India is the largest country in the Indian Subcontinent and shares borders with Pakistan to the west, China and Nepal to the north, Bhutan to the north-east, and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. Sri Lanka lies to the south, the Maldives to the south-west and Indonesia to the south-east of India in the Indian Ocean. It is the seventh largest country in the world by area and, with over a billion people, is second only to China in population. It’s an extremely diverse country, with vast differences in geography, climate, culture, language and ethnicity across its expanse, and prides itself on being the largest democracy on Earth.
Befitting its size and population, India’s culture and heritage are a rich amalgam of the past and the present. It offers a visitor a view of fascinating religions and ethnography, a vast variety of languages with more than 438 living languages, and monuments that have been present for thousands of years. Modern India is represented by technology, a large and growing independent economy, and it’s own very distinctive popular culture including ritual performance, theatre, television and film. As it opens up to a globalised world, India still has a depth of history and intensity of culture that awes and fascinates the many who visit there.
History ofÂ worldâ€™s oldest country
Indians date their history from the Vedic Period which scholars place in the second and first millennia BC continuing up to the 6th century BC, based on literary evidence. This is the period when the Vedas, the oldest and holiest books of Hinduism, were compiled. The earliest archaeological traces are from 7000 BC in Mehrgarh, which grew to be the “Indus Valley Civilization”, which, in 3300 BC had well-planned towns and well-laid roads, but gave no evidence of weapons or fortifications. This declined and disintegrated around 1900 BC, possibly due to drought & geological disturbances. Some historians says that the Vedic people were later migrants, who encountered a civilization in decline and perhaps hastened that decline. The minority view challenges this Aryan Migration (or invasion) theory, claiming that the Indus Valley people were in fact the ones who compiled the Vedas.
The Vedic civilization influences India to this day. The roots of present-day Hinduism lie in them. Some rituals of Hinduism took shape during that period. Most North-Indian languages come from Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, and are classified as part of the Indo-European group of languages. In the 1st millennium BC, various schools of thought in philosophy developed, enriching Hinduism greatly. Most of them claimed to derive from the Vedas. However, two of these schools – Buddhism and Jainism – questioned the authority of the Vedas and they are now recognized as separate religions.
Many great empires were formed between 500 BC and AD 500. Notable among them were the Mauryas and the Guptas (called the Golden Age). This period saw a gradual decline of Buddhism and Jainism. The practice of Buddhism, in particular, disappeared from the Indian mainland, though Buddha himself was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. Jainism continues to be practised by a significant number who are ambivalent about whether they consider themselves Hindus or not.
Islamic incursions started in the 8th century in the form of raids. Gradually the raiders started staying as rulers, and soon much of North India was ruled by Muslims. The most important of the Muslim rulers were the Mughals, who established an empire that at its peak covered almost the entire subcontinent (save the southern and eastern extremities), while the major Hindu force that survived in the North were the Rajputs. Eventually the Mughal empire declined, partly under attack from the Marathas who established a short-lived confederacy that was almost as big as the Mughal Empire. The Rajput and Mughal period of North India was the golden age for Indian art, architecture, and literature, produced the monumental gems of Rajasthan, and the Taj Mahal. Hindi and Urdu also took root in medieval North India. During the Islamic period, some Hindus also converted to Islam, either due to force, to escape the low social status that the caste system imposed on them, or simply to gain the benefits of being aligned with their rulers. Today, some 13% of the Indian population is Muslim.
South India followed a different trajectory, being less affected by the Islamic invasion. The period from 500 AD to 1600 AD is called the classical period dominated by great South Indian kingdoms. Prominent among them were the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and Vijayanagara empires who ruled from present day Karnataka and the Pallavas, Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas who ruled from present day Tamil Nadu & Kerala. Among them, the Cholas are widely recognised to be the most powerful of the South Indian kingdoms, with their territory stretching as far north as Pataliputra and their influence spreading as far east as Sumatra, Western Borneo and Southern Vietnam at the height of their power. Some of the grandest Hindu and Jain monuments that exist in India were built during this time in South and East India, which were less subject to Muslim religious prohibitions.
European traders started visiting India beginning in the late 16th century. Prominent among these were the British, French and the Portuguese. The British(East India Company) made Calcutta the capital of India in 1772, along with establishing subsidiary cities like Bombay and Madras. Calcutta later went onto to become ‘the second city of the empire after London’, which the Britishers proudly refered as their foremost acheivement in India. By the 19th century, the British East India Company had, one way or the other assumed political control of virtually all of India. though the Portuguese and the French too had their enclaves along the coast. There was an uprising by Indian rulers in 1857 which was suppressed, but which prompted the British government to make India a part of the empire. Many Indians converted to Christianity during the period, for pretty much the same reasons as they converted to Islam, though forcible conversions ended in British India after 1859, when the British Government took over from the East India Company, and Queen Victoria’s proclamation promised to respect the religious faiths of Indians.
