Introduction: India’s Foreign Policy(Ancient)


India is a politically, economically and socially diverse country. Most of the Indian Foreign Policy explanations are self-referential. Currently, India’s global reach increases and this needs a very precise understanding of its foreign policy.

To understand its relations with neighbours, one needs to understand its historical dimensions as well. India’s historical relationship with the world is a vital source to understand its gradually developed contemporary international relations.

Two phenomena prevailed in Indian History. They are following,

  • The continuous influx of invaders, traders, in the form of migration etc from the northwest front of India.
  • Alternative cycles of centralisation and decentralisation. Example: After Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire declined and so many small kingdoms emerged. (Though this is true for every civilisation, as happened in Abbaside Empire, I have stated in earlier posts.)

The above phenomena were the influenced India’s foreign relations the then times.

Historical Aspects of Foreign Relations:

Nation-states are widely conceded to be “new” and “historical”, the nation to which they give political expression always looms out of an immemorial past, an still more important, glides into limitless future.

India was not, throughout history a stable geographical unit. It’s geographical boundaries changed with the changing ancient kingdoms. As we all know during the time of Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire extended from Northwest Frontier of India to the Southeast end of India.

In cultural terms too, India showed an immense acceptance to every diverse community. People from the different parts of the world habited into the Indian subcontinent.

Geopolitical Regions of Ancient India:

The Indian subcontinent was broadly divided into two geopolitical regions during ancient times.

Northern and Southern Geopolitical regions of Indian Subcontinent
Northern and Southern Geopolitical regions of Indian Subcontinent
  1. North India, a relatively continuous political system led Indo-Gangetic plains. Like the Mauryan Empire, Gupta Empire, Kushan Kings, Empire of King Harshavardhan etc. Though these kingdoms showed fluctuating boundaries, they did have great influence over the Indo-Gangetic plains. This region continuously faced invasions.
  2. The second geopolitical region was Southern Indian subcontinent. This is conventionally classified as Dravidian area and two macro-ecological regions of the Malabar (Kerala coast) and Coromandel (Tamil Nadu) coasts. In the south, important kingdoms were the Satvahanas, the Pallavas, the Chalukyas, the Pandyas and the Cholas. (Cholas showed an exceptional mercantile, industrial and agrarian society.)

Both the geopolitical regions of India owned their own foreign policy. Both regions played a notable role in developing overseas economic, cultural ties. One can see the influence of these ties in the art and architecture of Indian subcontinent.

Trade links of Ancient Indians:

From the very ancient times, India had trade links over the world. Actually, the geographical location of India was so feasible that it had both land and sea trade links.
It was the part of the Silk Route. Uttarapath, the route from the Taxila to Tamralipti was connected with Silk Route. Dakshinapath, the route from Ujjain to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin ) also provided extensive trade opportunities.

The heart of world trade was the Suez Canal, which linked the western world to the eastern world. Southern part of the India flourished this trade between western world and eastern world.

As the Suez Canal Connected Mediterranean Region to the Middle East region. Likewise, the Indian subcontinent provided the further link to the China and Golden Islands (Indonesia, Malaysia, or Thailand). The western coast of Indian subcontinent attracted ships from over the world as it is a natural harbour.

Indian Subcontinent as the heart of western and eastern trade.
Indian Subcontinent as the heart of western and eastern trade.

Actually, from the very ancient civilisation i.e. Indus Valley Civilisation, there is evidence of maritime trade links with Babylon, Mesopotamia, Egyptian and Sumerian civilisation. The Gandhara architecture shows Hellenistic influence on India.

A number of literary references supports these facts. Examples,

  • Pliny in the mid-first century AD provides an account of the sea route to India via Egyptian ports.
  • Ptolemy’s geography of second century AD includes description of the Malabar coast.

Pliny once said,

Romans imported luxury items such as precious stones, silks and spicess as well as sugar, cotton and fruits. Trade seems to have weighed heavily in favour of India.

Cultural Relations:

Buddhism originated on the pristine land of India. But it got spread over the Asian states like China, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar etc. Though India occupied an eminent position in world economy and attracted people from over the world.

So many Chinese travellers visited India for their Pilgrimage. (Xuan Zang, Fa Hein etc.) Marco Polo, Italian traveller visited India during Pandya kingdom. The great Ashoka sent Dhamma Mahamatyas to Sri Lanka (His son Mahendra and daughter Sanghmitra visited Sri Lanka as Dhamma Mahamatyas).

From the very ancient time, India played a vital role in foreign affairs and its relationship with the then civilisation was friendly. India always followed the foreign policy of Live and Let us Live.

So, this was the brief description of Foreign policy, economic, cultural and political ties of India during ancient time. In the coming post, we will discuss the Foreign Policy of India during Medieval ages.

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