India has played host to the ebb and flow of empire-building since around 600 BCE. Its position at the confluence of east and west has also seen it come under fire from various would-be conquerors, including the Mongols of Genghis Khan and Timur, the Persian Achaemenids under Cyrus the Great, and even the Macedonian warrior Alexander the Great. For much of the first two millennia, though, India’s conflicts were driven by internal friction between neighbouring clans and kingdoms, led by some brilliant military and diplomatic minds – and others whose intentions were rather more sadistic.
Here are ten of the greatest empire-builders India’s turbulent but fascinating history, presented in date order.
1. Ajatasatru (512-461 BCE)
Ajatasatru was the son of Maharaja Bimbisara, one of the earliest rulers of the ancient kingdom of Magadha in north-east India. Bimbisara became head of the Haryanka dynasty in 543 BCE, whereupon he set about expanding his territory through marriage and conquest. However, in his own desire for power, and due to a family misunderstanding, the Prince had his father imprisoned before taking the throne for himself (Bimbisara was either murdered or committed suicide, depending on which texts you read).
Ajatasatru would go on to expand the Magadha empire, defeating no fewer than 36 neighbouring states in the process, and spent 15 years battling the Licchavi republic in the Vajji region of Nepal. During these battles, he employed two new weapons: a catapult and a covered chariot with a swinging mace, which has been likened to a modern-day tank. Eventually, he would preside over a huge kingdom covering the northern tip of India, from Bengal in the east to the Punjab in the west, and north into Nepal.
2. Chandragupta Maurya (340-298 BCE)
Chandragupta Maurya is influential for his founding of the Mauryan Empire, and consequent unification of India into a single state. The major force in the region at the time
was the Nanda empire, ruled by Dhana Nanda and located in the kingdom of Magadha in north-east India. Aiming to extend its borders, the empire had built an army comprising some 200,000 infantry and 80,000 cavalry, backed up by thousands of chariots and elephants. Under the tutelage of his advisor, Chanakya, Chandragupta assembled a band of men to rebel against the incumbent ruler.
Using a mixture of bribery and deception, he incited civil unrest and overthrew Dhana Nanda to become the new King of Magadha. He then defeated the Macedonian prefects left in place by Alexander the Great, and took the Persian territories of Greek General Seleucus, before heading south to capture the Deccan Plateau, uniting the country and creating the largest empire of its day.
3. Ashoka (304-232 BCE)
The grandson of Chandragupta, Ashoka was one of India’s greatest emperors, ruling the Maurya dynasty with an empire that spread almost across the entire subcontinent. Loyal ministers helped him to the throne in favour of the rightful heir, and he’s said to have been a cruel and aggressive King, gaining the nickname “Ashoka the Fierce” due to his ownership of an ornately decorated torture chamber. The Emperor waged a bitter war against Kalinga (modern-day Odisha), a feudal republic on the east coast, beginning around 261 BCE. This bloodiest of conflicts cost the lives of around 150,000 Kalinga warriors and 100,000 Mauryan men, and is said to have caused the Daya River to run red.
The aftermath, in which Kalinga was ransacked and thousands of people were deported, caused Ashoka to reappraise his attitude towards war and, on his subsequent conversion to Buddhism, he vowed never to take another human life. Such was his adherence to the faith, he had around 84,000 stupas (burial mounds) built and gave millions of pieces of gold to the monastic order.
4. Samudragupta (315-380)
Described by some as “India’s Napoleon” (though, unlike the French emperor, he was never defeated in battle), Samudragupta was a masterful military tactician and
leader of the Gupta dynasty from 335-375. Chosen above his elder brothers to succeed King Chandragupta I (not to be confused with Chandragupta Maurya), the young man immediately set out on a series of military expeditions in order to expand the Gupta empire and unify the nation.
India at this stage had reverted to a patchwork of independent kingdoms, and to achieve his goal Samudragupta had to defeat every one of them, exterminating the opposing monarchs along the way. By the time of his death, he had annexed more than 20 kingdoms, and his military might had seen neighbouring states in Iran and Afghanistan become tax-paying tributaries. Samudragupta’s legacy was an empire, stretching from the Himalayas to central India, that would last until the year 500. A keen patron of the arts, his reign was also responsible for fostering music, science, literature and religious freedom, and is often referred to as “the Golden Age of India”.
5. Pulakesi II (610-642)
In the 6th Century, the Chalukya dynasty ruled over southern and central India, and Pulakesi (born Ereya) came to the throne as a boy, with his uncle Mangalesa serving as regent. When Ereya was denied his birthright, he raised an army against his uncle, defeated him at the Battle of Elapattu Simbige, and ascended to the throne under the name Pulakesi. Soon after, he went to war with rebellious forces within the empire, beating the Kings Govinda and Appayika at the Bhima River in southern India. He then turned his attention to the west, defeating three kingdoms and winning a naval battle near Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour.
Further campaigns saw him gain control of the Gujarat region in western India, and eastern Deccan, in 616. A string of victories secured southern territories, but Pulakesi met his match against the Pallava dynasty ruled by Mahendravarman. He suffered a defeat at the hands of Mahendravarman’s son, and when the Pallavas laid siege to the capital city of Vatapi, Pulakesi was killed.
