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I am reading 'The Wonder That Was India' by A.L.Basham. In chapter 1, Introduction the author says,

India's isolation has never been complete, and the effect of the mountain wall in developing her unique civilization has often been overrated.

I would like to understand the role of the Himalayas in India's civilization and how is it overrated.

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    My guess is that the author was not referring to the Himalayas, but the mountains in the west, separating Pakistan from Afghanistan and Iran. – Spencer Mar 19 at 12:35
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The Himalayas were a natural border against migrations, invasions and incursions,akin to a "wall" holding off invaders (from the Steppes). However, it is overrated insofar that it did not block all outside incursions (e.g. Alexander, the Hephthalites/White Huns, the Mughals), who mostly entered the subcontinent through the Khyber pass. The wall had holes.

Likewise, the Himalayas are overrated insofar as they did not block trade or stop cultural/religious influences going in or out of the subcontinent. The Indian Ocean traderoutes ("Monsoon Marketplace") connected the subcontinent with the Middle East, East Africa, Southeast Asia and China basically since the beginning of civilization. Buddhism spread across the Himalayas into China and Islam spread to India and (most likely) through India to Southeast Asia. There were Christian missions and Christians in India at least from the 4th century onwards.

So in essence, while the Himalayas shielded India to some degree, it was always connected with other countries and regions. Its culture, like most other cultures, is influenced by those regions and influenced those regions in return. My guess is that Basham is likely of the opinion that this is understated in traditional historiography.

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  • Hi. Thank you for answering. Could you please throw some light on who were the Hephthalites/White Huns and when did they invade India ? Does this have anything to do with the Silk Route ? Also, is there a difference between White Huns and Huns ? – Noeshel Mar 21 at 15:43
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    @Noeshel They were a Steppe people from Central Asia (along the Silk road), likely not connected to the Huns that entered Europe, but the Roman/Byzantine writers often did not differentiate between Steppe tribes (they were often all either Huns or Scythians for them). For the Romans, their importance was in keeping Persia busy on their eastern front in the 4th and 5th century. Starting in the 5th and 6th century and suffering defeat from Persia, they entered the Indian subcontinent from the Northwest and led to the destruction of the Gupta Empire. The topic would make a great new question. – R.K. Mar 22 at 8:28
  • Wow! Never heard of Gupta Empire being attacked by White Huns. Sure it makes an interesting question. Is there a book volume which studies individual Great Indian Empires in detail ? – Noeshel Mar 24 at 14:26
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    @Noeshel You could try the Oxford History of India. It's dense and doesn't always differentiate between empires, but gives a comprehensive (traditional) overview of early Indian history. I'd personally first just start with Wikipedia and some maps and explore from there. They already offer a lot more information on the Gupta or the Hephhtalites, than what could be pressed in a simplified comment. – R.K. Mar 24 at 14:43
  • Ok. Thank you so much. :) – Noeshel Mar 24 at 14:47
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The general popular idea that the quote in question appears to be trying to counter is that the northern barrier of the Himalayas made the subcontinent nearly immune to invasion, and thus utterly cut off from the rest of the world. Particularly from powerful neighbors on the Asian steppe, who were militarily difficult to cope with until the invention of gunpowder.

Since the northern border was effectively militarily impassible (to non-Tibetans anyway) and the eastern largely jungle (which isn't much better), nearly all historical invasions of India came from the northwest (modern Afghanistan, which is also mountainous too), or in later years ship-borne carried by the monsoon winds.

It was in fact successfully invaded by the Mughals, and earlier by Indo-Iranian steppe people*. However, India didn't suffer invasion from the Huns that we know of, and is certainly better equipped with natural barriers than Europe, where the Huns got nearly to the coast of France before being pushed back. It successfully staved off invasions from both the Greek and the Mongol empires at the height of their powers.

So yeah, it wasn't totally isolated and impregnable, but it also wasn't nearly as vulnerable as China, the Near East, or eastern Europe.


* - We don't have a great historical record for this, so we don't know much about the nature of this movement, other than that it happened. Some people hotly push back on calling it an "invasion", either for that reason or for personal political reasons. So be careful about using "the I-word" in mixed company.

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  • Is there a difference between Huns and White Huns ? The other answer to this question speaks of White Huns invasion into India via Khyber pass. – Noeshel Mar 20 at 12:11
  • @Noeshel - We're not sure, largely because we're not sure who exactly either of those peoples were. They were both Eurasian steppe peoples at roughly the same time, but in different places (western vs. Central). Its even quite possible that either or both were multi-tribal federations of otherwise unrelated steppe peoples. That's about all we know. – T.E.D. Mar 20 at 13:54

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