North India (200 B.C.-300 A.D.)

(India’s first contact with Christianity is also believed to have taken place during this period though it was many centuries later that Christianity came to have a significant following in India)

After the decline of the powerful Mauryas and Sungas in northern India, there were invasions of the Indo-Greeks, Shakas, Parthians, and Kushanas between the years 200 B.C. and A.D. 100. One thing was similar to them, i.e. they all came from the area of Iran or central Asia except the Greeks.


Map of Indo-Greeks

Greeks followed the route via Afghanistan and Bolan & Khyber passes. They gradually settled in India and became a part of the Indian society by accepting Indian religion and culture and simultaneously added to the culture of India. The Greek generals of Alexander had set themselves up as rulers in Iran and Afghanistan. The descendants of these kings now turned their eyes towards northern India, which was rich and had a large trade with Iran and western Asia. After the break-up of the Mauryan Empire, it was not difficult for the Greek kings to conquer parts of the Punjab and the Kabul valley. This was the province of Gandhara in which the Indo-Greek kings ruled. The most famous Indo-Greek ruler was Menander also known as Milinda established his rule over Punjab and Kashmir. He became a Buddhist. Another famous Indo-Greek ruler, Haliodorus, became a Vaishnava and erected a Garuda pillar at Besnagar. So their culture was in fact a mixture of Indian and Greek cultures. They minted many coins. 


Map of Shakas

The Indo-Greeks were followed by the Shakas who entered India through the Bolan Pass. They came to western India and overran Sind and Saurashtra, they finally settled down in Kathiawar and Malwa. The most famous Shaka ruler was Rudradaman. He undertook the repairs of the damaged dam built by Chandragupta Maurya on Sudarshana Lake in Kathiawar (Gujarat). Rudradaman stopped the expansion of Satavahana power to the north of the Narmada. But, the Shakas themselves could not expand to the north as they would have liked to, because the Kushanas held them back.


Map of Pahalvas

The original home of the Parthians was in Iran. They ruled Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, during the 1st century AD and known as Pahalavas. Amongst the Parthian rulers, the most famous was Gondophernes. Not much data is available about the Parthian’s activity in India. After the Gondophares, The Indo-Parthian rule in India ended because of Kushanas overpowered them.


Map of Kushanas

The Kushanas came from the Chinese part of Taklamakan desert. They were known as Yueh-chi. They established themselves in Afghanistan in 1st century A.D. displacing the Indo-Greeks, Shakas, and Parthians. Gradually they extended their kingdom into India. They established themselves at Taxila and Peshwar. Later, they occupied the whole of the Punjab plain and gradually extended their control over the western Ganga plain. Mathura was an important centre in the southern part of their kingdom. The most famous Kushana ruler was Kanishka. He built a monastery and a stupa at Purushpura (modern Peshwar in Pakistan). He was a great patron of art, Sanskrit literature, science and Mahayana Buddhism. The kingdom was divided into satrapies or provinces ruled by governors. During Kanishka’s reign, many Indian missionaries went to Central Asia, China, and Afghanistan for the propagation of Buddhism. During Kanishka’s reign, the fourth Buddhist council was held. In 65 A.D. the famous Buddhist monk Kumarajiva stayed in China and spread Buddhism there. The Kushanas came into conflict with the Chinese armies of the Hun Empire in central Asia. Later Kushanas seems to have accepted Hinduism. The name of the last Kushana ruler was Vasudeva. New trade routes opened with central and western Asia. Kushanas were the first to issue gold coins. Images of Siva and Buddha appear on some of the Kushana coins.

Socio-economic life

Trade Relations

In this period, India came into closer contact with Iran and western Asia. Trade established contacts between northern India and the fringes of Central Asia. Indian goods were taken to the towns and ports of the Mediterranean Sea. These were routes over land across Iran and Iraq to the eastern Mediterranean. There were also contacts across the Arabian Sea, the Gulf and the Red Sea. Indian trade with the port of Alexandria (at the mouth of the river Nile in Egypt) improved. Because of this trade, towns such as Taxila, Mathura and Ujjaini became even more important. 

Contact with western Asia brought Greek sculpture to the cities of northern India. After the Greek invasions and during the period of the Kushanas, many artists from west Asia also had settled down in the north-west of India. They were deeply influenced by the Greek-Roman art. Their sculptures were images of the Greek and Roman gods and of the people of the Mediterranean. Indian artists working in Gandhara in the north-western India were interested in this new style of sculpture and were influenced by it. 
The shakas and Kushanas introduced the Tunic, Trousers and heavy long coat to India. The caps, helmets, and boots were also introduced. Ashvaghosh and Nagarjuna were great scholars and teachers. Charaka and Sushruta advance the science of medicine and surgery. 


