How Indian Traditions Work

India exudes life, mystery, vibrancy and spirituality because it is, after all, uniquely Indian.
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Modern India is the second largest country in the world and home to about 1.2 billion people. The cities are brimming with some of the globe's most highly skilled engineering and tech-savvy urban professionals. Sacred cows and lower-caste street sweepers also make up the landscape in places like Mumbai, Kolkata and the Indian capital, New Delhi. Villages and city centers merge into one another as the population grows, and with a median age near 26 years old and only about 5 percent of the population over age 65, many traditions dating back thousands of years are in the hands of the young and rapidly globalizing youth [source: CIA].

Indian culture has stood the test of time by remaining diverse, colorful, sensual and spiritual, and the combination of rich traditions and family unity within religious faith makes India, well, India. Food, worship, arts and friendships are held in high esteem -- even the customary namaste greeting involves honoring the divine in one another with a bow.

Scientific and physical practices like medicine and exercise also are considered spiritual. Ayurvedic medicine, which promotes balancing the life forces of a person with the universe as a whole, is an official heath care practice that's used by 80 percent of the population, and yoga and meditation recognize the melding of the mind, body and spirit for wholeness [source:].

However, social problems, rampant poverty and lack of clean water impact a huge portion of India's population, but traditional practices remain alive and even thrive in some of the most abject conditions. Heredity, community and history all shape who people are as individuals and as part of distinct castes or social groups. Studies in anthropology and sociology fault a system that has many born to live as "unclean" castoffs, while some rule above others for all generations due to birth line alone. These same studies, however, highlight traditions that survive conquest, subcontinent divisions, and official laws and bans across faiths and generations [sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; Henderson; Vaid].

You could say that India just exudes life, mystery, vibrancy and spirituality because they are, after all, uniquely Indian, but how does all of that come together on such a large scale? Much of it comes through more than 4,000 years of tradition, from the kitchen to the shrine to the big screen.

Traditional Indian Food

Of all the cuisines in the world, India has one of the most aromatic and colorful. Varieties of Indian food are countless and identifiable by caste (we'll discuss these in more detail later), region or tribe, and many Indians eat a diet very similar to that of ancestors from many years past. With a blend of Arab, Turkish and even European influences from a history of invasions and conquests, India boasts thousands of variations in its repertoire of national foods.

Hefty volumes have been written on the treasure of Indian recipes and seasonings, and a tour of India makes for vastly different food experiences from north to south. With all of this regional variety, though, some staples or everyday foods make up the traditional diet for many across India including these:

  • Basmati rice -- is typically steamed, formed in molds and served in wraps, and seasoned with spices like cardamom, cumin, cloves, or mustard, and often mixed with nuts and onions.
  • Bread -- naan and luchi (made from flour) and chapati (made with chickpeas), soft and crispy flatbreads
  • Dal -- innumerable combinations of legumes and vegetables, including lentil, chickpeas, potatoes and onions often made with a browned butter called ghee
  • Curries and spices -- delectable combinations of ginger, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, dried hot peppers, and dozens of others
  • Paan -- leaves of a betal plant that are chewed to cleanse the palate between courses or after a meal; served washed and fresh and wrapped around fragrant spices, anise seeds, katha, choona (lime paste) and different nuts [source: Food-India].
  • Tea -- a national beverage since at least the 4th century, tea and socializing while enjoying tea are part of the Indian lifestyle. Darjeeling and Assam are just two of the countless varieties. Coffee and yogurt drinks are also popular [source: Tea Board of India].
  • Chutneys -- thick condiments and spreads made from herbs like mint and cilantro and from assorted fruits and vegetables like tamarind and tomatoes
  • Coconut -- used to simmer rice, seafood and other ingredients and to sweeten or mellow sauces
  • Meat and seafood – fish, chicken and others; many do not eat beef because cows are considered sacred within the Hindu religion, as pork is forbidden within Muslim law.

How does all of this food come together from kitchen to table? Women are the main cooks in Indian families, with the eldest female often delegating tasks to other women in the household, and preparing a meal can be a day-long affair that consists of pounding spices, preparing breads from scratch and making multiple sauces [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Recipes can be handed down within families or communities for generations. Men are food purveyors of carts and restaurants in many cities and might help prepare festival feasts, and cooking for friends is increasingly popular among young men in the larger cities, too [source: Tivedi].

Sitting down to a meal in India might leave a Westerner noticing that something's missing: silverware or cutlery. Traditionally, fingers and bread are the "utensils" used to pick up portions of meals from large serving platters. Dining is mostly what those in the United States would call "family style" and large trays and small bowls might crowd the table as everyone pinches up finger-fulls of rice and breads for scooping up dals and other dishes. Thorough hand washing before and after the meal -- often done right at the table with bowls -- is an important part of each meal.

