Tracing the ethnographic journey of India


From the time people started interacting with each other, they have always been curious about how differently other people conduct and go about their lives which is not similar to their own. Over the centuries these exchanges have happened voluntarily or have been brought about by trade movements or territorial invasions. We can trace this cultural evolution through Indian history. Let us take a look at the events that shaped the ethnographic landscape of India over the last few centuries.

The impact created by the movement of traders via The Silk Route

In 138 BCE, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty of China (202 BCE – 220 CE), sent his emissary Zhang Qian to the west to negotiate with the Yuezhi people for help in defeating the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian’s journeys resulted in him coming in contact with varied cultures & civilizations in central Asia. The northern Mesopotamian province (present-day Iran) became China’s preferred partner in trade, as part of the Parthian Empire, opening important cultural exchanges. Paper and gunpowder, which had been invented by the Chinese had a much larger impact on culture than did silk. The rich spices of the east also contributed to the growing trade between countries. While many different kinds of merchandise traveled along the Silk Route, the name comes from the popularity of Chinese silk with the west, especially with Rome. The Silk Route routes stretched from China through India, Asia Minor, up throughout Mesopotamia, to Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome, and Britain. By the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus (r.27 BCE – 14 CE) trade between China and the west was decisively cemented and exquisite silk was the most sought-after commodity especially, in Rome, Egypt & Greece.

The ultimate significance of the Silk Road was the exchange of culture. Technology, language, science, architecture design, art, religion, philosophy, and other elements of civilization were exchanged along these routes. The merchants were the carriers of these along with the commercial goods they traded from country to country. Thus cultural exchanges flourished during this time through the traveling traders moving from one part of the world to another. Watch an interesting and informative video about the silk route by clicking on the following link –

The Mughal Empire

India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th centuries was ruled by the Mughal (or Mogul) Empire. The Mughals were Muslims who ruled a country with a large majority belonging to the Hindu religion or faith.

The Mughal rule amalgamated Islam in South Asia and was responsible for the spread of Muslim and particularly Persian carpet designs, arts and culture, and faith in India. The Mughals brought many changes to India such as the Centralised government that brought together many smaller kingdoms, Persian art and culture, Persian language mixed with Arabic and Hindi to create Urdu, A style of architecture (e.g. the Taj Mahal).

Impact of Portuguese, French & Dutch Colonialism

India had trade connections with Europe since time immemorial through land route, which affected both India and Europe culturally and materially. But the advent of European powers into India in the 15th Century, through discovering a sea route to India had far-reaching consequences on the shape & course of Indian society and its history from the middle of the 15th century. The Portuguese were the first to come to India as traders and were followed by the Dutch, the British and the French. Their colonies left backtraces of their culture in the form of Architecture, town planning & building design, language, religion & faith, cuisine and education which are mostly found around the port towns of India such as Portuguese influence in Goa, Dutch influence in Cochin and heavy French influence in Pondicherry. Among all the European colonies the British have the most and lasting cultural impact on the Indian subcontinent as they ruled most of India for a considerable period of time. Let us take a look in detail on how this period made a cultural impact on India.

Impact of British Colonialism

From 1757 to 1947

Language: Thomas Macaulay, the first law member in the Governor General’s Council, promoted the English language as a tool for educating the people in Western thought and ideals (Macaulay’s Minute of 1835). In 1844, English became the authorized language and people having knowledge of English were favored for public employment. This abetted the spread of English education in India. The need for low- ranking English-knowing Indian clerks was one of the main reasons that drove the government to take steps to spread Western education. The enforced English language education in the system was a blessing in disguise. Indians from varied regions speaking different languages could now communicate with each other through the medium of English.

Some Western scholars even contributed to rediscovering India’s rich and glorious history of India which was getting lost due to many foreign invasions on the land. William Jones founded the Asiatic Society. Jones himself was a great scholar of Sanskrit and translated some ancient Indian works like the Manu Smriti in English. Scholarly articles on Sanskrit and Indian past by Jones’ were published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Charles Wilkins translated the Bhagavad Gita into English. Max Mueller translated the Rig Veda for the western audience. Alexander Cunningham and John Marshall set up the Archaeological Survey of India. James Princep decoded the Ashokan inscriptions which were written in Brahmi.

Social reforms: A period of social reforms began in India during the time of Governor-General Lord William Bentinck (1828-35) who was helped by Educated Indians like Raja Rammohan Roy to systematically eradicate social evils. Sati or the practice of burning a widow with her dead husband was made illegal or punishable by law in 1829 and female infanticide was banned. Slavery was declared illegal. The Widow Remarriage Act was passed. Campaigns against child marriage and polygamy were undertaken with Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar’s assistance. The custom of offering little children as a sacrifice to please God, practiced by certain tribes, was banned by Governor-General Lord Hardinge.

Transport & Communication: The means of transport in India were retrograde up to the middle of the 19th century in India and goods & people were transported by road

mainly by bullock-carts, horses, mules & camels. Riverine transport by boats was also ubiquitous. The British rulers introduced steamships on the rivers and set about improving roads. But the introduction of the railways was the most revolutionary improvement in transport introduced by the British along with telegraph and the postal system that changed the Indian user experience with transport. This linked different parts of India and promoted an exchange of ideas among the people, especially among her leaders. This helped foster a sense of unity among Indians. The concept of the country as a whole now took precedence over regional and provincial isolationism separated by language, religion, and cultural differences. Though there is nothing to suggest that India’s own interest and well-being were taken into account while introducing these facilities in India by the British rulers. The primary concern was to serve the economic, administrative and military interests of the British people. The railway travel and communication system of Indians between the important city centers grew only as a by-product. Indians were economically better off in pre-colonial India compared to colonial India. The British colonial policies, like imposing a high tax on agricultural sector, ruined the agrarian economy. The commercialization of agriculture, ruining of Indian handicrafts, import of finished mill-made cloth at a cheaper rate, disregard of irrigation facilities till the second half of the 19th century and the greed of the British East India Company officials impoverished India.

Thus, in these five hundred years, India has undergone a transition from a feudal, conservative, exclusive social system to a capitalistic, progressive and inclusive social system. This period was all about self-assertion based on reflection as a result of external stimuli of ideas of equality, liberty, fraternity and people’s rule instead of the rule of one man, i.e., from monarchy to democracy.

(Tip: Such ethnographic research comes in handy when one is working on Design Thinking and UX Design projects for a specific region and can influence the design decisions.]

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Written by Priya Dubey / November 23, 2018