POPULATION: About 940 million

LANGUAGE: Fifteen official languages: Hindi; Bengali; Telugu; Marathi; Tamil; Urdu; Gujarat; Malayalam; Kannada; Oriya; Punjab;Assames;Kashmiri; Sindhi; Sanskrit; English widely spoken

RELIGION: Hinduism; Islam; Christianity; Sikhism; Buddhism; Jainism; some Judaism, Parsiism (Zoroastrianism), and animistic tribal peoples


India is the largest country in South Asia. The word "Indian" comes from Sindhu, a local name for the Indus River. Indians also call their country "Bharat," the name of a legendary emperor.

Indian history dates to the third millennium BC when Harappan civilization flourished in the Indus Valley. Aryan-speaking tribes from Central Asian began settling in northwestern India around 1700 BC . These groups eventually took over much of India.

At times, powerful kingdoms such as the Mauryan (321–181 BC ) and the Gupta ( AD 319–c. 500) empires have ruled. But, over the centuries, Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Kushans, and White Huns invaded India. Muslims entered India at the beginning of the eleventh century AD and ruled much of the subcontinent for eight hundred years. The Mughal Dynasty conquered Delhi and ruled from the sixteenth century until the eighteenth century. Islam made important contributions to South Asian civilization and shaped a great deal of India's cultural heritage.

Europeans reached South Asia in 1498 when Portuguese sailors landed on the southwest coast of India. Over the next two centuries, Portugal, Holland, Britain, and France set up trading posts and factories. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company controlled most of the European trade in India, and Britain ultimately ruled the entire region.

The inability of British, Hindu, and Muslim leaders to agree on a successor state to the British Indian Empire resulted in the partition of the subcontinent (by the United Nations) into India and Pakistan in 1947. This has caused three wars. India and Pakistan continue to be hostile toward each other, particularly over the question of which country should control the beautiful mountain state of Kashmir.


Modern India has an area of about 3.2 million square kilometers (1.2 million square miles), and a population of 940 million.

India stretches from Cape Comorin, 8° north of the equator, to its border with the disputed Kashmir region under Pakistani control. Pakistan lies to the west, and to the east, India shares borders with Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar (Burma).

India has three geographic zones. In the north lie the majestic Himalayas, which run for more than 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) and contain many of the world's highest peaks. Below the mountains lie the Indo-Gangetic plains. These lands run from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal and along the Indus and Ganges river valleys. The plains receive plenty of rain during the monsoon season and support much of India's agriculture. The Deccan Plateau forms the third geographical region. These are the uplands bordered by the Eastern and Western Ghats (mountains) that make up the interior of the Indian peninsula.

The seasonal rhythm of the monsoon sets a pattern of Indian life. Winters are bright and pleasant. In late February, temperatures start to rise until May and June, when daily maximums in the northwestern plains exceed 115° F (46° C ). The hot season ends with the onset of rain. The monsoon reaches southwest India in late June and sweeps northward. Cherrapunji, in the northeast, is on record as the wettest place on earth, averaging nearly 453 inches (1,150 centimeters) of rain annually. For three months, water is plentiful and the land is green. At the end of September, the rains stop and winter approaches.

India has a wide range of ethnic and cultural diversity. It is less a nation and more a collection of countries. Throughout central and southern India there are tribal populations such as Mundas, Oraons and Santals, there are Dravidian groups in southern India such as Tamils and the Malayalam-speaking peoples in Kerala. In the north, Bengalis, Kashmiris, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Rajputs, and Marathas are among the prominent groups. India shares many of its cultural groups with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Each region has its own mix of religion, caste (social class), language, and literary, cultural and historical traditions. These traditions existed long before modern nations were created, and many people identify strongly with them. Thus, one can be a Punjabi and either a Pakistani or Indian, or a Bengali and either a Bangladeshi or Indian.

Large Indian communities are also found in Nepal, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, South Africa, Fiji, the West Indies, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.


A Hindi proverb states: "Every two miles the water doth change, and every four the dialect." India has 1,653 dialects. There are about twenty-four languages that are spoken by more than a million people.

Indian languages belong to four major linguistic families (groups of languages with a common ancestor). Austro-Asiatic languages (e.g., Munda, Ho, and Khasi) are spoken by tribal groups in central India and the northeastern hills. Bhotia and other languages in the mountain belt belong to the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family. Most Indian languages belong to the Indo-European or Dravidian families.

India today recognizes fourteen spoken languages as official: Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Kashmiri, and Sindhi. Sanskrit, the classical language of northern India, is also an official language. English is widely used for national, political, and business purposes.


Hindus have a rich mythology and folklore associated with their deities and epic literature. Muslims revere Sufi mystics, and Sikhs have martyred Gurus. Tribal groups have distinct myths and legends. A few historical figures such as Shivaji, the seventeenth-century Maratha leader, are seen as national heroes.

