For more than four centuries after the decline of the Śu&ndot;gas late in the 2d cen- tury B.C., the Gangetic Plain fades from prominence in the power configurations of the subcontinent. For much of this period (fourteen decades in all) there was not a single supra-regional power to be found in India, while for most of those periods during which there was such a power, or occasionally two, the seat of power lay either in the far Northwest, where one or another intrusive people from Central Asia attained local supremacy, or in the northern part of the Deccan, where the Sātavāhanas and the Vākā&ttod;akas successively held sway. Just why Magadha should have been eclipsed as a power center is a question that cannot be easily answered. It is tempting to speculate, in the fashion of Huntington or Toynbee, about a loss of élan in an environment that posed no serious challenge; but there is no solid evi- dence to support such a view. Endemic malaria may conceivably have played a role, as it appears to have done later in Ceylon. Again, evidence is lacking. Per- haps the most we can say for the present is that the political, military, and techno- logical skills upon which Magadha drew in maintaining its hegemony during the early part of the Ancient Period were ultimately diffused to other areas whose populations were able to use them to better advantage than the Magadhans them- selves.
With the rise of the Gupta dynasty, early in the 4th century A.D., the Gangetic Plain once again became the chief power center of India. Although until recently some scholars assumed that Magadha formed the core area of the Guptan state, in our judgment the weight of evidence now suggests that the Kāśī area of North Central India was more important. Nonetheless, it is not until the union of Maga- dha and Kāśī that the fortunes of the Guptas begin to rise dramatically. For nearly two centuries thereafter the empire of the Guptas, centered in North Central India, enjoyed undisputed supremacy over much of the subcontinent. Only in their later phase do they appear definitively to have shifted the chief base of their power back to Magadha, which was then briefly restored to major importance.
After the fall of the Guptas late in the Ancient Period, the fortunes of the North- eastern Region suffered a dramatic and permanent reversal. Never again does the area give rise to a durable major indigenous Indian power. Other than the Bengal- based British, the past fourteen centuries have witnessed only six decades in which there have been any supra-regional powers centered in the Northeast. Only for a single decade did a partially Magadhan-based dynasty, the Pālas—whose core area extended eastward to Gau&dtod;a—exercise wide sway in northern India. The only other indigenous powers of the Northeast, the Eastern Ga&ndot;gas and their successors the Gajapatis, built their state from a base in Orissa.
The Early Medieval and Sultanate Periods saw a continuous struggle for power between states based in Western India and those based in North Central India. Generally speaking, states in the former region had the upper hand in the earlier period, while those in the latter region were more powerful in the later period. Over the time span of nearly nine centuries, however, in the two periods combined, only six decades are characterized by the existence of a pan-Indian power: three for the Rā&stod;&ttod;rakū&ttod;as in the West, and one and two respectively for the Khaljī and Tughluq sultans of Delhi.
Among Western power centers, most were situated on the fertile soils of the Deccan Lava Plateau in localities marked by a juxtaposition of pockets of rela- tively smooth terrain and rugged uplands, either the Sahyadri Mountains (Western Ghats) or the Satpura-Mahadeo Hills (see fig. 14.3). The former types of envi- ronment offered favorable bases for agriculture, while the highlands provided de- fensive redoubts to which to repair in times of adversity. Apart from these not very appreciable advantages, from the point of view of would-be expansionist states, the Western Region contains the greatest stretches of open, easily traversable ter- rain in peninsular India. Hence, the consolidation of a state of at least moderate size in that region must not have been especially difficult. And once such a state was established the Western region's natural advantage of centrality would become manifest. When an expansionist power found itself blocked to the north, for ex- ample, it could redirect its energies to either the east or the south. It might be as- sumed that this would be true in similar degree of powers in other regions of India. In fact it was not, save for powers in the North Central Region. A study of the specific configurations of areas of rugged and smooth terrain and the channels they provided for easy movement out of perennial power centers will reveal why this was so.
Still, one is hard put to explain why, during the Early Medieval Period, the West should have generally surpassed the North Central Region in spawning pow- erful states. The latter region should have been the more productive; it certainly offered greater opportunities for unifying a very extensive area, particularly the North Indian Plain; and it also benefited considerably from centrality. Possibly whatever combination of forces was at work in inhibiting the power of Magadha— and we do not know what those forces were—was also effective, somewhat later in time, in the ecologically similar Central Gangetic Plain. It is noteworthy in this context that three out of six of the supra-regional states of the North Central Region
The entry into India of the Turko-Afghan powers in the early 13th century brought the North Central Region, more specifically the Delhi-Agra area, to the ranking position in the power configuration of India. As noted, however, the su- premacy of the North Central Region over the Western during the Sultanate Pe- riod was not especially pronounced. Its most striking and enduring territorial mani- festation was the unification of most, if not all, of the Gangetic Plain, which characterized the period. This unification, which one might have considered easy to attain, since there were no major physical barriers to expansion, had in fact rarely been realized since the end of the Ancient Period.
