This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that a culture that is thousands of years old, that houses one and a half billion individuals, and that has seen numerous waves of immigration and invasion over the millennia should represent one of the world’s most diverse melting pots. But just how diverse is India?
It’s been said that India is like a mini-continent, a collection of cultures and societal groupings rubbing along in relative harmony, with only the occasional conflagration of violence. Such violence, when it has occurred, has largely run along communal lines, unsurprising in a nation where all of the world’s major religions – to a greater or lesser extent – are present – or have been present in the past. India is a place where it is impossible to throw a stick without hitting a priest, pandit, swami, imam, or other religious personage. The population, is, of course, primarily Hindu, but if you stop to consider that there are some two hundred million Muslims in India – one of the largest Muslim populations in the world – you can see that sheer weight of numbers ensures that even small percentages translate into numerous adherents.
The situation is further complicated by India’s caste system – particular to the Hindu religion. The system organises Hindus into four major castes, and then those who exist outside of the caste system – namely, the Dalits. This caste system is one of the world’s oldest systems of social stratification, one that serves to create yet another textured layer of diversity in the country.
What of language, often a key barometer of diversity? India recognises several ‘official’ languages and an almost incomprehensibly large number of regional dialects – three thousand, at last count. The national language – Hindi – is spoken by only forty percent of the population. English serves as a vehicle of commerce and administration – but this is only because it was brought to the country by India’s erstwhile colonisers and then imposed upon the local populace in order to grease the wheels of the monolithic bureaucracy established to enable British rule.
Travelling around the subcontinent, regional differences become visibly apparent.
From cuisine to cinema, from cultural myths to local beverages, the country and its citizens exhibit striking differences as one ventures north to south, east to west. These differences extend even to appearance. Compare the Indians of the far north-east state of Assam to the citizens of Maharashtra on the western coast; the northern Punjabis to the southern Tamils.
In recent centuries, the country has seen the Mughal and British empires leave their mark. The effect of these foreign assimilations is evident when taking a simple walk around cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata – once Bombay and Calcutta. The diversity of architecture – with mosques, temples and Victorian-era edifices standing shoulder-to-shoulder – is mirrored in the diversity of the cities’ denizens.
In modern India, a land that has undergone a superheated economic transformation over the past three decades, yet another layer of stratification has become apparent, one that many western nations are familiar with – the gap between rich and poor. And the rich, in this context, are not the maharajahs and nizams of old, but the vast, newly-affluent middle class, the beneficiaries of India’s headlong assault on the world superpower rankings.
As wealth has accreted in the cities, so have migrants poured into the great metropolises of the subcontinent, creating vast slums in the process. Hundreds of thousands of villages still dot the Indian interior, but increasingly – as climate change (namely in the form of drought) and economic factors work against them – are finding it harder to survive in the new reality.
For many, India’s incredible diversity underpins the country’s identity.
As the nation continues to grow and evolve, it becomes even more imperative that this diversity is not relinquished. India’s creed, enacted at the moment of its independence, encompasses the nation’s pluralism and finds expression in the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s words: To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill- will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.
My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.
This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.
All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff.