India | Facts and History

Many rural women in India have to walk miles every day to get water.
Indian women in saris carry water-jugs on their heads. Martin Harvey / Digital Vision via Getty Images

Capital and Major Cities


New Delhi, population 12,800,000

Major Cities

Mumbai, population 16,400,000

Kolkata, population 13,200,000

Chennai, population 6,400,000

Bangalore, population 5,700,000

Hyderabad, population 5,500,000

Ahmedabad, population 5,000,000

Pune, population 4,000,000

India's Government

India is a parliamentary democracy.

The head of government is the Prime Minister, currently Narendra Modi. Pranab Mukherjee is the current President and head of state. The President serves a five-year term; he or she appoints the Prime Minister.

The Indian Parliament or Sansad is made up of the 245-member Rajya Sabha or upper house and the 545-member Lok Sabha or lower house. The Rajya Sabha is elected by state legislatures for six-year terms, while the Lok Sabha is elected directly by the people to five-year terms.

The judiciary consists of a Supreme Court, High Courts that hear appeals, and many trial courts.

Population of India

India is the second most populous nation on Earth, with approximately 1.2 billion citizens. The country's annual population growth rate is 1.55%.

The people of India represent over 2,000 different ethno-linguistic groups. About 24% of the population belongs to one of the Scheduled Castes (the "untouchables") or Scheduled Tribes; these are historically discriminated-against groups given special recognition in the Indian Constitution.

Although the country has at least 35 cities with more than one million residents, the vast majority of Indians live in rural areas - some 72% of the total population.


India has two official languages - Hindi and English. However, its citizens speak an array of languages spanning the Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burmic linguistic families. More than 1,500 languages are spoken today in India.

The languages with the most native speakers are: Hindi, 422 million; Bengali, 83 million; Telugu, 74 million; Marthi, 72 million; and Tamil, 61 million.

The diversity of spoken languages is matched by a number of written scripts. Many are unique to India, although some northern Indian languages such as Urdu and Panjabi may be written in a form of Perso-Arabic script.


Greater India is the birthplace of a number of religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. Currently, about 80% of the population is Hindu, 13% is Muslim, 2.3% Christian, 1.9% Sikh, and there are smaller populations of Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Jews and Jains.

Historically, two religious branches of thought developed in ancient India. The Shramana led to Buddhism and Jainism, while the Vedic tradition developed into Hinduism. Modern India is a secular state, but religious tensions do flare from time to time, particularly between Hindus and Muslims or Hindus and Sikhs.

Indian Geography

India covers 1.27 million square miles in area (3.29 million sq km). It is the seventh-largest country on Earth.

It borders on Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east, Bhutan, China and Nepal to the north, and Pakistan to the west.

India includes a high central plain, called the Deccan Plateau, the Himalayas in the north, and desert lands to the west. The highest point is Kanchenjunga at 8,598 meters. The lowest point is sea level.

Rivers are crucial in India and include the Ganga (Ganges) and Brahmaputra.

Climate of India

India's climate is strongly monsoonal, and is also influenced by the vast topographical variation between the coastal areas and the Himalaya range.

Thus, the climate ranges from alpine glacial in the mountains to wet and tropical in the southwest and hot and arid in the northwest. The lowest temperature ever recorded was -34°C (-27.4°F) in Ladakh. The highest was 50.6°C (123°F) in Alwar.

Between June and September, massive amounts of monsoon rainfall pummel much of the country, bringing as much as 5 feet of rain.


India has shaken off the doldrums of a socialist command economy, instituted after independence in the 1950s, and is now a rapidly-growing capitalist nation.

Although about 55% of India's work force is in agriculture, the service and software sectors of the economy are expanding quickly, creating an ever-growing urban middle class. Nonetheless, an estimated 22% of Indians live below the poverty level. Per capita GDP is $1070.

India exports textiles, leather goods, jewelry, and refined petroleum. It imports crude oil, gem stones, fertilizer, machinery, and chemicals.

As of December 2009, $1 US = 46.5 Indian rupees.

History of India

Archaeological evidence of early modern humans in what is now India dates back 80,000 years. However, the first recorded civilization in the area appeared just over 5,000 years ago. This was the Indus Valley / Harappan Civilization, c. 3300-1900 BCE, in what is now Pakistan and northwestern India.

After the Indus Valley Civilization fell, perhaps as a result of raiders from the north, India entered the Vedic period (c. 2000 BCE-500 BCE). Philosophies and beliefs that developed during this period influenced the Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism, and also led directly to the later development of Hinduism.

In 320 BCE, the powerful new Mauryan Empire conquered most of the subcontinent. Its most famous king was the third ruler, Ashoka the Great (c. 304-232 BCE).

The Mauryan Dynasty fell in 185 BCE, and the country remained fragmented until the rise of the Gupta Empire (c. 320-550 CE). The Gupta era was a golden age in Indian history. However, the Guptas controlled only northern India and the east coast - the Deccan Plateau and southern India remained outside of their ambit. Long after the fall of the Guptas, these regions continued to answer to the rulers of a number of small kingdoms.

Beginning with invasions out of Central Asia in the 900s, north and central India experienced increasing Islamic rule that would last until the nineteenth century.

The first Islamic empire in India was the Delhi Sultanate, originally from Afghanistan, which ruled from 1206 to 1526 CE. It included the Mamluk, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid and Lodi Dynasties, respectively. The Delhi Sultanate received a terrible blow when Timur the Lame invaded in 1398; it fell to his descendant, Babur, in 1526.

Babur then founded the Mughal Empire, which would rule much of India until it fell to the British in 1858. The Mughals were responsible for some of India's most famous architectural wonders, including the Taj Mahal. However, independent Hindu kingdoms coexisted with the Mughals, including the Maratha Empire, the Ahom Kingdom in the Brahmaputra Valley, and the Vijayanagara Empire at the south of the subcontinent.

British influence in India began as trade relations. The British East India Company gradually expanded its control over the subcontinent, until it was able to use the 1757 Battle of Plassey as an excuse to take political power in Bengal. By the mid-1850s, the East India Company controlled not only most of what is now India but also Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma.

In 1857, harsh Company rule and religious tensions sparked the Indian Revolt, also known as the "Sepoy Rebellion." Royal British troops moved in to take control of the situation; the British government exiled the last Mughal emperor to Burma and seized the reins of power from the East India Company. India became an all-out British colony.

Beginning in 1919, a young lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi helped lead increasing calls for Indian independence. The "Quit India" movement gathered momentum throughout the interwar period and World War II, finally resulting in India's declaration of independence on August 15, 1947. (Pakistan declared its own, separate independence the day before.)

Modern India faced several challenges. It had to knit together the 500+ princely domains that had existed under British rule, and try to keep the peace between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. India's constitution, which came into effect in 1950, sought to address these problems. It created a federal, secular democracy - the first in Asia.

The first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, organized India with a socialist economy. He led the country until his death in 1964; his daughter, Indira Gandhi, soon took the reins as the third Prime Minister. Under her rule, India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974.

Since independence, India has fought four full-scale wars with Pakistan, and one with the Chinese over a disputed border in the Himalayas. The fighting in Kashmir continues today, and the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks show that cross-border terrorism remains a serious threat.

Nonetheless, India today is a growing, thriving democracy.