India is a secular country that has traditionally absorbed and given birth to a variety of religions and religious sects. The majority of present-day Indians are Hindu, however, and this is reflected in many aspects of the shared culture across the country. Hinduism itself has, over centuries, absorbed and evolved a number of different philosophies and approaches, from the philosophical Advaita of Shankara to the devotion of the Bhakti movement.
The coexistence of significant minority faiths with the majority faith of Hinduism has by no means always been peaceful; Hindu-Muslim and Hindu-Sikh tensions (often fanned by motives other than religious ones) have, in the past, resulted in many deaths. The Ramajanmabhoomi movement, whose demands to build a Hindu temple on what they claim to be the birthplace of Rama in Ayodhya resulted in the destruction by a mob of the Babri Masjid (a mosque which they declared to have been built after the destruction of a previous temple) in 1992, has clearly been able to generate considerable popular support.
Such developments pose a serious threat to the future of secularism in India. It could be argued that this recent so-called Hindu “fundamentalism” (a contradiction in terms, as Hinduism has no defined fundaments) is an effort to forge a singular national culture on religious lines from rich and diverse traditions. The inculcation of such ideas has been facilitated by the widespread access to television, latterly satellite television, and its powerful cultural messages. The same media have also spread another value-set which to some extent has served to dissipate the call of religion—that of a Western-style consumer society. Many languages are spoken across India.
Eighteen of the major ones are recognized in the constitution, but many other relatively minor ones are also spoken regionally. Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu scriptures, is an Indo-European language related to Greek and Latin. It was the medium for the vast body of religious and secular writing that constitutes the core of classical Indian literature. Tamil is also a very ancient language, with a rich literature and, unlike Sanskrit, it is still thriving today. Tamil is a Dravidian language, with a completely different script to Sanskrit, and forms one of several Dravidian languages spoken in the south of India. Large bodies of literature also exist in all the other major languages of India, notably Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam.
Early classical painting and sculpture was inspired by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, all influenced by one another. The art of Madhura, Gandhara (with its blending of Hellenistic and Indian elements), the refinement of Gupta art, the frescoes at Ajanta, the rock-cut reliefs at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) and the Nataraja at Chidambaram, all form part of the splendid heritage of early India. Perhaps the world’s first extant treatise on the theory of drama, music and dance, the Natya Shastra, by Bharata, written by about ad 300, formed the basis of a sophisticated tradition in the performing arts. A relative decline in classical Hindu arts and culture followed the end of the reign of Harsha in the 7th century in northern India as new socio-political forms began to evolve, although the south, under kingdoms such as the Pallava, and later the Chola, was reaching its apex in art and architecture.
In this period of uncertainty and change, a major dislocation in cultural development occurred in northern India, with the waves of conquerors from Central Asia in the 11th and 12th century, who brought with them a quite different faith, Islam. Some of the ancient centres of learning, such as the magnificent Buddhist university at Nalanda, were totally destroyed by Turks in the 11th century.
After several centuries of warfare, disruption, and repression under Turkish and Mongol rulers, by the mid-16th century, the Mughal dynasty founded by Babur, a descendant of the Mongol Tamerlane, had conquered all of northern India.
Islam, with its linear Western cosmogony, and revulsion against any form of idol-worship, was fundamentally different from Hinduism and other eastern faiths, and some of the early conquerors, in particular, ransacked temples and shrines, such as the Jagannath temple in Puri, and showed scant respect for ancient learning. Others, however, became interested in Sanskrit, and key works, such as the mathematical treatise of Bhaskara, the Lilavati, were translated into Persian and became very popular during the Mughal period.
Under the great Mughal emperors such as Akbar, the country experienced a new period of flourishing of the arts, with fresh impetus arising from Persian influence culminating in a distinct style of art, music, and architecture in northern India. The Mughal period provided India with some of its most impressive architecture, best known through the world-renowned Taj Mahal in Agra. It also brought outstanding work in manuscript illustration, miniature painting, and the decorative arts, as well as the evolution of Hindustani music in the north. The south evolved its own style, known as Carnatic music. Both classical forms have produced composers and musicians of the highest calibre, including Tansen, Tyagaraja, and in recent years, Allauddin Khan, Ravi Shankar, M. S. Subbulakshmi, and many others. A strong, regional folk tradition of all the performing arts has continued throughout.
Under British rule, much of this creative cultural momentum became dissipated, but at the same time, a number of individuals such as William Carey and Max Müller, became interested in ancient and medieval Indian culture and, by their translations and commentaries, provided Western readers with access to key works. Some art forms, such as styles of classical Indian dance, however, declined through lack of patronage or fell into disrepute under Victorian values. A revival in aspects of Indian thought and culture accompanied the rising nationalist feeling, and the 20th century has seen efforts not only to revive dying arts such as Kathakali, but to reconstitute early forms. In dance, for example, Chandralekha has explored the early forms of Bharatanatyam, and the erotic style of Orissi, depicted in many ancient sculptures, has become well known. "India" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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