India, located in South Asia, is the 7th largest country by area, and with a population of 1.2 billion, it is second only to China.
India has a rich history, with its Indus Valley Civilization, dating back to 3300 BCE, being one of the dominant cultures for two millenia, along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The earliest modern human remains discovered in India, however, date back around 30,000 years. Around 7,000 BCE, the first Neolithic settlements in the region were formed, later developing into the Indus Valley Civilization.
In the period of 2,000 -500 BCE, the caste system was born, and Buddhism was formed as a formal religious reform movement, along with Jainism, and the recording of the life of Gautama Buddha signaled the beginning of recorded history in India.
Near the end of this period, the many small chiefdoms throughout this vast region were consolidated and became sixteen monarchies. Between 200 BCE and 200 CE, there was extensive trade with the Roman Empire, as well as with West and Southeast Asia. The Mauryan kings of this era built much of the Indian Empire via their strong efforts to manage public life and renounce militarism.
Meanwhile, Hinduism assumed control in the northern part of India, one effect of which was the subordination of women in the culture. By the fourth and fifth centuries, the Gupta Empire had sufficiently instilled a renewed vision of Hinduism, based more in devotion than ceremony, and an Indian renaissance of sorts took place. This resulted in great advances in art, literature, mathematics, medicine, science and astronomy.
Between the sixth and ninth centuries, Hinduism gained strength, and a renewed urbanization of the Indian people occurred as a result. A great deal of Indian culture was also exported during this time, having a great influence in what would later become Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Java.
After 1000 CE, the Islamic Delhi Sultanate effectively controlled both the northern and southern portion of the country, but left the non-Muslims alone to live their lives to their liking. The Sultanate also saved India from the onslaught of the Mongol raiders in the thirteenth century, by repulsing them several times.
In the early 16th century, the Mughal Empire seized control of northern India. However, rather than ravaging the culture, the Mughals assimilated it, and a period of prosperity bloomed throughout most of the 17th century.
By the beginning of the 18th century, the British East India Company was present in force, and gradually achieved control of the economy, hence, de facto political control of the country. For some, this signaled the beginning of India’s colonial period.
In 1858, following a revolution against the repressive British East India Company, the British government took control of India, and initially ruled with a gentle hand, in order to minimize dissent.
Eventually, however, the rapid economic growth, which was largely dependent upon foreign markets, showed its other face. The vagaries of the export markets destroyed many businesses and small agricultural endeavors, although famines were assuaged by the farmers being eager to sell their produce locally, even at great discounts. Eventually, the British government felt compelled to implement widespread restrictions, which touched off more famines and cries for independence.
After World War One, Mohandas Gandhi spearheaded a bloodless rebellion which finally culminated in India’s independence in 1947. This independence wasn’t entirely bloodless, however, as there was considerable conflict encountered with the split of India and Pakistan into two separate nations.
Since its independence, India has maintained peaceful relationships with most countries, with the exception of Pakistan, with whom it is engaged in an ongoing dispute over ownership of the Kashmir region. The two nations have gone to war four times since 1947, three times of those occasions over Kashmir.
Four of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) originated in India, but by their proponents, they are seen not so much as religions as they are philosophies. The four have many similarities, especially in terms of self-improvement.
Karma is a central belief of all Indian philosophies, and can be simply stated as ‘you reap what you sow’.
While India has much of its own rich culture and history to draw upon, the lengthy British influence has left lasting marks as well.
Standard Hindi is the primary language of India, but English is the second official language. However, according to the 1961 census, there were then 1,652 mother tongues in the Republic of India.
- The name India is derived from Indus, which finds its roots in the old Persian word, Hindu. However, the Constitution of India recognizes Bharat as the official name of the country.
- In India’s 100,000 years of history, it has never invaded another country.
- The value of π (Pi) was first calculated by Budhayana, a 6th century Indian mathematician.
- Chess was invented in India.
- Many Indian wives will avoid ever calling their husband by his name, as it is considered a sign of disrespect.
- Widows are considered by many Indians to be bad luck (at least for their deceased husband).
- A woman can be judged by the way she parts her hair – a holy person or a prostitute.
- India has the largest postal system in the world, with over 150,000 post offices. Nevertheless, a letter can often take two weeks to travel just 30 miles.
- Many of the worst famines in India’s history are associated with British rule there.
- Mumbai (previously known as Bombay) is home to the Indian film industry. Hence, the term Bollywood.
- The Taj Mahal, thought by many westerners to be a palace, is actually a mausoleum, built in the 1600s by Shah Jahan, the Mughal empire’s emperor, in honor of a deceased wife.
- Goa – if you enjoy the beach, Goa’s the place to go.
- Mysore – See the Maharajah’s Palace, especially at night.
- Shimla – See the breathtaking Jakhu temple. Hang on to your camera and purse, though, as the monkeys tend to grab things.
- Tirupati – See the beautiful Talakona 270 foot waterfall.
- Srinagar – The Mughal gardens are a sight you won’t want to miss.
- Kolkata – Victoria Memorial Hall is a wonderful example of Victorian architecture, with a memorable museum and picturesque gardens.
- Ranakpur – Jain Temple is simply an awesome sight. 1444 hand carved columns, each unique, make this a must-see in Ranakpur.
- Agra – The Taj Mahal mausoleum will probably be the highlight of your visit.
- Agra – While in Agra, be sure and visit Agra Fort. Built by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century, it would be a shame not to visit this seat of Indian history.
- Agra – Another site to see while in Agra, the Octagonal Tower, where Shah Jahan spent his last few years as a captive of his son.
- Jaipur – Don’t fail to see the City Palace when in Jaipur. “Impressive” doesn’t begin to describe it.
- Khajuraho – The Lakshman Temple is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, with its sandstone sculptures of every imaginable sexual activity.
There are many amazing sights in India, but wherever you go, you’ll be impressed by the friendliness and politeness of the people. Be sure to treat them in kind.
How to Get Cash
There are several ways to acquire cash in India, apart from what you bring with you into the country.
- Most banks in India have ATMs and you can get cash (in rupees) easily against your debit card. R10,000 seems to be the prevalent daily maximum, however. Depending upon your bank, you may see varying foreign exchange rates charged.
- With a credit card, many banks will arrange for a cash advance against your card, but as is nearly always the case, the interest rate for cash advances may be substantially higher and depending upon the bank, you may be charged a transaction fee.
- Western Union – Some banks interface with Western Union, if you should need emergency money sent to you by someone at home.
- As a tourist (non-resident, less than 6 months in India), you’re entitled to take as much cash in rupees out of the country as you brought in (in any currency). For others, it’s illegal to take any amount in Indian currency out of the country.
- As is the case in many countries, you can only exchange rupees back into another currency upon exit, in an amount equal to what you brought into the country.