Capital city: New Delhi
Population: 1.27 billion (IndiaStat)
Government: Federal parliamentary constitutional republic
Currency: Indian rupee (INR)
Main languages: Hindi, English and over 20 other recognised languages
Main religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism
The colourful and diverse nation of India borders many of the major countries of Asia. As well as sharing land borders with Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and Bhutan, it is bounded by the Arabian Sea to the west, the Indian Ocean to the south and the Bay of Bengal to the east, placing it at the heart of South Asia. Formerly a British colony, it gained independence in 1947 and has since become known as the world’s largest democracy, with 29 federal states and 7 union territories.
With such a large land mass, a sixth of the world’s population and over 4,000 years of multicultural heritage, it is not surprising that the culture of modern India is so diverse. Typically conservative in nature, the country blends modernisation and progress with curious throwbacks to colonial times. Home to some of the richest and some of the poorest people in the world, India is socially centred on family and religion, and the controversial caste system continues to inform the culture today.
Cricket is often referred to as a religion in India, and the analogy is far from an exaggeration. It is the most popular spectator and participatory sport in the country, and successful cricketers are quickly elevated to national hero status. Field hockey is also very popular, alongside traditional Indian games like kabaddi and kho kho. Outside sport, Indian music and dance are popular. India also has a thriving film industry with the Bombay stylings of Bollywood and beyond, so cinema trips are a social event.
Food and drink
Often incorrectly associated with super hot curries, Indian cuisine is in fact better characterised by the aromatic spice blends which include turmeric, tamarind, cumin, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and saffron alongside the chillies which add that heat of flavour. Although regional variation is significant, some staple foods including lentils and rice are common across the country. Many Indians are vegetarian on religious grounds, but chicken, seafood and lamb are popular amongst non-vegetarians – Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork. Similarly, many Indians abstain from alcohol, preferring traditional cold drinks like lassi or sharbat. On the hot drinks front, the northern states tend to produce and consume more tea and the south more coffee.
India has over 20 recognised languages, with different states designating their own official languages. Nationally, Hindi is the most widely-spoken language by some distance; however there are millions of speakers of other languages too. Before its independence, India used English for all administrative functions and it is still widely spoken today, particularly in business.
The climate in India can be broadly characterised as a tropical monsoon type climate, with much of the country experiencing hot and humid weather. There are four distinct seasons, but the weather follows the terrain, so the western deserts contrast with the wet eastern plains. Northern India experiences more extremes of weather during winters and summers. June is the month with the hottest temperatures, while monsoons are common across the subcontinent from July to September.
Safety and security
While much of the country is considered safe, India does have some disputed areas which many governments recommend against travelling to – many in the vicinity of the border with Pakistan. These areas include Kashmir, Jammu and Manipur, so always check the latest travel advice. The threat from terrorism is higher in these unstable regions, but attacks have also taken place in major cities in recent years, so vigilance is always recommended.
Although most visits to India pass without incident, travellers should take the usual precautions to look after themselves – concealing valuables and avoiding travelling alone or at night. Women should be aware that India has an above average rate of sexually motivated offences, although such incidents are still relatively rare.