Two distinctive features of India are its vastness and variety. Because of its vastness; it is often called a sub-continent. Its size is twenty times that of Great Britain and it is as large as Europe excluding Russia. The population of some of the states is more than that of many important countries of the world. It presents one of the most remarkable arrays of geographical, climatic and attendant economic features with racial, linguistic and religious differences.
One is puzzled at her many contrasting features such as the splendours of her temples, mosques and tombs, alongside the squalor of her villages, the intellectual brilliance of the educated men and women at the top, alongside ignorance and superstition of the majority of people. The tribes living within kilometers of Rabindranath Tagore's last residence, Santi Niketan had no idea whatsoever about Gitanjali or the Nobel Prize he had won. When Tagore was being awarded Nobel Prize for Literature, the Santhals living around Santi Niketan were still at the food gathering stage.
Diversity in Physical Features :
Apart form vastness with threefold natural division its variety is partly due to its geography and physical features. The differences in altitude, climate, temperature, rainfall, flora and fauna are remarkable. The temperature of the country varies from the eternal snowy mountains to the scorching heat of the Rajasthan desert. The rainfall varies from 7.5 cms to 1200 cms per year. The country contains an arid desert as well as fertile plains. There are rivers, which flow throughout the year. India offers all the three types of climate - the Polar, the Temperate and the Tropical. There are areas which experience the extreme heat of summer as well as the biting cold of the winter.
The physical divisions have led to differences in flora and fauna, animals and vegetables. The flora and fauna here include almost all known varieties. If the Sunderbans of Bengal is famous for the Royal Bengal Tiger, the forest of Malwas is known for its breed of lions.
Within the three natural physical divisions of India, again, there have been subdivisions created by physical barriers, which have stood on the way of regional unity and affected the course of history. The great Thar desert intervening between the plains of the Indus and the valley of the Ganga has practically converted these two regions into two separate units. This has been detrimental to the unity of India.
It is a arduous task to construct a systematic ethnography of the teeming millions of Indian population. Different ethnic groups came to India as invaders, mingled with the Indian population and developed their own civilization and language. India contains a large variety of human types. The three primary broad types of mankind such as the Caucasian or white type, the Mongolian or yellow type and the Ethiopian or black type are found in India. As per the 1901 census the following eight different ethnic groups are found here.
1. Pre-Dravidian 2. Dravidian 3. Indo-Aryan
4. Turko-lranian 5. Scytho-Dravidian 6. Arya-Dravidian
7. Mongoloid 8. Mongoloid-Dravidian
India has been described as an ethnological museaum. Race formation is a dynamic process and environmental stimuli have caused many changes in the ethic types. However, it is said, "The bridge which links the Pathans of North west to the hill tribes of Travancore is still in existence." There are primitive tribesmen as well as city dwellers. There is a wide variety of differences in physical features, complexion and even in language. Often linguistic terms like Aryan and Dravidian have been applied to ethnic units.
It is difficult to assume that this vast subcontinent was once a vaccuum and the races have migrated into this ethnological paradise from faraway places. There have never been attempts to ascertain how far India bred her own races.
The ethnological differences gave rise to a large number of languages. The linguistic survey of India records as many as 179 languages and 544 dialects. Among the Dravidian languages, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam are popular. Similarly, among the north Indian languages, Hindi, Bengali, Gujrati, Punjabi, and Urdu are prominent. The Constitution of India recognizes 18 languages in the country. Many foreign languages like Arabic ad Persian are also in use.
All the main religions of the world are found here along with religions which are born here. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Sikhism etc. have adherents in India. All these religions have grown freely along with their sects. Many beliefs, superstitions, dogmas, cults and gods and goddesses are worshipped here. Hinduism, the religion of the majority has a number of cults and creeds as Vaishnavism, Saivism, Shaktism, Tantricism, Ganapatya cult, Sun cult etc. There have been religious reformers like Kabir, Nanak and Chaitanya who have preached synthesis of religions. The primitive tribes have their own religions. Various fairs and festivals are also observed in different parts of the country. Even the Hindus differ widely in respect of observance of fairs and festivals.
The political history of India resolves itself into separate histories of the regions. Local and regional chauvinism always led rulers to fight among themselves. The lack of unity among the Indian rulers encouraged invaders to attack India. During the later Vedic period, north India was divided into a number of Janapadas, among which 16 Mahajanapadas figure prominently. Some of the regions like the extreme south never came under northern rule and always remained independent under local dynasties. Even in the face of foreign invasion or a common enemy the Indian rulers did not unite. There has never been a strong central government ruling over the entire country with a singli administrative system. Glorification of local rulers has always encouraged separatist tendencies. Internal dissension and foreign invasions were chiefly responsible for political disunity and fragmentation of the country.
The natural barriers of hills and rivers largely determined the different political and cultural units into which India was divided. These natural divisions favoured the growth of local and regional spirit and fostered separatist tendencies.
The marked distinction between north India and south India dominated the political history of the country. Each of these regions frequently achieved political unity though unity between the two of the regions was rendered more difficult. The people of south India always abhorred the north and protested under the slightest pretext.
Certain regions have always waged heroic struggles for independence against heavy odds. The Rajputs, the Sikhs and the Marathas for example have always fought against the imperial power of Delhi. This was as much due to the nature of their land as to the bravery of the people.
The physical features, natural barriers and strategic positions almost made some kingdoms, small or big, little worlds by themselves. An Indian ruler, inspite of his potentials and ambition, had the least temptation for conquering the comparatively unknown regions beyond the high hills and seas. During the days when scientific knowledge and modern means of communication were lacking it took months for the army to reach the frontiers. Even the news of revolts in border provinces reached the rulers after weeks or even months. Today we have unifying factors like the Indian Railways, the Indian Airlines, the Posts and Telegraphs and such other symbols of national unity, which did not exist in the past.
The variations in climatic condition, land structure and political set-up have resulted in considerable differences in dress, food habit and social customs and practices. The dress of the people of Rajasthan due to heat is bound to differ from that of the people of Kashmir due to cold. The people of the south under Saivite influence put sandal marks on their forehead whereas the people of the north under the influence of Vaishnavism were more liberal and catholic. The Hindu society as such is divided into a number of castes or varnas with well-defined functions for each Varna.
A modern writer, who has attempted a vivid portrayal of the diversities in India says, "Everybody looks different and dresses differently. Complexions range from white to black coffee, nose for Biblical spurs to Mongolian pugs; some people are very tall, others very; short. Dress, like a botanical classification, reveals the exact identity of the bearer, his or her religion, caste, region and occupation. The variety is endless."