Buddha & Bodhisattvas

Images of the Bodhisattvas along with the Buddha were respected by the Buddhists in this period. Bodhisattvas were believed to have lived on earth before the Buddha. There were many stories about the Bodhisattvas in the Jataka tales. Buddhism was no longer the simple religion which Buddha had taught. Within Buddhism two sects were developed, namely Hinayana and Mahayana. Mahayana was a sect with many rites and ceremonies, and worship of Bodhisattvas. In the Mahayana the images of Buddha are worshiped. The Mahayana Buddhists sent missionaries to china who accompanied with the Indian merchants. So Buddhism was spread throughout Central Asia and China. 

Art and Architecture

Gandhara Art

In this period, statues of the Buddha and other scenes from the Buddha’s life made by Indian artistes resembled the Greek style and this type of art came to be called Gandhara art. This art was popular not only in areas such as modern Punjab and Kashmir, but also in modern Afghanistan, for much of the remains of the Gandhara style of art are found there. As Mahayana Buddhism encouraged image worship, the Kushana kings, particularly Kanishka, encouraged the Gandhara artists to sculpture themes from Buddha’s life and jatakas. 

Mathura Art

From the beginning of Christian era, Mathura became an important centre of artistic activities and the figures of the Buddha and the Boddhisattvas were produced there. In Mathura, some other Indian sculptors produced another style which did not imitate the Greek, although the images were Buddhist. This is called the Mathura school of art. Images of Buddha, Siva, Vishnu, etc. were also made and the fine qualities of indigenous art traditions were preserved and improved upon by Mathura sculptors. 

Amaravati Art

This was also the period of the growth of art in Amaravati, developed under the Satavahana kings. Like the stupa at Sanchi, there was a great stupa in Amaravati in the lower Godavari valley. The stupa has disappeared but many of its fine pieces are still intact in various museums. Many basrelief medallions and panelled friezes decorated the stupa. These like the stupa at Sanchi depict events from the life of the Buddha and the Jataka stories. The excavations at Nagarjuna-Konda, before that site was sub merged in the waters of the Nagarjunasagar dam have added to the treasures of the Buddhist art.


Ajanta Painting

The first and the most creative period of the art of painting extend from the first to the seventh centuries of the Christian Era. Of this the richest heritage is Ajanta paintings. The paintings of Ajanta depict various themes. There are those which depict the pomp and splendour of the royal courts and the romance of love and the joy of feasting, singing and dancing and the man-made world with luxurious products, building, textiles and jewelry. Some depict the world of nature-vegetation and flowers, animals and birds. Many themes depicted are from the Buddha’s life and the jataka stories. The medium through which this painting is done is the line. In the west what is achieved with colour is achieved with line in India. The line used by the Ajanta artists was unique, sweeping over vast areas with firmness and rhythm. In northern India, the frescoes at Bagh are the best survivals. This tradition of painting continued for some time in other parts of India, i.e. at Badami, Kanchi and Ellora. Gradually the art of wall painting died, though the art of book-illumination continued, particularly in Jain texts.


The two Great Epics

The two great epics i.e. the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were developed over a period of centuries and were perhaps put to writing in their present form in the second century A.D. The Mahabharata contains about 100,000 verses and is the longest single poem in the world. The Bhagvad Gita, a later edition to the Mahabharata, enshrines a philosophical doctrine and in it are described the three paths to salvation, viz. Karma, Gyan and Bhakti The Ramayana is shorter than the Mahabharata and is full of interesting adventurous and episodes. These two epics have influenced the thinking of millions of people for centuries. There were many other shastras and smritis. The shastras contained works of science, art and philosophy. For example the Arthashastra by Kautilya was a treatise on the science of governance. The smritis dealt with the performance of duties, customs and laws prescribed according to Dharma for example Manusmriti. Thus, many Dharmashastras were written during this period. Patanjali’s Mahabhasya is a great study on the evolution of words, language, and grammar after Panini. Poetry, drama, and other literary activities also flourished. 

Inference from the Blogger

Thus the period from about 200 B.C. to about A.D. 300 was extremely important for the changes that took place in economic and political life and significant developments in various aspects of culture including religion, art and science and technology. 
  • In economic life, this period was significant for advancement in India’s international trade both by land and sea routes and the emergence of crafts and towns unknown to earlier phases of ancient Indian history. 
  • In political life large parts of north-western, northern and western India were ruled by dynasties of non-Indian origin. These political contacts facilitated developments in the economy mentioned above and brought India into close contact with the cultures of central and west Asia and with the Greek-Roman world.
  • Most of the foreign rulers of Indian territories adopted one or the other Indian religion. A significant event was the growth of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which the Kushana ruler Kanishka patronized and the development of the great Buddhist art associated with it. 
  • In the Deccan and the south a number of states emerged including the powerful kingdom of the Satavahanas. 
  • These states also developed close trade relations with other parts of the world. There was significant progress of Buddhist art in the Deccan and the beginning of Tamil literature in the south.