India showcases a mind-blowing welter of synergies, a fascinating synthesis of contrasts, proving the relevance of ancient systems in the contemporary context. Poised to take off into the next century, the country exults in its rich heritage while simultaneously fine tuning for fresh challenges.
The heart of India is inextricably linked to her ancient soil. For the Indian mind, the benediction of the land permeates the very fabric of everyday life. The influence of the habitat over lifestyle is seen in varied ways-from dress and customs, to art and crafts.
The most dynamic proponent of this immense diversity is the sprawling expanse of the country. This triangular pendant-like peninsula covers a total area of 3,287,263 square kilometers. Across its northern borders lie the loftiest mountains on earth, the Himalayas-an unbroken stretch of 2,400 kilometers from the south-east to the north-west. To the north, lie China and Bhutan, further east is Bangladesh, while Pakistan and Afghanistan lie on its north-west frontiers. From the northern snow-capped peaks to the palm-dotted plains of the country’s southern tip-Kanyakumari, the land extends over 3,214 kilometers, and over 2,933 kilometers between the mountainous borderlands of China and Myanmar in the east, to the arid deserts of Rajasthan in the west.
Geologically speaking, the Himalayan range is young and growing. The inspiration of our saints and sages, endowed with the stamp of divinity since time immemorial, this range is said to have been created out of the collision of the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust 60 million years ago.
The wide plains of the Indo-Gangetic region offer a radical contrast to the mountainous areas. The path of the much-revered Ganga is uniformly flat, almost all the way down to where it meets the sea in the coastal region of the Bay of Bengal. The Ganga and the Brahmaputra, which flows in the north east, comprise the two important river systems of northern India. The Indus, which starts in Ladakh, and was the cradle of the Indus Valley civilization, flows into what is now Pakistan.
From their descent into the plains of Punjab, the ‘land of the five rivers’, one of the most fertile regions of the north, the Himalayas ease into the Great Thar Desert. Western Rajasthan suffers extreme hardship due to the acutely arid conditions. Yet the natural beauty of the land and the bravery of its people add a rare lustre to India’s visage.
The relentless erosion of habitat has certainly created much loss of wild life, but the tightening of conservation laws will go a long way in the protection of the country’s flora and fauna. In addition, a growing awareness of the importance of protecting the environmental heritage of the land, will aid in the creation of new parameters which will help conserve its ecological wealth
A walk through India’s history, the journey would begin in Bhimbetka, in Madhya Pradesh, close to the state capital, Bhopal, are a series of primeval rock shelters. Grouped within a radius of a few kilometers, the shelters have paintings that afford a marvellous view of the life of man right from the pre-historic to the historic period. One can experience the fear and trepidation of prehistoric man towards the beast, which was always portrayed larger than life, looming ominously over the human matchstick figures. One can also see evidence of man more in tune with his surroundings, following settled agricultural pursuits.
Fertile Indus valley in the west, gave rise to the earliest urban settlements at Mohenjodaro & Harappa, (both now in Pakistan) around 3000BC. Belonging to what is referred to as the Indus Valley Civilisation, the ruins of these city points to the existence of an astonishingly evolved people.
The Aryans in 1500 BC made a major change with their arrival. Some historians believe they were invaders, others that they were migrants who came in successive waves. There is an ongoing debate on whether they forced the inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
Beyond living off the land, the Aryans also made some contributions to the Indian tapestry. They brought with them the horse and their own religion. Cavalry warfare facilitated the rapid spread of Aryan culture across north India, resulting in the emergence of large empires.
The settled lifestyle, brought systems of governance and complex social patterns, foremost amongst which was the establishment of the caste system, meant to function much like a guild system. This period also saw the emergence of kingdoms and republics-the events of the two great Hindu epics, the Ramayana (life of Rama) and the Mahabharata are set in this time.
In the north, the period between 320AD to 480 AD saw the emergence and flowering of the Gupta empire in Magadha. This period, also referred to as the Golden Age of India, saw the development of classical art forms. The art, architecture and most notably the sculptures of the period, were at once technically perfect, yet refreshingly effervescent. Creative expression and through flourished and reflected a rare catholicity.
The southern kingdoms exhibited a democratic give-and-take, that is in a sense intrinsically Indian. During the Chola regime, seafarers took Indian culture and Hinduism across the sea to countries in South East Asia, where it spread and acquired local overtones. Back home, in Kerala, the Cheras acted host to an influx of Arab traders who had discovered the fast route to India, using the monsoon winds. Many chose to settle in India, and were allowed to freely practice their religion; their descendants are the Maplahs or Malabar Muslims.
The impact of Islam on India culture has been immense. It permanently influenced the development of all areas of human endeavour, language, dress, cuisine, all the art forms, architecture and urban design, and social customs and values.
