Everything you need to know about India, including background, culture, history, and popular recipes to make.
Please note, this article includes a highly generalized view of many topics in India, including groups of people, religious beliefs, etc. This guide is not intended to be an all-encompassing view of India but rather a general introduction to the people and way of life in the country.
- The national animal of India is the Bengal Tiger
- 4 thousand languages are spoken across the country. India does not have an official language, but the two most prevalent are Hindi and English.
- Chess was invented in India
- The city of Varanasi is likely one of the oldest living cities in the world
India is located in South Asia and shares land borders with China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bangladesh. It is also bordered by the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Not far away are the islands of Indonesia.
It is the seventh largest country in the world by land mass, sitting at 1.27 million square miles. It is divided into 29 states and 7 union territories. The capital is New Delhi.
India has many different kinds of terrains and ecosystems, including mountains, deserts, jungles, cities, plains, and more. 65% of the population lives in rural areas, but there is no shortage of people living in the country’s largest cities, like Mumbai and Delhi.
The Himalayas, one of the largest mountain ranges in the world, span across the northeastern portion of India. The mountains are 1,490 miles long and include the famous Mount Everest, the highest point on earth at 29,000 feet above sea level.
There are three main geographical regions in India
- The Himalayas in the north
- The Gangetic Plain: This forms the basins of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers
- The Deccan Plateau in the south
The Six Seasons
The Hindu calendar features six seasons:
- Vasant Ritu (March and April): The spring season
- Grishma Ritu (May and June): The summer season
- Varsha Ritu (July and August): Monsoon season
- Sharad Ritu (September and October): The autumn season
- Hemant Ritu (November and December): Pre-Winter season
- Shita Ritu (January and February): Winter season
Environment and Animals
India is one of the most polluted countries in the world, boasting 22 of the world’s most populated cities. Feeding and housing so many humans has wreaked havoc on the environment.
Up to 80% of India’s water is severely contaminated, which has been negatively impacting both animals and humans over the last few years. Another study shows that air pollution is so bad in the country that it could be reducing the average Indian lifespan by up to a decade.
This, in addition to poaching, has caused many beloved animals to find themselves on the endangered list. This list includes the following (numbers are pulled from 2020, so they could be slightly different now):
- Asiatic Lion (674 left)
- Bengal Tiger (3,500 left)
- Sloth Bear (fewer than 20,000 left)
- Pygmy Hog (fewer than 250 left)
- Ganges River Dolphin (3,500 left)
India has been working hard to combat their impact on the environment. In 2016 they broke a world record and planted 50 million trees in one day and have pledged to reforest 12% of the country by 2030.
People and Population
India is home to over 1.38 billion people (about 17.7% of the world’s population). It is the second most populated country in the world (after China) and is projected to pass China over the next decade!
There are over 200,000 ethno-linguistic groups in India, as well as 654 indigenous tribes. Many of these groups boast their own culture, food, dress, traditions and more. It is impossible to discuss every group, but some notable ones include:
*Please note: These are overgeneralizations of each group of people with an attempt to find common trends. In a country so large, these facts will not apply to every person that identifies as a part of a group*
- Kashmiris: Live in the north of the country. Many wear a traditional outfit called a phiran (wool cloak) and salwar (loose pants). Women wear headdresses and large earrings. Muslim women wear a burka. They have long standing traditions of carpet weaving and wooden handicrafts.
- Punjabis: Punjab is known as the land of five rivers. Many Punjabi practice agriculture and grow wheat, rice, legumes, vegetables, etc. Many men wear lungi, a traditional wrap made of silk, with loose white pants and a colorful turban. Women wear loose pants and a long blouse and use a head scarf or a shawl.
- Rajasthanis: Rajasthan is south of Punjab. Rajasthanis are famous for pottery, jewelry, embroidery, etc. Women wear long skirts and embroidered blouses and cover their heads with veils called odhni. Rajasthani men tend to wear tight pants (churidar) and a vest or a dhoti.
- In the Heartland: There are many groups that live in the Heartland, the central states, of India (Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar). This is the most densely populated part of the country. Industries like oil refineries and fertilizer factories are popular as well as agriculturists growing sugarcane, wheat, and lentils. Most people in this area wear light clothing made of cotton, and many men and women in this area wear western-style clothing with shirts and pants.
- Eastern States: The Eastern states include groups like the Khasis, Garos, Mundas, Ahoms, Wanchos, and Miris, with each group, again, having its own languages and customs. Rice is the most important crop here, and many people weave and do bamboo work as well. The people of East India have a lot in common with the Burmese and Nepalese.
- Bengalis: Kolkata (also known as Calcutta) is on the Eastern side of the country and is the capital city of West Bengal. Kolkata exhibits strongly the division between the rich and poor in India. Many of the people living in this area are poor and homeless, but it also is home to some of India’s wealthiest citizens. In the county, Bengali men wear dhotis and Kurtas (long shirts), and women wear saris.
