The world's largest democracy and second most populous country emerged as a major power in the 1990s. It is militarily strong, has major cultural influence and a fast-growing and powerful economy.
A nuclear-armed 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.
The subsequent partition of the sub-continent - into present-day India and Pakistan - sowed the seeds for future conflict. There have been three wars between India and its arch-rival Pakistan since 1947, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
A peace process, which started in 2004, stayed on track despite tension over Kashmir and several high-profile bombings until the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, which police blamed on Pakistani militants. India announced that the process was on pause the following month.
With its many languages, cultures and religions, India is highly diverse. This is also reflected in its federal political system, whereby power is shared between the central government and 28 states.
However, 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.
But the vast mass of the rural population remains impoverished.
Their lives continue to be influenced by the ancient Hindu caste system, which assigns each person a place in the social hierarchy. Discrimination on the basis of caste is now illegal and various measures have been introduced to empower disadvantaged groups and give them easier access to opportunities - such as education and work.
Poverty alleviation and literacy campaigns are ongoing.
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 in 2008 sent its first 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.
* Full name: Republic of India
* Population: 1.2 billion (UN, 2010)
* 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: 64 years (men), 68 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 $1,340 (World Bank, 2010)
* Internet domain: .in
* International dialling code: +91
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.
Mrs Patil, the candidate of the ruling Congress Party, was previously the little-known governor of the northwestern desert state of Rajasthan. She drew criticism during the campaign over scandals involving family members, and over controversial remarks.
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
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.
Mr Singh said his priorities were to reduce poverty and to plough on with economic reforms. He stated a desire for friendly relations with India's neighbours, especially Pakistan.
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, and by 2011 he was facing demands for inquiries into a series of financial scandals.
Though Mr Singh has repeatedly promised a crackdown on corruption, his critics say that the accumulation of graft scandals points to a pervasive culture of corruption in his administration.
His government also came under intense pressure after the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, which left nearly 200 people dead and prompted a storm of criticism of security arrangements.
However, Mr Singh's Congress-led coalition then went on to score an emphatic victory at general elections in April and May 2009, coming within 11 seats of winning an absolute majority in parliament.
The emphatic defeat of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) confounded predictions of a close contest.
While still needing the support of some smaller parties, the government looked to be in a much stronger position to pursue economic reforms, particularly against opposition from the left.
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.
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.
From : BBC News