the magical deer from the Ramayana

What is described as the culture of India is often more correctly viewed as the culture of northern India. Much of India’s greats classic culture—art, poetry, literature and music—has its roots in or was strongly influence by Persian culture. Nationwide, there are traditions of folk music, religious music and music associated with theater, radio and film. In addition, India's ethnic groups, each have their own entertainment, religious and folklore traditions. In the past music, dance and theater were often associated with prostitution and entertainers traditionally belonged to lower castes. Many traditionalists in India find Western music and culture offensive.

It has long been argued that the goal of art and culture in India is tap into something universal and spiritual. On the Indian concept of aesthetics, the Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta wrote n the 10th century: “Artistic creation is the direct or unconventionalized expression of a feeling of passion ‘generalized,’ that is, freed from distinction in time or space and therefore from individual relationships and practical interests, through an inner force of the artistic core creative intuition within the artist. This state of consciousness (“irasa”) embodied in the poem is transferred to the actor, the dance, the reciter and to the spectator.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts of The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York wrote: South Asia “has been the seat of great civilizations from time immemorial. From the Himalayan mountains to the vast island chains of the equator, from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific, the peoples of this region have produced magnificent art for thousands of years. Included are examples of Buddhist and Hindu sculpture in stone and bronze, later Indian court art, miniature painting, and elegant personal possessions. These artworks demonstrate that the people who created and owned them keenly appreciated the things of this world—the luxury and fine craftsmanship that power can command—and at the same time probed deeply into spiritual and cosmic matters of great complexity. South Asia encompasses the modern nations of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The subcontinent was the source of a great civilization which spread to Afghanistan in the northwest, to the Himalayan region (modern Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet) in the northeast, and eastward to Southeast Asia. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ^^]

Culture plays an important role in the development of any nation. It represents a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices. Culture and creativity manifest themselves in almost all economic, social and other activities. A country as diverse as India is symbolized by the plurality of its culture. India has one of the world’s largest collections of songs, music, dance, theatre, folk traditions, performing arts, rites and rituals, paintings and writings that are known, as the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ (ICH) of humanity. In order to preserve these elements, the Ministry of Culture implements a number of schemes and programmes aimed at providing financial support to individuals, groups and cultural organizations engaged in performing, visual and literary arts etc. [Source: National Portal of India ]

See the Different Groups Under Minorities.

Early History of Culture in India

Rama with a squirrel from the Ramayana

Modern India is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Excavations in the Indus valley trace civilization there back for at least 5,000 years. India’s cultural history includes prehistoric mountain cave paintings in Ajanta, the exquisite beauty of the Taj Mahal in Agra, the rare sensitivity and warm emotions of the erotic Hindu temple sculptures of the nineth-century Chandella rulers, and the Kutab Minar in Delhi.

Around 1500 B.C.E., Sanskrit-speaking Aryan tribes invaded the Indus valley from the northwest, and blended with the earlier inhabitants to create the classical Indian civilization. The Aryans were able to unite a wide variety of ethnic and linguistic groups under their integrated high culture but did not eliminate the rich diversity and variety that is still found in India today. Culture and the arts have developed in India in complex ways within this basic framework. The late medieval period was a time many regional art forms emerged and literatures in the vernacular appeared, many of which were associated with the Ramayana and Mahabharuta.

Kuru was the name of an Indo-Aryan tribe and their kingdom in the Vedic civilization of India. Their kingdom was located in the area of modern Haryana. They formed the first political center of the Indo-Aryans after the Rigvedic period, and after their emergence from the Punjab, and it was there that the codification and redaction of the Vedic texts began. Their capital was Indraprastha, which may have been the most powerful city in India, prior to the rise of the Magadhan city of Pataliputra. The Kuru kingdom figures prominently in the list of Mahajanapadas. At the time of Buddha, the Kuru realm was only three hundred leagues in extent, but was a cultural hub. The kingdom corresponds in name to the Kuru dynasty mentioned in the Indian epic Mahabharata. [Source: Glorious India]

