Thursday, May 9, 2013

Country Profile: India

I hope you enjoy my profile on India! I have a special place in my heart for this country, so there will be lots of pictures! : )

The flag of India. By law, the flag must be made of khadi, a special type of hand-woven cloth or silk made popular by Mahatma Gandhi. 

The Land:

India is a vast country, covering over 1.2 million square miles. It is about a third of the size of the United States. The tallest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas, runs along India's northern border. India's most densely populated region, the fertile Ganges plain, lies to the south of the mountains. The Great Indian Desert reaches westward from the plains toward Pakistan. The Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats are the hilly regions that lie near the coasts of India's peninsular region. Less than one fourth of the country is forested, and about half is under cultivation. Most of India experiences three basic seasons: the hot season (March-May), the rainy season (June-October) and the cool season (November-February.) Temperatures rarely fall below 40 degrees or rise above 100 degrees in the cool and hot seasons, respectively. The seasons vary slightly according to region and elevation. Floods and earthquakes are common in India, and some areas have problems with drought.

The Himalayan mountains of Northern India


India is home to the world's second largest population (China is the first most populous country in the world.) Over 1.2 billion people live in India, and the population is growing by about 1.3% annually. India is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Hundreds of linguistic nationalities and hundreds of different castes, or tribes, make up each state. The Indo-Aryan tribes make up about 70% of the population. Dravidians make up about 25%. The government classifies castes in four different categories: forward classes (FC), backward classes (BC), scheduled castes (SC), and scheduled tribes (ST.) Class isn't necessarily defined by wealth, so a member of any caste may be rich or poor. BCs, SCs, and STs can receive government assistance in the form of affirmative action programs. These programs help to reserve jobs, scholarships, and other opportunities for members of these classes because historically, many of these people have faced persecution. People in the SC and ST groups have become known as Dalits, which means "downtrodden." A person's caste is determined by lineage and can't be changed, but the government technically has the power to assign people to different classes. Caste still plays an important role in some social interactions. Different castes maintain a strong cultural identity, and people from different castes rarely intermarry. Indian society can be viewed as being divided along four lines: rural/urban, male/female, wealthy/poor, and then the various castes. These differences are usually manifested in areas like social freedom, educational opportunities, and economic opportunities. Generally speaking, the wealthy, urban citizens, males, and those belonging to higher castes are more respected in society and have better access to different opportunities. In many areas, these divisions aren't as deep as they used to be, and the government does make an effort to promote equality, but these social divisions still remain pervasive in almost all aspects of Indian society.


India is home to several hundred languages, and more than thirty of those languages have 100,000 or more speakers. Twenty two of these languages are officially recognized by the government: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Spoken languages vary by region. Indian law recognizes English as the "subsidiary official language." It's used in government, education, business, and national communication. About 40% of the population speaks Hindi. Hindi is the country's most widely spoken language. People who don't share a common first language usually communicate in English or Hindi. Some people who speak other languages sometimes feel marginalized because of Hindi's linguistic dominance in the country.


Four major religions were born in India: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. India is also an adopted home for Zoroastrianism (which is called Parsiism in the country.) A wide variety of religions exist side-by-side in India, and it's not uncommon to find a Christian church, a mosque, and a Hindu temple all on the same city block. Most Indians (about 80%) are Hindu. Officially, Hinduism is considered a way of life, rather than a religion. Family temples include images of gods from other religions, as shared beliefs from indigenous religions have kind of merged and melted together over the centuries. Differences between the religions are usually small. Some well-known Hindu concepts include reincarnation and veneration for specific trees and animals (for example, the "sacred cow") which are viewed as symbols for specific gods. Some of the most prominent Hindu gods are Ganesh, Vishnu, Rama, Krishna, and Shiva. About 13% of India's population are Muslims. Sikhism, which makes up about 2% of the population, arose around the 16th century. It draws on principles from Islam and Hinduism. Sikhism stresses simple teachings, devotion, and tolerance. Buddhism began in India and flourished for a time, but today less than 1% of Indians are Buddhist. Jains are politically and economically powerful in the country, but they also make up less than 1% of the population. Jains practice a reverence for life in the form of nonviolence, vegetarianism, and self-denial (especially among monks.) Less than 3% of the population is Christian.

