A lifetime is not enough to get to know India. But if we have ten days, we can peek under its guise of exceptionality, diversity, uniqueness and strangeness and get a chance to see a sliver of its extensive cultural heritage.
India – a Country of Many Paradoxes
Today India is the largest democracy, the second fastest-growing economy in the world. But at the same time, historic problems such as overpopulation, extreme poverty of the majority of the 1.2 billion citizens, high inflation, ever-present corruption, bad infrastructure and insufficient access to education and health care still remain. Despite this, economic reforms, a cheap work force and the dynamics of the young generation directed India to a regional as well global position as a worldwide superpower.
India is also characterized by a diversity of languages, cultures, ethnic groups, religions and lifestyles that has no comparison among other countries or continents. The past is ever-present, with centuries-old deserted fortresses, palaces and temples of different styles blend in mutual harmony. At every step, a visitor is fascinated by this incredible cultural heritage, architecture and art, as well as natural beauty, colorfully decorated saris of the local women, many traditions and local foods, all in notable contrast with its poverty, destitution and dirt, particularly in the cities.
From a Dominion to Independence
As a sub-continent, India bases its identity on natural borders. It’s a vast land, yet still difficult to access. The Himalayan Mountains in the north and east and oceans in the south easily create a specific cultural unity. The first evidence of settlement in India comes from prehistoric times 250,000 years B.C. Agricultural settlements (7,000 B.C.) and advanced city centers (since 2,500 B.C.) busily traded with Mesopotamia. Hinduism came about very quickly and with it the cast system, creating the first ruling dynasties and their empires (500-300 B.C.). This was also the time when Buddhism was born, mathematics, astronomy, classical Sanskrit poetry and drama flourished and Indian arts and crafts were developed.
Up until 300 A.D., the Indian kingdoms grew richer and international trade in spices, silk and precious stones thrived. But the unthinkable luxury, lavishness and opulence also attracted raiders, the first advancing from central Asia. The endless striving of local rulers, as well as their inability to stand up to external attacks and pillaging gradually brought their demise. With the attack of Muslims from the north, between the 13th and 16th century, the country became influenced by Islam. Muslims plundered and pillaged the riches, destroying architecture with Hindu elements and replacing it with Islamic symbols.
Finally, the Mughal Empire at the end of the 16th century created a new architecture and left behind an exquisite heritage in the form of palaces, marble, gold and precious-stone monuments that today’s Indians are proud of. Unlike today’s Pakistan, a former part of India, in today’s India Islam is a minority religion (only 12%). However it brought with it new rituals, thinking and architectural styles that fundamentally affected the development of Indian culture.
The Europeans have shown increasing interest in the Indian sub-continent since the 16th century. The result was the British takeover of India in 1858. At the time, the ‘Indian State Administration,’ composed of 2,000 British officials, ruled 300 million Indians based on the political unity ‘Pax Britannica,’ the centralized administrative system and established Western education. For centuries India had the ability to absorb its various raiders, including their customs and over the course of a few generations, blend them in as equal local citizens. But from the beginning, the Brits kept their distance, having a base in a foreign county and over time, dissatisfaction with British-style rule increased.
The path to independence began gradually and was completed under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi (‘high-souled’), who established a non-violent resistance to the Brits. Gandhi surrounded himself with resilient characters, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, the future First Prime Minister, who eventually in 1948 laid the foundation of a modern state with a democratic secular political system, planned economy and neutrality in foreign policy.
Languages and the Cast System
Hindi is primary among 16 official languages. It’s spoken by approximately 40% of the population. Additionally, another thousand other languages and dialects are spoken here. The key to communication as well as current development and business success is ‘local’ English. It is said that Indians achieved their independence thanks to the Gandhi’s non-violent fight and passive resistance, as well as partly due to the suffering of then ruling Brits when listening to mangled English!
Despite the occupational context of this language, the Indians see no problem in using it. They came to understand that it easily helps them achieve certain social positions, access to better schools and better jobs. Skillful Indians who mastered English have many opportunities in the area of information technologies, where India achieved generally surprising results in a relatively short period of time.
The frequent question about why this country failed to develop original worldwide software, given that there is such an IT boom of imported software in India, still remains unanswered. One analysis maintains that the Indians lack native creativity and ambition, due to constant historic attacks and takeovers by foreign ruling systems.
Another hindrance to achieving better social position is the cast system. Although it is said that, thanks to Buddhism (which puts all individuals at one level), the cast system is overcome today. The cast system was already established 1,500 B.C. as a set of philosophical essays (the Upanishads), which define the social arrangement and rules based on a ranking system. At the top were the priests (Brahmans), followed by rulers and warriors, then tradesmen and farmers and at the bottom, servants, day-workers and ‘the impure’ (untouchables). Strict behavior rules were established for different castes, determining what they should eat, drink, wear and what kind of work they could do. It wasn’t possible to socialize between different castes, much less to marry.
In current times, the caste system is being removed as one of the great social injustices, but this handicap is still set in the minds of the people. Today, the goal for many families is to collect all available resources and enable their children to learn English and migrate to the cities with a vision of better studies and jobs. However, these families often end up in suburban slums, living in worse conditions than in the countryside.
End of Part One
Authors: Iva and Joseph Drebitko
Photography: Iva Drebitko
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