Indian History and Culture

“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.” -- Mark Twain

“We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.” -- Albert Einstein

"It is, indeed, a remarkable circumstance that when Western civilization discovers Relativity it applies it to the manufacture of atom-bombs, whereas Indian civilization applies it to the development of new states of consciousness." -- Alan Watts (1915-1973) Harvard University Professor

“Many of the advances in the sciences that we consider today to have been made in Europe were in fact made in India centuries ago.” -- Grant Duff, British Historian of India

Temple at Kajuraho
 Facts About India

Land and Climate. India, covering 1,269,338 square miles (3,287,590 square kilometers), is roughly one-third the size of the United States. A small section of the Himalaya Mountains lies in the disputed territories of the north. The Ganges Plain below is fertile and densely populated. South of the plain is the Deccan Plateau. About half of the country is under cultivation and a little less than one-fourth is forested. Most of the country experiences three basic seasons: hot summer (March–May), rainy (June–September), and cool winter (October–February). Temperatures rarely go below 40°F (4°C) in January or reach above 100°F (40°C) during the summer. Variations exist according to region and elevation. Floods, droughts, and earthquakes are common.

Population. India has the second largest population in the world, behind China, with 1.03 billion residents. The population is growing at 1.6 percent. The Indo-Aryan castes comprise 72 percent of the population, while Dravidians account for 25 percent. Nationally, castes are assigned to one of four general classes by the government. These include forward classes (FC), backward classes (BC), scheduled castes (SC), and scheduled tribes (ST). Classifications are based on social, historical, and economic criteria. Individuals in each classification might be rich or poor, as class does not necessarily define wealth in today's India, but BCs, SCs, and STs can access affirmative action programs that reserve jobs, scholarships, and other benefits for castes that historically were persecuted or disadvantaged. People in the SC and ST groups have come to be collectively known as Dalits (downtrodden). A person's caste is a matter of lineage and cannot change, but Parliament technically has power to reassign a caste to another class. Caste still plays an important role in certain social interactions like marriage. Castes maintain their distinct culture and identity, and they rarely intermarry (though this is changing in cities and over time).

Castes are often confused with the Brahmin classification philosophy, Chaturvarna Vyavasta (four-class system), per-haps because the three historically dominant Aryan castes bear the same name as the three highest classes in this system. The ancient Sanskrit scholars believed any society is composed of four classes: Brahmin (intellectuals and priests), Kshatriya (rulers and warriors), Vaishya (farmers and merchants), and Shudra (workers). As they dispersed on the Indian subconti-nent, the Aryans grouped most non-Aryan castes into the Shudra class. The Brahmin philosophy became widespread by 1000 CE because of Aryan dominance in many states, but it does not determine a person's caste.

Government. A democratic republic, India is divided into 26 states and six union territories. President K. R. Narayanan, elected in 1997 by Parliament and the state assemblies, has mostly ceremonial duties. Prime Minister Vajpayee is head of government. India's Parliament has two houses: the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) and the Lok Sabha (House of the People). No more than 250 members, elected by the legislatures of each state, serve in the Rajya Sabha. All but 2 of the 545 members of the Lok Sabha are directly elected by the people. All citizens may vote at age 18.

Economy. India is primarily an agricultural nation. It is a leading world producer of peanuts, rice, cheese, tobacco, wheat, cotton, milk, sugarcane, and rubber. Other important crops include grains, oilseed, jute, tea, and coffee. Export earnings come mainly from tea, coffee, iron ore, fish products, and manufactured items. Textiles are a principal domestic product and also a profitable export. Roughly 20 percent of the population is employed in services, and 15 percent in industry. India is rich in natural resources, with coal, iron ore, natural gas, diamonds, crude oil, limestone, and important minerals. High-technology industries lead the way for industrial growth. Tourism is also increasingly vital for income.

Economic growth is moderate, and inflation, while low, is rising. Serious gaps between the urban wealthy and the roughly 350 million poor highlight India's stark social contrasts and future challenges. Approximately 35 percent of all people are unable to provide for their basic needs and more than half are subsistence farmers. The currency is the rupee (Re).
Kanchi Temple
Languages. The majority of the population are Indo-European speaking a variety of languages related to European languages such as Greek, German, or English. The bulk of Indian religion and almost all of its literature is Indo-European. Second to the Indo-Europeans, but more ancient in India than the later immigrants, are a people who speak languages from the Dravidian family of languages. While we cannot be certain, the Dravidians were probably the authors of the great Indus River civilizations, contemporary with the Mesopotamian civilizations to the west.

The major languages, most of which are Indo-European, are Hindi, Urdu (which is very closely related to Hindi but uses Arabic script), Bengali, Marathi, Assamese, Sindhi, Oriya, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Nepali, Telugu (Dravidian), Tamil (Dravidian), Kannada (Dravidian), Malayalam (Dravidian).

