India's cultural heritage dates back to 5000 years. Very few countries in the world has a social and religious structure which withstood invasions and persecution and yet kept its identity by being resilient enough to absorb, ignore or reject all attempts to radically change or destroy them. Indian culture is unique because of its diversity and variety in physical, religious, racial, linguistic and artistic fields.
In India religion is a way of life being an integral part of Indian tradition. Many dances, theatrics and folklore are religious and based on Indian mythology and folk legends. One has to have background knowledge of Indian mythology to enjoy and appreciate the Indian Arts.
Painting flourished as an art form, from the pre-historic age. The Neolithic man's drawings on the walls of his cave dwellings represent the oldest examples of Indian painting. Paintings on pots discovered from the Harappan Civilization (3000 BC), the cave paintings of Ajantha and Ellora using earth and vegetable dyes (I-V Century AD), wall paintings in the temple of Tanjavoor(I Century AD) and the Kalankari art forms in the Vidharba temple present the refinement in techniques and process.
Indian art is an art of social, political and religious influences which changed with evolving civilizations in all areas of artistic expressions. It is one of the oldest and resilient cultures on earth. It had integrated indigenous and outside influences but kept a unique identity of its own. Like any other art form, painting is also revolving around gods, legends, folklore and nature.
Indian tradition of theatre is rich and evolved with the ancient rituals and seasons of the country. It is believed that Lord Brahma created Natyaveda, the fifth Veda on Natya (action) as a mode of recreation for all class of the society by incorporating words from Rig Veda, music from Sama Veda, action from Yajur Veda and emotion from Adharva Veda. Sage Bharata who perfected the dramatic art and wrote Natya Shastra, a great comprehensive work on the science and technique of Indian drama, dance and music enacted the first drama to the audience of 'Devas'. Through the medium of drama, common man was presented with the Ithihasas, Puranas, and Mythology.
Dance has played an important role in the birth of theatre. According to Natya Shastra, dancing and dramatic representation has an intimate relationship. Drama gradually moved from deficting mythological themes to social issues of today. Cinema and serials on the mini screen are nothing but offshoots of this age old culture.
Indian dancing is a way of communication using the body as a medium. The expressions of dances are perhaps most developed, yet easily understood. Indian dance is a blend of Nirtta (the rythemic movement of the body without any expression of emotion), Nirtya (the combination of rhythm with expression through eyes, hands and facial movements) and Natya (the dramatic element). Dance is performed with Abhinaya(expression), rasa (emotion) and mudras(hand formations). All Dances are structured around 'nava rasas'(the common emotions of happiness, anger, disgust, fear, sorrow, courage, compassion, wonder and serenity) with limited adaptation to local requirements. Most Indian dances take their themes from indian mythology and folk legends.
There are a number of classical dance forms such as 'Bharatnatyam', 'Kathak', 'Kathakali', 'Kuchipudi', 'Manipuri', 'Mohiniyattam' and 'Odissi' each representing the culture of a particular region of the country.
Apart from classical dances, India is also rich in folk idioms. Chauu dance of Bihar, Garba of Gujarat, Bangra of Punjab and Banjara of Andra Pradesh are a few of them.
No ancient civilization can boast of literature without folklore. It was essentially oral in nature and there is no form or technique that can either create or render folklore. This art form was passed on orally by elders to the younger generations. Folk songs are simple in terms of verses and music unlike the classical music which follows ragas, talas and shrutis.
There are many kinds of folklore depending on its content such as festival songs, work songs, marriage songs etc. Festival and religious songs are usually accompamied by a suitable dance form.
As in dance, the nine emotions are basic to the Indian music. The 'raga' the basic musical mode is rendering the seven musical notes. 'Tala' binds the music altogether. With the help of tala and shrutis the musician can create numerous variations in feelings.
Basically there are two dominant styles of music in India; the South Indian Carnatic music and the North Indian Hindustani music. Through the styles are distinct, many features and underlying philosophy are the same.
Foreign influences due to invasions are more evident in Hindustani music. Inventions of various musical instruments are attibuted to the gods and godesses. Popular musical instruments such as Sitar, Veena, Tabala, Shehnai, Nagaswaram etc are the contribution of india to the world.
The first known written work of Indian literature is the 'Ramayana', in Sanskrit, by Sage 'Valmiki' around 4th century BC. The story of 'Rama', an incarnation of Lord 'Vishnu' was composed in 24000 verses. Ramayana, a great work of literature, is the most sacred and holy of all books written in Sanskrit next only to 'Bhagvat Gita'.