Most of India's national heroes, however, come from the struggle against British imperialism in the early twentieth century. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), the first prime minister of India, and his daughter Indira Gandhi (1917–84) are among the most important Indian national leaders. The best known figure, however, is Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), known worldwide as Mahatma ("Great Soul"). Mohandas Gandhi led India's independence movement. (Independence from Great Britain was granted in 1947.)


About 80 percent of Indians are Hindus. India, however, prides itself on the freedom of religion guaranteed by its constitution. Religious minorities include Muslims (14 percent), Christians (2.4 percent), Sikhs (2 percent), Buddhists (0.7 percent), and Jains (0.5 percent). Other religious groups include Jews, Parsis (Zoroastrians), and animistic tribal peoples. The practices and beliefs associated with Hinduism vary by region, and from person to person. It is often said that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life.

One major aspect of Hinduism that influences Indian society is the caste system. The Aryan-speaking peoples developed this system, which divides people into four categories: Brahmans (priests and scholars), Ksatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaisyas (traders and farmers), and Sudras (servants and artisans). These categories are further divided by occupations, as well as by regional and cultural differences. However, most Indians fall outside the four categories and are referred to as Untouchables, the lowest caste. Although the system has its roots in Hinduism, most religious groups in this region of the world have adopted some aspect of the caste structure.


India officially celebrates the major holidays of its main religious communities. Hindu festivals include Shivaratri (dedicated to the god Shiva), Holi (the spring festival), Janamashtami (birthday of the god Krishna), Dasahara (the festival of the goddess Durga), and Divali (the Festival of Lights). The Muslim Eid festivals ( Eid al-Fitr and Bakr-Eid ) and Muharram are holidays. The Christian holy days of Good Friday and Christmas are also observed, as are the birthdays of the founders of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

India also celebrates its Independence Day on August 15, the day in 1947 when British colonial rule ended. Republic Day, held on January 26, marks the inauguration of India as a Republic in 1950. Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, on October 2, 1869, also is a national holiday.


Most Hindu groups have some form of naming and head-shaving ceremonies. For Muslims, the circumcision of male children is the symbol of commitment to their religion, while for Christians it is baptism. Sikhs, Parsis, and tribal groups also mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. Marriage customs conform to the norms of each community, as do funeral rites. Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists cremate their dead, whereas Muslims and Christians bury them. Parsis and some Buddhist groups expose their corpses to vultures. Tribal funeral customs include both cremation and burial.


A common greeting among Hindus is Namaste, which means "Greetings to you." It is said while joining one's own hands, palms together and held upright, in front of one's body. In parts of India, the word Namaste is replaced with Namaskar . Salaam or Salaam alaikum (Peace be with you) is a typical greeting among Muslims, and Sat Sri Akal (God is Truth) is used by Sikhs. Shaking hands, Western style, also is acceptable.


Medical advances, immunization, and public health programs have raised the average life expectancy in India to just over sixty years. Inadequate sewage disposal, contaminated drinking water, and poor nutrition still pose health problems. India has a high rate of population increase—almost 2 percent a year, which presents one of the country's greatest challenges. For many poor people, however, children provide valuable agricultural help and improve a family's income. People living in poverty are estimated to represent between 24 and 40 percent of the population of India.

India contains some of the largest cities in the world. Greater Bombay (or Mumbai) has about thirteen million people, Calcutta has twelve million, and Delhi has ten million. Yet almost three-fourths of India's people live in rural areas.

India has 1.3 million miles (2.2 million kilometers) of roads. Buses and trains are the most common means of long-distance travel. Several airlines also operate in India.


The joint family remains popular. In the north, families tend to be patriarchal. A household consists of two or three generations of males and their wives and children. In southern India, joint families often are matriarchal. It consists of one's grandmother and her brothers and sisters, one's mother and her brothers and sisters, and one's own brothers and sisters.

Marriages often are arranged, and caste plays an important role. In northern India, marriage partners are usually unrelated. In southern India, however, cross-cousin marriage often occurs, and it is preferred that a man marry his mother's brother's daughter.


The common dress for Indian men is the dhoti. This is a long piece of white cotton wrapped around the waist and then drawn between the legs and tucked into the waist. In southern India, the chest is usually left bare, while in the north a shirt may be worn. Turbans or some form of headdress are common in northern India. Both men and women also wear a kurta , a long tunic-like shirt, and pyjamas , loose baggy trousers. People wear leather sandals or other shoes. Shoes usually are removed before entering a temple or an Indian home.

Women typically wear the sari , a length of cotton or silk cloth wrapped around the waist, with one end thrown over the right shoulder. The choli, a tight-fitting blouse that leaves the midriff bare, is worn under the sari. The sari is worn differently in different parts of India. In Maharashtra, for example, rural women draw one end of the sari through the legs and tuck it into the waist. In some rural areas, women do not wear the bodice; they use the end of the sari to cover their upper bodies

In urban areas, Western-style clothing has become the norm for males.

