India is a nation that dominates the vast region known as the South Asian subcontinent. It has over 1 billion people. It is the world's second most populous country (after China) and the world's largest democracy. Shaped roughly like an upside-down triangle, India stretches from the high Himalaya mountains in the north to the island nation of Sri Lanka in the south.

India's history dates back at least 4,500 years, to when the Indus River civilization, one of the world's first settled communities, developed there on the fertile plains of the Indus River. Over the centuries, many different peoples invaded India and took control of its vast natural resources. The last outsiders to rule India were the British. Their administration, known as the Raj, lasted more than 150 years. India became a modern, independent nation in 1947, after World War II. In that year the British withdrew from the subcontinent after dividing most of the region into the two nations of India and Pakistan.



India has been a melting pot of varied ethnic groups since the beginning of its history. However, the majority of its people are of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan ancestry. The Dravidians have lived in India since prehistoric times. The Indo-Aryans first arrived in the subcontinent about 1500 B.C. The two peoples differed in appearance, language, and customs. The Indo-Aryans spoke a language related to the modern European languages. And their religious beliefs evolved into Hinduism. The Indo-Aryans became the dominant people of India, particularly in the north. Southern India remained principally Dravidian.


The major languages of India can be divided into two broad groups. Those of northern, western, and eastern India are derived from ancient Sanskrit, an Indo-European language and the sacred language of Hinduism. They include Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kashmiri, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sindhi, Urdu, and Hindustani. The languages of the south — Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu — belong to the Dravidian family. But they have been influenced by Sanskrit. Kashmiri and Urdu also contain many words from Arabic and Persian.

Hindi, the national language, is spoken by about 40 percent of the population. Most educated Indians speak English as well as Hindi and their regional language. Indian children are taught both their regional language and Hindi in the primary and lower secondary levels of school. Later they may also learn English, Sanskrit, or Persian.


Nearly all the world's major religions are represented in India. The vast majority of the people (about 81 percent) are Hindus.

Hinduism has four essential beliefs. Hindus believe in God (or gods who are manifestations of a single god or universal spirit) as the creator and sustainer of the universe. They believe in an inner self that is eternal, which ultimately merges with God. They believe in the moral responsibility (dharma) of people for their actions (karma), because they have a will of their own and determine their own actions. Finally, Hindus believe in reincarnation (rebirth). They believe that people must go through a series of births, deaths, and rebirths to atone for their sins before they can achieve liberation (merging with God). The nature of one's rebirth is largely determined by one's actions in an earlier life.

Islam is the religion of Muslims and India's second largest religion. It is practiced by about 13 percent of the population. Other religious groups include Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains. India also has smaller communities of Parsis (Zoroastrians) and Jews.


Education in India is the responsibility of both the states and the central government. In almost all states, schooling is compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14. The system provides for eight years of primary education, two years of lower secondary education, and two years of higher secondary education. The students who graduate from the higher secondary schools may be admitted to one of India's more than one hundred universities and thousands of colleges. The largest of these is the University of Delhi.

The Caste System

The distinctive Indian institution known as the caste system, in which heredity determines one's social class, developed from the early Aryan custom of separating people according to the work they did. The original system included four castes. Brahmins — members of the highest caste — were priests. Kshatriya were soldiers and leaders of government. Vaisya were traders and farmers. Sudra were artisans and laborers.

A fifth group, the Dalits (meaning "the oppressed"), later developed. They were called "untouchables". This was because they were outside the bounds of caste, or outcasts. The use of the term "untouchable" was outlawed at independence. And since 1951 many Dalits have benefited from government affirmative action programs. In 1997, as India celebrated 50 years of independence, K.R. Narayanan became the first president elected from the Dalit caste. Nevertheless, discrimination against the Dalits remains strong, particularly in rural areas.

The caste system is less rigid than it once was. But the country's social structure is still strongly influenced by it. And members of the same caste usually live in the same neighborhoods. An Indian born into a low-caste family cannot change to a higher caste by education or wealth.

Family Life

Family ties are very strong in India. The Indian family is made up not only of a husband and wife and their children but also includes a large extended family. Sons bring their wives to their parents' home to bring up their children. Often the extended family also includes grandsons and their wives and children. Daughters and granddaughters remain in the family until they marry. Then they become part of their husband's extended family. Marriages are usually arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. Dating takes place only among Westernized Indians.

Traditionally men took care of family money matters and the family's relations with the outside world. Women managed the household. All members of the family respected the authority of the elders, particularly of the oldest male, in outside matters. Women had a great deal of authority in matters affecting the running of the household. Neither men nor women interfered with each other's duties.

