Upper water column dynamics in the eastern Arabian Sea were reconstructed in order to investigate changes in the activity of the South Asian / Indian monsoon during the early Pleistocene (c. 1.5–2.7 Ma). We used planktic foraminiferal assemblage records combined with isotopic (δ18O and δ13C) data, Mg/Ca-based sea surface temperatures and seawater δ18O records to estimate changes in surface water conditions at International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Site U1457. Our records indicate two distinct regimes of monsoon-induced changes in upper water structure during the periods c. 1.55–1.65 Ma and c. 1.85–2.7 Ma. We infer that a more stratified upper water column and oligotrophic mixed layer conditions prevailed during the period 1.85–2.7 Ma, which may be due to overall weaker South Asian / Indian winter (NE) and summer (SW) monsoon circulations. The period 1.55–1.65 Ma was characterized by enhanced eutrophication of the mixed layer, which was probably triggered by intensified winter (NE) monsoonal winds. The long-term trend in hydrographic changes during 1.55–1.65 Ma appears to be superimposed by short-term variations, probably reflecting glacial/interglacial changes. We suggest that an intensification of the South Asian / Indian winter monsoon circulation occurred between ∼1.65 Ma and 1.85 Ma, which is most likely due to the development of strong meridional and zonal atmospheric circulations (i.e. Walker Circulation and Hadley Circulation) because of strong equatorial East–West Pacific temperature gradients.