History of Pakistan

From the Indus Civilisation to the Partition of British India

History of Pakistan

The history of Pakistan, a young nation created with the partition of British India in 1947, is intertwined with the history of India and the broader Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was carved away from the rest of India by Islamic nationalists led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who believed India’s Muslims would only receive just representation in Hindu-dominated India if they formed their own country.

Prior to the 1947 partition, Pakistan shared a history with an ancient territory that covered the modern-day Indian subcontinent. In this article, we will cover the history of Pakistan from the birth of the Indus Civilisation to the partition of British India.

This article is written as a backgrounder of our tour of Pakistan, which we will describe in more detail at the end of this article. Our sources are linked throughout. You may also be interested in reading our previously published posts:

Indus Civilisation

The Indian subcontinent was home to one of the oldest and most influential human civilisations, the Indus civilisation (also known as Indus Valley civilisation or Harappan civilisation), a Bronze Age urban culture that reached its peak around 2500 BC and declined around the 2nd millennium BC. The culture itself might have been older, as religious practices and farming settlements in the fertile region by the Indus River can be dated back thousands of years prior to 2500 BC.

Excavated city of Mohenjo Daro wikimedia
Excavated city of Mohenjo- Daro in Pakistan. Photo by Saqib Qayyum/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

The civilisation was first identified in the 1920s through its archaeological remains found in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, now both in present-day Pakistan. Prior to 1920, labourers constructing a railway in 1856 in Harappa–which would connect the cities of Lahore and Karachi–discovered hundreds of thousands of fairly uniform bricks which they then used in the construction, unaware that they were using millennia-old bricks from an ancient civilisation.

Further excavations identified traces of the Indus civilisation covering what is now Pakistan, part of Afghanistan, and northwestern India, a territory of 800,000 square kilometres that was more extensive than the land covered by the other two early civilisations of the Old World: Egypt and Mesopotamia.

There was archaeological evidence of the Indus civilisation trading with the city of Ur in Mesopotamia (in modern-day Iraq) and the Near East. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were their largest cities, and featured a level of sophisticated urban planning comparable to those seen in the cities of the 20th century. They had planned roads, plumbing, and even toilets. They had a writing system found carved in their pottery, gemstone necklaces, seal stones, and tablets, but their pictographic script, like the “Linear A” writing of the Minoans, remains undecipherable.

Indus script
Sample of Indus script. Photo from Vasant Shinde, Rick J Willis/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

It is also still unknown why the Indus civilisation collapsed, or when it exactly happened, as the decline may have occurred in stages. Theories of the cause of collapse include the collapse of trade, a war, disease, a flood, or the drying up of the Indus River.

Sixteen States and Small Kingdoms

Around 1500 BC, a group of nomads who had settled in ancient Iran crossed the Hindu Kush and migrated in large numbers into the northern Indian subcontinent. Named by 19th century scholars as the “Aryans” (from the Sanskrit arya or “noble”), this group spoke an archaic Indo-European language which became the origin of the languages spoken in South Asia today, such as Punjabi and Urdu. In the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedas which were written in archaic Sanskrit and which contained hymns of ancient India, there is record of a journey which may have been referring to this mass migration. Hinduism may also be traced to the Aryans’ ancient religion.

There were 16 states that formed around 500 BC, one of which is the Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara, which included Peshawar and the lower Swat Valley in modern-day Pakistan, and the Kabul Valley in what is now Afghanistan. At one point in history, Gandhara was folded into the Achaemenid Empire of Persia.

A Buddhist stupa in the Swat Valley Pakistan
A Buddhist stupa in the Swat Valley, Pakistan.

The state of Maghada gained ascendancy in the Ganges, ruling from its capital Pataliputra (now Patna in eastern India). It was said that in 326 BC, the army of Alexander the Great mutinied against marching east out of fear of the Maghadan army. (Alexander subsequently moved west and died en route.)

The Mauryan Empire supplanted Maghada and ruled almost the entire subcontinent from 321-297 BC. Its founder, Chandragupta Maurya, was a Hindu who later became a Jain. His grandson Ashoka promoted Buddhism.

The Mauryan Empire’s decline gave way to the rise of small kingdoms, some ruled by Greco-Bactrian rulers from Afghanistan and central Asian tribes. The subcontinent also began trading with western Asia, including Babylon and Arabia and later the Roman Empire. Muslim raids by Arabs began in the 7th century and became more significant in the 12th century under the Turks.

