India : Diverse Geography, Diverse Cultures
Indus Valley Civilization
India’s first major civilization flourished for 1000 years from around 2500 BC along the Indus River Valley in what is now Pakistan. The origins of Hinduism can be traced all the way back to this early civilization.
Early Invasions and the Rise of Religions
Aryan invaders swept south from central Asia between 1500 and 200 BC until they controlled the whole of northern India and in the process pushing the original inhabitants (the Dravidians) further south. Alexander the Great also reached India in his epic march from Greece during 326 BC, but his troops refused to march further than the Beas River.
Buddhism arose around 500 BC contemporaneously with Jainism. Emperor Ashoka, one of the classic figures of Indian history, converted to Buddhism in 262 BC. Throughout his kingdom he left monuments which delineate to this day the enormous span of his empire. Following his death in 232 BC the Mauryan Empire rapidly disintegrated and finally collapsed in 184 BC.
In less than a century after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, there were raids by Arabs carrying, as Mohammed had recommended, the Koran and the sword. However after 800 years of Muslim domination, only 25% of the population had converted to Islam.
Only Ashoka is as giant a figure in Indian history as the Moghul emperors. These larger than life individuals ushered in another golden age of building, arts and literature and controlled India to an extent rivalled only by Ashoka and the British. There were six great Moghuls:
- Babur 1527-1530
- Humayun 1539-1556
- Akbar 1556-1605
- Shah Jahan 1605-1627
- Aurangzeb 1658-1707
The Moghuls had a passion for building which resulted in some of the greatest in India – Shah Jahan, who secured his position as emperor by executing other male heirs, built the magnificent Taj Mahal, which ranks as one of the wonders of the world. Art and literature also flourished under the Moghuls and the magnificence of their court stunned early European visitors. During the reign of Aurangzeb the British were granted their trading post at Madras in 1639. With his death in 1707, the Moghul Empire’s fortunes rapidly declined. There were Moghul emperors’ right up to the time of the Indian Mutiny, when the British exiled the last one and executed his sons.
Expansion of British Power
The British were not the first European power to arrive in India – the Portuguese enjoyed a century of uninterrupted monopoly over Indian and Far Eastern trade with Europe. In 1510 they captured Goa, the Indian enclave they controlled right through to 1961, 14 years after the British had left. For 250 years British power was exercised in India not by the Government but by the East India Company.
The British maintained a policy of ‘princely states’, governed by maharajas and nawabs – puppet rulers. However, British interest in trade resulted in the construction of the vast railways network, still a vital part of India’s infrastructure. Britain also gave India a well-developed government and civil service structure, resulting in the well-known and fearsome love of bureaucracy which India has inherited!
In 1857 the Indian Mutiny occurred – or ‘The War of Independence’ as it is referred to in India, resulting in the end of the East India Company, and the British Government taking over the administration of India. The remainder of the century was the peak period for the British Empire on which “the sun never sets”.
The Road To Independence
With the turn of the century, opposition to British rule began to take on a new light. ‘Congress’ had been established to give India a degree of self rule, which it now demanded. In 1915, Mohandas Gandhi returned from South Africa, subsequently known as Mahatma, ‘great soul’, adopted a policy of passive resistance to British rule. He brought the independence struggle to the peasants and villagers and was jailed for his efforts on a number of occasions.
Meanwhile, India divided along purely religious lines led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, speaking for the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and the Congress Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, commanding the Hindu population. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the new viceroy made a last-ditch attempt to convince the rival factions that a united India was a more sensible proposition, but they – Jinnah in particular – remained intransigent and the reluctant decision was made to divide the country, infamously known as Partition.
Mountbatten decided to follow a break-neck pace to independence and announced that it would come on 14 August 1947. The punjab contained all the ingredients for an epic disaster and, with the announcement of the dividing line only days after Independence, the resulting bloodshed was even worse than expected. Over 100 million people had changed sides and even the most conservative estimates calculate that 250,000 people had been slaughtered. The figure may well have been over a million. An additional million people changed sides in Bengal. The final stages of Independence had one last tragedy to be played out. On 30th January 1948, Gandhi, deeply disheartened by Partition and the subsequent bloodshed, was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.
Since Independence, India has made enormous strides. India is one of the world’s top 10 industrial powers. There have only been four real prime ministers of stature – Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma), assasinated by two fundamentalist Sikh bodyguards; and her son Rajiv Gandhi, also assasinated, brought new and pragmatic policies to the country. Foreign investment and the use of modern technology were encouraged, import restrictions were eased and many new industries were set up. They projected India into the 1990’s in many ways, and out of its partially self-induced isolationism and projectionist attitude. This has been further developed by Narahimha Rao and the Congress Party.
It’s worth remembering that India can feed its own people without importing food, it can turn out hi-tech products, it has a free and highly critical press, and you can go where you like, except in sensitive border regions where permits are required.
The north of the country is decisively bordered by the long sweep of the Himalaya, the highest mountains on earth, separating India from China. The Himalaya are not a single mountain range but a series of ranges with beautiful valleys in Himachal Pradesh, the Vale of Kashmir in Jammu, and Kashmir State. Kanchenjunga (8598 metres) is the highest mountain in India.
