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People & Society

India – the land to travel to, a haven of tourism delights, a civilization to tour through. Tourists come to India for its wealth of sights, cultural exuberance, diversity of terrain and in search of that special something, an extra punch that only India promises and delivers. Teeming with over a billion people who voice over a million concerns in fifteen hundred different languages, India is where people live with variety, thrive on diversity and are too familiar with largeness to let it boggle them. Mud huts and mansions face off across city streets. Lurid luxury and limp living are inhabitants of the same lane.

From the smoky ma ngroves of the Sunderbans to the steaming Thar Desert, sizzling cities like Mumbai and Delhi to the scintillating villages of Khajuraho and Hampi, from the heights of the Himalayas to the deep blue waters around the Andamans, India is a travel haven – a tour package that frustrates and delights, as demanding as it is rewarding.

It demands that the traveller be prepared for its own strange forms of tourism offerings - the crowds at Pushkar, for pushy mendicants at Haridwar, for high commercialism at spiritual retreats. But equally, it means that he be prepared for an overwhelming warmth in the people, ease of conversation, and to be stunned into speechlessness by the beauty, sometimes the manmade and often the natural.

But what exactly is it that gets two and a half million people to pack their bags, book their tickets, buy industrial size cans of suntan lotion and enough toilet paper to supply the entire population of Liechtenstein for a month, and wing their way to India? Given that this is the land of the Taj, granted too that tea, tobacco, tempestuous democracy and terrific travel are a great combination but surely that's not reason enough.
There must be more because between truisms and half-truths, India has inspired more than any one place's fair share of travel lore. And, perhaps that's what it is - the legends of India - that's what inspires people from far and near to travel here, to sort out for themselves what's true and what's just a whole lot of tourism pamphlet hype.

If that's what you're going to be doing, here's a bit of India tourism mantra to help you on your way: expect nothing and everything will be yours.

History - The story so far
Indian history can be roughly divided into the 6 periods of Ancient India, Medieval India, the years of the Company, colonial times as part of The Raj, the struggle for Independence and finally, post-Independence. India, the geopolitical entity as she stands today is a post-Independence phenomenon. It was as recently as "the stroke of the midnight hour" on 15th August 1947 when Nehru pronounced her "tryst with destiny" that India woke "to life and freedom".

One of man’s oldest civilizations was the settlement at the Indus Valley. The degree of sophistication that archaeologists found in their settlements almost belies the fact that these people lived almost 4000 years ago. The civilization had meticulously planned cities; streets met at right angles, the sewage system puts present day India to shame, and the tools and large granaries show that they knew more than a thing or two about agriculture. Seals of the Indus Valley have on them the only ancient script that is yet to be deciphered. The most important Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro are in present day Pakistan.

The civilization died out in the 1500 BC. The reasons are a still a matter of contention and they range from the coming of the central Asian Aryan tribes to the changing of the course of the Indus River. While both these are true, it’s difficult to ascertain that these are what brought the end of the Dravidian civilization in the Indus valley. By 300 BC the previously nomadic Aryans had settled down in the region of north India. They had brought with them Sanskrit, a member of the Indo-European family of languages akin to Latin and Greek. They also brought the spoken literature of the Hindu life-philosophy, horse-driven chariots and a social system of caste differentiation.

The following millennium saw the waxing and waning of empires. In the north the great dynasties were those of the Mauryas (300-200 BC) during which period Buddhism received royal patronage, and the Guptas during whose reign the subcontinent is said to have enjoyed a "golden period" (300-500 AD). The intervening period had new settlers like the Shakas and Kushanas forming lesser kingdoms in the area around the Ganges. The influence of these Aryan kingdoms rarely reached the south. Regional dynasties like the Andhras, Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas ruled kingdoms in the south of the Deccan Plateau and lower down the peninsula. When unable to withstand the pressures of central Asian invaders the Gupta Empire crumbled, the north got divided into strong regional kingdoms (except for a brief period from 606 to 647 under the poet king Harshavardhan). This was the time that the Rajputs grew to prominence in the west.

Within 300 years of being founded in the 7th century, Islam had reached the western parts. But it wasn’t until the coming of Turkish-Afghan raiders like Mahmud of Ghazni (997 to 1030 AD) and Muhammad Ghauri (in 1192) that Islam made significant inroads to the heart of north India. The first Muslim empire was set up by a general of Ghauri’s, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, which is when the Delhi Sultanate came into being. The temptation of privileges extended to the faithful, and Hinduism’s own severe caste system made many convert.

The Delhi Sultanate was ridden with internal strife and saw no less than 5 dynasties come to power between 1206 and 1526. In 1526 a young Central Asian warlord who had already captured Kabul, set his eyes on the vast land that lay to the south. Tales of riches had reached his ears and Babur, descendent of Genghis Khan and Timurlane made good his ancestral legacy by defeating the Sultanate’s armies in the Battle of Panipat.

