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Country of the Week: India

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’ve traveled all the way to Asia, to the country officially known as the Republic of India. From ancient history to British rule and eventual independence, India has become one of the largest and most important countries in the modern world.

  • Capital: New Delhi
  • Largest City: Mumbai
  • Population (2015): 1,269,765,000 (2nd)
  • Total Area: 3,287,590 km2 (7th)
  • Official Languages: Hindi, English
  • Currency: Indian rupee (₹) (INR)
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The Taj Mahal in Agra – This mausoleum is one of the most famous landmarks in India

History

Civilization first began to flourish on the Indian subcontinent around 2500 BC. Over the next 2000 years, the Iron Age began and the first Hindu scriptures were composed. This period also marked the birth of the hierarchical caste system. This system instituted clear divisions within the populace from the priesthood and rulers to the peasants and ‘untouchables’. Over the centuries, various small chiefdoms and kingdoms developed, particularly along the Ganges River. Along with these kingdoms, Jainism and Buddhism also developed followings amongst early Indians.

Towards the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, various empires began to arise in the region in place of the smaller kingdoms. Most notably, the Maurya Empire ruled most of modern day India for nearly 150 years. In the 4th and 5th centuries AD, the dominant power was the Gupta Empire. Their rule from 320 – 550 is often considered the Golden Age of India. Science, art, culture, and religion all flourished during this highly creative and prosperous period.

Medieval times in India were diverse with rulers coming and going. The chaos meant that no one ruler was able to forge an empire. As a result, regional differences became more accentuated. In the later Middle Ages, Muslim invaders from Central Asia conquered much of the north of the country, and even parts of the south. The sultanate they formed disrupted Indian elites but was also relatively accommodating to local traditions and customs. In the end, they protected the region from Mongol invaders, ultimately saving India from the devastation suffered by neighbouring regions. In later years, the north would fall to the Mughal Empire, which again was relatively accommodating to local society, though it was strongly centralized. Strong regional groups such as the Sikhs and Marathas also flourished during and after the empire’s rule.

During the 18th century, the face of India would change dramatically as European powers began to establish trading posts along the coast. The most powerful among these was the English East India Company. By the 1820s, the East India Company’s military strength and size allowed it to dominate competitors and annex much of India in the process. Soon, the region was supplying the British Empire and India became, for all intents and purposes, a colony. 1848 marked the turning point to modern India with Lord Dalhousie named Governor General of the British East India Company. Under his watch, the Company instituted more direct control, education, and infrastructure in India. Anger against the company manifested itself during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, though it was defeated and the British grasped even more direct control of the country.

Following the turn of the century, about one million Indians fought with the British in the First World War. Following the conflict, the Indian National Congress began to push for greater reform. This was also the beginning of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous nonviolent resistance. Following World War II, increased Muslim nationalism, and Congress non-cooperation, India became a fully independent country, though the subcontinent was divided with Muslim Pakistan (which then included Bangladesh) splitting from the rest of the country.

Since the constitution in 1950, India has forged its own path on the world stage. As a secular republic, India is the largest democracy in the world. While it has not always been smooth, India has maintained civil liberties and an independent press. Since the 90’s, India has been one of the world’s fasting growing and powerful countries – in part due to its possession of nuclear weapons. While there are unresolved issues both domestic and foreign, India is sure to have a huge role in to play in the future.

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A selection of curries – one of the most popular Indian dishes

Culture

India has a hugely rich culture that goes back thousands and thousands of years. Some of the earliest traditions were Hindu – and the philosophy and literature it created have endured to this day. Beyond Hinduism; Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, and Jainism are among the most followed religions in India.

Literature and stories have also long been a part of Indian culture. The first texts were written in Sanskrit around 1500 BC. Many epics and poems have endured to this day, with Hindu stories particularly among the earliest known. Perhaps the most popular today however is the famous Kamasutra – which you can look up on your own time after work.

Music and film are also found throughout the country. Classical and folk music and dance have been practiced and performed for centuries, with extreme diversity amongst the regions and cultures in the country. Such events are often times to showcase the diversity and intricacy of classic Indian dress and clothing. The Indian film industry, or Bollywood as it is known, produces the most watched films in the world.

Indian food has also become well known and popular in many forms worldwide, as Indians have immigrated across the globe. Dishes vary regionally, often using local produce to create distinct flavours. Elsewhere, Indian food is reported to be the favourite type of dish in the United Kingdom – where it has been a popular import for decades.

The caste system of social hierarchy still has tremendous influence over Indian life today. Though discrimination of ‘untouchables’ is no longer legal, there is still widespread inequality. Additionally, most Indians still have their marriages arranged, with the institution meant to be for life and the divorce rate remaining very low.

Though India has a strong tradition of various indigenous sports, the most popular throughout the country is cricket. Brought to the region by the British, India has become one of the preeminent cricket powers in the world – although the team recently suffered a disappointing loss to Australia.

Geography

India is a large country that occupies most of the subcontinent which bears its name. India’s long coastline stretches for 7517 km, half of which is made of sandy beaches. The coastal regions also receive monsoon rains from time to time.

Another prominent place in India is the Thar Desert in the western part. Depending on whom you ask it’s either the 7th or 10th largest desert in the world (but apparently not the 8th or 9th). Sand dunes and, most commonly, craggy rocks dominate the landscape.

One of the most striking and historically important features of India is the Ganges River. Flowing for more than 2500 km, the Ganges is incredibly sacred to Hindus. Civilizations have risen and fell along its banks for millennia. Though the river is still important, high pollution threatens both the people who depend on the river and the ecosystem.

The north of the country is home to mountains – including the Hindu Kush, Patkai, and the Himalayas. Though Everest and K2 are located Nepal and Pakistan respectively, the third highest mountain in the world – Kangchenjunga – is found on the Indian side of the border with Nepal.

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Tea plantations in Munnar

Did you know?

  • The Kumbh Mela Festival is the world’s largest gathering of people with 100 million attending
  • The left hand is considered unclean and is not used for eating
  • Cows are sacred to Hindus and can often be found wandering the streets freely
  • The Bengal tiger is the national animal of India, though less than 4000 remain
  • Most Bollywood movies (based in Mumbai) are musicals
  • Though cricket is the most popular, field hockey is actually the national sport of India
  • Despite its size, all of India is in one time zone
  • India produces the most tea in the world
  • India was as far as Alexander the Great got in his quest to conquer the world as he was eventually beaten back
  • Chess was invented in India
  • Next to the US, India has the most English speakers in the world, and the number is growing
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Mumbai – the largest city in the country and commercial capital

Last Word

Between a long history of diverse civilization and religious traditions alongside British rule, India has developed a rich and fascinating culture. Though problems like economic inequity remain, India’s place in the world is hugely important as we look forward to the future.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems.

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