India - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Republic of India
Formation 1947 / 1947
Capital New Delhi
Population 1.21 billion / 1058 people per sq mile (408 people per sq km)
Total area 1,269,338 sq. miles (3,287,590 sq. km)
Languages Hindi*, English*, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Bihari, Gujarati, Kanarese
Religions Hindu 81%, Muslim 13%, Sikh 2%, Christian 2%, Buddhist 1%, Other 1%
Ethnic mix Indo-Aryan 72%, Dravidian 25%, Mongoloid and other 3%
Government Parliamentary system
Currency Indian rupee = 100 paise
Literacy rate 66%
Calorie consumption 2301 kilocalories
Believed to be one of the earliest civilizations of the world, India boasts Stone Age rock shelters at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh that contain paintings that are, so far, the earliest known traces of humans in the area. The first known permanent settlements appeared some 9,000 years ago and became the Indus Valley Civilization, which peaked between 2600–2000 B.C.E. It was followed by the Vedic Civilization.
Archaeologists have found evidence of the existence of two great cities of that era called Mohenjodaro and Harappa.
They are located in what is now Pakistan.
Starting around 500 B.C.E. a spate of independent kingdoms emerged, and India came to be made up of many small kingdoms that were often overrun by numerous invaders from Central Asia. The rulers of these states encouraged the growth of art, science, literature, astronomy, and philosophy, which flourished under their patronage. The territory governed by the Maurya Dynasty was the most significant of these kingdoms and under the rule of Ashoka (273–32 B.C.E.; pronounced a-shok), the greatest Mauryan king, was the first ruler of ancient Bharata (India). Under him the region prospered and flourished.
Ashoka ruled a vast territory, much larger than the present Republic of India. It encompassed the territory from Afghanistan to Bengal and south to Mysore. Ashoka was also a supporter of Buddhism, and he had several monuments built that marked important locations in Gautama Buddha’s life. In Sanskrit his name means “without sorrow.” A Portuguese explorer named Vasco da Gama (1460–1524) sailed to India in 1498, and the Portuguese took control of some coastal parts of India. Goa became the capital of the Portuguese Empire, and the Portuguese established a strong foothold in the region. The Indian Army eventually drove them out in 1961, and their 450-year rule came to an end. The French and the Dutch also visited India, but their stays were short-lived, and they ruled only small areas.
In 1526 Babar, also Babur (1483–1530), a descendant of the famous Genghis Khan (1162–1227), invaded India and established the Mughal Dynasty. The Mughals were Muslims and spread Islam over a large part of northern India.
The Mughal Empire lasted till 1857, when the British deported the Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon. The British set up the East India Company in 1612. They had come to India with the primary intention of establishing trade relations but, seeing the lack of unity within the country, took advantage of the situation and colonized it.
Nationalist sentiment in India increased in the first half of the 19th century, and this led to an uprising in 1857, but it was firmly suppressed by the British. However the Indians were determined to overthrow the British, and in the 20th century, a new phase of the struggle for independence began. Led by Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), a lawyer from South Africa, who went on to become the father of the nation, the Indians embarked on a prolonged struggle for independence from the British. Eventually in August 1947, India gained independence from the British and was granted the status of a secular democratic republic in 1950.
However at the same time, members of the Muslim minority of India, who were numerous, became apprehensive that Hindus would dominate the country after independence. This increased partisan feelings, causing a split between the two religious groups. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948) became the leader of the Muslims, while Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) led the Hindus. When the Muslims pressed for their own territory, political tensions reached a peak, leading to widespread riots.
Ultimately the country was divided into India and Pakistan.
After the division the Hindus moved from Pakistan to India, and Jawaharlal Nehru became the prime minister of India. The Muslims moved to Pakistan, and it is estimated that more than 2,500,000 people lost their lives in the wave of partisanship that swept the region at that time. Postindependence, border disputes with Pakistan occurred leading to wars in 1948, 1965, and 1971. A dispute over the occupation of Kashmir, a region in north India, remains unresolved.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Located in the southern part of Asia, India is flanked by Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal. Some of the most striking geographical features of India include the Himalayan mountain range to the north, the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains that cover the northern and eastern parts of the country, the Thar Desert in the west, and the Deccan plateau in the southern region.
The highest point in India is Mt. Kanchenjunga in the Himalayan range. It stands 28,156 feet high.
India is also a land of mighty rivers. Some of the most prominent are the Ganges (Ganga), Yamuna, Godavari, and the Krishna.
