India is a vast subcontinent, or landmass that is part of a continent but is considered an independent entity, that contains many varied geographical regions. The Himalayan mountain range, which includes the highest mountains in the world, stretches across the north of the country along its border with Tibet. Three of India's largest rivers originate in the Himalayas: the Indus, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra. These rivers feed a vast flat plain at the foothills of the Himalayas called the Indo-Gangetic Plain. A lush rainforest covers the northeast. These fertile lands are home to farmers. The west of India is covered by the Thar Desert, home to desert nomads, people with no permanent residence who move from place to place usually with the seasons. The southern tip of India is much drier and less fertile, while most people fish for a living along the western and eastern coasts.
Indian civilization is based on the cultures of peoples as varied as the country's geography. The first Indians lived in the Indus Valley civilization that flourished along the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan, from 2500 to 1600 B.C.E. Remains from the Indus Valley civilization that have been recovered by archeologists, scientists who study the physical remains of ancient cultures, indicate that the society was quite advanced, with well-built brick houses, buildings for storing grain, paved roads, a written language, and a citadel, or a fortress from which a city is ruled and protected. These peoples, called Dravidians, were invaded by a nomadic tribe called Aryans who eventually settled throughout present-day northern India. The cultures of these two different societies combined and created the Hindu religion, which has been the dominant cultural
Over the years, nomadic tribes and other invading peoples have continued to shape Indian civilization. The Mauryan Empire, which flourished in 250 B.C.E. and dominated northern India for about 140 years, had a large army, complex tax system, and an organized government. After witnessing the brutality of war, Emperor Ashoka, the last Mauryan leader, converted to Buddhism, a religion that encourages people to be accepting of differences among them and to live together peacefully. Ashoka's peaceful teachings and kindness continue to influence life in India.
The second great empire in Indian history was the Gupta Empire, which lasted from 319 to 550 C.E. The Guptas encouraged learning, especially in the arts and sciences. Under Gupta rule the world was discovered to be round and the mathematical concept of zero came into being. Another great change in Indian life occurred from the eighth to the sixteenth century when Muslims slowly invaded India and eventually conquered it to create the Mogul Empire, which ruled all of India and other areas for approximately two hundred years, from about 1500 to 1700 C.E. The Muslims strongly influenced the peoples of India; many converted to the Muslim religion and began wearing clothes that conformed to the Muslim religion's dress code. The Moguls did tolerate other religions, and they created a peaceful advanced society that fostered the arts and sciences.
Over the years the rulers of India nurtured the skills of many craftsmen. These craftsmen learned to create beautiful jewelry, weave fine cotton fabric and other more expensive materials, develop intricate dyeing and decorating practices to beautify fabric, and excel at making other products for trade, such as spices and tea. By 1498, when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (c. 1460–1524) reached India, Indian civilization had a great deal to offer other cultures. Europeans desired Indian spices and fabrics in particular. The East India Company of Britain controlled most of the trading in India by the 1600s. When the Mogul Empire ended and India was divided into many small kingdoms in 1700, trade with Europe did not stop. In fact, Britain continued to gain power in the region and by 1858 India had become a British colony.
Although Indians benefited from new railways, roads, and postal and telegraph services under British rule, living under British control frustrated many Indians. By the twentieth century many wanted to rule themselves. Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) inspired Indians to peacefully extract control of India from the British. India became an independent democracy in 1947 and was now the seventh-largest country in the world. At that time the Hindu majority dominated India and the Muslim minority created the countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
India continues to be home to very diverse peoples. Most people follow the Hindu religion; about 10 percent are Muslim; others are Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and other religions. India recognizes fifteen official languages, but nearly one thousand different dialects are spoken in the country. Indian society had been divided into four distinct social groups, called castes, since 1500 B.C.E. These castes were based on people's jobs: priests were considered the highest, most respected class, followed by warriors and princes, and then by merchants and farmers. The lowest caste was made up of people called the "untouchables," those who worked with sewage or garbage, among other "unclean" things. The caste system locked people into a certain position in society for life. If a person married outside of his or her caste, he or she would risk being shunned by family and friends. The Indian government outlawed the caste system in 1949 and has instituted policies to make up for the discrimination of the caste system's rules.
Although Indian culture has felt the effects of many outside influences, its distinctive costume traditions have lasted for thousands of years. The clothing styles worn from the earliest civilizations in India continue to be worn in modern times. The garments made in ancient India were woven of light fabric and wrapped around the body to create different styles. Although Indians knew how to sew before the Muslims invaded, it was Muslims who popularized the wearing of sewn garments, including trousers and jackets. Of course trade with the West also opened India to the cultures of Europe, and many modern-day Indians do wear clothes similar to Westerners, especially men working in Indian cities. Yet styles of thousands of years ago continue to influence Indian fashion to this day.
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Watson, Francis, with Dilip Hiro. India: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002.