910 Geography - India



Table of Contents

1. Personal Context

My ancestry is British Isles, Scandinavia, and Germany, plus lots of Pacific Northwest personal experience. Until recently, "Indian" meant American Indian. Like most Americans coming of age in the 1960's, I had crossed paths with India via Japanese Zen Buddhism, and its links back to India. I had read Bhagavad Gita, with no understanding. I used yoga positions in my daily workout.

In about 2000 I began to meet (east) Indians at work. Always with a lilting English accent, and always intelligent and quick learning. But we also had Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian people on the team and they were also intelligent and quick learning. So Indians didn't stand out except for the lilting accent.

Then in 2012, I was surrounded by Indians, and finally realized I needed to get serious.

2. Intro for Americans

European food is pretty bland without spices. Historically most spices came from India's southwest coast, aka Malabar Coast (Kerala). Historically, Arab traders made fortunes on the "spice trade" to Europe via the Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean.

Portugal figured out how to get there via Africa's Cape Hope, and got rich on that trade. Columbus, an Italian sailing for Spain, was trying to get to India by an alternate route when he bumped into the "New World". He called the locals "Indians". European microbes and armies pretty much wiped out the American Indians, leaving a nearly empty hemisphere to conquer. But not much in the way of spices (hot peppers come from South America)

The British used their navy to get a toehold in India. Then they pushed further inland and conquered the whole subcontinent, inventing the "British Raj". In this case the Indian microbes (and Indian people) were tougher than the Europeans, so it was a standoff -- guns vs a vibrant culture. By mid 1800's Indians were pushing back, and by mid 1900's they won independence.

During the British Raj, people from gray, chilly, rainy, dreary Northern Europe were exposed to a vibrant, colorful, warm/hot, dangerous, passionate world. Reactions included:

  • Study geology and geography. Maps from top of Everest to tip of Sri Lanka. Discover sea shell fossils high in Himalayas.

  • Study plants and animals, take some home. Become hunters/killers of tigers and elephants and pretty much anything that moved.

  • Study languages and dialects. Discover the IndoEuropean family, the IndoAryan family, and the Dravidian family. Study ancient texts and local oral history.

  • Study religions. Lots of them, living side by side. Travelers brought home a hodgepodge of Hindu gods and goddesses, Buddhism, yoga exercises, mandalas, chants, and colorful festivals.

  • Suffer from malaria. Learn to use quinine for the spasms, and to cover its taste with alcohol ("gin-and-tonic"). Study "tropical diseases" and thus make major strides into microbiology.

  • Use the upcountry "hill stations" to escape summer's muggy heat. Borrow and reinforce the caste system to run the empire. Thus reward Brahman scholars to work as accountants, clerks, and functionaries. In the process, deform the existing caste and clan arrangements, considerably confusing later historians, politicians, and sociologists.

Post WWII, exhausted empires dissolved, and independence movements sprang up. India was no different. A longer history of fighting for it, and more complexities to address. While there was local turmoil, the external face as seen in the West in 1950-1970, was of deep spirituality. Yoga, various forms of Buddhism, sitar music, mandalas -- sometimes with miscues:

  • "Why are we staring at this colored circle?" "It's a mandala. It makes you enlightened" "What is enlightened?" "I think is it something like being stoned".

  • "Let's burn incense. It covers the smell of smoking a joint."

By 1980 there was a different perception. People were migrating around the world. Indian enclaves showed up in European and American cities. Vibrantly colored saris on the street, Sikh turbans, restaurants, small shops, etc.

By 1990 it was a technical invasion. Highly skilled engineers competing in the dot-com era. H1B visas. Entrepreneurs. Call centers back in India.

By 2010 it was a world culture. Indians were here to stay.

3. History

As usual, we want

  • Standard history, with geology, biology, archaeology, kings-and-wars, technology-and-arts, language-and-literature. See Wolpert (wolpert1997)

  • The alternative story. See Misra (misra2007)

  • Original sources. See Goodall (goodall1996) and Hay (hay1988).

  • Appropriate specialty texts. See Eck (eck2012).

Given that, we are ready to read current affairs (news journals, websites, etc.) However, it appears to me that India is in such a turmoil that these are themselves more confusing than helpful. So maybe look for more (but recent) texts.

4. Language

Depending on the list, there are about 20 official languages and hundreds of mutually unintelligible dialects. Most of the languages have their own scripts. It would be impossible for me to tackle them all.