Traditional Indian Clothing

Women throughout India wear traditional saris made of cotton, silk or factory blends that are wrapped on the body in countless ways.
Women throughout India wear traditional saris made of cotton, silk or factory blends that are wrapped on the body in countless ways.
Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Men and women in India are draped and wrapped according to tradition, history and location. A dhoti or lungi, which is a loose skirt- or shorts-type wrap for men, is common in rural areas and in high heat, and most often it is worn alone, without a shirt. Women also wore these garments and went topless until Muslim conquerors overtook large parts of India in the 12th century and ordered women to cover their bodies and heads. In urban areas men often wear long, buttoned shirts and loose pants called Sherwanis or kurta pajamas.

Women throughout India wear traditional saris made of cotton, silk or factory blends and the 5 to 7 yards (4.57 to 6.4 meters) of fabric that make up a sari are wrapped on the body in countless ways depending on where the wearer lives. Hindu women wear short tops and slips or petticoat-type garments underneath and tuck the ends of fabric into waistbands. Other forms of wrapping leave cloth falling loosely over shoulders or covering the head. Salwar kameez, a pant and long-tailed or to-the-knees shirt outfit made of lightweight fabrics is most common for women in more urban areas.

Western clothing continues to increase in popularity in city centers, though the traditional bold colors and embroidery of classic Indian attire influence newer designs. With dhotis and saris dating back to the second century or earlier, and serving as a comfortable, cool and colorful feature of Indian clothing, they're likely to stick around for a while, too. One Indian style that crossed cultures and is a classic in Eastern and Western countries is the Nehru jacket, a well-tailored, high-collared, button-down style named after Jawaharlal Nehru, a former prime minister of India. Both men and women wear Nehru jackets.

Hair, jewelry and skin adornment complement the flowing and often textured and embellished clothing. Indian women groom long tresses with coconut oil, often growing their locks below the waist. Both men and women wear jewelry, including everything from toe rings to necklaces, and they adorn their foreheads with decorative bindi or dots, in red or black. These markings have significance in Hinduism and vary in shape and size depending on the occasion or social position of the wearer, and some non-Hindus wear them for decoration only.

Temporary henna tattoos, or mehndi body art, add body decoration to hands, feet and other body parts for ceremonies and festivals. Tonsuring, a rite-of-passage religious ceremony where boys and men have their heads' shaved, creates another look, though it is less about outward appearance and more of a show of devotion and faith [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Girls and women also undergo tonsuring for religious reasons, though tonsuring a woman against her consent is a form of punishment or public humiliation.

Indian Customs and Traditions

Intricate patterns of mehndi applied to a bride before a wedding.
Intricate patterns of mehndi applied to a bride before a wedding.
Giorgio Majno/Getty Images

Faith, family and castes shape just about every aspect of Indian culture -- from birth to death -- and all the trials and parties in between. Indian society is structured around the families people are born into and where they are born. Individuals inherit their social position and stay within it throughout life.

A caste, or jati (meaning "birth"), is the level within the social system that determines who people will marry and often even what line of work they can pursue, where they can live and what they can eat. There are more than 2,000 jati and they fall within four recognized caste groups, or varnas:

  • Brahmans -- priests and the most educated
  • Kshatriyas -- warriors and landowners
  • Vaishyas -- merchants
  • Sudras -- craftsmen and workers

A fifth, unofficial group, the Panchamas were historically called the "Untouchables" and in more recent years the Dalit or "Oppressed." About 17 percent of India's population belongs to this lowest of groups and performs farm labor or other manual work thought to pollute or sully higher castes in the system [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

In addition to being identified and included as part of a social caste, most Indians remain within family units that cross generations, from youngest to oldest, all living within the same housing quarters or complex. Men in a family line often stay with their birth families until their own fathers die and they start extended families of their own, while women will leave their homes once they marry and become part of another's extended family unit [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

Most females in India leave their families at a young age and a family's caste and location have a lot to do with when a girl will be married. In 1929, Indian law forbade marriages for girls under 12 years of age, allowing those 12 and over to become brides, but in 1978 the age limit by law became 18. With parental consent, however, many families follow their religious laws and cultural traditions and arrange marriages for girls before and after puberty [source: Lyn]. And while many in modern-day India embrace the practice of marrying for love and romance among two people, the most common practice is for the families to find mates for their children in an arranged marriage based on caste, religious beliefs and astrology.

Once a bride and groom are promised to one another (and often after a bridal dowry or financial exchange from the bride's family to the groom's takes place), a series of engagement parties, beauty rituals, and family meals and parties begins, leading up to a marriage celebration that lasts from three days to a week. Some couples approach an engagement and wedding never having met until they go home together after the ceremonies as husband and wife.

Along with rich décor and sumptuous feasts, Indian weddings usually feature a bride in red. Believed to symbolize prosperity, luck and fertility, red bridal wear is a traditional favorite, much as white gowns dominate Western weddings. Modern Indian brides sometimes opt for dark hues other than red and choose purple, dark yellow, blue or pink [source: Hindustan Times].