During the Mughal Period, the supremacy of the Delhi-Agra power center over all others became indisputable. A generally unified, well-integrated power in Hin- dustan (in a narrow sense of the term, i.e., the Gangetic Plain from Bihar to Haryana) provided the springboard for a protracted attempt at achieving mastery over the whole of India. While this attempt fell short of total success, the Mughals nevertheless achieved, as we have noted, a greater degree of territorial control within the Indian subcontinent than had any previous power. Moreover, they main- tained their status as a pan-Indian power for nearly one and a half centuries, slightly longer than either the Mauryas or the Guptas. The commanding position of North Central India in the Mughal Period did not, however, definitively fore- close the potential for achieving pan-Indian status from a Western power base, as was dramatically demonstrated by the rapid rise of the Marathas after the Mughal collapse early in the 18th century.
The century and a half of British supremacy in India, which accounts for most of the Modern Period, is unlike any previous time with respect to our consideration of the territorial basis for attaining great power status. For notwithstanding the importance of their early holdings along the Coromandel Coast, the true base of British power in India was of course England itself. The Modern Period differs notably from others in that power moved inward into the subcontinent from three separate coastal locations, rather than radiating outward from a single power cen- ter. (Note, in this context, how few of the sixty-three power centers identified for this study were coastal; and that, before the British, not a single-coastal based state attained pan-Indian status.) Of the three coastal locales from which British power spread—Bengal, Madras, and Bombay—Bengal, though last to be estab- lished, rapidly took a commanding lead over the others and merits recognition as the principal center of British power in India itself. In a military sense, Bengal's dominance did not persist beyond the first quarter of the 19th century, though political power remained centered in Calcutta until 1912. One may therefore take issue with the categorization in figure 14.4 of the Indian Empire as a power based in the Northeastern Region during the intervening period. The point, however, is an academic one on which we shall not dwell. What really matters for an under- standing of the regional power situation of the modern period is to appreciate that control over Bengal gave the British the key to successful mastery of the whole of northern India and ultimately of the subcontinent.
Little has been said above of the Northwestern and Southern Regions and of the Northeast between the Ancient and the Modern Periods, all of which figure to a remarkably small degree as bases for the rise of supra-regional powers and not at all as bases for pan-Indian powers. There are, however, a number of perennial characteristics of these three areas that warrant at least a brief notice before we conclude this regional overview of the distribution of power over time. The one feature common to all three regions, which partially accounts for their lack of prominence, is their peripheral location, each occupying a corner of the essentially triangular land mass of the Indian subcontinent. An additional disadvantage over most of the Northeast and much of the South is the extensiveness of rugged terrain and the distinct compartmentalization of the two regions caused by ranges of low mountains and hills. While these barriers are far from insurmountable, they do impose no mean array of obstacles to would-be conquerors. A major barrier of quite a different kind, the Great Indian Desert, plays a similar role in inhibiting expansion from the Northwest. (Note that Sind, lying beyond the desert, has given rise to not a single supra-regional power.) Further, the prevailing aridity of the Northwest makes for a low population carrying-capacity, which obviously limits the ability of states in that area to raise large indigenous armies. There have been, of course, a number of quite powerful states that have included substantial parts of the Northwestern Region; but most of these have had their centers of power in what is today Afghanistan, Persia, or Central Asia and have accordingly been ex- cluded from this study. Only the intrusive Northern Śakas, Indo-Parthians, Ku- &stod;ā&ntod;as, and Southern Hū&ntod;as, who settled down in Gandhāra, on the very periphery of the subcontinent, or the Ghaznavids, who established a kingdom farther to the southeast in the Punjab, come under our scrutiny. Of these states only the Ku- &stod;ā&ntod;as, of whom we still know rather little, lasted long as a supra-regional power.
A final retrospective observation is in order with respect to the distribution of power centers over the whole of Indian history as depicted in figure 14.3. It may be noted that all seven of the named clusters of such centers, and a dozen or more additional relatively isolated centers are distributed along or very close to two ma- jor axes arranged roughly in the shape of a T. The bar of this T is the Indo- Gangetic Plain from Gandhāra to Bengal; the stem extends southward from the principal power node, the "Delhi-Agra" region, through Malwa and Northwest