Mughal Empire

Mughal expansion map
A map of the Mughal Empire’s expansion

The most well-known period in the subcontinent’s history was the rule of the Mughal Empire from the 16th to the mid-19th century. An immensely successful Muslim empire of Turkic-Mongol origin, its rulers controlled the entire subcontinent of India and reached a population of 100 million at its peak.

Wazir Khan Mosque Lahore Pakistan
The Wazir Khan Mosque is considered to be the most ornately decorated Mughal-era mosque in Lahore, Pakistan

The origins of the Mughal Empire are with a discontented prince who longed to be king. Ẓahīr al-Dīn Muḥammad, later named Babur (Persian for “tiger”) was a prince from a long line of rulers linking back to Timur or Tamerlane (from present-day Uzbekistan) and Genghis Khan. Wanting to live up to the legacy of his ancestors, Babur was at first unsuccessful at claiming a land to rule, until he managed to dethrone the Sultan of Delhi in 1526 and become leader of northern India.

Though a Muslim dynasty that ruled over a Hindu majority, their overall commitment to religious freedom ensured peace in the subcontinent for two centuries. Shah Jahan was an avid supporter of art and architecture, and his monuments–such as the Taj Mahal in India and the Sheesh Mahal inside the Lahore Fort in Lahore, Pakistan–are still admired today. You can read more about the Mughal Empire in our article here.

Contact with Europeans and British Rule

India’s Malabar Coast (from the state of Goa southward) was the heart of the spice trade. In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and his ships travelled from Lisbon, Portugal, down the African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope (discovered earlier by fellow Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias), through the Indian Ocean, and landed in this coast, thus discovering a sea route that helped Portugal cut their middlemen in the spice trade. Portugal grew wealthy from this direct trade, establishing trading posts in India. Other Western powers–the Dutch and the French–followed shortly.

The British began trade with India through the (English) East India Company in 1600. What began as a monopolistic trading company became involved in politics and acted as an agent of the British Empire in its eventual domination of India in the 18th century.

East India Company
Portrait of an East India Company Official. Victoria and Albert Museum.

British rule was acquired through a series of many wars. The Seven Years’ War was a conflict that involved all of the greatest powers in Europe and spanned the globe. France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia formed one alliance and opposing them were Great Britain with Prussia and Hanover; it was France and Great Britain who headed the war. The Anglo-French conflict was largely played out in North America and India for resource control. The British navy was superior to the French and they defeated several French bases, including Pondicherry (Puducherry), India in 1761. The British allies won the war, and as a result, gained Canada and India as colonies. In India, this meant that they held a monopoly over the highly fertile and exotic lands for trade to Europe.

This did not, however, mean that they had full control over India yet. Following this international dispute, several wars resulted from revolutions against British domination. The last Mughal, Bahādur Shah II, reigned from 1837 to 1857, and was exiled by the British to Myanmar for his role in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 against British rule, ending the 300-year rule of the Mughal dynasty. Several wars were fought in India at the end of the Mughal empire’s reign as the subcontinent transitioned into a British colony. You can read our full account here.

All India Muslim League

The British government abolished the East India Company after the Indian Mutiny, and control of the colony was given to a British Governor-General who reported to the British Parliament. In 1906, the Indian National Congress, a political party formed in 1885 opposing British rule, began to split in half between those calling for dominion status (autonomous state within the British Empire) and complete independence for India.

Muslim League leaders
Muslim League leaders in the corridor of the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi, 1946. The assembly now houses the Indian parliament. Photo and description source: Wikimedia Commons

Among Indian Muslims, conviction grew as well that they had to preserve their separate identity rather than be amalgamated into the majority Hindu Indian nation, which historically had been more open to adopt British ways and the British style of education. The All India Muslim League was founded, also in 1906, to safeguard Muslim interests.

World War I broke out, and the British Empire included India in the British war effort without first consulting Indian officials. Tens of thousands of British Indian citizens died fighting under the flag of Britain. Resentment of British rule grew, which strengthened the Indian movement for independence. Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi became a force in Indian politics, but his Hindu approach alienated Muslims, especially the leader of the All India Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah opposed Gandhi’s policy of noncooperation and withdrew from Congress.

The Pakistan Resolution

The relationship between Hindus and Muslims continued to deteriorate, with eruptions of sectarian violence. When the British government once again announced without prior consultation that India was now at war with Germany under the British Empire in World War II, an angry Congress began calling for Britain to quit India.