A tiny Indian Christian church

A brightly colored Hindu temple

The People: 

Indians are family-oriented, religious, and philosophical. Traditionally, Indians value simple material comforts, physical purity, and spiritual refinement. Even when faced with hardship, one is expected to accept one's course in life as the will of God or fate. Big expressions of gratitude are reserved for real favors rather than small courtesies. Many Indians turn to holy men in their religion, who are believed to mediate between heaven and earth, for guidance and blessings. Pretty much everyone in India deeply respects and admires the nation's founder, Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, and his ideals, which included nonviolence, humility, self denial, and religious harmony. However, Indians sadly acknowledge that these principles are hard to find being practiced in modern India. Indians are also troubled by the fact that the government is unable to provide basic necessities for its people, such as water, sanitation, health care, education, and housing. Also, tensions between religious groups (mainly between Hindus and Muslims), social classes, and the rural/urban divide make it hard for India's people to find common ground among such a diverse population. Still, Indians, as the world's most populous democracy, are trying hard to find balance amid continual social change.

Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel

Many Indian women wear a sari (or saree), a long piece of fabric draped in various ways that represent socio-economic status and religious affiliation. Others may wear colorful pantsuits with a knee-length skirt. Jewelry is extremely popular in India- ear rings, nose rings, head dresses, necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and rings! Hindu women may wear a bindi, or red dot, on their foreheads. The bindi was traditionally a sign of gracefulness, femininity, and marital status, but today it usually serves simply as a beauty mark for many, and often matches the wearer's outfit. After a woman is married, the bindi signifies that her husband is alive. Widows do not wear bindis. Indian men may wear Western-style suits, or more traditional clothing such as a dhoti (a large piece of cloth wrapped around the waist.) With men and women, dress varies by region. A Sikh's outfit is comprised of the "five K's": kesh (uncut hair), kanga (a wooden comb worn in the hair), kaach (undershorts), kara (an iron bracelet), and kirpan (a ceremonial sword). Sikhs often wear turbans. Hindus and Muslims may wear a salwar kameez (a long shirt worn over pants), sometimes with a vest or jacket. Young people like to follow Western fashion trends.

Indian women wearing saris

The Namaste is India's traditional greeting. One presses the palms together, fingers pointing upward, below the chin, and says "Namaste" (or "Namaskaram" in the south.) A slight bow is added when greeting superiors, to show respect. Young people may touch an elder's feet as a sign of respect and to seek blessings. Out of respect for women's privacy, men usually do not shake hands with or touch members of the opposite sex. However, Indian men will shake hands with Westerners, and educated women may shake hands as a courtesy. "Hello" and "hi" are acceptable forms of greeting, but superiors are greeted more formally, such as with a "good morning". It is polite to use formal titles, such as doctor, professor, Mr., Shri (for men), Shreemati (for married women), Kumari (unmarried women), or with the suffix -ji with a last name (as in Gandhi-ji) to show respect. Indians usually ask permission before taking leave of others. Excessive hand gestures are considered impolite. People generally don't greet strangers- doing so would be considered suspicious. Indians beckon each other with the palm facing down. The right hand is used primarily for eating and passing objects. The left hand is associated with personal hygiene. One may grasp one's own ears to express sincerity or repentance. Your feet and shoes should never come in contact with another person- if it happens accidentally, offer an apology immediately. Whistling is considered very impolite. Women don't wink or whistle, as these behaviors are considered unladylike. Public displays of affection are inappropriate. Footwear is removed before entering a holy place such as a shrine or temple. All visitors cover their heads when entering a Sikh shrine. Women also cover their heads in temples.