- Southern States: Southern states include groups like the Tamils, the Telugus, the Tulus, and the Kannadigas. Men here sometimes wear small dhoti that resemble a loincloth. Women can wear a sari with a short blouse. People in the south often mix modern and traditional into their everyday lives.
- Western States: Western Indians include people from Gujarat, Goa, and Maharashtra. Gujarati grow rice, wheat, cotton, sunflower seeds and more. Gujarati women wear a ghagra and a short blouse with a veil. Men wear tight white pants. This is where Mumbai, the center of finance, business, and the Indian film industry (Bollywood) is located. About half of the people living in Mumbai live in slums.
The first people to come to India were likely from Africa and arrived over 65,000 years ago. There is some evidence of stone age tools and cave paintings, but the first known settlement in India is dated to 5,000 years ago.
The earliest settlers experimented with agriculture and keeping livestock.
Indus Valley Civilization
The Indus Valley civilization dates back to 2500 BCE; it is one of the earliest examples of civilization in the world. They were skilled in things like building brick houses and planning cities. They even had a religious script, called the Harappan script, which is the earliest example of writing from the Indian subcontinent!
We’re not quite sure why the Indus Valley Civilization faded away, but many guesses revolve around a change in the climate.
The Beginning of Religions
Around 2000-1500 BCE, the Indo-European languages traveled across Eurasia. The Indo-European language in India eventually developed into Sanskrit, which is what the four Vedas, or Books of Knowledge, were written in.
The Vedas talk about life, nature, and gods. The gods of these books, including Agni, the god of fire, and Varuna, the god of rain, were worshiped with rituals and sacrifices. This is what the Hindu religion was later formed upon. The Vedic period lasted from 1700 to 500 BCE.
The Vedic civilization is also what saw the development of the Indian caste system, a divisional society separated into four groups based on status (read more about the caste system below).
It is around this time that Siddhartha Gautama (born in 563 BCE), the founder of Buddhism, and Vardhamana Mahavira (born in 599 BCE), a leader of Jainism, were alive.
Invasions, King Ashoka, and the Gupta Empire
In 327 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the reigning Persian empire in the Battle of Hydaspes, but he quickly decided to go home. Soon after, the Mauryan Empire began (in 322 BCE) and was the first state to unify most of India.
King Ashoka is one of India’s most important leaders. During the Kalinga War (261 BCE), he was scarred by the fighting and decided instead to embrace Buddhism. It is because of King Ashoka that Buddhism is prominent not only in India but also in Sri Lanka, Central Asia, and Afghanistan.
When Ashoka died, the kingdom weakened and eventually split apart. India was soon controlled by multiple groups, including the Huns, Persians, Sakas, Scythians, and the Yueh-Chi.
Eventually, the Gupta Empire formed in the north, which brought about a period of prosperity from 320 CE to 540 CE until it was invaded by the Huns and split again.
Dynasties in the South of India
The south of India was experiencing some change around the 7th century, which saw the peak of the Pallava Dynasty. The Pallava Dynasty featured beautiful rock temples and reestablished the relationship of worship with Shiva, the god of destruction, and Vishnu, the god of preservation.
The Chola Dynasty eventually took over in 848 CE and lasted until 1279 CE. They are well known for their bronze sculptures, their extensive borders (reaching all the way to Sri Lanka), and their trade links with China.
This time in Southern India was relatively peaceful, but life in the north was a different story.
Invasions and the Mughal Empire
From the 9th century on, northern India continued to sustain attacks from groups such as the Turks, Afghans, Mongols, and Arabs.
India was under the rule of the Delhi Sultanate from 1206-1526, but they could not resist the Mongol attack led by Timur in 1398. He destroyed Delhi and massacred the population.
In 1526, Timur’s descendent Babur invaded India and established the Mughal Empire.
His grandson, Akbar the Great, extended and unified the empire to include the entirety of northern and central India. He was also responsible for combining many prominent religions at the time (Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism) into one religion named Din-e Ilahi or “religion of the world”.
Timur’s descendent, Shah Jahan, is most well remembered for his construction of the Taj Mahal in 1631 as a memorial to his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, took over and the economy of India boomed, but individual life in the country began to decline fast. By Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the Mughal Empire had started its collapse.
In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I of England facilitated the construction of the East India Company, a trading company in the East Indies. By 1608 the company’s first ships had landed at the Port of Surat and in 1615 they were given rights to establish a factory in Surat.
Alongside the English, the Portuguese, French and Dutch had also set up trading centers in India, which traded things like tea, gold, silver, textiles, and, most notably, spices.
By the 19th century, Britain had waged war after war against India, and at this point almost all of India was under British control.