However, you can distinguish the Indo-Aryan northern languages from the Dravidian southern languages. The northern tend to have Sanskrit as the root language (like Latin is for Spanish, Italian, and french). The southern languages tend to be related to Tamil, but have a lot of Sanskrit loan words (like English having a lot of Latin words).

Further, in modern times, northern India tends to think of Hindi as the lingua fanca, whereas southern India refuses to submit to that Aryan direction and would rather standardize on English.

Net effect: I decided to (try to) learn Sanskrit. Would like to study a bit of Tamil as well.

I started with coulson1992 in 1998, got to ch 4, then walked away. In 2013, I tried to restart. Found difficulty reading the nagari -- font too small and printing tended to blur the nuances of the combination chars. So I was spending more time deciphering the chars than learning the language. Bought coulson2010 and those problems were solved.

Struggling to find a good way to study. So far (ch 7) doing:

  • Read lesson
  • Write a cheatsheet: Any grammar rules, with examples. Then the vocabulary with nagari, latin text, and english translation.
  • Make index cards for the vocabulary.:
    (latin text)                      (chapter)
    The idea is that the cards can be used as flashcards, and can be sorted by latin text or by chapter.

  • Do the exercises. Maybe redo them if it was disaster.

I am finding the exercises are "grammar re-write" problems.


  • Copy devanagari to worksheet.
  • Skip a line, then on next line, transpose directly to latin text
  • Skip a line, then on next line, translate individual words to English. Decipher sandhi, concatenations, and endings (inflection/declension). Use those plus sandhi rules to identify additional words and endings.
  • After the English word put markup in parentheses.
       count (s=singular, d=dual, p=plural)
       person (1=first,2=second,3=third)
       case (N=nominative, A=accusative, I=instrumental, D=dative,
             V=vocative, Ab=ablative, G=genitive, L=locative)
       count(s=singular, d=dual, p=plural)
       person (1=first,2=second,3=third)
       case (pr=present, pp=past participle)
       ex 3a 6:  jalam (s3 L) as'va^n (p3 A) naro (s3 N) nayati (s3 pp)
  • Make sense of it. Usually, it works just by scanning, but may have to write in a few english words to "fill in the gaps".

Partway through I often suspect I've missed the boat. So I reexamine the copy-naragi-to-workbook, to see if I have misread the nagari chars. Then check the answer key for translation to latin text. That clears up mistakes in sandhi and combinations. If still stuck, check the answer key for english translation and work backwards to determine why that makes sense.


  • Copy english verbatim to worksheet
  • Do markups as above for nouns and verbs.
  • Identify idioms that have specific sanskrit treatments (e.g., enclitics)
  • Skip a line and on next line write latin text translations directly below english words. There are often two words that could be used, and I seldom get it right.
  • Start with root word and add inflections/declensions per markup.
  • Guess at the right word order, based:
    • Vocative goes first; enclitics go inside
    • Subject...object...verb
    • Important word goes first

  • Translate to nagari
  • Check the answer key. Work backwards to makse sense of it.

I never get word order right. Coulson's answer key word order seems whimsical to me.

5. Film

Each language group has its own film industry. For historical reasons, the northern, hindi-related industry started in Bombay (now Mumbai), and thus was known as "Bollywood". In reaction, the southern, tamil-related industry is called "Tollywood". However, each language group has its own local industry and its own international following among the diaspora.

The Indian film industry goes back to the silent era, and is today far larger than classic LA-based Hollywood. There are perhaps 1000 films created per year. It is impossible to view all the old-but-good films, or to keep up with worthy new films. At best I can get a representative sampling, and begin to recognize "quotes" and inside jokes.

To get started I went to ScareCrow video store in Seattle, and scanned the shelves. There were 10 shelves of Indian films. I scanned for award-winners and explicitly looked for different sources (Mumbai, Bengal, Kerala, etc.). Picked 5 films per shelve (one shelf per week). After getting through those, found lists of "10 best films you must see", and worked through some of those.

I was looking for:

  • Archaeological and anthropological context. In the early days of film, directors (worldwide) shot on location or with local props, or with local talent. So if you see an ox-cart in a 1920's film, it is probably a real ox-cart,and you can study the construction. If you see a folk dance or a puppet show, it is probably the same as what locals know and love.

  • Human condition, local style. People eat, sleep, fall in love, make love, give birth, grow, learn, have setbacks, and die. Local variants may be played out in a tropical hut, or in a cave, or in a palace, or on the street. You may be a doctor, lawyer, priest, fisherman, washerwoman, taxi driver, courtesan, or king.

  • Cultural memes. If a dozen films all have a woman doing everything right but still suffering a terrible fate, that hints at a cultural concern. If several films make a point of "inter-dining" among different castes, that must be an important issue.

