India's first major civilisation flourished for a thousand years... from around 2500 BC along the Indus River valley.
Its great cities were Mohenjodaro and Harappa (now in Pakistan) where a complex civilisation ruled by priests and bearing the rudiments of Hinduism flourished. Aryan invaders swept south from central Asia between 1500 and 200 BC and secured control of northern India as far as the Vindhya hills in what is now Madhya Pradesh. They pushed the original Dravidian inhabitants south.

The invaders brought their own gods and cattle-raising and meat-eating traditions, but were absorbed to such a degree that by the 8th century BC the priestly caste had succeeded in reasserting its supremacy. This became consolidated in the caste system, whose hierarchy was maintained by strict rules designed to secure the position of the Brahmin priests. Buddhism arose around 500 BC and presented Brahmanical Hinduism with its greatest challenge by condemning caste. Buddhism began to drive a radical swathe through Hinduism in the 3rd century BC when it was embraced by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who controlled more of India than any subsequent ruler prior to the Mughals.

A number of empires rose and fell after the collapse of the Mauryas, but the most impressive was the Gupta Empire, which lasted from the 4th century AD until 606. This was a golden age of poetry, literature and art, with some of the finest work being done at Ajanta, Ellora, Sanchi and Sarnath. Hinduism underwent a revival during this period, and Buddhism began its decline. The invasion of the Huns signalled the end of the Guptas and the north of India broke into a number of separate Hindu kingdoms; it was not really unified again until the coming of the Muslims.

The far south of India was unaffected by the rising and falling of kingdoms in the north, and Hinduism in this region was never threatened by Buddhism or Jainism. The south's prosperity was based upon long-established trading links with the Egyptians, Romans and South-East Asia. Great empires that rose in the south included the Pandyas, Cheras, Chalukyas, Pallavas and Cholas.

While the Hindu kingdoms ruled in the south and Buddhism was fading in the north, Muslim power was creeping towards India from the Middle East. In 1192 Muslim power arrived on a permanent basis and within 20 years the whole of the Ganges basin was under Muslim control. The Muslim Sultans of Delhi were, however, an inconsistent bunch and Islam failed to penetrate the south, where the Hoysala Empire ruled from 1000 to 1300 AD. Two great kingdoms then developed in what is now Karnataka: the mighty Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, whose beautiful capital was at Hampi, and the Bahmani Muslim kingdom which fragmented into five separate domains centred on Berar, Ahmednagar, Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmedabad.

The Mughal emperors are the giants of Indian history. They marched into the Punjab from Afghanistan, defeated the Sultan of Delhi at Panipat in 1525, and ushered in another golden age of building, arts and literature. Their rise to power was rapid, but their decline was equally quick and there were really only six great Mughal emperors. The Maratha Empire grew during the 17th century, thanks to the larger-than-life exploits of the lower-caste Shivaji, and gradually took over more of the Mughals' domain. The Marathas consolidated control of central India until they fell to the last great imperial power, the British.

British power in India was initially exercised by the East India Company, which established a trading post at Surat in Gujarat in 1612. The British were not the first or the only European power with a presence in India in the 17th century: the Portuguese had been in control of Goa since 1510 (before the Mughals had even arrived in India) and the French, Danes and Dutch also had trading posts. Britain's power gradually spread from the time that Clive retook Calcutta in 1757 until the British victory in the fourth Mysore War in 1799. The long-running British struggle with the Marathas was finally concluded in 1803, which left almost the entire country under the control of the British East Company.

The British perceived India principally as a place to make money, and its culture, beliefs and religions were left strictly alone. The British expanded iron and coal mining, developed tea, coffee and cotton plantations, and began construction of India's vast rail network. The British encouraged absentee landlords because they eased the burden of administration and tax collection, creating an impoverished and landless peasantry - a problem which is still chronic in Bihar and West Bengal today. The Indian Mutiny in northern India in 1857, led to the demise of the East India Company, and administration of the country was belatedly handed over to the British government. The next 50 years were the golden years of the empire on which 'the sun never set'.

Opposition to British rule began in earnest at the turn of the 20th century. The 'Congress' which had been established to give India a degree of self-rule now began to push for the real thing. Outside the Congress, hot-blooded individuals pressed for independence by more violent means. Eventually, the British mapped out a path towards independence similar to that pursued in Canada and Australia. In 1915, Gandhi returned from South Africa, where he had practised as a lawyer, and turned his abilities to the question of independence, adopting a policy of passive resistance, or satyagraha, to British rule.

