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The Classical Age, Regional Kingdoms after ad 500

Pandya dynasty, Vindhya Range, White Huns, Pala dynasty, Vatapi

The Gupta Empire faced many challengers. Until about ad 500 it was able to defeat internal and external enemies. In the mid-5th century the White Huns, a nomadic people from Central Asia, moved onto the Indian plains and were defeated by the Guptas. The Huns invaded India again in ad 510, when Gupta strength was in decline. This time the invasion was successful, forcing the Guptas into the northeastern part of their former empire. The Huns established their rule over much of northwest India, extending to present-day western Uttar Pradesh. However, they in turn were defeated by enemies to the west a short time later. The Buddhist monasteries and the cities of this region never recovered from the onslaught of the Huns. By ad 550 both the Hun kingdom and the Gupta Empire had fallen.

The absence of these centralizing powers left India to be ruled by regional kingdoms. These kingdoms often warred with each other and had fairly short spans of power. They developed a political system that emphasized the tribute of smaller chieftains. Later, starting in the 11th century and especially in the south, they legitimized this rule by establishing great royal temples, supported by grants of land and literally hundreds of Brahmans. Literature and art continued to flourish, particularly in south and central India. The distinctive style of temple architecture and sculpture that developed in the 7th and 8th centuries can be seen in the pyramid-shaped towers and heavily ornamented walls of shrines at Mamallapuram (sometimes called Mahabalipuram) and Kanchipuram south of Chennai, and in the cave temples carved from solid rock at Ajanta and Ellora in Maharashtra. The religious tradition of bhakti (passionate devotion to a Hindu god), which emerged in Tamil Nadu in the 6th century and spread north over the next nine centuries, was expressed in poetry of great beauty. With the decline of Buddhism in much of peninsular India (it continued in what is now Bangladesh), Hinduism developed new and profound traditions associated with the philosophers Shankara in the early 800s and Ramanuja in about 1100.

The regional kingdoms were not small, but only Harsha, who ruled from 606 to 647, attempted to create an expansive empire. From his kingdom north of Delhi, he shifted his base east to present-day central Uttar Pradesh. After extending his influence as far west as the Punjab region, he tried to move south and was defeated by the Chalukya king Pulakeshin II of Vatapi (modern Badami) in about 641. By then the Pallava dynasty had established a powerful kingdom on the east coast of the southern Indian peninsula at Kanchipuram. During the course of the next half century the Pallavas and the neighboring Chalukyas of the Deccan Plateau struggled for control of key peninsular rivers, each alternately sacking the other’s capital. The eventual waning of the Pallavas by the late 8th century allowed the Cholas and the Pandya dynasty to rule virtually undisturbed for the next four centuries.

Elsewhere in India, the 8th century saw continued power struggles among states. Harsha died in 647 bc and his kingdom contracted to the west, creating a power vacuum in the east that was quickly filled by the Pala dynasty. (The Palas ruled the Bengal region and present-day southern Bihar state from the 8th through the 12th centuries.) Harsha’s capital of Kanauj was conquered by the Gurjara-Pratiharas, who were based in central India, and who managed to extend their rule west to the borders of Sind (in what is now Pakistan). The Gurjara-Pratiharas fought with the Rashtrakutas for control of the trade routes of the Ganges. The Rashtrakutas controlled the Deccan Plateau from their capital in Ellora, near present-day Aurangabad. Their frequent military campaigns into north and central India kept the small kingdoms ruled by Muslims in Sind and southern Punjab confined. The Western Chalukyas also fought with, and were finally overthrown by, the Rashtrakutas in the 8th century.

The kingdoms persisted despite this protracted warfare because they were more or less equally matched in resources, administrative and military capacities, and leadership. Although particular dynasties did not last long, these kingdoms, which shifted the center of rule in India to areas south of the Vindhya Range, had a remarkable stability, lasting in one form or other in particular regions for centuries.

The kingdoms of the south, especially the Pallavas and Cholas, had links with Southeast Asia. Temples in the style of the early-8th-century Pallavas were built in Java soon after those in the Pallava kingdom. In pursuit of trade, the Cholas made successful naval expeditions at the end of the 10th century to Ceylon, the region of Bengal, Sumatra, and Malaya. They also established direct trade with China. By the 12th century the cities of the southwestern coast of India, in what is now Kerala and southern Karnataka, housed Jewish and Arab traders who drew on a network centered in the Persian Gulf and reaching through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea and Italy.

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