India: One Glimpse into Culture

Historical India’s Amalgam of Cultures

The topic of the world’s largest democracy in a single article, even tackling its cultural aspects, is formidable and admittedly unattainable. However, interesting aspects of India which can be found even today (such as travel between some states resulting in the realization that a common language doesn’t always exist) can be quite insightful, and merit an investigation as to how a country can form over years, leading to its present result. With globalization and economy made high priorities by its most recently elected progressive prime minister, India is at a brink where the over 1 billion people have a potential to become more involved. Hence, a historical consideration is provided here, to provide some basis for culture.

Derived from the Persian word “Hindus” then translated into “Indus” then “India,” and from the Sanskrit word “Sindhu” referring to the Indus River (with Greeks calling Indians “Indoi”), a nationalist movement refers to India as Bharat (named after an ancient Indian emperor).

With earliest human remains dating to over 30,000 years ago, the initial society of India around the Indus River is thought to have existed at 2600-1900 B.C. in the area around India and modern-day Pakistan. Slightly after this time, some of the oldest cultural (largely verbally communicated) items, the Vedas or Hindu scriptures, were propagated. Around this time also, the caste system delineating priests, warriors, peasants, traders, and lower “untouchable” castes was founded.

Around 500 B.C., Buddhism was founded as a religion with Gautam Buddha as founder, and Jainism similarly with Mahavira. By 3 B.C., the Mauryan Empire had taken over most of India except for the South, where Cheras/Cholas/Pandyas speaking Tamil and other languages. Significant advances in government administration/taxation, as well as Hinduism worshipping deities, was noted around these times, with subsequent related advancement in the arts.

The period from 600 to 1200 A.D. resulted in attempts between various kings to take over surrounding territories, usually unsuccessfully – Kannauj, Deccan, Bengal, and Southern Indian regions clashed, to little avail. Around 900 A.D., Muslim nomadic tribes united with success in Delhi, and came to rule in concert with other territories, establishing the Mughal Empire under King Akbar and others. Generally peaceful times allowed the arts to flourish in the 17th century, and groups such as the Marathas, Sikhs, and Rajputs sought control of regions – with the Maratha confederacy emerging as a strong power in its region (eventually to become Bombay or Mumbai). Eventually, British influence via trade in the East India Company allowed gradual colonization by supplying raw materials to the British, and hence in the 1850s with British rule apparent and revolt thereafter being quashed, a stricter occupation by British came into being. It would be nearly a century thereafter when India gained its independence from the British, with subsequent further division into India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan or later Bangladesh.

Today, with six political parties (of which more liberal Congress vs. more conservative Janata Party are the more popular) exist, and legislative, judicial, and executive branches exist (similar to the United States).


Arts & Sports

Architecture in India is based upon a system of alignment with cosmic objects, with temples being influenced by “Shilpa Shastras.” Literary works such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Kalidasa’s dramas, and other writings were introduced between 1700 and 1200 B.C., in Sanskrit. Southern Indian works including the Tamil poems werewritten between 600-300 B.C. Musically, northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic schools developed works, with the southern Bharat Natyam dance form from Tamil Nadu and Kathak from Uttar Pradesh gaining popularity. The cinema industry is purportedly the most watched in the world, nicknamed “Bollywood.” Athletically, cricket from British influence has dominated, but other popular sports and games include kabaddi, chess, field hockey, and others.


The significant influence of the different territories in India’s formation (and cultures) can be found by consideration of festivals. Other considerations, such ceremonies and food, can be found as considered elsewhere.


Cultural Festivals

Given predominantly three religions, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, respective festivals dominate for each. Hindu festivals include Navratri (9-day celebration of Durga, followed by Dasera on the 10th night, typically in fall with women wearing 9 colors of dress, in Sept.-Oct., and with Diwali or the festival of lights coming 20 days after Dasara); Diwali (the festival of lights, after summer harvest, typically signifying prevailing of darkness over light, by Hindus, Sikh, and Jain, in typically October-November), Ganesh Chaturthi (honoring Lord Ganesh, son of Parvati and Shiva), Maha Shivratri (honoring Shiva via 24 hours of fasting and specific leaves), Holi (festival of colors or the festival of love, typically in March, commemorating the story of Krishna throwing color on his future wife to make himself less unusual with his skin color, and associated with forgiveness and re-growth) and others. Islamic holidays celebrated include Eid ul Fitr (typically in June or July, signifying the breaking of the fast after the month of Ramadan, celebrated by feasting and giving to poor), Eid ul Adha (commemorating sacrifice of his son by Abraham, via sometimes sacrifice of a prized animal by a family), and Milad un Nabi (commemorating the birthday of the religious founder). Christian holidays such as Christmas (signifying the birth of Christ, December 25) and Good Friday (crucifixion of Christ) are also celebrated.


Future India

India, as many ancient cultures, represents a country forever in transition between old and new. With technological growth and moves towards preservation of its constructive cultural aspects (and abolishment of its destructive cultural aspects such as the caste system), it strives to reach its potential.

The formidable task of educating the many villagers who number in the 100s of millions remains a challenge for a new Prime Minister. However, it is perhaps the stark diversity of various states and cultures that remains united into a nation that should be explored, as widespread basic changes and an understanding of a culture that doesn’t demote but promotes change should be encouraged, if India is to succeed. It is for this reason that a complete understanding of India is necessary, in order to go from “where it now is” to “where it will best be positioned in the future.”


(Information above has been acquired from numerous sources, including,, and, among others)

Ravish Patwardhan, MD