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About India
India will sideswipe you with its size, clamour and diversity - but if you enjoy delving into convoluted cosmologies and thrive on sensual overload, then it is one of the most intricate and rewarding dramas unfolding on earth, and you'll quickly develop an abiding passion for it.

Nothing in the country is ever quite predictable; the only thing to expect is the unexpected, which comes in many forms and will always want to sit next to you. India is a litmus test for many travellers - some are only too happy to leave, while others stay for a lifetime.

The country's glorious diversity means there's an astonishing array of sacred sites, from immaculately kept Jain temples to weathered Buddhist stupas; there's history around every corner, with countless monuments, battle-scarred forts, abandoned cities and ancient ruins all having tales to tell; and there are beaches to satiate the most avid sun worshipper. On a personal level, however, India is going to be exactly what you make of it.

History
India's first major civilisation flourished for a thousand years from around 2500 BC along the Indus River valley. Its great cities were Mohenjodaro and Harappa (in what is now Pakistan), which were ruled by priests and held the rudiments of Hinduism. Aryan invaders swept south from Central Asia between 1500 and 200 BC and controlled northern India, pushing the original Dravidian inhabitants south.

The invaders brought their own gods and cattle-raising and meat-eating traditions, but were absorbed to such a degree that by the 8th century BC the priestly caste had reasserted its supremacy. This became consolidated in the caste system, a hierarchy maintained by strict rules that secured the position of the Brahmin priests. Buddhism arose around 500 BC, condemning caste; it drove a radical swathe through Hinduism in the 3rd century BC when it was embraced by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who controlled huge tracts of India.

A number of empires, including the Guptas, rose and fell in the north after the collapse of the Mauryas. Hinduism underwent a revival from 40 to 600 AD, and Buddhism began to decline. The north of India broke into a number of separate Hindu kingdoms after the Huns' invasion; it was not really unified again until the coming of the Muslims in the 10th and 11th centuries. The far south, whose prosperity was based on trading links with the Egyptians, Romans and southeast Asia, was unaffected by the turmoil in the north, and Hinduism's hold on the region was never threatened.

In 1192 the Muslim Ghurs arrived from Afghanistan. Within 20 years the entire Ganges basin was under Muslim control, though Islam failed to penetrate the south. Two great kingdoms developed in what is now Karnataka: the mighty Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, and the fragmented Bahmani Muslim kingdom.

Mughal emperors marched into the Punjab from Afghanistan, defeated the Sultan of Delhi in 1525, and ushered in another artistic golden age. The Maratha Empire grew during the 17th century and gradually took over more of the Mughals' domain. The Marathas consolidated control of central India until they fell to the last great imperial power, the British.

The British were not, however, the only European power in India: the Portuguese had controlled Goa since 1510 and the French, Danes and Dutch also had trading posts. By 1803, when the British overwhelmed the Marathas, most of the country was under the control of the British East India Company, which had established its trading post at Surat in Gujarat in 1612.

The company treated India as a place to make money, and its culture, beliefs and religions were left strictly alone. Britain expanded iron and coal mining, developed tea, coffee and cotton plantations, and began construction of India's vast rail network. They encouraged absentee landlords because they eased the burden of administration and tax collection, creating an impoverished landless peasantry - a problem which is still chronic in Bihar and West Bengal. The Uprising in northern India in 1857 led to the demise of the East India Company, and administration of the country was handed over to the British government.

Culture
It has been said that India is less a country than a continent, and it holds as many variations in religion, language, customs, art and cuisine as it does in topography. For the traveller, this cultural feast is India's great strength.

Indian art is basically religious in its themes and developments, and its appreciation requires at least some background knowledge of the country's faiths. The highlights include classical Indian dance, Hindu temple architecture and sculpture (where one begins and the other ends is often hard to define), the military and urban architecture of the Mughals, miniature painting, and mesmeric Indian music. Of course, India's creativity continues to thrive, its most lively contemporary expression being filmi culture.

Indian art is basically religious in its themes and developments, and its appreciation requires at least some background knowledge of the country's faiths. The highlights include classical Indian dance, Hindu temple architecture and sculpture (where one begins and the other ends is often hard to define), the military and urban architecture of the Mughals, miniature painting, and mesmeric Indian music. The latter is difficult for Western ears to immediately appreciate, but it doesn't take long to get a feel for it.

Contrary to popular belief, not all Hindus are officially vegetarians. Although you'll find vegetarians everywhere, strict vegetarianism is most prevalent in the south (which has not been influenced by meat-eating Aryans and Muslims) and in the Gujarati community. There are considerable regional variations from north to south, partly because of climatic conditions and partly because of historical influences. In the north, much more meat is eaten and the cuisine is often Mughlai, which bears a closer relationship to food of the Middle East and Central Asia. The emphasis is more on spices and less on chilli; grains and breads are more popular than rice. In the south, more rice is eaten, there is more vegetarian food, and the curries tend to be hotter. Another feature of southern vegetarian food is that you do not use eating utensils; just scoop the food up with your fingers - though not with those of your left hand.
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