India’s Unique Cultural Heritage

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India, or Bharat, the fifth largest and the second most populated country in the world, is one of the few countries which can boast of an ancient, deep-rooted and diverse culture, which stretches back to 5000 years. In ancient times, India was known as ‘Bharata Varsha’, the country of the legendary king of Puranic times called Bharat. In the Buddhist literature India has been called ‘Jambu Dvipa’ and portions of it ‘Aryadesha’ and ‘Madhyadesha’ . Geologically speaking, India formed part of the Gondwanaland and was attached to Antarctica and Australia, before it was liberated from the Antarctica complex about 135 million years ago and started drifting towards the north and finally joining South Asia about 45 million years ago .


The Siwalik foothills of the north-western Himalayas served as home to the fossil primate genus known as ‘Ramapithecus’, which lived some 14 million years ago. Researches have also found that a species resembling the ‘Australopithecus’ lived in India some two million years ago. Some anthropologists believe that the Chotanagpur region witnessed the transformation of ‘Homo erectus’ to ‘Homo sapiens’. This claim is based on the findings of hand axes and blades in the region of Pathalgarwa and the discovery of Harappan pottery in the nearby areas.

Early Civilization:

Extensive archaeological excavations carried out at Mohenjo-Daro in the present Pakistan in 1922 brought to light the existence of a highly sophisticated and urbanized culture known as the Harappan Civilization, which dominated the north-western part of the Indian Subcontinent. It is believed that this civilisation covered an area of 1600 km from east to west and 1100 km from north to south, which exceeds the area occupied by contemporary civilisations like those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This civilisation is generally dated from about 2600 to 2000 B.C. However, Carbon-14 analysis of the structures at Mehrgarh near the Bolan Pass has indicated that the people of this place were growing wheat and barley and tending sheep and goat as early as 5000 B.C. Archaeologists have by now discovered more than 800 sites related to the Harappan Civilisation. Most scholars believe that the Harappan Civilisation was decayed as a result of the “problems of ecology”. ​


The next most important phase in the Indian history came centuries later with the advent of Aryans from the northwest of India. The Aryan migration to India was gradual and spread over many centuries. There is a difference of opinion about the original home of the Aryans. The various suggestions given by different scholars vary considerably in terms of geographic position in the world. Bal Gangadhar Tilak suggested that the Arctic region could be the home of Aryans. P.Giles suggested Hungary, Austria, Bohemia or the Valley of Danube as the possible home of Aryans, while Max Muller suggested Central Asia, Penka suggested Germany or Scandinavia, Edward Mayer suggested Plateau of Pamir and Dr B.K.Ghosh and Gordon Childe suggested South Russia . There are others who vouch for an Indian origin of the Aryans, like Ganganath Jha (origin from ‘Brahmarishi Desh’), D.S.Kala (hilly region of Himalayas and Kashmir), Avinashchandra Das (‘Saptasindhu Pradesh’) and Rajbali Pandey (‘Madhya Desh’).  ​

The Aryans developed a remarkable culture, popularly known as Vedic culture, which was markedly different from the Harappan Culture. The Vedic period is divided into the Rig Vedic Period (1500-1000 B.C.) and the Later Vedic Period (1000-600 B.C.). The Vedic period can be considered as the foundation stone for the Indian culture in all its multitudinous aspects. It laid the foundation for the Hindu Dharma and produced a host of religious and secular texts, which constitute a very important part of the religious heritage of India. The ‘Vedas’, ‘Upavedas’, ‘Upanishads’, ‘Brahmanas’, ‘Aranyakas’ and the ‘Dharmashastras’ were produced during these times. The institution of ‘gotra’ and the caste system appeared in the later Vedic times.  ​

From this period onwards, India functioned as a virtually self-contained political and cultural unit, which gave rise to a distinctive tradition that was associated primarily with Hinduism, although other religions, notably Buddhism and Jainism in the ancient times, Islam in the medieval period and Christianity in the modern times, did make a strong impact on the socio-cultural aspects of India.  ​

Endless Diversity:

There is an endless diversity in India starting from its physical features to Geologic structure, fauna and flora, demographic structure, races, languages, religions, arts and crafts and customs and traditions. India has been variously described as “the Mini World”, the “epitome of the world” and an “ethnological museum” . The diversities are so bewildering that for many people in the Western world, India remains a land full of contrast and myths.

