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India I History, Map, Poplation, Economy, & Facts I Briannica

India, country that occupies the greater part of South Asia. Its capital is New Delhi, built in the 20th century just south of the historic hub of Old Delhi to serve as India’s administrative centre. Its government is a constitutional republic that represents a highly diverse population consisting of thousands of ethnic groups and likely hundreds of languages.With roughly one-sixth of the world’s total population, India is the second most populous country, after China.

Taj Mahal, India

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It is known from archaeological evidence that a highly sophisticated urbanized culture—the Indus civilization—dominated the northwestern part of the subcontinent from about 2600 to 2000 bce. From that period on, India functioned as a virtually self-contained political and cultural arena, which gave rise to a distinctive tradition that was associated primarily with Hinduism, the roots of which can largely be traced to the Indus civilization. Other religions, notably Buddhism and Jainism, originated in India—though their presence there is now quite small—and throughout the centuries residents of the subcontinent developed a rich intellectual life in such fields as mathematics, astronomy, architecture, literature, music, and the fine arts.

India
IndiaEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Throughout its history, India was intermittently disturbed by incursions from beyond its northern mountain wall. Especially important was the coming of Islam, brought from the northwest by Arab, Turkish, Persian, and other raiders beginning early in the 8th century ce. Eventually, some of those raiders stayed; by the 13th century much of the subcontinent was under Muslim rule, and the number of Muslims steadily increased. Only after the arrival of the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama in 1498 and the subsequent establishment of European maritime supremacy in the region did India become exposed to major external influences arriving by sea, a process that culminated in the decline of the ruling Muslim elite and absorption of the subcontinent within the British Empire. 00:00 02:38

Direct administration by the British, which began in 1858, effected a political and economic unification of the subcontinent. When British rule came to an end in 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned along religious lines into two separate countries—India, with a majority of Hindus, and Pakistan, with a majority of Muslims; the eastern portion of Pakistan later split off to form Bangladesh. Many British institutions stayed in place (such as the parliamentary system of government); English continued to be a widely used lingua franca; and India remained within the Commonwealth. Hindi became the official language (and a number of other local languages achieved official status), while a vibrant English-language intelligentsia thrived. Get exclusive access to content from our 1768 First Edition with your subscription. Subscribe today

India remains one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Apart from its many religions and sects, India is home to innumerable castes and tribes, as well as to more than a dozen major and hundreds of minor linguistic groups from several language families unrelated to one another. Religious minorities, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, still account for a significant proportion of the population; collectively, their numbers exceed the populations of all countries except China. Earnest attempts have been made to instill a spirit of nationhood in so varied a population, but tensions between neighbouring groups have remained and at times have resulted in outbreaks of violence. Yet social legislation has done much to alleviate the disabilities previously suffered by formerly “untouchable” castes, tribal populations, women, and other traditionally disadvantaged segments of society. At independence, India was blessed with several leaders of world stature, most notably Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who were able to galvanize the masses at home and bring prestige to India abroad. The country has played an increasing role in global affairs.

Contemporary India’s increasing physical prosperity and cultural dynamism—despite continued domestic challenges and economic inequality—are seen in its well-developed infrastructure and a highly diversified industrial base, in its pool of scientific and engineering personnel (one of the largest in the world), in the pace of its agricultural expansion, and in its rich and vibrant cultural exports of music, literature, and cinema. Though the country’s population remains largely rural, India has three of the most populous and cosmopolitan cities in the world—Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta), and Delhi. Three other Indian cities—Bengaluru (Bangalore), Chennai (Madras), and Hyderabad—are among the world’s fastest-growing high-technology centres, and most of the world’s major information technology and software companies now have offices in India.

Mumbai, India: Gateway to India monument
Mumbai, India: Gateway to India monumentGateway to India monument near the entrance to Mumbai (Bombay) Harbour, western India, on the east coast of the Arabian Sea.© Smarta/Shutterstock.com

The history section of the articles Pakistan and Bangladesh discuss those countries since their creation.Joseph E. SchwartzbergThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Land

India’s frontier, which is roughly one-third coastline, abuts six countries. It is bounded to the northwest by Pakistan, to the north by Nepal, China, and Bhutan; and to the east by Myanmar (Burma). Bangladesh to the east is surrounded by India to the north, east, and west. The island country of Sri Lanka is situated some 40 miles (65 km) off the southeast coast of India across the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar.

Himachal Pradesh, India: Kullu Valley
Himachal Pradesh, India: Kullu ValleySettlement in the Kullu Valley, central Himachal Pradesh, India.The Holton Collection/SuperStock

The land of India—together with Bangladesh and most of Pakistan—forms a well-defined subcontinent, set off from the rest of Asia by the imposing northern mountain rampart of the Himalayas and by adjoining mountain ranges to the west and east. In area, India ranks as the seventh largest country in the world.

Himalayas
HimalayasForested slopes of the foothills of the Himalayan mountains near Kalimpong, northern West Bengal, India.© pilesasmiles/iStock.com

Much of India’s territory lies within a large peninsula, surrounded by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east; Cape Comorin, the southernmost point of the Indian mainland, marks the dividing line between those two bodies of water. India has two union territories composed entirely of islands: Lakshadweep, in the Arabian Sea, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

Relief

It is now generally accepted that India’s geographic position, continental outline, and basic geologic structure resulted from a process of plate tectonics—the shifting of enormous, rigid crustal plates over the Earth’s underlying layer of molten material. India’s landmass, which forms the northwestern portion of the Indian-Australian Plate, began to drift slowly northward toward the much larger Eurasian Plate several hundred million years ago (after the former broke away from the ancient southern-hemispheric supercontinent known as Gondwana, or Gondwanaland). When the two finally collided (approximately 50 million years ago), the northern edge of the Indian-Australian Plate was thrust under the Eurasian Plate at a low angle. The collision reduced the speed of the oncoming plate, but the underthrusting, or subduction, of the plate has continued into contemporary times.

The effects of the collision and continued subduction are numerous and extremely complicated. An important consequence, however, was the slicing off of crustal rock from the top of the underthrusting plate. Those slices were thrown back onto the northern edge of the Indian landmass and came to form much of the Himalayan mountain system. The new mountains—together with vast amounts of sediment eroded from them—were so heavy that the Indian-Australian Plate just south of the range was forced downward, creating a zone of crustal subsidence. Continued rapid erosion of the Himalayas added to the sediment accumulation, which was subsequently carried by mountain streams to fill the subsidence zone and cause it to sink more.

India’s present-day relief features have been superimposed on three basic structural units: the Himalayas in the north, the Deccan (peninsular plateau region) in the south, and the Indo-Gangetic Plain (lying over the subsidence zone) between the two. Further information on the geology of India is found in the article Asia.

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India

India

flag of IndiaNational anthem of IndiaOfficial nameBharat (Hindi); Republic of India (English)Form of governmentmultiparty federal republic with two legislative houses (Council of States [2451]; House of the People [5452])Head of statePresident: Ram Nath KovindHead of governmentPrime Minister: Narendra ModiCapitalNew DelhiOfficial languagesHindi; EnglishOfficial religionnoneMonetary unitIndian rupee ₨3Currency Exchange Rate1 USD equals 74.802 Indian rupeePopulation(2019 est.) 1,387,037,000Total area (sq mi)1,222,550Total area (sq km)3,166,391Urban-rural populationUrban: (2018) 34%Rural: (2018) 66%Life expectancy at birthMale: (2017) 67.6 yearsFemale: (2017) 70.1 yearsLiteracy: percentage of population age 15 and over literateMale: (2015) 81.4%Female: (2015) 60.9%GNI per capita (U.S.$)(2017) 1,800

  • 1Includes 12 members appointed by the president.
  • 2Includes 2 Anglo-Indians appointed by the president.
  • 3The first symbol for the rupee was officially approved in July 2010, and coins and banknotes with the new symbol began being issued in late 2011.

The Himalayas

The Himalayas (from the Sanskrit words hima, “snow,” and alaya, “abode”), the loftiest mountain system in the world, form the northern limit of India. That great, geologically young mountain arc is about 1,550 miles (2,500 km) long, stretching from the peak of Nanga Parbat (26,660 feet [8,126 metres]) in the Pakistani-administered portion of the Kashmir region to the Namcha Barwa peak in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Between those extremes the mountains fall across India, southern Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. The width of the system varies between 125 and 250 miles (200 and 400 km).

Himalayas
HimalayasPortion of the Himalayas in Jammu and Kashmir, India.© jayk67/Fotolia

Within India the Himalayas are divided into three longitudinal belts, called the Outer, Lesser, and Great Himalayas. At each extremity there is a great bend in the system’s alignment, from which a number of lower mountain ranges and hills spread out. Those in the west lie wholly within Pakistan and Afghanistan, while those to the east straddle India’s border with Myanmar (Burma). North of the Himalayas are the Plateau of Tibet and various Trans-Himalayan ranges, only a small part of which, in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir state (in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir), are within the territorial limits of India.

Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India: Nagin Lake
Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India: Nagin LakeHouseboats along the shore of Nagin Lake, Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India.Gerald Cubitt

Because of the continued subduction of the Indian peninsula against the Eurasian Plate, the Himalayas and the associated eastern ranges remain tectonically active. As a result, the mountains are still rising, and earthquakes—often accompanied by landslides—are common. Several since 1900 have been devastating, including one in 1934 in what is now Bihar state that killed more than 10,000 people. In 2001 another tremor (the Bhuj earthquake), farther from the mountains, in Gujarat state, was less powerful but caused extensive damage, taking the lives of more than 20,000 people and leaving more than 500,000 homeless. Still others—notably the 2005 quake in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and the 2015 temblor in Nepal—principally affected those regions but also caused widespread damage and hundreds of deaths in adjacent parts of India. The relatively high frequency and wide distribution of earthquakes likewise have generated controversies about the safety and advisability of several hydroelectric and irrigation projects.

The Outer Himalayas (the Siwalik Range)

The southernmost of the three mountain belts are the Outer Himalayas, also called the Siwalik (or Shiwalik) Range. Crests in the Siwaliks, averaging from 3,000 to 5,000 feet (900 to 1,500 metres) in elevation, seldom exceed 6,500 feet (2,000 metres). The range narrows as it moves east and is hardly discernible beyond the Duars, a plains region in West Bengal state. Interspersed in the Siwaliks are heavily cultivated flat valleys (duns) with a high population density. To the south of the range is the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Weakly indurated, largely deforested, and subject to heavy rain and intense erosion, the Siwaliks provide much of the sediment transported onto the plain.

The Lesser Himalayas

To the north of the Siwaliks and separated from them by a fault zone, the Lesser Himalayas (also called the Lower or Middle Himalayas) rise to heights ranging from 11,900 to 15,100 feet (3,600 to 4,600 metres). Their ancient name is Himachal (Sanskrit: hima, “snow,” and acal, “mountain”). The mountains are composed of both ancient crystalline and geologically young rocks, sometimes in a reversed stratigraphic sequence because of thrust faulting. The Lesser Himalayas are traversed by numerous deep gorges formed by swift-flowing streams (some of them older than the mountains themselves), which are fed by glaciers and snowfields to the north.

The Great Himalayas

The northernmost Great, or Higher, Himalayas (in ancient times, the Himadri), with crests generally above 16,000 feet (4,900 metres) in elevation, are composed of ancient crystalline rocks and old marine sedimentary formations. Between the Great and Lesser Himalayas are several fertile longitudinal vales; in India the largest is the Vale of Kashmir, an ancient lake basin with an area of about 1,700 square miles (4,400 square km). The Great Himalayas, ranging from 30 to 45 miles (50 to 75 km) wide, include some of the world’s highest peaks. The highest in the range, Mount Everest (at 29,035 feet [8,850 metres]; see Researcher’s Note: Height of Mount Everest), is on the China-Nepal border, but India also has many lofty peaks. Notable among those is Kanchenjunga (28,169 feet [8,586 metres]) on the border of Nepal and the state of Sikkim, which is the world’s third tallest peak and India’s highest point. Other high mountains in India include Nanda Devi (25,646 feet [7,817 metres]), Kamet (25,446 feet [7,755 metres]), and Trisul (23,359 feet [7,120]) in Uttarakhand. The Great Himalayas lie mostly above the line of perpetual snow and thus contain most of the Himalayan glaciers.

Kanchenjunga
KanchenjungaKanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, in the Great Himalayas on the border between Nepal and Sikkim state, India.© saps/Fotolia

Associated ranges and hills

In general, the various regional ranges and hills run parallel to the Himalayas’ main axis. Those are especially prominent in the northwest, where the Zaskar Range and the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges (all in Jammu and Kashmir state) run to the northeast of the Great Himalayas. Also in Jammu and Kashmir is the Pir Panjal Range, which, extending along the southwest of the Great Himalayas, forms the western and southern flanks of the Vale of Kashmir.

India: Ladakh mountain range
India: Ladakh mountain rangeBarren mountains of Ladakh, India.Courtesy of Iffat Fatima

At its eastern extremity, the Himalayas give way to a number of smaller ranges running northeast-southwest—including the heavily forested Patkai Range and the Naga and Mizo hills—which extend along India’s borders with Myanmar and the southeastern panhandle of Bangladesh. Within the Naga Hills, the reedy Logtak Lake, in the Manipur River valley, is an important feature. Branching off from those hills to the northwest are the Mikir Hills, and to the west are the Jaintia, Khasi, and Garo hills, which run just north of India’s border with Bangladesh. Collectively, the latter group is also designated as the Shillong (Meghalaya) Plateau.

The Indo-Gangetic Plain

The second great structural component of India, the Indo-Gangetic Plain (also called the North Indian Plain), lies between the Himalayas and the Deccan. The plain occupies the Himalayan foredeep, formerly a seabed but now filled with river-borne alluvium to depths of up to 6,000 feet (1,800 metres). The plain stretches from the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab in the west, where it is watered by the Indus River and its tributaries, eastward to the Brahmaputra River valley in Assam state.

Varanasi, India: Ganges River
Varanasi, India: Ganges RiverMorning prayers along the Ganges River, Varanasi, India.© Jedraszak/iStock.com

The Ganges (Ganga) River basin (in India, mainly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states) forms the central and principal part of the plain. The eastern portion is made up of the combined delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, which, though mainly in Bangladesh, also occupies a part of the adjacent Indian state of West Bengal. That deltaic area is characterized by annual flooding attributed to intense monsoon rainfall, an exceedingly gentle gradient, and an enormous discharge that the alluvium-choked rivers cannot contain within their channels. The Indus River basin, extending west from Delhi, forms the western part of the plain; the Indian portion is mainly in the states of Haryana and Punjab.

The overall gradient of the plain is virtually imperceptible, averaging only about 6 inches per mile (95 mm per km) in the Ganges basin and slightly more along the Indus and Brahmaputra. Even so, to those who till its soils, there is an important distinction between bhangar—the slightly elevated, terraced land of older alluvium—and khadar, the more fertile fresh alluvium on the low-lying floodplain. In general, the ratio of bhangar areas to those of khadar increases upstream along all major rivers. An exception to the largely monotonous relief is encountered in the southwestern portion of the plain, where there are gullied badlands centring on the Chambal River. That area has long been famous for harbouring violent gangs of criminals called dacoits, who find shelter in its many hidden ravines.

The Great Indian, or Thar, Desert forms an important southern extension of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. It is mostly in northwestern India but also extends into eastern Pakistan and is mainly an area of gently undulating terrain, and within it are several areas dominated by shifting sand dunes and numerous isolated hills. The latter provide visible evidence of the fact that the thin surface deposits of the region, partially alluvial and partially wind-borne, are underlain by the much older Indian-Australian Plate, of which the hills are structurally a part.

Pushkar, Rajasthan, India: Hindu pilgrims
Pushkar, Rajasthan, India: Hindu pilgrimsHindu pilgrims gathering at Pushkar in the Great Indian Desert (Thar Desert), Rajasthan, India.© Brian A. Vikander/West Light
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The Deccan

The remainder of India is designated, not altogether accurately, as either the Deccan plateau or peninsular India. It is actually a topographically variegated region that extends well beyond the peninsula—that portion of the country lying between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal—and includes a substantial area to the north of the Vindhya Range, which has popularly been regarded as the divide between Hindustan (northern India) and the Deccan (from Sanskrit dakshina, “south”).

Kerala, India: tea plantation
Kerala, India: tea plantationTea plantation in the foothills of the Western Ghats, Deccan region, Kerala, India.© michel Hasson/Fotolia

Britannica Quiz Discover India Which city lies on the Ganges river? What is the capital of Goa? Sort out the facts in this quiz devoted to the capitals, rivers, and culture that flourish in India.

Having once constituted a segment of the ancient continent of Gondwana, that land is the oldest and most geologically stable in India. The plateau is mainly between 1,000 and 2,500 feet (300 to 750 metres) above sea level, and its general slope descends toward the east. A number of the hill ranges of the Deccan have been eroded and rejuvenated several times, and only their remaining summits testify to their geologic past. The main peninsular block is composed of gneiss, granite-gneiss, schists, and granites, as well as of more geologically recent basaltic lava flows.

The Western Ghats

The Western Ghats, also called the Sahyadri, are a north-south chain of mountains or hills that mark the western edge of the Deccan plateau region. They rise abruptly from the coastal plain of the Arabian Sea as an escarpment of variable height, but their eastern slopes are much more gentle. The Western Ghats contain a series of residual plateaus and peaks separated by saddles and passes. The hill station (resort) of Mahabaleshwar, located on a laterite plateau, is one of the highest elevations in the northern half, rising to 4,700 feet (1,430 metres). The chain attains greater heights in the south, where the mountains terminate in several uplifted blocks bordered by steep slopes on all sides. Those include the Nilgiri Hills, with their highest peak, Doda Betta (8,652 feet [2,637 metres]); and the Anaimalai, Palni, and Cardamom hills, all three of which radiate from the highest peak in the Western Ghats, Anai Peak (Anai Mudi, 8,842 feet [2,695 metres]). The Western Ghats receive heavy rainfall, and several major rivers—most notably the Krishna (Kistna) and the two holy rivers, the Godavari and the Kaveri (Cauvery)—have their headwaters there.

Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu, India: Anaimalai Hills
Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu, India: Anaimalai HillsVillage in the Anaimalai Hills, Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu state, India.Gerald Cubitt

The Eastern Ghats

The Eastern Ghats are a series of discontinuous low ranges running generally northeast-southwest parallel to the coast of the Bay of Bengal. The largest single sector—the remnant of an ancient mountain range that eroded and subsequently rejuvenated—is found in the Dandakaranya region between the Mahanadi and Godavari rivers. That narrow range has a central ridge, the highest peak of which is Arma Konda (5,512 feet [1,680 metres]) in northeastern Andhra Pradesh state. The hills become subdued farther southwest, where they are traversed by the Godavari River through a gorge 40 miles (65 km) long. Still farther southwest, beyond the Krishna River, the Eastern Ghats appear as a series of low ranges and hills, including the Erramala, Nallamala, Velikonda, and Palkonda. Southwest of the city of Chennai (Madras), the Eastern Ghats continue as the Javadi and Shevaroy hills, beyond which they merge with the Western Ghats.

Inland regions

The northernmost portion of the Deccan may be termed the peninsular foreland. That large ill-defined area lies between the peninsula proper to the south (roughly demarcated by the Vindhya Range) and the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Great Indian Desert (beyond the Aravalli Range) to the north.

Aravalli Range
Aravalli RangeAravalli Range, northern India.Nataraja

The Aravalli (or Aravali) Range runs southwest-northeast for more than 450 miles (725 km) from a highland node near Ahmadabad, Gujarat, northeast to Delhi. Those mountains are composed of ancient rocks and are divided into several parts, in one of which lies Sambhar Salt Lake. Their highest summit is Guru Peak (5,650 feet [1,722 metres]), on Mount Abu. The Aravallis form a divide between the west-flowing streams, draining into the desert or the Rann of Kachchh (Kutch), and the Chambal and its tributaries within the Ganges River catchment area.

Between the Aravallis and the Vindhya Range lies the fertile, basaltic Malwa Plateau. The plateau gradually rises southward toward the hills of the Vindhya Range, which is actually a south-facing escarpment deeply eroded by short streams flowing into the valley of the Narmada River below. The escarpment appears from the south as an imposing range of mountains. The Narmada valley forms the western and principal portion of the Narmada-Son trough, a continuous depression running southwest-northeast, mostly at the base of the Vindhya Range, for about 750 miles (1,200 km).

To the east of the peninsular foreland lies the mineral-rich Chota Nagpur plateau region (mostly within Jharkhand, northwestern Odisha [Orissa], and Chhattisgarh states). It is a region of numerous scarps separating areas of rolling terrain. To the southwest of the Chota Nagpur plateau is the Chhattisgarh Plain, centred in Chhattisgarh on the upper course of the Mahanadi River.

Most of the inland area south of the peninsular foreland and the Chota Nagpur plateau is characterized by rolling terrain and generally low relief, within which a number of hill ranges, some of them mesalike formations, run in various directions. Occupying much of the northwestern portion of the peninsula (most of Maharashtra and some bordering areas of Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, and Karnataka) is the Deccan lava plateau. The mesa-like features are especially characteristic of that large fertile area, which is cut across by the Satpura, Ajanta, and Balaghat ranges.

Coastal areas

Most of the coast of India flanks the Eastern and Western Ghats. In the northwest, however, much of coastal Gujarat lies to the northwest of the Western Ghats, extending around the Gulf of Khambhat (Cambay) and into the salt marshes of the Kathiawar and Kachchh (Kutch) peninsulas. Those tidal marshes include the Great Rann of Kachchh along the border with Pakistan and the Little Rann of Kachchh between the two peninsulas. Because the level of the marshes rises markedly during the rainy season, the Kachchh Peninsula normally becomes an island for several months each year.

The area farther south, especially the stretch from Daman to Goa (known as the Konkan coast), is indented with rias (flooded valleys) extending inland into narrow riverine plains. Those plains are dominated by low-level lateritic plateaus and are marked by alternating headlands and bays, the latter often sheltering crescent-shaped beaches. From Goa south to Cape Comorin (the southernmost tip of India) is the Malabar coastal plain, which was formed by the deposition of sediment along the shoreline. The plain, varying between 15 and 60 miles (25 to 100 km) wide, is characterized by lagoons and brackish, navigable backwater channels.

The predominantly deltaic eastern coastal plain is an area of deep sedimentation. Over most of its length it is considerably wider than the plain on the western coast. The major deltas, from south to north, are of the Kaveri, the Krishna-Godavari, the Mahanadi, and the Ganges-Brahmaputra rivers. The last of those is some 190 miles (300 km) wide, but only about one-third of it lies within India. Traversed by innumerable distributaries, the Ganges delta is an ill-drained region, and the western part within Indian territory has become moribund because of shifts in the channels of the Ganges. Tidal incursions extend far inland, and any small temporary rise in sea level could submerge Kolkata (Calcutta), located about 95 miles (155 km) from the head of the Bay of Bengal. The eastern coastal plain includes several lagoons, the largest of which, Pulicat and Chilka (Chilika) lakes, have resulted from sediment being deposited along the shoreline.

Islands

Several archipelagoes in the Indian Ocean are politically a part of India. The union territory of Lakshadweep is a group of small coral atolls in the Arabian Sea to the west of the Malabar Coast. Far off the eastern coast, separating the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, lie the considerably larger and hillier chains of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, also a union territory; the Andamans are closer to Myanmar and the Nicobars closer to Indonesia than to the Indian mainland.

Havelock Island
Havelock IslandBeach resort on Havelock Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India.© Lukas Hlavac/Fotolia

Drainage

More than 70 percent of India’s territory drains into the Bay of Bengal via the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system and a number of large and small peninsular rivers. Areas draining into the Arabian Sea, accounting for about 20 percent of the total, lie partially within the Indus drainage basin (in northwestern India) and partially within a completely separate set of drainage basins well to the south (in Gujarat, western Madhya Pradesh, northern Maharashtra, and areas west of the Western Ghats). Most of the remaining area, less than 10 percent of the total, lies in regions of interior drainage, notably in the Great Indian Desert of Rajasthan state (another is in the Aksai Chin, a barren plateau in a portion of Kashmir administered by China but claimed by India). Finally, less than 1 percent of India’s area, along the border with Myanmar, drains into the Andaman Sea via tributaries of the Irrawaddy River.

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Drainage into the Bay of Bengal

The Ganges-Brahmaputra river system

The Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, together with their tributaries, drain about one-third of India. The Ganges (Ganga), considered sacred by the country’s Hindu population, is 1,560 miles (2,510 km) long. Although its deltaic portion lies mostly in Bangladesh, the course of the Ganges within India is longer than that of any of the country’s other rivers. It has numerous headstreams that are fed by runoff and meltwater from Himalayan glaciers and mountain peaks. The main headwater, the Bhagirathi River, rises at an elevation of about 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) at the foot of the Gangotri Glacier, considered sacred by Hindus.

The Ganges enters the Indo-Gangetic Plain at the city of Haridwar (Hardwar). From Haridwar to Kolkata it is joined by numerous tributaries. Proceeding from west to east, the Ghaghara, Gandak, and Kosi rivers, all of which emerge from the Himalayas, join the Ganges from the north, while the Yamuna and Son are the two most important tributaries from the south. The Yamuna, which also has a Himalayan source (the Yamunotri glacier) and flows roughly parallel to the Ganges throughout its length, receives the flow of several important rivers, including the Chambal, Betwa, and Ken, which originate in India’s peninsular foreland. Of the northern tributaries of the Ganges, the Kosi, India’s most-destructive river (referred to as the “Sorrow of Bihar”), warrants special mention. Because of its large catchment in the Himalayas of Nepal and its gentle gradient once it reaches the plain, the Kosi is unable to discharge the large volume of water it carries at its peak flows, and it frequently floods and changes its course.

The seasonal flows of the Ganges and other rivers fed by meltwaters from the Himalayas vary considerably less than those of the exclusively rain-fed peninsular rivers. That consistency of flow enhances their suitability for irrigation and—where the diversion of water for irrigation is not excessive—for navigation as well.

Although the total length of the Brahmaputra (about 1,800 miles [2,900 km]) exceeds that of the Ganges, only 450 miles (725 km) of its course lies within India. The Brahmaputra, like the Indus, has its source in a trans-Himalayan area about 60 miles (100 km) southeast of Mapam Lake in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The river runs east across Tibet for more than half its total length before cutting into India at the northern border of Arunachal Pradesh state. It then flows south and west through the state of Assam and south into Bangladesh, where it empties into the vast Ganges-Brahmaputra delta. The narrow Brahmaputra basin in Assam is prone to flooding because of its large catchment areas, parts of which experience exceedingly heavy precipitation.

Peninsular rivers

The peninsular drainage into the Bay of Bengal includes a number of major rivers, most notably the Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri. Except for the Mahanadi, the headwaters of those rivers are in the high-rainfall zones of the Western Ghats, and they traverse the entire width of the plateau (generally from northwest to southeast) before reaching the Bay of Bengal. The Mahanadi has its source at the southern edge of the Chhattisgarh Plain.

India’s peninsular rivers have relatively steep gradients and thus rarely give rise to floods of the type that occur in the plains of northern India, despite considerable variations in flow from the dry to wet seasons. The lower courses of a number of those rivers are marked by rapids and gorges, usually as they cross the Eastern Ghats. Because of their steep gradients, rocky underlying terrain, and variable flow regimes, the peninsular rivers are not navigable.

Drainage into the Arabian Sea

A substantial part of northwestern India is included in the Indus drainage basin, which India shares with China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Indus and its longest tributary, the Sutlej, both rise in the trans-Himalayan region of Tibet. The Indus initially flows to the northwest between towering mountain ranges and through Jammu and Kashmir state before entering the Pakistani-administered portion of Kashmir. It then travels generally to the southwest through Pakistan until it reaches the Arabian Sea. The Sutlej also flows northwest from its source but enters India farther south, at the border of Himachal Pradesh state. From there it travels west into the Indian state of Punjab and eventually enters Pakistan, where it flows into the Indus.

Indus River
Indus RiverThe Indus River in the mountains of Ladakh, India.© Pierre-Jean DURIEU

Between the Indus and the Sutlej lie several other major Indus tributaries. The Jhelum, the northernmost of those rivers, flows out of the Pir Panjal Range into the Vale of Kashmir and thence via Baramula Gorge into Pakistani-administered Kashmir. The three others—the Chenab, Ravi, and Beas—originate in the Himalayas within Himachal Pradesh. The Chenab travels across Jammu and Kashmir state before flowing into Pakistan; the Ravi forms a part of the southern boundary between Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh states and thereafter a short stretch of the India-Pakistan border prior to entering Pakistan; and the Beas flows entirely within India, joining the Sutlej in the Indian state of Punjab. The area through which the five Indus tributaries flow has traditionally been called the Punjab (from Persian panj, “five,” and āb, “water”). That area currently falls in the Indian state of Punjab (containing the Sutlej and the Beas) and the Pakistani province of Punjab. Despite low rainfall in the Punjab plains, the moderately high runoff from the Himalayas ensures a year-round flow in the Indus and its tributaries, which are extensively utilized for canal irrigation.

Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India: Jhelum River
Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India: Jhelum RiverThe Jhelum River at Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India.Richard Abeles—Artstreet

Farther to the south, another notable river flowing into the Arabian Sea is the Luni of southern Rajasthan, which in most years has carried enough water to reach the Great Rann of Kachchh in western Gujarat. Also flowing through Gujarat is the Mahi River, as well as the two most important west-flowing rivers of peninsular India—the Narmada (drainage basin 38,200 square miles [98,900 square km]) and Tapi (Tapti; 25,000 square miles [65,000 square km]). The Narmada and its basin have undergone large-scale multipurpose development. Most of the other peninsular rivers draining into the Arabian Sea have short courses, and those that flow westward from headwaters in the Western Ghats have seasonally torrential flows.

