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There is possibly no other country where religion is so inextricably intertwined with every aspect of life. Coming to understand it can be a long process littered with pitfalls, particularly for those educated in the western liberal tradition with its basis in logic. For those people, ‘Indian logic’ can often seem bizarre, convoluted and even exasperating. Yet it encompasses a unique cosmology which is both holistic and coherent as well as being fascinating.

It’s well to remember that India was the birthplace of two of the world’s great religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) and one of its smallest (Jainism). It’s also home to one of world’s few remaining communities of Parsis, adherents of the faith of Zoroastrianism.

The modern state itself is a relatively recent creation born out of a people’s desire to throw off the yoke of colonialism. Even the mightiest of India’s ancient civilisations did not encompass all of modern India, and today it is still as much a country of diversities as of unities. You may hear it said that there are many Indians. In terms of ethnic origin, language and geographical location, that is undoubtedly true, and it sometimes bedevils efforts at creating a national consciousness. Yet it’s worth remembering that for the last 50 years, India has remained the world’s largest democracy.

The Himalaya

The north of the country is decisively bordered by the long sweep of the Himalaya, the highest mountains on earth. They run from south-east to north-west, separating India from China. Bhutan in the east and Nepal in the centre actually lie along the Himalaya, as does Sikkim, Darjeeling, the northern part of Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.

The Himalaya is one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world. Its evolution can be traced to the Jurassic era (80 million years ago) when the world’s land masses were split into two: Laurasia in the northern hemisphere and Gondwanaland in the southern hemisphere. The land mass which is now India broke away from Gondwanaland and floated across the earth’s surface, eventually colliding with Laurasia. The hard volcanic rocks of India were thrust against the soft sedimentary crust of Laurasia, forcing it upwards to create the Himalaya. This continental collision is still continuing with the mountains rising by up to 8mm each year.

The Himalaya are not a singe mountain range but a series of ranges with beautiful valleys wedged between them. The Kullu valley in the Himachal Pradesh and the Vale of Kashmir in Jammu & Kashmir are both Himalayan valleys, as is the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. Kanchenjunga (8,598m) is the highest mountain in India, although until Sikkim were absorbed into India that honour went to Nanda Devi (7,817m). Beyond the Himalaya stretches the high, dry and barren Tibetan plateau; in Ladakh, a small part of this plateau actually lies within India’s boundaries. The final southern range of the Himalaya, the Siwalik Hills, end abruptly in the great northern plains of India.

The Northern Plain

In complete contrasts to the soaring mountain peaks, the northern plains oppressively flat and slopes so gradually that all the way from Delhi to the Bay of Bengal it drops only 200m. The mighty G anges River, which has its source in the Himalaya, drains a large part of the northern plain and the major river in India. The Brahmaputra, flowing from the north-east of the country, is the other major river of the north. In the north-west, the Indus River starts flowing through Ladakh in India but soon diverts into Pakistan to become that country’s most important river.

The North-East

The north-eastern boundary of India is defined by the foothills of the Himalaya, which separate the country from Myammar (Burma). In this region, India bends almost entirely around Bangladesh and almost meets the sea on the eastern side.

Centre & South

South of the northern plains, the land rises up into the high plateau of the Deccan. The plateau is bordered on both sides by ranges of hills which parallel the coast to the east and west. The Western Ghats are higher and have a wider coastal strip than the Eastern. The two ranges meet in the extreme south in the Nilgiri Hills. The southern hill stations are in these hills: Matheran and Mahabaleshwa, near Mumbai in the Western Ghats; Ooty and Kodaikanal in the Nilgiri Hills. The major rivers of the South are the Godavari and the Krishna. Both rise on the eastern slope of the Western Ghats and flow across the Deccan into the sea on the eastern coast.

The West

On the western side, India is separated from Pakistan by three distinct regions. In the north, in the disputed area of Kashmir, the Himalaya forms the boundary between the two countries. The Himalaya drop down to the plains of the Punjab, which then merge into the Great Thar Desert in the western part of Rajasthan. This is an area of great natural beauty and extreme barrenness. Its hard to imagine that it was once covered by thick forests. Discoveries made by palaeontologists in 1996 suggest that the area was inhabited by dinosaurs and their ancestors as far back as 300 million years ago.

Finally, the Indian state of Gujarat is separated from the Sind in Pakistan by the unusual marshland known as the Rann of Kutch. In the dry season, the is marshland dries out, leaving may isolated salt islands perched on an expansive plain. In the wet season, the marshland floods to become a vast inland sea.

