Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

The History and Culture of India

India is one of the world's oldest civilizations, with evidence of human culture dating back to 7000 B.C. And although the subcontinent of India is located in close proximity to China, Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, and Thailand, its people and its culture are vastly different from those of continental Asia.


With an area of 3,287,263 square kilometers and 7,000 miles of coastline, India is the world's seventh largest country. It is bounded to the north by the lofty Himalayas, the world's tallest mountain range, and several other ranges, including the Aghil Kunlun, Mustagh Ata, and Zaskar. The southern portion of the country is surrounded by water: the Bay of Bengal to the east, the Indian Ocean to the south and the Arabian Sea to the west. Its territories also include three major island groups, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the east, and the Lakshwadeep Islands to the west. The length of mainland of India measures 3214 kilometers, with the Tropic of Cancer passing through its central region, and its southern tip extending about halfway toward the equator. India is bordered to the north by China, Nepal and Bhutan, and in the northwest by Afganisthan and Pakistan. The Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Straits separate India from the island nation of Sri Lanka.

The topography of India forms four distinctive geographical regions: The Himalayas, which include Mt. Everest (8848m) , Mt. Kanchenjunga (8598m), Mt. Nanga Parbat (8126m), Mt. Nanda Devi (7817m), and Mt. Namcha Parbat (7756m); a great plain formed by the Indus, Ganga, and Brahmaputra Rivers; an arid desert region, and a vast triangular plateau surrounded by a series of hills and ridges.

The nation of India is divided into 28 states and 7 union territories: the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Delhi, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Lakshadweep, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Orissa, Pondicherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. The capital city is New Delhi, located in the north central region.

Climate and Wildlife

The climate of India is classified as tropical monsoon, with four seasons: Winter in January and February), summer from March to May, a rainy monsoon season from June through September, and a post-monsoon season from October through December.

The tropical climate of India features lush jungles, swampy marshes and both evergreen and deciduous forests, and is conducive to a rich variety of flora and fauna. Among its indigenous animals are elephants, monkeys, tigers, leopards, panthers, rhinos, several varieties of antelopes and deer, cattle, bison and buffalo, sloths, hyenas, wild pigs, jackals, foxes, wolves and wild dogs, mongooses, and giant squirrels. Reptiles include king cobras, pythons, crocodiles, freshwater tortoises and monitor lizards. Birds include peacocks, eagles, owls, pheasants, herons, ibises, storks, cranes, flamingos and pelicans. India is also known for many colorful varieties of butterflies.

Indigenous trees include pine, spruce and silver fir, birch, junipers, oaks, laurels, maples, rhododendrons, alder, dwarf willows, bamboos and tall grasses. Unfortunately, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, extensive hunting and poaching, deforestation for agriculture, pesticide use and overcrowding have had a profound impact on India's natural environment. Only 10% of the country is still covered with natural forests, however, in an effort to protect these remaining resources and their indigenous wildlife, the government has established more than 350 parks, sanctuaries and reserves.

Agriculture and Industry

The fertile Ganga plain is a rich agricultural region that supports crops such as wheat, sugarcane and rice. The humid regions produce important commercial crops, such as spices, coffee, tea, rubber, coconut, cashews, mangoes, guava, papaya, and bananas. India's economy includes both traditional village farming and modern agriculture, the manufacture of traditional handicrafts such as pottery, textiles and metal craft, as well as a vast number of modern industries. Natural resources include iron ore, manganese, mica, bauxite, titanium ore, chromite, natural gas, diamonds, petroleum, limestone, and the world's fourth-largest coal reserves. Since its independence in 1947, India has become self-sufficient in agricultural production and is now the tenth industrialized nation in the world. India has recently become a major player in the world of technology and engineering. A growing segment of the population is well-educated, with many people fluent in the English language, which has enabled India to become a major producer and exporter of software programs and services.

Calendar & Time Zone

India uses a bewilderingly complex calendar system, based partially on the solar calendar, partially on the lunar calendar, and partially on the Gregorian calendar. In some places, a solar calendar, similar to the Zodiac, is used. Others use a lunar calendar, with each month beginning with either the new moon or the full moon, depending on the region. Many people even use a combination of the solar and lunar calendars simultaneously, which denotes the lunar day, the lunar month, the solar day, the solar midpoint, and the positions of the sun and moon relative to each other. The Gregorian calendar, preferred throughout much of the world, is also used in India for official purposes. The government introduced an Indian National calendar in 1957, a solar calendar with 365 or 366 days, leap years like those in the Gregorian calendar, but with the new year beginning on the vernal equinox. Years are numbered from the first year of the Saka era, 78 A.D. India is 13 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.

Traditional Clothing

The most readily identifiable Indian woman's garment is the sari, a single length of cotton, silk or synthetic fabric, five to six yards in length, worn wrapped around the waist and shoulders. Sari styles, textures, patterns and colors vary from one region to another, and the way in which it is worn is indicative of a woman's social status, age, occupation, and religion. The sari is worn over a tightly-fitted, short-sleeved, midriff-length blouse called a choli.

Women in the province of Rajasthan wear another type of traditional garment called a ghagra or lehanga. This pleated skirt is fastened at the waist, leaving the back and midriff bare. A cotton shawl called an orhni or dupatta is worn to cover the head.

One of the most popular women's garments is the salwar-kameez, originally worn in the provinces of Kashmir and Punjab but now common to all regions of India. The salwar is a pair of pajama trousers tightly fitted at the waist and ankles. The kameez is a long and loose tunic, split at the side seams, worn over the salwar trousers. A variation of the salwar-kameez is the churidar, a tighter fitting trouser worn with a simple tunic called a kurta. The kurta, worn by both men and women is a loose-fitting, short-sleeved, knee-length tunic with a round neck, side-slits at the hem and a flared skirt. Another garment worn by both men and women is the lungi, a short length of fabric worn around the waist like a sarong.

Two traditional garment for men are dhotis and pajamas. A dhoti is a length of fabric wrapped around the hips, with an additional length of fabric pulled up between the legs and secured at the waist. The pajama-like trousers worn by men in the villages are known as lenga.

Over the last century, western clothing has gradually made its way into Indian culture, where many modern men and women now wear suits for everyday business attire.

Traditional Houses

Traditional Indian houses are multi-storied dwellings constructed of baked mud bricks, with a small central courtyard surrounded by rooms with no windows overlooking the streets and entries through adjoining alleyways. Even the earliest examples of residential architecture featured indoor plumbing with drains that flowed into covered sewers.


Hindi is the national language, spoken by approximately 30% of the people. In addition, there are 14 other languages: Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Kashmiri, Sindhi, and Sanskrit; Hindustani is a popular variant of Hindi/Urdu spoken widely throughout northern India but is not an official language. English is also widely spoken for national, political, and commercial communication.


India is one of the most religously diverse nations on earth. The religions of India include the indigenous Hindu religion, with its pantheon of powerful gods and goddesses. Buddhism also originated in India, with Prince Siddhartha's mission to gain understanding of human suffering and to forge a path toward enlightenment. Another ancient religion that is still practiced in India is Jainism, a sect founded as a revolt against Hinduism in the 6th century, and emphasizes asceticism, immortality and transcedence of the spirit, but does not acknowledge the existence of a supreme being. A more recently founded religion is Sikhism, which originated in the northwestern province of Punjab in the 16th century. Several non-native religions have also found their way into India, including Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion founded in the 6th century B.C.; Islam, introduced by the Muslims around the 8th century; Christianity, introduced by the apostle Thomas in the first century A.D.; and Catholicism, introduced by European colonists in the 15th century.


Education has long been an integral part of Indian culture. In ancient times, scholars developed schools of philosophy, religion, medicine, literature, drama and arts, astrology, mathematics and sociology. Buddhist monastaries also provided excellent venues for higher learning, including those at Vikramshila, Takshashila, and Nalanda, which, at its height, had an enrollment of ten thousand students and teachers, including scholars from China, Sri Lanka and Korea.

