People of India

views updated

People of India

POPULATION: About 1.32 billion (2007 est.)
LANGUAGE: Hindi (majority official language); English (co-official language); the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India, modified by several constitution amendments the most recent of which was in 2003, lists 22 official languages, namely Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, cMaithilm, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. In addition, states can have their own official languages that are not necessarily listed in the Constitution. Several states have adopted official languages that are not so listed, including Kokborok in Tripura, Mizo in Mizoram, Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia in Meghalaya, and French in Pondicherry.
RELIGION: Hinduism (80.5%); Islam (13.4%); Christianity (2.3%); Sikhism (1.9%); Buddhism (0.1.5%); Jainism (0.5%); some Jews, Parsis (Zoroastrians), and animistic tribal peoples
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Asian Indian Americans; Hindus in Guyana. Vol. 3: Ahir; Andras; Anglo-Indian; Brahmans; Chamar; Gonds; Goanese; Gujar; Jain; Jat; Khasi; Koli; Vol. 4: Lingayat; Maratha/Kunbi; Minas; Mundas; Nagas; Punjabi; Rajput; Santals; Sikh; Syrian Christians; Tamils; Todas; Veddas.


Indians are citizens of the Republic of India, the largest country in South Asia. In the past, however, the name was used for inhabitants of the entire Indian subcontinent. The word "Indian" comes from Sindhu, the local name for the Indus River (now in Pakistan). The Persians called the river Hindu, which passed to the Greeks as Indos. "India" was thus the region of the Indos, and "Indian" came to describe the peoples of the area. The words Hindu and Hinduism are also derived from this source. The ancient Indians called their land Bharat or Bharatavarsa ("Land of the sons of Bharata," a legendary emperor). Bharat is now the official Hindi name of modern India.

The peoples of India have a long and complex history that extends over 5,000 years. They are successors to the advanced urban civilization that flourished along the Indus Valley during the 3rd millennium BC. This Harappan civilization disappeared in the years following 1700 BC when nomadic tribes from Central Asia settled in northwestern India. These groups, referred to (somewhat loosely) as the Aryans, evolved religious, social, and economic structures that give Hindu civilization its distinctive character.

The subsequent history of India is one of waves of invaders sweeping through the northwestern mountains onto the Indo-Gangetic plains. The Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Kushans, and White Huns were some of the groups that left their imprint on the region. At times, powerful Indian states such as the Mauryan (321–181 BC) and Gupta (AD 319–c. 500) empires stemmed the flow of invaders. When they weakened, however, their frontiers again came under threat from the northwest. It was through these same mountains that Muslim conquerors entered India at the beginning of the 11th century AD. The earliest of these incursions were merely raids led by Mahmoud of Gazni, a Turkish leader who invaded India no less than 17 times, to pillage the wealth of the Indian plains, but under Mahmoud of Ghuri, the Muslims sought to establish themselves in India. Resisted at first by the Chauhan Rajputs who controlled the northwestern India, the Ghurids eventually defeated Prithviraj Chauhan at the 2nd Battle of Tarain in 1192 and captured Delhi. For almost eight centuries from this date, Muslims ruled in north India, with their capital in Delhi. Invasions of various peoples continued through the northwest passes until 1526, when Babur captured Delhi from the Lodis and founded the Mughal dynasty. Although they were based in Delhi, the Mughals made Agra their capital from 1526 to 1685 with nearby Fatehpur Sikri, later abandoned largely because of lack of water, being Akbar's capital from 1571 to 1585. Mughals reigned in northern India until the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, was deposed in 1857 by the British and sent into exile in Burma (Myanmar). Under the Mughals, and particularly Akbar (reigned 1556–1605), Islam made important contributions to South Asian civilization. The Taj Mahal in Agra, perhaps the finest architectural achievement of the Muslims in India and named a World Heritage Site in 1982, was completed by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1648. India achieved an imperial greatness under Mughal rule virtually unmatched in the country's history.

The Europeans reached South Asia by sea in 1498 when the Portuguese landed at Calicut on the southwest coast of India. Their prime motivation was trade, and within the next two centuries the maritime nations of Europe (Portugal, Holland, Britain, and France) had established trading posts or "factories" on India's coasts. By the middle of the 18th century, the British East India Company had gained the upper hand over the French in India, but French (Pondicherry) and Portuguese (Goa, Daman & Diu) colonies survived on the subcontinent until the mid-20th century. Britain ultimately gained control of the entire region, either by directly administering Indian territory or by being recognized by independent native rulers as the paramount power in the region.