The victory of good over evil is epitomized in the epic Ramayana (The Travels of Rama, or Ram in the preferred modern form), while another epic, Mahabharata (Great Battle of the Descendants of Bharata), spells out the concept of dharma and duty. More than 2,500 years later, Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, the father of modern India, used these concepts in the fight for independence. The Mahabharata records the feud between Aryan cousins that culminated in an epic battle in which both gods and mortals from many lands allegedly fought to the death, and the Ramayana recounts the kidnapping of Sita, Rama's wife, by Ravana, a demonic king of Lanka (Sri Lanka), her rescue by her husband (aided by his animal allies), and Rama's coronation, leading to a period of prosperity and justice. In the late twentieth century, these epics remain dear to the hearts of Hindus and are commonly read and enacted in many settings. In the 1980s and 1990s, Ram's story has been exploited by Hindu militants and politicians to gain power, and the much disputed Ramjanmabhumi, the birth site of Ram, has become an extremely sensitive communal issue, potentially pitting Hindu majority against Muslim minority. [Source: Library of Congress]

The 8th century to the 12th century is regarded as a kind of golden age of Hindu art. Powerful Hindu kingdoms such as imperial Chola existed at this time. After this time the Hindu kingdoms broke up and Muslim invaders arrived and Islam began having a great impact on Indian art and culture. The Muslims brought with them traditions from the Middle East and Persia Their influence was most pronounced in architecture and art. Hindu culture, especially in the form of dance and drama, has remained alive in southern India and Hindu temples in northern India

Gupta Culture

The Gupta Empire (A.D. 320 to 647) was marked by the return of Brahmanism (Hinduism) as the state religion. It also regarded as the classical period or golden age of Hindu art, literature and science. The Gupta established a strong central government which also allowed a degree of local control. Gupta society was ordered in accordance with Hindu beliefs. This included a strict caste system. Peace and prosperity created under Gupta leadership enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors. [Source: Regents Prep]

Rich cultures developed in south India in the Gupta era. Emotional Tamil poetry aided the Hindu revival. Art (often erotic), architecture and literature, all patronized by the Gupta court, flourished. Philosophy and science also enjoyed a kind of golden period. Literature flourished, and Indians exercised their proficiency in art, architecture and mathematics. Under the Guptas, Kalidsa produced great works of Sanskrit literature and the Ramayana and the Mahabharta were finally written down in the A.D. 4th century. India's greatest poet and dramatist, Kalidasa, acquired fame expressing the values of the rich and powerful. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Gupta empire is regarded as the golden age of Indian culture. The high points of this cultural creativity are magnificent and creative architecture, sculpture, and painting. The wall-paintings of Ajanta Cave in the central Deccan are considered among the greatest and most powerful works of Indian art. The paintings in the cave represent the various lives of the Buddha, but also are the best source we have of the daily life in India at the time. There are forty-eight caves making up Ajanta, most of which were carved out of the rock between 460 and 480, and they are filled with Buddhist sculptures. The rock temple at Elephanta (near Bombay) contains a powerful, eighteen foot statue of the three-headed Shiva, one of the principle Hindu gods. Each head represents one of Shiva's roles: that of creating, that of preserving, and that of destroying. The period also saw dynamic building of Hindu temples. All of these temples contain a hall and a tower. [Source: Glorious India]

Gupta literature consists of fables and folktales written in Sanskrit. These stories spread west to Persia, Egypt, and Greece, and became the basis for many Islamic literary works such as, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and his Magic Lamp. The Panchatantra and Kamasutra were written during this period. The greatest writer of the time was Kalidasa. Poetry in the Gupta age tended towards a few genres: religious and meditative poetry, lyric poetry, narrative histories (the most popular of the secular literatures), and drama. The Nalanda University in Bihar, came to fame during the Gupta rule. [Source: Glorious India]

Gupta architecture was dedicated to building stone temples to the various Hindu gods. Also, Buddhists built shrines to house the remains of select holy people. These structures were called Stupas. This form of architecture made its way to China where it was altered slightly and renamed the pagoda.Unfortunately, very few monuments built during Gupta reign survive today. Examples of Gupta architecture are found in the Vaishnavite Tigawa temple at Jabalpur (in Madhya Pradesh state) built in A.D. 415 and another temple at Deogarhnear Jhansi built in A.D. 510. Bhita in Uttar Pradesh State has a number of ancient Gupta temples, most are in ruins. [Source: Regents Prep]