WWII dealt a deathblow to colonialism and the myth of European superiority and Indian independence became inevitable. Within India, however, the large Muslim minority began to realise that an independent India would be Hindu-dominated. Local elections began to reveal an alarming growth of communalism, with the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, speaking for the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and the Congress Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, representing the Hindu population. Jinnah's egotistical bid for power over a separate Muslim nation proved to be the biggest stumbling block to Britain granting independence.

Faced with a political stand-off and rising tension, the viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, reluctantly decided to divide the country and set a rapid timetable for independence. Unfortunately, the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions were on opposite sides of the country - meaning the new Muslim nation of Pakistan would have an eastern and western half divided by a hostile India. When the dividing line was announced, the greatest exodus in human history took place as Muslims moved to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs relocated to India. Much of the migration was accompanied by acts of barbaric violence. By the time the chaos had run its course, over 10 million people had changed sides and even the most conservative estimates calculated that 250,000 people had been slaughtered. The final stages of Independence had one last tragedy to be played out. On 30 January 1948, Gandhi, deeply disheartened by Partition and the subsequent bloodshed, was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

Following the trauma of Partition, India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed a secular constitution, socialist central planning and a strict policy of nonalignment. Although India maintained generally cordial relations with its former coloniser and elected to join the Commonwealth, it actually moved towards the former USSR - partly because of conflicts with China and partly because of US support for arch-enemy Pakistan, which was particularly hostile to India because of its claim on Muslim-dominated Kashmir. There were clashes with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, one over the Kashmir issue and the other over Eastern Pakistan/Bangladesh.

India's next prime minister of stature was Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi, who was elected in 1966. She is still held in high esteem, but is remembered by some for meddling with India's democratic foundations by declaring a state of emergency in 1975. Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 as a reprisal for her ill-considered decision to use the Indian Army to flush out armed Sikh radicals from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Gandhis' dynastic grip on Indian politics continued when her son, Rajiv, an Indian Airlines pilot with no interest in politics, was swept into power.

Rajiv brought new and pragmatic policies to the country. Foreign investment and the use of modern technology were encouraged, import restrictions were eased and many new industries were set up. These measures certainly projected India into the 1990s and woke the country from its partially self-induced isolationism, but they did little to stimulate India's mammoth rural sector. Rajiv suffered a similar fate to his mother when he was assassinated on an election tour of Tamil Nadu by a supporter of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers. India has had three leaders since Rajiv Gandhi, each of whom have shown a determination to continue dragging India kicking and screaming into the world's global economy.

The dangers of communalism in India were clearly displayed during the Ayodhya fracas in 1992, when a Hindu mob stormed and destroyed a mosque they believed had been built on the site of Rama's birth. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been keen to exploit such opportunities. Corruption in the Congress party has hampered supporters of a secular, tolerant India from offering a creditable political alternative. The BJP was excluded from power by an unlikely coalition of smaller parties, known as the United Front (but dubbed the 13 losers), who had the backing of Congress. In November 1997, Congress withdrew that support, the Lok Sabha was dissolved and elections were called for February 1998.

The elections were won by a coalition led by the BJP and Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister for the second time. Despite the dangers of playing communalist politics, the BJP's traditionalist Hindu stance has attracted voters concerned about retaining traditional values during the sudden onslaught of modern global influences. When you see Baywatch dubbed into Hindi and beamed into India by satellite, you'll understand what they're concerned about. It was assumed that the more extreme policies of the BJP would be mellowed by their reliance on a broad range of coalition partners. This assumption proved false when they followed through on a promise to make India a nuclear weapons power only weeks after the election. Despite international outrage, the nuclear tests were met with widespread jubilation in India and caused a groundswell of support for the BJP.

But proving the adage that a week is a long time in politics, by April 1999 Vajpayee had lost majority support in parliament and was forced into a vote of confidence which he preceeded to lose by one critical vote. There was widespread expectations that Sonia Ghandi, Rajiv Ghandi's widow, would revive the Ghandi political dynasty by leading the Congress Party to victory after its three years in the political wilderness. But in the factional and fractitious way of India's parliament she was unable to secure a coalition with majority seats and India was forced to the election polls for the third time in as many years.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was returned to government but with a significant decrease in support, forcing the BJP to rely more heavily on its allies. The victory was not so much won by Vajpayee and BJP as lost by the opposing parties and their inability to control the fractured monster that is Indian politics. The world is holding its breathe to see what action Vajpayee will take, if any, over the bloodless coup in Pakistan that occured only days after India's election. His strong-man stance against Pakistan in the past may well have accounted for the popular vote and he may be tempted into a bit of arm wrestling to prove his leadership credentials.