India before the British Conquest

India before the British Conquest

India is a living civilization. No other nation has a continuance of philosophies, rituals, cultures and traditions in the manner in which India has it. Even after thousands of years, of which there were centuries of wars, invasions, enslavement, mass killings, poverty, starvation and relentless attacks by foreign ideologies, what we have achieved as a nation is remarkable.

But, any country which has gone through alien rule for centuries will struggle to find a deserving place for itself among the community of nations. Any foreign domination for so long would scar the minds of the victims so deeply that it almost always translates into an “inferiority complex” or a kind of “identity crisis” among the ruled; compelling them to somehow live up to the rulers’ expectations and to mimic them.

India has been no exception to this phenomenon. Our own people during the British Raj (and even today) justified India’s subjugation by foreigners as a blessing in disguise, by declaring with great pompousness that Colonialism was the best thing that could have happened to India. They argued that the British (just like their previous counterparts) were liberators and not subjugators- liberators from Brahminism, caste hierarchy, superstitions, backwardness and many more evils.

This feeling has not lost its popularity even today and this is what we know about our history in the popular culture. We as a nation have developed a fondness in eulogizing our conquerors and ignoring or even blatantly dis-respecting our own people and their achievements. This in fact has translated into our actions in many fields and one such important field is the writing of the Indian history.

For instance, it is vastly believed among our ‘intellectuals’ and ‘mainstream historians’ that the arrival of Islam into mainland India was mainly due to the change of opinion among the masses, who favored the ‘equality’ in Islam for the ‘oppression’ of the Hindu caste system. They vehemently argue that India was invaded by a “few thousand” men, who were able to succeed, because Hindus lacked unity among themselves, and the lower-castes were unwilling to defend their country and their upper-caste kings. But, a thorough examination of the primary sources reveals that there is no truth in these assertions.

First, the invading armies were not comprised of only a “few thousand men”. When Mamud of Ghazni attacked the Somnath temple in 1000 CE, for example, he employed a fleet of 30,000 camels only to carry water supplies, informs KS Lal, a reputed historian of the medeival period. When Mahmod Ghori attacked North India in 1192 CE, he had 120,000 men in cavalry alone! Later Islamic rulers had stronger armies: Alauddin Khilji had 475,000 horsemen and Mohammad Tughlaq had 900,000 of them under his command. [Koenraad Elst]. These Islamic invaders, however, succeeded after facing a strong and successful resistance set up by the Indian rulers over a vast period of 5 centuries.

Second, the social structure aspect of India was not that dim either. Many Islamic writers of that time like Alberuni, Abul Fazl, Jahangir, etc. have not once mentioned the supposed tyranny of the Hindu caste system as a reason for gaining converts to Islam. Moreover, not a single instance of the so called lower classes, making common cause with the invaders can be noted. On the contrary, many examples of lower castes fighting side by side with the upper caste kings are available. Many examples of Shudra dynasties protecting the Brahmins from the invaders can also be seen [ibid]. However, these aspects of unity and harmony within Hindu society are almost always ignored and the main reason for the Islamic invasions is always projected to be social factors, rather than the religious and the military factors.

These types of “myths” are numerous in number and still vastly held as ultimate truths. All these only confirm a need for us to view our history through more neutral means than to follow what our conquerors wanted us to believe. This article is a small attempt in that regard.

Now, considering India’s written history (“secular history”), we find evidence of Indian lifestyle from the Greek records. Many Greek writers have travelled to India and have recorded their experiences of this land. One such Greek writer was Megasthenes (320 BC-290 BC), who was the Greek ambassador to the Mauryan Empire, during the period of Chandragupta Maurya. In his work “Indica/Indika”, Megasthenes explains what he had seen first-hand in India during his stay in the country [Though the original work is not available, a small portion of the book is re-constructed on the basis of direct quotes of his work by other ancient Greek writers].

Then, we have, Hiuen Tsang (602-664 CCE), who in his SI-YU-KI (The history of the western world), explains in detail his experiences from his long travels (almost 15 years) through many places in India. Later, Fra Paolino Da Bartolomeo (1748-1806), an Austrian-born Carmelite missionary and orientalist, who was in India from 1776-1789,narrates his experiences of India in his “Voyages to East Indies” (published in England in 1880). All these accounts are first-hand and can be considered neutral. Though non-exhaustive, these accounts will surely give us profound insights and a bird’s eye view into the ancient and medieval Indian societies. Based on these accounts, the following points can be considered.

People and society

In ancient India, when Megasthenes was writing his Indica, people were generally healthy and fit and pursued various arts and skills. This is often attributed to the abundance of the means of sustenance, pure air and the availability of fresh and the finest drinking water. The land was very fertile bearing various kinds of crops, plants and trees. Various metals, including copper, iron, gold and silver, were extensively mined to make ornaments, jewellery, weapons, shields and other articles of use.

