India's Five Greatest Empires of All Time
South Asia is like a world unto itself. Also known as the Indian subcontinent, its particular geography and climate have always led to it having distinct sets of histories and cultures. Currently, over a fifth of the world’s population lives on a landmass almost the size of Europe excluding Russia—it contains deserts, polar-like conditions, rainforests, plains, hills, and temperate forests. In short, South Asia is a microcosm of the world.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that its history is complex, with empires, states, and independent cities often coexisting together in the region. South Asia’s historical political configuration bears more resemblance to Europe’s than China’s: a recurring theme in South Asian history has been the difficulty of creating and maintaining empires that span the entire subcontinent, with smaller, regional states being the norm. As in traditional Hinduism's idea of reincarnation, empires are born to die, only to give rise to new empires, which then fall, in a never-ending cycle.
With that in mind, here are South Asia’s five greatest empires. Since the Mughal and British Empires are well known to western audiences, I have decided to omit them and focus on the pre-European, pre-Islamic empires of South Asia.
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The Maurya Empire (320-185 B.C.E.) was the first major historical Indian empire, and definitely the largest one created by an Indian dynasty. The empire arose as a consequence of state consolidation in northern India, which led to one state, Magadha, in today’s Bihar, dominating the Ganges plain. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s invasion of northwest India, one Chandragupta Maurya took over Magadha and created the Maurya Empire.
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The empire was initially very successful both internally and in terms of foreign policy. Many of its policies were set out by Chanakya, Chandragupta’s minister, who wrote a book advocating a strong, centralized, authoritarian state, The Arthashastra. After a treaty with Alexander’s generals, the empire acquired territory in Afghanistan and Iran. By the time of Chandragupta’s grandson’s reign, the empire included most of South Asia except the southernmost parts of it. This grandson, Ashoka, is famous for having embraced Buddhism due to remorse after his bloody conquest of Kalinga (today’s Orissa) around 260 B.C.E. This elevated the nascent religion.
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The Maurya Empire collapsed not too long after Ashoka's death in 232 B.C.E. Some historians have argued that the elevation of Buddhism was responsible for this as it is not as compatible with running a state as Hinduism. However, the empire’s fragmentation reveals the problems of actually maintaining an empire in a region as diverse as South Asia. Despite Chanakya’s book, the empire depended less on institutions than on able rulers, the lack of which doomed it and led to increasing local rule.
The Kushan Empire (135 B.C.E.-375 C.E.) was founded in the Bactria region of northern Afghanistan by Yuezhi nomads who migrated there from Xinjiang due to Han Dynasty campaigns. Once there, they displaced the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and expanded over the Hindu Kush mountains into today’s India and Pakistan. At the height of their empire, they controlled most of the Ganges valley and an arc that extended through Afghanistan and Central Asia into Xinjiang. It was under their reign that trade routes developed between India, China, Persia, and Rome.
Under the influence of the Kushans, who eventually moved their capitals to Peshawar (in Pakistan) and Mathura (in India), Indian influence, especially Buddhism, became predominant across Central Asia. This tendency reached its height under the Emperor Kanishka (127-151 C.E.) who convened the 4th Buddhist Council—essentially converting Buddhism into a state religion; Kanishka also expanded his empire deep into central India.
Ultimately, however, the empire fragmented into many principalities and was replaced in North India by the resurgent Hindu Gupta Empire while its Afghan territories became tributary to the Persian Sassanid Empire.