Being one of the oldest civilizations in the world and home to 1.3 billion people, India is a country that is almost bursting with diversity. Every region of India has its own unique culture and within one region the people often speak many different languages, wear different clothes, follow different religions, and eat different food.
Because of the incredible amount of different cultures within India it��s good to understand the basics before you travel there. In this article, we will try and explain the basics about the people of India and what makes them so unique.
As mentioned previously, India is a very diverse country. As one of the great forces of trade in ancient times, India has a long history of exchanging goods, ideas, culture with its neighbors in Asia and the Middle East.
India also experienced large waves of migration or invasion throughout its history by groups including the Persians, Scythians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and Afghans all of which brought people and new ideas to the country.
Besides India's long history of invasion and migration from other countries, one reason why India is so diverse today is that India wasn't one country until British colonization. Before the British, what we know today as India was actually divided into different empires. These distinct kingdoms with different cultures and languages were combined into India during British rule.
In this article, we will introduce the diverse people of India by describing their strong regional culture, Indian ethnicities and minorities, religious groups in India, and traditional Indian clothing.
The people of India have a strong sense of regionalism and loyalty to their state. Part of the reason for this strong sense of state loyalty is because the people within a state in India have their own distinct culture and language that the people of other states don't have.
In fact, the people of West Bengal and Punjab have more in common with the people of Bangladesh and Pakistan than they do with the rest of India.
Although India has been able to form a national identity since its decolonization in 1947, many Indians are more attached to their states than they are to the central government.
People from the Indian subcontinent often refer to themselves as being from the desi ethnic group which means a person who is from either India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.
Although desi is the common word used to describe Indians as compared to people from other regions of the world, within the desi group there is a lot of diversity.
India is a multiethnic country that includes two larger ethnic groups and many minorities and tribal groups as well. Below we will discuss India's two main ethnic groups, the Indo-Aryans of North India and Dravidians of South India.
Indo-Aryans make up 72% of the population of India and are the descendants of European and Middle Eastern groups that first migrated to the country around 1800 BC. Most Indo-Aryans today live in Northe and Central India and speak Indo-Aryan languages like Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali.
Many of the empires and dynasties of India came from the Indo-Aryans who for a long time controlled all of North India and Pakistan.
The Dravidian people make up about 25% of the population of India today and are thought to be the indigenous people of India and the people of the ancient Indus Valley civilization.
Although the Indus Valley civilization was in located in present-day Pakistan, the Dravidian people today live in South India because when the ancestors of the Indo-Aryans invaded the Dravidians were pushed further and further south.
The Dravidian are culturally different from the northern Indo-Aryans and not only eat different food, but also speak languages from a completely different language family. The Dravidian languages include Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and others and are some of the oldest surviving languages in the world.
Although most of India's population is of Indo-Aryan or Dravidian descent, there are many other types of people and minority groups that exist within the country.
Many people who travel to India are surprised to find that the people of northeast India have the East Asian features and closely resemble the people of southwest China and that the people of some of the hill tribes and the Andaman Islands are descendants of travelers from Africa.
Because of the colonization of India first by the Portuguese and French and then by the British, there is also a small population of Anglo-Indians. India has also in more recent times received waves of immigrants from surrounding countries and has a large population of Chinese immigrants who have been living there for generations.
Scheduled tribes in India are an important minority group consisting of around 500 different tribes with a combined 104 million people. These tribal people are called Adivasi in Hindi which means 'original inhabitant'.
Because many Adivasi tribes have their own language, religions, festivals, foods, and dances the India government has recognized many of these groups and made efforts to protect them.
Some tribes like the famous Sentinelese are protected and separated from the rest of India while others trade and communicate with the rest of the country but prefer to continue living the traditional lifestyle of their ancestors.
Because there are so many different Adivasi groups all over India, there is a lot of diversity amongst the different tribes.
Some tribes are descendants of the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian ethnic groups, others are Sino-Tibetian with cultural similarities to nearby Asian countries, and others are descended from the Austrics who were the indigenous people of many islands in the Pacific and Oceana.
Every state in India has scheduled tribes although some regions of the country have a higher population of Adivasi than others. The highest population of Adivasi people in India are located in the central states including Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharastra.
If you are trekking through Himachal Pradesh then you will most likely see people who belong to the Gurjar, Gaddi, Pangwala, and Bodh tribes and as you explore deeper into the mountainous regions you will most likely discover even more groups.
When exploring the backwaters of Kerala you'll see people of many tribes including Paniyar, Kurichyar, and Adiyar. The Santhals, Oraon, Munda, and Ho all live in Jharkhand and West Bengal.
