Did India have an Early Middle Ages?

When writers in Europe started dividing history into the ancient-medieval-modern periodisation system familiar today, they did so in light of a past and future which they believed to be Roman. The end of the Western Roman Empire marked the beginning of their medieval period. Likewise, the revival of classical culture and city life that figures such as Petrarch and Bruni perceived in their own times signalled the onset of modernity, a new era that rescued the spirit of the ancient from the medieval caesura. Historians can (and do) question the usefulness of this periodisation for Western Eurasia, but it looks even worse when applied to the majority of the human world for whom Rome was at most a name. While the Roman Emperor Valens was dying in the aftermath of the Battle of Adrianople in 378, Teotihuacán was expanding its political and cultural influence among the cities of the Maya. As Alaric sacked Rome in 410, the Gupta empire was enjoying a year of unexpected peace, following the successful conclusion of a series campaigns by Chandragupta II. And 476, the year that Romulus Augustulus began his career as a former emperor, was the same year that Emperor Xianwen of Northern Wei ended his by being assassinated; but was otherwise just another year in the age of the Northern and Southern dynasties. In this light, attempting to fit these places into a periodisation synchronised to that of the western half of the Roman empire seems perverse.

Worse still, such efforts come with their own history. This is particularly the case with India, the region I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. James Mill’s periodisation of Indian history into Hindu-Muslim-British (The History of British India, 1817) was quickly conflated with ancient-medieval-modern. This naturally suited colonial administrators, as it made modernity in India coterminous with British rule. It was also surprisingly popular with certain groups of Indian nationalists, because it reified their vision of Hindu culture as the output of a pure ‘classical’ period that represented the true India, while implicitly making the ‘Muslim age’, generally identified with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, the bad ‘medieval’ period.

The Ghateshwara Mahadeva temple, dedicated to Shiva, in Rajasthan. Tenth century, but is it early medieval? (source)

All of this context is intended to signal a note of caution for the rest of this post. Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent more time than I previously expected reading about the history of India in the eighth and ninth centuries, initially as I tried to track down the origins of Charlemagne’s elephant, Abu al-Abbas, and later out of straightforward fascination. One of the things that has struck me are the parallels between what I found in India and Western Europe in this period, in ways that I don’t think exist in the Caliphate or Tang China, to give two examples. What I’d like to do today is consider some of those parallels and ask whether we can meaningfully talk about an ‘early medieval India’.

I am grossly beyond the limits of my competence here, with my expertise merely stretching to having read a few books. In the interests of brevity, I have removed most of the qualifications and admissions of ignorance that should follow nearly every sentence. The Indian subcontinent is enormous and fantastically diverse, and most of what I have to say applies to Northern India (the Imperial Cholas are fascinating but seem to me to be doing their own thing). Everything I say should be taken with extreme caution, and I would welcome comments and corrections on this post even more than usual.

I’m also by no means the first person to talk about ‘early medieval’ India. In the 1950s and 60s Marxist historians such as Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi and Ram Sharan Sharma began applying that label to the period between about 550 and 1206. These scholars used the term for these centuries because although they pre-dated the Delhi Sultanate, they identified the rise of feudalism in this period, making it medieval in their eyes. I have spent a career avoiding talking about feudalism in Europe (and most historians who deal with it would probably say it develops after the early medieval phase) so I’m certainly not going to engage with it now in India, except to say that’s not what I’m talking about. Nor am I necessarily talking about the implied chronological sequence inherent in the terminology. My ‘early medieval’ India does not need to be followed by a period resembling the high or later Middle Ages in Europe. Rather, it seems to me that early medieval Europe is defined by a number of features that also appear in India at roughly the same time.

Feature 1

The region used to be dominated by a single large empire with pretensions to universality, run in large part by appointed officials. It is now divided between a number of competing successor states which are each still large entities, and which explicitly claim the legacy of empire, but which are increasingly devolving administration to local landed elites. There is nonetheless considerable continuity in political institutions, as well as in language and culture.

This is fairly obviously the Roman empire, whose legacy carried on most straightforwardly in Byzantium, but also in the ‘barbarian’ kingdoms to the west, seen through continuities in political elites and structures, and the prestige of Latin and Classical culture, right down to Charlemagne having himself crowned Emperor in Rome.

But it’s also the Gupta empire, which dominated northern India from the late third to the sixth centuries. After its decline, large kingdoms emerged, all influenced by the Sanskrit language and culture fostered by the Guptas. The most successful of these competing rulers, Harsha (r.606-647), briefly united most of the region, but this was short-lived. The empires that came after all fought for the same sites, including Harsha’s capital of Kannauj. Particularly interesting is the tendency for tax collection to be farmed out and gradually diminish. Imperial administration increasingly depended on a network of maharajas and rajas embedded in the locality whose status was inherited, rather than the court bureaucrats who had previously been more important.

Possible Objections – The successor kingdoms to the Gupta are generally much less explicit about their imperial inheritance and there isn’t anywhere that resembles Byzantium in terms of prestige and continuity. Although many of the texts that these monarchs drew upon took their form in the Gupta period, the actual legends they’re interested in were set in much earlier centuries. 