Lakes and inland drainage

For such a large country, India has few natural lakes. Most of the lakes in the Himalayas were formed when glaciers either dug out a basin or dammed an area with earth and rocks. Wular Lake in Jammu and Kashmir, by contrast, is the result of a tectonic depression. Although its area fluctuates, Wular Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in India.

Jammu and Kashmir, India: Wular Lake
Jammu and Kashmir, India: Wular LakeResort house on Wular Lake in the Vale of Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir, India.D. Chawda—Keystone/FPG

Inland drainage in India is mainly ephemeral and almost entirely in the arid and semiarid part of northwestern India, particularly in the Great Indian Desert of Rajasthan, where there are several ephemeral salt lakes—most prominently Sambhar Salt Lake, the largest lake in India. Those lakes are fed by short intermittent streams, which experience flash floods during occasional intense rains and become dry and lose their identity once the rains are over. The water in the lakes also evaporates and subsequently leaves a layer of white saline soils, from which a considerable amount of salt is commercially produced. Many of India’s largest lakes are reservoirs formed by damming rivers.

Soils

There is a wide range of soil types in India. As products of natural environmental processes, they can be broadly divided into two groups: in situ soils and transported soils. The in situ soils get their distinguishing features from the parent rocks, which are sieved by flowing water, sliding glaciers, and drifting wind and are deposited on landforms such as river valleys and coastal plains. The process of sieving such soils has led to deposition of materials in layers without any marked pedologic horizons, though it has altered the original chemical composition of the in situ soils.

Among the in situ soils are the red-to-yellow (including laterite) and black soils known locally as regur. After those the alluvial soil is the third most-common type. Also significant are the desert soils of Rajasthan, the saline soils in Gujarat, southern Rajasthan, and some coastal areas, and the mountain soils of the Himalayas. The type of soil is determined by numerous factors, including climate, relief, elevation, and drainage, as well as by the composition of the underlying rock material.

In situ soils

Red-to-yellow soils

Those soils are encountered over extensive nonalluvial tracts of peninsular India and are made up of such acidic rocks as granite, gneiss, and schist. They develop in areas in which rainfall leaches soluble minerals out of the ground and results in a loss of chemically basic constituents; a corresponding proportional increase in oxidized iron imparts a reddish hue to many such soils. Hence, they are commonly described as ferralitic soils. In extreme cases, the concentration of oxides of iron leads to formation of a hard crust, in which case they are described as lateritic (for later, the Latin term meaning “brick”) soils. The heavily leached red-to-yellow soils are concentrated in the high-rainfall areas of the Western Ghats, the western Kathiawar Peninsula, eastern Rajasthan, the Eastern Ghats, the Chota Nagpur plateau region, and other upland tracts of northeastern India. Less-leached red-to-yellow soils occur in areas of low rainfall immediately east of the Western Ghats in the dry interior of the Deccan. Red-to-yellow soils are usually infertile, but that problem is partly ameliorated in forested tracts, where humus concentration and the recycling of nutrients help restore fertility in the topsoil.

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Black soils

Among the in situ soils of India, the black soils found in the lava-covered areas are the most conspicuous. Those soils are often referred to as regur but are popularly known as “black cotton soils,” since cotton has been the most common traditional crop in areas where they are found. Black soils are derivatives of trap lava and are spread mostly across interior Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh on the Deccan lava plateau and the Malwa Plateau, where there is both moderate rainfall and underlying basaltic rock. Because of their high clay content, black soils develop wide cracks during the dry season, but their iron-rich granular structure makes them resistant to wind and water erosion. They are poor in humus yet highly moisture-retentive, thus responding well to irrigation. Those soils are also found on many peripheral tracts where the underlying basalt has been shifted from its original location by fluvial processes. The sifting has only led to an increased concentration of clastic contents.

Alluvial soils

Alluvial soils are widespread. They occur throughout the Indo-Gangetic Plain and along the lower courses of virtually all the country’s major rivers (especially the deltas along the east coast). The nondeltaic plains along India’s coasts are also marked by narrow ribbons of alluvium.

New alluvium found on much of the Indo-Gangetic floodplain is called khadar and is extremely fertile and uniform in texture; conversely, the old alluvium on the slightly elevated terraces, termed bhangar, carries patches of alkaline efflorescences, called usar, rendering some areas infertile. In the Ganges basin, sandy aquifers holding an enormous reserve of groundwater ensure irrigation and help make the plain the most agriculturally productive region of the country.

Climate

India provides the world’s most-pronounced example of a monsoon climate. The wet and dry seasons of the Indian monsoon system, along with the annual temperature fluctuations, produce three general climatic periods over much of the country: (1) hot wet weather from about mid-June to the end of September, (2) cool dry weather from early October to February, and (3) hot dry weather (though normally with high atmospheric humidity) from about March to mid-June. The actual duration of those periods may vary by several weeks, not only from one part of India to another but also from year to year. Regional differences, which are often considerable, result from a number of internal factors—including elevation, type of relief, and proximity to bodies of water.

The monsoons

A monsoon system is characterized by a seasonal reversal of prevailing wind directions and by alternating wet and dry seasons. In India the wet season, called the southwest monsoon, occurs from about mid-June to early October, when winds from the Indian Ocean carry moisture-laden air across the subcontinent, causing heavy rainfall and often considerable flooding. Usually about three-fourths of the country’s total annual precipitation falls during those months. During the driest months (called the retreating monsoon), especially from November through February, that pattern is reversed, as dry air from the Asian interior moves across India toward the ocean. October and March through May, by contrast, are typically periods of desultory breezes with no strong prevailing patterns.

The southwest monsoon

Although the winds of the rainy season are called the southwest monsoon, they actually follow two generally distinct branches, one initially flowing eastward from the Arabian Sea and the other northward from the Bay of Bengal. The former begins by lashing the west coast of peninsular India and rising over the adjacent Western Ghats. When crossing those mountains, the air cools (thus losing its moisture-bearing capacity) and deposits rain copiously on the windward side of that highland barrier. Annual precipitation in parts of the region exceeds 100 inches (2,540 mm) and is as high as 245 inches (6,250 mm) at Mahabaleshwar on the crest of the Western Ghats. Conversely, as the winds descend on the leeward side of the Western Ghats, the air’s moisture-bearing capacity increases and the resultant rain shadow makes for a belt of semiarid terrain, much of it with less than 25 inches (635 mm) of precipitation per year.

monsoon
monsoonMonsoon clouds over Lucknow, India.Sunnyoraish

The Bay of Bengal branch of the monsoon sweeps across eastern India and Bangladesh and, in several areas, gives rise to rainfall in much the same way as occurs along the Western Ghats. The effect is particularly pronounced in the Shillong Plateau, where at Cherrapunji the average annual rainfall is 450 inches (11,430 mm), one of the heaviest in the world. The Brahmaputra valley to the north also experiences a rain-shadow effect; the problem is mitigated, however, by the adjacent Himalayas, which cause the winds to rise again, thereby establishing a parallel belt of heavy precipitation. Blocked by the Himalayas, the Bay of Bengal branch of the monsoon is diverted westward up the Gangetic Plain, reaching Punjab only in the first week of July.

In the Gangetic Plain the two branches merge into one. By the time they reach the Punjab their moisture is largely spent. The gradual reduction in the amount of rainfall toward the west is evidenced by the decline from 64 inches (1,625 mm) at Kolkata to 26 inches (660 mm) at Delhi and to desert conditions still farther west. Over the northeastern portion of peninsular India, the two branches also intermittently collide, creating weak weather fronts with sufficient rainfall to produce patches of fairly high precipitation (more than 60 inches [1,520 mm]) in the Chota Nagpur plateau.

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Rainfall during the retreating monsoon

Much of India experiences infrequent and relatively feeble precipitation during the retreating monsoon. An exception to that rule occurs along the southeastern coast of India and for some distance inland. When the retreating monsoon blows from the northeast across the Bay of Bengal, it picks up a significant amount of moisture, which is subsequently released after moving back onto the peninsula. Thus, from October to December the coast of Tamil Nadu state receives at least half of its roughly 40 inches (1,000 mm) of annual precipitation. That rainy extension of the generally dry retreating monsoon is called the northeast, or winter, monsoon.

Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India: oasis
Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India: oasisAn oasis on the sandy plain near Mahabalipuram, southeast of Chingleput, Tamil Nadu, India.B.S. Oza/Tom Stack & Associates

Another type of winter precipitation occurs in northern India, which receives weak cyclonic storms originating in the Mediterranean basin. In the Himalayas those storms bring weeks of drizzling rain and cloudiness and are followed by waves of cold temperatures and snowfall. The state of Jammu and Kashmir in particular receives much of its precipitation from the storms.

Tropical cyclones

Fierce tropical cyclones occur in India during what may be called the premonsoon, early monsoon, or postmonsoon periods. Originating in both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, tropical cyclones often attain velocities of more than 100 miles (160 km) per hour and are notorious for causing intense rain and storm tides (surges) as they cross the coast of India. The Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal coasts are especially susceptible to such storms.

cyclone devastation in Pardip, India, 1999
cyclone devastation in Pardip, India, 1999Devastation in Pardip, Odisha, India, after a tropical cyclone in October 1999.AP

Importance to agriculture

Monsoons play a pivotal role in Indian agriculture, and the substantial year-to-year variability of rainfall, in both timing and quantity, introduces much uncertainty in the country’s crop yield. Good years bring bumper crops, but years of poor rain may result in total crop failure over large areas, especially where irrigation is lacking. Large-scale flooding can also cause damage to crops. As a general rule, the higher an area’s average annual precipitation, the more dependable its rainfall, but few areas of India have an average precipitation high enough to be free from the possibility of occasional drought and consequent crop failure.

Temperatures

Temperatures in India generally are the warmest in May or June, just prior to the cooling downpours of the southwest monsoon. A secondary maximum often occurs in September or October when precipitation wanes. The temperature range tends to be significantly less along the coastal plains than in interior locations. The range also tends to increase with latitude. Near India’s southern extremity the seasonal range is no more than a few degrees; for example, at Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), in Kerala, there is an average fluctuation of just 4.3 °F (2.4 °C) around an annual mean temperature of 81 °F (27 °C). In the northwest, however, the range is much greater, as, for example, at Ambala, in Haryana, where the temperature fluctuates from 56 °F (13 °C) in January to 92 °F (33 °C) in June. Temperatures are also moderated wherever elevations are significant, and many Himalayan resort towns, called hill stations (a legacy of British colonial rule), afford welcome relief from India’s sometimes oppressive heat. Occasionally, heat waves, such as the one that spread over much of the subcontinent in mid-2015, can be highly deadly.

Kolkata, India: rickshaw drivers
Kolkata, India: rickshaw driversRickshaw drivers in Kolkata, India, resting between fares during the intense heat wave in South Asia in 2015.© Saikat Paul/Shutterstock
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Plant and animal life

Vegetation

The flora of India largely reflect the country’s distribution of rainfall. Tropical broad-leaved evergreen and mixed, partially evergreen forests grow in areas with high precipitation; in successively less rainy areas are found moist and dry deciduous forests, scrub jungle, grassland, and desert vegetation. Coniferous forests are confined to the Himalayas. There are about 17,000 species of flowering plants in the country. The subcontinent’s physical isolation, caused by its relief and climatic barriers, has resulted in a considerable number of endemic flora.

Ladakh, India: birch trees in the Himalayas
Ladakh, India: birch trees in the HimalayasBirch trees in the western Himalayas in Ladakh.Ardea London

Roughly one-fourth of the country is forested. However, beginning in the late 20th century, forest depletion accelerated considerably to make room for more agriculture and urban-industrial development. That activity has taken its toll on many Indian plant species. About 20 species of higher-order plants are believed to have become extinct, and already some 1,300 species are considered to be endangered.

Tropical evergreen and mixed evergreen-deciduous forests generally occupy areas with more than 80 inches (2,000 mm) of rainfall per year, mainly in upper Assam, the Western Ghats (especially in Kerala), parts of Odisha, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Common trees in those tall multistoried forests include species of Mesua, Toona ciliata, Hopea, and Eugenia, as well as gurjun (Dipterocarpus turbinatus), which grows to heights exceeding 165 feet (50 metres) on the Andaman Islands and in Assam. The mixed evergreen-deciduous forests of Kerala and the Bengal Himalayas have a large variety of commercially valuable hardwood trees, of which Lagerstroemia lanceolata, East Indian, or Malabar, kino (Pterocarpus marsupium), and rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) are well known.

Kerala, India: tropical vegetation
Kerala, India: tropical vegetationTropical vegetation lining coastal waterways, Kerala state, southwestern India.Gerald Cubitt

Tropical moist deciduous forests generally occur in areas with 60 to 80 inches (1,500 to 2,000 mm) of rainfall, such as the northern part of the Eastern Ghats, east-central India, and western Karnataka. Dry deciduous forests, which grow in places receiving less than 60 inches (1,500 mm) of precipitation, characterize the subhumid and semiarid regions of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, eastern Rajasthan, central Andhra Pradesh, and western Tamil Nadu. Teak, sal (Shorea robusta), axle-wood (Anogeissus latifolia), tendu, ain, and Adina cardifolia are some of the major deciduous species.

Tropical thorn forests occupy areas in various parts of the country, though mainly in the northern Gangetic Plain and southern peninsular India. Those forests generally grow in areas with less than 24 inches (600 mm) of rain but are also found in more humid areas, where deciduous forests have been degraded because of unregulated grazing, felling, and shifting agriculture. In those areas, such xerophytic (drought-tolerant) trees as species of acacia (babul and catechu) and Butea monosperma predominate.

The important commercial species include teak and sal. Teak, the foremost timber species, is largely confined to the peninsula. During the period of British rule, it was used extensively in shipbuilding, and certain forests were therefore reserved as teak plantations. Sal is confined to the lower Himalayas, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam, and Madhya Pradesh. Other species with commercial uses are sandalwood (Santalum album), the fragrant wood that is perhaps the most precious in the world, and rosewood, an evergreen used for carving and furniture.

Many other species are noteworthy, some because of special ecological niches they occupy. Deltaic areas, for example, are fringed with mangrove forests, in which the dominant species—called sundri or sundari (Heritiera fomes), which is not, properly speaking, a mangrove—is characterized by respiratory roots that emerge from the tidal water. Conspicuous features of the tropical landscape are the palms, which are represented in India by some 100 species. Coconut and betel nut (the fruit of which is chewed) are cultivated mainly in coastal Karnataka and Kerala. Among the common, majestic-looking trees found throughout much of India are the mango—a major source of fruit—and two revered Ficus species, the pipal (famous as the Bo tree of the Buddha) and the banyan. Many types of bamboo (members of the grass family) grow over much of the country, with a concentration in the rainy areas.

Betel palm nuts
Betel palm nutsCluster of betel nuts, seeds of the betel palm (Areca catechu).Wayne Lukas–Group IV—The National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers

Vegetation in the Himalayas can be generally divided into a number of elevation zones. Mixed evergreen-deciduous forests dominate the foothill areas up to a height of 5,000 feet (1,500 metres). Above that level subtropical pine forests make their appearance, followed by the Himalayan moist-temperate forests of oak, fir, deodar (Cedrus deodara), and spruce. The highest tree zone, consisting of alpine shrubs, is found up to an elevation of about 15,000 feet (4,500 metres). Rhododendrons are common at 12,000 feet (3,700 metres), above which occasional junipers and alpine meadows are encountered. Zones overlap considerably, and there are wide transitional bands.

Jammu and Kashmir: montane vegetation
Jammu and Kashmir: montane vegetationMontane vegetation in Jammu and Kashmir, northwestern India.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Animal life

India forms an important segment of what is known as the Oriental, or Sino-Indian, biogeographic region, which extends eastward from India to include mainland and much of insular Southeast Asia. Its fauna are numerous and highly diverse.

Mammals

Follow wildlife filmmaker Andreas Kieling and learn about the Asiatic lions in the Gir National Park in western India
Follow wildlife filmmaker Andreas Kieling and learn about the Asiatic lions in the Gir National Park in western IndiaLearn about Asiatic lions in Gir National Park, west-central India.Contunico © ZDF Enterprises GmbH, MainzSee all videos for this article

Mammals of the submontane region include Indian elephants (Elephas maximus)—associated from time immemorial with mythology and the splendour of regal pageantry—the great one-horned Indian rhinoceroses, a wide variety of ruminants, and various primates. There are also numerous predators represented by various genera.

Wild herds of elephants can be observed in several areas, particularly in such renowned national parks as Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, in Kerala, and Bandipur, in Karnataka. The Indian rhinoceros is protected at Kaziranga National Park and Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam.

Mysore, Karnataka, India: elephant in Kabani River
Mysore, Karnataka, India: elephant in Kabani RiverElephant and rider in the Kabani River near Mysore, Karnataka, India.Gerald Cubitt

Examples of ruminants include the wild Indian bison, or gaur (Bos gaurus), which inhabits peninsular forests; Indian buffalo; four-horned antelope (Tetracerus quadricornis), known locally as chousingha; blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), or Indian antelope; antelope known as the nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), or bluebuck; and Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur), or ghorkhar. There are also several species of deer, such as the rare Kashmir stag (hangul), swamp deer (barasingha), spotted deer, musk deer, brow-antlered deer (Cervus eldi eldi; an endangered species known locally as the sangai or thamin), and mouse deer.

Among the primates are various monkeys, including rhesus monkeys and gray, or Hanuman, langurs (Presbytis entellus), both of which are found in forested areas and near human settlements. The only ape found in India, the hoolock gibbon, is confined to the rainforests of the eastern region. Lion-tailed macaques of the Western Ghats, with halos of hair around their faces, are becoming rare because of poaching.

The country’s carnivores include cats, dogs, foxes, jackals, and mongooses. Among the animals of prey, the Asiatic lion—now confined to Gir National Park, in the Kathiawar Peninsula of Gujarat—is the only extant subspecies of lion found outside of Africa. The majestic Indian, or Bengal, tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), the national animal of India, is known for its rich colour, illusive design, and formidable power. Of the five extant tiger subspecies worldwide, the Bengal tiger is the most numerous. Tigers are found in the forests of the Tarai region of northern India, Bihar, and Assam; the Ganges delta in West Bengal; the Eastern Ghats; Madhya Pradesh; and eastern Rajasthan. Once on the verge of extinction, Indian tigers have increased to several thousand, thanks largely to Project Tiger, which has established reserves in various parts of the country. Among other cats are leopards, clouded leopards, and various smaller species.

tiger
tigerBengal tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India.© UryadnikovS/Fotolia

The Great Himalayas have notable fauna that includes wild sheep and goats, markhor (Capra falconeri), and ibex. Lesser pandas and snow leopards are also found in the upper reaches of the mountains.

Oxen, buffalo, horses, dromedary camels, sheep, goats, and pigs are common domesticated animals. The cattle breed Brahman, or zebu (Bos indicus), a species of ox, is an important draft animal.

Birds

India has more than 1,200 species of birds and perhaps 2,000 subspecies, although some migratory species are found in the country only during the winter. The amount of avian life in the country represents roughly one-eighth of the world’s species. The major reason for such a high level of diversity is the presence of a wide variety of habitats, from the cold and dry alpine tundra of Ladakh and Sikkim to the steamy, tangled jungles of the Sundarbans and wet, moist forests of the Western Ghats and the northeast. The country’s many larger rivers provide deltas and backwaters for aquatic animal life, and many smaller rivers drain internally and end in vast saline lakes that are important breeding grounds for such birds as black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis), barheaded geese (Anser indicus), and great crested grebes, as well as various kinds of terns, gulls, plovers, and sandpipers. Herons, storks, ibises, and flamingos are well represented, and many of those birds frequent Keoladeo Ghana National Park, near Bharatpur, Rajasthan (designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985). The Rann of Kachchh forms the nesting ground for one of the world’s largest breeding colonies of flamingos.

Keoladeo Ghana National Park
Keoladeo Ghana National ParkBird sanctuary at Keoladeo Ghana National Park, near Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India.Dale H. Hoiberg

Birds of prey include hawks, vultures, and eagles. Vultures are ubiquitous consumers of carrion. Game birds are represented by pheasants, jungle fowl, partridges, and quails. Peacocks (peafowl) are also common, especially in Gujarat and Rajasthan, where they are kept as pets. Resplendently feathered, the peacock has been adopted as India’s national bird.

Other notable birds in India include the Indian crane, commonly known as the sarus (Grus antigone); a large gray bird with crimson legs, the sarus stands as tall as a human. Bustards inhabit India’s grasslands. The great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), now confined to central and western India, is an endangered species protected by legislation. Sand grouse, pigeons, doves, parakeets, and cuckoos are found throughout the country. The mainly nonmigratory kingfisher, living close to water bodies, is considered sacred in many areas. Hornbills, barbets, and woodpeckers also are common, as are larks, crows, babblers, and thrushes.

great Indian bustard
great Indian bustardGreat Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), a critically endangered bird species of India.© Vinod Bartakke/Fotolia

Reptiles, fish, and insects

Reptiles are well represented in India. Crocodiles inhabit the country’s rivers, swamps, and lakes. The estuarine crocodile (Crocodilus porosus)—once attaining a maximum length of 30 feet (9 metres), though specimens exceeding 20 feet (6 metres) are now rare—usually lives on the fish, birds, and crabs of muddy deltaic regions. The long-snouted gavial, or gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), a species similar to the crocodile, is endemic to northern India; it is found in a number of large rivers, including the Ganges and Brahmaputra and their tributaries. Of the nearly 400 species of snakes, one-fifth are venomous. Kraits and cobras are particularly widespread venomous species. King cobras often grow to at least 12 feet (3.6 metres) long. The Indian python frequents marshy areas and grasslands. Lizards also are widespread, and turtles are found throughout India, especially along the eastern coast.

Gavial
GavialGavial (Gavialis gangeticus) of northern India.© Gerry Ellis Nature Photography

Of some 2,000 species of fish in India, about one-fifth live in fresh water. Common edible freshwater fish include catfish and several members of the carp family, notably the mahseer, which grows up to 6.5 feet (2 metres) and 200 pounds (90 kg). Sharks are found in India’s coastal waters and sometimes travel inland through major estuaries. Commercially valuable marine shellfish species include shrimps, prawns, crabs, lobsters, pearl oysters, and conchs.

Among the commercially valuable insects are silkworms, bees, and the lac insect (Laccifer lacca). The latter secretes a sticky, resinous material called lac, from which shellac and a red dye are produced. Many other insects, such as various species of mosquitoes, are vectors for disease (e.g., malaria and yellow fever) or for human parasites (e.g., certain flatworms and nematodes).

Conservation

The movement for the protection of forests and wildlife is strong in India. A number of species, including the elephant, rhinoceros, and tiger, have been declared endangered, and numerous others—both large and small—are considered vulnerable or at risk. Legislative measures have declared certain animals protected species, and areas with particularly rich floral diversity have been adopted as biosphere reserves. Virtually no forests are left in private hands. Projects likely to cause ecological damage must be cleared by the national government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change. Despite such measures, the reduced areas of forests, savannas, and grasslands provide little hope that India’s population of animals can be restored to what it was at the end of the 19th century.K.R. DikshitJoseph E. Schwartzberg

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People

Ethnic groups

India is a diverse multiethnic country that is home to thousands of small ethnic and tribal groups. That complexity developed from a lengthy and involved process of migration and intermarriage. The great urban culture of the Indus civilization, a society of the Indus River valley that is thought to have been Dravidian-speaking, thrived from roughly 2500 to 1700 bce. An early Aryan civilization—dominated by peoples with linguistic affinities to peoples in Iran and Europe—came to occupy northwestern and then north-central India over the period from roughly 2000 to 1500 bce and subsequently spread southwestward and eastward at the expense of other indigenous groups. Despite the emergence of caste restrictions, that process was attended by intermarriage between groups that probably has continued to the present day, despite considerable opposition from peoples whose own distinctive civilizations had also evolved in early historical times. Among the documented invasions that added significantly to the Indian ethnic mix are those of Persians, Scythians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and Afghans. The last and politically most successful of the great invasions—namely, that from Europe—vastly altered Indian culture but had relatively little impact on India’s ethnic composition.

Gaya, Bihar, India: Phalgu River
Gaya, Bihar, India: Phalgu RiverHindu pilgrims bathing and washing at a ghat (stairway) on the Phalgu River in Gaya, Bihar, India.© R.A. Acharya/Dinodia Photo Library

Broadly speaking, the peoples of north-central and northwestern India tend to have ethnic affinities with European and Indo-European peoples from southern Europe, the Caucasus region, and Southwest and Central Asia. In northeastern India, West Bengal (to a lesser degree), the higher reaches of the western Himalayan region, and Ladakh (in Jammu and Kashmir state), much of the population more closely resembles peoples to the north and east—notably Tibetans and Burmans. Many aboriginal (“tribal”) peoples in the Chota Nagpur Plateau (northeastern peninsular India) have affinities to such groups as the Mon, who have long been established in mainland Southeast Asia. Much less numerous are southern groups who appear to be descended, at least in part, either from peoples of East African origin (some of whom settled in historical times on India’s western coast) or from a population commonly designated as Negrito, now represented by numerous small and widely dispersed peoples from the Andaman Islands, the Philippines, New Guinea, and other areas.

India: Naga
India: NagaNaga girl, Arunachal Pradesh, India.© arunachal/Fotolia

Languages

There are probably hundreds of major and minor languages and many hundreds of recognized dialects in India, whose languages belong to four different language families: Indo-Iranian (a subfamily of the Indo-European language family), Dravidian, Austroasiatic, and Tibeto-Burman (a subfamily of Sino-Tibetan). There are also several isolate languages, such as Nahali, which is spoken in a small area of Madhya Pradesh state. The overwhelming majority of Indians speak Indo-Iranian or Dravidian languages.

Devanagari script
Devanagari scriptDevanagari script from a section of the Sanskrit Bhagavata-purana, c. 1880–c. 1900; in the British Library.The British Librfary/Robana/REX/Shutterstock.com

The difference between language and dialect in India is often arbitrary, however, and official designations vary notably from one census to another. That is complicated by the fact that, owing to their long-standing contact with one another, India’s languages have come to converge and to form an amalgamated linguistic area—a sprachbund—comparable, for example, to that found in the Balkans. Languages within India have adopted words and grammatical forms from one another, and vernacular dialects within languages often diverge widely. Over much of India, and especially the Indo-Gangetic Plain, there are no clear boundaries between one vernacular and another (although ordinary villagers are sensitive to nuances of dialect that differentiate nearby localities). In the mountain fringes of the country, especially in the northeast, spoken dialects are often sufficiently different from one valley to the next to merit classifying each as a truly distinct language. There were at one time, for example, no fewer than 25 languages classified within the Naga group, not one of which was spoken by more than 60,000 people.

India: Linguistic composition
India: Linguistic compositionEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Lending order to the linguistic mix are a number of written, or literary, languages used on the subcontinent, each of which often differs markedly from the vernacular with which it is associated. Many people are bilingual or multilingual, knowing their local vernacular dialect (“mother tongue”), its associated written variant, and, perhaps, one or more other languages. The constitutionally designated official language of the Indian central government is Hindi, and English is also officially designated for government use. However, there are also 22 (originally 14) so-called “scheduled languages” recognized in the Indian constitution that may be used by states in official correspondence. Of those, 15 are Indo-European (Assamese, Bengali, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, and Urdu), 4 are Dravidian (Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu), 2 are Sino-Tibetan (Bodo and Manipuri), and 1 is Austroasiatic (Santhali). Those languages have become increasingly standardized since independence because of improved education and the influence of mass media. English is an “associate” official language and is widely spoken.

Most Indian languages (including the official script for Hindi) are written by using some variety of Devanagari script, but other scripts are used. Sindhi, for instance, is written in a Persianized form of Arabic script, but it also is sometimes written in the Devanagari or Gurmukhi scripts.

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Indo-European languages

The Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family is the largest language group in the subcontinent, with nearly three-fourths of the population speaking a language of that family as a mother tongue. It can be further split into three subfamilies: Indo-Aryan, Dardic, and Iranian. The numerous languages of the family all derive from Sanskrit, the language of the ancient Aryans. Sanskrit, the classic language of India, underwent a process of systematization and grammatical refinement at an early date, rendering it unique among Indo-Aryan languages in its degree of linguistic cultivation. Subsequently, the Prakrit languages developed from local vernaculars but later were refined into literary tongues. The modern Indian languages were derived from the Prakrit languages.

Indo-Iranian languages
Indo-Iranian languagesDistribution of Indo-Iranian languages.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

By far the most widely spoken Indo-Iranian language is Hindi, which is used in one form or another by some two-thirds of the population. Hindi has a large number of dialects, generally divided into Eastern and Western Hindi, some of which are mutually unintelligible. Apart from its nationally preeminent position, Hindi has been adopted as the official language by each of a large contiguous bloc of northern states—Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh—as well as by the national capital territory of Delhi.

Other Indo-European languages with official status in individual states are Assamese, in Assam; Bengali, in West Bengal and Tripura; Gujarati, in Gujarat; Kashmiri, in Jammu and Kashmir; Konkani, in Goa; Marathi, in Maharashtra; Nepali, in portions of northern West Bengal; Oriya, in Odisha; and Punjabi, in Punjab. Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, is also the language of most Muslims of northern and peninsular India as far south as Chennai (Madras). Sindhi is spoken mainly by inhabitants of the Kachchh district of Gujarat, which borders the Pakistani province of Sindh, as well as in other areas by immigrants (and their descendants) who fled Sindh after the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

Dravidian and other languages

Dravidian languages are spoken by about one-fourth of all Indians, overwhelmingly in southern India. Dravidian speakers among tribal peoples (e.g., Gonds) in central India, in eastern Bihar, and in the Brahui-speaking region of the distant Pakistani province of Balochistan suggest a much wider distribution in ancient times. The four constitutionally recognized Dravidian languages also enjoy official state status: Kannada, in Karnataka; Malayalam, in Kerala; Tamil (the oldest of the main Dravidian tongues), in Tamil Nadu; and Telugu, in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Manipuri and other Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken by small numbers of people in northeastern India.