The family is the basic social unit in India. The family is considered more important than the individual. Urban families are usually small and have an average of two children. Rural families are usually larger. A typical urban household usually consists of a married couple, their children, the husbands parents, and any unmarried siblings he may have. It is becoming increasingly popular to only have nuclear families living in a household (a married couple and children.) Rural families tend to be made up of several family units, and may include a set of parents, their sons, and the wives and children of those sons. As each son marries, he and his family are given a bedroom.  Extended families are very close in Indian society, and they all may live near each other. Middle- and upper-class parents plan on taking care of their children until they get an education and a job, no matter how long it takes. Some parents may even continue to support their children after they marry. In poor families, children may have to find work at a young age to support the family. In these cases, education often falls by the wayside. Wives usually move in with their husbands and their in-laws after the wedding. Daughters-in-law are expected to do most of the cooking. Daughters rarely move out before they are married, unless they leave home to attend university or seek employment. The elderly are respected and cared for by their families. Advice from older family members is sought out and usually heeded by younger members of the family.

The father or oldest male in the home is the head of the household. His decisions are respected by the rest of the family. The oldest female in the home is in charge of the kitchen and manages the household. A growing number of women are seeking higher education and employment outside the home- mostly in urban areas, but a small percentage of women from rural areas are looking toward higher education and earning wages as well. Despite these changes, many women still have less access to education and economic opportunities than men. Sadly, women are also more likely to be victims of violence, and more likely to be malnourished.


In urban areas, houses are built from a variety of materials in a variety of styles. These are determined by climate, cost of materials, economic status, religious affiliation, and other factors. In major cities such as Mumbai, there are not enough homes for the millions of residents who live there. You can find urban slums near high rise apartment buildings in such cities. People living in these poor areas make their homes from whatever materials are available, like aluminum siding and sheets of plastic. Conditions are crowded and dangerous, and these areas are insecure because residents' homes may be demolished at any time. Clean water and sanitation are not available in these areas. In cities and suburbs, apartments are a popular style of home. Apartment roofs are often flat to hold water tanks and gardens. Central air conditioning is rare, but many homes have fans and small air conditioning units to help the people cope with the heat. Rural homes are usually made of bamboo, mud bricks, red bricks, stone, or concrete. Some roofs are thatched, and others are made of the same material as the house. The kitchen is usually separate from the rest of the house, so smoke from the cooking won't pollute the rest of the home. Gas and kerosene is becoming increasingly available, so many families, if they can afford it, choose to cook with these methods rather than over an open flame. These types of kitchens are usually located inside the home. Some rural families rely on wells for their water supply. The trip to the well can be long, tiring, and sometimes dangerous. Women are usually responsible for fetching water. Since air conditioning is uncommon in rural areas, most people prefer to spend their time outside when the weather is warm. Many rural families have gardens where they grow fruits and vegetables. Properties are usually not fenced, and it's important to have a good relationship with one's neighbors. Home decor varies by region, but many families have a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh near the entrance to their homes. Potted basil plants are popular as they are considered sacred and are believed to have healing properties. Families may also have a small altar in their homes. Very few families have wall to wall carpeting- instead, floors are covered with rugs. Many homes have access to electricity, but power outages are frequent. Home ownership is an important goal for most Indians. Hindus even have a special housewarming ritual! Mango leaves are strung across the entrance to the home, and a priest performs a ritual to ward off any bad luck for the new residents.