The Caste System

The caste system is one of India’s more confusing mysteries – how it came about, how it has managed to survive for so long and how much harm it causes are all topics of discussions for visitors to India. Its origins are hazy, but it seems to have been developed by the Brahmins or priest class in order to maintain its superiority. Later, it was probably extended by the invading Aryans who felt themselves superior to the indigenous pre-Aryan Indians. Eventually, the caste system became formalised into four distinct classes, each with rules of conduct and behaviour.

At the top are the Brahmins, who are the priests and the arbiters of what is right and wrong in matters of religion and caste. Next come the Kshatriyas, who are the soldiers and administrators. The Vaisyas are the artisam and commercial class and, finally, the Shudras are the farmers and the peasant class. These four castes are said to have come from Brahma’s mouth (Brahmins), arms (Kshatriyas), thighs (Vaisyas) and feet (Shudras).

Beneath the four main castes is a fifth group, the untouchables. These people, members of the so-called Scheduled Castes, literally have no caste. They perform the most menial and degrading jobs. At one time, if a high-caste Hindu used the same temple as an untouchable, was touched by one, or even had an untouchable’s shadow cast across them, they were considered polluted and had to go through a rigorous series of ritual to be cleaned.

Today, the caste system has been weakened, but it still has considerable power, particularly among less educated people. Gandhi put great effort into bringing the untouchables into society, including renaming them the ‘Harijans’ or ‘Children of God’.

It must be remembered that being born into a certain caste does not limit you strictly to one occupation or position in life, just as being black in the USA does not mean you are poverty stricken and live in Harlem. Many Brahmins are poor peasants, for example, and hundreds of years ago the great Maratha leader was a Sudra. Nevertheless, you can generalise that the better-off Indians will be of higher caste and that the ‘sweeper’ you see cleaning the toilet in your hotel will be a Dalit (the ones without caste). In fact, when Indian Airlines appointed its first Dalit flight attendant, it was front-page news in Indian newspapers.

How can you tell which caste a Hindu belongs to? Well, if you know the their job is a menial one, such as cleaning streets, or in some way defiling, such as working with leather, they are a Dalit. But for most Hindus, you can’t really tell which caste they belong to. However, if you see a man with his shirt off and he has the sacred thread looped round one shoulder, he belongs to one of the higher castes, but then Parsis also wear a sacred thread. Sikhs, Muslims and Christians do no have caste.

It is important to remember that the western medieval ideal of heaven was developed in part to keep the peasants in their place – behave yourself, work hard, put up with your lot and you’ll go to heaven. Probably caste developed in a similar fashion – your life may be pretty miserable but that’s your karma; knuckle under and you may be born into a better one next time around.

Facts for the visitors

As with most things in India, tourism is an age-old and widely practiced trait in Indian culture. A famous Tamil poet-philospher once said that people should cross oceans to seek fortune and fame (Oovaiyar). Indians from all over India generally follow this advice rather instinctively.

Clearly, there is too much to see in India; in many ways India is a life-long experience. In order to do proper justice to themselves, visitors must plan well in advance seriously considering what they want to see - monuments and historic places, nature, towns, or culture. Unlike countries where these things are canned and fed to the tourists, India lets the visitor find for herself what she wants to find.

When considering monuments, it is important to know that ancient kingdoms rivaled each other in building fantastic structures and preserving natural habitat. If you want temples there are (at least) those built by the Cholas, Kalingas, Pandyas, Mauryas, Cheras, and Pallavas. There are Buddist stupas and monastries. There are Jain temples and monastries. There are Sikh Gurudwaras. If you want mosques, there are those built by the Turks, Persians, Moghuls, and South India converts. If you want churches, there are those built by Catholics, Protestants, and Methodists. The oldest surviving synagogue in the world is near Cochin, Kerala. The diversity, intensity, richness, grandeur, and glamor of ancient Indian architecture is unique and unparalled in the world.

While considering natural sites and reservations, it is important to realize that India offers one the largest biologically diverse environments. The Thar desert in Rajastan, the lush tropical rain-forests in Kudermukh (Silent Valley) in Kerala, impregnable Chamba Valley in Bihar, lion-rich teak forests of Madya Pradesh, tiger-rich mangroves in the Sunderbands in West Bengal, elephant-rich forests of Kabini/Mudumalai in Karnataka/Tamil Naadu, rhino-rich Kaziranga in Assam, are only some of the natural wildlife preserves.

India is well-linked by an extensive network of quality rail connections and challenging roadways. Additionally, the expensive traveller can consider air travel -- especially when the time is short and the distance to travel is large. Indian Airlines, Indian Railways, and Indian Tourism Development Corporation offer some great deals; worth querying your travel agent for details. In many corners of India, one will always find individuals who can speak some English. In rural areas villagers are quite friendly and will somehow find an English speaker. If uncertain, rent taxis from the city and use the driver as an intrepreter.

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This page was last updated on 09/14/99