Robinson's basic introduction to the fascinating subcontinent is a 181-page surface account that comes in 10 chapters with a map, a chronology and a useful section of Further Reading for those Indiaphiles who want more detail. He opens up with the remarkably advanced cities of the early Indus Valley civilisation, more than four millennia ago, but this section carries the author's proviso that it is difficult to write this earliest "history" due to the paucity of evidence and because of speculative interpretation.

Indus Valley archaeology has so many unanswered fundamental questions that this civilisation risks being regarded as the dowdy poor cousin of ancient, Mesopotamia, China and Egypt, Robinson warns. Nonetheless, this era "probably" comprised a comparable mixture of the rational and the irrational, he writes, judging by its system of accurate weights, its remarkable wells and advanced city drainage, and its sophisticated drilled jewellery, alongside mysterious fire altars, swastika symbols and exquisite undeciphered sealstones bearing images of real animals (including elephants), enigmatic "unicorns" and fantasy figures such as "proto-Shiva".

A gap of several centuries is suggested between the decline of the Indus Valley civilisation in the early part of the second millennium BC and the rise of the Indo-Aryan Vedic culture in the middle of the millennium – rather than the earlier idea of an Aryan invasion from the west that destroyed the Indus Valley cities.

In the 6th century BC, Indian history began to free itself from the silence of the archaeological excavations of the Indus Valley and from the myths and dubious traditions of the Vedic literature, Robinson recounts. The written record is yet to come into existence, or at any rate it has not survived.

However, we now encounter not only the first historical Indian figure but also the person who, "even if judged only by his posthumous effects on the world at large... was certainly the greatest man to have been born in India", as the historian A.L. Basham has described Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

Nonetheless, by the early 19th century, when Europeans first began to investigate India's Buddhist remains, the living religion had vanished from its homeland and the rest of India, except for Assam, the foothills of the Himalayas and Kashmir. Today less than one percent of the Indian population is Buddhist, compared with three times as many who are Christian. The vast majority of visitors to the popular Buddhist sites come from other Asian countries, in particular Burma, China, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Tibet.

Robinson then explores the Hindu dynasties and later the Mughal Empire, said to have been founded in 1526 by Babur, a warrior chieftain. The empire was formally dissolved by the British Raj after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, leaving behind such UNESCO World Heritage Sites as Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, the Red Fort and Humayun's Tomb, Lahore Fort and the Taj Mahal.

At the height of the Mughal empire in 1700 India accounted for nearly a quarter of the world economy, a share virtually equal to Europe's 25 percent. Even under colonial rule it was the "jewel in the crown" of the extensive British Empire, on which the sun never set, as the saying went. Expatriate readers may find the British Raj to be the most interesting part of the book. India gained its independence in 1947, when Partition split the country into Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan.

In summary, then, we are informed that to Alexander the Great, India was a place of clever naked philosophers and massive armies mounted on elephants – which eventually forced his army to retreat. To ancient Rome, it was a source of luxuries, mainly spices and textiles, paid for in gold – hence the enormous numbers of Roman gold coins excavated in India. Colonial India was known for its extremes of wealth and poverty, epitomised by the Taj Mahal and famines, maharajas and untouchables, and for its spirituality: many-armed Hindu gods and Buddhist philosophy. Later came Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

Robinson discusses disputed aspects of Indian history, examining the reasoning behind each side as well as their faults while also presenting which side he feels is most valid. His book is not intended for serious scholarly research but is recommended as an introduction for understanding India's complex history.

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