Around the 11th century, Muslims established elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities in the major cities of Delhi, Lucknow and Allahabad, featuring courses in theology, philosophy, fine arts, architecture, mathematics, medicine and astronomy.

During British colonial rule, the educational system in India was further expanded, with colleges established in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. Thereafter, western education has made steady advances, until today, where India offers 226 universities, 428 Engineering colleges and technological institutes, more than a 100 medical colleges, dozens of agricultural and other specialized institutes of higher learning. Today, India offers its citizens one of the most highly developed educational systems of any nation in the world. Indian scholars consistently contribute to the world of science and technology, the arts and humanities, and in business and agriculture.

The primary and secondary systems are modeled after western schools, with elementary grades one through six, middle school grades seven through nine, and high school grades ten through twelve. The literacy rate in India is 52.21 per cent: 64.13 for males and 39.29 for females.


Much of India's art is strongly influenced by religion, with many colorful works depicting the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as the life of Buddha. Indian art also includes a vast array of traditional handicrafts including textile weaving, carpet making, intricate embroidery techniques, elaborate jewelry, leather work, metal crafts, painting, pottery, paper making, stone and wood carving.

The Flag of India

The national flag of India was officially adopted on July 22, 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan. It is composed of three horizontal stripes, orange on top, white in the center and green on the bottom. The orange represents courage and sacrifice, green stands for faith and chivalry, and white symbolizes peace and truth. A circular blue starburst design in the center of the flag represents the Buddhist chakra wheel.

Indian Mythology

According to Hindu tradition, the Universe was a single entity called Brahmin, which was later associated with the god Brahma, the creator of the Universe. A trinity of deities was formed by Brahma the Creator, Vishnu, the Protector, and Shiva, the Destroyer. India's mythology began during a period known as the Vedic Age, during the Harappan and Mohenjodaro civilizations around 2400 B.C. The Vedic Age is named for a collection of hymns called the Vedas.

The Hindu religion acknowledges the presences of a soul, called atama, which is transmigrated from one being to another. Sacrifice and penance were integral to Hindu worship. Penance in the form of isolation and deep meditation was rewarded by the Trinity in the form of protection from harm or even immortality.

Many of India's myths revolve around the ongoing conflict between the Deva gods and the Asura demons, and three of the most famous ancient texts on the subject are the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas.

The History of India

Indian civilization is among the oldest in the world, with archaeological evidence of its existence dating back as far as the Paleolitic Era, or the Stone Age, around 9,000 B.C. Recorded civilization dates back to 7,000 B.C. Known as the Harappan Civilization, it began in the valley of the Indus River, and reached its height around 2,600 B.C. when it flourished as an urban culture based on commerce and agricultural trade. It was among the largest of the Bronze Age civilizations, and encompassed a vast territory, from Afghanistan in the west to the Ganges plains in the east; and from Pamir in the north to the Rann of Kutch in the south. The Harappan Civilization began to decline between 1900 and 1700 B.C. and around 1500 B.C., Aryan tribes invaded from the northwest and assimilated themselves into the existing indigenous people.

The next important phase of Indian history is the period known as the Shishunaga Dynasty of the Magadha Empire in the Ganges Valley of northern India in the 6th century B.C. Until that time, the Brahaman religion had dominated the culture. However, around that time, Buddhism and Jainism both grew in strength, and the many texts associated with these two religious movements provide a wealth of historical information as well.

In 322 B.C., Chandragupta Maurya overthrew the oppressive ruler of Magadh and founded his own dynasty. His successor, the most famous of the Mauryas, Ashoka the Great, who reigned from 273 to 232 B.C., extended the boundaries of his empire from Kashmir and Peshawar in the north, to Mysore in the south, and Orissa in the east. After his impressive military conquests, Ashoka renounced war and dedicated the remaining years of his life to dhamma, or righteousness.

