Are you surprised to know that India was the largest contributor to the GDP of the world in the year 1 AD ? - At least I was when I first read about it in an article. Not only that , upto about another 500 years , the subcontinent was at its zenith with regard to science ,technology , art and literature .
Let us go through a bit of history to understand the context . According to the calculations by Angus Maddison, from the beginning of the common era until the early 19th century, China and India accounted for around half of the global GDP. Starting from 4th and 3rd centuries BCE almost all of the subcontinent was part of the Maurya Empire . Much later northern and central India was united in the 4th century CE, and remained so for two centuries under the Gupta Empire which is called the Golden Age of India . During the same time, and for several centuries afterwards, southern India, under the rule of the Chalukyas, Cholas, Pallavas, and Pandyas, experienced its own golden age.
The high points of this period In India were considerable cultural creativity with magnificent architectures, sculptures and paintings. The Gupta period produced scholars such as Kalidasa, Aryabhata and Vatsyayana .Science and political administration reached new heights .Strong trade ties also made the region an important cultural center and set the region up as a base that would influence nearby kingdoms and regions in Burma, Sri Lanka, Malay Archipelago and Indochina. The earliest available Puranas are also thought to have been written around this period.
For much of this period, China and India were independent countries and technological leaders.Until around 1450, China and India were technologically more innovative and advanced than Europe. Both the countries were very well knit with the rest of the globe .
So what went wrong ? Why did both economies go downhill between the early 18th century and the late 20th century ? Firstly , western technology was a factor . Once the industrial revolution came along, followed by the information revolution, mere size mattered less. First the Europeans, then the Americans leveraged technology to blow out GDP on a per capita basis. Steam engine, internal combustion engine, silicon made up for size. is the rise of Western technology at about the same time. It was for the same reason till about 200 years ago India and China could leverage their huge population and numbers determined output .
Secondly , both India and China were victims of colonialism? After 200 years of foreign rule, Indians were so afraid of neo-colonialism, that they kept their country closed to foreign trade for another four decades. However, it is to be remembered Western technology could only flourish because colonies provided cheap raw materials and labour and huge free markets (that were controlled by the West's millitary-industrial complex) Same for China, who kept China closed for three decades (since the end of Japanese occupation)