There were cities, well-built houses, different types of clothes and fashion, etc. Famines and its disastrous effects were unheard of due to proper preparations to face such situations and also because of the immunity enjoyed by the farmers and their crops from harassments, even during the times of bloody raging wars (This is in conformity with the rules laid out in the Yuddha Sashtra about not hurting common men and their property during the times of war).

The social structure of the time constituted seven castes, but without any gradation or oppression (at least in the accounts of Megasthenes). Further, the then Indian society had no slaves and the freedom of individuals was respected. It was believed that all Indians, though of different cultures and traditions, were indigenous to India, and India was never invaded by any other people (This point also goes to show how the idea of indigenousness of all Indians is not a new construct of the nationalists, but had prevailed in ancient India too).

All these indicate to a well-established and well-functioning society, which must have flourished over a long period of time to reach this state, during Megasthenes’ times.

However, by the time of Hiuen Tsang, who wrote his account in the 7th century, the social structure appears to have become slightly rigid, with strict divisions between various castes in styles and behaviours. But, despite this rigidness, no instance of oppression, harassment or conflict among the different castes can be found.

There were well planned cities with proper compounds, watch towers and roads. The houses were built of wood, which were covered with coatings of lime and mortar (a sort of binding paste comparable to modern day cement) and sometimes covered with tiles. They also had balconies and belvederes and were decorated with cow-dung (for purity) and with various patterns of flowers. A special type of multi-storeyed buildings called the “sangharamas” (may be a kind of temple or a place for monks) were built with extra-ordinary skills using intricate designs and decorations like paints and suitable ornaments.

Various materials like cotton, silk, hemp, wool etc. were used in clothing and fashion. People mostly wore fresh-white garments, whose description resembles the style of Dhoti for men. Women, on the other hand, covered their shoulders with a robe falling down to the ground. Usually, people wore a crown /cap on their heads, flower wreaths and other jewelled ornaments. Some people also wore sandals, decorated their hairs in different styles and ornamented their noses. However, the royalty and the ministers used various ornaments like necklace, bracelets, head gears decorated with gems and various styles of garments.

The above features strongly suggest the presence of a flourishing textile and ornament industry. It also gives an impression that the people were well dressed and well-mannered. Moreover, it can be seen that the people were very particular in their personal hygiene. Various practices were followed to maintain cleanliness like washing the hands before partaking the food and cleaning the mouth and teeth after having food, not eating the stale food, multiple bathing in a day, rubbing & polishing utensils (made of gold, silver and iron) used for cooking and eating purposes, proper cleaning after finishing calls of nature, and using perfumes of sandalwood and turmeric.

These were indeed very progressive practices, when compared to hygiene conditions in other areas of the world, especially the situation in Europe of those times. In the early periods of the church, bodily cleanliness was perceived as a symbol of luxury, materialism, and paganism. It is often said that Europe during the middle ages, went a thousand years without a bath, which obviously is an exaggeration, but nevertheless depicts the prevalent disregard for hygiene.

Another important aspect of the society was the functioning of the army. The art of warfare was usually taught to children (in their early age itself) by their parents and only the strongest and bravest were inducted into the military service. There were four divisions of the army viz. infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants. The weapons used included among other things: sharp spurs (fixed to the tusks of elephants), armours for war elephants and horses, long spears, big shields, spears, bows and arrows, sabres, battle-axes, lances, halberds, long javelins and various kinds of slings, etc. The extensive use of various kinds of weapons not only points towards the presence of a well-trained professional army, but also towards the presence of thriving defence industry, which engaged in production of various chariots, metal weapons, shields and armours.

Similarly, extensive accounts about the flora and fauna; various drinks, dishes and refreshments used by the people; law and order mechanism; judicial, financial, and administrative institutions; medical practice; arts and crafts; trade and commerce; tax structure and wages for labour, and record keeping, can be found, which goes to show how the society was very large, diverse, and well-functioning, in the 7th century.

However, by the time of Bartolomeo (who visited in the 18th century), it appears that the peoples’ general welfare had vastly deteriorated and very rigid caste distinctions had cropped up, largely due to being exposed to repeated invasions and conquests by the Islamic rulers. Confirming this that the Indian society had seen a great decline, since the native kings were expelled by the foreign conquerors, Bartolomeo writes: “…Before that period, the different kingdoms were in a flourishing condition; the laws were respected, and justice and civil order prevailed: but, unfortunately, at present everything in many of the provinces must give way to absolute authority and despotic sway.” [Bartolomeo]


Though, no description of the education system can be found in the available parts of Indica, both Tsang and Bartolomeo attest to the presence of a well-established education system in pre-British India. Moreover, Bartolomeo, while describing the way Indian kids learn reading and writing (writing the alphabets by a finger or a stick, on sand or paper, while simultaneously pronouncing its sound), comments that the practice was used, since the times of Megasthenes (It should also be noted that according to Lieutenant General Alexander Walker, the process was borrowed from India by the Europeans). Tsang also informs us that the children before age 7 were taught the book of twelve chapters (siddhavastu). Later they were taught five vidyas viz.

