A General Introduction to India by Bob Cranwell

This is an article written by Bob Cranwell, author of the website Amateur Emigrant.  He worked in adventure and tailormade travel as a Tour Leader and driver, an Operations Manager, Country Manager, Travel Agent and Tour Operator.  He has done a vast array of different jobs from emptying cesspits using a bucket nailed to an old oar, to creating documents which formed part of a submission to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

Bob Cranwell
Bob Cranwell

Hinduism and India’s Early History

India today is one of the few countries in the world where the social and religious structures which have defined its identity have remained intact for around four thousand years despite wars, religious persecutions, famines, political upheavals and any other cataclysms you may think of. To describe it as a land of contrasts is to state the obvious. Many other countries could lay claim to such a description on the basis of the huge range and mixture of its population, but the sheer scale of everything in India defies the imagination.


Other than the inevitable encroachments made by coca-cola culture, transistors and motor transport village India remains much the same as several thousand years ago. The mix of social and religious systems is so strong, and yet so static in terms of change, that it has absorbed or refused to be significantly changed by any attempt to conquer it. Even today, its resilience has, to a large degree, prevented it from being absorbed or compromised by the demands of the secular state.


Hinduism, the principal force behind this resilience is practised in one form or another by 83% of the population, a population, moreover which has about 73% engaged in agricultural work in the countryside, well away from the real centres of change, the big cities. Hinduism can in fact be traced back to the pre-Aryan civilisations which flourished on the banks of the Indus over three thousand years ago. In excavations at Mohenjo Daro and Harrapa, it has been established that the system was one based on the unchanging traditions and rituals of the temples. Land tenure was dictated by a priestly heirarchy. Clay figurines suggest worship of a mother goddess, (modern day Kali), and a male, three faced god seated like a yogi, surrounded by four animals, (Siva), have been found.


Even at that time certain animals were regarded as sacred, the most prominent being the hump-backed Brahma bull. The traditional Hindu fear of ritual pollution is reflected in the intricate systems of drainage at Harrapa, as well as evidence of the taboo of drinking out of the same cup as a different caste – unusually large heaps of fragments of clay cups have been found around the sites of wells, where they will have been smashed deliberately after use.



Both of these early sites fell to the successive waves of Aryan invaders from central Asia between 1500 and 1200 B.C., who eventually came to control most of Northern India. They brought with them their nature gods, ones for fire and battle, along with their cattle raising and meat-eating traditions. Gradually their beliefs were incorporated into a widening incipient Hinduism, which now included the Vedas, the sacred scriptures. By 800 B.C., however, the priestly castes has reasserted their dominant position in Indian society. To an extent this is paralleled by the victory by Brahma the universal soul, over Indra, the god of thunder and battle, which is recorded in the Vedas.


The social order which reflected this assimilation of the Aryans and the supremacy of the priests became consolidated in the caste system. This was composed of, in order of rank: Brahmins, (priests, teachers); Kshatriyas, (warriors); Vaisyas, (artisans); and Sudras, (peasants, labourers and servants).


Outside of this system were the countless members of unassimilated tribes, and those with unclean occupations, such as sweepers. Even today members of aboriginal tribes are casteless, as are Europeans, and their descendants. The child of a liaison between a British officer and a Rajput princess may face few problems in life, but what becomes of the child of a stoker and a Bombay prostitute? They face a life of begging, since they are outside the caste system.


Control over this order was maintained by extremely strict rules designed to secure the position of the Brahmins. Each caste acquired its own elaborate set of taboos, regarding diet, marriage, travel, visiting, eating and drinking, with which to assert its superiority over castes considered to be inferior.


Alongside this, the concept of Dharma developed, producing a common, if not always consensus ground for morality, it also imbued a strong respect for all animal life, especially the cow, and for Brahmins. Persons who disregarded this system were considered to have become outcastes, and were no longer associated with by caste members, a very effective method of maintaining allegiance in such a strong family-based society.