The political map of the Indian subcontinent, and many of its problems, originates in the country's colonial past. The inability of the British, Hindu, and Muslim leaders to reach agreement on the nature of the successor state to the British Indian Empire resulted in the partition of the subcontinent into the separate nations of India and Pakistan in 1947. A direct consequence of this has been several wars between the two countries and the ongoing problem of Kashmir. The princely states of India, of which there were several hundred in 1947, were to decide at Partition to which country they would accede. Most Hindu states joined India and Muslim states joined Pakistan. But, while the population of Kashmir was primarily Muslim, its ruler was a Hindu Rajput. The Maharaja of Kashmir, one of the largest and most powerful of the Indian princely states, wished to remain independent and delayed signing the instrument of accession as long as possible. In October 1947, however, the newly constituted nation of Pakistan sent irregular Pathan tribesmen into Kashmiri territory, at which the Maharaja appealed to Lord Louis Mountbatten for help. The Governor-General of India agreed to provide help if Kashmir acceded to India, which the Maharaja did. Once the papers of accession to India were signed, Indian soldiers entered Kashmir with the order just to stop any further occupation by Pakistan but they were not allowed to drive out the invaders (by now the regular Pakistan army was involved) from the state. India took the matter to the United Nations. A UN resolution asked Pakistan to vacate the areas it had occupied and requested India to assist the UN Plebiscite Commission to organize a plebiscite (vote of the people) to determine the will of the people. Pakistan has refused to vacate the occupied areas and India has never held a plebiscite (understandably, since the majority of the Kashmiri population is Muslim). The Line of Control (LoC) divides the areas of Kashmir occupied by the two countries, with India controlling most of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan controlling some 30% of western areas of the region, in addition to what is known as the Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir). For intermittent periods between 1957, when the state approved its own Constitution, to the death of Sheikh Abdullah (Chief Minister of the State of Jammu and Kashmir) in 1982, the state had alternating spells of stability and discontent. In the late 1980s however, simmering discontent over the high-handed policies of the Indian government and allegations of the rigging of the 1987 assembly elections triggered a violent uprising that was backed by Pakistan. Since then, the region has seen a prolonged, bloody conflict between Islamist militants and the Indian army. Both the militants and the army have been accused of widespread human rights abuse, including abductions, massacres, rape, and looting. In 1999 Pakistani troops and Kashmiri militants infiltrated across the Line of Control in Kargil, resulting in conflict between India and Pakistan. U.S. diplomacy, and perhaps the threat of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, kept the conflict from expanding beyond Kargil.

A similar situation developed in central India in 1947. Hyderabad was an important Muslim state in central India and its ruler, the Nizam, wanted to either remain independent or to join Pakistan, neither of which the new Indian government could allow. In 1948, India sent its military into Hyderabad and integrated the state into the Republic of India.

Regular Indian and Pakistani troops fought wars in 1947–48, 1965, 1971 (when Bangladesh was created from East Pakistan) and the Kargil conflict in 1999.


The modern Republic of India occupies the greater part of the Indian subcontinent. Its area (3,166,414 sq km or 1,222,559 sq mi) is just over one-third the size of the United States. India's population of 1.32 billion people (2007 estimate) is the second largest in the world, behind China. The population of India is expected to exceed that of China by the year 2030.

India stretches from close to the equator to subtropical latitudes. Cape Comorin, the Indian peninsula's southern tip, lies at 8° N latitude. From there, the country extends northwards for 3,000 km (1,900 mi) to its border with China in the Himalayas and Karakoram Mountains. Pakistan lies to the west, with the international border running from the Arabian Sea through the Thar (Great Indian) Desert to the northern mountains. Some 2,900 km (1,800 mi) to the east, India shares borders with China and Myanmar (Burma). India also controls Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar islands, island groups lying in the Indian Ocean.

India falls into three broad geographical zones. In the north lie the majestic mountain ranges of the Himalayas. They run northwest to southeast for more than 2,400 km (1,500 mi) and contain many of the highest peaks in the world. Mt. Everest (on the Nepal-China border) is the world's highest mountain at 8,848 m (29,028 ft). The Himalayas are a transitional zone where the cultures of India and Central Asia meet. South of the mountains lie the Indo-Gangetic plains. With elevations mostly below 300 m (1,000 ft), these lands run in a broad arc from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, along the valleys of the Indus and Ganges rivers. Except for the Thar Desert in the northwest, the plains are well watered and support the bulk of India's agriculture and population. The plains continue southwards along the coastal lowlands of the Indian peninsula and also eastwards along the valley of the Brahmaputra River. The third geographical region is formed by the Deccan Plateau, the uplands bordered by the Eastern and Western Ghats (mountains) that make up the interior of the Indian peninsula.

Every aspect of life in India is dominated by the seasonal rhythm of the monsoon. The winter sees bright, pleasant weather in most of the region. Mean monthly temperatures in northern areas drop below 21°c (70°F). Beginning in late February, temperatures rise steadily until May and June, when daily maximums in the northwestern plains exceed 46°c (115°F). The hot season ends with the onset of the rains. The monsoon reaches southwest India in late June and sweeps northwards, bringing torrential rains to much of the country. Cherrapunji, in the northeast, is on record as the wettest place on earth, averaging nearly 1,150 cm (450 in) of rain annually. For three months, water is plentiful and the land is green with crops and vegetation. As September comes to a close, the rains die out and temperatures begin to drop with the approach of the cold season.

