India, country that occupies the greater part of South Asia. It is made up of 28 states and eight union territories, and its national capital is New Delhi, built in the 20th century just south of the historic hub of Old Delhi to serve as India’s administrative center. Its government is a constitutional republic that represents a highly diverse population consisting of thousands of ethnic groups and hundreds of languages. India became the world’s most populous country in 2023, according to estimates by the United Nations.

It is known from archaeological evidence that a highly sophisticated urbanized culture—the Indus civilization—dominated the northwestern part of the subcontinent from about 2600 to 2000 BCE. From that period on, India functioned as a virtually self-contained political and cultural arena, which gave rise to a distinctive tradition that was associated primarily with Hinduism, the roots of which possibly can be traced to the Indus civilization. Other religions, notably Buddhism and Jainism, originated in India—though their presence there is now quite small—and throughout the centuries residents of the subcontinent developed a rich intellectual life in such fields as mathematics, astronomy, architecture, literature, music, and the fine arts.

The northern parts of India represent a series of contrasting regions, each with its own distinctive cultural history and its own distinctive population. In the northwest the valleys of the Baluchistan uplands (now largely in Balochistan, Pakistan) are a low-rainfall area, producing mainly wheat and barley and having a low density of population. Its residents, mainly tribal people, are in many respects closely akin to their Iranian neighbours. The adjacent Indus plains are also an area of extremely low rainfall, but the annual flooding of the river in ancient times and the exploitation of its waters by canal irrigation in the modern period have enhanced agricultural productivity, and the population is correspondingly denser than that of Baluchistan. The Indus valley may be divided into three parts: in the north are the plains of the five tributary rivers of the Punjab (Persian: Panjāb, “Five Waters”); in the center the consolidated waters of the Indus and its tributaries flow through the alluvial plains of Sind; and in the south the waters pass naturally into the Indus delta. East of the latter is the Great Indian, or Thar, Desert, which is in turn bounded on the east by a hill system known as the Aravali Range, the northernmost extent of the Deccan plateau region. Beyond them is the hilly region of Rajasthan and the Malwa Plateau. To the south is the Kathiawar Peninsula, forming both geographically and culturally an extension of Rajasthan. All of these regions have a relatively denser population than the preceding group, but for topographical reasons they have tended to be somewhat isolated, at least during historical times.

The earliest periods of Indian history are known only through reconstructions from archaeological evidence. Since the late 20th century, much new data has emerged, allowing a far fuller reconstruction than was formerly possible. This section will discuss five major periods: (1) the early prehistoric period (before the 8th millennium BCE), (2) the period of the prehistoric agriculturalists and pastoralists (approximately the 8th to the mid-4th millennium BCE), (3) the Early Indus, or Early Harappan, Period (so named for the excavated city of Harappa in eastern Pakistan), witnessing the emergence of the first cities in the Indus River system (c. 3500–2600 BCE), (4) the Indus, or Harappan, civilization (c. 2600–2000 BCE, or perhaps ending as late as 1750 BCE), and (5) the Post-Urban Period, which follows the Indus civilization and precedes the rise of cities in northern India during the second quarter of the 1st millennium BCE (c. 1750–750 BCE).

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