The British themselves would one day discover that conquest might mean deference, but not hospitality, since all invaders were considered out castes. Individual aspirations, then, as much as in modern India, tended to be subsumed in the group needs, but there were favourable points, too. Where caste members fell upon hard times, they could expect to receive assistance from other caste members.


The cattle raising and meat-eating habits of the Aryan invaders were not eradicated, and this still forms one of the principal differences between the North and the South of India, the latter being predominantly vegetarian to the present day, Over the years, Hinduism, like any other religion, has been subject to many schisms and challenges, in an attempt open up its rigid system, the most notable being the Buddhists and the Jains. Both provided impetus for the idea of Ahimsa, (reverence for animal life), but neither succeeded in sapping the essential character and strength of Brahminical Hinduism.


They both rejected the Vedas, and condemned caste, though unlike the Buddhists, the Jains never denied their Hindu parentage, and their faith never made any converts beyond India. Buddhism, on the other hand concentrated on the propagation of a “middle path”, of detachment from emotion, a path between sensuality and asceticism.


It did succeed in gaining ground from Hinduism, particularly during the reign of the emperor Asoka in the mid-3rd century B.C., when it was even declared the state religion. It never became the religion of the Indian masses, though, and it was to find more fertile ground elsewhere in Asia, whilst practically dying out in the land of its origin. Practicing Buddhists make up less than one percent, far even than Christians.


The Hindu reaction to the atheistic tendencies inherent in Jainism and Buddhism found expression in the devotion to personal gods, or bhakti, represented today by the sects based on the worship of reincarnations of the three principal gods of Hinduism. These are Brahman, god of creation; Vishnu, god of preservation; and Siva, essentially god of change, but often identified as god of destruction. There are in fact over thirty thousand gods in the Hindu religion, something which often confounds western observers, but which is wholly in keeping with the Hindu society, where so often personal and material change is so impossible as to be imaginary, then a proliferation of highly personalised and localised religious beliefs will spring up.


The invasions of Alexander the Great, in 326 B.C., had hardly any effect on India, except for parts of Pakistan, where non-Muslim tribal groups, such as the Kafir Kailash in the Northern mountains maintain European appearance. The women are free and do not wear the veils or burquas seen everywhere else in the Muslim world, and in fact the tribes claim descent from soldiers of Alexander. Unification of an area including Northern India and Afghanistan was accomplished by the Mauryas, soon after Alexander.



They set up a well-organised empire, with a standing army supported by the king, as well as an efficient bureaucracy. to collect the wherewithal for the king to spend, in the form of taxes, agricultural tithes and produce. Tax evasion and lawlessness were heavily punished, but corruption was rife, and the life of the peasant was unrelentingly harsh. The Mauryan empire gave way in turn to the Guptas in about A.D.200, who continued to rule much as before, with the monolith of Hinduism gradually absorbing any alien influences into itself.


A long time passed before the next truly significant change in the course of India’s development, which was the coming of the Muslims, on a wave of expansion from Turkey, especially, around the 12th Century. These original efforts to control the country via a Sultanate at Delhi were largely successful, but short-lived.


Even though successive waves of muslim invasions and attacks had been sustained for 300 years, the Turkish dominated Sultanate gave way after only 50 years in power, to the invasions of Timur-i-leng in 1398. This was the great Tamburlane, whom Marlowe denounced as the “scourge of God” in his play of 1586, and although it would be a further two hundred years of unremarkable Sultanate rule before a united Moghul empire arose in India, his was an act which was to shape India more than almost any other period, in ushering in the ages of the Moghuls


The Moghuls to the Present Day

Unlike previous invaders, the Muslims retained a strong religious identity, and the contempt they heaped on infidels prevented them being absorbed by prevailing social conditions. Despite such domination, Hinduism survived and Islam was to find, India relatively infertile ground. By the 20th century after 800 years of Muslim presence, much of which was under Muslim rule, only 25% had converted to Islam.