Part of the Dharavi slum in India

Most marriages in India are arranged by the couple's parents. The couple may be set up through friends, newspaper ads, or even online matchmaking sites. Caste and lineage are important factors when matching a couple for marriage. Young people generally have some input in choosing a match. It's pretty uncommon, but some people do choose their own spouses. When a young couple wants to be engaged, they approach their parents, who take care of arranging the marriage. Indian Muslim males and females stay quite separate from a very early age, so it's extremely rare for a Muslim marriage not to be arranged. Western-style dating is not really common in India, but it's becoming more popular in big cities. Though most couples don't "date" in the way we in the United States might think of the term, the idea is fascinating and romanticized, and media portrayals of dating and romance are popular. Hindu engagement traditions vary throughout the country. In northern regions, there is a ceremony where the parents meet and the couple publicly agrees to marry. Then they celebrate with food, music and dancing, and gifts. Then a wedding date is chosen, and the couple begin courting and getting to know each other. In western India, the bride's family brings a matli, a metal container full of gifts and sweets, to the groom's family. In southern India, the future bride and groom may not even attend the engagement ceremony- all the business is handled between the two families. It is common for the bride's family to pay a dowry (such as gifts, land, or money) to the groom, even though paying a dowry is technically illegal in India. Today the dowry may be less of a financial burden to the bride's family as it exists mostly for ceremony's sake.

In India, marriage is viewed as both a union between two people, and a union between two families. Marriage is considered sacred to most Indians and is believed to exist beyond death. Chastity is considered to be extremely important for women, but much less so to men. Prostitution is a major problem in India, both in the spread of diseases and in regards to the exploitation of women and girls. Traditionally, couples married young (in their late teens), but today's couples tend to marry a bit later. The average citizen of urban India marries between the ages of 25 and 30. That age may be considerably younger in rural areas.

Weddings in India are cause for great celebration, feasting, and expense. Dates and times for many Hindu weddings are planned based on astrological charting. Most weddings in India are religious, whether they are Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. Wedding ceremonies are often elaborate, and traditions vary widely from region to region. Caste also plays a factor in wedding traditions. Indian weddings are almost always full of bright clothing, flowers, and lots of jewelry. Many weddings are followed by a reception. There is lots of food and dancing at the reception, and the guests give the couple gifts for their new home. After the wedding, the bride moves into the groom's family's home. It's very rare for a newly married couple to move into their own apartment, unless they live far away from the groom's family. In many Hindu families, the doorway to the home is draped in mango leaves. The bride enters the house with her right foot first, which is considered lucky. She's greeted by her mother-in-law, and they have a ceremony of blessing, called ghar nu Lakshmi. Polygamy is not common in India, and is only practiced by Muslims. Islamic law in India permits a man to have up to four wives. However, few Muslims practice polygamy today, and the practice is becoming even less common with each new generation. Divorce is relatively rare in India, probably because of the cultural and religious importance of marriage in the country. If a couple divorces, Indian law requires the man to continue to financially provide for his ex-wife and any children they had together.

Indian brides traditionally wear plenty of jewelry, and beautiful tattoos of henna, a natural, temporary ink, on their hands and feet. 

There's great celebration and lots of dancing at Indian wedding receptions!

For Hindus, life is seen as a spiritual journey, and each step is celebrated with a ceremony called a samskara. Before a child is born, special ceremonies are often performed in order to ensure the health of the mother and child. Female friends and relatives give gifts to the pregnant woman at a godh bharai (similar to a baby shower). In some cases, soon after the child is born, the father touches the baby's lips with a spoon dipped in honey, curd, and ghee (clarified butter). The sweet mixture is intended to welcome the newborn with the sweetness of the world. A baby's first haircut (mundun) is a sacred event that occurs in the baby's first or third year. According to Hindu beliefs, the hair present at birth represents unwanted traits from a person's past lives. In order to ensure a new beginning and to encourage the hair to grow back thicker, the head is shaved. The mundun is celebrated with feasting, family gatherings, and religious offerings. Christian babies are baptized and christened within the first few months of life. Hindu families hold a namakaran (naming ceremony) 28 days after a birth. The father or another close relative whispers the baby's name into the baby's right ear. A priest chants mantras, praying for a long and healthy life for the newborn and then determines the best letters to start the baby's name, based on the position of the planets when the child was born. As part of the naming ceremony, the family seeks blessings for the newborn by holding a feast, making charitable contributions to the poor, and giving gifts to the priest who performs the rituals. Before a girl turns one, the family chooses an important date on which to piece her ears and nose. 