Marriages tend to last for life and the divorce rate in India is very low, estimated at under 10 percent (though that number is hard to verify), and some studies show that the rate is climbing. Men and women are strongly encouraged to stay together as part of their tradition and to work through any issues, even very serious ones, rather than separate or divorce [source: Giridharadas].

Indian Religion and Spirituality

Religion in India is the foundation for most areas of life for individuals and families. More than 80 percent of Indians are Hindus and over 13 percent are Muslims. India is the birthplace of Buddhism, and at one time many Indians were Buddhists, but in modern times less than 1 percent of the population follows Buddha. Christians and Sikhs have about 2 percent of followers each [sources: CIA; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Government of India].

Hinduism, like some of its gods and goddesses, has many faces depending on caste and location. Shrines and places of pilgrimage in one region may differ entirely from those in other areas, and while many follow the Vedas as being sacred texts and dharma as moral code, not all do. Belief in a supreme god is common, though the gods and goddesses that come from him vary. Reincarnation, or coming back to life after death in a continuous circle of dying and rebirth is common, as is a belief in karma, or the just desserts of sorts that determines what level and what form you will take when being reborn. Karma is based largely on what you did while alive, good and bad [source: BBC].

Indian Muslims follow Islam and its singular god, Allah, and they refer to the Qur'an as their sacred text. Teachings from the prophet Muhammad are central to behavior and codes of living in society, and in India as elsewhere, this means holding Muslim law above all others. Islam arrived in India through Persian, Turkish and Arab conquerors in about the 8th century. Most of the subcontinent was converted to Muslim beliefs by the 13th century but European rule led to a waning of Islam. When India gained its independence from the British in 1947, the country was divided into Pakistan, with followers of Islam, and India and its adherents of Hinduism [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

Followers of all religions, sects and folk legends do have one big thing in common: celebrations. Festivals take place throughout the country all year with some of the major parties celebrating and honoring Hindu gods and goddesses. Diwali, the Festival of Lights, takes place in October or November and is the biggest holiday of all. Celebrants light lamps and host large family and community celebrations to honor the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, whom some believe hovers among them looking for open doors of invitation [source: Malhotra Hora]. Vasantpanchami, a religious festival for the goddess of learning is another big party, and Holi a celebration of all people -- no matter their social level -- includes street parties where people throw dyed water and fine particles of colored dust into the air and on each other. Holi celebrates the coming of spring and the ultimate victory of good over evil [source: SCFI].

Traditional Indian Arts and Architecture

The Taj Mahal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is seen here reflecting in the Yamuna River in the late afternoon sun.
The Taj Mahal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is seen here reflecting in the Yamuna River in the late afternoon sun.
Steve Allen/Getty Images

Architecture and the arts in India display a devotion to gods and goddesses, oral histories and storytelling, and romantic love. India is a virtual museum of architecture dating back thousands of years, and many of its most magnificent structures excel because of their detailed carvings and stonework, as well as intricate tiling, much of it handed down through artisans from generation to generation. A combination of figures and styles from Hindu and Islamic tradition decorates temples, public buildings and residences grand and small, and there are Buddhist shrines dating to the 2nd century [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

A contemporary Indian style also has developed in the cities and in the Western world and it borrows the arches and vibrant colors of the traditional and combines them with 21st century modern architecture and interior design. Feng shui, the art of using spirituality to determine placement of building elements like doors and windows, as well as furniture and décor, is an ancient practice that saw a revival and international popularity in the 20th century.

One of India's and the world's most well-known architectural masterpieces is the 17th-century Taj Majal, and although it is a traditional gem, it is really a singular and nontraditional monument because it was built as a memorial to a person and not a god. Emperor Shah Jahan spent about 20 years and a great deal of his wealth constructing the Taj Mahal, a classic in Muslim art designed to entomb and pay homage to the emperor's wife, who died giving birth to the couple's 14th child [sources: UNESCO; PBS].

Dance, drama and musical performances often retell stories from India's classical literature and religious traditions. Famous Indian literature includes the famous epic adventures "Mahabharata" and "Ramayana" -- the world's longest poem -- each about 2,000 years old. Most writings tell the tale of mythic kings or Hindu gods and carry moral lessons to live by even in modern times [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

About 1,000 movies are made in India each year, earning the center of filmmaking, Mumbai (or Bombay) the nickname "Bollywood" [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Movies are shown throughout the country, from rural to urban areas and in many languages, but almost all have a similar look and story line with big name Indian stars, fantastic romances and elaborate song-and-dance numbers. Most of the films also borrow heavily from tradition and re-create epic scenes from history of mythology while adding contemporary characters and settings. Bollywood movies are some of the most recognizable forms of Indian entertainment in international filmmaking.

For a closer look at some of the traditions, tastes and beliefs of India, see the next page.

Related Articles


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