India's diverse environments are matched by the ethnic and cultural diversity of its peoples. All of the major physical types of the human race are present in the country's population. The Negritos, Negroids of small stature, are represented by the Andaman Islanders. The Proto-Australoid strain is seen in the tribal populations of southern and central India (e.g., the Mundas, the Oraons, and the Santals). The tribal peoples of the mountain belt show distinct Mongoloid features, as seen among the Bhutias of the Himalayas or the Nagas of the northeastern hills. By far the largest element in the population, however, is the Caucasoid group. The earliest Caucasoids to reach the subcontinent were moderate in stature and relatively dark complexioned. They are associated with the Dravidian languages and Dravidian culture of South India. The tall, fair, pastoralists who entered the subcontinent during the 2nd millennium BC and brought the Aryan languages with them are later Caucasoid elements in the population. They settled in northern India and are responsible for the Aryan culture of the north. Considerable mixing of peoples has occurred throughout the centuries and few "pure" racial types are found among the Indian population today.

India's ethnic diversity is accompanied by a complexity of culture that is unmatched anywhere in the world. India is less a country than a collection of countries, in the sense that there are many groups whose commitment to a regional cultural tradition is as great as, if not greater than, their identification with the nation. Thus one is a Bengali, a Tamil, a Punjabi, or a Gujarati. One speaks Bengali, Tamil, Punjabi, or Gujarati and shares in the literary, cultural, and historical traditions of the region. Each region has its own particular mix of religion, religious sects, castes, and economic and social relations that extends back over centuries.

Sizable Indian communities are found today in Nepal, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and the Middle Eastern countries. Further afield, Indians have emigrated to South Africa, Fiji, the West Indies, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.


Linguistic complexity is a distinguishing characteristic of Indian society. According to a Hindi proverb, "Every two miles the water doth change, and every four the dialect." The 2001 Census counted several hundred "mother-tongues." Even though this figure may include variants of the same dialect, or tongues spoken by only a small number of people, it does give some sense of the linguistic diversity of the region. Some 29 languages in India are each spoken by more than a million people.

Indian languages belong to four major linguistic families (i.e., groups of related languages that have 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 Indians speak tongues belonging to the Aryan branch of the Indo-European family (e.g., Hindi and Bengali) or the Dravidian linguistic family (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam). The Aryan languages are found in northern India, while the Dravidian tongues are spoken in the South. Strictly speaking, "Aryan" and "Dravidian" are linguistic terms, though they are sometimes loosely used in the context of peoples or culture.

Hindi is the national language and primary tongue of 41.03% of the population. English has associate official language status and is widely used for national, political, and business purposes. In addition, India has 21 other official languages: Assamese, spoken by 1.28% of the population, Bengali (8.11%), Bodo (0.013%), Dogri (0.22%), Gujarati (4.48%), Kannada (3.69%), Kashmiri (0.24%), Konkani (0.24%), Maithili (1.18%), Malayalam (3.21%), Manipuri (0.14%), Marathi (6.99%), Nepali (0.28%), Oriya (3.21%), Punjabi (2.83), Sanskrit (0%), Santhali (0.63%), Sindhi (0.25%), Tamil (5.91%), Telugu (7.19%), and Urdu (5.01). Sanskrit is listed in the 2001 Census as the mother tongue of only 14,000 people, but it is widely studied as the classical language of North India. Tamil has recently been classified as a classical language. Urdu, while written in the Arabic script, when spoken sounds the same as Hindustani, a bazaar dialect of standard Hindi-Urdu developed in northern India.

Hindi is written in the Deva Nagari script that is the same as that used for Sanskrit. Many other languages, e,g, Gujarati and Punjabi, have their own scripts and alphabets, some derived from Deva Nagari (mainly in north India) and others, such as Tamil and Kannada, using the cursive scripts more common in the south.


The myths and folk heroes of the Indian peoples tend to be associated with specific religions or regional cultural traditions. Thus Hindus have the elaborate mythology and folklore associated with their deities and epic literature. Muslims revere their Sufimystics, and the Sikhs have their martyred Gurus. Tribal groups have their own myths and legends. Many folk heroes are identified with specific regional folk traditions. A few historical figures such as Shivaji, the 17th-century Maratha leader who challenged Mughal power and carved out the last important Hindu empire in India, have achieved the status of heroes among Indian nationalists.

