India : The geography of history – Part 1

Introduction:-

History without geography is largely incomplete and devoid of its vital substance for it loses focus in the absence of the concept of space.That is why history is regarded both as the history of  mankind and the history of environment. It is difficult to separate the two. The history of humans and the history of environment mutually influence one another.Variation of culture and practices are reflection of Physical features. For eg:-

Forms of irrigation differ from region to region :-

  • rivers and canals have been the most important form of irrigation in northern India.
  • ponds have been very useful in eastern India.
  • tank irrigation has played a significant role in South Indian agriculture.

These variations do not mean that rivers are not important in eastern and southern regions. But what they reflect is that people take recourse to different methods to augment additional water sources in different regions, depending on what method is most suitable for a particular region.

Why Magadha Empire flourished and achieved such political ascendancy ?

  • highly fertile soils
  • sufficient rainfall ensuring a rich annual paddy crop
  • proximity to iron ore mines and sources of stone and timber of Chotanagpur Plateau which is towards the south of Magadha.
  • the rivers provided for comfortable communication and trade
  • the closeness and continuity of settlements, facilitated in no small way by these natural advantages, indicating great population density.

The supremacy achieved by Magadha was based on the conquest of the northern plains which was blessed by the favourable convergence of necessary variables such as soil, rainfall, vegetation,
easy communication lines and availability of natural resources.

Why Magadha Empire with all those conditions favourable to it failed then ?

  • With the political ascendency of Magadha, its capital Pataliputra became the capital of northern India or the imperial capital and it continued to remain important for many centuries.
  • Geographical reasons have been put forward to explain both the rise and fall of pataliputra. While in its early history the surrounding rivers like the Ganga, Son and Gandak provided for natural defence and easy trade and transport, by the middle of the first millennium A.D. they had become positive liabilities owing to perennial floods.
  • More over the Gangetic plain , upon pressure from population and suitability of settlement lost its forests.Deforestation of the hinterland and consequent reduction of rainfall sealed the fate of Magadha.
  • One might assume that how deforestation, reduced rainfall and perennial flood co-exist together and can be cited the reason for Magadha Fall.The answer is rather simple :- deforestation led to reduced rainfall , it also devoid the region of its’ water retentive capacity.Forests act as sponges. They retain sudden downpour of rain and release it slowly . Absence of forest and sudden downpour of rain leads to flash floods. Rainfall was reduced but was not absent and any sudden downpour led to flash floods and people of region had to disperse to find a better settlement, thus leading to fall of Magadha.

Geographical Determinism and its historical discourse:-

  • The rise and fall of Magadha is largely attributed to geographical factors . The basic philosophy behind this explanation is “Nature determines the route of development, while man determines the rate and the state.”. This view is known as Geographical determinism . However Man is not an observing bystander, he is rather an active agant of Change. Man with his technology has the ability to create micro-climatic conditions and can sustain at the most unsustainable places. But at the times of Magadha , and as historical evidence puts it , we din’t have the means and technology to withstand natural vagaries for a vast extent for a large period of time.Thus the geographical  explanation for Magadha holds true , but it is not entirely the only reason but a substantive one.
  • Thus, neither is the influence of nature fixed nor is the man and environment relationship static. The limits set by nature are conquered by human experience and by human being, with their tools. This is an ongoing process which continuously enriches the realm of human experience and expands the frontier of man’s control of environment.
  • Physical features and environmental conditions that may appear unfavourable or difficult at one stage may prove to be potentially rich at another stage. For example, the hunter-gatherers preferred to live on the edge of the forests or what we have today as frontier zones, while incipient farmers had to come down to the riverine plains. Here again early farmers in the absence of an iron ploughshare preferred to restrict themselves to lighter soils to the west of the Ganga-Yamuna doab. Only with the coming of iron could the peasantry venture to open up the rich alluvial plains of Gangetic northern India and conquer the thick vegetation and heavier, fertile soil.

 

Physiography Of India: –

Putting the geographical specification and divisions aside , generally India can be divided in to 3 basic physio-graphic regions namelt : –

