Protracted droughts lasting years to decades constitute severe threats to human welfare across the Indian subcontinent. Such events are, however, rare during the instrumental period ( ca . since 1871 CE). In contrast, the historic documentary evidence indicates the repeated occurrences of protracted droughts in the region during the preinstrumental period implying that either the instrumental observations underestimate the full spectrum of monsoon variability or the historic accounts overestimate the severity and duration of the past droughts. Here we present a temporally precise speleothem-based oxygen isotope reconstruction of the Indian summer monsoon precipitation variability from Mawmluh cave located in northeast India. Our data reveal that protracted droughts, embedded within multidecadal intervals of reduced monsoon rainfall, frequently occurred over the past millennium. These extreme events are in striking temporal synchrony with the historically documented droughts, famines, mass mortality events, and geopolitical changes in the Indian subcontinent. Our findings necessitate reconsideration of the region’s current water resources, sustainability, and mitigation policies that discount the possibility of protracted droughts in the future.