In complete contrast to the soaring mountain peaks, the northern plain is flat and slopes so gradually that all the way from Delhi to the Bay of Bengal it drops only 200 metres. The mighty Ganges River, which has its source in the Himalaya, drains a large part of the northern plain and is the major river of India.
Basically India has a three season year – the hot, the wet and the cool. Monsoon arives in the North and in Himachal Pradesh during July and August.
Language, Population and People
English is still widely spoken over 40 years after the British left India, and it’s still the official language of the judiciary. In all there are 15 languages recognised by the constitution, and these fall into two groups; Indic or Indo-Aryan, and Dravidian. Additionally, there are over 700 minor languages and dialects. For many educated Indians, English is virtually their first language, and for a great number of Indians who speak more than one language, it will be their second language. Urdu, a combination of Persian vocabulary and Hindi grammar using Perso-Arabic script. resulted from the original Muslim ocupation. It remains the language of large parts of northern India and of Pakistan. India has the second-largest population in the world, exceeded only by that of China. In 1991 the population was estimated at 800 million. Yet, despite India’s many large cities, the country is still rural – albeit changing rapidly.
The Indian people are not a homogenous group. There are distinctive differences between eastern Bengalis, Kashmiris, Tibetan Indians and Tamils from the south. Despite these regional variations, the government has managed to successfully establish an ‘Indian’ ethos and national consciousness.
The caste system in one of India’s more confusing mysteries. Overtime the system eventually became formalised into four distinct classes, each with rules of conduct and behaviour. At the top are the Brahmins who are the priests and the arbiters of what is right and wrong in matters of religion and caste. Next come the Kshatriyas, who are soldiers and administrators. The Vaisyas are the artisan and commercial class, and finally the Sudras are the farmers and the peasant class. Today the caste system has been much weakened but it still has considerable power, particularly amongst the less educated people in rural areas.
India’s major religion, Hinduism, is practised by approximately 80% of the population. It is one of the oldest extant religions with firm roots extending back to beyond 1000BC. Basically the religion postulates that we will all go through a series of rebirths or reincarnations that eventually lead to moksha, the spiritual salvation which frees one from the cycle of rebirths. With each rebirth you can move closer to or further from eventual moksha; the deciding factor is your karma, which is literally a law of cause and effect. Bad actions during your life result in bad karma, which ends in a lower reincarnation. Conversely, if your deeds and actions have been good you will reincarnate on a higher level and be a step closer to eventual freedom from rebirth.
Although there are only about five million Buddhists in India, the religion is of great importance because it had its birth here and there are many reminders of its historic role. Strictly speaking Buddhism is not a religion, since it is not centred on a god, but a system of philosophy and a code of morality. Buddhism was founded in northern India about 500 BC when Siddhartha Gautama, born a prince, achieved enlightenment. Guatama Buddha was not the first Buddha but the fourth, and is not expected to be the last ‘enlightened one’. Buddhists believe that the achievement of enlightenment is the goal of every being so eventually we will all reach Buddhahood.
Muslims, followers of the Islamic religion, are India’s largest religious minority. They number about 75 million in all, over 10% of the country’s population. This makes India one of the largest Islamic nations in the world. India has had two Muslim presidents, several cabinet ministers and state chief ministers since Independence.
The Sikhs in India number 13 million and are predominantly located in the Punjab, although they are found all over India. The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469. It was originally intended to bring together the best of the Hindu and Islamic religions. Its basic tenets are similar to those of Hinduism with the important modification that the Sikhs are opposed to caste distinctions and pilgrimages to rivers. They are not, however, opposed to pilgrimages to holy sites.
The Jain religion is contemporaneous with Buddhism and bears many similarities to it. It was founded around 500 BC by Mahavira, and the Jains now number about 3.2 million. They also believe in reincarnation and eventual spiritual salvation, or moksha, through following the path of the Mahavira. One factor in the search for salvation is ‘ahimsa’, or reverence for all life and the avoidance of injury to all living things. Due to this belief Jains are strict vegetarians and some monks actually cover their mouths with a piece of cloth in order to avoid the risk of accidentally swallowing an insect.
This is one of the oldest religions on earth and was founded in Persia by the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster) in the 6th or 7th century BC. He was born in Mazar-i-Sharif in what is now Afghanistan. At one time Zoroastrianism stretched all the way from India to the Mediterranean but today is found only around Shiraz in Iran, Karachi in Pakistan, and Bombay in India. The followers of Zoroastrianism are known as Parsis since they originally fled to India to escape persecution in Persia. Zoroastrianism was one of the first religions to postulate an omnipotent and invisible god, called Mazda (as in the lightbulb company!)
Christianity and Judaism
India has around 16 million Christians. There have been Christian communities in Kerala as long as Christianity has been in Europe, for St Thomas the Apostle is supposed to have arrived here in 54 AD. The Portuguese, who unlike the English were as enthusiastic about spreading their brand of Christianity as making money from trade, left a large Christian community in Goa. Generally though, Christianity has not had great success in India, if success is counted in number of converts. The first round of Indian converts to Christianity were generally those from the ruling classes and after that the converts were mainly from the lower castes. There are small Jewish communities in a number of cities, but the Jews of Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala are of interest because a group claims to have arrived here in 587 BC – now in decline.
Geographical Map of India