Lingua francas

The two major lingua francas in India are Hindustani and English. Hindustani is based on an early dialect of Hindi, known by linguists as Khari Boli, which originated in Delhi and an adjacent region within the Ganges-Yamuna Doab (interfluve). During the Mughal period (early 16th to mid-18th century), when political power became centred on Delhi, Khari Boli absorbed numerous Persian words and came to be used as a lingua franca throughout the empire, especially by merchants who needed a common commercial language. Hindustani was promoted by the British during the colonial period.

In the 19th century two literary languages arose from that colloquial tongue: among Hindus, the modern form of Hindi, which derives its vocabulary and script (Devanagari) mainly from Sanskrit; and among Muslims, Urdu, which, though grammatically identical with Hindi, draws much of its vocabulary from Persian and Arabic and is written in the Perso-Arabic script. Despite the rift, Hindi and Urdu remain mutually intelligible, while their Hindustani progenitor still serves as a lingua franca in many parts of the subcontinent, particularly in the north.

English, a remnant of British colonial rule, is the most widely used lingua franca. The great size of India’s population makes it one of the largest English-speaking communities in the world, although English is claimed as the mother tongue by only a small number of Indians and is spoken fluently by less than 5 percent of the population. English serves as the language linking the central government with the states, especially with those in which Hindi is not widely understood. English is also the principal language of commerce and the language of instruction in almost all of the country’s prestigious universities and private schools. The English-language press remains highly influential; scholarly publication is predominantly in English (almost exclusively so in science); and many Indians are devotees of literature in English (much of it written by Indians), as well as of English-language film, radio, television, popular music, and theatre.

Minor languages and dialects

Although many tribal communities are gradually abandoning their tribal languages, scores of such languages survive. Few, however, are still spoken by more than a million persons, with the exception of Bhili (Indo-European) and Santhali (of the Munda branch of the Austroasiatic family), which are both estimated as having more than five million speakers. Others include Gondi (Dravidian), Kurukh, or Oraon (Dravidian), Ho (Munda), Manipuri (Sino-Tibetan), and Mundari (Munda). Generally, tribal languages lack a written tradition, though many are now written in the Roman script or, less often, in scripts adapted from those of neighbouring nontribal regions.

Religions

Because religion forms a crucial aspect of identity for most Indians, much of India’s history can be understood through the interplay among its diverse religious groups. One of the many religions born in India is Hinduism, a collection of diverse doctrines, sects, and ways of life followed by the great majority of the population. For an in-depth discussion of the major indigenous religions of India, see the articles Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Philosophical ideas associated with those religions are treated in Indian philosophy. For further discussion of other major religions, see Islam and Christianity.

In 1947, with the partition of the subcontinent and loss of Pakistan’s largely Muslim population, India became even more predominantly Hindu. The concomitant emigration of perhaps 10 million Muslims to Pakistan and the immigration of nearly as many Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan further emphasized that change. Hindus now make up nearly four-fifths of India’s population. Muslims, however, are still the largest single minority faith (about one-seventh of the total population), with large concentrations in many areas of the country, including Jammu and Kashmir, western Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, and many cities. India’s Muslim population is greater than that found in any country of the Middle East and is only exceeded by that of Indonesia and, slightly, by that of Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Other important religious minorities in India include Christians, most heavily concentrated in the northeast, Mumbai (Bombay), and the far south; Sikhs, mostly in Punjab and some adjacent areas; Buddhists, especially in Maharashtra, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir; and Jains, most prominent in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. Those practicing the Bahāʾī faith, formerly too few to be treated by the census, have dramatically increased in number as a result of active proselytization. Zoroastrians (the Parsis), largely concentrated in Mumbai and in coastal Gujarat, wield influence out of all proportion to their small numbers because of their prominence during the colonial period. Several tiny but sociologically interesting communities of Jews are located along the western coast. India’s tribal peoples live mostly in the northeast; they practice various forms of animism, which is perhaps the country’s oldest religious tradition.

Hindus are in the majority in every Indian state except Jammu and Kashmir (where Muslims form roughly two-thirds of the population); Punjab (roughly three-fifths Sikh); Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland (mainly Christian); and Arunachal Pradesh (predominantly animist). Hindus also form the majority in every union territory except Lakshadweep (more than nine-tenths Muslim). Almost everywhere, however, significant local minorities are present. Only in the states of Odisha and Himachal Pradesh do Hindus constitute virtually the entire population.

Reliable statistics on the sectarian affiliations among India’s leading faiths are not available. Within Hinduism, such affiliations tend to be rather loose, nonexclusive, and nebulous. Vaishnavas, who worship in temples dedicated to the god Vishnu or one of his avatars (e.g., Rama and Krishna) or who follow one of the many associated cults, tend to be more concentrated in northern and central India, while Shaivas, or devotees of Shiva, are concentrated in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, western Maharashtra, and much of the Himalayan region. Cults associated with Shaktism, the worship of various forms of Shakti (the mother goddess, consort of Shiva), are particularly widespread in West Bengal (along with Vaishnavism), Assam, and the highland areas of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Hinduism also encompasses scores of smaller sects advocating religious revival and reform, promoting the uplift of disadvantaged groups, or focusing on the teachings of charismatic religious leaders. Some of the latter have attracted an international following.

In Islam, Sunni Muslims are the majority sect almost everywhere. There are, however, influential Shiʿi minorities in Gujarat, especially among such Muslim trading communities as the Khojas and Bohras, and in large cities, such as Lucknow and Hyderabad, that, before the partition, were former capitals of Muslim states in which much of the gentry was of Persian origin.

Hyderabad, India: Charminar
Hyderabad, India: CharminarThe Charminar in the old city of Hyderabad, Telangana, India.L. Werner/Superstock

Roman Catholics form the largest single Christian group, especially on the western coast and in southern India. The many divisions among Protestants have been substantially reduced since independence as a result of mergers creating the Church of North India and the Church of South India. Many small fundamentalist sects, however, have maintained their independence. Converts to Christianity, especially since the mid-19th century, have come largely from the lower castes and tribal groups.

Goa, India: Roman Catholic Basilica of Bom Jesus
Goa, India: Roman Catholic Basilica of Bom JesusThe Roman Catholic Basilica of Bom Jesus, 16th century, Goa, India.Frederick M. Asher

Buddhists living near the Chinese (Tibetan) border generally follow Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes designated as Vajrayana (Sanskrit: “Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”), while those living near the border with Myanmar (Burma) adhere to the Theravada (Pali: “Way of the Elders”). Neo-Buddhists in Maharashtra do not have a clear sectarian affiliation.

Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India: Bodhi Tree
Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India: Bodhi TreePrayer flags mark the place where the Buddha achieved Enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India.Milt and Joan Mann/CameraMann International
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Caste

In South Asia the caste system has been a dominating aspect of social organization for thousands of years. A caste, generally designated by the term jati (“birth”), refers to a strictly regulated social community into which one is born. Some jatis have occupational names, but the connection between caste and occupational specialization is limited. In general, a person is expected to marry someone within the same jati, follow a particular set of rules for proper behaviour (in such matters as kinship, occupation, and diet), and interact with other jatis according to the group’s position in the social hierarchy. Based on names alone, it is possible to identify more than 2,000 jatis. However, it is common for there to be several distinct groups bearing the same name that are not part of the same marriage network or local caste system.

In India virtually all nontribal Hindus and many adherents of other faiths (even Muslims, for whom caste is theoretically anathema) recognize their membership in one of those hereditary social communities. Among Hindus, jatis are usually assigned to one of four large caste clusters, called varnas, each of which has a traditional social function: Brahmans (priests), at the top of the social hierarchy, and, in descending prestige, Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (originally peasants but later merchants), and Shudras (artisans and labourers). The particular varna in which a jati is ranked depends in part on its relative level of “impurity,” determined by the group’s traditional contact with any of a number of “pollutants,” including blood, menstrual flow, saliva, dung, leather, dirt, and hair. Intercaste restrictions were established to prevent the relative purity of a particular jati from being corrupted by the pollution of a lower caste.

A fifth group, the Panchamas (from Sanskrit panch, “five”), theoretically were excluded from the system because their occupations and ways of life typically brought them in contact with such impurities. They were formerly called the untouchables (because their touch, believed by the upper castes to transmit pollution, was avoided), but the nationalist leader Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi referred to them as Harijan (“Children of God”), a name that for a time gained popular usage. More recently, members of that class have adopted the term Dalit (“Oppressed”) to describe themselves. Officially, such groups are referred to as Scheduled Castes. Those in Scheduled Castes, collectively accounting for roughly one-sixth of India’s total population, are generally landless and perform most of the agricultural labour, as well as a number of ritually polluting caste occupations (e.g., leatherwork, among the Chamars, the largest Scheduled Caste).

India’s many tribal peoples—officially designated as Scheduled Tribes—have also been given status similar to that of the Scheduled Castes. Tribal peoples are concentrated mainly in the northeast (notably Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland) and, to a lesser extent, in the northeast-central (Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha) regions of the country, as well as in the Lakshadweep and Dadra and Nagar Haveli union territories.

While inherently nonegalitarian, jatis provide Indians with social support and, at least in theory, a sense of having a secure and well-defined social and economic role. In most parts of India, there is one or perhaps there are several dominant castes that own the majority of land, are politically most powerful, and set a cultural tone for a particular region. A dominant jati typically forms anywhere from one-eighth to one-third of the total rural population but may in some areas account for a clear majority (e.g., Sikh Jats in central Punjab, Marathas in parts of Maharashtra, or Rajputs in northwestern Uttar Pradesh). The second most numerous jati is usually from one of the Scheduled Castes. Depending on its size, a village typically will have between 5 and 25 jatis, each of which might be represented by anywhere from 1 to more than 100 households.

Although it is not as visible as it is among Hindus, caste is found among Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and Jews. In the 1990s the Dalit movement began adopting a more aggressive approach to ending caste discrimination, and many converted to other religions, especially Buddhism, as a means of rejecting the social premises of Hindu society. At the same time, the officially designated “Other Backward Classes” (other social and tribal groups traditionally excluded) also began to claim their rights under the constitution. There has been some relaxation of caste distinction among young urban dwellers and those living abroad, but caste identity has remained strong—especially since groups such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have a guaranteed percentage of representation in national and state legislatures.

Settlement patterns

Population density

Only a tiny fraction of India’s surface area is uninhabited. More than half of it is cultivated, with little left fallow in any given year. Most of the area classified as forest—roughly one-fifth of the total—is used for grazing, for gathering firewood and other forest products, for commercial forestry, and, in tribal areas, for shifting cultivation (often in defiance of the law) and hunting. The areas too dry for growing crops without irrigation are largely used for grazing. The higher elevations of the Himalayas are the only places with substantial continuous areas not in use by humans. Although India’s population is predominantly rural, the country has three of the largest urban areas in the world—Mumbai, Kolkata (Calcutta), and Delhi—and those and other large Indian cities have some of the world’s highest population densities.

Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India: communal well
Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India: communal wellCommunal well, Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India.Shostal Associates

Most Indians reside in the areas of continuous cultivation, including the towns and cities they encompass. Within such areas, differences in population density are largely a function of water availability (whether directly from rainfall or from irrigation) and soil fertility. Areas receiving more than 60 inches (1,500 mm) of annual precipitation are generally capable of, for example, growing two crops per year, even without irrigation, and thus can support a high population density. More than three-fifths of the total population lives either on the fertile alluvial soils of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the deltaic regions of the eastern coast or on the mixed alluvial and marine soils along India’s western coast. Within those agriculturally productive areas—for example, parts of the eastern Gangetic Plain and of the state of Kerala—densities exceed 2,000 persons per square mile (800 persons per square km).

Rural settlement

Much of India’s rural population lives in nucleated villages, which most commonly have a settlement form described as a shapeless agglomerate. Such settlements, though unplanned, are divided by caste into distinct wards and grow outward from a recognizable core area. The dominant and higher castes tend to live in the core area, while the lower artisan and service castes, as well as Muslim groups, generally occupy more peripheral localities. When the centrally located castes increase in population, they either subdivide their existing, often initially large, residential compounds, add second and even third stories on their existing houses (a common expedient in Punjab), leapfrog over lower-caste wards to a new area on the village periphery, or, in rare cases where land is available, found a completely new village.

Within the shapeless agglomerated villages, streets are typically narrow, twisting, and unpaved, often ending in culs-de-sac. There are usually a few open spaces where people gather: adjacent to a temple or mosque, at the main village well, in areas where grain is threshed or where grain and oilseeds are milled, and in front of the homes of the leading families of the village. In such spaces, depending on the size of the village, might be found the panchayat (village council) hall, a few shops, a tea stall, a public radio hooked up to a loudspeaker, a small post office, or perhaps a dharmshala (a free guest house for travelers). The village school is usually on the edge of the village in order to provide pupils with adequate playing space. Another common feature along the margin of a village is a grove of mango or other trees, which provides shade for people and animals and often contains a large well.

Explore the city of Madurai with glimpses of shrines and halls of the Hindu Meenakshi Amman Temple
Explore the city of Madurai with glimpses of shrines and halls of the Hindu Meenakshi Amman TempleTime-lapse video of Madurai, a city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, featuring the shrines and pillared halls of the Hindu Meenakshi Amman (Minakshi-Sundareshwara) Temple.Carl Finkbeiner/visualmondo.com (A Britannica Publishing Partner)See all videos for this article

There are many regional variants from the simple agglomerated-villages pattern. Hamlets, each containing only one or a few castes, commonly surround villages in the eastern Gangetic Plain; Scheduled Castes and herding castes are likely to occupy such hamlets. In southern India, especially Tamil Nadu, and in Gujarat, villages have a more planned layout, with streets running north-south and east-west in straight lines. In many tribal areas (or areas that were tribal until relatively recently) the typical village consists of rows of houses along a single street or perhaps two or three parallel streets. In areas of rugged terrain, where relatively level spaces for building are limited, settlements often conform in shape to ridge lines, and few grow to be larger than hamlets. Finally, in particularly aquatic environments, such as the Gangetic delta region and the tidal backwater region of Kerala, agglomerations of even hamlet size are rare; most rural families instead live singly or in clusters of only a few households on their individual plots of owned or rented land.

Most village houses are small, simple one-story mud (kacha) structures, housing both people and livestock in one or just a few rooms. Roofs typically are flat and made of mud in dry regions, but in areas with considerable precipitation they generally are sloped for drainage and made of rice straw, other thatching material, or clay tiles. The wetter the region, the greater the pitch of the roof. In some wet regions, especially in tribal areas, bamboo walls are more common than those of mud, and houses often stand on piles above ground level. The houses usually are windowless and contain a minimum of furniture, a storage space for food, water, and implements, a few shelves and pegs for other possessions, a niche in the wall to serve as the household altar, and often a few decorations, such as pictures of gods or film heroes, family photographs, a calendar, or perhaps some memento of a pilgrimage. In one corner of the house or in an exterior court is the earthen hearth on which all meals are cooked. Electricity, running water, and toilet facilities generally are absent. Relatively secluded spots on the edge of the village serve the latter need.

Almost everywhere in India, the dwellings of the more affluent households are larger and usually built of more durable (pakka) materials, such as brick or stone. Their roofs are also of sturdier construction, sometimes of corrugated iron, and often rest on sturdy timbers or even steel I beams. Windows, usually barred for security, are common. The number of rooms, the furnishings, and the interior and exterior decor, especially the entrance gate, generally reflect the wealth of the family. There is typically an interior compound where much of the harvest will be stored. Within the compound there may be a private well or even a hand pump, an area for bathing, and a walled latrine enclosure, which is periodically cleaned by the village sweeper. Animal stalls, granaries, and farm equipment are in spaces distinct from those occupied by people.

Nomadic groups may be found in most parts of India. Some are small bands of wandering entertainers, ironworkers, and animal traders who may congregate in communities called tandas. A group variously known as the Banjari or Vanjari (also called Labhani), originally from Rajasthan and related to the Roma (Gypsies) of Europe, roams over large areas of central India and the Deccan, largely as agricultural labourers and construction workers. Many tribal peoples practice similar occupations seasonally. Shepherds, largely of the Gujar caste, practice transhumance in the western Himalayas. In the semiarid and arid regions where agriculture is either impossible or precarious, herders of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels live in a symbiotic relationship with local or nearby cultivators.

Hyderabad, India: Labhani women
Hyderabad, India: Labhani womenBanjari (Labhani) women in festive dress, near Hyderabad, Telangana, India.© John Isaac

Urban settlement

Although less than one-third of India’s people live in towns and cities, more than 6,100 places are classified as urban. In general, the proportion is higher in the agriculturally prosperous regions of the northwest, west, and south than in the northeastern rice-growing parts of the country, where the population capacity is limited by generally meagre crop surpluses.

India: Urban-rural
India: Urban-ruralEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

In India large cities long have been growing at faster rates than small cities and towns. The major metropolitan agglomerations have the fastest rates of all, even where, as in Kolkata, there is a high degree of congestion within the central city. Major contributors to urban growth are the burgeoning of the bureaucracy, the increasing commercialization of the agricultural economy, and the spread of factory industry and services.

In many cities dating from the precolonial period, such as Delhi and Agra, the urban core is an exceedingly congested area within an old city wall, portions of which may still stand. In those “old cities,” residential segregation by religion and caste and the layout of streets and open places are, except for scale, not greatly dissimilar from what was described above for shapeless agglomerated villages. In contrast to many Western cities, affluent families commonly occupy houses in the heart of the most congested urban wards. Specialized bazaar streets selling sweets, grain, cloth, metalware, jewelry, books and stationery, and other commodities are characteristic of the old city. In such streets it is common for a single building to be at once a workshop, a retail outlet for what the workshop produces, and the residence for the artisan’s family and employees.

Agra Fort: Pearl Mosque (Moti Masjid)
Agra Fort: Pearl Mosque (Moti Masjid)The Pearl Mosque (Moti Masjid) and the fort at Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.Picturepoint, London

Moderately old, highly congested urban cores also characterize many cities that grew up in the wake of British occupation. Of those, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai are the most notable examples. In such cases, however, there are usually a few broad major thoroughfares, some degree of regularity to the street pattern, space reserved for parks, and a central business district, including old government offices, high-rise commercial office buildings, banks, elite shopping establishments, restaurants, hotels, museums, a few churches, and other reminders of the former colonial presence.

Associated with a great many cities are special sections created originally for the needs of the British: largely residential areas known as civil lines, where the families of resident European administrators occupied spacious bungalows, with adjoining outbuildings for their servants, nearby shopping facilities, and a gymkhana (a combined sports and social club); cantonments, where military personnel of all ranks were quartered, together with adjacent parade grounds, polo fields, and firing ranges; and industrial zones, including not only the modern mills but also the adjacent “factory lines,” reminiscent of 19th-century company housing in Britain but even more squalid.

In the postindependence period, with the acceleration of urban growth and the consequent need for urban planning, new forms arose. The millions of refugees from Pakistan, for example, led to the establishment of many “model” (i.e., planned) towns on the edges of the existing cities. The subsequent steady influx of job seekers, together with the natural growth of the already settled population, gave rise to many planned residential areas, typically called “colonies,” usually consisting of four- or five-story apartment blocks, a small shopping centre, schools, and playgrounds and other recreational spaces. In general, commuting from colonies to jobs in the inner city is by either bus or bicycle.

For poorer immigrants, residence in those urban colonies was not an option. Some could afford to move into slum flats, often sharing space with earlier immigrants from their native villages. Others, however, had no recourse but to find shelter in bastis (shantytowns), clusters of anywhere from a few to many hundreds of makeshift dwellings, which are commonly found along the edges of railroad yards and parks, outside the walls of factories, along the banks of rivers, and wherever else the urban authorities might tolerate their presence. Finally, there are the street dwellers, mainly single men in search of temporary employment, who lack even the meagre shelter that the bastis afford.

A special type of urban place to which British rule gave rise were the hill stations, such as Shimla (Simla) and Darjiling (Darjeeling). Those were erected at elevations high enough to provide cool retreats for the dependents of Europeans stationed in India and, in the summer months, to serve as seasonal capitals of the central or provincial governments. Hotels, guest houses, boarding schools, clubs, and other recreational facilities characterize those settlements. Since independence, affluent Indians have come to depend on the hill stations no less than did the British.

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Demographic trends

India’s population is young. Its birth and death rates are both near the global average. More than half the population is under age 30 and less than one-fourth is age 45 or older. Life expectancy is about 68 for men and 70 for women.

India: Age breakdown
India: Age breakdownEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

A population explosion in India commenced following the great influenza epidemic of 1918–19. In subsequent decades there was a steadily accelerating rate of growth up to the census of 1961, after which the rate leveled off (though it remained high). The total population in 1921 within the present borders of India (i.e., excluding what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh) was 251 million, and in 1947, at the time of independence, it was about 340 million. India’s population doubled between 1947 and the 1981 census, and by the 2001 census it had surpassed one billion. The increase between 1991 and 2001 alone—more than 182 million—was greater than the total present-day population of all but the world’s most-populous countries, and that value was matched by the increase between 2001 and 2011. Although there has been a considerable drop in the birth rate, a much more rapid decline in the death rate has accounted for the rise in the country’s rate of population growth. Moreover, the increasing proportion of females attaining and living through their childbearing years continues to inhibit a marked reduction in the birth rate.

The effect of emigration from or immigration to India on the overall growth of population has been negligible throughout modern history. Within India, however, migration from relatively impoverished regions to areas, especially cities, offering some promise of economic betterment has been largely responsible for the differential growth rates from one state or region to another. In general, the larger a city, the greater its proportion of migrants to the total population and the more cosmopolitan its population mix. In Mumbai, for example, more than half of the population speaks languages other than Marathi, the principal language of the state of Maharashtra. The rates of migration to Indian cities severely tax their capacity to cope with the newcomers’ needs for housing, safe drinking water, and sanitary facilities, not to mention amenities. The result is that many migrants live in conditions of appalling squalor in bastis or, even worse, with no permanent shelter at all.

India: crowd
India: crowdCrowd of pilgrims in India.© TheFinalMiracle/Fotolia

Refugees constitute another class of migrants. Some date from the 1947 partition of India and many others, especially in Assam and West Bengal, from the violent separation in 1971 of Bangladesh from Pakistan. Still others are internal refugees from the communal violence and other forms of ethnic strife that periodically beset many parts of India.

Economy

Learn about the currency swap in India in 2016 which disrupted the economy, meant to combat corruption
Learn about the currency swap in India in 2016 which disrupted the economy, meant to combat corruptionHow a currency swap in India in 2016 disrupted an economy it was meant to help modernize.© CCTV America (A Britannica Publishing Partner)See all videos for this article

India has one of the largest, most highly diversified economies in the world, but, because of its enormous population, it is—in terms of income and gross national product (GNP) per capita—one of the poorest countries on Earth. Since independence, India has promoted a mixed economic system in which the government, constitutionally defined as “socialist,” plays a major role as central planner, regulator, investor, manager, and producer. Starting in 1951, the government based its economic planning on a series of five-year plans influenced by the Soviet model. Initially, the attempt was to boost the domestic savings rate, which more than doubled in the half century following the First Five-Year Plan (1951–55). With the Second Five-Year Plan (1956–61), the focus began to shift to import-substituting industrialization, with an emphasis on capital goods. A broad and diversified industrial base developed. However, with the collapse of the Soviet system in the early 1990s, India adopted a series of free-market reforms that fueled the growth of its middle class, and its highly educated and well-trained workforce made India one of the global centres of the high-technology boom that began in the late 20th century and produced significant annual growth rates. The agricultural sector remains the country’s main employer (about half of the workforce), though, with about one-fifth of the gross domestic product (GDP), it is no longer the largest contributor to GDP. Manufacturing remains another solid component of GDP. However, the major growth has been in trade, finance, and other services, which, collectively, are by far the largest component of GDP.

Many of the government’s decisions are highly political, especially its attempts to invest equitably among the various states of the union. Despite the government’s pervasive economic role, large corporate undertakings dominate many spheres of modern economic activity, while tens of millions of generally small agricultural holdings and petty commercial, service, and craft enterprises account for the great bulk of employment. The range of technology runs the gamut from the most traditional to the most sophisticated.

There are few things that India cannot produce, though much of what it does manufacture would not be economically competitive without the protection offered by tariffs on imported goods, which have remained high despite liberalization. In absolute terms and in relation to GDP, foreign trade traditionally has been low. Despite continued government regulation (which has remained strong in many sectors), trade expanded greatly beginning in the 1990s.

Probably no more than one-fifth of India’s vast labour force is employed in the so-called “organized” sector of the economy (e.g., mining, plantation agriculture, factory industry, utilities, and modern transportation, commercial, and service enterprises), but that small fraction generates a disproportionate share of GDP, supports most of the middle- and upper-class population, and generates most of the economic growth. It is the organized sector to which most government regulatory activity applies and in which trade unions, chambers of commerce, professional associations, and other institutions of modern capitalist economies play a significant role. Apart from rank-and-file labourers, the organized sector engages most of India’s professionals and virtually all of its vast pool of scientists and technicians.

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Agriculture, forestry, and fishing

Agriculture

Roughly half of all Indians still derive their livelihood directly from agriculture. That proportion only relatively recently has been declining from levels that were fairly consistent throughout the 20th century. The area cultivated, however, has risen steadily and has come to encompass considerably more than half of the country’s total area, a proportion matched by few other countries in the world. In the more fertile regions, such as the Indo-Gangetic Plain or the deltas of the eastern coast, the proportion of cultivated to total land often exceeds nine-tenths.

Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India: sugarcane milling
Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India: sugarcane millingMilling sugarcane in a small village near Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India.© Robert Frerck/Odyssey Productions

Water availability varies greatly with climate. In all but a small part of the country, the supply of water for agriculture is highly seasonal and depends on the often fickle southwest monsoon. As a result, farmers are able to raise only one crop per year in areas that lack irrigation, and the risk of crop failure is fairly high in many locales. The prospects and actual development of irrigation also vary greatly from one part of the country to another. They are particularly favourable on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, in part because of the relatively even flow of the rivers issuing from the Himalayas and in part because of the vast reserves of groundwater in the thousands of feet of alluvial deposits underlying the region. In peninsular India, however, surface-water availability relies on the region’s highly seasonal rainfall regime, and, in many areas, hard rock formations make it difficult to sink wells and severely curtail access to the groundwater that is present.

For such a predominantly agricultural country as India, resources of cultivable soil and water are of crucial importance. Although India does possess extensive areas of fertile alluvial soils, especially on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, and other substantial areas of relatively productive soils, such as the black (regur) soils of the Deccan lava plateau, the red-to-yellow lateritic soils that predominate over most of the remainder of the country are low in fertility. Overall, the per capita availability of cultivable area is low, and less than half of the cultivable land is of high quality. Moreover, many areas have lost much of their fertility because of erosion, alkalinization (caused by excessive irrigation without proper drainage), the subsurface formation of impenetrable hardpans, and protracted cultivation without restoring depleted plant nutrients.

Although the average farm size is only about 5 acres (2 hectares) and is declining, that figure masks the markedly skewed distribution of landholdings. More than half of all farms are less than 3 acres (1.2 hectares) in size, while much of the remainder is controlled by a small number of relatively affluent peasants and landlords. Most cultivators own farms that provide little more than a bare subsistence for their families; given fluctuations in the agricultural market and the fickle nature of the annual monsoon, the farm failure rate often has been quite high, particularly among smallholders. Further, nearly one-third of all agricultural households own no land at all and, along with many submarginal landowners, must work for the larger landholders or must supplement their earnings from some subsidiary occupation, often the one traditionally associated with their caste.

Karnataka, India: farmers
Karnataka, India: farmersFarmers plowing a field near Mysuru (Mysore), southern Karnataka, India.Christina Gascoigne/Robert Harding Picture Library

Agricultural technology has undergone rapid change in India. Government-sponsored large-scale irrigation canal projects, begun by the British in the mid-19th century, were greatly extended after independence. Emphasis then shifted toward deep wells (called tube wells in India), often privately owned, from which water was raised either by electric or diesel pumps; however, in many places these wells have depleted local groundwater reserves, and efforts have been directed at replenishing aquifers and utilizing rainwater. Tank irrigation, a method by which water is drawn from small reservoirs created along the courses of minor streams, is important in several parts of India, especially the southeast.

The demand for chemical fertilizers also has been steadily increasing, although since the late 1960s the introduction of new, high-yielding hybrid varieties of seeds (HYVs), mainly for wheat and secondarily for rice, has brought about the most dramatic increases in production, especially in Punjab (where their adoption is virtually universal), Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat. So great has been the success of the so-called Green Revolution that India was able to build up buffer stocks of grain sufficient for the country to weather several years of disastrously bad monsoons with virtually no imports or starvation and even to become, in some years, a modest net food exporter. During the same period, the production of coarse grains and pulses, which were less in demand than rice and wheat, either did not increase significantly or decreased. Hence, the total per capita grain production has been notably less than that suggested by many protagonists of the Green Revolution, and the threat of major food scarcity has not been eliminated.

Yamunanagar, Haryana, India: farming
Yamunanagar, Haryana, India: farmingFarmers returning from their fields near Yamunanagar, Haryana, India.© Robert Frerck/Odyssey Productions

Crops

Most Indian farms grow little besides food crops, especially cereal grains, and these account for more than three-fifths of the area under cultivation. Foremost among the grains, in terms of both area sown and total yield, is rice, the crop of choice in almost all areas with more than 40 inches (1,000 mm) of average annual precipitation, as well as in some irrigated areas. Wheat ranks second in both area sown and total yield and, because of the use of HYVs, leads all grains in yield per acre. Wheat is grown mainly on the fertile soils of northern and northwestern India in areas with 15 to 40 inches (380 to 1,000 mm) of average annual precipitation, often with supplementary irrigation. Unlike rice, which is mainly grown during the kharif (summer) season, wheat is primarily a rabi (cool-season) crop. Other important cereals, in descending order of sown acreage, are sorghum (called jowar in India), pearl millet (bajra), corn (maize), and finger millet (ragi). All these typically are grown on relatively infertile soils unsuitable for rice or wheat, while corn cultivation is also favoured in hilly and mountainous regions. After cereals, pulses are the most important category of food crop. These ubiquitous leguminous crops—of which the chickpea (gram) is the most important—are the main source of protein for most Indians, for whom the consumption of animal products is an expensive luxury or is proscribed on religious grounds.

