India - Culture
India: a confluence of cultures
Clint Misquitta explains the linkages among Indian religions, festivals, rituals, costumes, music, dance, language and literature. He argues that underneath this diversity lies the continuity of Indian civilization until the present day. From Mumbai.
India is one of the few countries, in the world, that have diverse cultures. Stretching back in an unbroken sweep over 5000 years, India’s culture has been enriched by successive waves of conquerors, which were absorbed into the Indian way of life. It is this variety which is the special hallmark of India. Its physical, religious and racial variety is as immense as its linguistic diversity. Underneath this diversity lies the continuity of Indian civilization and social structure from the very earliest times until the present day. Modern India presents a picture of unity in diversity to which history provides no parallel. Here is a catalogue of everything Indian - Indian religions, festivals, rituals, artifacts, monuments, costumes, music and dance, language and literature.
The roots of Indian civilization stretch back in time to pre-recorded history as far as 400,000 B.C. and implements of those times are found in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bihar. The first evidence of agricultural settlements on the western plains of the Indus is roughly contemporaneous with similar developments in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia. These settlements gradually grew and the inhabitants started to use copper and bronze, domesticated animals and made pottery.
From the beginning of the 4th millennium B.C., the individuality of early village cultures began to be replaced by a more homogenous style of existence. By the middle of the 3rd millennium, a uniform culture had developed at settlements spread across nearly 5000 square miles including parts of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Baluchistan, Sind and the Makran coast.
The earliest known civilization in India dates back to about 3000 B.C. and it was discovered in 1920 and seemed confined to the valley of the Indus River and hence it was called the Indus Valley Civilization. It was a highly developed civilization and two of its towns, Mohenjodaro and Harappa represent the high watermark of the settlements. The towns were well planned with good buildings , the most famous being the Great Bath at Mohenjodaro. The discovery of kilns to make bricks support the fact that burnt bricks were used extensively in domestic and public buildings.
Then came the Aryans through the fabled Khyber Pass around 1500 B.C. and they brought the horse, developed the Sanskrit language and made significant inroads into religion of the times and all this activity contributed to the shaping of Indian culture. Cavalry warfare facilitated the rapid spread of Aryan culture across North India and allowed the emergence of large empires. Sanskrit is the basis and the unifying factor of vast majority of Indian languages and the religion that took root during the Vedic era became the foundation of the Hindu religion the main factor of the Indian culture. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore praised the hymns of the four Vedas composed by Aryans.
The Aryans came through the Khyber Pass around 1500 BC. They brought the horse, developed Sanskrit and made inroads into religion of the times.
By the end of 3rd century B.C. Chandragupta Maurya ruled North India and the great emperor of the dynasty was Ashoka the Great. The Mauryan economy was mostly agrarian. Then in 327 B.C. Alexander of Macedonia crossed into North west India and conquered a large part of Indian territory. But his generals were tired of war and Alexander returned home to Greece, after leaving some Governors to consolidate the conquests. And, in fact, the contact with the Indian culture was so much that even the sculptures of the region they governed bear a marked Greek influence.
Fourth century A.D. saw the emergence of the Gupta empire which ushered in the golden age of Indian history. The Gupta empire survived in the sub-continent for more than two centuries, during which they patronised the Hindu religious tradition, and orthodox Hinduism reasserted itself. The exquisite Ajanta and Ellora caves were created in this period. This era also saw the development of various aspects of Indian culture and civilization. Enlightening treatises were written on mathematics, grammar, astronomy and medicine and even on Kamasutra, the art of love. Two important figures of the Gupta period were Aryabhatta, a great astronomer and Kalidasa who took Sanskrit drama to new heights.
Southern India had trade relations with Egyptians and Romans through sea routes. St. Thomas arrived in Kerala in 52 A.D. and brought Christianity to India. Also, great dynasties that rose in the south were the Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras, Chalukyas and Pallavas.
