India’s culture and heritage are a rich amalgam of the past and the present. This vast country offers the 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. 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.
Hindu pilgrims bathing at Varanasi
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”. By 3300 BC, this civilization 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 and geological disturbances. Most historians say that the Vedic people, or Aryans, were later migrants, who encountered a civilization in decline and perhaps hastened that decline. According to this view, the Vedic people eventually occupied most of North India, while the descendants of the Indus Valley cultures moved south and gave rise to the Dravidian culture. The minority view challenges this Aryan Migration theory, claiming that the Indus Valley people were in fact the ones who compiled the Vedas.
The Vedic civilization influences India to this day. Present-day Hinduism traces its roots to the Vedas, but is also heavily influenced by literature that came afterwards, like the Upanishads, the Puranas, the great epics — Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita. By tradition, these books claim to only expand and distil the knowledge that is already present in the Vedas. 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, three of these schools – Sikhism , 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. This period saw major mathematical and astronomical advancements, many of which were ahead of their time and were rediscovered later in the West. In particular, Aryabhata theorized that the earth was a sphere that rotates about its axis and revolves around the sun. He also developed a calendar that is followed to this day. This period also saw a gradual decline of Buddhism and Jainism. The practice of Buddhism, in particular, disappeared from India’s heartland, 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. Hinduism itself went through significant changes. The importance of Vedic deities like Indra and Agni reduced and Puranic deities like Vishnu, Shiva, their various Avatars and family members gained prominence.
Jamia Masjid, Delhi
Islamic incursions started in the 8th century. 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. The bravery of the Rajputs in resisting invasion of their land is legendary and celebrated in ballads all over the forts of Rajasthan. Prominent among the Rajputs wes Rana Pratap, the ruler of Chittorgarh, who spent years in exile fighting Akbar, the third of the Mughals. Eventually, however, the Rajputs were subdued, and the Rajput-Mughal alliance remained strong till the end of the empire. This period of North India was the golden age for Indian art, architecture, and literature, producing 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, some due to force, some due to inducements, and some to escape the caste system. Today, some 13% of the Indian population is Muslim. Sikhism, another major religion, was established in Punjab during the Mughal period. Relations between Sikhism and the Mughals varied over time. The Golden Temple at Amritsar was built with the help of Akbar. By the time of its tenth Guru – Guru Gobind Singh, however, relations were hostile. Conflict between the Sikhs and the Mughals was one of the causes for the eventual decline of the Mughal empire. The other cause was the challenge of the ‘Marathas in Maharashtra, which was started by Shivaji and carried on by the Peshwas. The Marathas established a short-lived confederacy that was almost as large as the Mughal empire. Marathas lost their command over India after the third battle of Panipat, which in turn paved a way for British Colonialism.
Shore Temple (c. 700 AD), Mamallapuram
South India followed a different trajectory, being less affected by Islamic rule. 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.
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 their headquarters in 1772. They also established subsidiary cities like Bombay and Madras. Calcutta later went onto to become ‘the second city of the empire after London’. By the 19th century, the British 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 take over from the Company and 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, 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, fuelling 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 36% remain in poverty.
Relations with Pakistan have been frosty. The two countries have fought four wars, three of them over the status of Kashmir. The third war between the two countries in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. India continues to experience occasional terrorist attacks that are widely believed to originate in Pakistan and ordered by its military-intelligence complex.
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). 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.
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 disputes 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.
India is a Parliamentary Democracy modelled on the British Westminster system. The President, indirectly elected, is the Head of State, but his or her position, while not entirely ceremonial, has limited powers. In practice, the Prime Minister is seen to wield the most authority, and runs the government with her/his cabinet . The Parliament is bi-cameral. The Lok Sabha, the lower house, is directly elected by adult franchise, while the Rajya Sabha, or the upper house, is indirectly elected. The Lok Sabha is the more powerful of the two, primarily because a majority in the Lok Sabha is required to form a government and pass budgets. India has a vast number of political parties, and in recent times, no party has secured a majority in the Lok Sabha, leading to unstable governments and raucous politics. However, unlike neighbouring Pakistan, transition of power has always been peaceful and always constitutional. India has a strong and independent judiciary and a free press.
India is also a Federal Republic, divided into states and union territories. Each of these have their own legislatures, with government run by a chief minister and a cabinet.
Street demonstrations and political agitations occur, as they do in any democracy, though there is also occasional low-level violence. A visitor has a vanishingly small chance of getting caught in those.
Indian Standard Time (IST) is 5 hours and 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT+5.5). Daylight saving is not observed.
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.
The Deccan plateau 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 tribal people. 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 will do. It lasts from June to September. The Southwest monsoon 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 25°C (77°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.
India’s rich and multi-layered cultures are dominated by religious and spiritual themes. While it is a mistake to assume that there is a single unified Indian culture, there certainly are unifying themes that link the various cultures. India’s cultural heritage is expressed through its myriad of languages in which much great literature and poetry has been written. It can be seen in its music – both in its classical (Carnatic and Hindustani) forms and in modern Bollywood music. India also has a vast tradition of classical and folk dances. Art and theatre flourish amongst the bustling cities of the country, against the backdrop of the ever expanding western influences.
Indians value their family system a lot. Typically, an Indian’s family encompasses what would be called the extended family in the West. It is routine for Indians to live as part of the paternal family unit throughout their lives – i.e. sons live together with their parents all their lives, and daughters live with their parents till they get married. The relationship is mutually self-supporting. Parents may support their children for longer than is common in the West, brothers and sisters may support each other, and sons are expected to take care of their parents in their old age. “Living with parents” does not carry the same stigma as it does in the US. Naturally, the arrangements are not perfect and there are strains and breakups, especially by the time the third generation grows up. Also, it has now become common for children to move away from the parental house for education and employment. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the joint family is still seen as the norm and an ideal to aspire to, and Indians continue to care about their family’s honour, achievements and failures even while they are not living together.
Despite the weakening of the caste system, India remains a fairly stratified society. Indians care more about a person’s background and position in society than is the norm in the individualist US. This attitude, when combined with the legacy of colonial rule, results in some rather interesting, if unfortunate consequences. People with white skin are placed high on the societal totem pole, and they may find that Indians are obsequious towards them to the point of embarrassment. People with dark skin, however may find that they are discriminated against. If it is any consolation, Indians display similar prejudices based on skin colour and ethnicity among themselves and not just towards foreigners. (See more in the Stay Safe and Respect sections)
There are three national holidays: Republic Day (26 January), Independence Day (15 August), and Gandhi Jayanti (2 October) which occur on the same day every year. In addition, there are three major nationwide festivals with shifting dates to be aware of:
Holi, in February or March — The festival of colour is a major festival celebrated mainly in North, East and Western India. On the first day, people go to temples and light bonfires, but on the second, it’s a waterfight combined with showers of coloured powder. This is not a spectator sport: as a visible foreigner, you’re a magnet for attention, so you’ll either have to barricade yourself inside, or put on your most disposable clothes and join the fray. Alcohol and bhang (cannabis) are often involved and crowds can get rowdy as the evening wears on. Celebrations are fewer in South India, though private celebrations occur among North Indian communities residing in major South Indian cities
Durga Puja / Navarathri/Dussehara, Sep-Oct — A nine-day festival culminating in the holy day of Dasara, when locals worship the deity Durga. Workers are given sweets, cash bonuses, gifts and new clothes. It is also new year for businessmen, when they are supposed to start new account books. In some places like West Bengal, Durga Puja is the most important festival. In the north Dussehara celebrations take place and the slaying of Ravana by Lord Rama is ceremonially reenacted as Ram Lila. In Gujarat and South India, it is celebrated as Navarathri where the festival is celebrated by dancing to devotional songs and religious observances like fasts extended over a period of 9 nights.
Diwali (Deepavali), Oct-Nov — The festival of lights, celebrates the return of Lord Rama to the capital of his kingdom, Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years. Probably the most lavish festival in the country, reminiscent (to U.S. travellers at least) of the food of Thanksgiving and the shopping and gifts of Christmas combined. Houses are decorated, there is glitter everywhere, and if you wander the streets on Diwali night, there will be firecrackers going off everywhere including sometimes under your feet.
Apart from these, each state has its own major national festival like Onam for Kerala or Sankranti for Andhra Pradesh or Pongal for Tamil Nadu or Baisakhi for Punjab, which is celebrated as public holiday in respective states.
Religious holidays occur on different days each year, because the Hindu and Islamic festivals are based on their respective calendars and not on the Gregorian calendar. Most of them are celebrated only locally, so check the state or city you are visiting for information on whether there will be closures. Different regions might give somewhat different names to the same festival. To cater to varying religious practices, offices have a list of optional holidays (called restricted holidays by the government) from which employees are allowed to pick two, in addition to the list of fixed holidays. This may mean thin attendance and delayed service even when the office is officially open.
The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters, William Dalrymple; A fine travelogue, actually a collection of essay papers published over time in the media. (ISBN 1864501723)
India: A History, John Keay; “A superb one-volume history of a land that defies reduction into simple narrative… Without peer among general studies, a history that is intelligent, incisive, and eminently readable.” — Kirkus Review (starred review) (ISBN 0802137970)
India: A Million Mutinies Now, V.S. Naipaul; “With this book he may well have written his own enduring monument, in prose at once stirring and intensely personal, distinguished both by style and critical acumen” — K. Natwar-Singh, Financial Times (ISBN 0670837024)
In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce; an exceptionally insightful and readable book on the unlikely rise of modern India. (ISBN 0316729817)
No Full Stops In India, Mark Tully; “India’s Westernized elite, cut off from local traditions, want to write a full stop in a land where there are no full stops. From that striking insight Mark Tully has woven a superb series of stories which explore everything from communal conflict in Ahmedabad to communism in Kolkata, from the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad (probably the biggest religious festival in the world) to the televising of a Hindu epic.” (ISBN 0140104801)
Mother Pious Lady, Santosh Desai; An excellent account of middle class beliefs and customs from the pre-liberalization era till date. For anyone who wants to understand the culture of present India, this is a must read where the author cuts through the chaos and confusion letting you to see things more clearly . (ISBN 8172238643)
Touts are ubiquitous, as in many developing countries, and you should assume that anyone ‘proactively’ trying to help you has a hidden agenda to part you from your money. However, in areas hardly or not at all visited by tourists, it is not at all uncommon for people who go out of their way to ‘proactively’ help you without expecting anything in return. During your travels in India, you will be deluged with touts trying to get you to buy something or patronize particular establishments. There are a myriad of common scams, which range from telling you your hotel has gone out of business (of course, they’ll know of one that’s open with vacancies), to giving wrong directions to a government rail ticket booking office (the directions will be to their friend’s tour office), to trying to get you to take diamonds back to your home country (the diamonds are worthless crystal), to ‘poor students’ giving you a sightseeing for hours and then with pity make you buy school books for them (tremendously overpriced from a bookstore with whom they are affiliated). There will also be more obvious touts who “know a very good place for dinner” or want to sell you a chess set on the street.
Faced with such an assault, it’s very easy to get into a siege mentality where all of India is against you and out to squeeze you dry. Needless to say, such a mentality may affect any true appreciation of the country. Dealing with touts is very simple: assume anyone offering surprising information (such as “your hotel is shut down”) is a tout. Never be afraid to get a second or third answer to a question. To get rid of a tout:
Completely ignore him/her and go about your business until he goes away. This may take quite a while, but patience is key to managing India.
Tell him “NO”, very firmly, and repeatedly.
It is also beneficial to have a firm Indian friend whom you can trust. If they show you around, they will act to help you ward off such touts.
Basic strategy will help you:
Don’t get harassed, consider each problem and joy as your experience, that’s why you are traveling. Isn’t it?
Hiring a qualified guide, if you manage to find a trust worthy one, will sort out your most of the problems, almost every problem.
If you still have any issues or want to chat friendly to an Indian, then seek for an Indian tourist. He/she may help you if he/she knows English but may likely know less than you about the place you’re visiting.
Foreign visitors will quickly encounter the special foreigners’ rates that they are charged in some places in India. This applies to some tourist attractions, some high end hotels and some airlines.
Some tourist attractions that are run by the Archaeological Survey of India have different rates for Indians and foreigners. These rates are prominently posted at the entrance and ticketing booths. The rates for foreigners may be as many as five to ten times those for Indians. This is understandable due to the much lower average cost of living in India.
Likewise, if you are reserving a hotel room or an airline ticket over the internet, you may find that paying in dollars costs significantly higher. You can get an Indian friend to book in rupees and in most cases, no one will question you at the time of check in.