The freedom fighters involved in the struggle against British imperialism in India are viewed by many Indians as national heroes. Subhas Chandra Bose led the Indian National Army (INA), made up of Indian soldiers captured by the Japanese, against the British during World War II. Others, many of whom were jailed by the British, were supporters of Gandhi's civil disobedience movement. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as Mahatma ("Great Soul"), is surely one of the most influential world figures of the 20th century. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, and his daughter Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) are also among the most important Indian national leaders in the post-Independence era.


Few regions in the world show the religious diversity of India. Some 80.5% of Indians are Hindus, and certain Hindu values such as cow-protection are addressed in the Indian Constitution (Article 48). India, however, is a secular nation. Despite a rising tide of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) that would like to see Hinduism become the state religion, the country prides itself on the freedom of religion guaranteed by its constitution. Religious minorities include Muslims (13.4%), Christians (2.3%), Sikhs (1.9%), Buddhists (1.5%), and Jains (0.5%). Among the remaining religious groups are Jews, Parsis (Zoroastrians), and animistic tribal peoples.


India officially celebrates the holidays of all the major religious communities present in the country. Thus Hindu festivals observed as holidays include Shivratri (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 Id festivals (Id-ul-Fitr and Bakr-Id) 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.

Two national holidays mark the recent emergence of India as an independent nation. Independence Day on 15 August, commemorates the day in 1947 that India achieved its freedom from colonial rule. Republic Day, held on 26 January, marks the inauguration of India as a Republic in 1950. Although the holiday is celebrated throughout the country, the most spectacular festivities occur in New Delhi, with an impressive military parade and cultural performances.

The birthday of India's greatest leader of modern times, Mahatma Gandhi, is observed as a national holiday. Born on 2 October, 1869, Gandhi became a leading figure in India's independence movement and saw his ambitions realized before his assassination by a Hindu extremist in 1948. People gather at the Samadhi (cremation site) of Gandhi in Delhi to offer wreaths of flowers, pay homage to his memory, and offer prayers in his name.


Rites of passage for Indians are determined in broad outline by religion and in detail by caste, community, and region. As a predominantly Hindu population, most Indians are subject to customs and rites prescribed by the Hindu religion. For example, all Hindu groups have some form of naming and head-shaving ceremonies. Hindu males belonging to the higher castes undergo the important "Sacred Thread Ceremony" initiating them as a full member of their community. For Muslims, the circumcision of male children is the symbol of commitment to their religion, while for Christians it is baptism. Sikhs and Parsis have their own initiation ceremonies, and even tribal groups mark the passage from childhood to adulthood with certain rituals. Marriage customs conform to the norms of each community, as do methods for disposal of the dead. Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists cremate their dead, whereas Muslims and Christians inter their dead in cemeteries. Parsis and some Buddhist groups in the Himalayas expose their corpses to vultures. Tribal funeral customs include both cremation and burial.


Methods of greeting among Indians vary according to religion, social status, and the particular context of the meeting. A common greeting among Hindus is the "Namaste." This means "Greetings to you" and 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." This form of greeting has the advantage that the persons meeting do not touch each other, which is important for Hindus. In the caste system, the mere touch of someone of a lower caste can cause one to become ritually polluted and require purification ceremonies to be undertaken. The Namaste allows one to greet a person without necessarily knowing his or her caste. It also allows one to greet a woman without touching her hand, which is considered impolite under certain circumstances. Nowadays, of course, shaking hands in the Western manner is becoming increasingly acceptable.

Another form of greeting is common between persons of unequal social standing. Children may greet their parents by bowing down and touching their feet. Pupils greet teachers in the same manner, and so do people meeting important religious figures. The person being greeted usually interrupts the gesture before it is complete, implying that he or she is not worthy of such homage.

"Salaam" or "Salaam alaikum" (Peace be with you) is the typical greeting among Muslims, while the Sikh form of salutation is "Sat Sri Akal" (God is Truth).


The general health of the Indian population has improved dramatically over the last half-century. Medical advances, immunization, and public health programs have raised the average life expectancy of the Indian to 64 years. However, this still lags behind the United States, where people can expect to live to 78 years of age. Leading causes of death in India include diseases of the circulatory system, infectious and parasitic diseases, respiratory diseases, and childhood diseases (measles, diphtheria, whooping cough). Some 125,000 cases of full-blown AIDS were reported from India in 2006, though this number is probably much higher, many cases being misdiagnosed or not reported at all. Inadequate sewage disposal, contaminated drinking water, and poor nutrition contribute to the health problems. Infant mortality rates are high, numbering 58 deaths per 1,000 live births (compared to 6.5 for the United States). The total fertility rate (i.e., the average births per woman of childbearing age in the population) is 2.9. The rate of natural increase of population is 1.6% per year. The last two demographic indices have been declining in recent years, an encouraging sign that the rate of India's population growth is slowing. However, the country's large base population means that the number of new mouths to feed increases by roughly the number of residents of New York State (approximately 18 million people) every year.