In the traditional extended family, all the property was held together. And all able members worked together for the benefit of the entire group. This included those too old or too sick to care for themselves. After the death of the head of a family, a very large extended family would split apart. Sons started new families of their own.

In recent years, the extended family system has begun to break up as a result of new employment opportunities in the cities. Couples and their children may move away to look for jobs. Family members, however, still consider the family home their center, to which they return regularly.


Indian homes vary in different parts of the country. It depends on climate and the availability of building materials. A more expensive house may be built of brick with wooden doors and a tile roof. The house may have many rooms or just a few. And it may have one or two stories. The home of a poorer person is generally built of mud and straw with a thatched roof. It usually consists of a single story with only one or two rooms.

The majority of houses in the country have an interior courtyard around which the rooms are built. Sometimes there is an open court in front of the house. In the open court, women sit to prepare vegetables for cooking, children study their lessons, men have their hair cut, and peddlers bring wares to show. At night farmers keep cattle or other animals in one of the rooms that open on the courtyard.

In a Hindu home the kitchen is considered a sacred room. If the house does not have a separate kitchen, the cooking may be done in one corner of a large room that is also used for other purposes. The family sits on the floor mat for meals, which are eaten in or near the kitchen. People outside the family do not enter the kitchen section of the orthodox Hindu house.

In the homes of the poorer families, food is cooked on a little clay stove (chula) in one corner of the room, or in a little alcove. Food is eaten with the tips of the fingers from a bowl or tray. Hands are washed before and after eating. Poverty is widespread in India. More than one-third of the population cannot afford an adequate diet.

Most well-to-do families have a separate room for worship. Only after bathing and changing into a clean garment may one enter the "worship room." The daily bath is an important ritual among Indians. A bath may be taken near an outside well, at a tap in the house, or in rivers or lakes.

Rural Life

India is largely a nation of villages. Nearly two-thirds of the population lives in one of thousands of villages. For many, the village is both the center of farming activities and a social center.

In the western part of the Gangetic Plain of northern India, villages are large and grouped closely together. In the eastern part there are scattered villages. Each is made up of a few homes. In the Ganges Delta region of West Bengal, villages are made up of small groups of scattered houses. These houses are usually built on raised blocks above high flood level. In Rajasthan and the Deccan region the land is dry. So the houses are built close together near the few available sources of water.

Some Indian villages may have only a few hundred people. Others may have several thousand inhabitants. Some of the large villages have small shops. Generally, however, villagers do most of their buying and selling at nearby market towns or at the weekly market.

Most Indian homes in rural areas have little furniture. In northern Indian houses, many beds are made from rice straw covered with a rug. In southern Indian homes, a simple mat may serve as the bed. Each house has only a few bare essentials. This may include copper and earthenware pots for cooking, carrying water, and storing grain. A nearby lake, pond, or river supplies water for livestock and domestic use. Drinking water comes from wells.

The standard of living in Indian villages is low. To bring medical care to the rural population, health centers have been established in many areas. Each of these centers includes four to six hospital beds. Each is staffed with a doctor, several nurses, and midwives to assist women in childbirth. The more remote villages are served by roving health units made up of a doctor and a nurse traveling in a medical van.

Food and Drink

Indian food differs from region to region. But wheat and rice are staples. Most Indians do not eat beef. Chicken and lamb are expensive. Therefore, most people eat fruit and vegetables with rice or flat bread called chapati. A typical meal includes dal, a mixture of lentils or other legumes mixed with spices. Indians use a wide variety of spices to create complex flavors. Popular spices include ginger, cloves, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon. Most Indians favor tea as a beverage.

Pradyumna P. Karan
Author, The Himalayan Kingdoms

Reviewed by Bakkrishna G. Gokhale
Author, The Making of the Indian Nation


How to Cite This Article

MLA (Modern Language Association) Style:

Karan, Pradyumna P. "India." Reviewed by Bakkrishna G. Gokhale. The New Book of Knowledge. Grolier Online, 2016. Web. 5 May. 2016.

Chicago Manual of Style:

Karan, Pradyumna P. "India." Reviewed by Bakkrishna G. Gokhale. The New Book of Knowledge. Grolier Online (accessed May 5, 2016).

APA (American Psychological Association) Style:

Karan, P. P. (2016). India. (B. G. Gokhale, Rev.). The New Book of Knowledge. Retrieved May 5, 2016, from Grolier Online