  • Sounds. Listen for sound of the languages (even though I have to read subtitles for content). Listen for explicitly played music and for background music.

Gradually recognized:

  • Raj Kapoor in his many roles
  • Kareena Kapoor in her many roles.
  • Lata's singing.
  • "King" Shah Rukh Khan. The girls may love him but I'm not impressed.
  • Hind-glish. If I had more vocabulary, I could skip some of the subtitles.
  • Kerala film with malayalam's rounded sound.

I repeatedly fell in love with Nandita Das -- seems to play (or be) the same intelligent, self-comfortable earth-goddess that Sophia Loren played in European film.

See Indian Film

6. References


Jeannine Auboyer. "Daily Life in Ancient India: From 200 BC to 700 AD" Phoenix Press, 1965. ISBN 1 84212 591 5.

This was critical for understanding "historical" movies, with their reference to gambling, courtesans, horse sacrifices, etc.


Douglas Barrett, Basil Gray. "Treasures of Asia: India Painting". Rizzoli International Publishing, 1978. ISBN 0-8478-0160-8.

Painting is largely illustration of stories already known to the viewer, with well-known visual idioms to be noticed and appreciated. There are several communities -- southern cave paintings, northern Mughal, Arabic non-imagery. Clearly there is skill and talent and tradition for each, but hardly an avenue for individual breakthroughs. There is not Monet or Picasso here.


Michael Coulson. "Teach Yourself: Sanskrit: A complete course for beginners". NTC Publishing Group, 1992. ISBN 92-80860.


Michael Coulson. "Teach Yourself: Complete Sanskrit". McGraw-Hill, 2010. ISBN (?).


Harsha V. Dehejia, ed. "A Celebration of Love: The Romantic Heroine in the Indian Arts". Roli Books, 2004. ISBN 81-7436-302-5.

Each essay explains how love is depicted, or how a specific heroine is depicted, and idioms to be noticed. Treats Nayika, Gopis, Radha, Mira, courtesans, etc. Explores the role of Krishna.


Diana Eck. "India: A sacred geography". The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. ISBN 978-0-385-53190-0.

Visiting and discussing sacred locations in India, unified in themes. E.g., sacred rivers, shafts of light, rocks out of place, or local goddesses of paths and streams.

Apparently India was wall-to-wall matriarchial, with life-oriented earth goddesses everywhere. Then the partiarchial Aryan invasion overlaid this with death-oriented male imagery and myths. But none of the layers actually went away -- they just live side-by-side.

It seemed obvious to me that the shafts of fire/light from earth to the skies reference volcanism, and that misplaced rocks might be volcano "bombs" or may have been left by retreating glaciers. A quick search of internet did not find backing for this hypothesis.


Dominic Goodall. "Hindu Scriptures" University of California Press, 1996. ISBN 0-520-20782-3.

Translations and commentaries on the usual suspects: Rg Veda, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Tantras, Puranas. Much more understandable than "Sources of Indian Tradition", vol1.

The outsider's impression is:

The Bhagavada-Purana section totally smokes Song of Solomon. But I see it as a desperate act of escapist fantasy in the face of cultural mistreatment of women.


Stephen Hay. "Sources of Indian Tradition: Vol2 Modern India and Pakistan". Columbia University Press, 1988. ISBN: 0-231-06414-4.

Original sources (diaries, letters, speeches, news reports, etc.). Starts with traders in India acting as factors for the newly arrived Europeans. Then on to invasion, revolution, struggle to find a unifying message, etc.


Maria Misra. "Vishnu's Crowded Temple". Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-1372107.

Politics as seen from inside India. 1857 and on. Informed, well-written, and opinionated. Somewhat equivalent to Zinn's "People's History of the US".


Sarina Singh, Joe Bindloss, et al. "India", 12th ed. Lonely Planet, 2007. ISBN 978-1-74104-308-2.

A tourguide book (like Fodors, Cooks, etc.) Good intros region by region and state by state (geography, climate, history, culture, sights and festivals, etc.). Excellent way to grasp the diversity.

It seemed odd to have specific tours for pilgrims, until I read eck2012.

wolpert 1997

Stanley Wolpert. "A New History of India", 5th ed. Oxford University Press, New York, 1997. ISBN 0-19-510030-1.

Enjoyable story as well as apparently solid scholarship. You can't help noticing the plight of the darker skinned natives as Aryans push in from the north. And that was long before the Dutch and English showed up.

Creator: Harry George
Updated/Created: 2017-09-20