In a land of oppressive heat, and such a variety of people that he could hardly make sense of it, Babur founded the Mughal dynasty. Babur began the work of bringing the delicate patterns of Islamic art, the detailed craft of miniature painting, the severe symmetry of formal garden craft to Delhi. Till Aurangzeb, the 6th king of the dynasty, the Mughals had a liberal policy of religious tolerance and that helped them weave together a largely stable and tight knit kingdom that spanned a larger territory than any previously had. It was a time of plenty and emperors like Jehangir (1605-1627) and Shah Jehan (1628-1657) could focus their attentions on art, architecture and culture. It was the time when the Taj Mahal was built, as was the Red Fort, and the coffers contained the Koh-i-Noor and the ruby and emerald studded Peacock Throne. Aurangzeb’s religious zeal won him widespread resentment. The Mughal Empire began unravelling, unable to withstand the Maratha chieftain Shivaji’s guerrilla warfare. The last really effective Mughal king was Bahadur Shah (1707-1712). After him Mughal power and prestige declined steadily.

The first British East India Company officials landed in India in 1602. Eventually their interests ceased to be purely mercantile as they assumed more political roles. After the Revolt of 1857, the Crown took over the reigns and India officially came to be a part of the vast British Empire. The Raj settled into ruling this vast dominion and did so till in 1947 when the country was handed back to the leaders of the freedom movement. Gandhi and Nehru led the largely non-violent movement from the front with the backing of Congress and the entire nation. However, partly because of the British ‘divide-and-rule’ policy and internal contradictions in the national movement itself, a communal divide came to be. When India finally achieved freedom, it was combined with the trauma of partition and the formation of Pakistan.

Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India on 15th August 1947 at the head of a Congress government. The Congress hegemony ended in the late 60s, but it came to power intermittently through the 70s and 80s. The Nehru legacy was strong enough to make both his daughter Indira (who declared the infamous internal Emergency), and grandson Rajiv, Prime Minister. In the 90s the era of coalition politics had begun and democracy had come of age.

India is a federal republic with a very strong centre. The world’s largest democracy, it has universal adult suffrage above 18 years. General elections are scheduled every 5 years when the entire country participates in electing members to the Lower House of Parliament called the Lok Sabha. Members to the upper house are elected indirectly.

The head of state is the President. The head of government is the Prime Minister. In 2004 elections, NDA, the coalition lead by the Bhartiya Janta Party was defeated by the Congress. The Congress is currently the governing party and the Prime Minister is Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Though the constitution proclaims India to be a socialist country, it is in truth a mixed economy with a strong and influential private sector. Public sector undertakings controlled by the state are involved in many industries though the need for disinvestment is being increasingly felt. India has a planned economy.

It is largely an agrarian economy. Rice, wheat, oilseed, cotton, jute, tea, coffee, rubber, sugarcane and potatoes are the bulk of the produce. Livestock include cattle, water buffalo, sheep, goats and poultry. Coastal communities and those who live on riverbanks are often dependent on fishing for livelihood.

The major foreign exchange earner for India is textile, followed by Information Technology. With Indian IT professionals making it big in the United States and Indian IT companies proving to be among the best in the crop, there is new international interest in Indian professionals. Precious and semi-precious stones, leather products, engineering goods and chemicals are also exported.

Major trading partners include US, UK, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan and the UAE.
Major industries include steel, chemicals, food processing, steel, transportation equipment, cement, mining, petroleum and machinery.
Around 25% of the population lives below the poverty line.
GDP: $2.664 trillion (purchasing power parity)
Per Capita income: $2600 (purchasing power parity)

From the highest point of the Kanchenjunga peak at 8598 meters to the lowest point at 0 meters at the Indian Ocean, India is the land that spells variety.

The 7th largest country in the world, it covers a total area of 3,287,590 sq km in area. It lies in south Asia jutting into the Indian Ocean in its south, undulating over the frozen wasteland of the Himalayas in the north, braving drought in its desert-like west and surviving fierce floods in its east. A substantial portion of northern India is the fertile plain where the great Gangetic riverine system irrigates vast expanses of the land bringing agrarian well being. The Deccan Plateau in Central India is rich in minerals. The Western and Eastern Ghats fringe the southern peninsula and are the setting for coffee, tea, cashew plantations, the Nilgiri langur and gaur, and the silversmith Toda tribal.

In the north-west, Pakistan borders India, and to the east lie China, Nepal, Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh. To the south lies the teardrop shaped island nation of Sri Lanka. Beyond the peninsula the waters of the Bay of Bengal in the east, the Arabian Sea in the west and the Indian Ocean at the very south wet the shores of India’s 7000 km long coastline. Great vanquishing rivers are worshipped. The Narmada, Godavari, Krishna, Cauveri, the Brahmaputra, Ganga and Yamuna criss-cross the terrain bringing prosperity and fertility and often wreaking havoc in flood. They inspire songs and they bring misery; increasingly they are bringing hydroelectric power to millions across the country.