Tensions Between India and Britain
The Sepoy Rebellion (also called the First War of Independence) happened in 1857. The reason for this rebellion was a culmination of years of mistreatment, but the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was the treatment of the Sepoys, the name for Indians who served as soldiers for the British.
The sepoys were given weapons that used pig and cow fat to grease the cartridges. In order to use the cartridges, the sepoys had to bite off the end, which resulted in them consuming small amounts of beef and cow.
Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion, and Muslims are forbidden from eating pork! A rebellion over this disrespect for religion began in Meerut but soon spread across the country.
Many soldiers protested and were imprisoned, and some Indian leaders were even restored to power. But by 1858, the British crown had decided to cease the East India Company and instead just take over the entire government of the country, effectively turning it into a British colony.
Britain brought recent industrial advances to India, including things like the railways, schools, new technology, and more, but India was resolute in the fact that they wanted to maintain their own control and culture.
In 1885, the Indian National Congress, a new political party advocating for India’s independence, formed.
Gandhi and the Fight for Independence
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (also known as Mahatma, meaning “Great Soul”, Gandhi) was born in India in 1869. He studied law in Great Britain, lived in South Africa for 20 years, and then eventually returned to India. He worked tirelessly for India’s independence, and advocated for a non-violent approach to freedom.
Peaceful protests and strikes began, but the British responded with violence when they killed an estimated 379 people in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919.
Gandhi continued to respond with peace, and encouraged Indians to boycott anything British, including schools, goods, and more. At the same time, tensions between the Hindus and Muslims were growing.
Finally, on August 15, 1947, Britain granted India its independence. Jawaharlal Nehru became India’s first prime minister.
The Formation of Pakistan
Around this time, Pakistan was formed by dividing off a section of land from India. It acted as a new country for (mostly) Muslims as a way to separate them from India who was (mostly) Hindu.
The following years saw the world’s largest mass movement of people as the groups organized themselves into their respective sides.
This movement did not come peacefully, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed during this time. The two groups continued to fight over the territory of Kashmir during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947-1948. This dilemma continues today.
In 1948, Gandhi died after being shot by Nathuram Godse, a fellow Hindu that objected to Ghandi’s tolerance of Muslims.
A Timeline of the Last 70 Years (1950-2022)
1950 – India becomes a sovereign democratic republic, and the first elections are held in 1952
1961 – Annexation of Goa (from Portugal)
1962 – Sino-Indian War with China
1966 – Indira Gandhi was elected as Prime Minister
1971 – Indo-Pakistani War when the Begalis of Pakistan sought independence as Bangladesh
1974 – India becomes one of the world’s only nuclear states (1 of 8 in 2021)
1984 – Indira Gandhi is shot by her own bodyguards (two Sikhs), leading to the Anti-Sikh riots
2000 – India passes 1 billion citizens
2004 – Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami
2014 – Narendra Modi becomes prime minister
Today India has one of the largest labor forces in the world as well as one of the fastest growing economies. Between 22-28% of people in the country live below the poverty line, though it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic has raised this number even more.
India uses the rupee as their currency, and as of May 2022, $1 US Dollar equals 77.44 rupees.
Main exports from the country include metals, pharmaceuticals, mineral fuels, and chemicals. The Information Technology sector (IT industry, including software design and call centers) make up about 8% of India’s GDP.
About 50-60% of the population farms. While farming used to be the main industry in the country it is no longer. Over recent years, the Services sector took over the GDP at about 61%, followed by the Industrial sector at 23%.
Lifestyle in India
While globalization has impacted the country a bit, Indians tend to hold tightly to their culture, including dress, music, movies, food, and more. Family is very important in India. Each family is part of a specific lineage, called gotra, identifies as part of a specific clan, jati, and is part of a specific caste, called kul.
India is a patriarchal society, with the father having control over the family and children. Males still tend to be favored when it comes to educational and work opportunities. Women in India are fighting hard to change this. Women’s rights have come a long way in India, and they continue to fight for more improvement.
The Caste System
The caste system in India is the belief that each person is born into a specific socio-economic group and that they are destined to stay there until they die. Castes still exist in India today, and still very much impact family and individual life.
These were the levels of the caste system when the system was invented:
- Brahmins: Priestly class
- Kshatriyas: Warriors & ruling class
- Vaishyas: Merchant class
- Sudras: Labor & artisan class
- Untouchables: Outcasts that weren’t associated with (Gandhi later renamed this group the Harijan, “Children of God”)
Today there are thousands of sub-castes that allow for slightly more nuance in the system.
Some areas have seen the caste system become a lot more fluid and easily climbable. Still, there are other areas of India that rely more heavily on traditional caste views.
In the south, castes are a large consideration in marriage. In some villages, it is still not allowed for Harijans to even draw water from a well.