One effect of this in the past was that since Muslims could not rule on their own, many Hindus had to employed in their bureaucracy, and this led to a common language, which combined Persian vocabulary and a Hindi grammatical structure. The language, Urdu, remains the principal language of large parts of Northern India and of Pakistan.


Babur the King of Kabul
Babur the King of Kabul

Babur the King of Kabul, had credentials which could hardly be matched as a conqueror; his descent was via his father to Tamburlane, and via his mother to Genghis Khan, and so it was most fitting that he should become the first of the Mongol conquerors to stay and rule instead of merely plundering and retiring with the booty as so many of his forebears had done. By the age of eighteen, he had already conquered the city of Samarkand twice.


He is often branded as an alcoholic and drug addict but as Bamber Gascoigne remarks, his approach was too ordered to be so far gone. Babur limited himself to four days of the week allotted to wine, with the remaining three days devoted to his favourite drug, majoun, or hashish. He invaded from Kabul in 1525, with 25,000 men, and defeated the incumbent rulers and their Rajput mercenary divisions at the battle of Panipat in the following year, although he was outnumbered by four to one.


Humayun was the second of the string of six great moghul rulers, and the moghul culture began to flourish. Babur’s last advice to his son was to “do naught against your brothers, even though they may deserve it,” Funny how age mellows some people, isn’t it. In any event this was fatal advice to a man as inclined to sentimentality as Humayun, for it resulted in his reign being punctuated by numerous plots and rebellions, generally fomented by his three disruptive, (but eternally forgiven) brothers.


He was known as a very superstitious man, never crossing a threshold with his left foot, and was also fond of taking opium in pellet form, with rosewater. If the Moghuls were remarkable for the power they weilded, they were most memorable for the splendour which they created. Humayun was just such a creator, for on accession he reorganised the court and its offices until it was like a huge astrological game. He’s been thought of a something of a nonentity in this powerful house of rulers, but he could qualify for the most colourful. He finally ended his days falling down the spiral staircase after taking an afternoon read on the library roof.


After Humayun came Akbar, who had quite a bloody reign, including one of the mass suicides at the fort of Chitor. There were in fact three, but this was the most terrible, with the loss of 30,000 lives. The sister of the present Maharawal of Dungarpur, in Charles Allen’s Lives of the Indian Princes”, says;


“The history of Rajasthan is something marvellous, but the history of Chitor is above everything. Three times in its history the women never turned their backs when they saw that their husbands were losing. Either they went into the battle field wearing men’s clothes, and sacrificed themselves, or they entered the pyre, and threw their children on it so as not to surrender to the intruders. Even girls of fifteen went out fighting, or went into the fire. It’s aweinspiring to think of it. Even today when you go to Chitor, you can feel it. It is our holy of holies, and yet you can go into every nook and cranny in the land and find there were brave people who made great sacrifices.”


Nevertheless, he seemed to have remarkable success in organising and expanding the area of Moghul rule. From 1556, the administration was completely overhauled, but not for the peasantry; they were as ruthlessly exploited as ever. Akbar did however encourage religious toleration, and even invited Jesuits from Goa to stay with him. (Goa was by this time a Portuguese colony: invaded, 1510.) Gascoigne suggests his wisdom as a ruler is reflected in the following passage from a letter to his son Murad, when appointing him as governor.


“Let not difference of religion interfere with policy, and be not violent in inflicting retribution. Adorn the confidential council with men who know their work. If apologies be made, accept them “.


His son, Salim, who named himself on accession to be Jahangir, “seizer of the world”, continued in much the same vein, but became victim to the excesses of power and wealth, being almost an alcoholic and an opium addict. He did, however, leave some interesting memoirs, which contain great amounts of his own changing perceptions on art, nature, and science, over and above the normal entries on daily life. Although he could be unpredictably cruel under the influence of alcohol, Jahangirs memoirs are full of thoughts about promoting social justice and administrative efficiency, though he seldom managed to go so far in putting them into effect.