The diversity in India is unique in the sense that it binds the country together in some form of common identification. Underneath this diversity lies the continuity of Indian civilization and social structure from the very earliest times until the present day. This concept of ‘Unity in Diversity’ is typical of India and has served as its strength during all ages and during the roughest times in its political and cultural history. It is amazing that different elements of Indian culture, particularly its drama and the arts, despite passing through different political phases, are characterised by an unmistakable unity and continuity.

The successive waves of migration into India starting with the Indo-Greeks (2nd century B.C.), the Kushans (First century A.D.), the incursions from the northwest by the Arabs, Turks, Persians and others beginning in the early 8th century A.D. and finally the establishment of the Muslim empire by the 13th century A.D. and the advent of Europeans – the Portuguese, Dutch, English, Danes and the French – into India, have brought in new elements in arts, music, literature, customs and traditions, which got imbibed into the Indian way of life, thus enriching its culture and heritage.

From the very ancient times India not only absorbed the foreign cultures into its composite fold, but it also managed to spread the rich elements of its own unique culture in different parts of the world. It is historically recorded that the Chola rulers had cultural contacts with countries like ‘Ilamandalam’ (Sri Lanka), ‘Sri Vijaya’ (Sumatra), ‘Chavakam’ (Java), ‘Kamboja’ (Cambodia) and ‘Kadaram’ (Malay Peninsula). Evidences of these early Indian contacts are still found in the art and architecture of these countries. The Southeast Asian countries formed a stronghold of Indian culture from the early centuries of the Christian era. The various Southeast Asian languages show strong influence of Sanskrit. Many earlier kingdoms of these countries had adopted Hinduism as their religion, whose influence is perceptible even today.

India presents a picture of unity in diversity to which history provides no parallel. There is complete harmony in India in each of its cultural elements. Religion and philosophy, which forms the bedrock of any civilisation, are evident in India in the form of all major religions of the world – Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. Several unique philosophical thoughts like Kapila’s ‘Sankhya Philosophy’, Patanjali’s ‘Yoga’, Gautami’s ‘Nyaya’, Kananada’s ‘Vaisheshika’ and Jaimini’s ‘Purva Mimamsa’ developed in India and attracted the attention of the outside world. Religious tolerance has been the characteristic of the Indian civilisation right from the ancient days. Hindu sages declare that there is no single religion that teaches ways leading to an exclusive path to salvation. All genuine spiritual paths are valid and all great religions are like branches of a tree – the tree of religion. This doctrine lays foundation for the Hindu ideal of universal harmony. This tradition was carried forward in the medieval times by the Sufi and Bhakti saints like Ramananda, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Baba Farid, Baba Malukadasa, Baba Dharinidasa and Garibadasa. Indeed, the framers of the Indian Constitution ensured the continuance of these glorious traditions when they declared India as “Sovereign, Socialist, Secular and Democratic Republic”.


Regional Diversity:

Each state of India has its own language and set of tribes, festivals, arts and crafts and customs and traditions. While there are the ‘Chenchus’ tribes in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, ‘Bhils’ and ‘Gonds’ in the Central India, ‘Dogris’, ‘Gujjars’ and ‘Ladakhis’ in the Jammu and Kashmir and ‘Nagas’, ‘Bodos’, ‘Mishmis’, ‘Gharos’ and ‘Khasis’ in the Northeast, there are tribes like the ‘Jarewas’, ‘Onges’, ‘Andamanis’ and ‘Sentinelese’ in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. There are some festivals, which are typical of particular states, towns or villages like the ‘Bonnalu’ of Andhra Pradesh, ‘Pushkar’ of Rajasthan, ‘Rajrani’ of Orissa, ‘Teej’ of Rajasthan and ‘Bogali Bihu’ of Assam. Each region is also identified with its typical folk and tribal dance forms, like ‘Puli Vesham’ of Andhra Pradesh, ‘Keli Gopal’ of Assam, ‘Chhau’ of Bihar, ‘Dandia’ of Gujarat, ‘Bhangra’ of Punjab and ‘Otthanthulal’ of Kerala. A similar distinction can also be established in the folk drama, theatre and puppetry forms, as also the arts and crafts.

