India: the Medieval Era


Historical overview

Society and economy


Language and literature

Architecture and Art

End of Medieval India

map of medieval india
Maps of Medieval India

The Medieval period of India can be viewed as covering the centuries between the end of the last great ancient empire, that of the Gupta, and the rise of the great Mughal empire, in the 16th century. The great trends it witnessed were the development of modern Hinduism, the decline of Buddhism in India and the establishment of Islam in the subcontinent. Associated with these changes in the religious make-up of Indian society were important developments in art, architecture and literature.

Historical overview

The early 6th century saw the rapid decline of the Gupta empire. By around the middle of the century Gupta power had vanished and India was covered by numerous rival kingdoms. These were briefly reunited under the warrior-emperor, Harsha Vardhana (ruled 606-647), but on his death his empire at once fell apart. In the period that followed, some kingdoms rose to prominence for a time, but never for very long. None succeeded in conquering all, or even much, of the Indian subcontinent.

The most prominent of these kingdoms was that of the Gurjara-Pratiharas, in western India, which was powerful from the 8th to the  10th centuries, with many ups and downs. The kingdom of the Palas, based in eastern India, was its main rival. The Palas are notable as being the last major Buddhist dynasty in India

In the Deccan plateau of central India, the kingdom of the Chalukya dynasty dominated from the 6th through to the mid-8th century, when it was replaced by the Rashtrakutas. In the late 10th century their power declined and the Deccan became fragmented amongst a host of small kingdoms.

By 500 CE southern India was dominated by three rival kingdoms, the Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas. In the 7th century, the Pallavas rose to preeminence; then the Pandyas who were strongest until the 10th century. Thereafter the Chola kingdom began to expand strongly. The Cholas dominated south India from the early 10th century through to the early 13th century. In the early 11th century they even extended their power to Sri Lanka and, apparently, as far as to South East Asia.

Islamic expansion

The first major incursion of Islam into the Indian subcontinent was when an Arab army of the Muslim Caliph occupied the westernmost areas, Makhram, Sind and Multan, in the early 8th century.

Strong Indian kingdoms, particularly those of the Gurjara-Pratiharas, the Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas, successfully fended off further Muslim advance. In the 9th century the Muslim rulers of Sind and Multan became effectively independent from the Caliph, in Baghdad, and they and their successors seem to have given up any further ambitions of territorial expansion.

The rise of aggressive new Muslim powers in central Asia changed this. At the very end of the 10th century, a fearsome Turkish leader, Mahmud of Ghazna, began launching a succession of devastating raids, deep into India. These campaigns showed how disunited India had become, fragmented amongst numerous small kingdoms and principalities. Although many states in the north-west were now ruled by “Rajput” warrior-princes, they failed to coordinate their efforts and could be picked off one by one.

Unsurprisingly, other Muslim leaders from central Asia decided to take advantage of this situation, and at the end of the 12th century one of them, Muhammed of Gur, began a systematic conquest of the subcontinent.

Muhammed’s armies soon occupied a large part of northern India. These armies were commanded by slave generals, and on Muhammed’s death one of them asserted his independence and, with the city of Delhi as his capital, took the title of sultan.

Albeit with many set-backs, the sultanate of Delhi gradually extended its power so that by the mid-14th century it had subjugated all but the southernmost region of the subcontinent. Almost immediately, however, the sultanate went into precipitous decline. A great rebellion snatched the southern half of the empire from its control, and this huge region came to be divided between two powerful states, the Muslim sultanate of Bahmani, and, in the far south, the powerful Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagara.

The sultanate of Delhi continued its decline so that by the mid-15th century its territories included only the city of Delhi itself and some surrounding area.

The receding frontiers of the sultanate left in their train a hotchpotch of states. In the northern half of the subcontinent, apart from a group of Rajput kingdoms which had never really been incorporated into the sultanate’s territory, these were all ruled by Muslim sultans. The Delhi sultanate may have declined, but it had left a legacy of Muslim control throughout much of India.

Society and Economy

During this period, Indian society became increasingly sophisticated. The caste system became increasingly elaborate and all-pervasive as Hinduism spread. The status of women varied over time and within regions. Records show some high-status women, especially queens, being involved in government, and some participated in the fine arts, especially in the development of music and dance. Many temple dancers were well educated and accomplished in the arts. On the other hand many urban and rural women seem to have become increasingly restricted to their daily lives. Above all, the practice of sati, the voluntary immolation of widows on their husbands’  funeral pyres, became prevalent during these centuries.

International trade, both across the Indian Ocean and central Asia, brought many foreigners to India, such as Arabs, Jews, Persians, Chinese and people from the Malay Peninsula. New trading towns emerged:  Shravanabelagola, in south India, for example, developed from a religious settlement in the 7th century to being an important commercial centre in the 12th century.

Other towns flourished as pilgrimage centers, which also brought trade. Whereas in ancient India Hindu temples had been small affairs, with small shrines set in walled enclosures and with much of the public worship conducted in the open air, in Medieval India Hindu temples began to take on the shape of wealthy Buddhist monasteries. Large temples supported by royal patronage served religious, social, and judiciary purposes. Temple building served a commercial as well as a religious function. Merchants financed the construction of the temples to compete with the royal temples, and shrines built by rich landlords in rural areas acted as centers of authority, couture and trade, as well as serving the religious needs of the agrarian communities. Large temples of course also provided employment to hundreds of people of various guilds and professions.


The Medieval period of India is marked by the prevalence of Hinduism at the expense of both Jainism and Buddhism. Associated with this development was the rise in Vaishnava Hinduism. This in fact encompassed a multitude of sects, some local, some India-wide. The common feature between these sects was that they were much more devotional, and emotional, in style, than the ancient Vedic religion of the brahmans, which revolved around public worship. The Vaishnava sects thus had a strong appeal to the population at large, whilst at the same time rooting themselves in the ancient Vedic texts and giving status to brahmans as the religious experts par excellence. It also borrowed monastic practices from Buddhism, which enabled the intellectual content of Hinduism to develop. In certain location large Hindu monastic universities grew up, places of advanced study which fostered the intellectual development of Hindu culture.

Language and literature

The centers between the fall of the Gupta and the rise of the Moghul empires saw the rise of regional languages as mediums for great literature. Whereas Sanskrit had been the brahminical language of ancient India, in the medieval period the Tamil dialects of South India, for example Kannada, became prominent mediums for intellectual expression. The fact that the new Vaishnava Hindu cults used local languages for their sacred texts was a major part of their appeal, but even at court these regional languages replaced Sanskrit. Nevertheless, Sanskrit retained its status as the primary language of high culture; works which had pretensions to the profoundest knowledge, or whited to be legible right across the subcontinent, were written in Sanskrit.

Literary works were written on palm leaves which were tied together. They included poetry, grammar, lexicons, manuals, rhetoric, commentaries on older works, prose fiction and drama. Inscriptions on stone and copper plates were written mostly in regional languages but some were in Sanskrit or were bilingual. The sections of bilingual inscriptions stating the title, genealogy, origin myths of the King were generally done in Sanskrit. Local languages were used in everyday administration and commerce, including contracts, information on land ownership, and so on.

Court poets were major literary figures. Their compositions were sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, including shatpadi, six-line verses; ragale, lyrical compositions in blank verse; and ttripadi, three-line verses. The traditional champu, composed of prose and verse, also continued in use. Noblemen, ministers, ascetics and monks also contributed to the literary output of the period.

Architecture and Art

The kings of medieval India are famous for their patronage of art and architecture. The brisk temple building throughout the subcontinent, but more especially in central and southern India, and independent architectural traditions arose in different parts of India. One of the most notable can be seen in Hoysala temple architecture, in southern India. It is characterized by an attention to exquisite detail and skilled craftsmanship, reflected also in its temple sculpture, with its sensuous depictions of feminine beauty. The outer walls of many Hindu temples contained an intricate array of stone sculptures and friezes depicting the great Hindu epics.

The End of Medieval India

After a brief revival, the sultanate was finally finished off when the last of its rulers was killed by the forces of another invader from central Asia, at the battle of Panipat (1526). The victor of Panipat, Babur, went on the found the Mughal dynasty. Another chapter in India’s long history had opened. This was not just due to the rise of a new imperial dynasty, but also to the fact that influences from outside the subcontinent began to make themselves felt, moving India into the modern era. The use of firearms was an example, but more than this was the appearance of European traders along the coasts of India. From small beginnings these would come to have control over the entire subcontinent.

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