One of his sons, Shah Jehan, secured his accession to the throne in 1527, by executing surviving male relatives. There was something of a return to Islamic fundamentalism during this period, and a rising splendour of the Moghul court. Many of the great monuments admired so much today come from the period of Sha Jehan and his son, Aurangzeb, and their mania for building. Unfortunately, their rising aestheticism in building did not extend to the treatment of their subjects. It was said that Shah Jehan in fact mutilated the hands of the architect of the Taj Mahal, so he would never build another. The memorial is built in honour of Shah Jehan’s wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died from complications resulting from the birth of her fourteenth child.


There is actually some doubt about the possible owner of these hands, incidentally, whether the earlier story is true or not. Those hitherto quoted as possible contenders include a Venetian jeweller and goldsmith, Geronimo Veroneo; Ustad Isa Afandi from Shiraz, Persia; or Ustad Ahmad from Lahore.


Although this period also saw something of a waning of the power of the Muslim court, possibly due to the repressive taxation which the Moghul opulence entailed, there is only praise for the magnificence of the empire of the Moghuls from a traveller, Tom Coryal, there in 1615. He walked the four hundred miles from Lahore through Delhi to Agra in 20 days, passing all the while beneath the tree-lined boulevards. Napoleon later used the same method of lining his main roads with trees, so that they could shade soldiers on the march. During the reign of Shah Jehan, the British, too got their first foothold, in securing trading rights in Madras in 1639.



With Aurangzeb, the power of the Moghul empire corroded away under the onslaught of easy living amongst the nobles and military leaders, and the internecine fighting between royal families grew to extraordinary complexity. Aurangzeb himself was in the unusual position for some time of being the jailer of both his father, Shah Jehan, in his fort at Agra, and his eldest son in the fort at Gwalior. This was part of the scenario which led to the ascendancy of the British East India Company, just as much as the disciplined troops, vast resources and supremacy at sea which the British enjoyed.


Coupled with this, however, was the fact that the British did not try to supplant a nationalism of their own. The British were interested in political control Only insofar as it secured their paramountcy in trade; they were quite happy to leave religious and social organisation alone. The Portuguese themselves failed, because they launched a fanatical religious assault on both Hindus and Muslims; in the end, the Muslim Moghul empire failed because they failed to be tolerant of the Hindus.


From the Moghuls to Independence

The establishment of Madras ushered in over a century of rivalry between the British and French colonialists, and rebellious Moghul princes, often involving violent skirmishes, until the battle of Plassey in 1757, where French power in India was finally eclipsed, along with that of some rebellious Moghul princes. The battle came as swift revenge for an incident where one hundred and forty five men and one women were held in a room eighteen feet square during June, the hottest month.


The Black Hole of Calcutta
The Black Hole of Calcutta

This was the legendary “Black Hole of Calcutta.” At the end of that night, twenty three people, of whom one was the woman, came out alive. Following this victory, the East India Company further expanded by starving the French into submission at Pondicherry, in 1761, until finally, their power was finally taken over by the British Government in the late 19th Century.


Even Clive, the victor of the battle of Plassey, though he had retired on the profits of his adventures in the East, in later years worked to reduce the corruption for which the company had grown famous. India was gradually taken over state by state, in a series of one-sided treaties with defeated or weak rulers, in which the British reserved the right to intervene in the affairs of the state, or in the interests of good government, to take over completely.


Over the following 50 years, a series of British governor-generals, and later, viceroys did much to repair and reconstruct after the excesses of the British East India Company. They vastly expanded communications and agricultural installations throughout the country, though with a keen eye on the balance sheet. English was promoted as the official court language, although lower courts changed to the Indian vernacular languages to replace the cumbersome Persian.


