India is a country of mind-boggling statistics. It is the second most populated country in the world, with close to 1.3 billion people. (In comparison, the population of the US in 2018 was an estimated 330 million). The country’s political languages are Hindi and English, but an additional 20 languages are listed as “official” languages, including Bengali, Punjabi and Nepali. The exact number of total languages in India varies from source to source, but some estimate a total of over 1700 languages, making India the county with the fourth highest number of languages spoken in the world. It is also the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Just under 80% of today’s population in India are Hindu. The second most wise-spread religion is Islam, with roughly 14% of the population. There are over 2 million Hindu temples and 300,000 mosques, which is not only more than any Muslim-majority country, but any country in the world.
The distinct wisdom, flavor and skill we taste in Indian cuisine, the colorful fabrics, the music, and the countries linguistic diversity are based on millennia of cultural development. The Indus Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization, named after the site of an ancient city, is one of the earliest human civilizations in recorded history. At its peak, the Harappan Civilization stretched from northeast Afghanistan, through much of Pakistan and into western and northwestern India. In the course of history, India has seen the rise and fall of dozens of empires, kingdoms, dynasties and sultanates. The first major historical empire in this region, and the largest one created by an Indian dynasty, was the Maurya Empire (322 to 185 BC), which occupied an area of approximately 5 million square kilometers (1.9 million square miles), reaching as far west as Iran and Afghanistan, and covering almost the entire Indian subcontinent. By the year 1700, the total population had accelerated to about 160 million, and the Moghal Empire, a Muslim dynasty and direct descendants of Ghengis Khan, ruled the country, and contributed greatly to the urbanization of cities and towns, agricultural production, and textile manufacturing. One of the world’s most recognizable UNESCO Heritage Sites, the Taj Mahal, was commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and later, his own
One major contributing factor to the cultural, religious and linguistic diversity of India is human mass migration between the African, Asian and European continents. Throughout the reign of the various dynasties, some of which spread across immensely large areas, and some of which were relatively small and short-lived, human beings migrated across the Indian subcontinent. A dynasty or sultanate in itself, expands and contracts geographically over time, often steamrolling and sometimes blending with already existing cultural hubs. This is influenced not only be the cultural heritage and descent of a rising empire, but also by the size of the area it consumes. After the Maurya Empire, the second largest empire to ever rule over India was the British Raj. India was long a point of interest for the British, Dutch, Danish and French due to its role in trade in the Indian Ocean region. English traders often engaged in hostilities with other traders in the region and, through overwhelming military strength, were able to subdue local kingdoms and eventually achieved major victory for East India Company, thus establishing themselves as the dominant force. Following the First War of Independence and the Government of India Act in 1857, the British Crown assumed direct control of India, and in 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. In the decades to follow, India’s nationalist, non-violent movement, through the leadership and example of Mahatma Gandhi, gained strength and momentum, and ultimately led to India’s independence the from the British Empire on August 15th 1947. Three years later, the “Union of India, an independent dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations, transformed into the Republic of India.
Today, India borders 7 other countries: Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, China, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It has become the most populous democracy in the world, and its culture and cuisine are recognized and loved around the globe. In Hinduism, cows are considered a sacred symbol of life that should be protected and revered. A cow is seen as a particularly generous, docile creature, which gives more to human beings than it takes from them. Coincidentally, India is the world’s largest milk producer, with 21% of global production. While being vegetarian is not an ultimate requirement in Hinduism, India happens to have the highest reported rate of vegetarianism in the world, with 38% (With a population of 1.3 billion, that is about 520 million people!) However, India’s contribution to the world is not limited to production of goods and economic statistics. One of the fundamental practices and concepts in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism is non-violence, and the active promotion of kindness and (religious) tolerance not only to our fellow human beings, but to animals and our environment.
By many, traveling to India is described as a two-fold experience. It is a place of compelling history and tradition reaching back to a time so long ago, that we can hardly comprehend it. Another experience people have shared is that of feeling overwhelmed by their interaction with an infrastructure that is not able to sustain and support the sheer size of the population,. Architectural beauty is found side by side with crumbling buildings. Beautiful landscapes are apace with areas that succumbed to the impact of human presence.
Click here to read our article “How do I say… in Hindi?“.