Originally, it was only given to civilians, but in 2011, eligibility was expanded to include contributions in any field, including public service.
Several recipients, including Jawaharlal Nehru, have received the Bharat Ratna posthumously.
The first awardee was politician C. Rajagopalachari.
Only two non-citizens, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Nelson Mandela, have been honored.
The award's design features a peepal leaf-shaped medallion and a lotus-shaped emblem.