Sati, the ritual burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, was outlawed, and the exploitation of tea, coffee, coal and iron promoted, although the British never wanted an industrial revolution in India. Trade developments such as the influx of cheap factory made cloths from Lancashire all but destroyed this important village industry. The coming of the railways and road-building programmes, although primarily built for strategic reasons, gave something of a sense of Indian self-consciousness as travel became possible.


The apparent calm which had attended the takeover by the British Government was shattered by the 1857 Indian mutiny, apparently sparked over a rumour that has never since been established, that the bullets issued to Muslim troops were greased with pigfat. The mutiny spread rapidly and proved a focus for pro-Moghul forces. It was eventually put down with the utmost brutality, but gratuitous cruelty was meted out on both sides.


In the latter half of the 19th and the early 20th Centuries, a great Hindu revival movement swept the country, establishing Hinduism as a world religion, and probably cleared the way for Ghandi. The strength of popular feeling, both anti-British and pro Hindu, was felt by the British who engaged on a number of actions to try and accommodate them. After the shock of the mutiny, many more Indians were brought into the higher echelons of the Civil Service, and a Congress formed to give an opportunity to express ideas. This of course was originally more cosmetic than from any real desire to share power.


Budding Nationalism produced two principal strains, one in favour of a peaceful accession to power, a second in favour of seizing it. In any event, the whole question of nationalism had become so Hindu-dominated that the Muslims became alienated and withdrew from Congress; it was the consequences of this alienation that eventually led to the demands for an independent Pakistan.


Around the turn of the century, apparently, the British government had made plans to turn India into an independent dominion on the model of Canada by 1929, but had to mothball these plans on the outbreak of the 1st World war. For a time the Indian middle classes rallied to the British, raising 800,000 soldiers and making an outright gift of £100 million to the war effort, although too many things went wrong for the honeymoon to last.


The Allies attacked Turkey, a Muslim country, and thereby alienated the Muslims; demobilised soldiers returning to a disorganised countryside caused havoc, and a flu epidemic swept the country, killing over 5 million people.


Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

Around this period Ghandi, who had perfected the techniques of non-cooperation and non-violence amongst Hindus in South Africa, returned to India to become one of its most celebrated leaders. His launching of “satyagraha”, or passive resistance as a form of morality aimed at both purifying the victim and exerting a spiritual influence qver one’s oppressor, was a widespread success, since it drew strongly on the traditions of “ahimsa”, and the peasantry now saw a familiar thread applied to the world of politics. Unfortunately, his early “hartals”, or suspensions of all business, combined with fasting and prayer, were to cause riots in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Lahore and Amritsar, where severe and degrading punishments were meted out by the British.


The 20’s saw alternating periods of reconciliation, followed by violent protest, but the rule of Britain was waning in the face of the numbers involved. In one confrontation alone, 60,000 people were arrested. The Nehrus and Ghandi spent much of this period in and out of Jail, and a further force was appearing, in the form of Ali Jinnah, the progenitor of the modern Pakistan state.


The Second World War naturally interrupted these proceedings for a time, but a newly elected Labour government soon wished it could wash its hands of a problem that appeared completely intractable, although there was plenty of well-meaning support for an independent India, there was some resentment at being lumbered with such a huge headache. The Muslim League demanded a partitioned Pakistan, but India’s Congress refused to let this happen. Riots between Hindu and Muslim broke out in Calcutta and spread to Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In the face of such a prospective debacle, the British tried shock tactics and announced an independence date only a few months away, while tension rose in the partitioned areas.


It is estimated that almost 15 million people swapped countries during a brief period of 1947, but it is certain that hundreds of thousands were left dead. Everyone in the areas affected was in fear of their lives, whether in repression from the dominant group in their area, or from reprisal from the dominated, minority. During this first brief span of independence, Ghandi was shot by a journalist, leaving Jawaharlal Nehru as the new Prime Minister.