Although nearly three-fourths (72.2%) of Indians live in rural areas, India contains some of the largest cities in the world. Greater Bombay [Mumbai] (over 18 million people), Delhi (over 15 million) and Calcutta [Kolkata] (c. 14.5 million) rank among the top 20 urban centers of the world. Yet India is essentially a country of villages. Rural house types, settlement patterns, construction materials, furnishings, and creature comforts vary greatly according to region and economic status.

Indian standards of living range from the most luxurious to the poorest in the world. Although the world of the ruling Mahārājās, with their lavish lifestyles, palaces, servants, and tiger hunts, is a thing of the past, the wealthy in India still live very comfortable lives. A growing middle class is sharing in this prosperity, with access to cars, televisions, VCRs, refrigerators, and other modern conveniences. By contrast, Indians are living and dying in the streets and slums of cities such as Bombay and Calcutta (where the late Mother Teresa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was known for her work with the poor). Estimates of the percentage of the population living in poverty range from 25% to 40%, although this figure is dropping. Per capita income stands at US$3,800 per year (2007). Ever since Rajiv Gandhi, with current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister, abandoned Nehru's socialist economic policies and "liberalized" India's economy in 1991, India's economy has being growing at a remarkable rate, averaging 8.5% from 2004–08. Economists have estimated 300 million Indians now belong to the middle class, one-third of them having emerged from poverty in the last 10 years, and if such growth rate can be sustained, the numbers of Indians living in poverty will decrease dramatically. At the current rate of growth, a majority of Indians will be middle-class by 2025. Nonetheless, poverty is still an issue for many Indians, especially in rural areas: a 2007 government report found that 25% of Indians lived on less than 20 rupees per day (c. $0.50) with most working in "the informal labor sector with no job or social security."

India has 3,383,344 km (2,114,600 mi) of road, 54%% of it paved. Construction of the "Golden Quadrilateral," when complete, will link India's four major cities, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay with high-speed, divided highways. Roads around Delhi are being improved for the Commonwealth Games, which are being held in that city in 2010. State-run and private bus services provide access to most parts of the country. The railway system, inherited from the British and further developed in the last 60 years, is a common means of long-distance travel today and, along with trucks, a major means of moving goods across the country. India's rail network is one of the densest outside of Europe. Since liberalization, a number of private airlines such as Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines are providing competition for the state-owned airlines, Air India and Indian Airlines. The government of India is undertaking a program of modernization of its major airports in conjunction with private companies.


Despite recent modernizing influences, the traditional joint family remains the norm among Indians. However, distinct differences in family structure and kinship patterns exist between northern and southern India. In the north, the family is patriarchal. A household consists of two or three generations of males and their dependents. In southern India, the joint family is 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. The children of one's mother's sisters and the offspring of one's own sisters live in the household. The husbands of the women in the family live in the houses of their mothers, visiting their wives and children on occasion.

The first criterion in the selection of a marriage partner is caste. Although caste is Hindu in origin, virtually all South Asian groups (including Muslims and Christians) show its influence. Castes are endogamous groups, and as a rule one must marry within one's caste. After this, however, differences again appear between northern and southern Indians. In the north, marriage partners are usually unrelated and there are specific rules determining how close a blood-relationship is permitted. In southern India, however, cross-cousin marriage is the norm. The preferred match for a man is his maternal cross-cousin—his mother's brother's daughter. Virtually all Indian marriages are arranged and, although child marriage is prohibited by the Indian government, marriage at a young age is not uncommon. Marriages are performed according to the customs of one's community and invariably include payment of a dowry or bride-price. Marriage is essential for a woman, and any girl who is not married by a reasonable age is thought to have something wrong with her. A woman's role in Indian society is incomplete until she bears children, preferably sons. Traditionally, women have occupied an inferior social position in Indian society, although this is slowly changing as the country modernizes.


The common dress for Indian men is the dhotī. This is a long piece of white cotton wrapped around the waist for half its length and then drawn between the legs and tucked into the waist at the back. 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. The style of the turban often identifies the wearer as a member of a particular community (e.g., Pathan or Sikh) or as being from a particular region or village. The kurtā, a long tunic-like shirt, and the pyjāmā, loose baggy trousers, are also commonly worn, especially in urban areas. People wear leather sandals, a variety of locally made shoes, or even go barefoot. Because leather is considered unclean, shoes are always taken off before entering a temple. It is also polite to take off one's shoes before entering an Indian home.

Women typically wear the sārī, a length of cotton or silk cloth (nowadays synthetic fabrics are also used) wrapped around the waist, with one end left free and thrown over the right shoulder. The cholī, a tight bodice that leaves the midriff bare, is worn under the sārī Regional variations exist in their manner of wearing the sārī. In Maharashtra, for example, rural women draw one end of the sārī through the legs and tuck it into the waist at the small of the back. In some rural areas, women do not wear the bodice, using just the end of the sārī to cover their upper body.