Shabdavidya- Deals with language and grammar

Silpasthanavidya- Deals with arts, mechanics, calendars and also explains the principles of various components of the nature such as fire, water, darkness, coldness, etc.

Chikitsavidya- Deals with medical practice and treatment.

Hetuvidya- Deals with logic and causality.

Adhyatmavidya- Deals with theology and spirituality.

Tsang, additionally, states that the Brahmanas studied the Vedas and Shastras and thus, indicating that the previously mentioned five vidyas were perhaps taught to everybody, irrespective of their caste or social standing. Otherwise, the author would have stated that the Brahmanas were the only class allowed to learn anything and the need for a distinct and specific mention was unnecessary.

Further, Bartolomeo tells us that the education system had suffered (like other aspects of the society) much after foreign conquerors had expelled the native kings. Despite this, Bartolomeo tells us that reading, writing, grammar, accounts and oratory were taught. Additionally, the following subjects were also taught to the children: Poetry (Gavya); Fencing (Payatta); Botany and medicine (Vaydyassastra or Bheszagiashastra), Navigation (Naushastra), use of the spear on foot (Hastiludium), art of playing at ball (Pandacali), Chess (Ciudarangam), Tennis (Coladi), Logic (Tarkashastra), Astrology (Giodisha), Law (Svadhyaya), Silence (Mauna). [Interestingly, it is mentioned in the notes given to the work of Bartolomeo by Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-98), a Scottish historian and naturalist that Pythagoras must have borrowed his philosophy in part from the Indian Philosophers in the account of stark similarities between the Indian art of silence and other rules like celibacy, which Pythagoras also asked his disciples to follow.]

Moreover, the Indian education was very cheap and affordable compared with the then system in Europe and also gave a fair opportunity to the students in selecting what subject they wanted to pursue rather than treating all of them as homogeneous entities destined to achieve a single goal.

Furthermore, many British authorities had surveyed the situation of the education sector in various parts of India during the early 19th century. Accordingly:

In Madras Presidency, there were 12,498 schools for a population  of 12.85 million, teaching 188,650 students. There was 1 school for every 1,000 people and taking into account homeschooling, which was also widely prevalent, the ratio would have been much lower [Sir Thomas Munro, as quoted by Dharampal].

In Bengal and Bihar, most village had a school before 1800 CE. During the surveying period, 100,000 villages out of 150,748 had schools. Each of the 18 districts of Bengal had 100 institutes of higher education teaching almost 10,800 scholars [William Adam].

In Natoore Thana of Rajashahy district, there were 27 elementary schools teaching 262 students and 38 higher education institutes teaching 397 students. Out of 30,028 families, children of 1,588 families received home tutions. [ibid]

In 20 Thanas out of 37 surveyed in Murshidabad, there were 1,098 Bengali, 375 Hindi, 353 Sanskrit, 694 Persian, 31 Arabic, 8 English, 6 girls only and 1 infants only schools. [ibid]

Extensive research was also conducted in Punjab and Bombay presidency and the situations there were similar. All subjects stated before were taught and some institutes also taught arts and music. An important point of consideration is that both teachers and students were drawn from all castes. In some places (some of which were considered as places of hardcore “Brahamanism”), the number of teachers and students coming from the lower castes greatly outnumbered those from the upper castes.

Though, widespread illiteracy was recorded, and though, it partly reflected ground reality, the major factor behind such a recording appears to be the fact that a large number of young boys and most young girls were tutored at home. What is important to note is that Indians have a long tradition of imparting education to young children. In fact, teaching children to read and write constitutes one of the 16 mandatory religious ceremonies in a Hindu household.

A rather vivid depiction of India as found by the British when they arrived here given by J T Sunderland nicely sums up the condition of India before the British:

“…….This wealth was created by the Hindu’s vast and varied industries. Nearly, every kind of manufacture or product known to the civilized world-nearly every kind of creation of man’s brain and hand, existing anywhere, and prized either for its utility or beauty-had long, long been produced in India. India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or than any other in Asia. Her textile goods-the fine products of her looms, in cotton, wool, linen and silk-were famous over the civilized world; so were her exquisite jewellery and her precious stones cut in every lovely form; so were her pottery, porcelains, ceramics of every kind, quality, colour  and beautiful shape; so were her fine works in metal-iron, steel, silver and gold. She had great architecture-equal in beauty to any in the world. She had great engineering works. She had great merchants, great businessmen, great bankers and financiers. Not only was she the greatest ship building nation, but she had great commerce and trade by land and sea which extended to all known civilized countries. Such was the India which the British found when they came.” [as quoted in Will Durrant]



  • Koenraad Elst, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind – Ideological Development of Hindu Revivalism. Delhi: Rupa and co, 2001



Shrinidhi Rao

Philosopher and Economist, writing on Philosophy, History and current affairs.