Indian diets vary by region and culture. For example, roti, a type of wheat bread, is a stable in northern India, but rice is the staple food for the rest of the country. Indian meals are usually quite spicy. Some region's dishes are spicier than others. Northern Indian cuisine tends to be slightly milder. Onions are used in most dishes. A very delicious Indian food, onion bhajhis, are little onion fritters, similar to hush puppies in the United States (but more amazing!) Coconut is a common flavoring, particularly in the south. Different types of curry are popular. Vegetarianism is very popular in India, usually for religious reasons. Hindus consider cows to be sacred and will not eat beef. When McDonald's gained popularity in India, they had some serious PR issues when it was revealed that their french fries were flavored with beef tallow. Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol. 

On a personal note, I love Indian food (though it usually ends up giving me a stomach ache!) I like to visit a local restaurant called Shalimar and order a thali. The word means "plate", and it's basically a full meal served on a big silver platter (unless you get carry-out!) There are lots of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options at every Indian restaurant. My idea of a perfect Indian meal would include the following: lots of naan (delicious, soft, flat bread which beats the pants off of pita bread any day); onion bhajhis; vegetarian samosas (little pastry pockets full of a spicy mixture of potatoes and chickpeas); tender tandoori chicken (marinated in yogurt and mild spices, baked in a traditional clay tandoor oven); jasmine rice; saag paneer (like Indian creamed spinach- paneer is Indian cheese); raita (a sort of salad made of yogurt and cucumber, and a few very mild spices- an absolute necessity when eating spicy food); and some kheer (rice pudding with golden raisins) for dessert! 



India's most popular sports are cricket, football (soccer), and field hockey. Cricket is extremely popular in India, and professional teams and players have large followings. More men play sports than women, but some women do enjoy playing badminton, ping pong, and tennis. In rural areas, people may play more traditional sports, which usually don't require the expensive equipment that other more modern sports require. Cinemas are very popular in India. The movie industry there is an even bigger deal than the one in the United States. Indian movie studios crank out twice the number of films each year than the US does. Television is extremely popular in India, and all but the very poorest Indians own a television. Those that don't own a television probably have access to one, whether at a friend or relative's house, or even watching TV at a video store. Indians don't wait for a holiday to gather and celebrate- Indian life includes many celebrations for various milestones and cultural events. They may even have a party if a family purchases a new car! Events like picnics and family gatherings are common. Children enjoy swimming, dancing, and playing musical instruments. Indian women commonly enjoy shopping, watching movies, gathering for socializing, and holding potluck-style dinners. 

India is well-known for the architectural treasure known as the Taj Mahal. A variety of dance and music styles are enjoyed in India. A popular Indian instrument is the sitar, brought to prominence in the Western world in the 1960s by artist Ravi Shankar, by way of the Beatles. Epic poems are an important part of Indian literature. Two of the very most prominent are the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Characters from these epics appear throughout Indian dance, music, and theater. 


Many of India's most important holidays are religious. Diwali and Holi are two Indian holidays that most Indians celebrate, no matter their religion. Diwali si the Festival of Lights, which celebrates light's triumph over darkness. Thousands of lights are used to decorate stores and homes all over the country. Holi is the Festival of Colors. This celebration marks the end of the cold season. To celebrate, people throw colored water and powders on each other! Hindus may celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, the three day feast celebrating the end of Ramadan. Muslims and Hindus may also celebrate Christian holidays like Christmas.  National holidays include New Year's Day, Republic Day (January 26), Independence Day (August 15), and Mahatma Gandhi's birthday (October 2.)   Several different calendars are used in India. The national calendar corresponds with the Gregorian calendar (the one used in the United States and other Western countries), but the years begin on March 22. Civil holidays are set according to the national calendar, but Hindu holidays are set by the Hindu astrological calendar. 