Culture in Southern India after the Gupta Empire

Dancing Celestial

The interdynastic rivalry and seasonal raids into each other's territory notwithstanding, the rulers in the Deccan and South India patronized all three religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The religions vied with each other for royal favor, expressed in land grants but more importantly in the creation of monumental temples, which remain architectural wonders. The cave temples of Elephanta Island (near Bombay, or Mumbai in Marathi), Ajanta, and Ellora (in Maharashtra), and structural temples of Kanchipuram (in Tamil Nadu) are enduring legacies of otherwise warring regional rulers. By the mid-seventh century, Buddhism and Jainism began to decline as sectarian Hindu devotional cults of Shiva and Vishnu vigorously competed for popular support. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although Sanskrit was the language of learning and theology in South India, as it was in the north, the growth of the bhakti (devotional) movements enhanced the crystallization of vernacular literature in all four major Dravidian languages: Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada; they often borrowed themes and vocabulary from Sanskrit but preserved much local cultural lore. Examples of Tamil literature include two major poems, Cilappatikaram (The Jewelled Anklet) and Manimekalai (The Jewelled Belt); the body of devotional literature of Shaivism and Vaishnavism — Hindu devotional movements; and the reworking of the Ramayana by Kamban in the twelfth century. A nationwide cultural synthesis had taken place with a minimum of common characteristics in the various regions of South Asia, but the process of cultural infusion and assimilation would continue to shape and influence India's history through the centuries. *


The Mughals (also called the Moguls, Mugals or Moghuls) were a Muslim people that originated from Central Asia. They are related to the Mongols, Turks and other horse people who came from the Central Asian steppe, like their ancestors Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). The word Mughal comes from the Persian word for Mongol. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, April 1985]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Mughals established an empire that at its peak extended across most of northern India. The Mughal military conquest was directed against both Hindu (Rajput) and Muslim kingdoms and continued through the seventeenth century. However, the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) realized that a policy of tolerance and inclusion would better serve Mughal interests, allowing them to consolidate their conquests and create an effective political system.As a way of securing loyalties, members of the Mughal royal family married Rajput royalty, and Rajput maharajas served as Mughal generals and statesmen. Many Indians converted to Islam in order to advance in the powerful Mughal bureaucracy and to participate in their networks of trade to the east and west. Although the Mughal dynasty continued until 1857, it gradually lost power and by the second half of the eighteenth century, its function was largely ceremonial.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Mughal Culture

"The Mughals rulers were," Holland Carter wrote in the New York Times, "by all accounts, awful and admirable in about equal measure. Austere political spinmeisters, they were quick to realize the propaganda potential of art."

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Many Indians were attracted to Sufism, an Islamic sect that preached a direct approach to God through love and devotion. Such an approach was remarkably similar to the Hindu belief in bhakti, the personal devotion to God. Mughal painting and architecture influenced the indigenous Rajput styles and, by the late seventeenth century, constituted the dominant court style. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Mughal gardens featured fountains and water "tumbling from terrace to terrace into pools arranged geometrically among flowers and fruit trees," shade pavilions, reflection pools and fountains. The Moonlight Garden outside the Taj Mahal featured jujube trees, chamoc and cockscomb flowers, mango palms, fig trees, and red cedar. A 100-foot-wide reflecting pool contains 25 fountains an elaborate water works that included wells, cisterns, pipes, channels, cascaded and pools.

Persia had a great deal of influence on Mughal art. Persian artists were brought in and Persian became the language of the court, and poetry and literature was written in Persian. Urdu, a blend of Hindi and Persian, grew out of the language of the Mughal court.

see Art, Music

Culture Under the Mughal Emperors

from the Hamzanama: The Spy Zanbur Bringing Mahiyya to the City of Tawariq

Jalal-ud-Din Akbar (1542-1605, ruled 1556-1605) is regarded as the greatest of all the Mughal emperors ("Akbar" in fact means "Great"). Akbar was illiterate but he loved a good discussion. It is ironic that a man who was well cultured and seemed well read was illiterate. He employed a large number of artists to create illustrations about things other men read about. Much of the Mughal art hanging in museums is illustrations from manuscripts in Akbar's library. Akbar was infatuated with Persia culture. He made Persian the official language of the court and government and had the Hindu classic Mahabharatat and Ramayana translated into Persian. Great art was produced in Akbar rules. Among the great architectural monuments produced in his reign were the Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, and Lahore Fort.