Regional variations in dress occur throughout India, reflecting differences in caste, community, and locality. In urban areas, however, Western-style clothing has become the norm, especially for males. Although women in cities, especially the younger generation, wear Western fashions, the sārī is still the preferred form of dress for most females.


A typical Indian meal consists of around five or six dishes, served all at once on a thālī. This is a round metal tray or plate with a rim on it, on which are placed several little bowls (katorīs) to hold each individual dish. In some areas, food is served on banana leaves. No utensils are used. Food is eaten with the right hand, the left hand being used for personal hygiene and considered unclean.

Westerners tend to think of Indian food as "curry and rice," but this does not do justice to the rich and varied cuisine of India. The term "curry" was used by Europeans to describe the spicy dishes they found in India, but curries do not necessarily have to be hot. The "heat" in Indian food comes from chilies, which were introduced into Asia by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Other spices commonly used include cumin, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom, and cloves. Curries can be made of meat, eggs, poultry, or vegetables and are eaten with lentils (dāl) and an assortment of pickles and chutneys. In northern and western areas, meals are taken with flat breads (rotī). These breads are replaced by rice (chāwal) in the wetter east and south. Yogurt (dahī) may be taken with the meal, which often ends with a variety of sweets (mithāī). Milk and milk products are an important part of the Indian diet. Pān or betel nut served with lime and wrapped in a betel leaf is commonly taken after a meal.

Regional cuisines are as diverse as the peoples and cultures of India. Mughal-style cooking is found in the north, while dosās (thin pancakes of rice-flour) and idlīs (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 the influence of its Portuguese past. Among Indians, food is as much a part of regional culture as dress and language.

As well as being a means of sustenance, food in India acquires ritual, religious, and even social dimensions. The Hindu view of the sanctity of the cow leads to an avoidance of beef, and many Hindus are totally vegetarian. Those Hindus who do eat meat are regarded as socially inferior, and low-caste groups try to raise their social status by abandoning meat-eating. Muslims, though meat-eaters, do not eat pork. Tribal groups avoid the flesh of animals that are their clan totems.


The literacy rate among Indians seven years of age and over is 65.38% (2005). However, this figure masks considerable variations between males and females, urban and rural populations, and among different social groups. Primary education is free and, in most Indian states, compulsory. The poor quality of state-run secondary schools has led to an expansion of private (often English-language) schools that serve as feeders to institutions of higher education. There are numerous colleges and universities in India, some with excellent reputations. Many of the graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology (ITTs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) are viewed as better trained than their contemporaries in the West and are highly sought after overseas.


Indians are heirs to one of the oldest continuous cultural traditions in the world. South Asian civilization has its roots in the complex urban society that flourished along the Indus Valley some 5,000 years ago. Harappan traits such as worship of mother-goddesses or trees survive in modern India, especially in the Dravidian cultures of South India. However, much of India's cultural heritage is linked in some way to the later religions of India. It is to these, and especially to Hinduism, that one must turn to see the full flowering of the Indian artistic genius.

Hindu literature written in Sanskrit includes sacred texts such as the Vedas: the two great epics known as the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana: political treatises such as the Laws of Manu: and the works of the greatest Sanskrit playwright and poet, Kalidasa. Music and dancing are the subjects of a 3rd century AD work called Nātya Śāstra, which is the ancient authority for these art forms. Today, the main form of classical dance in India is Bharata Natyam, while Kathakali is a less formal dance from southern India. The Raga forms the basis of classical Indian music.

Indian architecture and sculpture are monuments to Hinduism and the other religious traditions of India. North Indian temples replicate the peaks of the Himalayas in their soaring towers. South Indian temples on the other hand, are pyramidal in shape and covered with elaborately carved figures from Hindu mythology. Famous examples of Hindu temples are the temple complex at Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu), the Khajuraho temples (Madhya Pradesh) with their erotic carvings, and the Sun Temple at Konarak (Orissa). Buddhists have their own religious monuments, with the cave paintings at Ajanta being among the most impressive. The temple city of Palitana in Gujarat and the white marble temples at Dilwara (Mt. Abu) in Rajasthan are examples of Jain temple-building in India. Although Islam's contributions are seen more in miniature painting than in architecture, the distinctive blend of styles known as Indo-Islamic or Indo-Saracenic architecture can be seen throughout northern India. The Taj Mahal, built as a mausoleum by the emperor Shah Jehan for his wife, stands as the greatest architectural achievement of Islam in India.

Not all of India's artistic accomplishments lie in the distant past. Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), a Bengali whose work was highly regarded in Western literary circles in the early decades of the 20th century, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913.