Marriage in India
Marriage in India can be handled (typically) in 3 different ways: Arranged marriages, Love Marriages or a combination of the two
- Arranged Marriages: The traditional route that is used to tie families together. Usually the parents will pick a partner for their child based on a myriad of factors including religion, caste, business, complexion, horoscopes, and more.
- Love Marriages: In love marriages, the young people are entirely responsible for choosing their own partner based on who they have fallen in love with.
- Combination: Combination marriages are a mix of arranged marriages and love marriages. In this hybrid form, the young person will choose from a handful of people their parents recommend. Alternatively, they can date based on love and if the relationship turns serious enough, they will ask their parents to set up a formal marriage.
In Indian weddings, henna, a form of body art made by staining the skin of the bride, is a beloved tradition. The shapes and designs drawn onto the bride are meant to represent specific well wishes onto the couple and their life together.
About 80% of India’s population is Hindu, 14% are Muslim, 2% are Christian, and the remainder is made up of Sikhism, Buddhism, and others.
Hinduism is the main religion of India, and it is one of the oldest religions in the world. Hinduism does not have a single founder, and instead is called the Sanatana Dharma, the faith with no beginning and no end.
Hinduism does not force its followers to live by rules or to follow a certain path. Instead, it encourages its followers to pursue four main areas:
- Dharma: Righteous Living and Purpose
- Artha: Wealth and Prosperity
- Kama: Love, Desire, and Happiness
- Moksha: Release from the Cycle of Life and Death
The Hindu religion believes in reincarnation, the act of being born again into a new body after death. This body is not always a human body. It can also be a plant, animal, or insect.
Hindus believe that the happiness (or sadness) of your current life is based on how you lived your previous life.
This cycle ends once a person has lived such a good and noble life that they are released from the cycle and enter moksha, a state of transcendence.
Karma is also an important belief in Indian life, both with Hindus and Buddhists. The concept of karma says that good deeds will result in good things happening to you, whereas bad deeds will result in bad things happening to you.
One’s karma often goes back to how they lived their previous life, and is an explanation for why certain people are born into poverty or wealth, sickness or health, etc.
Buddhism began in the 6th century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama (born in 563 BCE). Many Buddhist beliefs, such as reincarnation and karma, are also Hindu beliefs.
In the 1950s Buddhism experienced a revival movement. Most Buddhists now live in Maharashtra. The Dalai Lama is the head monk in Buddhism. The 14th and current Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso.
Buddhism has three main pillars:
- The Buddha: The founder
- Dharma: His Teachings
- Sangha: Monkhood
Buddhism teaches the Noble Eightfold Path which includes:
- Right view
If Buddhists follow the Eightfold Path, they can live a noble life that will allow them to reach Nirvana and release them from the cycle of reincarnation.
India also boasts the highest numbers of Sikhs, Jains, and Zoroastrians in the world
India is the birthplace of yoga. Cricket is a very popular sport, and India has hosted the Cricket World Cup many times. Soccer, field hockey, and basketball are also popular sports in the country.
Indian movies are often associated with the name “Bollywood”, and India is the world’s largest producer of films! It is the second oldest film industry in the world.
India is a large country with a wide variety of foods. Food varies across the country depending on region as well as religion.
The standard Indian meal includes vegetables, fish or meat (sometimes), grain, yogurt, and lentils. The grain can be either rice or bread, such as puri, naan, paratha, or chapati (roti). Lentils like split peas and beans are a large source of protein for Indians.
The North of India is known for:
- Roti and naan
- Tikka Masala
- Palak Paneer
The West of India is known for:
- Pickled foods
- Beef (because this area has more Muslims and Christians)
The South of India is known for:
- Dosa and Idli
- Curries (Poriyal, Sambar, Tootu)
The East of India is known for:
- Great desserts like Peda, Mishti doi, Rasgulla, Shondesh
Common vegetables are gourds, greens, and root vegetables. Inia is also large producers of lemons, limes, bananas, mangoes, ginger, chickpeas, and butter.
India has the highest percentage of vegetarians in the world at 40%. For meat, eggs and chicken are common favorites, and the coastal regions also enjoy seafood. Pork and beef are uncommon choices as Muslims do not eat pork and Hindu people do not eat beef.
Spices are, of course, vital to Indian meals, and 75% of the world’s spices come from India. Some cooks have a masala dabba, a round spice box that holds seven spices:
- Mustard seeds
- Red chili powder
- Cumin seeds
- Garam masala
- Ground coriander
Desserts in the country are fruit, rice pudding, or ice cream.
Dining in India
In India, it is common to rinse your hands, legs, and face before a meal. Traditionally, meals are eaten sitting on the floor using the fingers.
Hindus typically offer food to the gods and then the woman of the house serves the family. She traditionally does not eat until everyone else has finished.