Medieval India refers to a long period of the history of the Indian subcontinent between the "ancient period" and "modern period". Definitions of the period itself vary widely, and partly for this reason, many historians now prefer to avoid the term completely.
One definition, used in the rest of this article, includes the period from the 6th century or 8th century up to the 16th century, essentially coinciding with the Middle Ages of Europe. It may be divided into two periods: The 'early medieval period' which lasted from the 6th to the 13th century and the 'late medieval period' which lasted from the 13th to the 16th century, ending with the start of the Mughal Empire in 1526. The Mughal era, from the 16th century to the 18th century, is often referred to as the early modern period, but is sometimes also included in the 'late medieval' period. The Mughal Empire was the world's largest economy during this period.
An alternative definition, often seen in those more recent authors who still use the term at all, brings the start of the medieval period forward, either to about 1000 CE, or to the 12th century. The end may be pushed back to the 18th century, making the period in effect that between the start of Muslim domination (at least in northern India) and British India. Or the "early medieval" period as beginning in the 8th century, and ending with the 11th century.
The use of "medieval" at all as a term for periods in Indian history has often been objected to, and is probably becoming more rare (there is a similar discussion in terms of the history of China). It is argued that neither the start nor the end of the period really mark fundamental changes in Indian history, comparable to the European equivalents. Burton Stein still used the concept in his A History of India (1998, referring to the period from the Guptas to the Mughals), but most recent authors using it are Indian. Understandably, they often specify the period they cover within their titles. Several historians view the death of emperor Aurangzeb as the end of Medieval Indian history and the start of Modern Indian history.
The start of the period is typically taken to be the slow collapse of the Gupta Empire from about 480 to 550, ending the "classical" period, as well as "ancient India", although both these terms may be used for periods with widely different dates, especially in specialized fields such as the history of art or religion. Another alternative for the preceding period is "Early Historical" strectching "from the sixth century BC to the sixth century AD", according to Romila Thapar.
At least in northern India, there was no larger state until perhaps the Delhi Sultanate, or certainly the Mughal Empire, but there were several different dynasties ruling large areas for long periods, as well as many other dynasties ruling smaller areas, often paying some form of tribute to larger states. John Keay puts the typical number of dynasties within the subcontinent at any one time at between 20 and 40, not including local rajas.
Following the Muslim conquests of the Indian subcontinent and the decline of Buddhism were seen to be taken place, eventually founding the Delhi Sultanate and creating the Indo-Islamic architecture, followed by the world's major trading nation Bengal Sultanate.
The start of the Mughal Empire in 1526 marked the beginning of the early modern period of Indian history, often referred to as the Mughal era. Sometimes, the Mughal era is also referred to as the 'late medieval' period.
Modern historical works written on Medieval India have received some criticism from scholars studying the historiography of the period. E. Sreedharan argues that, after Indian independence up until the 1960s, Indian historians were often motivated by Indian nationalism. Peter Hardy notes that the majority of modern historical works on Medieval India up until then were written by British and Hindu historians, whereas the work of modern Muslim historians was under-represented. However, he argues that some of the modern Muslim historiography on Medieval India at the time was motivated by Islamic apologetics, attempting to justify "the life of medieval Muslims to the modern world."
Ram Sharan Sharma has criticised the simplistic manner in which Indian history is often divided into an ancient "Hindu" period, a medieval "Muslim" period, and a modern "British" period. He argues that there is no clear sharp distinction between when the ancient period ended and when the medieval period began, noting dates ranging from the 7th century to the 13th century.