Some 61% of India's labor force is engaged in agriculture, with many farmers being subsistence cultivators. Despite this, India inherited most of the subcontinent's industrial resources and ranks among the leaders of the world's developing countries in industrial output. India's industries range from nuclear power production and nuclear research to manufacturing garments for export. Economic growth in the first 40 years after independence was slow, hampered by restrictive government economic policies and an unwieldy bureaucracy. Liberalization of the economy since 1991 under Manmohan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi's Finance Minister at the time, has seen faster growth, greater foreign investment, and expanding trade, although the direction and pace of economic change remains a matter of internal debate. The current rate of economic growth is 8.5% during the year ending March 2008, and at this rate a serious dent is being made in poverty in India. Economists estimate that, if this rate of growth can be sustained, poverty will be all but eliminated by the year 2025.

India's economy is diverse, encompassing agriculture, handicrafts, textile, manufacturing, and a multitude of services. Although nearly two-thirds of the Indian workforce still earn their livelihood directly or indirectly through agriculture, services are a growing sector and play an increasingly important role of India's economy. The advent of the digital age, and the large number of young and educated populace fluent in English, is gradually transforming India into an important "back office" destination for global outsourcing of customer services and technical support. There are many call centers in India, in locations such as Bangalore (Bengaluru) and Noidu (near Delhi). Indian "techies" from the West are returning to tech centers such as Bangalore where, despite lower wages, they can live a life-style unattainable in the West.

But India still remains a major exporter of highly-skilled workers in software and financial services, and software engineering. Other sectors like manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, nanotechnology, telecommunication, shipbuilding, aviation, tourism, and retailing are showing strong potentials with high growth rates.


Chess is thought to have originated in India, and dice and card-playing are of considerable antiquity. Traditional sports include pastimes such as cock-fighting, camel-racing, and wrestling. Hunting (shikār) was a favorite sport among the upper classes. Kabaddī, team wrestling, is very popular. Children's games include kite-flying, spinning tops, yo-yos, and hobby-horses. Indians have enthusiastically adopted modern sports, with cricket and field hockey being the most popular. India participates in cricket at the international level, and although its field hockey team has recently fallen on hard times, for years it was a power in international competitions. Games such as soccer, tennis, badminton, squash, table tennis, and-golf are also widely played.


Until recently, all radio and television in India was controlled by the government. Programming was limited largely to Indian productions and often described as "drab and unimaginative." One smash hit, however, was the serialization of the epic Maharabharata on television. The whole country stopped to watch the program. There are reports that trains would interrupt their schedules to stop at a station so that passengers and crew could watch the latest episode. The advent of satellite TV and availability of VCRs and videotapes have led to a change in viewing habits. Soap operas, sports events, and movies are the most popular television programs today.

India has the world's largest film industry. Regional language films are produced in centers such as Calcutta and Madras, but the center of the industry is Bombay. "Bollywood," as it is known, produces Hindi films that fill movie theaters in cities all across India. The films tend to be melodramas, with much action, singing, dancing, and predictable plots. Film music is immensely popular. Film actors and actresses are pop idols and trend-setters, and their lives are followed with much interest. Few Indian filmmakers have achieved recognition outside of India, except for the late Satyajit Ray, who gained an international reputation.

India has a thriving, and relatively free, press, with newspapers and magazines published in Hindi and English as well as regional languages.


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


Many of India's social problems are related to population. Despite efforts at population control, India will be the world's most populous nation sometime early in the 21st century. Existing problems such as poverty, high unemployment, illiteracy, and malnutrition can be expected to worsen, especially as over a third of the population (35.2%) is still under 15 years of age. Failure of the monsoon rains can cause famine and hardship for millions of people. An as yet unacknowledged problem is that of AIDS in India. Conservative estimates predict 1 million AIDS cases and 10 million people infected with HIV in India by the year 2000. The potential scope of the epidemic and its cost in resources and human suffering is staggering.

Another set of problems originates in the diversity of Indian society. Communal and sectarian unrest is common and ongoing. Groups in Assam, Kashmir, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and other areas have been involved in armed conflict with the Union government, with demands varying from a greater degree of regional autonomy to outright secession from the Republic. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism on the political scene is seen by Muslims as a threat to India's commitment to secularism. It has resulted in violence between Hindus and Muslims and contains the seeds of further conflict. There is also conflict based on class distinctions. At independence, the Indian Constitution created three categories of disadvantaged groups that needed special representation and assistance. These were the Scheduled Tribes, the Scheduled Castes (mostly "untouchables"), and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), underprivileged groups that did not fit into the first two categories. Attempts in 1990 to implement the recommendation of the Mandal Commission that 27% of central government jobs be set aside for the OBCs led to widespread unrest among caste Hindus. This "reservations policy" is as controversial in India as affirmative action policies are now in the United States. Demonstrations continue to occur both for and against, such policies. For example, in May 2008, an agitation, called by All India Gujjar Mahasabha, in support of the community's demand for Scheduled Tribe status in Rajasthan, resulted in violence, some deaths and disruption of traffic in Jaipur, Rajasthan State's capital, in the nation's capital, New Delhi, and in neighboring areas of northwestern India that have a strong Guar presence.