12 • FOOD

A typical Indian meal consists of five or six dishes, served all on a thali . This is a round metal tray or plate that holds several little bowls ( katoris ). Each bowl holds a different dish. In some areas, food is served on banana leaves. Food is eaten with the hand, preferably the right hand.

The term "curry" was used by Europeans to describe the spicy dishes they found in India, but curries are not always hot. The "heat" in Indian food comes from chilies. Other spices include cumin, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom, and cloves. Curries are eaten with lentils (dal) and pickles and chutneys. In northern and western areas, meals are taken with flat breads (roti) . These breads are replaced by rice (chawal) in the east and south. Yogurt (dahi) also may be eaten. Meals often end with a variety of sweets or paan , betel nut served with lime and wrapped in a betel leaf.

Mughal-style cooking is found in the north, while dosas (thin pancakes of rice-flour) and idlis (steamed rice-bread) are popular southern dishes. Madras is known for its fiery curries, while Bengal is famous for its fish dishes. Goan cooking shows Portuguese influences.

Many Hindus avoid eating beef. Muslims generally do not eat pork. Tribal groups avoid the flesh of animals that are their clan totems.


It is estimated that over half of all Indians are literate (can read and write). However, this figure hides big differences between males and females, urban and rural populations, and among different social groups. Primary education is free but the quality of state-run schools tends to be poor. Still, education is important and many of India's universities have excellent reputations.


Indian culture dates to the Indus Valley civilization, but every group that has entered the subcontinent has left an imprint.

Hindu literature includes sacred texts such as the Vedas, the great Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, and the works of the great Sanskrit playwright and poet, Kalidasa (fifth century AD ). Bharata Natyam and Kathakali are forms of classical dance, while the Raga is a form of classical Indian music.

Famous Hindu temples include Mahabalipuram, Khajuraho, and the Sun Temple at Konarak in Orissa. Buddhists cave paintings at Ajanta offer an impressive monument to that faith. The temple city of Palitana in Gujarat and the white marble temples at Dilwara (Mount Abu) in Rajasthan are temple buildings of the Jainist religion. Islam's many contributions to Indian culture include miniature paintings and the Taj Mahal.

The most popular musical instrument in India is the sitar, an instrument similar to a guitar. It is played with a steel plucker called a mazrab worn on the right index finger, while the left index finger slides over the frets on the neck of the sitar. One sitar, the drone, provides the rhythm to support the melody.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), a Bengali poet and novelist was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, and the films of Satyajit Ray (1921–92) have received worldwide praise.


Over 60 percent of India's labor force works in agriculture. Despite this, India is highly industrialized. Its industries range from nuclear power production to garment making. Recent liberalization of the economy has seen faster growth and expanding trade, although many say these changes have not helped most of India's people.


Chess, dice, and card playing are old favorites. Traditional sports include cock fighting, camel racing, and wrestling. Hunting was a favorite sport and kabaddi (team wrestling) remains popular. Children's games include kite-flying, spinning tops, yo-yos, and hobbyhorses. Indians enthusiastically play or watch cricket and field hockey. Games such as soccer, tennis, badminton, squash, table tennis, and golf are also widely played.


India's film industry is enormous. Regional language films are produced in Calcutta and Madras, but the center of the industry is Bombay. "Bollywood," as it is known, produces love stories filled with action as well as singing and dancing. Film music is immensely popular. Film actors and actresses are pop idols and trendsetters, and their lives are followed with interest.


Folk arts in India range from wall painting to puppetry to regional music and dance forms. India is known for textiles, rugs, metalwork, bronzes, copper-and brassware, stone carving, pottery, woodwork, and jewelry.


Despite efforts at population control, India soon will be the world's most populous nation. This might worsen existing problems such as poverty, high unemployment, illiteracy, and malnutrition. Another growing problem is AIDS. It is predicted that 1 million AIDS cases and 10 million HIV cases will have been reported in India by 2000.

Many groups in Assam, Kashmir, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and other areas are demanding more freedom. Sometimes groups even express a desire to gain complete independence from India. Muslims fear that a rise of Hindu fundamentalism will threaten India's commitment to secularism (nonreligious government). India's Constitution recognizes three categories of disadvantaged groups that need special representation and assistance. This "reservations policy" is as controversial in India as affirmative action policies are now in the United States.

Despite these problems, India continues its fifty-year-old tradition as the world's largest democracy.


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Barker, Amanda. India. Crystal Lake, Ill.: Ribgy Interactive Library, 1996.

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Das, Prodeepta. Inside India. New York: F. Watts, 1990.

Dolcini, Donatella. India in the Islamic Era and Southeast Asia (8th to 19th century). Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.

Kalman, Bobbie. India: The Culture. Toronto: Crabtree Publishing Co., 1990.

Pandian, Jacob. The Making of India and Indian Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Shalant, Phyllis. Look What We've Brought You from India: Crafts, Games, Recipes, Stories, and Other Cultural Activities from Indian Americans. Parsippany, N.J.: Julian Messner, 1998.


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