Early 16th century saw the rise of Mughals in India under Babur. The greatest Mughal ruler was Akbar the Great (1562-1605) and the Indo-Islamic culture reached the peak of tolerance and harmony during his reign. The nobility in his court belonged to both Hindu and Muslim faiths and Akbar himself married a Hindu Princess. Akbar tried to consolidate religious tolerance by founding a new religion called Din-e-Ilahi, which was an amalgam of Hindu and Muslim faiths. Akbar’s grandson Shahjehan built the famous Taj Mahal at Agra. Today the Taj Mahal is considered as one of the wonders of the world and is a heritage monument that attracts millions of tourists.
The rise of the Marathas under Sivaji during the 18th century was incredible to believe. Sivaji generally fought guerilla battles and always victory was on his side. He welded together a band of hardy Maratha warriors and soon consolidated a vast area they called the Maratha Empire. Very soon neighbouring rulers started paying “protection money” to Sivaji. The Marathas were finally defeated at Panipat, in 1761, by Ahmad Shah Durrani, from Afghanistan.
Side by side with these developments came the entry of the European powers in India. In 1498, the Portuguese under the famous Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut sailing via the Cape of Good Hope. Soon they were followed by the French, the Dutch and the British. These European powers were at first attracted to the spices of Malabar (Kerala). But soon they developed territorial ambitions and the British, finally, managed to hunt others from mainland India after a great showdown with the French at the Battle of Plassey, in 1757. Then, they gradually extended their rule over the entire sub continent either by direct annexation or exercising suzerainty over the local rajas and the nawabs.
In 1498, Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut. The Portuguese were followed by the French, the Dutch and the British.
The English formed the East India Company mainly for commercial activities and as they slowly took charge of almost the whole sub continent they were forced to introduce the railway network to carry goods at ports to send to England. India became “the Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire giving an enormous boost to the nascent Industrial Revolution as India provided cheap raw materials, capital and a large captive market for the British industrial houses. The British also introduced the Zamindari system by reorganizing land and collecting taxes to chew India dry. They also forced farmers to switch from subsistence crops to commercial crops of jute coffee and tea and this resulted in famines in India. But as I said earlier they had to set up a good rail system to transport all this to the ports and this very rail system brought our freedom fighters closer to organize and strike back at the oppressor.
The British had to train the locals to run the administration of such a vast land as they could not handle all the aspects of administration. But that again taught our intelligentsia, the values of democracy, individual freedom and equality. Thinkers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Bankim Chandra initiated the freedom movement that led to the Indian National Congress in 1885. Then the Swadeshi Movement ( to use only Indian goods) was started by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose. Then Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru got the Independence from the British in 1947.
In short, the influence of the various dynasties that ruled India prior to Independence has led to the confluence of cultures influencing our democracy and the various States in the Indian sub continent. Various castes and religions have a cultural background. The art of welcoming a guest with a great Indian “namaste”, the use of “mehndi” on auspicious occasions is part of our culture. “Mehndi” is the colorful designs done on the palms and hands and may be even on the feet. Our culture also frowns at open love scenes like “lip-lock” kissing and the mode of dressing which should not be indecent by all standards.
Our society, generally, is still conservative and a lot of Indians are strictly vegetarians and some resort to fasting, meditation and do yoga. But the modern generation that is influenced by western movies and foreign travel maybe not following the cultural compulsions strictly in their private lives but in front of their elders they still believe and go through all the rituals as part of tradition. The modern generation of Indians though they are qualified and sophisticated never forget their roots and discipline taught by elders. It is great to see the children, however big they are in age or status, bend and kiss the feet of their parents and the parents in turn utter “be happy my son/daughter”. I think after this kind of gesture no parent will ever regret to have had such progeny. And this goes down to generations - respect for the one who brought you in this world, sheltered you and made you what you are today. Of course there are some bad cultural influences like frowning on the birth of too many “girl-child”, dowry system and in some places arranged marriages against the wish of the girl, child marriages and so on. But slowly but surely these habits are on the way out as India is developing fast and women take up professions and getting independent, even in remote villages. Media too, is doing its part to enlighten the people and cosmopolitan societies are very common in India. Muslim women who wear purdahs to cover their faces also desist from the habit in many advanced societies in India. Variety is the spice of life and we, Indians, are proud to have this confluence of cultures blend beautifully.