  1. Himalayan Upland
  2. Indo-Gangetic Plain
  3. Peninsular India

Basic Features of each region:-

  1. The Himalayas are considered to be still rising. Himalaya provides rich alluvium and sustains perennial flow of 3 major river – Indus, Ganga , Brahmaputra.
  2. The Indo-Gangetic plain forms an arc for about 3200km from mouth of Indus to Mouth of Ganga.
  3. The Indus plains threw up the first civilization of the subcontinent while the Ganga plains have sustained and nurtured city life, state, society and imperial fabrics from the first millennium B.C..
  4. The northern plains and the Peninsular India are separated by a large intermediate zone, which in the absence of a better terminology, may be called central India, extending from Gujarat to
    western Orissa over a stretch of about 1600 kms.
  5. The Aravali hills in Rajasthan separate the Indus plain from the peninsula. The intermediate zone is characterised by the presence of the Vindhyan and Satpura ranges and the Chotanagpur plateau covering portions of Bihar, Bengal and Odisha.This region can be subdivided into four sub-regions :-
    • Rajput Land( Udaipur-jaiput)
    • Malwa Plateau around Ujjain (Avanti)
    • Vidarbha – sub-regionaround nagpur
    • Chattisgarh plains – In Eastern M.P (also known as Dakshina Kosala)
  6. The Peninsular India has a gently sloping from West to East.Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri are major rivers.Majority of rivers flow from west to east while Narmada and Tapi flow from east to west owing to their flow in rift valley created by Vindhya-Satpua range.
  7. Deccan Plateau , a large basaltic province with its black soil is a predominant feature of peninsular India. Geologically it is quite old and relatively stable portion of India.The black soil with high water retentive capacity is also considered “self-ploughing” soli, helps the region overcome the limitations imposed by less annual rainfall and irrigational difficulties.
  8. The black soil around Maharashtra region   yields good crops of cotton, millets, peanuts and oil seeds. Not surprisingly therefore the early farming cultures (Chalcolithic) in western and central India emerged in this area.
  9. The Nilgiris and the Cardamom hills are considered to be offshoots of the basic peninsular formation.

Alexander’s strategic blunder:-

  • While returning from Indian Campaign Alexander did a mistake of leading a section of his army through Makran Coast . Makaran Coast is the coast of Baluchistan where desert condition prevail. Pastoralism has been the mainstay of the inhabitants since neolithic time.Due to its desert conditions Alexander suffered heavy loss of men and paucity of food water. This is the reason why most of the invaders came through Punjab region , so as to have a sustained supply of food and water.

 

Interesting physio-graphic division of Gujarat:-

  • Gujarat is situated on the western fringe of the Central Indian belt. It consists of three natural divisions: Saurashtra, Anarta (N. Gujarat) and Lata (S. Gujarat).
  • Semiarid wind blown-soilscharacterise Anarta and the fertile area on the western coast constitutes Lata. The central peninsula of Gujarat is called Kathiawar. The low-lying Rann of Kutch is another feature which during the monsoons turns into a swamp.
  • In spite of these physical sub-divisions Gujarat has a cultural identity and unity because it is broadly bounded by the Vindhyas and Western Ghats in the east and by the desert on the north. Although it appears to have been a zone of isolation actually it is a region of continuous ancient settlements dating back from the
    Harappan period.
  • Because of its protected position and the lengthy coast line Gujarat has been the focus of coastal and external trade for more than four thousand years.

Interesting Physio-cultural feature of Peninsular India: –

  • The Deccan Plateau  is divided into three major regions which largely correspond to the states of Maharashtra, Andhra and Karnataka.
  • Maharashtra seems to have a natural boundary with Andhra for the boundary line coincides with the distribution of the fertile black soil. Across the boundary one encounters the red soil of Telangana, which fails to retain moisture.Therefore, Telangana has become a land of tanks and other forms of artificial irrigation.
  • This division can be found in adaptation strategy. The people of Telengana region remained pastoralist while people of Maharashtra became agriculturist.
  • The southern part of Karnataka is better watered and more hospitable than the North. The limitation imposed by environment are amply borne out by the comparatively poor cultural remains of Neolithic people .
  • Krishan-Godavari doab was the epicenter of Andhra .This region Known as Vengi .It was the  rice bowl of the region . Like the the Krishna- Tungabhadra doab /Raichur doab , empires fought over it.
  • The extreme south of peninsula is Kerala and Tamilnadu with physio-graphic features like Nilgiri and Cardamom hills, Malabar coast .Tamilnadu known for its Sangam literature.
  • From Tamil Nadu , Kerala  is accessible through the Palghat gap and the southern end of the Western Ghats. Relatively isolated by land, Kerala has been open to the sea and interestingly first the Christian and then the Muslim influence here came by sea.

Conclusion:-

  • The physical divisions in the subcontinent are often roughly co-terminus with the linguistic regions. The latter in turn have developed and asserted their cultural identities. The people of the Want physical divisions have varied tastes. food-habits, and dress sense.
  • The uneven pattern of growth both between and within the macroregions may be explained with reference to the availability or non-availability of resource potentialities and the form of human and technological intervention.
  • The unfolding of the historical process therefore has neither beet even nor uniform all over.
  • Admittedly, geography and environment influence historical developments considerably, even if they do not determine it entirely.

Question to Think over:-

Why we have good deal of evidence of Chalcolithic culture but have poor evidence of Neolithic culture.Also mention where and how these cultures flourish  ?  Compare and contrast their similarities and dissimilarities.

The answer to the previous question will be given in the next article.Meanwhile kindly write your answer in the comment section.

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By | 2017-02-13T19:49:03+00:00 October 24th, 2015|editorials, History, History of India|3 Comments
  • Xplospeed

    Really nice and lucid explanation.
    It’d be better if link for pdf also given.

  • Great article. Would have been wonderful if geography of eastern India and north east were also included. And himalayas… I would have liked to know more about them. Like who were the first settlers and where there any settlement at the time of Magadha, and why it seems like Magadha rulers never expanded their kingdom to their immediate north? But, then these questions may not be relevant. (?!)
    You touched many interesting points, anyway. Thank you very much.