6. Raja Raja Chola I (947-1014)
The Chola dynasty has its roots in the Tamil peoples of southern India, and dates back as far as the 3rd Century BC. When Rajaraja came to power, the kingdom faced opposition in the form of the allied powers of the Pandya and Chera kingdoms in India, and the Sinhala in Sri Lanka. The Emperor went on the offensive in 994, and it took several years of fierce fighting before he eventually conquered Pandya and Chera.
Raja Raja’s final resistance was removed when he sailed a large army to Sri Lanka in 993, invading and occupying the north of the island. With his men, he managed to destroy the ancient Sinhalese capital, Anuradhapura, but he could never quite bring the entire island to bear. Raja Raja then conquered Gangapadi in 999, and eventually subdued the Chalukya Empire to the north-west, and the kingdom of Vengi in the south, expanding the Chola empire until it stretched from the Tungabhadra River to encompass all of southern India and the majority of Sri Lanka.
7. Krishnadevaraya (1471-1529)
The Vijayanagara Empire of southern India reached its greatest extent under the auspices of Krishnadevaraya, the third ruler of the Tuluva dynasty. His reign is defined by its military success, driven by his tactical nous and quick thinking. His first acts were to halt the annual plunder of local towns by the Sultans of the Deccan Plateau, when his armies fought and defeated the invaders in 1509. With local feudal rulers subdued, Krishnadevaraya turned his attention to the Gajapati Kingdom in the Republic of Kalinga (modern-day Odisha), securing a period of peace between the two empires.
However, the Deccan sultanates continued to be a threat to Krishnadevaraya’s realm, and the culmination of his action was the Battle of Raichur in 1520, a turning point in southern Indian history. An army of 700,000 foot soldiers, 33,000 cavalry and 550 elephants descended on the city of Raichur to fight the King of Bijapur, Ismail Adil Shah, and his 140,000 horse and foot soldiers. After an initial rout when he lost 16,000 men, Krishnadevaraya rallied his troops to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, this only served to stiffen the resolve of the Muslim Sultans, who allied against and overthrew the Vijayanagara Empire.
8. Akbar I (1542-1605)
In the early 16th Century, the Uzbek Babur – a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan – began his conquest of India, which led to the formation of the Mughal empire. Following in his father Hamayun’s footsteps, Akbar-e-Azam (born as Jalal-ud-din Muhammad) became the third ruler of the empire in 1556, and greatly expanded the realm until it encompassed a huge swathe of the subcontinent. Akbar was a skilled military organiser and crafted the Mughal army into an effective fighting force, incorporating proper structures, employing fortifications, and innovating with the use of cannons and matchlocks (early firearms) acquired from Europe.
Over the next 20 years, he would conquer the Punjab in the north-west, Rajputana in the north-east, Gujarat to the east and Bengal to the west. After dealing with domestic affairs, Akbar subdued the Indus Valley and Kashmir to secure his northern borders, while Baluchistan and Kandahar were absorbed into the empire in the early 1590s. His progressive thinking helped to integrate conquered territories by diplomatic means, and changed the state to become more liberal, introducing far- reaching social reforms. The Mughal empire would prevail until the mid-19th Century.
9. Aurangzeb (1658-1717)
When the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan fell ill in 1658, there followed a struggle for the throne between his four sons. Aurangzeb, governor of the Deccan, defeated
his elder brother Dara Shikoh, occupied the capital, Agra, and took his father prisoner. The third brother, Shah Shuja, and his army were routed, while the fourth brother, Murad Bakhsh, was tricked into an alliance, then betrayed and executed. Shuja eventually fled to Arakan in what is now Burma, and was killed by local rulers, while Dara Shikoh was betrayed by one of his Generals and he, too, was executed.
As the uncontested Emperor, Aurangzeb embarked on a campaign of military expansion, and his 49-year reign is notable as a period of almost perpetual warfare. His huge armies drove north into the Punjab, and south into Bijapur and Golconda. When Bijapur refused to be a vassal state, Aurangzeb sent an army of around 50,000 men to lay siege to the fort there. By the end, he ruled over a vast empire incorporating most of India and Afghanistan, plus modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir and Tajikistan – a combined area that was home to well over 100 million subjects.
10. Shivaji Bhonsle (1627-1680)
Shivaji Bhonsle was the son of a General, born in Pune in the west of India. Ill-educated, he took to roaming the hills along the western edge of the Deccan Plateau with a band of men from the region of Maharashtra. Shivaji and his Marathas plundered the countryside, and he gained a reputation as a warrior – it was also during his time in the hills that he began to formulate his ideas for guerrilla warfare. In 1659, the General Afzal Khan and 10,000 troops were sent by the Sultan of Bijapur to deal with Shivaji and his raiders at their fortress in Pratapgarh.
A meeting was planned for Shivaji’s surrender but, suspecting treachery, he wore armour beneath his clothes and bore concealed weapons, with which, it’s said, he disembowelled the General. The Bijapuri troops were then defeated when a surprise attack by Shivaji’s fighters killed 3,000 men. This victory signalled the start of the Maratha Empire, but would bring Shivaji into conflict with the Mughal empire. The two realms would clash over the next decade, but by 1670 the Marathas had recaptured most of the territory previously lost to the Mughals. As a show of independence from the Mughals, Shivaji had himself crowned King of the Marathas in 1674.