Indian History, Language & Culture

India's history is its essence, ungraspable but never far away. Its thousands of years have seen hundreds of invasions, the rise and fall of myriad empires and colonisation by the Mughals (who built the Taj Mahal), Portuguese (the first European powers to arrive and the last to leave, in 1961), the French, who established themselves in Puducherry (Pondicherry).

Perhaps the most well-known of India's colonisers were the British. The Mughals granted British traders a licence to trade in Bengal in the 17th century; by the early 19th century India was effectively under British control but it wasn't until the mid-19th century, following the Indian Mutiny in 1857, that the British government took over administration of India from the East India Company.

Notions of Indian independence were temporarily pushed aside at the start of the 20th century and India fought alongside Britain in two world wars. It was during this time that one of India's greatest political figures came to the forefront. Mahatma Gandhi preached a policy of equality to be gained through passive resistance. In 1942 he introduced the 'Quit India' campaign and was imprisoned, not for the first time, for subversive behaviour. Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948, not long after India gained independence from Britain in 1947.

With independence came the decision to divide India into Muslim and Hindu territories; a decision that is reaping the seeds of discontent even today. Indian foreign policy continues to be dominated by relations with Pakistan. The main cause of friction is the status of Jammu & Kashmir, a disputed territory straddling both India and Pakistan.

In July 2007 Pratibha Patil became India's first female president and her supporters hailed her election as a victory for women. She succeeded APJ Abdul Kalam, an esteemed scientist and the architect of the country's missile programme.

India culture

Religion:
About 80% Hindu, 13% Muslim, with Sikh, Christian, Jain, Parsi and Buddhist minorities.

Social conventions:
The traditional Hindu greeting is to fold the hands, tilt the head forward and say namaste. Indian women generally prefer not to shake hands. All visitors are asked to remove footwear when entering places of religious worship. Most Indians also remove their footwear when entering their homes; visitors should follow suit. Many Hindus are vegetarian and many, especially women, do not drink alcohol. Most Sikhs and Parsis do not smoke. Women are expected to dress modestly and men should also dress respectfully. Women should not wear short skirts and tight or revealing clothing, although there is a more casual approach to clothing in Goa.

Language in India

Hindi is the official language of India and, used by about 40% of the population, India's most widely spoken. English is also enshrined in the constitution for a wide range of official purposes. In addition, 18 regional languages are recognised by the constitution. These include Bengali, Gujarati, Oriya and Punjabi, which are used in respective regions, and Tamil and Telugu, which are common in the south. Other regional languages include Kannada, Malayalam and Marathi. The Muslim population largely speaks Urdu.