When Ashoka died in 232 B.C., the empire began to weaken, enabling Pushyamitra Shunga, a Brahmin general, to usurp the throne. Thereafter, India was governed by a weak federal system, during which it was invaded numerous times over the next four hundred years, until sovereignty was restored by the Gupta Dynasty, most notably Samudra Gupta, who reigned from 335 to 380 A.D., and his successor, Chandra Gupta II, who reigned from 380 to 412 A.D. It was Chandra Gupta II who defeated the Sakas, and re-established a strong central government, and it was during his reign that India reached the height of prosperity, culture, art, literature and science.

However, by 600 A.D., the Gupta Empire was already in decline, with feudal administrators waging civil rebellion and declaring independence. Trade and commerce were disrupted, and with it, the peace and prosperity India had enjoyed for nearly three hundred years.

Islam was introduced to India by the Muslims around the 8th century A.D., and spread across the Indian subcontinent over the next 1000 years. During the 10th and 11th centuries, Turkish and Afghan invaders established sultanates in Delhi; and in the early 16th century, tribes descended from Genghis Khan invaded India through the Khyber Pass and established the Mughal (Mogul) Dynasty, which lasted for 200 years.

Vasco da Gama's arrival in 1498 opened the gateway to European traders by way of his newly found sea route to the Indian subcontinent. Portuguese and Dutch traders were the first to arrive, establishing colonial territories at Travancore, Goa, Daman, Diu and Bombay. The first British colonists arrived in 1619 and established an outpost at Surat on the northwestern coast of India, and later, at Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. The French arrived soon thereafter, with large colonial establishments in southern India, including Pondicherry, Karaikal, Yanam, Mah, and Chandernagore.

British rule over India had originally been established by the East India Company, which by 1850, controlled most of country, which at the time, also included what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh. After an uprising of Indian militants in the northern territories, the commerical governing power that had once belonged to the East India Company was transferred to the British Crown. However, toward the end of the 19th century, still under British rule, a council of Indian advisors was appointed to aid the British Viceroy with the establishment of provincial governments. And by 1920, under the leadership of Mohandas Ghandi, a resistance movement had begun to end British colonial rule.

On August 15, 1947, India gained independence and joined the Commonwealth of Nations with Jawaharlal Nehru serving as Prime Minister. This event marked the beginning of turbulent times in India, with the Muslim northwest and northeast separated into the nation of Pakistan. A violent civil war ensued with clashes between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, followed by a two-year war between Pakistan and India over the province of Kashmir.

The Constitution of India was ratified on November 26, 1949, and India became a sovereign nation on January 26, 1950. Independent rule was carried out by the Congress Party, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, followed by his daughter Indira Ghandi, and later by his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi. Prime Minister Nehru governed the nation until his death in 1964.

In 1961 India invaded and reclaimed the Portuguese colony of Goa on the west coast, and in 1971 India, regained the province of of Sikkim. In 1962 a conflict arose with China over the border in the Himalayas, and in 1965, India and Pakistan waged war again over the province of Kashmir. In 1971 the two nations fought yet again, resulting in the independence of East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh.

In 1966, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, began a ten-year term as Prime Minister, during which time she was faced with serious political and economic problems. She was defeated at the polls by Morarji Desai in 1977. However, two short years later, his rule was in decline, and an interim government headed by Charan Singh presided over India until Indira Gandhi's return to power in January 1980. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, was chosen to take her place. His administration ended in 1989 due to controversy over corruption.

V.P. Singh succeded Rajiv Ghandi, followed in 1990 by Chandra Shekhar as Prime Minister. Yet another administrative collapse occurred under Chandra Shekhar's rule, calling for a national election in June 1991. Rajiv Ghandi remained active in Indian politics until he was assassinated by Sri Lankan Tamil extremists. In the elections, the Congress Party won 213 parliamentary seats and formed a coalition under the leadership of P.V. Narasimha Rao.

After many years of political upheaval, the Congress party government served a full 5-year term, during which a policy of economic reform was instituted, opening the Indian economy to global trade and investment. However, in the spring of 1996, India was once again in the throes of political upheaval due to corruption and scandal. A series of national elections were held in short succession, resulting in a procession of short-lived Prime Ministers, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, H.D. Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral, and Manmohan Singh.

Population: As of July 2004, the population of India is estimated to now exceed one billion people.