The violence at partition is still remembered by many, and in fact lies at the root of the wars which have broken out between Pakistan and India, in the problem of Kashmir, a Muslim majority, but a Hindu leader who chose India; in Bangladesh, where India intervened, when Pakistan tried to prevent the seizure of independence by its Eastern colony. It is said that these wars have only come to an end when both, sides had literally run out of aeroplanes and arms, and so with these unresolved conflicts, the upgrading of the military in both countries by the U.S., and the U.S.S.R., not to mention Britain and France, may be viewed with some alarm.


Nevertheless, in spite of the years of Mrs. Ghandi’s Emergency Powers, it is some credit to India that it has never succumbed to military dictatorship, as have so many 3rd world countries, and Pakistan’s attempts at democracy have been a singular failure in this respect, only a few years in total having been spent outside the control of the military.


In India, there appear to be no egg trees, or at least, as far as I was able to see. Notwithstanding this, a vast number of eggs are both visible and available, especially to be consumed by chillie-shy travellers, Eggs in all their myriad forms are offered by menus with a section for “continental” cooking, “Omlate, half-fry, full fry, crammd “, and a host of other indiginous egg concoctions adorn boards outside cafes, Whether egg-production is organised in any way is difficult to say; certainly there are a lot of hens, but then there are a lot of cows, too, not just in fields and pens, but in streets, on rooftops, in traffic jams, shops rubbish heaps and on the steps of the house.


Holy Cows in Jaisalmer
Holy Cows in Jaisalmer


In Jaisalmer, (pronounced Jesalmir), cows queue up, blocking even the narrowest of lanes and present their muzzles through the front door towards the end of the day, and usually receive a brass bowl of the outer leaves of cabbages, of rice husk and wheat chaff, of peelings and old chapatties. In return the cow munches placidly while a girl of the house tugs at swollen teats on empty udders to get a cupful or two of milk from this revered beast, I guess this makes quite a change from its normal diet, which on the streets seems to be snatched produce from slowly passing carts, or old straw thrown on the middens, or cardboard.


To us the sight of a cow steadily munching its way through a cardboard box, as an anaconda might engulf a small rodent seems bizarre, for we place them in green meadows, or in twighlit, warm and musty stalls, but both’ scenery and cows differ wildly from our own imported images of how things are, or should be.


In Rajasthan in particular, it seems to be Jaipur which holds the record’ for cow population, and it also boasts a phenomenal rise in human population too, from 600 000 a decade ago, to one and a half million, The Fink City is becoming increasingly difficult to see for bodies in the way. Rajah Jai Singh founded the new city when the wells of the Amber palace, 11 kilometres to the North, dried up or went brackish, as they often seemed to do in this driest corner of India, Jaipur could probably be the most colourful city in Rajasthan, steeped as it is in the arts of carpet design and manufacture, and being the centre for several schools of miniature and moghul art painting.


Indian Traditional Carpet
Indian Traditional Carpet

I visited carpet factories, and watched deft children’s hands recreating designs of Isfahan and Tabriz, in distant Persia, while the efficacies of American Express were explained to me, by Nr, Anthony, an expatriate from the South Indian state of Karnataka, should I be interested in purchase, Prices, as for any carpet, tend to take you aback a little, until the reality of the amount of work which you are buying for your few pounds a square foot hits you. On a silk carpet, you might be buying as much as 900 knots to the square inch, making 129,600 knots to a square foot. The square foot would be costing you perhaps 20 pounds, Wool carpets cost a quarter of that price, but only have 100 – 150 knots per square inch.


A painting school I visited several times was located up a particularly smelly alleyway which radiated from a bust of a Calcutta revolutionary called Bose, around which traffic and people and animals milled from dawn to late at night, A pissoir was located just at the entrance to the alleyway, (for men only, mind you, presumably the women didn’t get out enough to warrant public toilets), and that undoubtedly contributed to the pong, but not much, since at almost any time of day you could wander up this alleyway and pass one or two people with their bums blithely bared over the turgid flow of the laneside gutter, This was surely safer than squatting on the midden heap, where a ruminatory lapse might be violently disturbed by a pig in search of fast food.