Feature 2

A class of religious and cultural specialists spreads across the region. Although they and their beliefs existed before, this period sees the standardisation of their spiritual texts and status. They acquire new prominence, legitimising secular rulers who give them land and the resources to build large temples and other cult structures. A lot of the really interesting intellectual ideas emerges in the form of commentary on scriptural texts, and older literature gets repurposed to fit the spiritual demands of the time.

This is Christianity in Western Eurasia, manifesting itself in the network of church buildings, church officials and institutions such as monasteries, employing large numbers of people and getting resources in the form of land, tithes and influence. Lay and ecclesiastical leaders combined in order to try to determine correct beliefs and practices. Moments like the Carolingian Renaissance get started with the preservation and reinterpretation of Classical work and Patristic writings, with an explosion in expositions and encyclopaedic writings. Classical texts such as Virgil’s Aeneid were reread to reveal Christian truths.

This manifests itself in India as the codification of Hinduism in the post-Gupta world. Key texts such as the Puranas are compiled or standardised, and commentaries start being produced on classical texts. I particularly enjoy the coincidence that Bede (672/3-735, best known in his own time for Biblical commentary) and Adi Shankar (likely early eighth century, the great commentator of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Ghita among others) probably chronologically overlapped. Brahmins start appearing across the region, acquiring large landholdings from the rulers they advise on correct practice and morality. Kings also found large temples which dominate the landscape. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata start acquiring a much more normative and sacred quality than they previously had.

Possible Objections – There is no equivalent to the Ecumenical Councils, or a Pope or a Patriarch trying to ensure unity and coordinating believers from above. As a consequence, you get much more variety in practice (see for example the Upapuranas which adapt the Puranas with Bengalese local customs). The religious landscape was much more eclectic, with Buddhism (see the Pala empire) and Jainism (the Chalukya empire) continuing to receive royal support, with a little bit of everything showing up everywhere. 

Feature 3

A decline in the size of urban centres and in the volume and importance of long-distance trade, as power moves to the rural countryside.

Cities across the Roman world, but particularly in the western half, become smaller and less dense, and trade, particularly in bulk goods such as grain and pottery, declines. Economies become simpler and more local, with fewer specialists. Similar patterns are described in India in the period.

Possible Objections – This is the one I’m least happy with. Most of the literature I can find makes this case for India, but I’ve also read some convincing work that suggests that the archaeology hasn’t yet been done to really say for certain, and that our understanding of long-distance trade in this period is based on some dubious assumptions, so possibly treat this with even more caution than the rest of this post.

Comparative Thoughts

Assuming that these parallels are real, it’s hard to point to a shared cause. Both the Guptas and the Romans had to deal with invasions by steppe nomads from Central Asia in the fifth century (the Hunas and the Huns respectively, and whether or not these are the same people is an argument I am very happy to stay clear of). But beyond their contributions to the collapse of said empires, it’s hard to see the Hunas/Huns as particularly important to shaping what followed. Likewise, while these regions represented respectively the eastern and the western frontiers of the early Caliphate, it’s difficult to see that commonality as being significant for other shared features. Arguments based on pan-Eurasian or global phenomena such as climate would need to explain the different paths taken in China or the Caliphate at the same time.  

At the moment, I’m inclined to see the parallels as the symptom of a shared pattern – what happens when a unipolar world with a complex literary culture and urban economy starts breaking up. Being a specialist in a different region, what I’m most interested in is how this type of comparison can help me get new perspectives on the places I work on. For me these fall into two categories: things which strike me as very different, and things that are the same but which I hadn’t previously noticed.

An example of the former is discussion of forest-people, now often known as Adivasi. Indian monarchs had a complicated relationship with the inhabitants of the forests, which could be found across the subcontinent, needing the products of their home (including elephants) and their expertise at extracting them, but finding them hard to control. Both parties benefitted from exchange, but viewed each other with suspicion, with the forest-people often being depicted as not quite human.

I can’t really think of an equivalent to this in the western early Middle Ages, where multiple lifestyles based on dramatically different ecological niches were entwined in quite the same way. Mountainous regions like the Alps, or marsh like the Fens just aren’t large enough or essential enough. The closest I can come to are places like the Hungarian Plain, or the homes of the Sámi, but these are fairly geographically contained. Instead, it puts me more in mind of the mutual dependence of pastoralist steppe nomads and their sedentary cereal-agriculture-practising neighbours along the Silk Road. One of the things this suggests to me is just how ecologically specialised the Roman world was. (Another point here might be to compare the thin strip of wheat-producing coastal North Africa ruled by the Roman with the much deeper reach of the Caliphate, which does a better job of engaging with the pastoralist peoples in the interior).

But there are also things that come which I recognise but the significance of which had previously escaped me. Indian scholarship puts a great deal of emphasis on this period as the age when monarchy becomes the default political system, eclipsing the oligarchical republics (gana-sanghas) that had previously spread across India. This is of course something that also happens in the Mediterranean, as the myriad city-states of the Mediterranean with their varied constitutions were first brought together under Roman rule and gradually subsumed into a political world shaped by emperors and kings (the new urban republics of Italy, Flanders and the Hansa would emerge after the early medieval period). This is a process that was obscured to me by my tendency to begin somewhere in the fourth or fifth century, in the more centralised administrative regimes of late antique Rome and the Sasanians, but is something I’d like to keep in mind in the future.

