from Kalinga-nagara. Kashmir was ruled by three dynasties i.e. the Karkota, Utpala and Loharas. Lalitaditya was one of the most famous rulers of Kashmir during this period. The conflicts among different kingdoms for supremacy made them weak. Because of this they could neither defend themselves individually nor unite against the Muslim invasions.

Turkish Invasions

Mahmud Attacks

It was in this period that India’s contact with the new religion of Islam began. The contacts began late in the 7th century through the Arab traders. Later, in early 8th century, the Arabs conquered Sind. In the 10th century, the Turks emerged as a powerful force in central and west Asia and carved out kingdoms for themselves. The Turks first invaded India during the late 10th and early 11th century and Punjab came under Turkish rule. Another series of Turkish invasions in the late 12th and early 13th century led to the establishment of the Sultanate of Delhi. The first of these invaders was Mahmud of Ghazni (Ghazni was a small kingdom situated in Afghanistan). He ascended the throne in 998 A.D. Shortly after his accession he led as many as 17 expeditions into India between 1000 and 1027 A.D. He invaded India to plunder the big towns and rich temples for their wealth. The 15th invasion of Mahmud against the temple of Somnath, situated on the seacoast in Gujarat, was the most disastrous one. During the course of his expedition, Mahmud annexed Punjab and Multan to his empire. In one of his campaigns Mahmud was accompanied by Alberuni. Alberuni was a great Persian scholar. He lived for many years in India, learnt Sanskrit and wrote a book on India known as Tahkik-i-hind. After the death of Mahmud in 1030 A.D., India enjoyed a respite for about 150 years from foreign invasions. 

In 1175 A.D. Shahbuddin Muhammad Ghori attacked northern India. This ultimately led to the foundation of the Sultanate of Delhi. Muhammad Ghori belonged to the Ruling house of Ghor in Afghanistan. His kingdom comprised the parts of modern Afghanistan between Ghazni and Herat. His aim was not just to plunder the wealth of India but also to establish Muslim rule over India. Prithviraj Chauhan was contemporary to Ghori. Prithviraj ascended the throne of Ajmer at the age of 14 and made many conquests. He conquered many small states of Rajasthan and Bundelkhand. The 1st battle between Muhammad Ghori and Prithviraj Chauhan was fought at Tarain in 1191 A.D. In this battle, Muhammad was completely routed, though his life was saved. Next year Prithviraj was defeated and captured in the 2nd battle of Tarain, fought in 1192 A.D. Prithviraj was executed and his city of Ajmer was sacked. The famous educational centre of Ajmer built by Visaladeva was converted into a mosque. This is known as the Adhai-din-ka-jhopra. 

Social Life

Sati System

In social life there was a greater rigidity of the caste system than before. The law givers of this period followed the earlier marriage rules. Remarriage was also permitted. Women had the right to inherit property. After coming into Muslim contact there began the Purdah system. The practice of sati became more prevalent to save them from failing into the hands of invaders. People also followed different type of social activities such as fairs, festivals and pilgrimages to sacred places and Centre. Sculptures depict various types of dresses and ornaments. There is a great variety and quality of textiles such as wool, cotton and silk. People followed different types of dresses and ornaments. The working in metals was pursued with much success. Agni Purana mentioned about 33 kind of Gems and methods of analysis of different qualities of precious and semi-precious stones. Various types of guilds (srenis) were flourishing in different branches of craft and industries. A guild consisted of people following a common profession such as artisans’ guild and a bankers’ guild. Artisans worked both in towns as well as in villages.

Economic Life 

Persian Wheel

There is an advance in scientific knowledge on agriculture, such as various types of soils, several varieties of grains, agricultural tools and implements and fertility of soil. Various means of Irrigation including the Persian Wheel (arahata) were known to the people prior to the coming of Muslims rulers. The most famous book of this period on agriculture is Krishi Parashar. Travelers of Arab mentioned Indian exports consisting of diverse products of aloe wood, sandalwood, camphor, nutmeg, clove, and other spices, coconut, vegetables, textiles, metals, precious and semi-precious stones, pearls and fisheries. In the list of imports, horses were the most important. The best breeds of horses were imported from central and Western Asia but the process of decline in trade and of urban centres had continued.


During this time various types of educational institutions such as mathas, ghatikas, agraharas and viharas, the foremost were the temples, which developed as social, educational and cultural institutions besides being a source of religious inspiration for the people. Temples acted as banks, treasures, courts, Centre of learning and hospitals. They also hosted festivals, and other cultural activities. They promoted handicrafts and in turn provided employment to large number of people. Education was imparted in the temples and Viharas which had attached colleges. Courses in the colleges were practiced in a systematic manner demanding regular attendance and instructions. Professional education continued to be given through training imparted to apprentices in guilds and among groups of artisans. At a more popular level, the moral instructions were imparted by the saints and at homes by the elders. Thus various types of education became very important in upholding and strengthening the cultural unity of India.