Satara, Maharashtra, India: millet field
Satara, Maharashtra, India: millet fieldMillet field near Satara, Maharashtra, India.B. Bhansali/Shostal Associates

Nonstaple food crops, eaten in only small amounts by most Indians, include potatoes, onions, various greens, eggplants, okra, squashes, and other vegetables, as well as such fruits as mangoes, bananas, mandarin oranges, papayas, and melons. Sugarcane is widely cultivated, especially in areas near processing mills. Sugar is also obtained by tapping the trunks of toddy palms (Caryota urens), which are abundant in southern India, but much of this syrup is fermented, often illegally, to make an alcoholic beverage. A wide variety of crops—mainly peanuts (groundnuts), coconuts, mustard, cottonseed, and rapeseed—are grown as sources of cooking oil. Others, such as the ubiquitous chilies, turmeric, and ginger, are raised to provide condiments or, in the case of betel leaf (of the pan plant) and betel (areca nut), digestives. Tea is grown, largely for export, on plantations in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, while coffee is grown almost exclusively in southern India, mainly in Karnataka. Tobacco is cultivated chiefly in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.

Foremost among the commercial industrial crops is cotton. Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Punjab are the principal cotton-growing states. Jute, mainly from West Bengal, Assam, and Bihar, is the second leading natural fibre. Much of it is exported in processed form, largely as burlap. An even coarser fibre is derived from coir, the outer husk of the coconut, the processing of which forms the basis for an important cottage industry in Kerala. Coconuts and oilseeds are also important for the extraction of industrial oils.

Livestock

Despite the fact that Indians eat little meat, livestock raising plays an important role in the agricultural economy. India has by far the largest bovine population of any country in the world. Cattle and buffalo are used mainly as draft animals but also serve many other purposes—to provide milk, as sources of meat (for those, including Muslims, Christians, and Scheduled Castes, for whom beef eating is not taboo), and as sources of fertilizer, cooking fuel (from dried cow-dung cakes), and leather. Milk yields from Indian cattle and buffaloes are quite low, although milk from buffaloes is somewhat better and richer on average than from cattle. Because cow slaughter is illegal in many states, scarcely any cattle are raised expressly for providing meat, and most of what little beef is consumed comes from animals that die from natural causes. Rather than being slaughtered, cattle that outlive their usefulness may be sent to goshalas (homes for aged cattle maintained by contributions from devout Hindus) or allowed to roam as strays. In either case, they compete with humans for scarce vegetal resources.

While many orthodox Indians are vegetarians, others will eat goat, mutton, poultry, eggs, and fish, all of which are produced in modest quantities. Sheep are raised for both wool and meat. Pork is taboo to members of several faiths, including Muslims and most Hindus, but pigs, which serve as village scavengers, are raised and freely eaten by several Scheduled Castes.

Forestry

Commercial forestry is not highly developed in India. Nevertheless, the annual cutting of hardwoods is among the highest of any country in the world. Species that are sources of timber, pulp, plywoods, veneers, and matchwood include teak, deodar (a type of cedar), sal (Shorea robusta), sissoo (Dalbergia sissoo), and chir pine (Pinus roxburghii). Virtually any woody vegetation is used for firewood, much of it illegally gathered, and substantial amounts go into making charcoal. Minor forest products include bamboo, cane, gum, resins, dyes, tanning agents, lac, and medicinal plants.

The principal areas for commercial forestry, in order of importance, are the Western Ghats, the western Himalayas, and the hill regions of central India. In an effort to counteract forest depletion, the central and state governments have vigorously supported small-scale afforestation projects; these have met with mixed success, both economically and ecologically.

Population growth has, over the centuries, resulted in a continuous diminution of forest land. Most of India’s formerly forested area has been converted to agricultural use (though some of that land is no longer productive), and other large areas have been effectively turned into wasteland from either overgrazing or overexploitation for timber and firewood. The problem of obtaining sufficient firewood, mainly for cooking, is particularly acute. In many areas forests have ceased to exist, and the only trees of consequence are found in protected village groves, often planted with mangoes or other fruit trees, where people and animals can seek shade from the fierce summer sun. In some areas, especially the northeast, bamboo thickets provide an important substitute for wood for structural purposes. Official figures on the amount of forested land (roughly one-fifth of India’s total area) are virtually meaningless, as much of the area officially classified as forest contains little but scrub. Among the ecological consequences of deforestation in India are the reduced groundwater retentiveness, a concomitant rapid runoff of monsoon rains, a higher incidence of flooding, accelerated erosion and siltation, and an exacerbated problem of water scarcity.

Fishing

Fishing is practiced along the entire length of India’s coastline and on virtually all of its many rivers. Production from marine and freshwater fisheries has become roughly equivalent. Because few fishing craft are mechanized, total catches are low, and annual per capita fish consumption is modest. The shift to mechanization and modern processing, however, has been inexorable. Thus, an increasingly large part of the catch now comes from fishing grounds that the small craft of coastal fishing families are unable to reach. The problem is most severe in Kerala, the leading fishing state. Major marine catches include sardine and mackerel; freshwater catches are dominated by carp. Intensive inland aquaculture, for both fish and shrimp (the latter of which has become an important export), has increased significantly.

Panaji, Goa, India: harbour
Panaji, Goa, India: harbourFishing boats in the harbour at Panaji, Goa, India.Gerald Cubitt
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Resources and power

Although India possesses a wide range of minerals and other natural resources, its per capita endowment of such critical resources as cultivable land, water, timber, and known petroleum reserves is relatively low. Nevertheless, the diversity of resources, especially of minerals, exceeds that of all but a few countries and gives India a distinct advantage in its industrial development.

Domestically supplied minerals form an important underpinning for India’s diversified manufacturing industry, as well as a source of modest export revenues. Nationalizing many foreign and domestic enterprises and government initiation and management of others gave the Indian government a predominant role in the mining industry. However, government involvement has been gradually reduced as private investment has grown.

Among mineral resources, iron ore (generally of high quality) and ferroalloys—notably manganese and chromite—are particularly abundant, and all are widely distributed over peninsular India. Other exploitable metallic minerals include copper, bauxite (the principal ore of aluminum), zinc, lead, gold, and silver. Among important nonmetallic and nonfuel minerals are limestone, dolomite, rock phosphate, building stones, ceramic clays, mica, gypsum, fluorspar, magnesite, graphite, and diamonds.

Of the many metals produced, iron—mined principally in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Goa, Karnataka, and Orissa—ranks first in value. Copper, derived mainly from Rajasthan and Bihar, is a distant second. Gold, zinc and lead (often mined together), the ferroalloys (chiefly manganese and chromite), and bauxite also are important. Noteworthy nonmetallic minerals include limestone, dolomite, rock phosphate, gypsum, building stone, and ceramic clays.

In terms of the value of production, fuel minerals far exceed all others combined. Among the fuels, petroleum ranks first in value, followed by coal (including lignite). India produces only a portion of its petroleum needs but produces a slight exportable surplus of coal. Virtually all of India’s petroleum comes from the offshore Bombay High Field and from Gujarat and Assam, while coal comes from some 500 mines, both surface and deep-pit, distributed over a number of states. By far the most important coal-producing region is along the Damodar River, including the Jharia and Raniganj fields in Bihar and West Bengal, which account for about half the nation’s output and virtually all the coal of coking quality. Natural gas is of little importance. Uranium is produced in modest quantities in Bihar.

Among the fossil fuels, India is well endowed with coal and modestly so with lignite. Coal supplies are widespread but are especially abundant and easy to mine in the Chota Nagpur Plateau, which is the principal source area for coking coal. Domestic reserves of petroleum and natural gas, though abundant, do not meet the country’s large demand. Petroleum fields are located in eastern Assam (India’s oldest production region) and in Gujarat and offshore in the Arabian Sea on an undersea structure known as the Bombay High. Several other onshore and offshore petroleum reserves have been discovered, including sites in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh.

The country’s utilities, overwhelmingly in government hands, are barely able to keep pace with the rapidly rising demand for various types of service. Electricity consumption, for example, increased 16-fold between 1951 and 1980 and more than quadrupled again in the next quarter century. The bulk of all electricity generated is from widely dispersed coal-powered thermal plants; most of the remainder is from hydroelectric plants, built mainly in mountainous regions or along major escarpments; and only a tiny amount comes from a few nuclear installations. Power outages and rationing are frequently necessary in periods of peak demand, since growing demand often outstrips installed capacity in many locales. More than half of all electricity is industrially used. Agricultural use, largely for raising irrigation water from deep wells, exceeds domestic consumption. Rural electrification is increasing rapidly, and the great bulk of all villages are now tied into some distribution grid.

India: Breakdown of renewable energy by source
India: Breakdown of renewable energy by sourceEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Manufacturing

India’s manufacturing industry is highly diversified. A substantial majority of all industrial workers are employed in the millions of small-scale handicraft enterprises. These mainly household industries—such as spinning, weaving, pottery making, metalworking, and woodworking—largely serve the local needs of the villages where they are situated.

Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India: Tata truck works
Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India: Tata truck worksSteel foundry at the Tata truck works, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.© Robert Frerck/Odyssey Productions

In terms of total output and value added, however, mechanized factory production predominates. Many factories, especially those manufacturing producers’ goods (e.g., basic metals, machinery, fertilizers, and other heavy chemicals), are publicly owned and operated by either the central or the state governments. There also are thousands of private producers, including a number of large and diversified industrial conglomerates. The steel industry, for example, is one in which a privately owned corporation, the Tata Iron and Steel Company (Tata Steel), at Jamshedpur (production began in 1911), is among the largest and most successful producers. In the Middle East, East Africa, and Southeast Asia, some Indian corporations have established “turnkey operations,” which are turned over to local management after a stipulated period. Foreign corporations, however, have been slow to invest in Indian industry because of excessive regulation (subsequently relaxed) and rules limiting foreign ownership of controlling shares.

The long-established textile industries—especially cotton but also jute, wool, silk, and synthetic fibres—account for the greatest share of manufacturing employment. Few large cities are without at least one cotton mill. Jute milling, unlike cotton, is highly concentrated in “Hugliside,” the string of cities along the Hugli (Hooghly) River just north of Kolkata. Even more widespread than textile mills are initial processing plants for agricultural and mining products. In general, these are fairly small, seasonal enterprises located close to places of primary production. They include plants for cotton ginning, oil pressing, peanut shelling, sugar refining, drying and cold storage of foodstuffs, and crushing and initial smelting of ores. Consumer goods industries, though widely dispersed, are largely concentrated in large cities. To spread the benefits of development regionally and to alleviate metropolitan congestion, state governments have sponsored numerous industrial parks (or estates), for which entrepreneurs are offered various concessions, including cheap land and reduced taxes. Such programs have been fairly successful.

Among the heavy industries, metallurgical plants, such as iron and steel mills, typically are located close either to raw materials or to coal, depending on the relative mix of materials needed and transportation costs. India is fortunate in having several sites, especially in the Chota Nagpur Plateau, where abundant coal supplies are in close proximity to high-grade iron ore. Within easy reach of the Kolkata market, the Chota Nagpur Plateau has become India’s principal area for heavy industry, including many interconnected chemical and engineering enterprises. Production of heavy transportation equipment, such as locomotives and trucks, is also concentrated there.

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Finance

India’s government-regulated and largely government-owned banking system is well developed. Its principal institution is the Reserve Bank of India (founded 1935), which regulates the circulation of banknotes, manages the country’s reserves of foreign exchange, and operates the currency and credit system. With the nationalization of the country’s 14 largest commercial banks in 1969 and further nationalizations in 1980, most commercial banking passed into the public sector. In 1975 the government instituted a system of regional rural banks, the principal purpose of which was to meet the credit needs of small farmers and tenants. This has gone a long way toward lessening the strength of rapacious village moneylenders, whose rates of interest were typically so exorbitant that their borrowers were left interminably in their debt. Other banks have been established by the central government to provide credits promoting various types of industry and foreign trade. Many foreign banks maintain branch offices in India, and Indian banks maintain offices in numerous foreign countries.

Stock exchanges do not play the prominent role in India that they do in more affluent capitalist societies. Nevertheless, they do exist in most of the largest Indian cities and facilitate the flow of capital in the form of securities under rules set down by the Ministry of Finance.

Trade

The volume of India’s foreign trade, given the diversity of its economic base, is low. There is, moreover, a chronic and large foreign trade deficit, which is aggravated by substantial imports of smuggled goods, mostly luxuries.

Among the wide range of exports, no single type of commodity occupies a dominant position. In terms of value, gems and jewelry (particularly for the Middle Eastern market) long held the leading position, followed by ready-made garments (reflecting India’s large pool of cheap labour) and leather and leather products (owing to both cheap labour and the country’s large number of cattle). However, since the turn of the 21st century, engineering products have become the leading export, and chemicals and chemical products and food and agricultural products have slipped in behind gems and jewelry. Imports are highly diverse and include petroleum and petroleum products, precious metals, and chemicals and chemical products.

India’s trade links are worldwide. The United States and the former Soviet Union were long the principal destinations for India’s exports (often, in the latter case, under barter arrangements). The United States remains a major destination for Indian goods, and China (including Hong Kong) and the United Arab Emirates also are important. The main import sources are China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

Services

Like most countries with a socialist tradition, India has an extensive bureaucracy, but it is also one that has contributed significantly to social and economic growth. The country’s economic growth, for instance, has been greatly facilitated by its considerable engineering expertise. Most large-scale building activities—such as the construction of railroads, national and state highways, harbours, hydroelectric and irrigation projects, and government-owned factories and hotels—have been built by government-managed construction agencies, the largest of which is the Central Department of Public Works.

Beginning in the 1990s, the private sector contributed greatly to the growth of services with the establishment of a robust computer software and services industry, located largely in the urban areas of Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Hyderabad. With a large number of English speakers, India also emerged as a low-cost alternative for U.S. telecommunications companies and other enterprises to establish telephone call centres. India has remained a prime destination for tourists from both Europe and the Americas, and tourism has been a major source of foreign exchange.

Labour and taxation

Much of the organized sector is unionized, and strikes are frequent and often protracted. Many of the unions are affiliated with one of a number of government-recognized and regulated all-India “central” trade union organizations, several of which have membership in the millions. The more important of these are affiliated with national political parties.

Taxes are levied in India at the federal, state, and local levels. At the national level, the Union government collects income tax, customs duties, and tariffs and assesses value-added taxes such as sales tax. The states raise much of their revenue through the collection of stamp taxes (for the issuance of various licenses) and through the collection of agricultural tax. Local governments collect income in the form of property taxes and fees for services.

Transportation and telecommunications

At independence, India had a transportation system superior to that of any other large postcolonial region. In the decades that followed, it built steadily on that base, and railroads in particular formed the sinews that initially bound the new nation together. Although railroads have continued to carry the bulk of goods traffic, there has been a steady increase in the relative dependence on roads and motorized transport, and all modes of transport—from human porters and animal traction (India still has millions of bullock carts) to the most modern aircraft—find niches in which they are the preferred and sometimes the sole means for moving people and goods.

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Railways and roads

With some 39,000 miles (62,800 km) of track length, India’s rail system, entirely government-owned, is one of the most extensive in the world, while in terms of the distance traveled each year by passengers it is the world’s most heavily used system. India’s mountain railways were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Railway administration is handled through nine regional subsystems. Routes are mainly broad-gauge (5.5 feet [1.68 metres]) single-track lines, and the remaining metre and narrow-gauge routes are being converted to the broad-gauge standard. There has also been conversion to double-track lines, as well as a shift from steam locomotives to diesel-electric or electric power. Electrified lines have become especially important for urban commuter traffic, and in 1989 South Asia’s first subway line began operation in Kolkata. Delhi followed with a new system in the early 21st century.

Although relatively few new rail routes have been built since independence, the length and capacity of the road system and the volume of road traffic by truck, bus, and automobile have all undergone phenomenal expansion. The length of hard-surfaced roads, for example, has increased from only 66,000 to some 950,000 miles (106,000 to 1,530,000 km) since 1947, but this still represented less than half of the national total of all roads. During the same period, the increased volume of road traffic for both passengers and goods was even more dramatic, increasing exponentially. A relatively small number of villages (almost entirely in tribal regions) are still situated more than a few hours’ walk from the nearest bus transport. Bus service is largely owned and controlled by state governments, which also build and maintain most hard-surfaced routes. The grid of national highways connects virtually all Indian cities.

Water and air transport

A small number of major ports, led by Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, are centrally managed by the Indian government, while a much larger number of intermediate and minor ports are state-managed. The former handle the great bulk of the country’s maritime traffic. Of the country’s shipping companies engaged in either overseas or coastal trade, the largest is the publicly owned Shipping Corporation of India. Only about one-third of India’s more than 3,100 miles (5,000 km) of navigable inland waterways, including both rivers and a few short stretches of canals, are commercially used, and those no longer carry a significant volume of traffic.

Civil aviation, once entirely in private hands, was nationalized in 1953 into two government-owned companies: Air India, for major international routes from airports at New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai; and Indian Airlines, for routes within India and neighbouring countries. The government has tightly restricted access to Indian air routes for foreign carriers, and several small domestic airlines have attempted to service short-haul, low-capacity routes. The networks and volume of traffic are expanding rapidly, and all large and most medium-size cities now have regular air service.

Delhi: Indira Gandhi International Airport
Delhi: Indira Gandhi International AirportIndira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi.Krokodyl (CC-BY-3.0) (A Britannica Publishing Partner)

Telecommunications

The telecommunications sector has traditionally been dominated by the state; even after the liberalization of the 1990s, the government—through several state-owned or operated companies and the Department of Telecommunications—has continued to control the industry. Although telephone service is quite dense in some urban areas, throughout the country as a whole there are relatively few main lines per capita. Many rural towns and villages have no telephone service. Cellular telephone service is available in major urban centres through a number of private vendors. The state dominates television and radio broadcasting through the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The number of personal computers—though large in raw numbers—is relatively small given the country’s population. Although many individuals have Internet service subscriptions, cybercafes located in most major urban areas provide access for a great proportion of users.

Government and society

Constitutional framework

The architects of India’s constitution, though drawing on many external sources, were most heavily influenced by the British model of parliamentary democracy. In addition, a number of principles were adopted from the Constitution of the United States of America, including the separation of powers among the major branches of government, the establishment of a supreme court, and the adoption, albeit in modified form, of a federal structure (a constitutional division of power between the union [central] and state governments). The mechanical details for running the central government, however, were largely carried over from the Government of India Act of 1935, passed by the British Parliament, which served as India’s constitution in the waning days of British colonial rule.

The new constitution promulgated on January 26, 1950, proclaimed India “a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic.” With 395 articles, 10 (later 12) schedules (each clarifying and expanding upon a number of articles), and more than 90 amendments, it is one of the longest and most detailed constitutions in the world. The constitution includes a detailed list of “fundamental rights,” a lengthy list of “directive principles of state policy” (goals that the state is obligated to promote, though with no specified timetable for their accomplishment [an idea taken from the Irish constitution]), and a much shorter list of “fundamental duties” of the citizen.

The remainder of the constitution outlines in great detail the structure, powers, and manner of operation of the union (central) and state governments. It also includes provisions for protecting the rights and promoting the interests of certain classes of citizens (e.g., disadvantaged social groups, officially designated as “Scheduled Castes” and “Scheduled Tribes”) and the process for constitutional amendment. The extraordinary specificity of India’s constitution is such that amendments, which average nearly two per year, have frequently been required to deal with issues that in other countries would be handled by routine legislation. With a few exceptions, the passage of an amendment requires only a simple majority of both houses of parliament, but this majority must form two-thirds of those present and voting.

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Constitutional structure

The three lists contained in the constitution’s seventh schedule detail the areas in which the union and state governments may legislate. The union list outlines the areas in which the union government has exclusive authority, which include foreign policy, defense, communications, currency, taxation on corporations and nonagricultural income, and railroads. State governments have the sole power to legislate on such subjects as law and order, public health and sanitation, local government, betting and gambling, and taxation on agricultural income, entertainment, and alcoholic beverages. The items on the concurrent list include those on which both the union government and state governments may legislate, though a union law generally takes precedence; among these areas are criminal law, marriage and divorce, contracts, economic and social planning, population control and family planning, trade unions, social security, and education. Matters requiring legislation that are not specifically covered in the listed powers lie within the exclusive domain of the central government.

An exceedingly important power of the union government is that of creating new states, combining states, changing state boundaries, and terminating a state’s existence. The union government may also create and dissolve any of the union territories, whose powers are more limited than those of the states. Although the states exercise either sole or joint control over a substantial range of issues, the constitution establishes a more dominant role for the union government.

Union government

The three branches of the union government are charged with different responsibilities, but the constitution also provides a fair degree of interdependence. The executive branch consists of the president, vice president, and a Council of Ministers, led by the prime minister. Within the legislative branch are the two houses of parliament—the lower house, or Lok Sabha (House of the People), and the upper house, or Rajya Sabha (Council of States). The president of India is also considered part of parliament. At the apex of the judicial branch is the Supreme Court, whose decisions are binding on the higher and lower courts of the state governments.

Executive branch

India’s head of state is the president who is elected to a five-year renewable term by an electoral college consisting of the elected members of both houses of parliament and the elected members of the legislative assemblies of all the states. The vice president, chosen by an electoral college made up of only the two houses of parliament, presides over the Rajya Sabha. If the president dies or otherwise leaves office, the vice president assumes the position until an election can be held.

New Delhi, India: Presidential House (Rashtrapati Bhavan)
New Delhi, India: Presidential House (Rashtrapati Bhavan)The Presidential House (Rashtrapati Bhavan), formerly the Viceroy’s House, New Delhi, India, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, constructed 1913–30.Lutyens Trust Photographic Archive; photograph, Andrew W. Barnett

The powers of the president are largely nominal and ceremonial, except in times of emergency, and the president normally acts on the advice of the prime minister. The proper limits of the president’s power are sometimes a matter for debate. The president may, however, proclaim a national state of emergency when there is perceived to be a grave threat to the country’s security or impose direct presidential rule at the state level when it is thought that a particular state legislative assembly has become incapable of functioning effectively. The president may also dissolve the Lok Sabha and call for new parliamentary elections after a prime minister loses a vote of confidence.

Effective executive power rests with the Council of Ministers, headed by the prime minister, who is chosen by the majority party or coalition in the Lok Sabha and is formally appointed by the president. The Council of Ministers, also formally appointed by the president, is selected by the prime minister. The most important group within the council is the cabinet. Cabinet portfolios are assigned partly on the basis of interest and competence but also on the basis of demonstrated loyalty to the ruling party or party leader and on the implicit need to represent the country’s major regions and population groups (e.g., based on religion, language, caste, and gender). The prime minister and the Council of Ministers remain in power throughout the term of the Lok Sabha, unless they lose a vote of confidence.

Legislative branch

Of the two houses of parliament, the more powerful is the Lok Sabha, in which the prime minister leads the ruling party or coalition. The constitution limits the number of elected members of the Lok Sabha to 530 from the states and 20 from the union territories, allotted roughly in proportion to their population. The president may also nominate two members of the Anglo-Indian community if it appears that this community is not being adequately represented. Members of the Lok Sabha serve for terms of five years, unless the house is dissolved before that.

Membership in the Rajya Sabha is not to exceed 250. Of these members, 12 are nominated by the president to represent literature, science, art, and social service, and the balance are proportionally elected by the state legislative assemblies. The Rajya Sabha is not subject to dissolution, but one-third of its members retire at the end of every second year. Legislative bills may originate in either house—except for financial bills, which may originate only in the Lok Sabha—and require passage by simple majorities in both houses in order to become law.

Bureaucracy

The day-to-day functioning of the government is performed by permanent ministries and other public service agencies. These are led by members of the Indian Administrative Service and other specialized services, who are chosen by competitive examination. Rules of recruitment and retirement and conditions of service are determined by the Union Public Service Commission (or, for state governments, by state public service commissions). There has been a steady proliferation of agencies and growth in the size of the bureaucracy since independence, with a concomitant increase in regulations, which often impede—rather than facilitate—administration.

Foreign policy

India’s foreign policy has been officially one of nonalignment with any of the world’s major power blocs. The country was a founding member of the Nonaligned Movement during the Cold War. India has also been a major player among the group of more than 100 low-income countries, loosely described as the “Global South,” that have sought to deal collectively in economic matters with the industrialized states of the “Global North.”

India has maintained its membership in the Commonwealth (formerly the British Commonwealth of Nations), and in 1950 it became the first Commonwealth country to change from a dominion to a republic. It was a charter member, even though not yet independent, of the United Nations (as it was of the earlier League of Nations) and has played an active role in virtually all the organs within the United Nations system. In 1985 India joined six neighbouring countries in launching the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

State and local governments

The government structure of the states, defined by the constitution, closely resembles that of the union. The executive branch is composed of a governor—like the president, a mostly nominal and ceremonial post—and a council of ministers, led by the chief minister.

Chandigarh, India: Palace of Assembly
Chandigarh, India: Palace of AssemblyThe Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh, India, designed by Le Corbusier.Frederick M. Asher

All states have a Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly), popularly elected for terms of up to five years, while a small (and declining) number of states also have an upper house, the Vidhan Parishad (Legislative Council), roughly comparable to the Rajya Sabha, with memberships that may not be more than one-third the size of the assemblies. In these councils, one-sixth of the members are nominated by the governor, and the remainder are elected by various categories of specially qualified voters. State governors are also regarded as members of the legislative assemblies, which they may suspend or dissolve when no party is able to muster a working majority.

Bengaluru, India: Vidhana Soudha
Bengaluru, India: Vidhana Soudha Parkland between the High Court building (Attara Kacheri) and the legislative building Vidhana Soudha (centre background), Bengaluru (Bangalore), Karnataka, India.© Ajay Bhaskar/Shutterstock.com

Each Indian state is organized into a number of districts, which are divided for certain administrative purposes into units variously known as tahsils, taluqs, or subdivisions. These are further divided into community development blocks, each typically consisting of about 100 villages. Superimposed on these units is a three-tiered system of local government. At the lowest level, each village elects its own governing council (gram pancayat). The chairman of a gram pancayat is also the village representative on the council of the community development block (pancayat samiti). Each pancayat samiti, in turn, selects a representative to the district-level council (zila parishad). Separate from this system are the municipalities, which generally are governed by their own elected councils.

From the state down to the village, government appointees administer the various government departments and agencies. Financial grants from higher levels, often made on a matching basis, provide developmental incentives and facilitate the execution of desired projects. Approving, withholding, or manipulating grants, however, often serves as a lever for the accumulation of personal power and as a vehicle of corruption.

Justice

The tradition of an independent judiciary has taken strong root in India. The Supreme Court, whose presidentially appointed judges may serve until the age of 65, determines the constitutional validity of union government legislation, adjudicates disputes between the union and the states (as well as disputes between two or more states), and handles appeals from lower-level courts. Each state has a high court and a number of lower courts. The high courts may rule on the constitutionality of state laws, issue a variety of writs, and serve as courts of appeal from the lower courts, over which they exercise general oversight.

Political process

Oversight of the electoral process is vested in the Election Commission. There is universal adult suffrage, and the age of eligibility is 18. Seats are allocated from constituencies of roughly equal population. A certain number of constituencies in each state are reserved for members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes based on their proportion of the total state population. Those reserved constituencies shift from one election to the next. As candidates do not have to be and frequently are not residents of the areas they seek to represent, none runs the risk of losing a seat solely by virtue of the allocation procedure.

The Indian party system is complex. Based on performance in past elections, some parties are recognized as national parties and others as state parties. Parties are allocated symbols (e.g., a cow or a hammer and sickle), and ballots are printed with these symbols to help illiterate voters. The only party that has enjoyed a nationwide following continuously from the time of independence (in fact, since its founding in 1885) is the Indian National Congress. There have been several party schisms, however, and the Indian National Congress–Indira, or simply the Congress (I)—created in 1978 by the former prime minister Indira Gandhi and her supporters—has been by far the most successful of its derivative entities. Parties to the left of the Congress have included not only the Communist Party of India, which generally followed the lead of the Soviet Union, and the subsequently formed Communist Party of India (Marxist), more inclined toward policies espoused by China, but also an assortment of small, mainly short-lived Marxist and socialist groups. Parties to the right of the Congress have largely appealed either to Hindu sentiments (such as the Bharatiya Janata [“Indian People’s”] Party; BJP) or those of other communally defined groups, and some have sought to further the interests of landed constituencies (the preindependence princely families or the more recently affluent peasant factions).

Over time there has been a steady increase in the number and power of parties promoting the parochial interests of individual states. As a result, political bargains and alliances between parties with widely divergent platforms are made and dissolved frequently. Moreover, expedient defections from one party to another in pursuit of personal political ambitions have become a feature of the political system. Legislation aimed at discouraging this practice has had only limited success.

Security

Most police functions in India are handled through the states. There are, however, a number of centrally controlled police forces, including the Central Bureau of Investigation (to deal with certain breaches of union laws), the Border Security Force, the volunteer auxiliary force of Home Guards (to help in times of emergency, such as riots or natural disasters), the Central Reserve Police Force, and the Central Industrial Security Force. There are also several paramilitary forces deployed to provide internal security and border defense.

The combined Indian armed forces—comprising the army, navy, coast guard, and air force—are among the largest in the world. The army is the largest of these, with more than four-fifths of military personnel. Each of the services consists solely of volunteers and is led by a well-trained, professional corps of officers that historically has eschewed interfering with domestic politics.