The Tropic of Cancer splits India in half. Sub tropical jungles house the Royal Bengal tiger, multiple species of deer and antelope, the Asian elephant, the Common, Golden and Nilgiri langurs, the one horned rhino in the forests of Assam, prides of Asiatic lions in the dry wilds of Sasan Gir in the west. And there is much more: river dolphins in the Ganges and Brahmaputra, crocodiles, waters that are teeming with mahseer, trout, carp, fresh water prawns, woods with fishing cat, civets, leopard, the cobra, krait and python, the grey mongoose, the gaur, the sloth bear.

There are over 1200 bird species including the Great Indian Bustard, the Malabar hornbill, Paradise Flycatcher, cormorants, egrets, darters and migratory Siberian cranes in the winter. India’s jungles, rivers, streams are simply bursting with wildlife, much of it protected in her 80 National Parks and 441 Sanctuaries. Camels in the deserts of Rajasthan, stoic yaks, sure-footed Himalayan Tahr and mountain goats in the north extend the scope beyond just that which is typical to Asian sub tropical forests of sal, shisham and teak. There are mangrove forests in the east and evergreen conifers in the upper climes of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

Common flowers include roses, bougainvilleas, sunny marigold, water lilies, lotus and fragrant jasmine. In the breathtaking Valley of Flowers a sea of lilies, poppy, daisies, holly, pansy, geranium, zinnia, petunia, fox, caryopsis dianthus, saxifrage and calendula stretches out in the shadow of towering snowbound Himalayan peaks.

In a country where topography varies wildly, climatic conditions are only bound to vary wildly too.
Classified as a hot tropical country by many, that is a definition that holds true for most of but not all of India. Exceptions include the northern states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir in the north and Sikkim in the northeastern hills.

In most of India summer is hot. It begins in April and continues till the beginning of October. The heat peaks in June with temperatures in the northern plains and the west soaring above 46° C. The monsoons hit the country during this period too, beginning 1st of June when they are supposed to find the Kerala coast. Moisture laden trade winds sweep the country bringing relief to a parched northern India but devastation in the east where the rivers Brahmaputra and Ganga flood annually. Tamil Nadu in the south receives rainfall between October and December, beneficiary of the retreating monsoons.

India’s extensive coastline lies almost entirely below the Tropic of Cancer. The coast is usually warm and moist, prone to heavy rains in the monsoons and high summer temperatures. The eastern coast is vulnerable to cyclones. Winters here are mild and pleasantly sunny.

Hill Stations are the happy peculiarity that came up here when British wives and officers needed to flee the oppressive heat and malaria of the plains. Quaint towns that buzz along "mall roads", tucked away in hills all over India, they are now weekend getaways at the height of summer for families and couples from India’s cities.

The plains in the north and even the barren countryside of Rajasthan reel under a cold wave every year in December-January. Minimum temperatures could dip below 4° C but maximum temperatures usually do not fall lower than 12° C. In the northern high altitude areas of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, and parts of Uttar Pradesh, it snows through the winter and even summer months are only mildly warm.

The east receives rain from April to August. September to November is relatively dry and the region only has sporadic showers. There are winter rains in December and January. This abates for two months and then it’s time for the monsoon season yet again. The central plateau has similar climate to the north but the mercury does not dip as low in winter. It rains from mid-June to September.

People & Society
The fabric of Indian society is woven with myriad threads. The result is multi-textured, many layered and though this diversity has fuelled some dissension, it continues to be India’s strength.

India is predominantly Hindu and it also has the world’s largest population of Muslims. Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians (Roman Catholic, Protestant and Syrian Christian), Jews and Zoroastrians people this great land. There is phenomenal ethnic diversity too. While the people of the north are mainly Indo-Aryan, in the south they are mostly Dravidian. The tribal population in the northeast is of Tibeto-Burmese extract, while the ‘adivasis’ of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat are probably proto Australoid. Language varies almost every ten miles and India’s billion-strong population has a total of 1535 recognized dialects.

One of the most marked things about Indian society is the great diversity. This applies to religion, ethnicity and language as much as to the economic situation. The yawning gap between the rich and the poor is bridged by a large middle class of small businessmen, professionals, bureaucrats etc.

Most Indians actively practice their religion, and despite the creeping westernisation, most of India is socially orthodox. That means that caste distinctions have not been forgotten, man-woman interaction may be frowned upon, and the public display of affection is strictly no-no. The cow is sacred and ‘all ye who forget that-be doomed’. The left hand, which is an indispensable tool for Indian ablutions, is considered impure and isn’t used in passing things around.

On the whole the Indians are a warm welcoming people. The guest is next only to God and crooks and touts notwithstanding, and curious looks and probing questions notwithstanding, you’ll find that they are great hosts. Their idiosyncrasies just make it all the more interesting; be patient and you will learn to love the complete package.

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