The Indian subcontinent, of which India the country, takes up by far the greatest part, lies between Africa and Arabia to the west and South East Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia) to the east.
India has a long coastline, washed by the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. In the north the Himalaya mountain range separates it from China and Nepal. The island of Sri Lanka, once called Ceylon, lies a short distance to the south and east of the southernmost tip of India.
Countries sharing borders with India are Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma).
The capital is New Delhi; other major cities are Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai (Madras), Kolkata (Calcutta) and Mumbai (Bombay).
The country’s longest river is the Brahmaputra; the second longest is the Ganges.
India has a variety of geographical features: mountain ranges, valleys, desert regions, tropical rain forests, fertile plains and a dry plateau.
There are wide climatic variations from snow-covered mountains in the north through cool hill country to dry plains and jungles with extreme tropical heat. India has a monsoon season which begins in the south in June, moving north to cover the whole country by the end of the month.
The variety of the terrain is reflected in the many species of flora and fauna of India.
Some of the different types of trees are banyans, figs, oak, teak, palms, cedar and pine. Bamboo is one of the many plant species; flowering plants include magnolias, orchids and rhododendrons. The lotus flower is India’s spiritual flower.
The tiger is India’s national animal. Other animals are antelopes, goats, sloth bears, buffalo, leopards, elephants, monkeys, wolves, crocodiles, and snakes.
There are hundreds of species of butterflies and over two thousand species of birds: cranes, storks, kingfishers, herons, pelicans, ospreys and parrots. The peacock is India’s national bird.
The first laws governing conservation of particular animals and forests were issued by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC.
Some of India’s protected areas are on the World Heritage List: Kaziranga National Park, Keoladeo National Park, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks and Sundarbans National Park.
Tigers have been hunted for many years and by 1970 it was estimated that only seven hundred existed. The tiger, is now a protected species; the Indian rhinoceros and Indian elephant are also endangered species.
The early Indian civilization of the Indus Valley produced the great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro (now part of Pakistan), built from mud brick. Mohenjo Daro is famous for its giant granaries, drainage systems and the Great Bath which measured thirty-nine by twenty-three feet.
The lavishly decorated Hindu temples, such as those at Hoysala in Karnataka are representative of one of the most famous styles of Indian architecture. Islam, though opposed to the representative sculpture of Hindu art, brought its own architectural style, typified by mosques, minarets and geometric decoration.
The Moghuls built many beautiful palaces and gardens. The Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal and India’s largest mosque as well as many other buildings.
European style architecture is a reminder of the days of the British Raj. One of the most famous examples of modern architecture is the town of Chandigarh, built in the 1950s from plans made by Le Corbusier, the French architect. Lutyens was responsible for the planning of New Delhi.
India is the world’s second most populous country (after China). The population was estimated at 1,147,995,904 in 2008. Over eighty percent of the people are Hindus. Hindus are separated into different castes: there are priests (Brahmins), soldiers and governors; traders; servants and untouchables. Untouchability was abolished in 1950.
India has more languages than any other country – fifteen main languages and hundreds of other languages and dialects. The most important language is Hindi, spoken by around one in five of the population. The other main languages are Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil and Telegu. Hindi is mostly a language of the north and regional political differences have produced opposition to its adoption as a national language.
India’s diversity of languages is matched by its diversity of religions. It was also the birthplace of two of the world’s great religions: Buddhism and Hinduism.
Around eighty percent of the people are Hindus; Muslims are the largest religious minority. The other religious groups include Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (or Parsees), Jews and Christians.
Zoroastrians follow a very ancient religion and worship one god symbolized by fire.
Hinduism was brought to India by the Aryans about 1500 BC. Hinduism brings with it a social order: the caste system. Hindus believe in a Supreme Spirit who works through Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva the destroyer and generator of new life.
Buddhists are followers of the Buddha (the Enlightened One) – Siddhartha Gautama – who was born about 500 BC near the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains (Nepal). Today there are Buddhists in many parts of the world.
Jainism was founded the same time as Buddhism. Jains are strict vegetarians and try to avoid injuring any living thing.
Islam arrived in India during the eighth century. Moslems believe in one god, Allah, and follow the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, contained in the Koran.
The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1533) the first of ten gurus or teachers. The word Sikha means disciples. The Sikhs sacred book is kept in the Golden Temple of Amritsar.
Indian food is as varied as its terrain and its people.
Religion also has a major impact on regional food. Many Hindus are strict vegetarians although some eat fish and chicken. The cow is sacred to Hindus around the world. Muslims do not eat any pig products.
As in regional cooking around the world, recipes depend on what is grown, caught or otherwise available locally. Rice, millet and bread (nan, chapattis) are staple foods. Food is flavoured with spices such as chilli, coriander, ginger and tumeric. Milk-based desserts and gulab jamuns are popular.
Tea, which is also one of the country’s major exports, is universally available; in some areas the tea is flavoured with spices.