Much of the military’s equipment was obtained from the former Soviet Union. The army has several thousand main battle tanks (though many are relatively antiquated), a comparable number of artillery pieces (both towed and self-propelled), and large numbers of armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles. The air force is equipped with numerous high-performance aircraft, including fighters and fighter/ground-attack jets, helicopters, and various fixed-wing support aircraft. The navy has a large submarine fleet and boasts a single aircraft carrier, but its remaining surface vessels consist mainly of smaller craft such as destroyers, frigates, and patrol craft. The country’s nuclear arsenal—thought to consist of several dozen relatively small devices—is controlled by Strategic Forces Command; the military also deploys short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

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Health and welfare

India’s medical and public health services have improved dramatically since independence. As a result, average life expectancy at birth has risen by more than 25 years since World War II, although it still lags behind expectancies in the world’s more affluent societies.

While death from starvation has become rare, malnutrition has remained widespread. Much of the population lacks access to safe drinking water, seasonally if not year-round. Dysentery and other diseases caused by waterborne organisms are major killers, especially of children. Poorly treated and improperly disposed sewage pose serious health problems. Most diseases endemic to tropical regions are significant causes of morbidity in India. The rate of tuberculosis is high, and the incidence of blindness, mainly caused by trachoma, is even higher. Great strides, however, have been made in combating certain diseases. Smallpox, once a leading cause of death, was declared eradicated in 1977. The vigorous National Malaria Eradication Programme, launched in 1958, almost succeeded in ridding India of this once very common disease, but the development of resistance to DDT among mosquitoes caused a resurgence of the problem. This led to renewed public health efforts and, subsequently, to a slow but steady decline in the number of affected individuals. AIDS and HIV infection have increased; although the overall proportion of the population affected is quite tiny, the number of people infected is one of the highest for any country in the world.

Apart from numerous programs directed against specific diseases, there has been a considerable expansion in the number of union- and state-maintained hospitals and rural primary health centres. The latter generally are staffed by minimally trained paramedical personnel and are poorly equipped. Many are visited each week by a trained government doctor. Supplementing these government services are private medical practitioners, a great many of whom follow a variety of traditional medical systems. Of these, the ancient Ayurvedic system is by far the most widespread. Several dozen colleges teach Ayurvedic medicine, often with government support. Throughout India, the government uses its network of hospitals and clinics for immunizing children against various diseases and for promoting family planning. Family planning efforts, including the encouragement of voluntary sterilization of both males and females, have met with mixed success.

Welfare services have proliferated in number and type since independence. Many programs target specific sections of the population, such as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, nomadic populations, women, children, and the disabled. The resources for such services, however, are inadequate, and a large proportion of the budgets for specific programs goes toward maintaining the service staff and their generally meagre facilities. Pension plans for retirees exist only for government workers and a portion of the organized sector of the economy.

Housing

Existing housing stock does not meet India’s current needs and is continually challenged by the country’s growing population. Homelessness is common, particularly in major urban centres, and large numbers of city dwellers reside in unregistered and makeshift slums. Housing prices in the largest cities—Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai—are among the highest in the world, and even modest apartments are beyond the means of many residents. Despite government efforts to alleviate these problems, relatively few government housing projects have been undertaken.

Mumbai, India: Dhobi Ghat
Mumbai, India: Dhobi GhatDhobi Ghat, an outdoor laundromat in Mumbai (Bombay), India.Dennis Jarvis (CC-BY-2.0) (A Britannica Publishing Partner)

Rural housing is somewhat less pressed, despite the fact that most of the country’s population continues to live in the countryside. Traditional building materials vary from region to region; adobe edifices are common in arid regions, for example, and high-roofed thatch buildings are standard in areas with greater annual precipitation. These are often augmented with walls and roofs made of such materials as sheet metal, cinder blocks, or stone. Throughout the country, the use of materials such as concrete, blocks, and stucco has become common in more affluent villages, towns, and cities.

Piped water is mainly limited to large towns and cities, but even there it seldom reaches all neighbourhoods and cannot be depended on in all seasons. Otherwise, reliance is on wells, rivers, reservoirs, and tanks (usually inundated borrow pits), with minimal, if any, treatment. Sewage facilities are even more limited. Professional scavengers, publicly and privately employed, fill the need for waste disposal in most urban areas and, along with pigs, in many villages as well. Piped gas is a rarity. Those who cook with gas generally rely on purchased gas cylinders. An increasing number of villages, however, have installed simple cow-dung gas plants, which enable them to generate methane and still utilize the fermented dung for fertilizer.

Education

Explore India's efforts to improve its education system by including e-learning via satellite classrooms
Explore India’s efforts to improve its education system by including e-learning via satellite classroomsLearn about India’s efforts to improve its education system, 2009 film.Contunico © ZDF Enterprises GmbH, MainzSee all videos for this article

The provision of free and compulsory education for all children up to age 14 is among the directive principles of the Indian constitution. The overall rate of literacy has increased markedly since the late 20th century, but a noticeable disparity has remained between males and females (roughly three-fourths and about half, respectively). There is also a considerable disparity in literacy rates between the states. The state of Kerala has the highest rate, where nearly all are literate, in contrast to Bihar, where the proportion is about half.

Chandigarh, India: Punjab University library
Chandigarh, India: Punjab University libraryLibrary building of Punjab University, Chandigarh, India.© Robert Frerck/Odyssey Productions

Preuniversity education generally consists of five years of primary education (classes I through V), normally for pupils aged 6 to 11; middle level (classes VI through VIII); lower secondary (classes IX and X); and higher secondary (classes XI to XII). The great majority of all children of primary-school age are enrolled, though many, especially girls, may not attend regularly. Enrollment thereafter falls off precipitously, to about half of all children aged 11 to 14, despite the fact that education is free in most states for students of both sexes at least until class X.

Formerly a state responsibility, education was made a joint responsibility of the union and state governments by constitutional amendment. The union government has subsequently played a larger role in promoting the education of girls and other socially disadvantaged groups, largely through fiscal grants for the support of particular programs (e.g., reimbursement of tuition, where it is charged, for girls in classes IX–XII), and in launching a variety of progressive educational initiatives. In addition to publicly financed schools, there are at all levels private and church-run schools (largely by Christian missions), for which tuition is required. Entrance into these often prestigious, predominantly English-language institutions is eagerly sought for the children of those parents who can afford them.

Numerous key universities, institutes of technology, and other specialized institutions of higher education are under union government control, while a much larger number of universities are controlled by the state governments. A disproportionate share of India’s total educational budget goes toward higher education. The number of universities and equivalent institutions increased more than sevenfold in the first four decades after independence, while the number of students enrolled increased more than 15 times during the same period. Each of those numbers has continued to grow dramatically since then. At the same time, funding for libraries, laboratories, and other facilities has been a constant and serious problem. Critics of the unabated growth of higher education have asserted that the quality of university education has steadily declined and have noted the increasingly large proportion of graduates who are unable to find employment, especially among those with liberal arts degrees. Among the established universities are three founded by the British in 1857, at Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai.

In the past, virtually all higher instruction was in English, but, as new universities and their thousands of affiliated colleges have spread out to smaller cities and towns, state languages increasingly have been used, notwithstanding the paucity of textbooks in such languages. Reserved quotas in universities and lower admission standards for members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes—whose prior education often has been less than adequate—have put additional stress on the system. The fact that India’s best students often take their higher degrees abroad, many never to return, further exacerbates the problem of quality. Nevertheless, elite institutions continue to exist, and, in absolute terms, the output of well-educated individuals is substantial.

Cultural life

Cultural milieu

India is a large and diverse polyglot nation whose tempo of life varies from region to region and from community to community. By the early 21st century the lifestyle of middle-class and affluent urban families differed little from that of urbanites in Europe, East Asia, or the Americas. For the most part, however, the flow of rural life continued much as it always had. Many small villages remained isolated from most forms of media and communications, and work was largely done by hand or by the use of animal power. Traditional forms of work and recreation only slowly have given way to habits and pastimes imported from the outside world. The pace of globalization was slow in much of rural India, and even in urban areas Western tastes in food, dress, and entertainment were adopted with discrimination. Indian fashions have remained the norm; Indians have continued to prefer traditional cuisine to Western fare; and, though Indian youths are as obsessed as those in the West with pop culture, Indians produce their own films and music (albeit, strongly influenced by Western styles), which have been extremely popular domestically and have been successfully marketed abroad.

Throughout India, custom and religious ritual are still widely observed and practiced. Among Hindus, religious and social custom follows the samskara, a series of personal sacraments and rites conducted at various stages throughout life. Observant members of other confessional communities follow their own rites and rituals. Among all groups, caste protocols have continued to play a role in enforcing norms and values, despite decades of state legislation to alleviate caste bias.

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Daily life and social customs

Family and kinship

For almost all Indians the family is the most important social unit. There is a strong preference for extended families, consisting of two or more married couples (often of more than a single generation), who share finances and a common kitchen. Marriage is virtually universal, divorce rare, and virtually every marriage produces children. Almost all marriages are arranged by family elders on the basis of caste, degree of consanguinity, economic status, education (if any), and astrology. A bride traditionally moves to her husband’s house. However, nonarranged “love marriages” are increasingly common in cities.

Chariot Festival, Jagannatha temple, Puri, India
Chariot Festival, Jagannatha temple, Puri, IndiaThe Chariot Festival of the Jagannatha temple, Puri, Odisha, India.© Dinodia/Dinodia Photo Library

Within families, there is a clear order of social precedence and influence based on gender, age, and, in the case of a woman, the number of her male children. The senior male of the household—whether father, grandfather, or uncle—typically is the recognized family head, and his wife is the person who regulates the tasks assigned to female family members. Males enjoy higher status than females; boys are often pampered while girls are relatively neglected. This is reflected in significantly different rates of mortality and morbidity between the sexes, allegedly (though reliable statistics are lacking) in occasional female infanticide, and increasingly in the abortion of female fetuses following prenatal gender testing. This pattern of preference is largely connected to the institution of dowry, since the family’s obligation to provide a suitable dowry to the bride’s new family represents a major financial liability. Traditionally, women were expected to treat their husbands as if they were gods, and obedience of wives to husbands has remained a strong social norm. This expectation of devotion may follow a husband to the grave; within some caste groups, widows are not allowed to remarry even if they are bereaved at a young age.

Hindu marriage has traditionally been viewed as the “gift of a maiden” (kanyadan) from the bride’s father to the household of the groom. This gift is also accompanied by a dowry, which generally consists of items suitable to start a young couple in married life. In some cases, however, dowries demanded by grooms and their families have become quite extravagant, and some families appear to regard them as means of enrichment. There are instances, a few of which have been highly publicized, wherein young brides have been treated abusively—even tortured and murdered—in an effort to extract more wealth from the bride’s father. The “dowry deaths” of such young women have contributed to a reaction against the dowry in some modern urban families.

A Muslim marriage is considered to be a contractual relationship—contracted by the bride’s father or guardian—and, though there are often dowries, there is formal reciprocity, in which the groom promises a mahr, a commitment to provide his bride with wealth in her lifetime.

Beyond the family the most important unit is the caste. Within a village all members of a single caste recognize a fictive kinship relation and a sense of mutual obligation, but ideas of fictive kinship extend also to the village as a whole. Thus, for example, a woman who marries and goes to another village never ceases to be regarded as a daughter of her village. If she is badly treated in her husband’s village, it may become a matter of collective concern for her natal village, not merely for those of her own caste.

Festivals and holidays

Virtually all regions of India have their distinctive places of pilgrimage, local saints and folk heroes, religious festivals, and associated fairs. There are also innumerable festivals associated with individual villages or temples or with specific castes and cults. The most popular of the religious festivals celebrated over the greater part of India are Vasantpanchami (generally in February, the exact date determined by the Hindu lunar calendar), in honour of Sarasvati, the goddess of learning; Holi (February–March), a time when traditional hierarchical relationships are forgotten and celebrants throw coloured water and powder at one another; Dussehra (September–October), when the story of the Ramayana is reenacted; and Diwali (Divali; October–November), a time for lighting lamps and exchanging gifts. The major secular holidays are Independence Day (August 15) and Republic Day (January 26).

Cuisine

Although there is considerable regional variation in Indian cuisine, the day-to-day diet of most Indians lacks variety. Depending on income, two or three meals generally are consumed. The bulk of almost all meals is whatever the regional staple might be: rice throughout most of the east and south, flat wheat bread (chapati) in the north and northwest, and bread made from pearl millet (bajra) in Maharashtra. This is usually supplemented with the puree of a legume (called dal), a few vegetables, and, for those who can afford it, a small bowl of yogurt. Chilies and other spices add zest to this simple fare. For most Indians, meat is a rarity, except on festive occasions—the cow is considered sacred in Hinduism (see sanctity of the cow). Fish, fresh milk, and fruits and vegetables, however, are more widely consumed, subject to regional and seasonal availability. In general, tea is the preferred beverage in northern and eastern India, while coffee is more common in the south.

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Clothing

Clothing for most Indians is also quite simple and typically untailored. Men (especially in rural areas) frequently wear little more than a broadcloth dhoti, worn as a loose skirtlike loincloth, or, in parts of the south and east, the tighter wraparound lungi. In both cases the body remains bare above the waist, except in cooler weather, when a shawl also may be worn, or in hot weather, when the head may be protected by a turban. The more-affluent and higher-caste men are likely to wear a tailored shirt, increasingly of Western style. Muslims, Sikhs, and urban dwellers generally are more inclined to wear tailored clothing, including various types of trousers, jackets, and vests.

clothing in India: dhoti
clothing in India: dhotiIndian men wearing dhotis, from a 19th-century painting.Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although throughout most of India women wear saris and short blouses, the way in which a sari is wrapped varies greatly from one region to another. In Punjab, as well as among older female students and many city dwellers, the characteristic dress is the shalwar-kamiz, a combination of pajama-like trousers and a long-tailed shirt (saris being reserved for special occasions). Billowing ankle-length skirts and blouses are the typical female dress of Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat. Most rural Indians, especially females, do not wear shoes and, when footwear is necessary, prefer sandals.

clothing in India: sari
clothing in India: sariIndian woman wearing a sari, detail of a gouache painting on mica from Tiruchchirappalli, India, c. 1850.Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The modes of dress of tribal Indians are exceedingly varied and can be, as among certain Naga groups, quite ornate. Throughout India, however, Western dress is increasingly in vogue, especially among urban and educated males, and Western-style school uniforms are worn by both sexes in many schools, even in rural India.

The arts

Few areas of the world can claim an artistic heritage comparable to that developed in India over the course of more than four millennia. For a detailed discussion of Indian literature, music, dance, theatre, and visual arts, see South Asian arts.

Architecture

Learn about the history and architecture of India's disappearing stepwells
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Architecture is perhaps India’s greatest glory. Among the most-renowned monuments are many cave temples hewn from rock (of which those at Ajanta and Ellora are most noteworthy); the Sun Temple at Konarak (Konarka); the vast temple complexes at Bhubaneshwar, Khajuraho, and Kanchipuram (Conjeeveram); such Mughal masterpieces as Humayun’s tomb and the Taj Mahal; and, from the 20th century, buildings such as the High Court in the planned city of Chandigarh, designed by the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, and the Bhopal State Assembly building in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, designed by the Indian architect and urban planner Charles Correa. Also notable are stepwells, such as the Rani ki Vav (“Queen’s Stepwell”) in Patan (northern Gujarat), now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Other traditional art forms in India—painting, embroidery, pottery, ornamental woodworking and metalworking, sculpture, lacquerware, and jewelry—are also well represented. Much of the best work resulted from patronage by the court (often being produced in royally endowed workshops), by temples, and by wealthy individuals. Vigorous folk traditions have a very long history, as witnessed by the ancient rock paintings found in scores of caves across India.

Radha; Krishna
Radha; KrishnaRadha and Krishna, detail of a Kishangarh painting, mid-18th century; in a private collection.P. Chandra

Dance and music

The performing arts also have a long and distinguished tradition. Bharata natyam, the classical dance form originating in southern India, expresses Hindu religious themes that date at least to the 4th century ce (see Natya-shastra). Other regional styles include odissi (from Orissa), manipuri (Manipur), kathakali (Kerala), kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), and kathak (Islamicized northern India). In addition, there are numerous regional folk dance traditions. One of these is bhangra, a Punjabi dance form that, along with its musical accompaniment, has achieved growing national and international popularity since the 1970s. Indian dance was popularized in the West by dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar.

Traditional Indian music is divided between the Hindustani (northern) and Carnatic (southern) schools. (The Hindustani style is influenced by musical traditions of the Persian-speaking world.) Instrumental and vocal music is also quite varied and frequently is played or sung in concert (usually by small ensembles). It is a popular mode of religious expression, as well as an essential accompaniment to many social festivities, including dances and the narration of bardic and other folk narratives. Some virtuosos, most notably Ravi Shankar (composer and sitar player) and Ali Akbar Khan (composer and sarod player), have gained world renown. The most popular dramatic classical performances, which are sometimes choreographed, relate to the great Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Regional variations of classical and folk music abound. All of these genres have remained popular—as has devotional Hindu music—but interest in Indian popular music has grown rapidly since the late 20th century, buoyed by the great success of motion picture musicals. Western classical music is represented by such institutions as the Symphony Orchestra of India, based in Mumbai, and some individuals (notably conductor Zubin Mehta) have achieved international renown.

Theatre, film, and literature

In modern times, Bengali playwrights—especially Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, who was also a philosopher, poet, songwriter, choreographer, essayist, and painter—have given new life to the Indian theatre. Playwrights from a number of other regions also have gained popularity.

View Priyanka Chopra, an Indian actress speaking about films, diversity, and the gender pay gap
View Priyanka Chopra, an Indian actress speaking about films, diversity, and the gender pay gapWatch an interview with Indian actress Priyanka Chopra.© CCTV America (A Britannica Publishing Partner)See all videos for this article

To a great extent, however, Indian interest in theatre has been replaced by the Indian motion-picture industry, which now ranks as the most popular form of mass entertainment. In some years India—whose film industry is centred in Mumbai (Bombay), thus earning the entire movie-making industry the sobriquetBollywood” in honour of Hollywood, its U.S. counterpart—makes more feature-length films than any other country in the world. The lives of film heroes and heroines, as portrayed in film magazines and other media, are subjects of great popular interest. While most films are formulaic escapist pastiches of drama, comedy, music, and dance, some of India’s best cinematographers, such as Satyajit Ray, are internationally acclaimed. Others, such as filmmakers Ismail Merchant, M. Night Shyamalan (Manoj Shyamalan), and Mira Nair, gained their greatest success making films abroad. Radio, television and Internet broadcasts, and digital and videocassette recordings are popular among those affluent enough to afford them.

The corpus of Indian literature is vast, especially in religion and philosophy. The roots of Indian literary tradition are found in the Vedas, a collection of religious hymns probably dating from the mid-2nd millennium bce but not written down until many centuries later. Many of the ancient texts still provide core elements of Hindu rituals and, despite their great length, are memorized in their entirety by Brahman priests and scholars.

Literature languished during much of the period of British rule, but it experienced a new awakening with the so-called Hindu Renaissance, centred in Bengal and beginning in the mid-19th century. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee established the novel, previously unknown in India, as a literary genre. Chatterjee wrote in Bengali, and most of his literary successors, including the popular Hindi novelist Prem Chand (pseudonym of Dhanpat Rai Srivastava), also preferred to write in Indian languages; however, many others, including Tagore, were no less comfortable writing in English. The works of some Indian authors—such as the contemporary novelists Mulk Raj Anand, Bharati Mukherjee, Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, and R.K. Narayan; the essayist Nirad C. Chaudhuri; the poet and novelist Vikram Seth; Booker Prize winners Salman Rushdie (1981), Arundhati Roy (1997), and Kiran Desai (2006); as well as the novelist Vikram Chandra and the poets Meena Alexander and Kamala Das—are exclusively or almost exclusively in English.

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Cultural institutions

Although India abounds in museums (many in proximity to major architectural and archaeological sites) and has numerous theatres and libraries, few, if any, are world famous. Art galleries are confined almost exclusively to major cities and cater to a small, affluent, often foreign clientele. Among learned societies, the most prominent is the Asiatic Society, founded in Kolkata in 1784.

Sports and recreation

The history of sports in India dates to thousands of years ago, and numerous games, including chess, wrestling, and archery, are thought to have originated there. Contemporary Indian sport is a diverse mix, with traditional games, such as kabaddi and kho-kho, and those introduced by the British, especially cricket, football (soccer), and field hockey, enjoying great popularity.

Kabaddi, primarily an Indian game, is believed to be some 4,000 years old. Combining elements of wrestling and rugby, the team sport has been a regular part of the Asian Games since 1990. Kho-kho, a form of tag, ranks as one of the most popular traditional sports in India, and its first national championship was held in the early 1960s.

Indians are passionate about cricket, which probably appeared on the subcontinent in the early 18th century. The country competed in its first official test in 1932 and in 1983—led by captain Kapil Dev, one of the most successful cricketers in history—won the Cricket World Cup. The Indian team repeated as World Cup champions in 2011, captained by Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Sachin Tendulkar
Sachin TendulkarIndian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar playing in the Cricket World Cup final match between Sri Lanka and India in Mumbai, India, April 2, 2011.Gurinder Osan/AP

Golf is also played throughout India. The Royal Calcutta Golf Club, established in Kolkata in 1829, is the oldest golf club in India and the first outside Great Britain.

India made its Olympic Games debut at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, though it did not form an Olympic association until 1927. The following year, in Amsterdam, India competed in field hockey, its national game, for the first time. The national team’s victory that year was the first of six consecutive gold medals in the event between 1928 and 1956; they won again in 1964 and 1980.

Media and publishing

Several thousand daily newspapers are published in India. Although English-language dailies and journals remain highly influential, the role of the vernacular press is increasing steadily in absolute and relative importance. Among the largest-circulating dailies are The Times of India and Hindustan Times (both in English), the Hindustan and the Navbharat Times (Hindi), and the Anandabazar Patrika (Bengali). Book publishing is a thriving industry. Academic titles account for a large portion of all works published, but there is also a considerable market for literature. On the whole, the press functions with little government censorship, and serious controls have been imposed only in matters of national security, in times of emergency, or when it is deemed necessary to avoid inflaming passions (e.g., after communal riots or comparable disturbances). The country’s largest news agency, the Press Trust of India, was founded in 1947. The United News of India was founded in 1961.

Radio broadcasting began privately in 1927 but became a monopoly of the colonial government in 1930. In 1936 it was given its current name, All India Radio, and since 1957 it also has been known as Akashvani. The union government provides radio service throughout the country via hundreds of transmitters. Television was introduced experimentally by Akashvani in 1959, and regular broadcasting commenced in 1965. In 1976 it was made a separate service under the name Doordarshan, later changed to Doordarshan India (“Television India”). Television and educational programming are transmitted via the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) system. The country’s first Hindi-language cable channel, Zee TV, was established in 1992, and this was followed by other cable and satellite services.

There is relatively dense telephone service in most urban areas, but many rural areas remain isolated. The same is true of cellular telephones, which are common in major cities. Internet cafés can be found in many affluent areas, and millions of Indian households are connected to the Internet via telephone and cable connections. There are numerous high-technology centres in the country, and India is connected to the outside world via international cables and across satellite networks.Joseph E. SchwartzbergThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

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History

The Indian subcontinent, the great landmass of South Asia, is the home of one of the world’s oldest and most influential civilizations. In this article, the subcontinent, which for historical purposes is usually called simply “India,” is understood to comprise the areas of not only the present-day Republic of India but also the republics of Pakistan (partitioned from India in 1947) and Bangladesh (which formed the eastern part of Pakistan until its independence in 1971). For the histories of these latter two countries since their creation, see Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Since early times the Indian subcontinent appears to have provided an attractive habitat for human occupation. Toward the south it is effectively sheltered by wide expanses of ocean, which tended to isolate it culturally in ancient times, while to the north it is protected by the massive ranges of the Himalayas, which also sheltered it from the Arctic winds and the air currents of Central Asia. Only in the northwest and northeast is there easier access by land, and it was through those two sectors that most of the early contacts with the outside world took place.

Within the framework of hills and mountains represented by the Indo-Iranian borderlands on the west, the Indo-Myanmar borderlands in the east, and the Himalayas to the north, the subcontinent may in broadest terms be divided into two major divisions: in the north, the basins of the Indus and Ganges (Ganga) rivers (the Indo-Gangetic Plain) and, to the south, the block of Archean rocks that forms the Deccan plateau region. The expansive alluvial plain of the river basins provided the environment and focus for the rise of two great phases of city life: the civilization of the Indus valley, known as the Indus civilization, during the 3rd millennium bce; and, during the 1st millennium bce, that of the Ganges. To the south of this zone, and separating it from the peninsula proper, is a belt of hills and forests, running generally from west to east and to this day largely inhabited by tribal people. This belt has played mainly a negative role throughout Indian history in that it remained relatively thinly populated and did not form the focal point of any of the principal regional cultural developments of South Asia. However, it is traversed by various routes linking the more-attractive areas north and south of it. The Narmada (Narbada) River flows through this belt toward the west, mostly along the Vindhya Range, which has long been regarded as the symbolic boundary between northern and southern India.

The northern parts of India represent a series of contrasting regions, each with its own distinctive cultural history and its own distinctive population. In the northwest the valleys of the Baluchistan uplands (now largely in Balochistan, Pakistan) are a low-rainfall area, producing mainly wheat and barley and having a low density of population. Its residents, mainly tribal people, are in many respects closely akin to their Iranian neighbours. The adjacent Indus plains are also an area of extremely low rainfall, but the annual flooding of the river in ancient times and the exploitation of its waters by canal irrigation in the modern period have enhanced agricultural productivity, and the population is correspondingly denser than that of Baluchistan. The Indus valley may be divided into three parts: in the north are the plains of the five tributary rivers of the Punjab (Persian: Panjāb, “Five Waters”); in the centre the consolidated waters of the Indus and its tributaries flow through the alluvial plains of Sind; and in the south the waters pass naturally into the Indus delta. East of the latter is the Great Indian, or Thar, Desert, which is in turn bounded on the east by a hill system known as the Aravali Range, the northernmost extent of the Deccan plateau region. Beyond them is the hilly region of Rajasthan and the Malwa Plateau. To the south is the Kathiawar Peninsula, forming both geographically and culturally an extension of Rajasthan. All of these regions have a relatively denser population than the preceding group, but for topographical reasons they have tended to be somewhat isolated, at least during historical times.

East of the Punjab and Rajasthan, northern India develops into a series of belts running broadly west to east and following the line of the foothills of the Himalayan ranges in the north. The southern belt consists of a hilly, forested area broken by the numerous escarpments in close association with the Vindhya Range, including the Bhander, Rewa, and Kaimur plateaus. Between the hills of central India and the Himalayas lies the Ganges River valley proper, constituting an area of high-density population, moderate rainfall, and high agricultural productivity. Archaeology suggests that, from the beginning of the 1st millennium bce, rice cultivation has played a large part in supporting this population. The Ganges valley divides into three major parts: to the west is the Ganges-Yamuna Doab (the land area that is formed by the confluence of the two rivers); east of the confluence lies the middle Ganges valley, in which population tends to increase and cultivation of rice predominates; and to the southeast lies the extensive delta of the combined Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. The Brahmaputra flows from the northeast, rising from the Tibetan Himalayas and emerging from the mountains into the Assam valley, being bounded on the east by the Patkai Bum Range and the Naga Hills and on the south by the Mikir, Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo hills. There is plenty of evidence that influences reached India from the northeast in ancient times, even if they are less prominent than those that arrived from the northwest.

Along the Deccan plateau there is a gradual eastward declivity, which dispenses its major river systems—the Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri (Cauvery)—into the Bay of Bengal. Rising some 3,000 feet (1,000 metres) or more along the western edge of the Deccan, the escarpment known as the Western Ghats traps the moisture of winds from the Arabian Sea, most notably during the southwest monsoon, creating a tropical monsoon climate along the narrow western littoral and depriving the Deccan of significant precipitation. The absence of snowpack in the south Indian uplands makes the region dependent entirely on rainfall for its streamflow. The arrival of the southwest monsoon in June is thus a pivotal annual event in peninsular culture.

India from the Paleolithic Period to the decline of the Indus civilization

The earliest periods of Indian history are known only through reconstructions from archaeological evidence. Since the late 20th century, much new data has emerged, allowing a far fuller reconstruction than was formerly possible. This section will discuss five major periods: (1) the early prehistoric period (before the 8th millennium bce), (2) the period of the prehistoric agriculturalists and pastoralists (approximately the 8th to the mid-4th millennium bce), (3) the Early Indus, or Early Harappan, Period (so named for the excavated city of Harappa in eastern Pakistan), witnessing the emergence of the first cities in the Indus River system (c. 3500–2600 bce), (4) the Indus, or Harappan, civilization (c. 2600–2000 bce, or perhaps ending as late as 1750 bce), and (5) the Post-Urban Period, which follows the Indus civilization and precedes the rise of cities in northern India during the second quarter of the 1st millennium bce (c. 1750–750 bce).

The materials available for a reconstruction of the history of India prior to the 3rd century bce are almost entirely the products of archaeological research. Traditional and textual sources, transmitted orally for many centuries, are available from the closing centuries of the 2nd millennium bce, but their use depends largely on the extent to which any passage can be dated or associated with archaeological evidence. For the rise of civilization in the Indus valley and for contemporary events in other parts of the subcontinent, the evidence of archaeology is still the principal source of information. Even when it becomes possible to read the short inscriptions of the Harappan seals, it is unlikely that they will provide much information to supplement other sources. In those circumstances it is necessary to approach the early history of India largely through the eyes of the archaeologists, and it will be wise to retain a balance between an objective assessment of archaeological data and its synthetic interpretation.