Non-violent resistance to British colonialism under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi led to independence on 15 August 1947. However, independence was simultaneously granted to the secular state of India and the smaller Islamic state of Pakistan, and the orgy of Hindu-Muslim bloodletting that followed Partition led to the deaths of at least half a million and the migration of 12-14 million people.
Free India under Nehru adopted a democratically-governed, centrally-planned economy. These policies were aimed at attaining “self-sufficiency”, and to a large extent made India what it is today. India achieved self-sufficiency in food grains by the 1970s, ensuring that the large-scale famines that had been common are now history. However these policies also led to shortages, slow growth and large-scale corruption. After a balance-of-payments crisis in 1991, the country adopted free-market reforms which have continued at a meandering pace ever since, fueling strong growth. The IT and the business outsourcing industries have been the drivers for the growth, while manufacturing and agriculture, which have not experienced reforms, are lagging. About 60% of Indians live on agriculture and around 25% remain in poverty.
Relations with Pakistan have been frosty. They have fought three (or four, if you count the Kargil conflict of 1999) wars, mostly over the status of Kashmir. The third war between the two countries in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. China and India went to war in 1962 over a border dispute.Though current relations are peaceful, there is still military rivalry and no land crossings are allowed between the two countries, though one border crossing between Sikkim and Tibet was re-opened in 2006 for trade (but not tourists). The security concerns over Pakistan and China prompted India to test nuclear weapons twice (including the 1974 tests described as “peaceful explosions”). India wants to be accepted as a legitimate nuclear power and is campaigning for a permanent Security Council seat. Technically speaking, the two countries still remain at war.
India is proud of its democratic record. Constitutional government and democratic freedoms have been safeguarded throughout its 60 years as an independent country, except for an 18 month interlude in 1975-1977, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency, suspending elections and human rights.
Current concerns in India include the corruption, poverty, over-population, environmental degradation, ongoing dispute with Pakistan and China, terrorism, and ethnic and religious strife. But the current obsession, at least among the educated elite, is over whether India will be able overtake China in economic growth.
Mountains, jungles, deserts and beaches, India has it all. It is bounded to the north and northeast by the snow-capped Himalayas, the tallest mountain range in the world. In addition to protecting the country from invaders, they also feed the perennial rivers Ganga, Yamuna (Jamuna) and Sindhu (Indus) on whose plains India’s civilization flourished. Though most of the Sindhu is in Pakistan now, three of its tributaries flow through Punjab. The other Himalayan river, the Brahmaputra flows through the northeast, mostly through Assam.
South of Punjab lies the Aravalli range which cuts Rajasthan into two. The western half of Rajasthan is occupied by the Thar desert. The Vindhyas cut across Central India, particularly through Madhya Pradesh and signify the start of the Deccan plateau, which covers almost the whole of the southern peninsula. It is bounded by the Sahyadri (Western Ghats) range to the west and the Eastern Ghats to the east. The plateau is more arid than the plains, as the rivers that feed the area, such as the Narmada, Godavari and the Kaveri run dry during the summer. Towards the northeast of the Deccan plateau is what used to be a thickly forested area called the Dandakaranya which covers the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, the eastern edge of Maharashtra and the northern tip of Andhra Pradesh. This area is still forested, poverty stricken and populated by tribals. This forest acted as a barrier to the invasion of South India.
India has a long coastline. The west coast borders the Arabian Sea and the east coast the Bay of Bengal, both parts of the Indian Ocean.
In India, it rains only during a specific time of the year. The season as well as the phenomenon that causes it is called the monsoon. There are two of them, the Southwest and the Northeast, both named after the directions the winds come from. The Southwest monsoon is the more important one, as it causes rains over most parts of the country, and is the crucial variable that decides how the crops (and therefore the economy) will do. It lasts from June to September. It hits the west coast the most, as crossing the western ghats and reaching the rest of India is an uphill task for the winds. The western coastline is therefore much greener than the interior. The Northeast monsoon hits the east coast between October and February, mostly in the form of occasional cyclones which cause much devastation every year. The only region that gets rains from both monsoons is North-Eastern India, which consequently experiences the highest rainfall in the world.
