We often hear that Indian rulers throughout history never invaded other countries – never established colonies in foreign lands. The above statements are made, no doubt, to extol the virtues of our Hindu/Buddhist civilization – its emphasis on high philosophy, a penchant for peace, and deep-rooted spiritual (as opposed to materialistic) values. History generally bears out the validity of these statements. There are, however, some very notable exceptions.
The earliest example of foreign invasion (to Lanka) comes from Ramayana, whose historicity is, at best, questionable. But we cannot deny that the ethos for foreign invasions clearly finds favor in Ramayana. Of course, gods like Rama are judged differently from mere mortals like us. Then, there is in a famous Bengali poem, the legend of Vijaysingha, a prince from Bengal, subjugating the same Lanka (a favorite whipping boy, it seems) and rechristened it Simhala. A similar legend, I am told, exists in Sri Lanka that Prince Vijay came from somewhere in India and conquered Lanka. The historicity of this conquest, I gather, has not gotten universal approval from established historians. However, reverence for his exploits have withstood the test of time, thereby indicating our support for such endeavors, quite at variance with the ethos of non-aggression outside our borders.
Moving down in time, and based on firmer historical evidence, we find the great Maurya Empire of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka (322 BCE to 232 BCE) extending in the northwest into what is now Afghanistan and Balochistan and into the borders of Persia (Iran). In 305 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya led a series of campaigns to capture the satrapies left behind by Alexander the Great when he returned westwards. Seleucus I Nicator fought to defend these territories. Both sides made peace in 303 BCE with a treaty that gave Chandragupta control of the regions he sought, while Seleucus was given 500 highly valued war elephants in exchange. A map of Chandragupta’s empire in 320 BC (Figure 1) indicates that it included the entire present-day Balochistan under Pakistan and extending up to the southeastern end of present-day Afghanistan, including Gandhara, Kandahar, and Kabul Valley.
King Asoka the Great made further additions to his empire in the northwest. A map of Asoka’s empire in 265 BCE (Figure 2) shows it to include entire present-day Afghanistan encroaching into the southeastern reaches of present-day Turkmenistan. Also, his empire expanded further across the Pakistani border in Balochistan into the eastern reaches of present-day Iran.
Thereafter, there is a mention of Hindu Shahis as rulers of Gandhara and Kabul Valley from 850 to 1026 CE. There is little mention of Hindu Shahis in Indian history about their origins. It appears that the dynasty was set up by a minister of the Kabul Shahi dynasty by usurping its existing ruler. The Hindu Shahis had a tenuous existence with the local Saffarids and Samanids. The Samanids captured Kabul around 900 CE, but the Hindu Shahis continued in the Gandhara till they were conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni.
Probably the most stunning examples of campaigns outside the traditional borders of India are the naval exploits of the Chola kings of South India, Raja Raja Chola (reigned 985-1014), and his son Rajendra Chola (reigned 1014-1044). Raja Raja Chola’s naval forces captured the northern part of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and also subjugated the Maldive Islands. His son Rajendra’s naval campaigns were even more impressive. He captured the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and brought the whole island of Ceylon under his control by imprisoning their king, Mahinda. In 1025 CE, Rajendra led Chola forces across the Indian Ocean and invaded the Srivijaya kingdom, attacking several places in Malaysia and Indonesia. This was surely a unique event in the annals of Indian history. The Cholas sacked Kadaram (the capital) and Pannai in Sumatra and Malaiyur in Indonesia. Rajendra also invaded Tambralinga, the Langkasuka Kingdom in modern Malaysia, and south Thailand. The Chola forces captured the last ruler of the Sailendra Dynasty, Sangrama Vijayatunggavarman. The Chola invasion engendered the end of the Srivajaya empire, whose maritime power declined under Chola attack. After this, the Cholas conquered large portions of Srivijaya Kingdom, including its ports of Ligor, Kedah, and Tumask (now Singapore). For the next century, Tamil trading companies from southern India dominated Southeast Asia. A map showing the Chola kingdom in 1030 CE is presented in Figure 3.
The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s disastrous encounters with the Uzbeks in 1645-1647 should perhaps be mentioned. The Emperor was possibly driven by his dreams of recapturing the Mughals’ ancestral homelands in those parts. It was the only time in recorded history that an India-based power ventured across the Hindu Kush to annex a Central Asian territory. Shah Jahan himself moved to Kabul to oversee the operations and two of his sons, Murad and Aurungzeb were involved in various phases. The war ended in a status quo with the Hindu Kush remaining as the western border of the Mughal empire. The Mughals suffered heavy losses in the campaigns, both financially and in manpower, a lot of it due to severe weather conditions.
Finally, there was the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839 CE), which extended from Khyber Pass in the west to western Tibet in the east. Ranjit Singh had several encounters with the Afghans in the borders, starting from 1823 with the defeat of a large army of Yusufzai north of the Kabul River. The Battle of Jamrud and his march through Kabul in 1838, in cooperation with the colonial British army stationed in Sindh, became the last confrontation between the Sikhs led by him and the Afghans. It helped extend and establish the western boundaries of the Sikh Empire. In 1838, Ranjit Singh with his troops marched into Kabul to take part in the victory parade along with the British after restoring Shah Shoja to the Afghan throne at Kabul. The Maharaja’s general, Zorowar Singh, after successful campaigns to Ladakh, Gilgit, and Baltistan, marched into Tibet in 1841 at the head of a large army and fought successfully with the Chinese Qing forces. Within six months, he had conquered territory to the northwest of the Mayyum Pass. But then a strong Tibetan army descended down from Lhasa. He fought many a pitched action in the vicinity of Lake Manasarovar and was killed in the last one of these on December 12, 1841. A map showing the Sikh Empire from 1799 to 1849 is presented in Figure 4.
I contend that there are many more reasons for the relatively small number of incidences of Indian invasions beyond traditional borders other than our Hindu/Buddhist ethos. One principal reason could be that over the years, India, unlike China, has had few very powerful kings with large empires. It is self-evident that unless one’s kingdom reached the borders of India, the intervening territory had to be subjugated before venturing across the borders. Besides, the kings were kept busy fighting their neighboring kings as well as usurpers in their own kingdoms.
India’s geography – the high mountains in the north and seas around the peninsular south – there was a further deterrent to potential ambitions of Indian kings regarding campaigns beyond the borders. The high altitudes of the Himalayas and the very cold climates for much of the year were always formidable obstacles to overcome. And campaigns across the seas required significant development of naval technologies yet to come. It is perhaps no accident that the great European colonies of Britain, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, all sprouted after the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the advent of newer naval developments.
Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write.