The early prehistoric period

In the mid-19th century, archaeologists in southern India identified hand axes comparable to those of Stone Age Europe. For nearly a century thereafter, evaluation of a burgeoning body of evidence consisted in the attempt to correlate Indian chronologies with the well-documented European and Mediterranean chronologies. As the vast majority of early finds were from surface sites, they long remained without precise dates or cultural contexts. More recently, however, the excavation of numerous cave and dune sites has yielded artifacts in association with organic material that can be dated using the carbon-14 method, and the techniques of thermoluminescent and paleomagnetic analysis now permit dating of pottery fragments and other inorganic materials. Research beginning in the late 20th century has focused on the unique environment of the subcontinent as the context for a cultural evolution analogous to, but not uniform with, that of other regions. Increasing understanding of plate tectonics, to cite one development, has greatly advanced this endeavour.

Most outlines of Indian prehistory have employed nomenclature once thought to reflect a worldwide sequence of human cultural evolution. The European concept of the Old Stone Age, or Paleolithic Period (comprising Lower, Middle, and Upper stages), remains useful with regard to South Asia in identifying levels of technology, apart from any universal time line. Similarly, what has been called the Indian Mesolithic Period (Middle Stone Age) corresponds in general typological terms to that of Europe. For the subsequent periods, the designations Neolithic Period (New Stone Age) and Chalcolithic Age (Copper-Stone Age) also are applied, but increasingly, as archaeology has yielded more-detailed cultural profiles for those periods, scholars have come to emphasize the subsistence bases of early societies—e.g., hunting and gathering, pastoralism, and agriculture. The terms Early Harappan and Harappan (from the site where remains of a major city of the Indus civilization were discovered in 1921) are used primarily in a chronological way but also loosely in a cultural sense, relating respectively to periods or cultures that preceded the appearance of city life in the Indus valley and to the Indus civilization itself.

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The Indian Paleolithic

The oldest artifacts yet found on the subcontinent, marking what may be called the beginning of the Indian Lower Paleolithic, come from the western end of the Shiwalik Range, near Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan. These quartzite pebble tools and flakes date to about two million years ago, according to paleomagnetic analysis, and represent a pre-hand-ax industry of a type that appears to have persisted for an extensive period thereafter. The artifacts are associated with extremely rich sedimentary evidence and fossil fauna, but thus far no correlative hominin (i.e., members of the human lineage) remains have been found. In the same region the earliest hand axes (of the type commonly associated with Acheulean industry) have been dated paleomagnetically to about 500,000 years ago.

The Great Indian Desert, straddling what is now the southern half of the India-Pakistan border, supplied significant archaeological materials in the late 20th century. Hand axes found at Didwana, Rajasthan, similar to those from the Shiwalik Range, yield slightly younger dates of about 400,000 years ago. Examination of the desert soil strata and other evidence has revealed a correlation between prevailing climates and the successive levels of technology that constitute the Paleolithic. For example, a prolonged humid phase, as attested by reddish brown soil with a deep profile, appears to have commenced some 140,000 years ago and lasted until about 25,000 years ago, roughly the extent of the Middle Paleolithic Period. During that time the area of the present desert provided a rich environment for hunting. The Rohri Hills, located at the Indus River margins of the desert, contain a group of sites associated with sources of chert, a type of stone that is a principal raw material for making tools and weapons. Evidence surrounding these chert bands—in an alluvial plain otherwise largely devoid of stone—suggests their development as a major factory centre during the Middle Paleolithic. The transition in this same region to a drier climate during the period from about 40,000 to about 25,000 years ago coincides with the onset of the Upper Paleolithic, which lasted until about 15,000 years ago. The basic innovation marking this stage is the production of parallel-sided blades from a prepared core. Also, tools of the Upper Paleolithic exhibit adaptations for working particular materials, such as leather, wood, and bone. The earliest rock paintings yet discovered in the region date to the Upper Paleolithic.

Other important Paleolithic sites that have been excavated include those at Hunsgi in Karnataka state, at Sanghao cave in North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, and in the Vindhya Range separating the Ganges basin from the Deccan plateau. At the latter, local workers readily identified a weathered Upper Paleolithic limestone carving as a representation of a mother goddess.

Mesolithic hunters

The progressive diminution in the size of stone artifacts that began in the Middle Paleolithic reached its climax in the small parallel-sided blades and microliths of what has been called the Indian Mesolithic. A great proliferation of Mesolithic cultures is evident throughout India, although they are known almost exclusively from surface collections of tools. Cultures of this period exhibited a wide variety of subsistence patterns, including hunting and gathering, fishing, and, at least for part of the period, some herding and small-scale agriculture. It may be inferred from numerous examples that hunting cultures frequently coexisted and interacted with agricultural and pastoral communities. These relationships must have continually varied from region to region as a result of environmental and other factors. Strikingly, such patterns of interaction persisted in the subcontinent throughout the remainder of the prehistoric period and long into the historic, with vestiges still discernible in some areas in the 20th century.

Thus, chronologically, the Mesolithic cultures cover an enormous span. In Sri Lanka several Mesolithic sites have been dated to as early as about 30,000 years ago, the oldest yet recorded for the period in South Asia. At the other end of the subcontinent, in caves of the Hindu Kush in northern Afghanistan, evidence of occupation dating to between 15,000 and 10,000 bce represents the Epipaleolithic Stage, which may be considered to fall within the Mesolithic. The domestication of sheep and goats is thought to have begun in this region and period.

Many of the caves and rock shelters of central India contain rock paintings depicting a variety of subjects, including game animals and such human activities as hunting, honey collecting, and dancing. This art appears to have developed from Upper Paleolithic precursors and reveals much about life in the period. Along with the art have come increasingly clear indications that some of the caves were sites of religious activity.

The earliest agriculturalists and pastoralists

Neolithic agriculture in the Indus valley and Baluchistan

The Indo-Iranian borderlands form the eastern extension of the Iranian plateau and in some ways mirror the environment of the Fertile Crescent (the arc of agricultural lands extending from the Tigris-Euphrates river system to the Nile valley) in the Middle East. Across the plateau, lines of communication existed from early antiquity, which would suggest a broad parallelism of developments at both the eastern and western extremities. During the late 20th century, knowledge of early settlements on the borders of the Indus system and Baluchistan was revolutionized by excavations at Mehrgarh and elsewhere.

The group of sites at Mehrgarh provides evidence of some five or six thousand years of occupation comprising two major periods, the first from the 8th through the 6th millennium bce and the second from the 5th through the 4th (and possibly the 3rd) millennium. The earliest evidence occurs in a mound 23 feet (7 metres) deep discovered beneath massive alluvial deposits. Two subphases of Period I are apparent from the mound artifacts.

Phase IA, dating to the 8th–7th millennium bce, was an aceramic (i.e., lacking pottery) Neolithic occupation. The main tools were stone blades, including lunates and triangles, some probably mounted in wooden hafts with bitumen mastic; a relatively small number of ground stone axes have been found. Domestication of wheat and barley apparently reached the area sometime during this phase, as did that of sheep and goats, although the preponderance of gazelle bones among the animal remains suggests continued dependence on hunting. Houses of mud brick date from the beginning of this phase and continue throughout the occupation. Accompaniments to the simple burial of human remains included shell or stone-bead necklaces, baskets, and occasionally young caprids (both sheep and goats) slaughtered for the purpose.

Phase 1B, dating to the 7th–6th millennium, is characterized by the emergence of pottery and improvements in agriculture. By the beginning of Phase 1B, cattle (apparently Bos indicus, the Indian humped variety) had come to predominate over game animals, as well as over sheep and goats. A new type of building, the small regular compartments of which identify it almost certainly as a granary, first appeared during this phase and became prevalent in Period II, indicating the frequent occurrence of crop surpluses. Burial took a more elaborate form—a funerary chamber was dug at one end of a pit, and, after inhumation, the chamber was sealed by a mud brick wall. From the latter phase of Period I also come the first small, hand-modeled female figurines of unburned clay.

The Period I evidence at Mehrgarh provides a clear picture of an early agricultural settlement exhibiting domestic architecture and a variety of well-established crafts. The use of seashells and of various semiprecious stones, including turquoise and lapis lazuli, indicates the existence of trade networks extending from the coast and perhaps also from Central Asia.

Striking changes characterize Period II. It appears that some major tectonic event took place at the beginning of the period (c. 5500 bce), causing the deposition of great quantities of silt on the plain, almost completely burying the original mound at Mehrgarh. Nearly all features of the earlier culture persisted, though in altered form. There was an increase in the use of pottery. The granary structures proliferated, sometimes on a larger scale. The remains of several massive brick walls and platforms suggest something approaching monumental architecture. Evidence appears of several new crafts, including the first examples of the use of copper and ivory. The area of the settlement appears to have grown to accommodate an increasing population.

While the settlement at Mehrgarh merits extensive consideration, it should not be perceived as a unique site. There are indications (not yet fully explored) that other equally early sites may exist in other parts of Baluchistan and elsewhere on the Indo-Iranian borderlands.

In the northern parts of the Indus system, the earliest known settlements are substantially later than Mehrgarh. For example, at Sarai Khola (near the ruins of Taxila in the Pakistan Punjab) the earliest occupation dates from the end of the 4th millennium and clearly represents a tradition quite distinct from that of contemporary Sind or Balochistan, with ground stone axes and plain burnished red-brown pottery. The same is the case at Burzahom in the Vale of Kashmir, where deep pit dwellings are associated with ground stone axes, bone tools, and gray burnished pottery. Evidence of the “aceramic Neolithic” stage is reported at Gufkral, another site in the Kashmir region, which has been dated by radiocarbon to the 3rd millennium and later.

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Developments in the Ganges basin

In the hills to the south of the Ganges (Ganga) valley, a group of sites has been assigned to the “Vindhya Neolithic”; for at least one of these, Koldihwa, dates as early as the 7th millennium have been reported. The sites contain circular huts made of timber posts and thatch; associated implements and vessels include stone blades, ground stone axes, bone tools, and crude handmade pottery, often bearing the marks of cords or baskets used in shaping the clay. In one case a small cattle pen has been excavated. Rice husks occur, though whether from wild or cultivated varieties remains to be determined. There exists considerable uncertainty about the chronology of these settlements; very few radiocarbon dates penetrate further than the 2nd millennium.

Earliest settlements in peninsular India

The earliest dates recorded for settlements in peninsular India belong to the opening centuries of the 3rd millennium. A pastoral character dominates the evidence. In the northern parts of Karnataka, the nucleus from which stone-ax-using pastoralists appear to have spread to many parts of the southern peninsula has been located. The earliest radiocarbon dates obtained in this area are from ash mounds formed by the burning on these sites of great masses of cow dung inside cattle pens. These indicate that the first settlers were seminomadic and that they had large herds of Brahman (zebu) cattle. The earliest known settlements, which were located at Kodekal and Utnur, date to about 2900 bce. Other important sites are Brahmagiri and Tekkalkota in Karnataka and Utnur and Nagarajunikonda in Andhra Pradesh. At Tekkalkota three gold ornaments were excavated, indicating exploitation of local ore deposits, but no other metal objects have been found, suggesting a relative scarcity of metals. These early sites produced distinctive burnished gray pottery, smaller quantities of black-on-red painted pottery, stone axes, and bone points, and in some instances evidence of a stone-blade industry. The axes have a generally oval section and triangular form with pointed butts. Among bone remains, those of cattle are in the majority, while those of sheep or goats are also present. Other settlements have been excavated in recent years in this region, but so far they have produced dates from the 2nd millennium, suggesting that the culture continued with little change for many centuries. Stone axes of a generally similar form have been found widely throughout the southern peninsula and may be taken as indications of the spread of pastoralists throughout the region during the 2nd millennium bce.

Earliest settlements in eastern India

Archaeologists have long postulated the existence of Neolithic settlements in the eastern border regions of South Asia on the basis of widespread collections of ground stone axes and adzes, often of distinctive forms, comparable to those of Southeast Asia and south China. There is, however, little substantial evidence for the date of these collections or for the culture of the people who made them. Excavations at one site, Sarutaru, near the city of Guwahati, revealed stone axes and shouldered celts (one of the distinctive tool types of the Neolithic) in association with cord- or basket-marked pottery.

The rise of urbanism in the Indus valley

From about 5000 bce, increasing numbers of settlements began to appear throughout the Indo-Iranian borderlands. These, as far as can be judged, were village communities of settled agriculturalists, employing common means of subsistence in the cultivation of wheat, barley, and other crops and in the keeping of cattle, sheep, and goats; there was a broadly common level of technology based on the use of stone for some artifacts and copper and bronze for others. Comparison and contrast of the high-quality painted pottery of the period suggest distinct groupings among the communities.

principal sites of the Indus civilization
principal sites of the Indus civilizationPrincipal sites of the Indus civilization.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

At a somewhat later date, probably toward the middle of the 4th millennium bce, agricultural settlements began to spread more widely in the Indus valley itself. The earliest of these provide clear links with the cultures along or beyond the western margins of the Indus valley. In the course of time, a remarkable change took place in the form of the Indus settlements, suggesting that some kind of closer interaction was developing, often over considerable distances, and that a process of convergence was under way. This continued for approximately 500 years and can now be identified as marking a transition toward the full urban society that emerged at Harappa and similar sites about 2600 bce. For this reason, this stage has been named the Early Harappan, or Early Indus, culture.

Extent and chronology of Early Harappan culture

It is now clear that sites assignable to the Early Harappan Period extend over an immense area: from the Indus delta in the south, southeastward into Saurashtra; up the Indus valley to western Punjab in the northwest; eastward past Harappa to the Bahawalpur region of Pakistan; and, in the northeast, into the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. In short, the area of the Early Harappan culture was nearly coextensive with that of the mature Indus civilization.

Harappa ruins
Harappa ruinsRuins of the ancient city of Harappa in Punjab, Pakistan.© Smn121

Radiocarbon dating of artifacts from a number of the excavated sites provides a fairly consistent chronological picture. The Early Harappan Period began in the mid-4th millennium bce and continued until the mid-3rd millennium, when the mature Indus civilization displaced it in many regions. In some regions, notably in Punjab, the mature urban style seems never to have been fully established, and in these areas the Early Harappan style continued with little or no outward sign of mature Harappan contact until about 2000 bce.

Principal sites

One of the most significant features of the Early Harappan settlements is the evidence for a hierarchy among the sites, culminating in a number of substantial walled towns. The first site to be recognized as belonging to the Early Harappan Period was Amri in 1929. In 1948 the British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler discovered a small deposit of pottery stratified below the remains of the mature Indus city at Harappa. The next site to be excavated with a view to uncovering the Early Harappan Period was Kot Diji (in present-day Sind province, Pakistan). A stone rubble wall surrounded this settlement, which appears to date to about 3000 bce. An even earlier example is Rehman Dheri, near Dera Ismail Khan, which appears to have achieved its walled status during the last centuries of the 4th millennium. There the roughly rectangular, grid-patterned settlement was surrounded by a massive wall of mud brick. Early Harappan Kalibangan (Kali Banga) in Rajasthan resembled Rehman Dheri in form. It later served as the basis for an expanded settlement of the mature Indus civilization. Still farther east in the eastern Punjab and in Haryana are many other Early Harappan sites. Among them several have been excavated, notably Banawali and Mitathal. Another example of a walled settlement of the period is Tharro in southern Sind. This was probably originally a coastal site, although it is now many miles from the sea. There the surrounding wall and the extant traces of houses are of local stone.

Subsistence and technology

Many of the excavated sites mentioned above have yet to be fully studied and the findings published, and knowledge of the various features of the life and economy of their inhabitants remains somewhat scanty. All the evidence indicates that the subsistence base of Early Harappan economy remained much as it had already developed at Mehrgarh some two millennia earlier; cattle, sheep, and goats constituted the principal domestic animals, and wheat and barley formed the staple crops. From Kalibangan and several other sites in Bahawalpur and Punjab comes intriguing evidence concerning the use of the plow. At the former site, excavators discovered what appeared to be a plowed field surface preserved beneath buildings from the mature Indus period. The pattern of crisscrossed furrows was virtually identical to that still employed in the region, the wider furrows in one direction being used for taller crops, such as peas, and the narrow perpendicular rows being used for oilseed plants such as those of the genus Sesamum (sesame). From Banawali and sites in the desiccated Sarasvati River valley came terra-cotta models of plows, supporting the earlier interpretation of the field pattern.

The evidence for the various Early Harappan crafts and their products also calls for further publication and detail before a firm picture can be obtained. Thus far, only a small number of copper tools have been found, and little can yet be confirmed regarding their sources and manufacture. A number of the settlement sites lie far from any sources of stone, and thus the regular appearance of a stone-blade industry, producing small, plain or serrated blades from prepared stone cores, implies that the raw materials must have been imported, often from considerable distances. The same assumption applies to the larger stones employed as rubbers or grinders, but in the absence of detailed research, no firm conclusions are possible. Related evidence does indicate that some contemporary sites, such as Lewan and Tarakai Qila in the Bannu basin, were large-scale factories, producing many types of tools from carefully selected stones collected and brought in from neighbouring areas. These same sites also appear to have been centres for the manufacture of beads of various semiprecious stones.

Culture and religion

It may be concluded on the basis of pottery decoration that major changes were taking place in the intellectual life of the whole region during the Early Harappan Period. At a number of sites the pottery bears a variety of incised or painted marks, some superficially resembling script. The significance of these marks is not clear, but most probably they represent owners’ marks, applied at the time of manufacture. Although it would be an exaggeration to regard these marks as actual writing, they suggest that the need for a script was beginning to arise.

Among the painted decorations found on the pottery, some appear to carry a distinctly religious symbolism. The clearest instance of this is in the widespread occurrence of the buffalo-head motif, characterized by elongated horns and in some cases sprouting pipal (Ficus religiosa) branches or other plant forms. These have been interpreted as representing a “buffalo deity.” A painted bowl from Lewan displays a pair of such heads, one a buffalo and the other a Bos indicus, each adorned with pipal foliage. Other devices from the painted pottery may also have religious significance, particularly the pipal leaves that occur as independent motifs. Other examples include fish forms and the fish-scale pattern that later appears as a common decoration on the mature Indus pottery. Throughout the region, evidence supports a “convergence” of form and decoration in anticipation of the more conservative Indus style.

The remains discussed above, considered collectively, suggest that four or five millennia of uninterrupted agricultural life in the Indus region set the stage for the final emergence of an indigenous Indus civilization about 2600 bce. It could also be argued, however, that the substantial Early Harappan walled towns constituted cities. Much research, excavation, and comparative analysis are required before this fertile and provocative period can be understood.

The Indus civilization

Character and significance

Explore the language, architecture, and culture of the Indus civilization in the Indus River basin
Explore the language, architecture, and culture of the Indus civilization in the Indus River basinAn overview of the Indus civilization.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.See all videos for this article

While the Indus (or Harappan) civilization may be considered the culmination of a long process indigenous to the Indus valley, a number of parallels exist between developments on the Indus River and the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia. It is striking to compare the Indus with this better-known and more fully documented region and to see how closely the two coincide with respect to the emergence of cities and of such major concomitants of civilization as writing, standardized weights and measures, and monumental architecture. Yet nearly all the earlier writers have sensed the Indian-ness of the civilization, even when they were largely unable to articulate it. Thus, historian V. Gordon Childe wrote that:

India confronts Egypt and Babylonia by the 3rd millennium with a thoroughly individual and independent civilization of her own, technically the peer of the rest. And plainly it is deeply rooted in Indian soil. The Indus civilization represents a very perfect adjustment of human life to a specific environment. And it has endured; it is already specifically Indian and forms the basis of modern Indian culture. (New Light on the Most Ancient East, 4th ed., 1952.)

The force of Childe’s words can be appreciated even without an examination of the Indus valley script found on seals; the attention paid to domestic bathrooms, the drains, and the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro can all be compared to elements in the later Indian civilization. The bullock carts with a framed canopy, called ikkas, and boats are little changed to this day. The absence of pins and the love of bangles and of elaborate nose ornaments are all peculiarly South Asian. The religion of the Indus also is replete with suggestions of traits known from later India. The significance of the bull, the tiger, and the elephant; the composite animals; the seated yogi god of the seals; the tree spirits and the objects resembling the Shiva linga (a phallus symbolic of the god Shiva) of later times—all these are suggestive of enduring forms in later Indian civilization.

Mohenjo-daro: Great Bath
Mohenjo-daro: Great BathThe Great Bath, Mohenjo-daro, Sindh province, southeastern Pakistan.Copyright J.M. Kenoyer/Harappa.com; Courtesy Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Pakistan

It is still impossible to do more than guess at the social organization or the political and administrative control implied by this vast area of cultural uniformity. The evidence of widespread trade in many commodities, the apparent uniformity of weights and measures, the common script, and the uniformity—almost common currency—of the seals all indicate some measure of political and economic control and point to the great cities Mohenjo-daro and Harappa as their centres. The presence of the great granaries on the citadel mounds in these cities and of the citadels themselves suggests—partly on the analogies of the cities of Mesopotamia—the existence of priest-kings, or at least a priestly oligarchy, that controlled the economy and civil government. The intellectual mechanism of this government and the striking degree of control implicit in it are still matters of speculation. Nor can scholars yet speak with any certainty regarding relations between the cities and surrounding villages. Much more research needs to be done, on many such topics, before the full character of the Indus civilization can be revealed.

Chronology

The first serious attempt at establishing a chronology for the Indus civilization relied on cross-dating with Mesopotamia. In this way, Cyril John Gadd cited the period of Sargon of Akkad (2334–2279 bce) and the subsequent Isin-Larsa Period (2017–1794 bce) as the time when trade between ancient India and Mesopotamia was at its height. Calibration of the ever-growing number of radiocarbon dates provides a reasonably consistent series from site to site. The broad picture thus obtained suggests that the mature Indus civilization emerged between 2600 and 2500 bce and continued in full glory to about 2000 bce. Thereafter the evidence is still somewhat unclear, but the late stage of the mature culture probably continued until about 1700 bce, by which time it is probably accurate to speak of the Post-Urban, or Post-Harappan, stage.

Extent

All the earlier writers have stressed the remarkable uniformity of the products of the Harappan civilization, and for this reason they provide a definite hallmark for its settlements. The more-recent evidence suggests that, if the outermost sites are joined by lines, the area enclosed will be a little less than about 500,000 square miles (1,300,000 square km)—considerably larger than present-day Pakistan—and if, as is generally inferred, this cultural uniformity coincided with some sort of political and administrative unity, the size of the resulting “empire” is truly vast. Within this area, several hundred sites have been identified, the great majority of which are on the plains of the Indus or its tributaries or on the now dry course of the ancient Saraswati River, which flowed south of the Sutlej River and then, perhaps, southward to the Indian Ocean, east of the main course of the Indus itself. Outside the Indus system a few sites occur on the Makran Coast, the westernmost of which is at Sutkagen Dor, near the present-day frontier with Iran. These sites were probably ports or trading posts, supporting the sea trade with the Persian Gulf, and were established in what otherwise remained a largely separate cultural region. The uplands of Baluchistan, while showing clear evidence of trade and contact with the Indus civilization, appear to have remained outside the direct Harappan rule.

To the east of the Indus delta, other coastal sites are found beyond the marshy salt flats of the Rann of Kachchh (Kutch) and in the interior of the Kathiawar Peninsula (Saurashtra). These include the estuarine trading post at Lothal on the Gulf of Khambhat (Cambay), as well as many other sites, some of which are major. West of the Indus River a number of important sites are situated on the alluvial Kachchhi desert region of Balochistan, Pakistan, toward Sibi and Quetta. East of the Indus system, toward the north, a number of sites occur right up to the edge of the Himalayan foothills, where at Alamgirpur, north of Delhi, the easternmost Harappan (or perhaps, more properly, Late Harappan) settlement has been discovered and partly excavated. If the area covered by these sites is compared with that of the Early Harappan settlements, it will be seen that there is an expansion in several directions, along the coast to both the west and the east and eastward through the Punjab toward the Ganges-Yamuna Doab.

Planning and architecture

The Harappan sites range from extensive cities to small villages or outposts. The two largest are Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, each perhaps originally about a mile square in overall dimensions. Each shares a characteristic layout, oriented roughly north-south with a great fortified “citadel” mound to the west and a larger “lower city” to the east. A similar layout is also discernible in the somewhat smaller town of Kalibangan, and several other major settlements appear to have shared this scheme. Other major sites include Dholavira and Surkotada near the Rann of Kachchh; Nausharo Firoz in Balochistan, Pakistan; Shortughai in northern Afghanistan; Amri, Chanhu-daro, and Judeirjo-daro in Sind; and Sandhanawala in Bahawalpur. Among the smaller sites, special interest attaches to Lothal, where a number of unique and problematic features were discovered in excavations. Of all the sites, Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Kalibangan, and Lothal have been most extensively excavated, and more can be said of their original layout and planning. Thus, they are considered in greater detail below.

Mohenjo-daro ruins
Mohenjo-daro ruinsStupalike stone tower, Mohenjo-daro, eastern Pakistan.Frederick M. Asher

At three of the excavated major sites, the citadel mound is on a north-south axis and about twice as long as it is broad. The lower city is laid out in a grid pattern of streets; at Kalibangan these were of regularly controlled widths, with the major streets running through, while the minor lanes were sometimes offset, creating different sizes of blocks. At all three sites the citadel was protected by a massive defensive wall of brick, which at Kalibangan was strengthened at intervals by square or rectangular bastions. At Kalibangan, traces of a somewhat less substantial wall around the lower town have also been discovered. In all three cases the city was situated near a river, although these courses are now extinct.

The most common building material at every site was brick, but the proportions of burned brick to unburned mud brick vary. Mohenjo-daro employs burned brick, perhaps because timber was more readily available, while mud brick was reserved for fillings and mass work. Kalibangan, on the other hand, reserved burned brick for bathrooms, wells, and drains. Most of the domestic architecture at Kalibangan was in mud brick. Brick was generally bonded in courses of alternate headers and stretchers—the so-called English bond. Stone was rarely, if ever, employed structurally. Timber was occasionally used as a lacing for brickwork, particularly in large-scale work such as the defenses or the granary at Mohenjo-daro. The common bricks were made in an open mold, but for special purposes sawed bricks were also employed. Timber was used for the universal flat roofs, and in some instances the sockets indicate square-cut beams with spans of as much as 14 feet (4.5 metres).

The houses were invariably entered from the side lanes, with the walls to the main streets presenting a blank brick facade broken only by the drainage chutes. Apart from domestic structures, a wide range of shops and craft workshops have been encountered, including potters’ kilns, dyers’ vats, and the shops of metalworkers, shell workers, and bead makers. There is surprisingly little evidence of public places of worship, although at Mohenjo-daro a number of possible temples were unearthed in the lower city, and other buildings of a ritual character were reported in the citadel. The size of houses varies considerably. At the one extreme are single-roomed barracks, with cooking and bathing areas formed within by partition walls, and at the other are large houses around a central courtyard or sometimes with a set of intersecting courtyards, each with its own adjoining rooms. Nearly all the larger houses had private wells. In many cases brick stairways led to what must have been upper stories or flat roofs. The bathrooms were usually indicated by the fine quality of the brickwork in the floor and by waste drains.

Important sites

Mohenjo-daro

The mounds of Mohenjo-daro lie near the right bank of the Indus in the Larkana district of Sind province. The excavations revealed that the lowest level of former occupation was covered by deposits of alluvial silt to a depth of about 30 feet (10 metres), attributable to annual flooding. The lowest levels are thus below the present-day water table and are still largely unexcavated. As noted above, the main features of the layout of Mohenjo-daro are a citadel to the west and a lower city and grid of streets to the east. Enough has been said of the general features of the lower city to make it unnecessary to say more of the considerable areas excavated in that part. The citadel, however, demands further attention. In the citadel the English archaeologist Sir John Hubert Marshall discovered a massive platform of mud brick and clay approximately 20 feet (6 metres) in depth, above which were six main building levels. Under this platform lay the remains of the early period. It is probable, but by no means certain, that the platform was raised as protection against floods. Both it and the great brick defensive wall around the perimeter were built at the beginning of the intermediate period.

Mohenjo-daro ruins
Mohenjo-daro ruinsSite overview of Mohenjo-daro, eastern Pakistan.Frederick M. Asher

The main buildings of the citadel all apparently belong to the same period. The most striking of these is the Great Bath, which occupies a central position in the better-preserved northern half of the citadel. It is built of fine brickwork, measures 897 square feet (83 square metres), and is 8 feet (2.5 metres) lower than the surrounding pavement. The floor of the bath consists of two skins of sawed brick set on edge in gypsum mortar, with a layer of bitumen sealer sandwiched between the skins. Water was evidently supplied by a large well in an adjacent room, and an outlet in one corner of the bath led to a high corbeled drain disgorging on the west side of the mound. The bath was reached by flights of steps at either end, originally finished with timbered treads set in bitumen. The significance of this extraordinary structure can only be guessed at, but it has generally been thought that it is linked with some sort of ritual bathing. To the north and east of the bath were groups of rooms that evidently were also designed for some special function, probably associated with the group of administrators or priests who controlled not only the city but also the great state that it dominated. To the west of the bath a complex of brick platforms about 5 feet (1.5 metres) high and separated from each other by narrow passages formed a podium of some 150 by 75 feet (45 by 22 metres), which has been identified by Wheeler as the base of a great granary similar to that known at Harappa. Below the granary were brick loading bays. In the southern part of the mound an oblong “assembly hall” was discovered, having four rows of fine brick plinths, presumably to take wooden columns. In a room adjacent to this hall, a stone sculpture of a seated male figure was discovered, and nearby a number of large worked-stone rings, possibly of some architectural significance. It seems certain that this area was invested with some special significance and may well have been a temple or connected with some religious cult.

