In its mindboggling linguistic, cultural and religious diversity and in its stunning contrasts, India is a land like no other and it’s time to celebrate it
As the tableaus of various Indian states rolled down the Rajpath in New Delhi, and fighter jets flew overhead in the partially overcast skies, one could not help feeling a surge of pride in being Indian. Though this pride should not be restricted to January 26 – India’s Republic Day – there are a few days in the year when you cannot remain untouched by the deep sense of patriotism within us Indians, no matter in which part of the globe we live and work. Republic Day is one of those days, Independence Day (August 15) being another, and Gandhi Jayanti (October 2) being the third.
I have been watching the R-Day parades in New Delhi on Doordarshan since childhood, and every time I marvel at the rich diversity of India. Each and every part of India has such unique characteristics, and how they merge into one other to form an idea of India is truly amazing. First of all, take the country’s geographical diversity.
From the mighty, snow-capped Himalayas in the North; to the merging of three seas in the South (Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal – in Kanya Kumari); from the grandeur of the Thar Desert and the Rann of Kutch in the West; to the lush green forests of the East (Sunderbans, Assam, and the North-east) – we have got every possible landscape and climate in the country.
While most of the world thinks India is a hot, tropical country, they would be surprised to know that the world’s second coldest place (Dras, in Ladakh) is in India, after Siberia’s Verkhoyansk.
In Dras, the winter temperatures plunge to as low as -50 degrees Celsius, and on the other extreme, it shoots above +50 degrees Celsius in Sriganganagar of Rajasthan. Then, the world’s wettest places are also in India – Mawsynram and Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya, where it rains as much as 14,000 mm a year.
Secondly, let’s look at the country’s racial diversity. The typical image of an Indian is a person with brown colour (what we call a wheatish complexion). Of course, a majority of the Indians have a brown complexion, but we also have the Kashmiris, who can very well be mistaken for Europeans – going just by their colour.
Then, we have the north-easterners, with a pale, yellowish complexion – often mistaken for the Chinese by many Indians themselves. We also have some African-type Negroid races, particularly among the tribals of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Within the Indian mainland, we have two broad races – the lighter-skinned Aryans in the North, and the darker-skinned Dravidians in the South. But even this is a generalisation, as there are many fair-skinned Southerners and dark-skinned Northerners.
Thirdly, take the country’s amazing religious diversity. While most of the world thinks of Indians as predominantly Hindus – which is true – the world’s third largest population of Muslims (earlier second-largest) is in India, after Indonesia and Pakistan. Jammu & Kashmir is a Muslim-majority state in India, and so are the islands of Lakshadweep in the Arabian Sea.
Three of India’s seven north-eastern states – Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland – have Christians in the majority, while a sizeable population of Goa and Kerala are also Christians. Then, in Punjab, a majority are Sikhs, and in Sikkim, a majority are Buddhists. Buddhists are also a majority in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir.
Apart from these religious groups, you also have Jains and Parsees, besides Jews and Bahais. Jains are mostly concentrated in Rajasthan and Gujarat, while Parsees mainly live in Mumbai and speak Gujarati. There is a tiny population of Jews in Cochin city of Kerala, while there is a smattering of Anglo-Indians (born out of Englishmen marrying Indian women), mostly in Calcutta and southern India. Also, consider this fact – four religions in the world took birth in India (Hindusim, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism).
Fourthly, the country’s linguistic diversity is truly mind-boggling. It is commonly said in India that a language changes in every 12 kilometres. While that may be an exaggeration, we do have 22 officially-recognised languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of our Constitution, in addition to several others spoken by people across the country.
While Hindi is the largest linguistic group (41%), it is not the majority spoken language in India – in fact, none qualifies for that. Within Hindi, there are so many dialects, that some of them could very well be different languages. Hindi is the main language in 10 out of 35 states and union territories in India. Then, it may surprise many Englishmen and Indians themselves that English is the sole official language in three states and three union territories of India (Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Dadra & Nagar Haveli).
English is also the link language for the entire country, and spoken as a mother tongue by Anglo-Indians and many Indians of mixed parentage. In fact, English is the most commonly used language in educational institutions and workplaces across the country. Educated, globe-trotting Indians speak English like their mother tongue – many of them are more comfortable in it than their native languages. Now, Indian English is an internationally recognised strand of English, in which significant literature is also produced. English publishing, print and electronic media thrive in India. There are some foreign languages too spoken in India (like Portuguese in Goa, and French in Puducherry).
Now, see how this diversity makes our culture so rich and fascinating. Geographical and climatic diversity is responsible for the tremendous variety in our cuisines and garments. Which other country can compare with Indian cuisines from different states.