Language and literature

Sanskrit remained the main language. Pali and prakrit were used for writing the Buddhist and Jain religious texts. There was also development of Apabrhamsha which was considered important on account of the fact that the modern Indian language have all evolved from it. One of the earliest works in an early form of Hindi was Prithviraj Raso by Chandbardai. This work which marks the beginning of bardic literature deals with the heroic deeds of Prithviraj Chauhan. Many historical texts in the Kavya style were also written. For example, the works of two writers in Kashmir, those are Somadeva’s Katha-sarit-sagar and Kalhana’s Rajatarangini. The later, a history of Kashmir, is a work of great importance as this is the first proper historical works in India. Various types of Kavyas were composed, which were inspired from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Gita Govinda by the Jayadeva is the famous one. In the field of prose literature Brihatakathamanjari by Kshemendra is famous.

Religion and Science

Radha added to Bhaktism

In Vaishnavism, particularly the legend of ten incarnations of Vishnu became more popular. The worship of Krishna along with Radha became very popular during this period. Their love was interpreted as the longing of the human soul (atma) for union with the universal soul (paramatma). Saivism became more popular through local variations such as Virasaivas, Lingayats and Pashupatis. Adi shankara and Ramanuja were great philosophers.

Nayanars & Alvars

The Bhakti movement led by Nayanars (saiva saints) and Alvars (Vaishnava saints) in South India spread all over India. These saints went from place to place carrying theirs messages of love and devotion. They disregarded the inequalities of caste. The Bhakti movement renewed emphasis on the Vedas. Buddhism witnessed the worship of Buddha became more elaborate accompanied by devotional songs, rites and ceremonies. Jainism gained popularity among the trading classes in northern India and western India and also gained extensive patronage in south India. The colossal Jain image at Sravanabelgola was set up. The Jain doctrines of four gifts (learning, food, medicine and shelter) helped to make Jainism popular among the people.  Tantricism is another sect which became popular. Tantric practice centered on prayers, special formulae, magical diagrams and symbols and the worship of a particular deity.

In the 1200 A.D. mathematician Bhaskaracharya wrote Sidhanta shiromani which is comprised of four parts. The book was translated into Arabian and Persian and transmitted to Europe. Books on medicine like Charaka and Sushruta samhitas were translated into Arabic and Tibetan. Madhava wrote several famous one is Rugvinishchaya on pathology. It was translated into Arabic under the patronage of Caliph Harun-al-Rashid.

Art and Architecture

Lingaraj Temple

The most famous temples during this period are of Odisha especially those of Bhubaneswar, Konark and Puri are superb examples of the Nagara style or North Indian style of Indian architecture. Each temple consists of a Vimana (towered shrine), Jagamohana (audience hall), Nata mandapa (dance hall), and Bhoga mandapa (offering hall). The Lingaraja temple of Bhubaneswar is located in an extensive area, with a number of subsidiary shrines. The spire of the Lingaraja temple is about 40 metres high. The spire is curved and has a rounded top.

Konark Temple

The sun temple in Konark, popularly known as the ‘Black Pagoda’, perhaps because of the black stone used, is unique in design. Since it is dedicated to the sun god, the whole temple is designed as a chariot with twelve massive wheels drawn by seven horses. Each wheel with it rich carving is a masterpiece. The human and animal figures carved out in Black stone are most lifelike. The poses of dancing apasaras depicted in sculptures.

Khajuraho Temple

Temples in Khajuraho (M.P.) built by the Chandellas are known for their carvings and sculptures. Kandariya Mahadeva temple is such a temple. The sikhara of these temples is graceful and refined and is adorned with sculptures. The Jain temples generally have octagonal domes and are decorated with subjects drawn from Jain mythology, for example, temple of Dilwara at Mount Abu in Rajasthan, which is a finest monument of Solanki king of Gujarat. The Abu temples are very attractive because of the delicate and intricate carvings in white marble. The Jain statue of Gomatesvara at Shravanabelgola in Mysore district (Karnataka) is one of the largest free standing Image (57 feet) in the world. The older tradition of decorating the walls of temples and palaces with murals continued. Miniature paintings also began during this time, which became popular in the Mughal period. The illustrations in manuscripts were also given. Small pictures on palm leaves were painted showing the scenes described in the texts.  

New elements added in Medieval Art and Architecture

Turkish Architecture

The Turks brought with them architectural ideas developed in Persia, Arabia and Central Asia. When these new rulers started erecting religious and secular buildings such as palaces and mosques, they came into contact with the traditions that had already been developed in India. The interaction of these two traditions resulted in a new synthesis of architectural styles. The ancient Indian buildings were decorated with beautiful carving and sculpture while the Muslim buildings were marked by simplicity and lack of adornment. When the new buildings began to be erected, the two styles were gradually synthesized into a new and unique style.

Earlier Murals

The rulers of the sultanate were great patrons of architecture and under them the process of synthesis started. It continued with many regional variations in the different kingdoms, but during the Mughal period, the flowering of this synthesis took place. The distinctive features of Muslim Architecture i.e. the mosque consisted of a large, rectangular open courtyard surrounded by arcades on all four sides. The mehra which faces Mecca indicates the direction to the prayer. The call to worship was made from a tall tower or minaret. Another characteristic feature was the arch in the gateway and other places. The dome was also another prominent feature of the mosque and the mausoleum. The chief decorative element was sculpturing the building with geometrical designs and lettering in calligraphic styles.