Mohenjo-daro: Great Bath
Mohenjo-daro: Great BathThe Great Bath, Mohenjo-daro, eastern Pakistan.Frederick M. Asher
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Harappa

The vast mounds at Harappa stand on the left bank of the now dry course of the Ravi River in the Punjab. They were excavated between 1920 and 1934 by the Archaeological Survey of India, in 1946 by Wheeler, and in the late 20th century by an American and Pakistani team. When first discovered, the extensive surviving brick ramparts led to the site’s being described as a ruined brick castle. The lower city is partly occupied by a modern village, and it has been seriously disturbed by erosion and brick robbers. The citadel, to the west, is roughly a parallelogram on plan, measuring approximately 1,300 by 650 feet (400 by 200 metres). Excavation there revealed a great platform of mud brick about 20 feet (6 metres) in thickness, with a massive brick wall around the perimeter. Below the defenses were discovered traces of the Early Harappan Period. The excavations were not extensive enough to reveal the layout of the interior, but about six building periods were discovered above the platform. The most interesting remains were discovered immediately north of the citadel, close to the bed of the river: there were a series of circular platforms evidently intended to hold mortars for pounding grain; a remarkable series of brick plinths, which are inferred to have formed the podium for two rows of six granary buildings, each 50 by 20 feet (15 by 6 metres) and of a different design from those at Mohenjo-daro; a series of pear-shaped furnaces, apparently used for metallurgy; and two rows of single-roomed barracks, which are generally thought to have been occupied by servants. Two other discoveries at Harappa were made to the south of the citadel. There two cemeteries were found—“R. 37,” belonging to the Harappan Period, and “H,” dating from the Late or even Post-Harappan Period. These contained different styles of burial and will be discussed below.

Harappan well
Harappan wellAncient Harappan well, Harappa, Pakistan.© Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Thinkstock

Kalibangan

Third in importance among excavated Harappan sites is Kalibangan, which stands on the left bank of the dry bed of the Saraswati River in northern Rajasthan. As mentioned above, an Early Harappan settlement lies beneath the later remains, and the main Harappan township has a layout strikingly similar to that of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. In the lower town, excavation has revealed as many as nine building phases. The citadel mound is a parallelogram on a plan of about 430 feet (130 metres) on the east-west axis and 850 feet (260 metres) on the north-south. The whole site has been drastically reduced by brick robbers, but careful excavation has revealed the foundation courses of an accurately laid rhomboid central section with oblong bastions at each corner and smaller bastions on the north and south walls. The principal access was from the south via a flight of steps. Access from the north was via a narrow postern reached by a stairway, beyond which was a further rhomboid section, having an inset gateway in the northwest corner, near the riverbank. Traces of a brick wall around the lower town were also encountered. The central sector of the citadel contained a series of high brick platforms divided by narrow passages. The upper parts of these platforms had been seriously damaged, and their function is mysterious, but they do not appear to have been the foundation for a granary. The northern sector contained normal domestic housing. A cemetery was discovered a short distance to the west of the town. It may be expected that, when the excavation of this site is published, it will add greatly to knowledge of the Indus civilization.

Lothal

One other excavated site deserves special attention; this is Lothal, a small settlement built on low-lying ground near a tributary of the Sabarmati River on the west side of the Gulf of Khambhat. It appears to have served as a port or trading station. Its layout is distinctive: the site is roughly rectangular, measuring about 1,180 feet (360 metres) on the long north-south axis and 690 feet (210 metres) on the east-west. It was surrounded by a massive brick wall, which was probably used for flood protection. The southeastern quadrant takes the form of a great platform of brick with earth filling, rising to a height of about 13 feet (4 metres). On this were built a series of further smaller platforms with intersecting air channels, reminiscent of the granary at Mohenjo-daro, with overall dimensions of about 159 by 139 feet (48 by 42 metres). Behind this block were other buildings including a row of 12 bathrooms with connected drains, also strongly reminiscent of those found on the citadel at Mohenjo-daro. The remaining enclosed area was evidently taken up by houses and shops. Among the significant finds were a bead maker’s factory and the shops of goldsmiths and coppersmiths. The main street ran from north to south.

The most unexpected discovery at Lothal, however, was a great brick basin measuring some 718 by 121 feet (219 by 37 metres) with extant brick walls of 15 feet (4.5 metres) in height. This lay east of the settlement, alongside the platform on which the granary block stood. At one end of the basin was a small sluice or spillway with a locking device. The excavator has inferred that the basin was a dock to which ships could be brought from the nearby estuary via an artificial channel that would have been kept clear of silt by controlling the flow of water from the spillway. This view has not been universally accepted; another view is that it provided a source of fresh water for drinking or agriculture. A cemetery was found outside the perimeter of the wall, west of the site.

Other important sites

A growing number of other sites have been excavated, each important in its own way. On the coast near Las Bela in Balochistan, materials suggesting a substantial shell-working industry have been found at Balakot. Not far from Mehrgarh, at the head of the Kachchhi desert region in Balochistan, the small settlement of Naushahro Firoz provides valuable evidence of the actual transformation of Early Harappan into mature Harappan. Near the Rann of Kachchh, Surkotada is a small settlement with an oblong fortification wall of stone. Also in Kachchh is Dholavira, which appears to be among the largest Harappan settlements so far identified; a nine-year excavation at the site completed in 2001 yielded a walled Indus valley city that dated to the mid-3rd millennium bce and covered some 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares). The Archaeological Survey of India team uncovered a sophisticated water-management system with a series of giant reservoirs—the largest 265 by 40 feet (80 by 12 metres) wide and 23 feet (7 metres) deep—used to conserve rainwater. Of excavated sites in Punjab, Banawali is an important major settlement, surrounded by massive brick defenses. One of the most surprising discoveries, far outside the central area of the Indus civilization, is Shortughai in the Amu Darya (Oxus River) valley, in northern Afghanistan. There the remains of a small Harappan colony, presumably sited so as to provide control of the lapis lazuli export trade originating in neighbouring Badakhshan, have been excavated by a French team.

Population

There have been two independent estimates of the population of Mohenjo-daro. Both are based on an estimation of the original area covered and the density of the people living there, using traditional settlements in the region in the present day for comparison. Hugh Trevor Lambrick proposed a figure of 35,000 for Mohenjo-daro and a roughly similar figure for Harappa, while Walter A. Fairservis estimated the former at about 41,250 and the latter about 23,500. These figures are probably conservative. It would be possible to produce estimates of the population for other sites along similar lines—notably for Kalibangan, of which the lower city has an area about one-fifth that of Mohenjo-daro.

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Agriculture and animal husbandry

It is certain that such great concentrations of population had never been seen in the Indian subcontinent before that date. Clearly the exploitation of the Indus River floodplains and the use of the plow attested in Early Harappan times by finds in Kalibangan were matters of supreme importance. The Indus is at a minimum during the winter months and rises steadily during the spring and early summer, reaching a maximum in midsummer and then subsiding. Lambrick has shown how the traditional exploitation of the floods could provide a simple means of growing the principal crops without even plowing, manuring, or using major irrigation. The main cereals would be sown at the end of the inundation on land that had recently emerged from the floods, and the crop would be harvested in March or April. Other crops might be sown in embanked fields at the beginning of the floods so that they could receive necessary water while growing and be harvested in the autumn. Wheat samples from the Indus cities have been identified as belonging to Triticum sphaerococcum and two subspecies of T. sativumvulgare and compactum. Barley is also found, of the species Hordeum vulgare, variety nudum and variety hexastichum. Rice is recorded in Harappan times at Lothal in Gujarat, but whether it was wild or cultivated is not yet clear. Other crops include dates, melon, sesame, and varieties of leguminous plants, such as field peas. From Chanhu-daro, seeds of mustard (most probably Brassica juncea) were obtained. Finally, there is evidence that cotton was cultivated and used for textiles.

A number of domesticated animal species have been found in excavations at the Harappan cities. The Indian humped cattle (Bos indicus) were most frequently encountered, though whether along with a humpless variety, such as that shown on the seals, is not clearly established. The buffalo (B. bubalis) is less common and may have been wild. Sheep and goats occur, as does the Indian pig (Sus cristatus). The camel is present, as well as the ass (Equus asinus). Bones of domestic fowl are not uncommon; these fowl were domesticated from the indigenous jungle fowl. Finally, the cat and the dog were both evidently domesticated. Present, but not necessarily as a domesticated species, is the elephant. The horse is possibly present but extremely rare and apparently only present in the last stages of the Harappan Period.

Communications

It is clear that, to achieve the degree of uniformity of material culture evidenced in the excavations, considerable contact must have been maintained between the towns and cities of the Indus state. Such contact may have been by both land and river, just as the foreign trade must have employed both overland and sea routes. For land travel the predominant means was probably the pack bullock, camel, or ass. All these animals are still, or were until recently, used for pack transport in the more-remote country districts of the subcontinent. For travel on the flat alluvial plains, the bullock cart was probably the main vehicle. Terra-cotta models of such carts, apparently very little different from the modern Indian cart, are frequently encountered. For the transport of persons, smaller carts, with a body raised above the level of the axle and a framed canopy (much like the modern ikka), are known from small bronze models. Several representations of boats also occur. They are mostly of simple design without masts or sails and would be more suitable for river travel than for sea travel. A terra-cotta model of another type of boat with a socket for mast and eye holes for rigging was discovered at Lothal. This appears to be a somewhat more seaworthy vessel. The dock basin at Lothal may have provided berth for ships of the size of the country craft that still ply between India and the Persian Gulf. Heavy pierced stones discovered in the vicinity of the dock basin at Lothal were assumed by the excavator to be similar to stones still used by the local boatmen as anchors.

Craft and technology

The Indus civilization exhibits a wide range of crafts and technical skills. As Childe remarked, these depended on the same basic discoveries as those exploited in Egypt or Mesopotamia, but in each case the crafts acquired a significance of their own. More-recent research at Mohenjo-daro has shown that different quarters of the lower city appeared to house the families who specialized in different crafts; such evidence strengthens the view that occupational specialization was firmly established.

Copper and bronze were the principal metals used for making tools and implements. These include flat oblong axes, chisels, knives, spears, arrowheads (of a kind that was evidently exported to neighbouring hunting tribes), small saws, and razors. All these could be made by simple casting, chiseling, and hammering. Bronze is less common than copper, and it is notably rarer in the lower levels. Four main varieties of metal have been found: crude copper lumps in the state in which they left the smelting furnace; refined copper, containing trace elements of arsenic and antimony; an alloy of copper with 2 to 5 percent of arsenic; and bronze with a tin alloy, often of as much as 11 to 13 percent. The copper and bronze vessels of the Harappans are among their finest products, formed by hammering sheets of metal. Casting of copper and bronze was understood, and figurines of men and animals were made by the lost-wax process. These too are technically outstanding, though the overall level of copper-bronze technology is not considered to have reached the level attained in Mesopotamia.

Other metals used were gold, silver, and lead. The latter was employed occasionally for making small vases and such objects as plumb bobs. Silver is relatively more common than gold, and more than a few vessels are known, generally in forms similar to copper and bronze examples. Gold is by no means common and was generally reserved for such small objects as beads, pendants, and brooches.

Other special crafts include the manufacture of faience (earthenware decorated with coloured glazes)—for making beads, amulets, sealings, and small vessels—and the working of stone for bead manufacture and for seals. The seals were generally cut from steatite (soapstone) and were carved in intaglio or incised with a copper burin (cutting tool). Beads were made from a variety of substances, but the carnelians are particularly noteworthy. They include several varieties of etched carnelian and long barrel beads made with extraordinary skill and accuracy. Shell and ivory were also worked and were used for beads, inlays, combs, bracelets, and the like.

The pottery of the Indus cities has all the marks of mass production. A substantial proportion is thrown on the wheel (probably the same kind of footwheel that is still found in the Indus region and to the west to this day, as distinguished from the Indian spun wheel common throughout the remaining parts of the subcontinent). The majority of the pottery is competent plain ware, well formed and fired but lacking in aesthetic appeal. A substantial portion of the pottery has a red slip and is painted with black decoration. Larger pots were probably built up on a turntable. Among the painted designs, conventionalized vegetable patterns are common, and the elaborate geometric designs of the painted pottery of Baluchistan give way to simpler motifs, such as intersecting circles or a scale pattern. Birds, animals, fish, and more-interesting scenes are comparatively rare. Of the vessel forms, a shallow platter on a tall stand (known as the offering stand) is noteworthy, as is a tall cylindrical vessel perforated with small holes over its entire length and often open at top and bottom. The function of this latter vessel remains a mystery.

Although little has survived, very great interest attaches to the fragments of cotton textiles recovered at Mohenjo-daro. These provide the earliest evidence of a crop and industry for which India has long been famous. It is assumed that the raw cotton must have been brought in bales to the cities to be spun, woven, and perhaps dyed, as the presence of dyers’ vats would seem to indicate.

Stone, although largely absent from the great alluvial plain of the Indus, played a major role in Harappan material culture. Scattered sources, mostly on the periphery, were exploited as major factory sites. Thus, the stone blades found in great numbers at Mohenjo-daro originated in the flint quarries at Sukkur, where they were probably struck in quantity from prepared cores.

Trade and external contacts

It has been seen above that the area covered by the Indus civilization had a remarkably uniform level of material culture. This suggests a closely knit and integrated administration and implies internal trade within the state. Evidence of the actual exportation of objects is not always easy to find, but the wide diffusion of chert blades made of the characteristic Sukkur stone and the enormous scale of the factory at the Sukkur site strongly suggest trade. Other items also appear to indicate trade, such as the almost identical bronze carts discovered at Chanhu-daro and Harappa, for which a common origin must be postulated.

The wide range of crafts and special materials employed must also have caused the establishment of economic relations with peoples living outside the Harappan state. Such trade may be considered to be of two kinds: first, the obtaining of raw materials and other goods from the village communities or forest tribes in regions adjoining the Indus culture area; and second, trade with the cities and empires of Mesopotamia. There is ample indication of the former type, even if the regions from which specific materials were derived are not easy to pinpoint. Gold was almost certainly imported from the group of settlements that sprang up in the vicinity of the goldfields of northern Karnataka, and copper could have come from several sources—principally from Rajasthan. Lead may have come from Rajasthan or elsewhere in India. Lapis lazuli was probably imported from Iran rather than directly from the mines at Badakhshan, and turquoise probably also came from Iran. Among others were fuchsite (a chromium-rich variety of muscovite) from Karnataka, alabaster from Iran, amethyst from Maharashtra, and jade from Central Asia. There is little evidence of what the Harappans gave in exchange for these materials—possibly nondurable goods such as cotton textiles and probably various types of beads. They may have also bartered tools or weapons of copper.

For the trade with Mesopotamia there is both literary and archaeological evidence. The Harappan seals were evidently used to seal bundles of merchandise, as clay seal impressions with cord or sack marks on the reverse side testify. The presence of a number of Indus seals at Ur and other Mesopotamian cities and the discovery of a “Persian Gulf” type of seal at Lothal—otherwise known from the Persian Gulf ports of Dilmun (present-day Bahrain) and Faylakah, as well as from Mesopotamia—provide convincing corroboration of the sea trade suggested by the Lothal dock. Timber and precious woods, ivory, lapis lazuli, gold, and luxury goods such as carnelian beads, pearls, and shell and bone inlays, including the distinctly Indian kidney shape, were among the goods sent to Mesopotamia in exchange for silver, tin, woolen textiles, and grains and other foods. Copper ingots appear to have been imported to Lothal from a place known as Magan (possibly in present-day Oman). Other probable trade items include products originating exclusively in each respective region, such as bitumen, occurring naturally in Mesopotamia, and cotton textiles and chickens, major products of the Indus region not native to Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamian trade documents, lists of goods, and official inscriptions mentioning Meluhha (the ancient Akkadian name for the Indus region) supplement Harappan seals and archaeological finds. Literary references to Meluhhan trade date from the Akkadian, Ur III, and IsinLarsa periods (i.e., c. 2350–1794 bce), but, as texts and archaeological data indicate, the trade probably started in the Early Dynastic Period (c. 2600 bce). During the Akkadian Period, Meluhhan vessels sailed directly to Mesopotamian ports, but by the Isin-Larsa Period, Dilmun was the entrepôt for Meluhhan and Mesopotamian traders. By the subsequent Old Babylonian Period, trade between the two cultures evidently had ceased entirely.

Language and scripts, weights and measures

The maintenance of so extensive a set of relations as those implicit in the size and uniformity of the Harappan state and the extent of trade contacts must have called for a well-developed means of communication. The Harappan script has long defied attempts to read it, and therefore the language remains unknown. Relatively recent analyses of the order of the signs on the inscriptions have led several scholars to the view that the language is not of the Indo-European family, nor is it close to Sumerian, Hurrian, or Elamite. If it is related to any modern language family, it appears to be the Dravidian, presently spoken throughout the southern part of the Indian peninsula; an isolated member of this group, the Brahui language, is spoken in western Pakistan, an area closer to those regions of Harappan culture. The script, which was written from right to left, is known from the 2,000-odd short inscriptions so far recovered, ranging from single characters to inscriptions of about 20 characters. There are more than 500 signs, many appearing to be compounds of two or more other signs, but it is not yet clear whether these signs are ideographic, logographic, or other. Numerous studies of the inscriptions have been made during the past decades, including those by a Russian team under Yury Valentinovich Knorozov and a Finnish group led by Asko Parpola. Despite various claims to have read the script, there is still no general agreement.

The Harappans also employed regular systems of weights and measures. An early analysis of a fair number of the well-formed chert cuboid weights suggested that they followed a binary system for the lower denominations—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64—and a decimal system for the larger weights—160, 200, 320, 640, 1,600, 3,200, 6,400, 8,000, and 12,800—with the unit of weight being calculated as 0.8565 gram (0.0302 ounce). However, a more recent analysis, which included additional weights from Lothal, suggests a rather different system, with weights belonging to two series. In both series the underlying principle was decimal, with each decimal number multiplied and divided by two, giving for the main series ratios of 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500(?). This suggests that there is still much work to be done to understand the full complexity of the weight system. Several scales of measurement were found in the excavations. One was a decimal scale of 1.32 inches (3.35 cm) rising probably to 13.2 inches (33.5 cm), apparently corresponding to the “foot” that was widespread in western Asia; another is a bronze rod marked in lengths of 0.367 inch (0.93 cm), apparently half a digit of a “cubit” of 20.7 inches (52.6 cm), also widespread in western Asia and Egypt. Measurements from some of the structures show that these units were accurately applied in practice.

It has also been suggested that certain curious objects may have been accurately made optical squares with which surveyors might offset right angles. In view of the accuracy of so much of the architectural work, this theory appears quite plausible.

Social and political system

Despite a growing body of archaeological evidence, the social and political structures of the Indus “state” remain objects of conjecture. The apparent craft specialization and localized craft groupings at Mohenjo-daro, along with the great divergence in house types and size, point toward some degree of social stratification. Trade was extensive and apparently well-regulated, providing imported raw materials for use at internal production centres, distributing finished goods throughout the region, and arguably culminating in the establishment of Harappan “colonies” in both Mesopotamia and Badakhshan. The remarkable uniformity of weights and measures throughout the Indus lands, as well as the development of such presumably civic works as the great granaries, implies a strong degree of political and administrative control over a wide area. Further, the widespread occurrence of inscriptions in the Harappan script almost certainly indicates the use of a single lingua franca. Nevertheless, in the absence of inscriptions that can be read and interpreted, it is inevitable that far less is known of these aspects of the Indus civilization than those of contemporaneous Mesopotamia.

Art

The excavations of the Indus cities have produced much evidence of artistic activity. Such finds are important, because they provide an insight into the minds, lives, and religious beliefs of their creators. Stone sculpture is extremely rare, and much of it is quite crude. The total repertoire cannot compare to the work done in Mesopotamia during the same periods. The figures are apparently all intended as images for worship. Such figures include seated men, recumbent composite animals, or—in unique instances (from Harappa)—a standing nude male and a dancing figure. The finest pieces are of excellent quality. There is also a small but notable repertoire of cast-bronze figures, including several fragments and complete examples of dancing girls, small chariots, carts, and animals. The technical excellence of the bronzes suggests a highly developed art, but the number of examples is still small. They appear to be Indian workmanship rather than imports.

Indus statue
Indus statueStatue of Indus priest or nobleman, carved from steatite (soapstone), from Mohenjo-daro; in the National Museum of Pakistan, Karachi.© Mamoon mengal

The popular art of the Harappans was in the form of terra-cotta figurines. The majority are of standing females, often heavily laden with jewelry, but standing males—some with beard and horns—are also present. It has been generally agreed that these figures are largely deities (perhaps a Great Mother and a Great God), but some small figures of mothers with children or of domestic activities are probably toys. There are varieties of terra-cotta animals, carts, and toys—such as monkeys pierced to climb a string and cattle that nod their heads. Painted pottery is the only evidence that there was a tradition of painting. Much of the work is executed with boldness and delicacy of feeling, but the restrictions of the art do not leave much scope for creativity.

The steatite seals, to whose manufacture reference was made above, form the most extensive series of objects of art in the civilization. The great majority show a humpless “unicorn” or bull in profile, while others show the Indian humped bull, elephant, bison, rhinoceros, or tiger. The animal frequently stands before a ritual object, variously identified as a standard, a manger, or even an incense burner. A considerable number of the seals contain scenes of obvious mythological or religious significance. The interpretation of these seals is, however, often highly problematic. The seals were certainly more widely diffused than other artistic artifacts and show a much higher level of workmanship. Probably they functioned as amulets, as well as more-practical devices to identify merchandise.

Religion and burial customs

In spite of the unread inscriptions, there is a considerable body of evidence that allows for conjecture concerning the religious beliefs of the Harappans. First, there are the buildings identified as temples or as possessing a ritual function, such as the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro. Then there are the stone sculptures found to a large extent associated with these buildings. Finally, there are the terra-cotta figures, as well as the seals and amulets that depict scenes with evident mythological or religious content. The interpretation of such data necessarily involves a largely subjective element, but most commentators have thought that they indicate a religious system that was already distinctly Indian. It is assumed that there was a Great God, who had many of the attributes later associated with the Hindu god Shiva, and a Great Mother, who was the Great God’s spouse and shared the attributes of Shiva’s wife Durga-Parvati. Evidence also exists of some sort of animal cult, related particularly to the bull, the buffalo, and the tiger. Mythological animals include a composite bull-elephant. Some seals suggest influence from or at least traits held in common with Mesopotamia; among these are the Gilgamesh (Mesopotamian epic) motif of a man grappling with a pair of tigers and the bull-man Enkidu (a human with horns, tail, and rear hooves of a bull). Among the most interesting of the seals are those that depict cult scenes or symbols; a god, seated in a yogic (meditative) posture and surrounded by beasts, with a horned headdress and erect phallus; the tree spirit with a tiger standing before it; the horned tree spirit confronted by a worshiper; a composite beast with a line of seven figures standing before it; the pipal leaf motif; and the swastika (a symbol still widely used by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists).

Many burials have been discovered, giving clear indication of belief in an afterlife. The cemeteries excavated at Harappa, Lothal, and Kalibangan are clearly separated from the settlement and show that the predominant rite was extended inhumation, with the body lying on its back and the head generally positioned to the north. Quantities of pottery were placed in the graves, and sometimes personal ornaments adorned the bodies. Some graves took the form of brick chambers within which the body was placed. At Lothal several pairs of skeletons were found in the same grave, and it has been suggested that this is an indication of some form of suttee (a later Hindu custom in which wives end their lives after the death of the husband).

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The end of the Indus civilization

There is no general agreement regarding the causes of the breakdown of Harappan urban society. Broadly speaking, the principal theories thus far proposed fall under four headings. The first is gradual environmental change, such as a shift in climatic patterns and consequent agricultural disaster, perhaps resulting from excessive environmental stress caused by population growth and overexploitation of resources. Second, some scholars have postulated more-precipitous environmental changes, such as tectonic events leading to the flooding of Mohenjo-daro, the drying up of the Sarawati River, or other such calamities. Third, it is conceivable that human activities, such as invasions of tribespeople from the hills to the west of the Indus valley, perhaps even Indo-Aryans, contributed to the breakdown of Indus external trade links or more directly disrupted the cities. The fourth theory posits the occurrence of an epidemic or a similar agent of devastation. It appears likely that some complex of natural forces compromised the fabric of society and that subsequent human intervention hastened its complete breakdown.

Post-Harappan developments

The Post-Urban Period in northwestern India

It is still far from certain at what date the urban society broke down. The decline probably occurred in several stages, perhaps over a century or more; the period between about 2000 and 1750 bce is a reasonable estimation. The collapse of the urban system does not necessarily imply a complete breakdown in the lifestyle of the population in all parts of the Indus region, but it seems to have involved the end of whatever system of social and political control had preceded it. After that date the cities, as such, and many of their distinctively urban traits—the use of writing and of seals and a number of the specialized urban crafts—disappear. The succeeding era, which lasted until about 750 bce, may be considered as Post-Harappan or, perhaps better, as “Post-Urban.”

In Pakistan’s Sind province the Post-Urban phase is recognizable in the Jhukar culture at Chanhu-daro and other sites. There certain copper or bronze weapons and tools appear to be of “foreign” type and may be compared to examples from farther west (Iran and Central Asia); a different but parallel change is seen at Pirak, not far from Mehrgarh. In the Kachchh and Saurashtra regions there appears to have been a steady increase in the number of settlements, but all are small and none can compare with such undoubtedly Harappan cities as Dholavira. In this region, however, the distinctive foreign metal elements are less prominent.

An intriguing development occurs along the Saraswati valley: there the early Post-Urban stage is associated with the pottery known from the Cemetery H at Harappa. This coincides with a major reduction in both the number and size of settlements, suggesting a deterioration in the environment. In the eastern Punjab too there is a disappearance of the larger, urban sites but no comparable reduction in the number of smaller settlements. This is also true of the settlements farther east in the Ganges-Yamuna valleys. It is probably correct to conclude that, in each of these areas during the Post-Urban Period, material culture exhibited some tendency to develop regional variations, sometimes showing continuations of features already present during the Pre-Urban and Urban phases.

The appearance of Indo-Aryan speakers

Scholars have traditionally agreed that a people speaking Old Indo-Aryan dialects of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family arrived in the Indian subcontinent during the late 3rd and 2nd millennia bce. These newcomers purportedly came from the steppes to the north and east of the Caspian Sea, moving first southward into the southern parts of Central Asia and from there fanning out across the Iranian plateau and spreading throughout northern India, disrupting the established sedentary culture and driving its Dravidian-speaking inhabitants of the Indus civilization southward. The movement itself remains hypothetical, but evidence from cemeteries at Sibri and south of Mehrgarh, near the mouth of the Bolan Pass, shows striking parallels—including foreign copper and bronze tools and weapons and typical pottery forms—with that from cemeteries of the Sapalli-Tepe group in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This correspondence suggests a date of about 2000 bce for the presence of these people on the borders of the Indus system.

However, it is even more difficult to identify traces that may be associated with the movement of Indo-Aryan speakers into the central Indus plains or to determine whether the occasional copper or bronze weapons of foreign type found in late contexts at Mohenjo-daro or Chanhu-daro are evidence of their presence there. Moreover, even if Indo-Aryans actually conquered some of the Indus cities and established hegemony over the local population, it has to be explained why they appear to have given up many of their distinctive material products while presumably retaining their distinctive speech.

One hypothesis is that between about 2000 and 1500 bce not an invasion but a continuing spread of Indo-Aryan speakers occurred, carrying them much farther into India, to the east and south, and coinciding with a growing cultural interaction between the native population and the new arrivals. From these processes a new cultural synthesis emerged, giving rise by the end of the 2nd millennium to the conscious expressions of Aryan ethnicity found in the Rigveda, particularly in the later hymns (see Early Vedic Period).

A more recent and controversial theory put forward by such scholars as American Jim G. Shaffer and Indian B.B. Lal suggests that Aryan civilization did not migrate to the subcontinent but was an original ethnic and linguistic element of pre-Vedic India. This theory would explain the dearth of physical signs of any putative Aryan conquest and is supported by the high degree of physical continuity between Harappan and Post-Harappan society.

The late 2nd millennium and the reemergence of urbanism

Toward the end of the 2nd millennium there appears to have been a further deterioration in the environment throughout the Indus system. Many of the Post-Urban settlements seem to have been abandoned, and traces are found of temporary settlements that were probably associated with nomadic pastoral groups and distinguished by the poverty of their material culture. Along the Saraswati there is further evidence of the drying up of the Derawar oasis, with a further decline in the number and size of settlements. As yet, these events are not properly dated, but they may tentatively be assigned to a period from about 1200–800 bce. In Saurashtra a similar if less extreme decline in the number of settlements is also evident. Even much farther south, in Maharashtra, the opening of the 1st millennium seems to have coincided with a period of desiccation, in which the flourishing agricultural settlements at sites such as Inamgaon declined; temporary encampments of pastoral nomads indicate a general deterioration in the standard of living.

To the north, in Punjab, Haryana, and the upper Gangetic plain, such deterioration is less apparent, perhaps because the proximity of the Himalayas produced a higher level of rainfall. It is in this area that a new tendency emerges—the expansion of settlements associated with the pottery known as Painted Gray Ware. This characteristic ceramic accompanied a spread of settlements toward the east into the upper Ganges-Yamuna valleys and constitutes a distinguishing feature of the process of development that, by the second quarter of the 1st millennium bce, gave rise to the first cities of the Ganges system. (The previous wave of urbanization appears not to have penetrated below the upper Gangetic plain.)

Another factor that coincided with, if not actually contributed to, the new process of change is the beginning and spread of iron working. The earliest dated occurrence of iron is probably that from about 1200 to 1100 bce at Pirak in the Kachchhi region. Comparably early dates are suggested at other widely scattered sites, but it probably took many years for the use of iron in almost all types of toolmaking to become common in all regions. During this period an increasingly marked contrast may be observed between the growing number of cities across the north and the relatively less-developed settlement pattern of peninsular India, where a mixture of small-scale agriculture and pastoralism coincided with the appearance of the various types of “Megalithic” graves and monuments.