Mughal painting reached it greatest heights under Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627, ruled 1605-1629), Akbar's son. Artists arrived from Persia at a rapid clip. The works included pages from the Koran illuminated and decorated with tiny flowers and geometric designs, miniature battle scenes from manuscripts and "paintings by rare artists" from Jahangir's place. Under Jahangir, Lahore attracted craftsmen from all over Asia: tilemakers weavers, carvers and miniaturists. Jahangir enjoyed gardens and spent his summers in relatively cool Kashmir. He built the Gardens of Shalimar ("Abode of Love") in Kashmir. He once wrote, "The flowers of Kashmir are beyond counting and calculation...The breeze in that place scented one's brain." Jahangir loved Kashmir. He treasured the time he spent with his father there.

Shah Jahan (1592-1666, ruled 1629-1658) is known mostly as the Mughal ruler who built the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan ruled India during the golden age of Mughal art an architecture. He oversaw the merging of Hindu and Muslim art to produce spectacular miniature paintings and great architecture.

Mughal architecture reached it apex under Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Red Fort and great mosque in Delhi, and Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. Trademarks of his building included white marble and scalloped arches. Some scholars have suggest that his motivation was a desire to outshine the Persian ruler, Shah Abbas I, who had created the magnificent capital at Isfahan. Before Shah Jahan Mughal rulers constructed their buildings mostly from red brick.

Introduction of European Culture in India

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer, sailed around Africa and made landfall on the west coast of India in 1498. Soon, Portuguese merchants had established a trading port at Goa. They introduced from the Americas emeralds treasured by the Mughals, and also chili peppers, which rapidly became a staple seasoning in India’s various cuisines because of their preservative powers. Soon to follow the merchants were Jesuit priests equipped with European prints and Bibles and eager to convert the Mughal rulers. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“Although intrigued with Christian beliefs and examples of European art, Mughal emperors beginning with Akbar (r. 1556–1605) were much more interested in establishing trade relations with Europe. They exported textiles, spices, and gems but acquired very few European goods in exchange, preferring instead payment in gold and silver, which increased their wealth immensely and enabled the court to indulge in luxurious and highly refined works of art. For their part, Europeans found it easy to com- ply with this demand because they had plentiful supplies of these metals from South American mines.

“European civilization was beginning to blend and interact with the equally rich heritages of ancient India and Islam, a process that continues in South Asia today. The Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British vied for trading advantages and began to establish inland trading centers as well as ports along the coast. As so often in the past, the Mughals and the smaller Muslim and Hindu kingdoms failed to unite against these intrusions. During the second half of the eighteenth century, the British overcame their European competitors, gradually gaining control of the divided remnants of the Mughal Empire and what was left of the smaller kingdoms. By the middle of the nineteenth century, almost the entire subcontinent was united for the first time under colonial rule, represented by the British Raj.”

Spread of Indian Culture in Asia

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “The Indian subcontinent forms a huge cultural sphere and its influence has radiated around almost the whole of Asia. Two Indian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well the sacred language, Sanskrit, cosmology and architectural and other artistic prototypes gradually spread to other parts Asia. This is also partly true with the theatrical traditions. The grand epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, for example, together with Hinduism, spread to various parts of Asia, where they are still enacted in various styles. The theory and dance-like acting technique of Indian theatre were also adapted and gradually localised in those regions with long-lasting contacts with the Indian subcontinent. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts of The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York wrote: “Through the arts one can trace the development of India’s great belief systems, Buddhism and Hinduism, and their spread to Sri Lanka, the Himalayan regions, and mainland and island Southeast Asia. The civilization of the Indian subcontinent is one of the oldest in the world. Its cultural continuities, and its powerful influence across most of Asia, can be traced from ancient times. India is the home of Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Jain religions. Its contributions to Southeast Asian cultures, transmitted through trade and commercial contact, transformed tribal societies of the region into a series of kingdoms in which Indian religions, cosmology, language, notions of kingship, and aesthetic forms flourished. As Buddhism spread to East Asia, Indian iconography and styles of art also had a profound impact on the cultures of Nepal, Tibet, China, and Korea. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ^^]

“Although the subcontinent was partially isolated from the rest of Asia by the Himalayas, from early times traders pushed through the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush, westward to Asia and to the Mediterranean world beyond, and northeastward to China. India’s history was greatly influenced by periodic invasions of peoples from the north and northwest through these same mountain passes. Each time, the invaders and their belief systems were eventually absorbed into the mainstream of Indian civilization, influencing and enriching it in the process. The vast subcontinent was rarely unified and, over the centuries, the many Indian kingdoms that flourished there developed independent aesthetic styles. Nonetheless, certain similarities in content and style can be seen throughout the subcontinent.” ^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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