In March 1940, Jinnah and the Muslim League passed a resolution calling for the creation of a sovereign Muslim state called Pakistan (“Land of the Pure”) composed of the Muslim majority areas of India. This resolution was later called the “Pakistan Resolution”. At first ridiculed by Congress, Jinnah insisted on this partition in his negotiations with the British government. The state of Pakistan was formed on August 14, 1947, with Jinnah as its first head of state. Hundreds of thousands died in the violence that erupted as populations moved across an India that was suddenly free of foreign rule, but was divided into two.

West and East Pakistan

Pakistan itself consisted of two parts in 1947: West Pakistan (northwestern India) and East Pakistan (eastern Bengal province), separated by 1,600 kilometres of land under sovereign Indian territory.

Map showing West and East Pakistan
Map showing West and East Pakistan, divided by Indian territory. Public domain map.

Immediately following partition, it became clear that the wealth and resources of British India went to the now sovereign state of India. India and Pakistan went to war over the contested territory of Kashmir, a conflict made complicated by the mass migration of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims across the new borders that led to violence and death on a large scale.

Jinnah died only a year after the creation of Pakistan, leaving behind a power vacuum and further conflict. Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951. In 1952, a series of riots sprang in East Pakistan against the attempt of the Muslim League to make Urdu the only national language of the state when Bengali, the predominant language of East Pakistan, was spoken by a larger population.

Jinnah Mausoleum Pakistan
Jinnah Mausoleum or the National Mausoleum refers to the tomb of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It is an iconic symbol of Karachi, Pakistan throughout the world. The mausoleum, completed in the 1960s, is situated in the heart of the city.

This rift would only worsen. After a long period of military rule, Pakistan held its first national elections in 1970. The Awami League of Mujibur Rahman, who served as a voice of the Bengali population,  won an electoral majority and demanded greater autonomy for East Pakistan. As Mujib won majority, he was entitled to form the national government as Prime Minister, but he was blocked by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party, arguing that the Awami League did not win a single seat in the western provinces. (The PPP, on the other hand, gained a majority in the West.) Mujib called for greater autonomy for East Pakistan, resulting in a civil war in 1971, in which the Indian army supported the Bengalis against Pakistani forces. Pakistan was forced to withdraw.

East Pakistan declared itself as the independent state of Bangladesh (“Land of the Bengals”), and West Pakistan became modern-day Pakistan.

Travel to Pakistan with Odyssey Traveller

View of Lahore Fort and green fields
Exterior View of Lahore Fort (Shahi Qilla) with small garden in foreground. Lahore Fort is one of the most visited tourist destinations.

If you want to learn more about Pakistan’s history, join us on a small group tour. Our Pakistan tours are designed to give travellers who are open to a unique Pakistan travel experience to have a deeper understanding of the history and culture of this country.

Odyssey Traveller has a 16-day tour of Pakistan that begins in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, and ends in its vibrant capital, Islamabad. Our small group tour travels from the south, on the coast of the Arabian sea, and weaves north to the capital, in the foothills of the Himalayas near the Pakistani border with India. Along the way, we visit ancient ruins of the Indus Civilisation, medieval capitals, and Pakistan’s pre-Muslim temples in Thatta, Hyderabad, Larkana, Lahore, and Peshawar.

Our 22-day tour begins much like our 16-day tour of Pakistan, with a six-day extension that allows us to further explore the northern parts of the country. The focus of the final six days of the tour is the region of Gilgit-Baltistan, located near the Pakistani border with China. The region’s central valley, Skardu Valley, shares similarities in culture, lifestyle, and architecture with Tibet. Three mountain ranges meet in this region–the Karakoram, the Himalaya, and the Hindu Kush–and promises majestic views to the adventurous senior or mature-aged traveller.

Skardu, Pakistan
Skardu, Pakistan

These Pakistan tours with Odyssey are composed of leisurely drives with frequent stops to places of interest along the way, allowing us to experience and learn about various sights at our own pace. Similar to other Odyssey tours, the group will be fully escorted by an Odyssey Program Leader and various local Pakistani guides who will share their knowledge about the ancient cities and monuments we will be visiting. Just click through the links to read the full itineraries and sign up.

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Tour of Pakistan

This 16-day tour explores the long history and colourful culture of Pakistan, and begins in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, and ends in its vibrant capital, Islamabad.

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Guaranteed

Tour of Pakistan including Skardu Valley

This 22-day tour begins much like our 16-day tour of Pakistan, travelling from Karachi to Islamabad with a six-day extension that allows us to further explore the northern parts of the country.

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