The world's largest democracy and second most populous country has emerged as a major power after a period of foreign rule and several decades during which its economy was virtually closed.
A nuclear weapons state, it carried out tests in the 1970s and again in the 1990s in defiance of world opinion. However, India is still tackling huge social, economic and environmental problems.
The vast and diverse Indian sub-continent - from the mountainous Afghan frontier to the jungles of Burma - was under foreign rule from the early 1800s until the demise of the British Raj in 1947.
A peace process, which started in 2004, has stayed on track despite tension over Kashmir and several high-profile bombings, such as the attack on Mumbai's train network in July 2006 which police blamed on Pakistani militants and a banned Indian group.
Communal, caste and regional tensions continue to haunt Indian politics, sometimes threatening its long-standing democratic and secular ethos.
In 1984 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards after ordering troops to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
And in 1992, widespread Hindu-Muslim violence erupted after Hindu extremists demolished the Babri mosque at Ayodhya.
Independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, dreamed of a socialist society and created a vast public infrastructure, much of which became a burden on the state.
From the late 1980s India began to open up to the outside world, encouraging economic reform and foreign investment. It is now courted by the world's leading economic and political powers, including its one-time foe China.
The country has a burgeoning urban middle class and has made great strides in fields such as information technology. Its large, skilled workforce makes it a popular choice for international companies seeking to outsource work.
Nuclear tests carried out by India in May 1998 and similar tests by Pakistan just weeks later provoked international condemnation and concern over the stability of the region.
The US quickly imposed sanctions on India, but more recently the two countries have improved their ties, and even agreed to share nuclear technology.
India launches its own satellites and plans to send a spacecraft to the moon. It also boasts a massive cinema industry, the products of which are among the most widely-watched films in the world.
But the vast mass of the rural population remains illiterate and impoverished.
Their lives continue to be dominated by the ancient Hindu caste system, which assigns each person a fixed place in the social hierarchy.
- Full name: Republic of India
- Population: 1.1 billion (UN, 2007)
- Capital: New Delhi
- Most-populated city: Mumbai (Bombay)
- Area: 3.1 million sq km (1.2 million sq miles), excluding Indian-administered Kashmir (100,569 sq km/38,830 sq miles)
- Major languages: Hindi, English and at least 16 other official languages
- Major religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism
- Life expectancy: 63 years (men), 66 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 Indian Rupee = 100 paise
- Main exports: Agricultural products, textile goods, gems and jewellery, software services and technology, engineering goods, chemicals, leather products
- GNI per capita: US $950 (World Bank, 2007)
- Internet domain: .in
- International dialling code: +91
President: Pratibha Patil
Pratibha Patil became India's first female president in July 2007, after being voted into office by members of state assemblies and the national parliament.
Supporters hailed her election as a victory for women, but critics wondered how much influence she would have.
India has had several women in powerful positions - most notably Indira Gandhi, one of the world's first female prime ministers in 1966 - but activists complain that women still face widespread discrimination.
Mrs Patil succeeds APJ Abdul Kalam, a scientist and the architect of the country's missile programme.
Indian presidents have few actual powers, but they can decide which party or individual should form the central government after general elections.
Prime minister: Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh's government has come under intense pressure in the wake of the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 which left nearly 200 people dead and hundreds injured.
The opposition BJP has accused the Congress government of being incapable of dealing with terrorism.
Mr Singh became prime minister in May 2004 after the Congress Party's unexpected success in general elections.
The party's president, Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, shocked her supporters by declining the top post, apparently to protect the party from damaging attacks over her Italian origin.
During his first year in office he held together a coalition which included communist allies and ministers accused of corruption. He continued to pursue market-friendly economic policies and oversaw the introduction of nuclear non-proliferation legislation.
But his promised "New Deal" for rural India - an attempt to raise the poorest citizens out of poverty - has still to bear fruit.
Mr Singh made his reputation as a finance minister in the early 1990s, under the Narasimha Rao government, when he was the driving force behind economic liberalisation.
When the Congress Party was voted out of office, Mr Singh became opposition leader in the upper house.
A Sikh born in West Punjab, Mr Singh is a former International Monetary Fund official and governor of India's Central Bank. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge.
Broadcasting in India has flourished since state TV's monopoly was broken in 1992. The array of channels is still growing.
News broadcasts are also popular, often outperforming entertainment shows. Many 24-hour news channels are up and running and more are planned.
Doordarshan, the public TV service, operates 21 services including its flagship DD1 channel, which reaches some 400 million viewers.
Two multichannel, direct-to-home (DTH) TV operations - the Zee Group's subscription-based Dish TV and a free-to-air offering from Doordarshan - are recent arrivals on the satellite scene. A third DTH venture, Tata-Sky, launched in August 2006.
India's cable TV market is one of the world's largest, with more than 60 million subscribers.
Private radio is a relative newcomer. Since they were sanctioned in 2000, music-based FM stations have proliferated in the cities and hundreds more licences are up for grabs. But only public All India Radio (AIR) can broadcast news.
India and neighbouring Pakistan sometimes engage in a war of words via their respective media, occasionally banning relays of broadcasts from the other country.
Internet use has soared; around 42 million Indians were online by 2007 (Internetworldstats.com).
- Deccan Herald - Bangalore-based daily
- The Hindu - Madras-based daily
- The Hindustan Times - New Delhi-based daily
- The Pioneer - New Delhi-based daily
- The Indian Express - New Delhi-based daily
- The Statesman - Calcutta-based daily
- The Times of India - Mumbai-based daily
- The Asian Age - New Delhi-based daily
- India Today - New Delhi-based news magazine
- Outlook - New Delhi-based news magazine
- Doordarshan Television - public TV; operates some 21 national, regional or local services
- Zee TV - satellite, cable TV services operated by Zee Group
- STAR TV - operates satellite, cable TV services including STAR News, owned by News Corporation
- Sony Entertainment TV - commercial channel
- Aaj Tak - 24-hour news
- New Delhi TV (NDTV) - operates NDTV-India and NDTV 24x7 news channels
- Sun Network - commercial multi-channel broadcaster
- All India Radio - public, operates domestic and external networks
- Radio Mirchi - commercial network, stations in Mumbai, Delhi and other cities, mainly music, operated by The Times Group
- Radio City - commercial, FM stations in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, owned by News Corporation
- Red FM - commercial, operated by India Today Group
- Press Trust of India - non-profit, owned by newspaper titles