The climate in India varies from temperate in the northern parts of the country to tropical monsoon in the southern parts. The average temperature during summer can reach as high as 120°F, especially in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, while during winter the temperatures can dip as low as -26°F in Ladakh in the northern states of Jammu and Kashmir. Monsoon winds blowing from the southwest provide rain during the monsoon season, which lasts from June to September.
India is home to a wide variety of trees such as sandalwood, deodhar (cedar), poplar, banyan, palms, oaks, spruce, bamboo, and extensive mangrove forests. India accounts for almost 6 percent of the world’s flora and has more than 45,000 species of plants (33 percent are native species), which includes 15,000 species of flowering plants.
More than 5,000 species of large animals are found in India. Leopards, lions, tigers, monkeys, elephants, snakes, crocodiles, jackals, rhinoceros, kingfishers, peacocks, parrots, and pygmy hogs are all part of the rich Indian fauna.
In 1991 the Indian economy entered a phase of liberalization after economic reforms were introduced, and it is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It is the fourth largest in the world in terms of purchasing power parity and the tenth largest in terms of currency conversion. The official currency of India is the Indian rupee.
Although agriculture contributes 25 percent to the nation’s economy, industries such as information technology (IT), textiles, mining, petroleum, handicrafts, and film have become the driving forces. In recent years India has become one of the largest IT players in the world due its expertise in software and the booming business-process outsourcing (BPO) industry.
Some of the major export items of India are gems and jewelry, handicrafts, leather products, software services and technology, agricultural products, chemical products, and engineering goods. The most imports are machinery, fertilizer, and crude oil.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
India is ethnically diverse, multilingual, and a culturally rich secular society. In terms of ethnicity, India is dominated by Indo-Aryans, who constitute 72 percent of the nation’s population and occupy most of the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent.
They are closely followed by the Dravidians, who reside mainly in the southern parts of the country.
The northeast is dominated by Mongol descendants.
Freedom of religion and communal harmony are the cornerstone of Indian society. India is home to all the prominent religions of the world, including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and various other faiths, as well as being the place where several originated.
There are so many religions, and so many rituals and observances, that it is possible to travel in India for a year and participate in a different festival every day (if the timing is just right).
Hindi, spoken by 30 percent of the nation’s population, is the national language of India, but English is widely used in business, by government departments, as the medium of instruction for postgraduate education, and as the language of communication among Indians of other linguistic backgrounds. In addition to Hindi, official status has been granted to at least 20 Indian languages. Most Indians speak at least three languages: Hindi, English, and their mother tongue.
India has a rich traditional folk culture. Indian music can be broadly categorized into Hindustani (in the north) and Carnatic (in the south). Traditional folk songs are an integral part of Indian society, and every region has songs related to the different stages of life. Folk songs also provide a way of perceiving the daily occupations of people living in different regions.
Traditional Indian dance forms include bharatnatyam, kathak, kathakali, kuchipudi, manipuri, mohiniattam, and odissi. Most of these traditional Indian dances depict great Indian epics in narratives that combine the stories with spiritual elements.
Indian astrology is one of the most ancient practices in the world. Similarly, ayurveda, which was developed by Charaka over 2,500 years ago, is one of the earliest schools of medicine and is now accepted worldwide.
Epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the scriptures (Puranas, Vedas), which are all thousands of years old, testify to India’s rich culture. The Indian film industry is the biggest in the world, and Indian cinema is appreciated worldwide.
India’s architectural wealth is reflected in its hundreds of temples, forts, palaces, and tombs. The Taj Mahal, built of white marble, is considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Even though hockey is the national game of India, cricket is the more popular game. Football, which Indians call soccer, is extremely popular. Golf is also gaining popularity among the urban elite.
Indian cuisine is as diverse as its culture. Every region in India has its own specialty, which gives rise to an amazing number of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dishes. Most of these are spicy and delicious.
Besides spices, clarified butter (ghee) and yogurt are used extensively in cooking.
Rice and wheat (in the form of various kinds of bread) are the staples of the Indian diet. Among the most popular breads are a flat unleavened bread called roti, a fried bread called puri, and bread baked in a clay oven called naan. Tea and coffee are the preferred beverages of India.
A traditional Indian meal consists of rice, curries, a variety of breads, a vegetable, and a meat or fish side dish, yogurt, pickles, chutney, and salad.
In India every religion has its own set of ceremonies pertaining to birth, and even within the same religion the rituals vary from region to region. In the seventh month of pregnancy in many parts of the country, the pregnant woman is showered with gifts, blessings, and wishes for the safe delivery of a healthy child.