India experiences at least three seasons a year, Summer, Rainy Season (or “Monsoon”) and Winter, though in the tropical South calling the 25Â°C (77Â°F) weather “Winter” would be stretching the concept. The North experiences some extremes of heat in Summer and cold in Winter, but except in the Himalayan regions, snow is almost unheard of. November to January is the winter season and April and May are the hot months when everyone eagerly awaits the rains. There is also a brief spring in February and March, especially in North India.
Opinions are divided on whether any part of India actually experiences an Autumn, but the ancients had certainly identified such a season among the six seasons ( or ritus – Vasanta – Spring, Greeshma – Summer, Varsha – Rainy, Sharat – Autumn, Shishira – Winter, Hemanta – “Mild Winter”) they had divided the year into.
According to the Bengali calender, 12 months are divided into 6 periods (every period has two months) which are referred to as “ritu”. They are: (Baishakh-Jaistho) Greeshma – Summer, (Aashar-Shrabon) Varsha – Rainy, (Bhadro-Aashine) Sharat – Autumn, (Kartik-Aghrayan) Hemanta – Mild Winter (Pouash-Magh) Shet – Winter, (Falgun-Chaitro) Vasanta – Spring, the start of Baishakh is usually on the 14th or 15th April every year. Although the “ritu cycle” seldom follows the calender strictly, it is still the basic structure of East India’s climate.
India has a very rich and diverse mix of culture and tradition, dominated by religious and spiritual themes. There is no single unified Indian culture, and it’s probably the only country where people of so many different origins, religious beliefs, languages and ethnic backgrounds coexist. There are 4 main sub-cultures: West, North, East and South. Most of the ancient Indian culture is preserved in the South which is famous for its classical arts, such as Carnatic music and classical Indian dance.
The West part of India is highly industrialized and have rich heritage homes. Ahmedabad in Gujarat is famous for International Kite Flying Festival and Navratri (a festival of dance that lasts for nine days). Old part of Ahmedabad attract many foreigners because of heritage houses.
The Northern part of India has a rich heritage of Hindustani Classical Music and vibrant dance forms. Art and theatre flourish amongst the bustling cities of the country, against the backdrop of the ever expanding western influences that flavour life in the large metropolises of India.
The East is popular for its many forms of folk-dances and music. These art forms are enriched by a strong east Asian influence.
India is administratively divided into 28Â statesÂ and 7Â union territories. The states are broadly demarcated on linguistic lines. They vary in size; the larger ones are bigger and more diverse than some countries of Europe. The union territories are smaller than the statesâ€”sometimes they are just one cityâ€”and they have much less autonomy.
These states and union territories are grouped by convention into the followingÂ regions:
Himalayan North (Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand)
Mountainous and beautiful, a tourist destination for the adventurous and the spiritual. This region contains some of India’s most visited hill-stations and religious places. Includes the exquisitely scenic states.
The Plains (Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh)
The country’s capital Delhi is here. The river Ganga and Yamuna flows through this plain. Many of the events that shaped India’s history took place in this region. Madhya Pradesh is in Central India and is densely forest. Most of the tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries are created in MP for wildlife conservation. The River Narmada originates at Amarkantak in MP enters Jabalpur and then Gujarat. It submerges at Arabian Sea at Bharuch. Virgin River Ganga is holiest river for the Hindus and is a major center of pilgrimage and spiritual tours in India.
Western India (Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan)
Miles and miles of the Thar Desert. Home to the colorful palaces, forts and cities of Rajasthan, the country’s most vibrant and biggest city Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), wonderful beaches and pristine forests of Goa and Bollywood (Indian film industry in Bombay).
Southern India (Andaman and Nicobar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Lakshadweep, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu)
A strong bastion of indigenous culture, South India features famous and historical temples, tropical forests, backwaters in Kerala, equally great coastal line and country side infused with rich heritage in Andhra Pradesh, beautiful hill stations in Tamil Nadu, beaches and cosmopolitan cities in Pondicherry, Karnataka and the wonderful lush island groups of Andaman & Nicobar (on the east) and Lakshadweep on the west.
Eastern India (Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Sikkim, West Bengal)
Although not as developed as the 3 above, it is by far the most culturally advanced part with the highest degree of tolerance for outsiders, its largest city is Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) is in West Bengal State and the temple cities of Puri of Lord Jagannath fame, Bhubaneswar and Konark are in Odisha. It is also the mineral storehouse of India, having the country’s largest and richest mines.
North-Eastern India (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura)
insular and relatively virgin, the country’s tribal corner, with lush, beautiful landscapes, endemic flora and fauna of the Indo-Malayan group and famous for Tea Gardens. Consists of seven tiny states (by Indian standards, some of them are larger than Switzerland or Austria) popularly nicknamed as the Seven Sisters.