From Kashmiri wazwan to Punjab’s makki ki roti and sarson ka saag, Delhi’s golgappe and papri chaat, Lucknow’s kebabs and rogan josh, Rajasthan’s daal bhati churma, Gujarati dhoklas and jalebi-khakra, Bengal’s macchar-jhol, mishti dohi and roshogollas, Bombay’s bhelpuri, pav bhaji and vada pav, Hyderabadi biryani, bagara baigan and mirchi ka salan, Goan fish curry and pork vindaloo, Mysore’s bisibele bhat and payasam, Chennai’s dosas, idlis and uttapams, Kerala’s avial and appams – it’s a complete gastronomic experience.
Then, the ethnic garments, from the varieties of sarees – Banarsi, Bengal cotton, Mysore silk, Kanjeevaram, Pochampalli, Dharmavaram, Patola etc – to men’s wear like kurta-pajamas, sherwani, achkan, bandgala, dhotis, lungis etc. Of course, we don’t wear all that now, but at least on festive occasions, the variety is on display. Then, what about the handicrafts – Punjab’s phulkari, Lucknow’s chikan, Andhra’s kalamkari, Gujarat’s bandhini, and the numerous other skills on display during crafts exhibitions!
Our regional diversity has given birth to numerous folk songs and dances – from Punjab’s bhangra and giddha, to Gujarat’s garba and dandia to various folk dances of the north-east and southern India. Among classical daces, the most famous ones are Kathak (in the North), Bharat Natyam (in the South) and Odissi (in the East), but there are others too like Kuchipudi, Manipuri and Kathakali (of Kerala).
We have two main varieties of classical music – Hindustani (of the North) and Carnatic (of the South), but there is also a third semi-classical variety – Rabindra Sangeet of Bengal. Then, we have folk drama, like Nautanki (UP), Tamasha (Maharashtra), Jatra (Bengal), and Harikatha (Andhra).
The religious diversity results in India having so many festivals round the year, with the most famous ones being Diwali, Dassehra, and Holi (of Hindus), Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Zuha (of Muslims), Christmas and Easter (of Christians), Gurpurab (of Sikhs), Navroze (of Parsees) etc, besides some secular ones like New Year’s Day, and national holidays like Republic Day and Independence Day. Many of us participate in the festivities of other communities too.
Coming to linguistic diversity, first and foremost, it gives us the ability to speak in at least two or three languages – mother tongue, national language Hindi, international language English, and perhaps, the language of the state where we live and work.
This fluency in several languages amazes many foreigners. Then, the amount of literature that is produced in our several languages is really vast, of which we can manage to read only a few translations in English.
Of course, Indian Writing in English is a literary segment available in countries outside India too, particularly in UK and US universities. The variety of languages has helped us develop our regional cinema too, besides the globally popular Hindi cinema, popularly referred to as Bollywood.
Apart from Bombay or Mumbai – the hub of Bollywood, our other film producing centres are Calcutta (Bengali cinema), Chennai (Tamil and other southern films), and Hyderabad (Telugu and other southern films). We produce the largest number of films in the world, and in many parts of the world, the popularity of Bollywood exceeds that of Hollywood. The development of our cinema really makes us proud.
In the field of knowledge, ancient India has contributed significantly, while modern India too produces the second largest technical and scientific pool in the world, after USA. India has today become the number one offshoring and outsourcing destination in information technology, with Bangalore the world’s number one back office.
Our scientists, engineers, architects, doctors and professors are spread throughout the world. In fact, the Indian diaspora is among the largest in the world – next only to the Chinese. Indian students also form a major chunk in Western universities, and they are consistently highly rated for their knowledge and skills. Today, in many sports too, we are making a mark – as in cricket, hockey, badminton, tennis, wrestling, shooting, chess and billiards – though of course, we have still a long way to go in this field.
Finally, I come to politics and economics. Our main source of pride internationally is that we are the world’s largest democracy, and the way we change governments periodically through our humble vote – peacefully, and in a mature fashion – is the envy of many peoples around the world, particularly our near and not-so-near neighbours. Experts may criticise our democracy for being imperfect, but which system is perfect? Without doubt, democracy is the best, and we are proud to have such a robust and lively democracy, even if chaotic. Our economy – which was derided as pseudo socialist, and our slow growth rate branded the Hindu rate – took off with full speed after the economic liberalisation in 1991, to achieve the second highest growth rate after China.
Though it has slowed down at present after the worldwide recession of 2008, it is still doing much better than most countries of the world. Two decades of fast growth helped India lift millions of people out of poverty.
Of course, we have many drawbacks which are slowing us down and preventing us from taking our rightful place in the sun. In such a vast country – called a sub-continent for all the reasons mentioned above – with a 5,000-year baggage, changes will not be very swift. They will happen gradually, as they have been. The task to make India a truly developed nation seems gigantic, what with several social evils plaguing us. But I think we have already embarked on an exciting journey, and the future does look promising.
Hum honge kaamyaab ek din (We shall overcome some day).