After the birth of a Hindu child, both mother and baby have to remain indoors for a period of 40 days to protect them from evil. At the end of this period, in some regions a naming ceremony is held to which friends and family members are invited.
The priest performs a religious ceremony in which offerings to God are made, and then the father’s sister whispers the name chosen for the child in its ear.
The priest announces the name, and assembled guests come forward to give their blessings and good wishes to the infant.
Other ceremonies related to children include: the first solid food ceremony (annaprasana), when the child is fed sweet rice; head-shaving (mundan), which is generally performed in temples; ear-piercing (karnavedha), which is done to both boys and girls and is meant to bring good health and wealth to the child; and the commencement of formal study, or vidyarambha, which is celebrated by writing the first letter in a tray of rice.
COMING OF AGE
When a Hindu boy reaches puberty he participates in a ceremony known as upanayana sanskara. Most prevalent in Brahmin families, it formalizes the transition from boyhood to adulthood. During this ceremony the boy is made aware of his duties and responsibilities as a human and as a Hindu. Amid Sanskrit chants, the priest invests the boy with a sacred white thread that he must wear on his left shoulder for the rest of his life.
Male circumcision is prevalent among the Muslims of India, though it is not compulsory. Most Muslims believe that by undergoing this ritual a boy becomes a man.
Trained elders use knives, razors, and other sharp instruments to perform the circumcision on boys aged 10–12, without administering any anesthetic.
Huge celebrations follow this coming- of-age ritual since the entire community takes great pride in it.
Indian Parsis refer to their coming of age ritual as Navjote. It is a new light ceremony similar to the Jewish bar mitzvah and the Hindu thread ceremony. The child is blessed and inducted into the Zoroastrian community by putting on a sacred chord (kusti) and a soft muslin undershirt (sudreh or sudra). He or she is initiated into the faith through prayers and community blessings.
Marriage ceremonies in India vary from religion to religion and from region to region. Arranged marriages are prevalent even today in Indian society. A relative or a mutual friend delivers the marriage proposal, and then the families of the prospective bride and groom meet each other.
If the proposal is accepted the families consult their family priests and, using astrological charts, they decide on a marriage date. Providing a dowry continues to be an integral part of wedding ceremonies in many parts of India.
A Hindu marriage generally involves week-long festivities with a special ceremony on each day. Some of the important ceremonies include: a musical evening (sangeet sandhya) during which the guests dance and sing traditional folk songs; the ceremony called mehendi, in which professional mehendi artists are hired to apply a decorative pattern of henna to the hands and feet of the bride; and the actual marriage ceremony, or vivaha, when the groom, riding a white horse or in a car, comes to the venue of the wedding, followed by his wedding party (baraat), who dance their way from the groom’s house to the scene where the wedding is to take place. Then, the bride’s family welcomes the groom and the wedding party, and in front of the holy fire the bride and groom exchange their wedding vows and solemnize their wedding in the presence of God, family members, and friends.
There is also a lavish reception in honor of the bride and the groom. The wedding guests congratulate the newlyweds and extend their good wishes for their married life. After the reception a farewell ceremony (bidaai) ceremony takes place. It gives the bride the opportunity to bid farewell to her family members, friends, and relatives.
After the death of a Hindu, family members cleanse his or her body, anoint it with sandalwood paste, and drape it in new clothes. Then mourners pay their final respects and drape flowers over the body of the deceased. In accordance with tradition a diya, a small lamp, is lit and placed near the body. Then male family members and friends carry it to the nearby crematorium for the final rites. Hindus believe that women should not accompany the body because they are too sensitive to see their loved ones cremated.
Often during the funeral procession, mourners engage in religious chants dedicated to Yama (the Hindu god of death) and Lord Rama.
At the crematorium the body of the deceased is placed on a funeral pyre with the head positioned at the north, in the direction of the realm of Kubera (the god of wealth) and the feet at the south, in the direction of the realm of Yama. The eldest son or male member of the family performs the last rites and lights the funeral pyre. The ashes of the deceased are immersed in Hindu holy rivers such as the Ganges, since Hindus believe that doing this will absolve the deceased of all his or her sins. Also as an expression of sorrow, male members of the family shave their heads.
Donations to the poor and to other charities are made in honor of the deceased. During special memorial services, rice balls (pinda) are prepared and offered to the soul of the deceased. Also on the 11th or 13th day after the death, family members feed the poor in the deceased’s honor.