The land that we now call India was, for most of the history of the Earth, just one part of a larger supercontinent, known as Gondwanaland. To the west, India was connected to what would eventually become Africa and Madagascar. To the east, it shared a land border with what would later become Australia. Then, 125 million years ago while the dinosaurs still ruled the world, movements below the Earth’s crust led to the supercontinent to split open, like the shell on a boiled egg.

Many geologists believe that as India started to drift towards the landmass that would one day be known as Asia, it rolled over what is known a geological hotspot, a point where the immense heat and pressure of the Earth’s mantle breaks through the crust and spews forth tons and tons of molten rock every day for millions of years. The Deccan plateau and the beautiful Deccan Traps, which one can experience on a drive from through most of Maharashtra and Northern Karnataka, are the byproducts of the layers of lava that were deposited on the surface of Southern India.

The hotspot is still active, though with little of its original force and destructive potential left. You can see it at the island of Reunion, a short distance from Mauritius. Like the Seychelles, the Maldives, and the Lakshadweep, Mauritius is one of the many islands that mark the path India took all those years ago, starting at the southeastern coast of Africa. These islands formed as the Earth’s crust slowly rolled over the stationary hotspot.

The Reunion hotspot and subsequent Deccan Traps happened around 66 million years ago, coinciding quite neatly with the era of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. Some climatologists and paleontologists hypothesize that the dinosaurs’ demise is partly due to the vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other poisonous gases released from these constant volcanic eruptions over tens of thousands of years.

The Indian landmass moved fast (by geological standards) and crashed into the Asian plate some 50 million years ago, crushing, folding, and finally pushing the seafloor in between them higher and higher, until they became the Himalayas, the tallest mountains in the world. Thus, India’s geological birth, much like its political birth, began with a partition, followed by a series of trials by fire, before picking up speed and crashing onto the world stage.

The Himalayas are probably the first step in defining the Idea of India, for they are the basis on which the subcontinent can differentiate itself from the lands that surround it, and indeed most places on Earth. The Himalayas protected India from the Arctic winds that leave most of central Asia a cold and lifeless desert. They also protected India from many invasions from the dwellers of the central Asian steppe. When Genghis Khan defeated China, ravaged Persia, and almost conquered Europe, India was protected from the horde by the nigh-impenetrable walls of the Himalayas.

Around 70,000 years ago, one extremely resourceful group of animals — apes later known as Homo Sapiens or Human Beings – managed to make their way out of Africa. Scientists estimate their numbers as being in the hundreds or perhaps the low thousands. Hugging the coasts, they crossed the Near East and Iran, and entered India. The equitable climate and easily availability of food led many of them to settle in this new land.

Over thousands of years, these first Indians would be joined by many, many more. Each of them would bring with them their own language, beliefs, and Gods. Something about this land made them all want to stay. It was a land where for the longest time, life – either as a hunter-gatherer or as a farmer – was not as difficult as it was in most of the rest of the world. Most likely this allowed them the time and security to ponder larger questions of life, purpose, and duty, leading them to develop an open and accepting view of the world and of people.

Watered by rivers that emerged from these mountains, with a climate that balanced hot summers with a plentiful rainy season, the Indian subcontinent flourished with life for millions of years. The word India comes from the river Indus, and similarly, the word Hindu comes from Sindhu, meaning river. The authors of the Vedas referred to the land as the Sapt Sindhu, or Seven Rivers. Perhaps the essential Idea of India is best captured by the metaphor of the river: a life-giving source that nourishes the many cultures that have lived here, a geography that many have tried to colonize and remake in their own image; yet India flows on, finding its way around any obstacle, absorbing everything into its own path, changeless at its core, yet forever moving.


To celebrate the upcoming 10th anniversary of JLF, we’ve launched a series of blogs that will look back and further explore some of the themes we’ve discussed over the years.
We start with The Idea of India, which over the next few weeks, will delve into pivotal chapters that have shaped the evolution of the Indian identity.
Written by by Harish Alagappa, one of our Festival Bloggers from 2015, The Land of India kicks off the series.

© Harish Alagappa 2016. All rights reserved.


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