'Mahabharatha' is the largest literary work in the world. It consists of 100,000 verses and Sage 'Vyasa', often referred as the Homer of India, composed it. Mahabharatha is a glorious work of high literary and philosophical value. It is a poem, an epic and a legend believed to have been written around 4th century BC.
'Panchathantra' (five strategies) is a book of edifying tales. It contains five books each teaching a strategy, through fairy tales, to be applied to tackle a situation. 'Vishnu Sharma' (100-500 AD) wrote it and its contents did had an influence on the West Asia and medieval Europe.
One of the greatest poets of all times, 'Kalidasa' (4th century AD) had enriched Indian literature with his works of 'Abhijnanasakuntalam', 'Meghadootham', 'Raghuvamsam' and 'Kumarasambhavam'. All of his works is still a model for 'Mahakavyas'.
There were many writers like 'Aswa Gosha' (Budhacharitha, II century AD), 'Vishaka Datta' (Political plays, VI century), 'Bana Bhatta' (Autobiographical elements, VII century) and 'Kalhana' (History, XI century) those are only a few who contributed to the development of Indian literature.
Every Indian language has its share of enrichment in Indian literature. Great works are created in every field and to mention them and their authors will be exhaustive. The earliest literary works were revolving mainly around mythology and religion but gradually started to deal directly with social, political and economical themes.
India has produced a number of literary marvels in English as well. 'Rabindranath Tagore' won Nobel Prize for his collection of popular poems, 'Gitanjali'. Raja Rao received the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for literature. Vikram Seth who won the Commonwealth Writer's prize, published the first Indian English novel in verse (Golden Gate). Shashi Tharoor is another writer who won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Amitav Gosh has won the Prix Medici Estranger, a top French literary award, and the Sahitya Acadamy Award. Arundhathi Roy won the Booker Prize for her first novel, The God of small things, for the year 1997.
R. K. Narayan (fiction), Kamala Das (poetry), Mulk Raj Anand (social realism), Kushwant Singh (fiction) and A. K. Ramanujan (poetry) are only a few of the other literary giants in English.
Indian cuisine is diversified in its varieties similar to its cultures, races and regions. Thousands of variations of dishes are prepared in the different parts of the country everyday. The essence of Indian cooking lies in the aroma of the spices which are blended together and added to enhance the basic flavour of a particular dish. Spices are always freshly ground to the required combination called Massalas. Many of these spices are noted for their medicinal values and are also used as appetisers and digestive. The ingredients for the masala vary from region to region.
Besides spices, ghee and curd are other two main ingredients in Indian cooking. Even though India is known for the Hindu vegetarian tradition, many Hindus eat meat now. Meat dishes are more common in North India while more vegetables are eaten in the South. The Muslim tradition is more evident in the cooking of meats. Mughlai foods comprising of kababs, kurmas, koftas, biriyanis, rogan josh, tandoori chicken, tandoori rotis etc are contribution of Muslims.
Rice is the staple food of the South while in the North it is supplemented or substituted by pooris, chappathis or nan. Dhal(lentil soup) and Dhai (curd) are common throughout India. Vegetable dishes are prepared based on the main dish with which they are served. Rice is served with vegetable curries, vegetable side dishes and curd. As India has a very long coastal area, dishes prepared with fish are also popular.
Verities of sweets representing the style and taste of different regions are available in India. The main ingredients of the sweets and deserts are sugar, milk flour and ghee.
The colorful and diversified clothing of Indians from the different parts of the country shall be very much attractive to a foreign traveler in India. Like in any other country, the fashion revolves around the women whose attire is colourful and distinctive in styles.
Women folk in India wear 'sari', a 5 - 6 meter long rectangular piece of cloth. The style, colour and texture of the cloth vary and saris are made from cotton, silk or one of the numerous manmade synthetic yarns. The sari was in India from time immemorial and is considered as the national dress of Indian woman. Sari is worn with 'choli' (short tight blouse). Choli fits tight to the body. When worn with proper style and colour combination, the dress is amazingly attractive and fashionable.
Women in Rajastan wear traditional colourful and glass embedded cholis with a form of pleated skirts known as 'lehanga'. They cover their head with a long cotton cloth called 'duppatta'.