Development of Arts and Fine Arts:

There was a continuous evolution of drama, music, dance, painting and folk art forms under different political rules in India that ultimately led to the development of the definite ‘Indian’ element in each of these forms. Thus, within the ambience of Indian culture one can identify ‘Indian Music’, ‘Indian Dance’, ‘Indian Theatre’, ‘Indian Literature’, ‘Indian Fairs and Festivals’ and so on.

Indian music has long and unbroken tradition, which is an accumulated heritage of centuries and traces its roots to the Vedic times. Bharata’s ‘Natyashastra’ (4th century A.D.) is a great, comprehensive work on the science and technique of Indian drama, dance and music. The advent of Muslim rule in India brought in a changed perspective in the style of North Indian music. The traditional Hindu devotional form of music, ‘dhruvapad’, got transformed into the classical ‘dhrupad’ form of singing under the Muslim rule. The ‘khayal’ developed as a new form of singing in the 18th century A.D. and became equally popular among the Hindus and Muslims. Different ragas began to be introduced from the medieval times. Tansen created many new ragas like ‘Darbari Kanada’, ‘Darbari Todi’, ‘Miyan Ki Todi’, ‘Miya ki Malhar’ and ‘Miya ki Sarang’, which until now, are regarded as the foremost ragas of Hindustani Classical music. Sultan Hussain Sarki of Jaunpur introduced ragas like ‘Jaunpuri tori’ and ‘Hussaini Kanada’. Amir Khusro is credited with the creation of the ‘Hemant’, ‘Prabhat Kali’ and ‘Hem Behag’ ragas. A large variety of foreign musical instruments like Harmonium, Sarod, Shehnai, Sitar, Tabla and Violin were introduced in India to supplement the ancient musical instruments like Flute, Nadaswaram, Veena, Gootuvadhyam, Thavil, Mridangam and plain drum.


The six outstanding Sanskrit playwrights of all times, Shudraka, Harsha, Visakhadatta, Bhasa, Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti have made tremendous contributions in the field of dramatics. Kalidasa’s ‘Shakuntala’, King Harsha’s ‘Ratnavali’, Bhasa’s ‘Swapna-vasavadatta’, Bhavabhuti’s ‘Uttara-rama-charita’ and ‘Mahavira-charita’, Visakhadatta’s ‘Mudrarakshasa’ are some of the outstanding Sanskrit plays, which indicate that India had a highly sophisticated theatre tradition in ancient times when in most other countries it was still in its infancy.

Again in the field of literature, the earliest writing can be traced to the Rig Vedic poetry in Sanskrit. The ‘Rigveda’ consists of 1028 ‘suktas’ or hymns that are distributed in ten books called ‘mandalas’. This is perhaps, the earliest poetry in the world. The two great Sanskrit epics, the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’ composed by Valmiki and Vyasa respectively, along with the ‘Puranas’, constitute the pillars of the Indian literature. The ‘Manu Smriti’ (1st century B.C.) is the best illustrator of the ‘Dharma-sastras’ or the Hindu religious laws. Kalidasa, Bairavi, Sudraka, Vishnu Sharma, Dandin and others composed several literary masterpieces in the ancient times.


India’s contribution to the world was immense in the field of astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Aryabhatta was the first to state that the earth moves round the sun and that eclipses are caused by the shadow of the earth falling on the moon. Aryabhatta’s ‘Aryabhatiya’, ‘Dasagitika-Sutra’ and ‘Aryastasata’, Varahamihira’s ‘Pancha-siddhantika’, Brahmagupta’s ‘Brahmasphuta-siddhanta’ and ‘Khanda-khadyaka’, Bhaskaracharya’s ‘Siddhanta-shiromani’ and ‘Karana-kutuhala’ and Bhoja’s ‘Raja-mriganka’ are important ancient Indian texts on astronomy.

Ayurveda is the earliest school of medicine known to humans, which was consolidated 2500 years ago by Charaka, who was described as the ‘Father of Medicine’. Another ancient Indian, Sushruta, who is considered as the ‘Father of Surgery’, is believed to have conducted complicated surgeries using over one hundred different surgical instruments. Usage of anaesthesia was also well known in ancient India. Likewise deep knowledge of anatomy, physiology, aetiology, embryology, digestion, metabolism, genetics and immunity is reflected in many ancient Indian texts.