Despite this variety of languages, Indian culture is remarkably fluid and the contacts between peoples frequent and productive. Very few cultures are so tied into the overall geography of their region; Hinduism requires frequent pilgrimages as part of one's spiritual perfection, so the intercourse between different peoples has been constant throughout Indian history.

Geography. The most striking element of Indian geography is the natural barrier formed by the mountain ranges in the north of India. The central mountain range, passing across in the shape of a sword near the northern edge of the Indian subcontinent, is the Great Himalayas. These northern mountains, which are less of a barrier in the west, have naturally isolated India from its neighbors.

All along the southern edge of this great mountain wall are rich soils that are generously rained on; even though this region lies in the temperate zone, it is lush and subtropical. To the south are the extensive flood plains of the Indus River in the west and the Ganges in the east. With rich soil renewed every year by river flooding and with generous summer rains, these plains in the north are among the richest agricultural areas in the world. It was here that Indian civilization first arose, in the fertile flood plains adjoining the Indus River. This vast stretch of flood plain has been the home of the great Indian empires as well, the Mauryans and the Guptas.

The southern portion of India is a large peninsula with a forbidding mountain range all along the western coast and a large flat plateau called the Deccan in the center of the sub-continent. The eastern coast is flat land and affords many opportunities for harbors; from this area Indian culture had the widest contacts with foreign peoples. The western portion, however, being walled from the sea and hard to reach by land, subsequently became the seat of the powerful empires of the south, such as the Muslim kingdoms.


 Indian History

Detailed information about the history of ancient India can be found at Richard Hooker's World Civilizations online textbook on Ancient India.

The following text is reproduced by permission of Lonely Planet Publications, from the Lonely Planet website at

Fatehpur Sikhri Hinduism underwent a revival from 40 to 600 CE, and Buddhism began to decline. In 1192 the Muslim Ghurs arrived from Afghanistan. Two great kingdoms developed in what is now Karnataka: the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, and the Bahmani Muslim kingdom.

Mughal emperors marched into the Punjab from Afghanistan, defeated the Sultan of Delhi in 1525, and ushered in another artistic golden age. The Marathas consolidated control of central India until they fell to the last great imperial power, the British.

By 1803 most of the country was under the control of the British East India Company, which treated India as a place to make money, and its culture, beliefs and religions were left strictly alone. Britain encouraged absentee landlords, creating an impoverished landless peasantry - a problem still chronic in Bihar and West Bengal. The Uprising in northern India in 1857 led to the demise of the East India Company, and administration of the country was handed over to the British government.

In 1915, Gandhi returned from South Africa, where he had practised as a lawyer, and turned his abilities to independence, adopting a policy of passive resistance, or satyagraha.

After WWII, Indian independence became inevitable. The large Muslim minority realised that an independent India would be Hindu-dominated. The bid for a separate Muslim nation was the biggest stumbling block to Britain granting independence.

Viceroy Mountbatten decided to divide the country and set a rapid timetable for independence. Unfortunately, the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions were on opposite sides of the country. When the dividing line was announced, the greatest exodus in human history took place as Muslims moved to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs relocated to India. Over 10 million people changed sides and even the most conservative estimates calculate that 250,000 people were killed.

On 30 January 1948, Gandhi, deeply disheartened by Partition and the subsequent bloodshed, was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

Following the trauma of Partition, India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru championed a secular constitution, socialist central planning and a strict policy of nonalignment. India's next prime minister of stature was Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi, who was elected in 1966. Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 as a reprisal for using the Indian Army to flush out armed Sikh radicals from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Her son, prime minister, Rajiv brought new and pragmatic policies to the country. Foreign investment and the use of modern technology were encouraged. Rajiv was assassinated on an election tour by a supporter of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers.

Full country name: Republic of India
Area: 3.28 million sq km
Population: 1 billion
Capital City: New Delhi
People: 72% Indo-Aryan, 25% Dravidian, 3% other
Religion: 80% Hindu, 14% Muslim, 2.4% Christian, 2% Sikh, 0.7% Buddhist, 0.5% Jains, 0.4% other
Government: federal republic
Head of State: President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Head of Government: Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh
GDP: US$2.2 trillion
GDP per capita: US$2,200
Annual Growth: 5.4%
Inflation: 5.4%
Major Trading Partners: US, Hong Kong, UK, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Saudi Arabia
Member of EU: No

References with permission.

Text provided by Gerry Cherry, Director of Grants, University of Central Oklahoma. Photos provided by Rajaram Kalmari, Retention Coordinator, UCO TRIO Program.