'Salwar kamees' which evolved as a comfortable and respectable garment for the women in Kashmir and Punjab is now immensely popular throughout the country. 'Salwars' are pyjamas tight at the waist and angles. 'Kameez' is a loose tunic worn over salwar. A 'churidar' is similar to salwar except that it is tighter fitting at hips, thighs and angles.
Generally the men wore more conventional western cloths like shirts and trousers. But men at the villages are still fond of more comfortable and traditional dresses like 'kurtas', 'lungis', 'dothis' and pyjamas.
The dress style has many variations depending on the regions and religions. It is evident on the apparels worn by the Indians.
India is a secular democracy and is the home to Hinduism, Islam,Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and many other religions. In India religion is a way of life, an integral part of one's day to day activities, influencing every aspect of life. Common practices through ages had influenced most faiths and many festivals that mark each year with music, dance, and feasting are shared by all communities. Each religion even has its own pilgrimage sites, legends and heros.
Hinduism, one of the world's oldest faiths, originated in India and has the largest followers. Buddhism was founded in about 500 BC. Janism, another religion originated in India, has about 5 million followers in India. Islam arrived in India with Muslim traders and later with Muslim invaders and Mughuls. The Sikhs are another religion originated in India and there are over 18 million Sikhs predominantly in Punjab. Christianity was brought to India by the apostle ST. Thomas when he landed in Southern India. Today there are 30 million Christians in India.
Hinduism is, perhaps, the only religion that is so diversified in its theoretical premises and practical expressions. Like other religions, one cannot trace this religion to a specific founder or a particular holy book as its scriptural guide. The 'Vedas', 'Upanishads', and the 'Bhagvath Gita' can all be described as the sacred text of Hindus.
Unlike other faiths, one may worship one or other deity or believe in the 'supreme spirit' and yet can be a good Hindu. There are numerous gods and goddesses worshiped by Hindus all over India. But the fundamental to Hinduism is the concept of trinity; the trinity of 'Brahma' (the Creator), 'Vishnu' (the Preserver) and 'Shiva' (the Destroyer). Brahma is the creator of life and the universe. Vishnu guides the cycle of life and protects the world. Shiva destroys all evil and looks after devotees.
There are festivals and ceremonies associated with gods, goddesses and other forms of worship. The popular Hindu festivals are 'Deepavali', 'Holi', 'Dussehra', 'Ganesh Chathurthi', 'Pongal', 'Janamastami', and 'Shiv Rathri'.
In the eighth century A.D, Arab traders brought Islam into India. Unlike Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, those emerged from Hinduism - the concept, customs and religious practices of Islam are unique. It professed universal brotherhood and submission only to 'Allah' - the God Almighty.
Muslim Invaders in the 12th century and Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries helped Islam to spread in India. The mystics of Islam, the Sufi Saints, helped to spread the message of peace and universal love. Now over 12% of the population practices Islam. Eid Milan, Milad-e-Sherif etc. are celebrated Muslim festivals in India.
Buddhism, an offshoot of Hinduism originated in the 5th century. Buddhism preached non-violence to all living creatures, tolerance and self-discipline. The principles of Buddhism won wide acceptance owing to its simplicity and adaptation of sermons to local languages. Buddha's teachings enlightened millions of people in the Far East and the South East Asia. The influence of the faith decreased gradually and at present there are about 7 million followers in India.
Jainism was a contemporary faith of Buddhism. Mahavira preached the Jain philosophy around same time of Buddhism. Jainism rose against the undesirable practices prevalent in Hinduism at that time. It preaches for the renunciation of worldly desires and self-conquest to perfect wisdom. It focuses on the purification of the souls by right conduct, right faith and right knowledge. The faith also advocates non-violence. Today Jainism has a following of more than 3 million in India.
Guru Nanak founded the Sikh religion in the 16th century. Born as a Hindu, he was an advocate of pure monotheistic doctrine of the Upanishads. He spent his entire life preaching his gospel of universal tolerances based on all that was good in Hinduism and Islam. While advocating a middle path, Guru Nanak exhorted his followers to discard hypocrisy, selfishness and falsehood. On Baisakhi day of 1699 at Ananthpur, Guru Govind created a new brotherhood called Khalsa (Pure Ones). Sikhism advocates monotheism, denounces caste system and believes in equality of all.
