With more than one billion people, India is the world's second most populous country and its largest democracy.
The majority of people live in rural areas and millions face extreme poverty. But urbanisation is gathering pace and the economy is growing rapidly.
Covering more than 3.1m sq km, or 1.2m sq miles (excluding Indian-administered Kashmir), India is among the world's biggest countries.
India is South Asia's largest country
It is also one of the most diverse. Apart from Hindi and English, there are 16 official languages. Major religions include Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism.
India was ruled by the British from the early 19th Century until 1947. It won its independence at the same time as partition and the creation of Pakistan. The two countries have since fought three wars - two of which were over the territory of Kashmir.
The country is now in a process of rapid economic development, but it faces complex and enduring internal problems, such as those around the caste system. India's massive overpopulation, poverty and environmental problems, as well as widespread corruption, are major challenges.
It is currently governed by a coalition government led by the Congress Party under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who came to power in 2004.
India has become a world economic power, with growth over the past three years averaging 8% - a rate approaching that of its booming neighbour, China. Based on purchasing power parity, it is now the world's fourth largest economy.
Since India began to open up to the outside world in the late 1980s, it has become increasingly attractive to foreign investors. Its low costs and huge, English-speaking, workforce have made it popular with multinationals for work including manufacturing and call centres.
The success of hi-tech industries in particular has seen large numbers of overseas Indians return, in what has been described as a "brain gain". They are part of growing middle class, which is seen as a potentially vast domestic market.
Critics say the benefits of this growth have not reached the poor quickly enough, with millions remaining in abject poverty. Income per head is just US$720 (£365) a year.
Bureaucratic red tape and infrastructure problems are continuing issues.
India is expected to overtake China to become the world's most populous country within the next 25 years.
Its population has grown from 357 million in 1950, to 1.1 billion today. By 2030 it is expected to be home to 1.6 billion people, compared with China's 1.4 billion.
Much of the population growth is down to India's high birth rate, but life expectancy is also increasing.
In 2000, a minority of the population was over 60, but by 2050 retired people will form a significant part of society. This raises questions about how they will be supported, as fewer than 10% have pensions.
More than 65% of people live in rural areas, but migration to the cities is accelerating.
Despite its burgeoning economy, the gap between rich and poor in India is vast.
WEALTH DISTRIBUTION IN INDIA
Top 1%: 16% of wealth
Top 5%: 38% of wealth
Top 10%: 53% of wealth
Bottom 80%: 30% of wealth
Bottom 50%: 8% of wealth
Bottom 20%: 1% of wealth
Bottom 10% 0.2% of wealth
Source: University of Western Ontario, 2006
About 35% of people live on less than US$1 a day. Poverty is at its worst in rural areas and is often accompanied by high levels of illiteracy and poor health.
Nationally, almost half of children suffer from malnourishment, although infant mortality rates have declined. Almost 60% of people in towns and 20% in rural areas do not have access to proper sanitation.
Despite such problems, India has seen overall poverty decline - a shift which has been accompanied by more general improvements to living standards.
Life expectancy rose from 59 to 63 between 1990 and 2004. Adult literacy rose from 50% to 61% over the same period.
It is suggested that continued economic growth will drive up living standards for the population as a whole.
India is a nation of prolific film watchers and makers.
About four billion trips are made to the cinema each year - many more than in any other country.
Bollywood and Big Brother star Shilpa Shetty
More than 900 movies are made a year - significantly more than the US. The majority of these come from Bollywood, the Bombay-based film industry which enjoys huge audiences across Asia and beyond.
The country's influence extends worldwide in many other areas. Acclaimed authors Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie were all born in India.
It is often said that Indian food has replaced fish and chips as the UK's national dish and its sportsmen and women have achieved success in fields as diverse as cricket and hockey.