One Book, One Chicago Fall 2006
India, a name that evokes images of exotic sights, foods and sounds, is a country in southern Asia with the world’s second largest population, numbering over 1 billion. One of the oldest in the world, the Indus Valley civilization dates back 5,000 years. Early Dravidian inhabitants merged with Aryan tribes from the northwest to create the classical Indian culture. Arab and Turkish incursions were underway by the 12th century with European traders following in the late 15th century. By the 19th century, Great Britain had colonized and imposed political control over most Indian lands.
Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru led India to independence in 1947, by exercising nonviolent resistance toward the British colonists. The country was divided in two, with India becoming a secular state and Pakistan, located in the northwest, a primarily Muslim state. Strife between the two countries resulted in the creation of the country of Bangladesh in 1971.
India is a republic with a parliamentary system of government. The president is the head of state, and the more powerful prime minister is the head of the government. The Parliament is the law-making body of India and consists of two houses, the House of the People, called the Lok Sabha, and the Council of States, called the Rajya Sabha.
India has made great strides in the areas of economic development, investment and output. Indians vary greatly in terms of education and wealth. There is disparity in education and a high illiteracy rate. Nonetheless, India is producing a growing number of engineers and scientists. India faces numerous problems relating to ongoing disputes with Pakistan over the state of Kashmir, overpopulation, environmental degradation, poverty, and ethnic and religious strife.
India is a land of variety, and the people of India reflect this variety. Customs, religion, clothing, food and lifestyles vary widely. Family ties remain important throughout the country, and the practice of arranged marriages continues for many. India is home to large cities, but much of the populace lives in agrarian villages. Predominant religious groups include Hindus (80 percent) and Muslims (13 percent and one of the largest Muslim populations in the world) with smaller groups of Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Sikhs and others.
Indians, especially Hindus, have traditionally been organized into social groups called castes. While weakened, the caste system still operates. A person’s caste determines his or her social status within the community and influences what occupations a person might hold.
Clothing worn by Indians varies by region and may be influenced by religious or ethnic custom. Most Indians wear light clothing because of the hot climate. Many Indian women wear a sari, which consists of a long piece of cloth (approximately 5 yards) that is draped around the body as a long dress. Many Indian men wear a dhoti, a simple garment wrapped around and between the legs to act as loose trousers, complemented by a shirt. Western-style dress is becoming more common in many areas.
Food and drink in India also varies widely. Rice, wheat and other grains are staples along with the seeds of such pod vegetables as beans, chickpeas and lentils. Commonly used spices include coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, red pepper and turmeric. Tea is the most popular beverage.
The geography of India includes the Himalaya mountain range in the north, the Northern Plains and the Deccan or Southern Plateau. The Ganges, India’s greatest river, is located in the Northern Plains. Sacred to Hindus who bathe in the river to cleanse and purify themselves, the Ganges flows out of the Himalaya and into the Bay of Bengal.
India’s climate is made up of three seasons that include the cool season, the hot season and the rainy season. The cool season, lasting from October to February, is marked by snow in the Himalaya and their foothills while the rest of the country is somewhat moderate. The hot season, lasting from March to June, sees very high temperatures in the Northern Plains and Deccan regions. The rainy season, lasting sporadically from June to September, is marked by seasonal winds called monsoons that blow across the Indian Ocean, picking up moisture and striking from either the southeast or southwest with drenching rains. The monsoons provide for most of India’s rainfall.