Another point that leapt out to me is the emphasis that many of these studies (particularly those of B.D. Chattopadhyaya and Hermann Kulke) put on the spread of the state to new places and the intensification of the presence of the state in old regions. Competing empires expand their reach into previously peripheral regions while in other places new states emerge in conversation with those from outside (the Deccan being a prime example). Elsewhere, the growing number of sub-kings and temples means that the land is being more intensively governed than it previously was, particularly in the countryside.

I was initially inclined to put this down as something that was different from Europe in this period. However, further thought suggested a number of places where state structures start emerging in early medieval Europe where there hadn’t been before, such as Saxony or Scandinavia. Elsewhere, by the tenth century places such as lowland Britain or northern Iberia are far more intensively governed than they were in the Roman period, through state systems that were less dependent on cities and more on palaces and religious institutions than previously.

I don’t have a grand thesis to conclude this post with. Historians are by necessity specialists in something, if only because the alternative becomes extremely shallow and loses all purchase in historical reality really quickly. But what I hope I’ve suggested are some of the possible benefits of looking for situations and environments that resemble one’s own specialisms in order to get a sense of what similarities and differences we find.

[Editor’s note: after reading this post, there were a lot of points in it I wanted to explore further. I am therefore pleased to say that – schedules of all involved allowing – a specialist in the history of the Indian Ocean has agreed to help us delve deeper into this comparison sometime in Q1 next year, so keep an eye out for that!]

3 thoughts on “Did India have an Early Middle Ages?

  1. To generalize Guptas to be the only Kingdom of their time would be inappropriate. They did rule a large territory at times, but there were also other Kingdoms in the neighbourhood like the Vakatakas. Look at India as an ever changing group of Kingdoms that kept changing its boundaries. Mauryas (3rd century BC) probably ruled the most part of present day India, but again they didn’t last long after Asoka. Delhi Sultanate was largely a north Indian Kingdom that made occasional forays into the south, but couldn’t hold on.

    There are natural boundaries though.

    The Vindhya mountain range around the centre of subcontinent is generally seen as a division between north and the south. The north has a more unified history than the south as well. The Western Ghats running parallel to the western coast is another such boundary and its height increases as we go south.

    I come from a southern state west of Western Ghats. We have been largely insulated from the political changes of the subcontinent because of the Ghats. While there are kingdoms east of the Ghats that collected tributes now and then from us, the city states on our side largely ruled itself, even during the British times. Cities may have changed in prosperity with the change in the underlying politics of the region. So searching for an ancient city like Rome or an ancient building like Colosseum will be difficult here. The Gupta capital, Pataliputra (present day Patna) has a far longer history that predate the Guptas though, but after that somewhat falls into the background.

    As for religion, Hinduism is not a structured religion like Abrahamic ones. It evolves naturally like perhaps the Egyptian religion. Certain Kings may have favoured certain gods and these choices got changed over time as Kingdoms and boundaries changed. All these mixed source religions got clubbed under a single religion banner more recently. Even today you will find some aspects of the mythology more prominent in certain parts of the country over others, perhaps an indication of the religion’s ancient roots.


    1. Thank you for thoughts, which are really interesting, and for taking the time to comment.

      You are quite right to observe that the Guptas were by no means the only power around in northern India. The Deccan Plateau is a blind spot for me that I’m still coming to terms with. Too often the history of India is written by focusing on a handful of empires, so thank you for reminding me that even at the height of Gupta power there were a number of serious rivals. I still find the Guptas interesting because they manage to hold together the Indo-Gangetic Plain for multiple centuries in a way that no one else does until the Delhi Sultanate. Even at its height the Roman Empire did not exist in an entirely multipolar world, with Persia to the East as the most obvious peer or near-peer competitor.

      It’s fascinating to hear about the cities to the west of the Western Ghats. I think too often in European scholarship there is an assumption that the city-state is a uniquely Mediterranean or Western phenomenon and it is good to be reminded that as a form of organisation it was highly successful around the world.

      Your points about Hinduism are well taken. In the post I focused on changes in institutional organisation – the development of religious specialists, their accumulation of resources and clout in alliance with monarchs, and the development of an intellectual culture of commentary. But you’re quite right that the substance of belief and practice will have an impact on those things. The much more decentralised and open nature of what gets labelled Hinduism would influence how the things I mentioned spread and developed in ways that make it different to the evolution of Christian institutions in Western Eurasia.

      The type of comparison I have been trying to do invariably flattens nuance and detail in order to look for patterns. But the details (and you raise some very big ones) matter because they are the things that make history (postulate a perfectly spherical historical period), so thank you again for your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the reply. On city states, the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea from 50 AD gives a good coverage of the coastline. But the city states are more in our part of the country (State of Kerala) and may have to do with the abundance of water divisions in the area.

        Liked by 1 person

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