The history of India is shrouded in antiquity. The country has been thought of as a nation of philosophers with a well-developed and even idyllic society. Excavations of sites belonging to the Harappan era show that the people lived in brick houses in towns with excellent drainage. One of the oldest scriptures in the world is the four-volume Vedas that many regard as the repository national thoughts that anticipated some of the modern scientific discoveries. Despite formidable barriers in the form of the mighty Himalayas and oceans, India also received a succession of foreigners, many of them carrying swords and guns. But nearly all of them stayed on. Out of these waves of immigration has emerged the composite culture of India and made it a land of unity in diversity. India became a land of assimilation and learning, a land of change and continuity. The Aryans were among the first to arrive in India, which was inhabited by the Dravidians. Others who came here included Greeks, Persians, Mughal and even British, Portugese and French. Over the years there have been many major ruling dynasties like the Shakas, the Kushans, the Maurayas and Guptas. Nearly every major religion in the world i represented in India, which is also the land of the Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavira and Guru Nanak Dev, the founders of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
India, with an area of 3.3 million sq. km, is a subcontinent. The peninsula is separated from mainland Asia by the Himalayas. The country lies between 8 4' and 37 6' north of the Equator and is surrounded by the Bay of Bengal in the east, the Arabian Sea in the west and the Indian Ocean to the south.
The Himalayas form the highest mountain range in the world, extending 2,500 km over northern India. Bounded by the Indus river in the west and the Brahmaputra in the east, the three parallel ranges, the Himadri, Himachal and Shivaliks have deep canyons gorged by the rivers flowing into the Gangetic plain.
The rivers may be classified as follows: (a) the Himalayan, (b) the Deccan, (c) the coastal and (d) the rivers of the inland drainage basin. The Himalayan rivers are generally snow-fed and flow throughout the year. During the monsoon months (June to September), the Himalayas receive very heavy rainfall and the rivers carry the maximum amount of water, causing frequent floods. The Deccan rivers are generally rain-fed and, therefore, fluctuate greatly in volume. A very large number of them are non-perennial. The coastal rivers, specialty on the west coast, are short and have limited catchment areas. Most of these are non-perennial as well. The rivers on the inland drainage basin are few and ephemeral. They drain towards individual basins or salt lakes like the Sambhar or are lost in the sands, having no outlet to the sea.
The Himalayan range in the north acts as the perfect meteorological barrier for the whole country. Despite the country's size and its varied relief, the seasonal rhythm of the monsoon is apparent throughout. Although much of northern India lies beyond the tropical zone, the entire country has a tropical climate marked by relatively high temperatures and dry winters.
The Himalayan region, which is rich in vegetative life, possesses varieties that can be found practically from the tropical to tundra regions. Only the altitude influences the distribution of vegetation. In the rest, of the country, the type of vegetation is target determined by the amount of rainfall. Outside the Himalayan region, the country can be divided into three major vegetation regions: the tropical wet evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, the tropical deciduous forests, and the thorn forests and shrubs.
India is a country with probably the largest and most diverse mixture of races. All the five major racial types - Australoid, Mongoloid, Europoid, Caucasian and Negroid - find representation among the people of India, who are mainly a mixed race.
The people of India belong to diverse ethnic groups. At various periods of India's long history, successive waves of settlers and invaders including the Aryans, Parthians, Greeks and Central Asians came into the country and merged with the local population. This explains the variety of racial types, cultures and languages in India.
India has about 15 major languages and 844 different dialects. The Sanskrit of the Aryan settlers has merged with the earlier Dravidian vernaculars to give rise to new languages.
Hindi spoken by about 45 per cent of the population is the national language. English has also been retained as a language for official communication.
Hinduism: The Hindu religion had its origin in the concepts of the early Aryans who came to India more than 4,000 years ago. It is not merely a religion but also a philosophy and a way of life. It does not originate in the teachings of any one prophet or holy book. It respects other religions and does not attempt to seek converts. It teaches the immortality of the human soul and three principal paths to ultimate union of the individual soul with the all pervasive spirit.
The essence of Hindu faith is embodied in the Lord's Song, the Bhagavad Gita: "He who considers this(self) as a slayer or he who thinks that this(self) is slain, neither knows the Truth. For it does not slay, nor is it slain. This (self) is unborn, eternal, changeless, ancient, it is never destroyed even when the body is destroyed."
Jainism and Buddhism: In the sixth century before Christ, Mahavira propagated Jainism. His message was asceticism, austerity and non-violence.
At about the same time, Buddhism came into being. Gautama Buddha, a prince, renounced the world and gained enlightenment. He preached that "Nirvana" was to be attained through the conquest of self. Buddha's teachings in time spread to China and some other countries of South-East Asia.
Islam: Arab traders brought Islam to South India in the seventh century. After them came the Afghans and the Moghuls, among whom the most enlightened was the Emperor Akbar. Akbar almost succeeded in founding a new religion Din-e-Elahi, based on both Hinduism and Islam, but it found few adherents.
Islam has flourished in India through the centuries. Muslim citizens have occupied some of the highest positions in the country since independence in 1947. India today is the second largest Muslim country in the world, next only to Indonesia.
Sikhism: Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism in the 15th century, stressed the unity of God and the brotherhood of man. Sikhism, with its affirmation of God as the one supreme truth and its ideals of discipline and spiritual striving, soon won many followers. It was perhaps possible only in this hospitable land that two religions as diverse as Hinduism and Islam could come together in a third, namely Sikhism.
Christianity: Christianity reached India not long after Christ's own lifetime, with the arrival of St. Thomas, the Apostle. The Syrian Christian Church in Southern India traces its roots to the visit of St. Thomas. With the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in 1542, the Roman Catholic faith was established in India. Today, Christians of several denominations practice their faith freely.
Zoroastrianism: In the days of the old Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in West Asia, and in the form of Mithraism, it spread over vast areas of the Roman Empire, as far as Britain.
After the Islamic conquest of Iran, a few intrepid Zoroastrians left their homeland and sought refuge in India. The first group is said to have reached Diu in about 766 A.D.
Their total world population probably does not exceed 130,000. With the exception of some 10,000 in Iran, almost all of them live in India, the vast majority concentrated in Mumbai. The Parsees excel in industry and commerce, and contribute richly to the intellectual and artistic life of the nation.
Judaism: Jewish contact with the Malabar Coast in Kerala, dates back to 973 BC when King Solomon's merchant fleet began trading for spices and other fabled treasures. Scholars say that the Jews first settled in Cranganore, soon after the Babylonian conquest of Judea in 586 BC. The immigrants were well received and a Hindu king granted to Joseph Rabban, a Jewish leader, a title and a principality.