India is the world's second most populous nation (after China). Its ethnic composition is complex, but two major strains predominate: the Aryan, in the north, and the Dravidian, in the south. India is a land of great cultural diversity, as is evidenced by the enormous number of different languages spoken throughout the country. Although Hindi (spoken in the north) and English (the language of politics and commerce) are used officially, more than 1,500 languages and dialects are spoken. The Indian constitution recognizes 15 regional languages (Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu). Ten of the major states of India are generally organized along linguistic lines.
Although the constitution forbids the practice of "untouchability," and legislation has been used to reserve quotas for former untouchables (and also for tribal peoples) in the legislatures, in education, and in the public services, the caste system continues to be influential. About 80% of the population is Hindu, and 14% is Muslim. Other significant religions include Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists. There is no state religion. The holy cities of India attract pilgrims from throughout the East: Varanasi (formerly Benares), Allahabad, Puri, and Nashik are religious centers for the Hindus; Amritsar is the holy city of the Sikhs; and Satrunjaya Hill near Palitana is sacred to the Jains.
With its long and rich history, India retains many outstanding archaeological landmarks; preeminent of these are the Buddhist remains at Sarnath, Sanchi, and Bodh Gaya; the cave temples at Ajanta, Ellora, and Elephanta; and the temple sites at Madurai, Thanjavur, Abu, Bhubaneswar, Konarak, and Mahabalipuram. For other aspects of Indian culture, see Hindu music; Indian art and architecture; Indian literature; Mughal art and architecture; Pali canon; Prakrit literature; Sanskrit literature.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.