Indian children celebrate Holi, the festival of colors. 


The people of India face a variety of health challenges which stem from natural disasters, poverty, poor sanitation and malnutrition. Cholera, malaria, typhoid, polio, and hepatitis endanger many, especially those in rural areas who lack access to preventative medicine. Healthcare workers are working hard to teach good hygiene, family planning, and good nutrition, but it's difficult when faced with impoverished conditions such as those that pervade many areas of India. The wealthiest people of India have private insurance and access to decent healthcare clinics, but many others rely on government-run hospitals, which suffer from lack of staffing and supplies.


Education is important to the people of India. The country has one of the largest education systems in the world. Indians see education as an investment in the future, and as an important key in improving their lives. Public schooling is free and mandatory for children ages 6 to 14, but facilities are often inadequate. There are private schools in India, but it is very costly and not affordable to most Indian families. Primary school ends at age 14 or 15. Secondary school is divided into two levels: secondary and upper secondary. Each level lasts two years. Literacy rates and access to education vary among social divisions. Boys usually have better access to education than girls. Urban children have better access to education than rural children. Education levels and literacy rates are also higher among wealthier Indians and those belonging to higher social castes. Poor children are sometimes forced to leave school so they can work and earn income for their families. About 90% of children in India are enrolled in primary school, but only 49% of girls and 59% of boys are enrolled in secondary school. Parents are often very involved in their children's education. They help with homework and receive progress reports from school. Because parents are so involved, competition is high both in primary and secondary school. Upon entering secondary school, students choose a specialty such as business, arts, math or biology. Secondary school requires tuition payments. In order to proceed to each level of education, students must pass exams. India is home to about 250 universities and more than 3,000 colleges.

Primary students enjoy a midday meal

Books to Read: 

Gandhi: A March to the Sea by Alice B. McGinty

Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Bonus! Movies to Watch: 

Bend It Like Beckham: This movie takes place in England, rather than India, but focuses on an Indian girl and her family life as she pursues her passion for playing soccer. One of my favorite things about this movie is near the end, where her sister gets married. In the movie, you get to see glimpses of Indian courtship, contrasting the traditional involvement of parents and modern attitudes about dating. You also get to see the wedding reception, which is a tremendous celebration and looks like lots of fun!

Slumdog Millionaire: One of my absolute, all-time favorite movies. This film is set in India and follows the life of Jamal, a boy from the slums; his brother Salim; and the girl they knew in childhood, Latika. The movie is very good and (spoiler alert) has a happy ending, but it is sobering. It provides a scary look into the impoverished life many Indians live, from children working to earn a bit of extra income for their families, to orphans living in dumps, picking garbage for a living, to child exploitation, (implied) forced prostitution, and human trafficking. It's hardcore. I can't watch it without thinking of my Jayid and my mom's Amisha living in India. I promise that despite the dark description I just provided, it really is a good movie.

Born into Brothels: This award-winning documentary about the children of sex workers in a poverty-stricken area of India is very moving. The children were given cameras and little photography lessons, and it's very interesting to see the world through their eyes. The documentary provides all sorts of information about this aspect of Indian society, and what it means for the children who are growing up in these situations.

Gandhi: A very long but spectacular biographical movie about the life of Gandhi. This movie is spectacular, moving, and inspiring. This is another one of my favorites.

From Compassion's website:

"Compassion's work in India began in 1968. Currently, more than 114,100 children participate in 478 child development centers. Compassion partners with churches to help them provide Indian children with the opportunity to rise above their circumstances and become all God has created them to be."

All information came from CultureGrams. It's an excellent resource if you have access to it!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing!! I find all this info fascinating. One of our boys from India wrote a detailed letter about holidays--especially the Republic Day and Independence Day. I guess those are his favorites :) And I also love Indian food! This made me a little hungry! I guess I'll be making Indian food next week!


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