The next influence of overwhelming importance was that of the Europeans. The great seafarers of north-west Europe, the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese, arrived early in the 17th century and established trading outposts along the Indian coast.
The British did not settle in India to form a local empire. Instead, India provided an enormous boost to the nascent industrial revolution by providing cheap raw materials, capital and a large captive market for the British industry. The land was reorganised under the harsh zamindari (landlord) system to facilitate the collection of taxes and in certain areas, farmers were forced to switch from subsistence farming to commercial crops such as indigo, jute, tea and coffee. This resulted in several famines of an unprecedented scale.
Ironically, the British empire contained within itself, the seeds of its own destruction. The vast railway network they established, gave tangible form to the idea of Indian unity. Since it was impossible for a small handful of foreigners to administer such a vast country, they set out to create local elite to help them in the task. These elite, educated in the best of British tradition and ideas, inculcated Western concepts into India’s social and intellectual fabric. Ideas of democracy, individual freedom, and equality led to the genesis of the freedom movement, largely through the efforts of this intelligentsia. The Indian National Congress was formed in 1885, and the psychological concept of national unity was forged under the fire of the struggle against a common foreign oppressor.
Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress launched a series of mass movements this captured the imagination of the nation. India achieved Independence on August 15, 1947. Giving voice to the sentiments of the people, the country’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we will redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when a nation, long suppressed finds utterance. We end today a period of ill fortune, and India discovers herself again.”
In India, it is difficult to decide, for like the land, the inhabitants reflect an amazing diversity both in physical and lifestyle attributes. In part this is due to the varied racial groups that find their presence in the subcontinent, in part due to geographical and social factors. Four major racial groups have met and merged in this fertile land to give its populace this great diversity. Racial dovetailing has influenced lifestyle patterns as much as it did looks. From the high mountain passes, on its western borders, come the pale-skinned Europoid. As diverse as India’s sartorial tradition are its language. India has 15 major languages and 844 dialects. The linguistic experts observed in 1928 that 255 dialects could trace their origin to four major language families. Going further, he stated that the dialects of northwest India and the Gangetic plains have some base in the Indo-European family of languages.
Local conditions influence the choice of housing features too. The bitter cold in the mountainous regions has resulted in local opting for stone or mud-and-timber structures with sloping roofs. The livestock are kept in the ground floor and the living quarters on the floor above; open out to a centre courtyard, which acts as a sort of living room. The Gaddis, pastoral nomads who seek higher pasturelands during the summer, burrow deep into the folds of the mountains, construction being reduced to the minimum in order to ensure better insulation during the long winter months.
For the Indian people, the annual calendar is packed with numerous fairs and festivals. Whether a local event or a major happening on a national scale, colour, pageantry, religious fervour, exotic costumes, feasting and frolic, demonstrate an effervescence that is captivating.
Art is part of the fabric of daily life in India. Whether the multifunctional lota, often superbly crafted or the highly stylised pata paintings, art is seldom the prerogative of a few or the pursuit of some. And this is hardly surprising, considering that creative expression is so much a part of the Indian persona. Whether religious ritual, or the simple act of serving food, Indian’s have developed a way of doing things aesthetically. Seeped in centuries-old traditions, the Indian way of living imbibes various forms of folk and modern culture. Be it ethnic dance, painting, architecture or textiles, a glimpse of it can be got in every Indian home Classical forms are rooted in a folk or tribal base. Over the years as the Indo – Gangetic plains grew in size and importance, there arose an affluent class, the rulers, warriors and priests. Their demands for manufactured goods gave a boost to production, and attracted artisans to the cities. As these cities grew into republics and finally empires, the size and wealth of the elite also increased.
One of the oldest, is the stupa at Sanchi, built by Ashoka in the third century B.C. Buddhist structures dating back to the second century B.C. notably the prayer halls in Ajanta, are the earliest to be found.
The Islamic influence in architecture came in the 13th century with the Turkish and Afghan invasions. Domes, arches and minarets were added to India’s architectural vocabulary. Qutubd-din Aibak, the founder of the Slave dynasty, built the first mosque in India, the Quwwaqt-ul-Islam and also the famous Qutab Minar in Delhi. The great Mughal emperor Akbar built his new capital city of Fatehpur Sikri in an innovative fusion of Hindu and Islamic styles. Created by Shah Jahan as a symbol of love for his queen Mumtaz Mahal, the matchless Taj Mahal is now synonymous with India.
Indian sculpture like Indian painting has its beginnings in ritual and worship. Largely devotional in nature, today the terracotta figurines of various deities as well as birds and animals have become highly stylised, through the act of creation still remains a sacred pursuit for the potter who invests each image with life.