Many Adivasi also live all along the Himalayas in remote villages. In the northeastern states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh over 90% of the people who live there belong to scheduled tribes.
Although India has many ethnic groups, one of the most important aspects of identity in India is not a person's ethnicity but rather their religion. Religion has always been an important part of India's culture and history and includes many diverse religious groups.
India is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, an Sikhism and although sometimes religious disputes do happen in India, religious diversity and religious tolerance are seen as very important in the customs and laws of the country.
Below we will discuss some of the major religions of India.
Around 80% of the population of India practices Hinduism and Hindus are the majority religion in every state except for Jammu and Kashmir which are predominately Muslim and Punjab where people are mostly Sikh.
Although Hinduism is a religion with many variations, most Hindu's believe in the Vedas which is Hinduism's sacred text, in Brahman who they consider to be the one true god, in karma and that the soul is immortal, and lastly Hindu's believe that the goal of life is to achieve the release of your soul from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Although today it is considered to be outdated in much of India, Hinduism also established the caste system and the belief was that one could be born into a higher caste in the next life if they were a good person in this life.
Islam is the largest minority faith practiced in India with about one-seventh of India's total population.
There used to be a larger population of Muslims in India before Partition in 1947, but during Partition around 10 million Muslims left India for Pakistan and around the same number of Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan to come to India.
Muslims are found in almost every state in India with high concentrations in Jammu, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, and many large cities. In fact, there are more Muslims in India than in many countries in the Middle East.
Buddhism was founded in India and Hinduism and Buddhism share many similar beliefs such as the belief in Karma and reincarnation. Buddhists, however, do not believe in gods and goddesses but instead pray to the prophet, Buddha.
Buddhist Indian people mostly live in the states of Maharashtra, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu, and Kashmir.
Jainism was founded in India as a reaction to strict Hinduism. Jainism also believes in reaching salvation through living a good and successful life. One unique aspect of Jainism is that they believe in not hurting any living creature and will go out of their way not to harm animals and even small insects.
Jainism is most prominent in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan.
Sikhism originated in the 15th century and is one of the newest major world religions. There are 20 million Sikhs in the world and most of them live in the state of Punjab.
Sikhism shares many similar beliefs with Hinduism, however, Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that strongly opposes idol worship and the caste system.
Besides the five religions described above, many other religions also exist in the country including Christianity, Judaism, Bahai, Zoroastrianism, as well as Animism which is practiced by many Indian tribes.
Traditional Indian clothing is world-famous for being bright, colorful, and elegant. In India there is no one type of traditional wear as clothing in India depends largely on the person's religion, region, and socio-economic status.
Religion plays a major role in what type of clothes Indians wear. Hindus in India wear what most westerners will recognize as typical Indian clothing. Hindu women traditionally wear a sari which is made from four to nine yards of colorful cloth that is wrapped and draped around the body and over a small shirt called a choli.
Sari is a form of very conservative and traditional dress in India today and it is more common to see women wearing saris at formal events or in smaller villages. Today many Hindu Indian women wear a kurthi which is a long Indian shirt worn on top of pants. Traditional dress for Indian men is a short coat called an angarkha worn over pants.
Sikh men and women dress similarly to Hindu men and women except Sikh men wear turbans and have uncut beards.
Muslim men are often seen wearing a long white cotton shirt (kurtah) over loose trousers and Muslim women usually wear a hijab which can be worn over a sari or a loose fitting dress.
Traditional dress in India also differs depending on the region and is especially different between North and South India. While men in North India will often wear a long shirt over loose pants, many men in South India often wear a Dhoti instead of trousers which is a long piece of fabric wrapped around the waist to look similar to a loose skirt.
Women's saris also differ depending on the region in India. In fact, each state in India has a different traditional wedding sari and different fashion trends and preferences when it comes to traditional wear.
Just as the people of India are very diverse, so is their traditional clothing. When visiting India today you are still likely to see people wearing different styles of sari or kurthi everywhere you go, but you will also see more western clothing especially in the cities.
Socioeconomic status has a huge impact on what a person is able to wear in India. Many people who live in the villages will wear more traditional clothes such as bright colored saris.
The younger generations and growing middle class of India is moving more towards Western clothes with some Indian accessories and styles.
Although we described some basic information about the people of India in this article, it is almost impossible to grasp the incredible diversity of India without traveling there yourself.
At Asia Highlights, we can help you plan the perfect trip to India and give you advice about some of the best places to visit based on what you want to experience. To get started, send us an email here.