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India has one of the world's most diverse populations, with most of the major races represented. Over thousands of years, countless groups have migrated into the subcontinent, and many of these groups have maintained distinctive cultures down through the ages. India's tribal peoples and the large number of later migrant groups represent a wide variety of physical types and cultural traditions.

The earliest Indians may have migrated from Australia and the South Pacific islands. Most subsequent invading groups, however, entered the subcontinent through the mountain passes in the northwest. A great deal of ethnic, racial, and cultural intermingling occurred during these successive waves of migration, contributing directly to the pluralistic nature of modern Indian society. Except in the case of isolated tribal groups, linguistic and cultural practices have become far more important bases of classification than racial criteria.


More than 200 languages are spoken in India, and linguistic diversity provides an important key to understanding Indian civilization. Four major language groups are represented. The most important of these are the Indo-Aryan branch (see INDO-IRANIAN LANGUAGES) of the Indo-European group (the major linguistic family of Europe) and the DRAVIDIAN LANGUAGE group. Hindi the fourth most widely spoken language in the world, is the language of 30% of the population and the official language of India. Hindi and the other Indo-Aryan languages--including Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kashmiri, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, and Urdu--are spoken mainly in the northern part of the country and derive their script from ancient Sanskrit, which is no longer a spoken language. The leading Dravidian languages--Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada--are spoken in four southern states. SINO-TIBETAN and Austro-Asiatic (see SOUTHEAST ASIAN LANGUAGES) languages generally survive only in small and isolated regions.

India's state boundaries are drawn largely along linguistic lines, and the constitution recognizes 14 regional languages in addition to Hindi and English. English, although spoken by only about 3% of the population, remains important in government, education, and science.


India is the birthplace of HINDUISM, BUDDHISM, JAINISM, and Sikhism (see SIKHS). Today, it is a secular state, and its constitution guarantees religious tolerance to all groups. Hinduism's adherents constitute about 83% of the population. Another 11% are followers of ISLAM, making India one of the four largest Muslim nations in the world. Christians and Sikhs each make up about 2% of the population, and Jains and Buddhists less than 1%. Aside from the Sikh concentration in the Punjab and PARSIS (who practice ZOROASTRIANISM) in the Bombay area, there is no marked regional distribution of religious groups.

The Indian CASTE system, an important facet of Hinduism, is a major social system that groups people according to birth. Although caste should not be confused with class, lower caste groups do perform much of the manual labor and fill most unskilled jobs in the economy. Harijans, formerly known as UNTOUCHABLES, have traditionally occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder. The Indian constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste and reserves special quotas in schools, the legislature, and employment for Harijans (some 15% of the population) and tribal peoples (7%), but caste consciousness remains important. Now the President of India is from this supposed lower caste which shows the rapid strides made in this area.


The nation's estimated population (as of mid-1992) is 886,362,180. India, the second most populous nation in the world after China, is expected to have more than a billion inhabitants before the end of the 20th century. Although the birthrate has stabilized, it remains high, and better health care has lowered the death rate and increased life expectancy.

Most of India's people live in more than 500,000 villages where the major source of livelihood is agriculture. As a result of a British policy that encouraged migration from urban to rural areas, India is more rural today than it was during the height of the Mogul empire. During the colonial period new cities based on trade became the largest cities in India. These newer cities include, in order of population, CALCUTTA, BOMBAY, DELHI, (see NEW DELHI), and MADRAS. Other cities with populations exceeding one million are BANGALORE, HYDERABAD, AHMADABAD, KANPUR, NAGPUR, and POONA (Pune). Some 2,500 towns and cities have populations exceeding 20,000.

Education and Health

India's literacy rate more than doubled between 1950 and 1988. As of 1991, it was given as 52.11%, up from 43.56% a decade ago. Literacy is higher among men than among women; it is also much higher in urban areas than in rural ones. Education is the responsibility of both the central and state governments, with the national government setting major policies and the states accountable for their implementation. The education system is free and open to all children through the university level. It provides for eight years of primary education, two years of lower secondary education, and two years of upper secondary education. In all but two states, education is compulsory for children aged 6 to 14, although not all children are able to take advantage of this opportunity. India's universities are generally large, with clusters of affiliated colleges.

In general, the state governments provide health-care facilities and the national government sponsors and finances programs dealing with epidemic diseases and diseases resulting from traditional deficiencies. In the past two decades, major epidemic diseases such as smallpox haven been eliminated and cholera is far less widespread. Inadequate sanitation and nutrition remain major public health problems.

Western medicine is practiced all over India, but advanced health care is far more available in large cities. Many Indians are still treated by indigenous traditional methods. Family planning, with an emphasis on birth control, has been encouraged by the central government since independence. After widespread public protests over forced sterilizations during 1975-1977, however, the government greatly reduced its commitment to the family-planning program.

The Arts

Independence has been accompanied by a vigorous promotion of the arts. In the visual arts a revival of Indian folk painting has occurred, along with new interest in the traditions of the Ajanta-Ellora, Rajasthan, Deccani, Mogul, and Kangra schools of painting. Architecture and sculpture, building on their magnificent ancient and medieval traditions in India, are finding new expressions as Western influences are combined with the old. Traditional handicrafts, like the textiles, wood- and ivory-carving, metalware, and pottery sought by 18th-century European traders, are being revived for the export market. For a historic survey of Indian arts, see INDIAN ART AND ARCHITECTURE.

In the performing arts a vigorous strengthening of classical Hindustani and Karnatic music has occurred, and many regional dance forms, such as BHARATA NATYAM and KATHAK, have received new recognition (see INDIAN MUSIC). Modern Indian theater stresses regional languages and experiments with new themes and forms; it often emphasizes the stress of modern living and the influence of Western traditions. A strong revival of folk music, dance, and drama has paralleled a rise in the popularity of Western music and dance forms, radio, and television. Perhaps the most popular art form today is motion pictures. Today India has the world's largest filmmaking industry, centered at Bombay and Madras.

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