Peninsular India in the aftermath of the Indus civilization (c. 2000–1000 bce)

It was stated above that the earliest known settlements in peninsular India appeared early in the 3rd millennium and showed either a mixed agricultural or strongly pastoral character. From about 2000 bce there appears to have been a general expansion of these settlements. It is sometimes suggested that this expansion may have been in some way a result of the end of the Indus civilization and that large numbers of “Harappans” migrated to the south. There is little solid evidence to support this view, and it appears rather that the development was primarily indigenous.What is particularly noteworthy is the way in which regional cultural variants occurred throughout peninsular India and often seem to be ancestral to the major cultural regions known from later historical times. In Maharashtra the excavations at Inamgaon have provided the clearest picture so far of the developments and changes that took place in one of these regions. There can be seen the variety of crops and domestic animals, the changing house types, suggestions of tribal chiefdoms, limited craft specialization, and trade. Copper and bronze artifacts, though still relatively scarce, appear alongside stone blades and axes. This mixed technology continued until the time when iron became common. Farther south, in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, there is similar evidence, although the staple crop appears to have been millet, and wheat and barley are absent.Frank Raymond Allchin

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The development of Indian civilization from c. 1500 bce to c. 1200 ce

Traditional approaches to Indian historiography

The European scholars who reconstructed early Indian history in the 19th century regarded it as essentially static and Indian society as concerned only with things spiritual. Indologists, such as the German Max Müller, relied heavily on the Sanskritic tradition and saw Indian society as an idyllic village culture emphasizing qualities of passivity, meditation, and otherworldliness. In sharp contrast was the approach of the Scottish historian James Mill and the Utilitarians, who condemned Indian culture as irrational and inimical to human progress. Mill first formulated a periodization of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods, a scheme that, while still commonly used, is now controversial. During the 19th century, direct contact with Indian institutions through administration, together with the utilization of new evidence from recently deciphered inscriptions, numismatics, and local archives, provided fresh insights. Nationalist Indian historians of the early 20th century tended to exaggerate the glory of the past but nevertheless introduced controversy into historical interpretation, which in turn resulted in more precise studies of Indian institutions. In more recent times, historians have reconstructed in greater detail the social, economic, and cultural history of the subcontinent—though politics has continued to influence the study of Indian history.

A major change in the interpretation of Indian history has been a questioning of an older notion of Oriental despotism as the determining force. Arising out of a traditional European perspective on Asia, this image of despotism grew to vast proportions in the 19th century and provided an intellectual justification for colonialism and imperialism. Its deterministic assumptions clouded the understanding of early interrelationships among Indian political forms, economic patterns, and social structures.

Trends in early Indian society

A considerable change is noticeable during this period in the role of institutions. Clan-based societies had assemblies, whose political role changed with the transformation of tribe into state and with oligarchic and monarchical governments. Centralized imperialism, which was attempted under the Mauryan empire (c. 325–185 bce), gave way gradually to decentralized administration and to what has been called a feudalistic pattern in the post-Gupta period—i.e., from the 7th century ce. Although the village as an administrative and social unit remained constant, its relationship with the mainstream of history varied. The concept of divine kingship was known but rarely taken seriously, the claim to the status of the caste of royalty becoming more important. Because conformity to the social order had precedence over allegiance to the state, the idea of representation found expression not so much in political institutions as in caste and village assemblies. The pendulum of politics swung from large to small kingdoms, with the former attempting to establish empires—the sole successful attempt being that of the Mauryan dynasty. Thus, true centralization was rare, because local forces often determined historical events. Although imperial or near-imperial periods were marked by attempts at the evolution of uniform cultures, the periods of smaller kingdoms (often referred to as the Dark Ages by earlier historians) were more creative at the local level and witnessed significant changes in society and religion. These small kingdoms also often boasted the most elaborate and impressive monuments.

The major economic patterns were those relating to land and to commerce. The transition from tribal to peasant society was a continuing process, with the gradual clearing of wasteland and the expansion of the village economy based on plow agriculture. Recognition of the importance of land revenue coincided with the emergence of the imperial system in the 4th century bce; and from this period onward, although the imperial structure did not last long, land revenue became central to the administration and income of the state. Frequent mentions of individual ownership, references to crown lands, numerous land grants to religious and secular grantees in the post-Gupta period, and detailed discussion in legal sources of the rights of purchase, bequest, and sale of land all clearly indicate that private ownership of land existed. Much emphasis has been laid on the state control of the irrigation system; yet a systematic study of irrigation in India reveals that it was generally privately controlled and that it serviced small areas of land. (See hydraulic civilization.) When the state built canals, they were mainly in the areas affected by both the winter and summer monsoons, in which village assemblies played a dominant part in revenue and general administration, as, for example, in the Cola (Chola) kingdom of southern India.

The urban economy was crucial to the rise of civilization in the Indus valley (c. 2600–2000 bce). Later the 1st millennium bce saw an urban civilization in the Ganges (Ganga) valley and still later in coastal south India. The emergence of towns was based on administrative needs, the requirements of trade, and pilgrimage centres. In the 1st millennium ce, when commerce expanded to include trade with western Asia, the eastern Mediterranean, and Central and Southeast Asia, revenue from trade contributed substantially to the economies of the participating kingdoms, as indeed Indian religion and culture played a significant part in the cultural evolution of Central and Southeast Asia. Gold coins were issued for the first time by the Kushan dynasty and in large quantity by the Guptas; both kingdoms were active in foreign trade. Gold was imported from Central Asia and the Roman Republic and Empire and later perhaps from eastern Africa because, in spite of India’s recurring association with gold, its sources were limited. Expanding trade encouraged the opening up of new routes, and this, coupled with the expanding village economy, led to a marked increase of knowledge about the subcontinent during the post-Mauryan period. With increasing trade, guilds became more powerful in the towns. Members of the guilds participated in the administration, were associated with politics, and controlled the development of trade through merchant embassies sent to places as far afield as Rome and China. Not least, guilds and merchant associations held envied and respectable positions as donors of religious institutions.

The structure of Indian society was characterized by caste. The distinguishing features of a caste society were endogamous kinship groups (jatis) arranged in a hierarchy of ritual ranking, based on notions of pollution and purity, with an intermeshing of service relationships and an adherence to geographic location. There was some coincidence between caste and access to economic resources. Although ritual hierarchy was unchanging, there appears to have been mobility within the framework. Migrations of peoples both within the subcontinent and from outside encouraged social mobility and change. The nucleus of the social structure was the family, with the pattern of kinship relations varying from region to region. In the more complex urban structure, occupational guilds occasionally took on jati functions, and there was a continual emergence of new social and professional groups.

Religion in early Indian history did not constitute a monolithic force. Even when the royalty attempted to encourage certain religions, the idea of a state religion was absent. In the main, there were three levels of religious expression. The most widespread was the worship of local cult deities vaguely associated with major deities, as seen in fertility cults, in the worship of mother goddesses, in the Shakta-Shakti cult, and in Tantrism. (See Shaktism.) Less widespread but popular, particularly in the urban areas, were the more puritanical sects of Buddhism and Jainism and the bhakti tradition of Hinduism. A third level included classical Hinduism and more abstract levels of Buddhism and Jainism, with an emphasis on the major deities in the case of the first and on the teachings of the founders in the case of the latter two. It was this level, endorsed by affluent patronage, that provided the base for the initial institutionalization of religion. But the three levels were not isolated; the shadow of the third fell over the first two, the more homely rituals and beliefs of which often crept into the third. This was the case particularly with Hinduism, the very flexibility of which was largely responsible for its survival. Forms of Buddhism, ranging from an emphasis on the constant refinement of doctrine on the one hand to an incorporation of magical fertility cults in its beliefs on the other, faded out toward the end of this period.

Sanskrit literature and the building of Hindu and Buddhist temples and sculpture both reached apogees in this period. Although literary works in the Sanskrit language continued to be written and temples were built in later periods, the achievement was never again as inspiring.

From c. 1500 to c. 500 bce

By about 1500 bce an important change began to occur in the northern half of the Indian subcontinent. The Indus civilization had declined by about 2000 bce (or perhaps as late as 1750 bce), and the stage was being set for a second and more lasting urbanization in the Ganges valley. The new areas of occupation were contiguous with and sometimes overlapping the core of the Harappan area. There was continuity of occupation in the Punjab and Gujarat, and a new thrust toward urbanization came from the migration of peoples from the Punjab into the Ganges valley.

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Early Vedic period

In addition to the archaeological legacy discussed above, there remains from this period the earliest literary record of Indian culture, the Vedas. Composed in archaic, or Vedic, Sanskrit, generally dated between 1500 and 800 bce, and transmitted orally, the Vedas comprise four major texts—the Rig-, the Sama-, the Yajur-, and the Atharvaveda. Of these, the Rigveda is believed to be the earliest. The texts consist of hymns, charms, spells, and ritual observations current among the Indo-European-speaking people known as Aryans (from Sanskrit arya, “noble”), who presumably entered India from the Iranian regions.

Theories concerning the origins of the Aryans, whose language is also called Aryan, relate to the question of what has been called the Indo-European homeland. In the 17th and 18th centuries ce, European scholars who first studied Sanskrit were struck by the similarity in its syntax and vocabulary to Greek and Latin. This resulted in the theory that there had been a common ancestry for these and other related languages, which came to be called the Indo-European group of languages. This in turn resulted in the notion that Indo-European-speaking peoples had a common homeland from which they migrated to various parts of Asia and Europe. The theory stirred intense speculation, which continues to the present day, regarding the original homeland and the period or periods of the dispersal from it. The study of Vedic India is still beset by “the Aryan problem,” which often clouds the genuine search for historical insight into this period.

That there was a migration of Indo-European speakers, possibly in waves, dating from the 2nd millennium bce, is clear from archaeological and epigraphic evidence in western Asia. Mesopotamia witnessed the arrival about 1760 bce of the Kassites, who introduced the horse and the chariot and bore Indo-European names. A treaty from about 1400 bce between the Hittites, who had arrived in Anatolia about the beginning of the 2nd millennium bce, and the Mitanni empire invoked several deities—Indara, Uruvna, Mitira, and the Nasatyas (names that occur in the Rigveda as Indra, Varuna, Mitra, and the Ashvins). An inscription at Bogazköy in Anatolia of about the same date contains Indo-European technical terms pertaining to the training of horses, which suggests cultural origins in Central Asia or the southern Russian steppes. Clay tablets dating to about 1400 bce, written at Tell el-Amarna (in Upper Egypt) in Akkadian cuneiform, mention names of princes that are also Indo-European.

Nearer India, the Iranian plateau was subject to a similar migration. Comparison of Iranian Aryan literature with the Vedas reveals striking correspondences. Possibly a branch of the Iranian Aryans migrated to northern India and settled in the Sapta Sindhu region, extending from the Kābul River in the north to the Sarasvati and upper Ganges–Yamuna Doab in the south. The Sarasvati, the sacred river at the time, is thought to have dried up during the later Vedic period. Conceived as a goddess (see Sarasvati), it was personified in later Hinduism as the inventor of spoken and written Sanskrit and the consort of Brahma, promulgator of the Vedas. It was in the Sapta Sindhu region that the majority of the hymns of the Rigveda were composed.

The Rigveda is divided into 10 mandalas (books), of which the 10th is believed to be somewhat later than the others. Each mandala consists of a number of hymns, and most mandalas are ascribed to priestly families. The texts include invocations to the gods, ritual hymns, battle hymns, and narrative dialogues. The 9th mandala is a collection of all the hymns dedicated to soma, the unidentified hallucinogenic juice that was drunk on ritual occasions.

Few events of political importance are related in the hymns. Perhaps the most impressive is a description of the battle of the 10 chiefs or kings: when Sudas, the king of the preeminent Bharatas of southern Punjab, replaced his priest Vishvamitra with Vasishtha, Vishvamitra organized a confederacy of 10 tribes, including the Puru, Yadu, Turvashas, Anu, and Druhyu, which went to war against Sudas. The Bharatas survived and continued to play an important role in historical tradition. In the Rigveda the head of a clan is called the raja; this term commonly has been translated as “king,” but more recent scholarship has suggested “chief” as more appropriate in this early context. If such a distinction is recognized, the entire corpus of Vedic literature can be interpreted as recording the gradual evolution of the concept of kingship from earlier clan organization. Among the clans there is little distinction between Aryan and non-Aryan, but the hymns refer to a people, called the dasyus, who are said to have had an alien language and a dark complexion and to worship strange gods. Some dasyus were rich in cattle and lived in fortified places (puras) that were often attacked by the god Indra. In addition to the dasyus, there were the wealthy Panis, who were hostile and stole cattle.

The early Vedic was the period of transition from nomadic pastoralism to settled village communities intermixing pastoral and agrarian economies. Cattle were initially the dominant commodity, as indicated by the use of the words gotra (“cowpen”) to signify the endogamous kinship group and gavishti (“searching for cows”) to denote war. A patriarchal extended family structure gave rise to the practice of niyoga (levirate), which permitted a widow to marry her husband’s brother. A community of families constituted a grama. The term vish is generally interpreted to mean “clan.” Clan assemblies appear to have been frequent in the early stages. Various categories of assemblies are mentioned, such as vidatha, samiti, and sabha, although the precise distinctions between these categories are not clear. The clan also gathered for the yajna, the Vedic sacrifice conducted by the priest, whose ritual actions ensured prosperity and imbued the chief with valour. The chief was primarily a war leader with responsibility for protecting the clan, for which function he received a bali (“tribute”). Punishment was exacted according to a principle resembling the wergild of ancient Germanic law, whereby the social rank of a wronged or slain man determined the compensation due him or his survivors.

Later Vedic period (c. 800–c. 500 bce)

The principal literary sources from this period are the Sama-, the Yajur-, and the Atharvaveda (mainly ritual texts), the Brahmanas (manuals on ritual), and the Upanishads (Upanisads) and Aranyakas (collections of philosophical and metaphysical discourses). Associated with the corpus are the sutra texts, largely explanatory aids to the other works, comprising manuals on sacrifices and ceremonies, domestic observances, and social and legal relations. Because the texts were continually revised, they cannot be dated accurately to the early period. The Dharma-sutra texts of this period became the nuclei of the socio-legal Dharma-shastras of later centuries.

Historians formerly assigned the two major Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, to this period, but subsequent scholarship has rendered these dates less certain. Both works are mixtures of the historical and the legendary, both were rewritten and edited, both suffered from frequent interpolations even as late as the early centuries ce, and both were later converted into sacred literature with the deification of their heroes. Consequently, important as they are to the literary and religious tradition, they are not easily identified with a historical period. The central event of the Mahabharata, whose geographic setting is the upper Ganges–Yamuna Doab and adjoining areas, is a war between two groups of cousins—the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Though the traditional date for the war is about 3102 bce, most historians would prefer a later one. The events of the Ramayana relate to the middle Ganges valley and central India, with later interpolations extending the area southward.

The geographic focus of the later Vedic corpus moves from the Sapta Sindhu region into the Ganges–Yamuna Doab and the territories on its fringe. The areas within this land of the aryas, called Aryavarta, were named for the ruling clans, and the area encompassed within Aryavarta gradually expanded eastward. By the end of the period, clan identity had changed gradually to territorial identity, and the areas of settlement came eventually to form states. The people beyond the Aryavarta were termed the mlecchas (or mlechchhas), the impure barbarians unfamiliar with the speech and customs of the aryas.

The literature is replete with the names of clans. The most powerful among them, commanding the greatest respect, was the Kuru-Pancala, which incorporated the two families of Kuru and Puru (and the earlier Bharatas) and of which the Pancala was a confederation of lesser-known tribes. They occupied the upper Ganges–Yamuna Doab and the Kurukshetra region. In the north the Kamboja, Gandhara, and Madra groups predominated. In the middle Ganges valley the neighbours and rivals of the Kuru-Pancalas were the Kashi, Koshala, and Videha, who worked in close cooperation with each other. The Magadha, Anga, and Vanga peoples in the lower Ganges valley and delta were (in that period) still outside the Aryan pale and regarded as mlecchas. Magadha (Patna and Gaya districts of Bihar) is also associated with the vratya people, who occupied an ambiguous position between the aryas and mlecchas. Other mleccha tribes frequently mentioned include the Satvants of the Chambal River valley and, in the Vindhyan and northern Deccan region, the Andhra, Vidarbha, Nishadha, Pulinda, and Shabara. The location of all these tribes is of considerable historical interest, because they gave their names to enduring geographic regions.

By the 5th century bce, clan identity had changed to territorial identity, and the areas of settlement changed from chiefdoms to kingdoms in some cases. The state was emerging as a new feature. Assemblies such as the sabha and parishad continued as political institutions into later periods. The larger assemblies declined. Rudimentary notions of taxation were the genesis of administration, as were the ratnins (“jewels”), consisting of representatives of various professions advising the chief. A major transformation occurred in the notion of kingship, which ceased to be merely an office of a war leader; territorial identity provided it with power and status, symbolized by a series of lengthy and elaborate ceremonies—the abhishekha, generally followed by major sacrificial rituals, such as the ashvamedha. This ceremony was a famous horse sacrifice, in which a specially selected horse was permitted to wander at will, tracked by a body of soldiers; the area through which the horse wandered unchallenged was claimed by the chief or king conducting the sacrifice. Thus, theoretically at least, only those with considerable power could perform this sacrifice. Such major sacrificial rituals involved a large amount of wealth and a hierarchy of priests. The ceremonies lasted many days and involved a reciprocal economy of gift exchange between the chief and the priest, by which the latter received wealth in kind and the former established status, prosperity, and proximity to the gods.

The conspicuous display and consumption of these ceremonies have elicited comparison with the potlatch of the Kwakiutl and related North American indigenous peoples. The assumption of such sacrifices was that the clan had settled in a particular area, marking the end of nomadism. This led eventually to the claim of ownership by kings of the wastelands, although a ruler’s right to collect taxes was viewed not as a consequence of his ownership of wasteland but as his wage for protecting society. The new trends emphasized the importance of the priests and the aristocracy (Brahmans and Kshatriyas), who were the mainstay of kingship. The introduction, through royal sacrifices, of notions of divinity in kingship further strengthened the role of the priests. This was also the period in which kingship became hereditary.

The technology of iron, or krishna ayas (“dark metal”), as it was apparently called in later Vedic literature, and the migration into the Ganges valley helped in stabilizing agriculture and settlements. Some of these settlements along the rivers evolved into towns, essentially as administrative and craft centres. By the mid-1st millennium bce the second urbanization—this time in the Ganges valley—was under way.

The development with the most far-reaching consequences for Indian culture is the structure of society that has come to be called caste. A hymn in the Rigveda contains a description of the primeval sacrifice and refers to the emergence of four groups from the body of the god Prajapati—the Brahmans (Brāhmaṇas), Kshatriyas (Kṣatriyas), Vaishyas (Vaiśyas), and Sudras (Śūdras). This is clearly a mythologized attempt to describe the origin of the four varnas, which came to be regarded as the four major classes in Indian society.

The etymology of each is of interest: Brahman is one who possesses magical or divine knowledge (brahman); Kshatriya is endowed with power or sovereignty (kṣatra); and Vaishya, derived from viś (vish, “settlement”), is a person settled on the land or a member of the clan. The derivation of the term Sudra, however, denoting a member of the group born to serve the upper three varnas, is not clear, which may suggest that it is a non-Aryan word. In addition to varna there are references to jati (birth), which gradually came to acquire a close association with caste and appears to mean the endogamous kinship group.

In the course of time the Brahmans became the preeminent priestly group, the intermediaries with the gods at the sacrificial rituals, and the recipients of large donations for priestly functions; in the process they acquired a number of privileges, such as exemption from taxes and inviolability. The Kshatriyas, who were to become the landowning families, assumed the role of military leaders and of the natural aristocracy having connections with royalty. The Vaishyas were more subservient, and, although their status was not as inferior as that of the Sudras, they appear to have been crucial to the economy. The traditional view of the Sudras is that they were non-Aryan cultivators who came under the domination of the Aryans and in many cases were enslaved and therefore had to serve the upper three groups. But not all references to the Sudras are to slaves. Sometimes wealthy Sudras are mentioned, and in later centuries some of them even became kings.

The traditional view that varna reflects the organization of Indian society has recently been questioned; it has been suggested that the rules of varna conform to a normative or presumptive model, and that the concept of jati is more central to caste functioning. This view is strengthened by the fact that the non-Brahmanical literature of later periods does not always conform to the picture of caste society depicted in the Dharma-shastras.

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The beginning of the historical period, c. 500–150 bce

For this phase of Indian history a variety of historical sources are available. The Buddhist canon, pertaining to the period of the Buddha (c. 6th–5th century bce) and later, is invaluable as a cross-reference for the Brahmanic sources. This also is true, though to a more limited extent, of Jain sources. In the 4th century bce there are secular writings on political economy and accounts of foreign travelers. The most important sources, however, are inscriptions of the 3rd century bce. (See Buddhism; Jainism.)

Ashoka: empire c. 250 bce
Ashoka: empire c. 250 bce(Left) India c. 500 bce and (right) Ashoka’s empire at its greatest extent, c. 250 bce.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
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Pre-Mauryan states

Buddhist writings and other sources from the beginning of this period mention 16 major states (mahajanapada) dominating the northern part of the subcontinent. A few of these, such as Gandhara, Kamboja, Kuru-Pancala, Matsya, Kashi, and Koshala, continued from the earlier period and are mentioned in Vedic literature. The rest were new states, either freshly created from declining older ones or new areas coming into importance, such as Avanti, Ashvaka, Shurasena, Vatsa, Cedi, Malla, Vrijji, Magadha, and Anga. The mention of so many new states in the eastern Ganges valley is attributable in part to the eastern focus of the sources and is partly the antecedent to the increasing preeminence of the eastern regions.

Location

Gandhara lay astride the Indus and included the districts of Peshawar and the lower Swat and Kābul valleys. For a while its independence was terminated by its inclusion as one of the 22 satrapies of the Achaemenian Empire of Persia (c. 519 bce). Its major role as the channel of communication with Iran and Central Asia continued, as did its trade in woolen goods. Kamboja adjoined Gandhara in the northwest. Originally regarded as a land of Aryan speakers, Kamboja soon lost its important status, ostensibly because its people did not follow the sacred Brahmanic rites—a situation that was to occur extensively in the north as the result of the intermixing of peoples and cultures through migration and trade. Kamboja became a trading centre for horses imported from Central Asia.

The Kekayas, Madras, and Ushinaras, who had settled in the region between Gandhara and the Beas River, were described as descendants of the Anu tribe. The Matsyas occupied an area to the southwest of present-day Delhi. The Kuru-Pancala, still dominant in the Ganges–Yamuna Doab area, were extending their control southward and eastward; the Kuru capital had reportedly been moved from Hastinapura to Kaushambi when the former was devastated by a great flood, which excavations show to have occurred about the 9th century bce. The Mallas lived in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Avanti arose in the Ujjain-Narmada valley region, with its capital at Mahishmati; during the reign of King Pradyota, there was a matrimonial alliance with the royal family at Kaushambi. Shurasena had its capital at Mathura, and the tribe claimed descent from the Yadu clan. A reference to the Sourasenoi in later Greek writings is often identified with the Shurasena and the city of Methora with Mathura. The Vatsa state emerged from Kaushambi. The Cedi state (in Bundelkhand) lay on a major route to the Deccan. South of the Vindhyas, on the Godavari River, Ashvaka continued to thrive.

The mid-Ganges valley was dominated by Kashi and Koshala. Kashi maintained close affiliations with its eastern neighbours, and its capital was later to acquire renown as the sacred city of Varanasi (Benares). Kashi and Koshala were continually at war over the control of the Ganges; in the course of the conflict, Koshala extended its frontiers far to the south, ultimately coming to comprise Uttar (northern) and Dakshina (southern) Koshala. The new states of Magadha (Patna and Gaya districts) and Anga (northwest of the delta) were also interested in controlling the river and soon made their presence felt. The conflict eventually drew in the Vrijji state (Behar and Muzaffarpur districts). For a while, Videha (modern Tirhut), with its capital at Mithila, also remained powerful. References to the states of the northern Deccan appear to repeat statements from sources of the earlier period, suggesting that there had been little further exchange between the regions.

Political systems

The political system in these states was either monarchical or a type of representative government that variously has been called republican or oligarchic. The fact that representation in these latter states’ assemblies was limited to members of the ruling clan makes the term oligarchy, or even chiefdom, preferable. Sometimes within the state itself there was a gradual change from monarchy to oligarchy, as in the case of Vaishali, the nucleus of the Vrijji state. Apart from the major states, there also were many smaller oligarchies, such as those of the Koliyas, Moriyas, Jnatrikas, Shakyas, and Licchavis. The Jnatrikas and Shakyas are especially remembered as the tribes to which Mahavira (the founder of Jainism) and Gautama Buddha, respectively, belonged. The Licchavis eventually became extremely powerful.

The oligarchies comprised either a single clan or a confederacy of clans. The elected chief or the president (ganapati or ganarajya) functioned with the assistance of a council of elders probably selected from the Kshatriya families. The most important institution was the sovereign general assembly, or parishad, to the meetings of which members were summoned by kettledrum. Precise rules governed the seating arrangement, the agenda, and the order of speaking and debate, which terminated in a decision. A distinction was maintained between the families represented and the others. The broad authority of the parishad included the election of important functionaries. An occasional lapse into hereditary office on the part of the chief may account for the tendency toward monarchy among these states. The divisiveness of factions was a constant threat to the political system.

The institutional development within these oligarchies suggests a stabilized agrarian economy. Sources mention wealthy householders (gahapatis) employing slaves and hired labourers to work on their lands. The existence of gahapatis suggests the breaking up of clan ownership of land and the emergence of individual holdings. An increase in urban settlements and trade is evident not only from references in the literary sources but also from the introduction of two characteristics of urban civilization—a script and coinage. Evidence for the script dates at least to the 3rd century bce. The most widely used script was Brahmi, which is germane to most Indian scripts used subsequently. A variant during this period was Kharoshti, used only in northwestern India and derived from the Aramaic of western Asia. The most commonly spoken languages were Prakrit, which had its local variations in Shauraseni (from which Pali evolved), and Magadhi, in which the Buddha preached. Sanskrit, the more cultured language as compared with Prakrit, was favoured by the educated elite. Panini’s grammar, the Astadhyayi, and Yaska’s etymological work, the Nirukta, suggest considerable sophistication in the development of Sanskrit.

Economy

Silver bent bar coins and silver and copper punch-marked coins came into use in the 5th century bce. It is not clear whether the coins were issued by a political authority or were the legal tender of moneyers. The gradual spread in the same period of a characteristic type of luxury ware, which has come to be known as the northern black polished ware, is an indicator of expanding trade. One main trade route followed the Ganges River and crossed the Indo-Gangetic watershed and the Punjab to Taxila and beyond. Another extended from the Ganges valley via Ujjain and the Narmada valley to the western coast or, alternatively, southward to the Deccan. The route to the Ganges delta became more popular, increasing maritime contact with ports on the eastern coast of India. The expansion of trade and consequently of towns resulted in an increase in the number of artisans and merchants; some eventually formed guilds (shrenis), each of which tended to inhabit a particular part of a town. The guild system encouraged specialization of labour and the hereditary principle in professions, which was also a characteristic of caste functioning. Gradually some of the guilds acquired caste status. The practice of usury encouraged the activity of financiers, some of whom formed their own guilds and found that investment in trade proved increasingly lucrative. The changed economy is evident in the growth of cities and of an urban culture in which such distinctions as pura (walled settlement), durga (fortified town), nigama (market centre), nagara (town), and mahanagara (city) became increasingly important.

Religion

The changing features of social and economic life were linked to religious and intellectual changes. Orthodox traditions maintained in certain sections of Vedic literature were questioned by teachers referred to in the Upanishads and Aranyakas and by others whose speculations and philosophy are recorded in other texts. There was a sizable heterodox tradition current in the 6th century bce, and speculation ranged from idealism to materialism. The Ajivikas and the Carvakas, among the smaller sects, were popular for a time, as were the materialist theories of the Buddha’s contemporary Ajita Keshakambalin. Even though such sects did not sustain an independent religious tradition, the undercurrent of their teachings cropped up time and again in the later religious trends that emerged in India.

Of all these sects, only two, Jainism and Buddhism, acquired the status of major religions. The former remained within the Indian subcontinent; the latter spread to Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Both religions were founded in the 6th–5th century bce; Mahavira gave shape to earlier ideas of the Nirgranthas (an earlier name for the Jains) and formulated Jainism (the teachings of the Jina, or Conqueror, Mahavira), and the Buddha (the Enlightened One) preached a new doctrine.

There were a number of similarities among these two sects. Religious rituals were essentially congregational. Monastic orders (the sangha) were introduced with monasteries organized on democratic lines and initially accepting persons from all strata of life. Such monasteries were dependent on their neighbourhoods for material support. Some of the monasteries developed into centres of education. The functioning of monks in society was greater, however, among the Buddhist orders. Wandering monks, preaching and seeking alms, gave the religions a missionary flavour. The recruitment of nuns signified a special concern for the status of women. Both religions questioned Brahmanical orthodoxy and the authority of the Vedas. Both were opposed to the sacrifice of animals, and both preached nonviolence. Both derived support in the main from the Kshatriya ruling clans, wealthy gahapatis, and the mercantile community; because trade and commerce did not involve killing, the principle of ahimsa (“noninjury”) could be observed in these activities. The Jains participated widely as the middlemen in financial transactions and in later centuries became the great financiers of western India. While both religions disapproved in theory of the inequality of castes, neither directly attacked the assumptions of caste society; even so, they were able to secure a certain amount of support from lower caste groups, which was enhanced by the borrowing of rituals and practices from popular local cults. The patronage of women, especially those of royal families, was to become a noticeable feature.

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