India’s most precious gift to the world is zero (0), which was referred as ‘Shunya’ in the ancient texts. Algebra, trigonometry and calculus also came from India. One of the best-known achievements of Indian mathematics is the decimal system. Its first occurrence was on a plate dated 595 A.D. where the date was written in decimal place-value notation. The value of pi (π) was first calculated by Budhayana long before it was known in Europe. Budhayana also explained the concept of the Pythagoras Theorem way back in the 6th century. Aryabhatta, who calculated the value of pi (π) as 3.1416, is also credited with the creation of Algebraic analysis . Brahmagupta’s ‘Brahma-Sphuta-Siddhanta’ has two chapters devoted to arithmetic, algebra and geometry. Bhaskara’s ‘Lilavati’ was for many centuries a standard work on arithmetic and mensuration in the East. Albert Einstein acknowledged India’s contribution in the field of mathematics by saying: “We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.”

The world’s first university was established in Takshila in 700 B.C., where more than ten thousand students from all around the world studied over sixty different subjects. The Nalanda University, established in the 5th century B.C., was one of the greatest achievements of ancient India in the field of education. Described as “The Oxford University of Mahayana Buddhism”, it offered wide range of subjects like literature, logic, grammar, medicine, philosophy and astronomy. The Nalanda University is now being revived through collaborative efforts of Asian countries led by India. Sanskrit is considered as the mother of all European languages. A report in the Forbes magazine of July 1987 described Sanskrit as the most suitable language for computer software. Vaishali, in modern Bihar, is often described as the World’s First Republic, as it had a duly elected assembly of representatives and efficient Administration as early as the 6th century B.C.


Modern India:


The British rule in India, despite its several excesses and oppressive measures, had made several useful and lasting contributions to the Indian society. Several social and administrative reforms were introduced during the British period. Warren Hastings brought about a reorganisation of judicial institutions and re-codification of the Hindu law. He established courts of appeal for civil and criminal cases and also a Supreme Court at Calcutta (now Kolkata). He also gave active encouragement to the formation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Lord Cornwallis laid the foundation for the present Indian Constitution. He also brought about judicial reforms by replacing the Shariat law with the English law. William Bentinck abolished evil practices prevailing in the Indian society like Sati and female infanticide and introduced modern western education in India. He also established the Calcutta Medical College and the Elphinstone Institution at Bombay (now Mumbai). Lord Dalhousie set up the Public Works Department to look after the construction and maintenance of roads. He also set up the Post & Telegraphs Department and issued the first postage stamp in 1852 at Karachi. He opened the first Railway line on April 16, 1853 between Bombay and Thane. He also legalized the marriages of the Hindu widows. The British introduced the neo-Colonial and Indo-Saracenic styles of architecture in India. They were also instrumental in encouraging the development of modern theatre and cinema movements in India. The British enacted several laws and regulations, many of which are still followed in the Indian administrative set-up in some form or the other.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy

The positive outcome of English education was most felt when many Indian social reformers began to emerge on the scene to fight against the social evils like the caste system, untouchability and oppression of women. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the foremost among such social reformers, who established the Brahmo Samaj. Soon, other organisations like the Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj, Dev Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission and the Theosophical Society of India were set up with similar aims and objectives. After Independence, the Government of India enacted several legislations to tackle the prevailing social evils. Several steps were also initiated towards the emancipation of women and protection of the weaker sections of the society.

Economically and socially, India has made great strides since independence. It has well-developed infrastructure and a highly diversified industrial base, its pool of scientific and engineering manpower is the third largest in the world, and the pace of its agricultural expansion has more than kept up with growth in its population.

Rapid strides were also made in the field of Science and Technology and Research. India’s eminent scientists like C.V.Raman, Hargobind Khorana and S.Chandrasekhar won Nobel Prizes for outstanding contributions in their respective fields. India has an advanced and well-developed Space Technology programme. The remote sensing data from its IRS series of satellites is much sought after all-over the world. India has even launched satellites for developed countries like Germany and South Korea. India is now a nuclear power, but its nuclear policy is not aimed at the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or threatening the security of any country. India’s foreign policy is based on ‘enlightened self-interest’, peaceful co-existence and respect for international law and the United Nations.

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