It is believed that Christianity reached India when St. Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ arrived and spent a few years in South India. Others believe that it was St. Bartholomew who was the first Christian missionary to arrive in India. However, history indicates that Christian missionary activities started with St. Francis Xavier in 1544 followed by many missionaries from different countries. Much of the modern influences in the Indian society can be attributed to Christianity. Christian missionaries helped to build schools and colleges all over India and spread the message of faith and goodwill in the country.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world about 6000 years old and finds its origin in Persia. The religion was founded by Spenta Zarathustra or Zoroaster, who is considered as the Prophet of the Zoroastrians and the religion is practiced based on the responsibility of every man and woman to choose between good and evil, and to respect God's creations.
The Zoroastrians or Parsis, came to India in the 10th century A.D on the Gujarat coast and by the 17th century, most of them had settled in Bombay. Today, there are approximately 90,000 Parsis in India and are concentrated largely in Maharashtra and Gujarat. There are three principle sects among the Parsis. They are Shahenshai, Kadmi and Fasli. The only difference between these three sects is the calendar they adhere to.
The Parsi place of worship is called the fire temple. Five daily prayers, usually hymns uttered by Prophet Zarathustra are recited in the temple, before a fire, which symbolizes the realm of truth, righteousness and order.
Jews are a religious minority in India. Trade contacts between the Mediterranean region and the west coast had led to the presence of small Jewish settlements in India as early as the first millennium B.C. In Kerala, a community of Jews has remained associated with the cities of Cranganore and Kochi. Their origin is traced to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Another community of Jews, called the Bani Israel, had lived along the Konkan Coast, in and around Bombay, Pune, and Ahmadabad. A third group of Jews known as Baghdadi Jews immigrated to India, at the end of the eighteenth century, following the trade contacts established by the British Empire. They have settled in Pune and Calcutta, where many of them participated in the economic leadership of these growing cities.
Though they have flourished in India for many years without any indigenous anti-Semitism, today only around 6,000 remain in India. This was due to their migration to Israel and other countries like Australia, America and Europe.
The people of India are very friendly and hospitable. It will not take long before you find yourself in conversation with them. The fact that many Indians speak English will makes it easy to communicate. The people are hard working, healthy and tolerant.
The peoples of India can be grouped into four broad classes.
The class of peoples, who are tall, fair skinned and long nosed that speaks languages derived from Sanskrit. They are generally referred as Aryans or Indo-Aryans. Majority of the higher class Hindus belong to this class.
The peoples living in the Southern part of the peninsula whose features are some what different from those of the first group and speaks languages not originated from Sanskrit and generally known as the Dravidians form the second class.
The third class is the primitive tribes living in hills and jungles believed to be the successors of the Negrito races from the Neolithic age. They are short, dark skinned and snub nosed. Their languages are different from the first two classes.
And the fourth class of peoples has strong Mongolian features. They are beardless and yellow in color with snubbed noses, flat faces and prominent cheekbones. They mostly live on the Himalayan regions and the mountains of Assam. These peoples are also regarded as the dissidents of the Mongoloids from Neolithic Age.
India's original 14 states were formed mainly on language barriers. Indian languages have different origins. The languages evolved from the Indo-European group of languages are known as Indic languages. Gujarathi, Marathi, Punjabi etc belong to this group. The South Indian languages which are distinctly different from the Indic languages and includes Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu etc. are known as the Dravidian group.
Hindi is the official language of India. But English is widely spoken and used. Even though there are 1600 dialects in India, the main languages beside Hindi and English are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarathi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.
Flora & Fauna
India has a very rich flora and fauna. It is estimated that there are over 500 species of mammals, 200 plus species of birds and about 30,000 species of insects. In addition to the above, there are hundreds of species of fish and reptiles.
Indian wild life comprises of the Asian elephant, the only lions outside Africa, the Royal Bengal Tiger, single horned Indian rhino, the wild buffalo (Indian Bison) many leopards and smaller cat species, large variety of deer, monkeys and wild goats. The reptile population includes a wide range of snakes, lizards and crocodiles. Birds range from the colorful peacocks and parrots to large stock of migrant water birds. Much of the fauna is protected by law. To protect wild life, India had setup 66 National Parks, 333 wild life Sanctuaries and 35 zoological gardens in the country.
Indian flora has a great range of varieties from the coniferous to the ever green, from scrubs to deciduous forests and thick tropical jungles to cool temperate woods. The tropical forests in east are in contrast to the pine and coniferous woodland of the western Himalayas. The Himalayan foothills are dense with deciduous trees and shrubs, bamboos, fern and grass. The gangetic plain, the Deccan plateu of volcanic ancestry, the dense luxuriant forests of the Western Ghats - all provide fascinating variations in habitats.