The BJP formed the national government from 1998 to 2004, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister, when it shockingly lost a general election, some say by abandoning the principles of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism. The central government in 2008, with Manmohan Singh as prime minister, is formed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a coalition of 12 political parties, led by the Indian Congress, but which only retains power with the support of the Left Front (which is not a part of the coalition), a group of Indian Communist parties. This has caused problems. For three decades, India has been under a nuclear trade embargo by the United States, primarily because it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States has tended to favor General Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan as a result of their help in the War on Terror. In early 2006, however, President George W. Bush visited India and negotiated a treaty, highly favorable to India, which would allow for U.S. nuclear trade with India and co-operation in the areas of domestic nuclear development. However this treaty has to be ratified by the Indian Parliament, and the Left Front has threatened to withdraw its support from the government if the UPA were to bring the treaty to a vote. So, it seems that the treaty will die a natural death when Bush leaves office at the end of 2008.

Despite the problems of a weak central government and current charges of corruption in high places, Indians can approach the future with confidence. The country has survived the early decades of nationhood intact and, above all, with a continued commitment to the principles of democratic government. India is still a parliamentary democracy (the largest in the world), it has brought its birth rate under control, there is rapidly expanding middle class, its economy is flourishing, and, largely because of this, poverty is being rapidly eliminated.


Gender issues among the peoples of India arise largely from the nature of the societies found in the South Asian subcontinent. Buddhists and Christians espouse equality between men and women but, unfortunately, many adherents of these religions are of low caste converted from Hinduism and are treated very much as if they still belong to Hindu society. Even tribal societies, in which women have much greater equality and freedom than their counterparts in Hindu and Muslim societies, have been influenced by the societies amongst which they live.

Shariah (Islamic law), under which Muslims in India live, provides for differences between women's and men's roles, rights, and obligations. Muslim-majority countries give women varying degrees of rights with regards to marriage, divorce, civil rights, legal status, dress code, and education, but as a secular state, the Republic of India promotes the equality of men and women. The Constitution of India promotes equal rights and opportunities for men and women in the political, economic and social sphere, prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex, religion, caste, or gender, empowers the State to take affirmative measures for women and provides for equality of opportunities in the matter of public appointments.

Despite this legal protection, women are generally powerless in the face of prevailing patriarchal traditions. Women lack power to decide who they will marry and are often married off as children. Legal loopholes are used to deny women inheritance rights. Women receive less health care than males. Many women die in childbirth of easily prevented complications. Working conditions and environmental pollution further impairs women's health. In recent years, there has been an alarming rise in atrocities against women in India, in terms of rapes, assaults, and dowry-related murders. Fear of violence suppresses the aspirations of all women. Female infanticide and sex-selective abortions are additional forms of violence that reflect the devaluing of females in Indian society. Families are far less likely to educate girls than boys, and far more likely to pull them out of school, mainly to help out at home or in the fields. Women work longer hours and their work, usually as unskilled labor in agriculture, is more arduous than men's, yet their work is unrecognized. And, in 2006, a UN survey reported malnutrition among children in India is increasingly becoming a problem because tradition requires that women eat last, even when pregnant and lactating. Malnourished women give birth to malnourished children, thus perpetuating the cycle.

India has a long history of activism for women's welfare and rights, which has increasingly focused on women's economic rights. A range of government programs have been launched to increase economic opportunity for women. For instance, the National Commission for Women was set up as a statutory body in January 1992 under the National Commission for Women Act of 1990 to review the constitutional and legal safeguards for women, to recommend remedial legislative measures, to facilitate the redressing of grievances and to advise the government on all policy matters affecting women. However, there appear to be no existing programs to address the cultural and traditional discrimination against women in India.


Basham, A. L., ed. A Cultural History of India. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Craven, Roy. C. A Concise History of Indian Art. New York: Praeger, 1976.

Möller, Ulrika. The Prospects of Security Co-operation: A Matter of Relative Gains or Recognition? India and Nuclear Weapons Control. Göteborg: Department of Political Science, Göteborg University, 2007.

Palit, Chittabrata and Mahua Sarkar, ed. Indian Vistas of Environment. Delhi: Kalpaz Publications, 2007.

Robinson, Francis, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Schwartzberg, Joseph E., ed. A Historical Atlas of South Asia. 2nd impression. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Spate, O. H. K., and A. T. A. Learmonth. India and Pakistan: A General and Regional Geography. 3rd rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1967.

Verma. S. B. Status of Women in Modern India. New Delhi: Deep & Deep, 2005.

Wolpert, Stanley. India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991

—by D. O. Lodrick.

About this article

People of India

Updated About content Print Article