Exploring the culture of India might take a lifetime or, according to their beliefs, a few lifetimes. The Indian cultural universe is a complex one, hard to understand by the Western world, especially in the past, when Europeans and Westerners considered the culture of India inferior just because it did not follow their way of life. However, fortunately for everyone, times have changed. We are more open to other cultures and eager to learn about things we don’t understand, instead of disregarding them for being primitive or a danger to our lifestyle.
A fascinating civilization with a variety of cultures
I find India to be absolutely fascinating and revealing. After all, it is one of the oldest cultures in the world, India’s civilization taking shape no less than 4,500 years ago. They’ve come a long way since then, erecting wonderful architectural works of art like the Taj Mahal, Qutab Minar, India Gate and Mysore Palace, inventing the number zero and healing the world with Ayurveda medicine.
India is home to 1.2 billion people, so you can only imagine the diversity that awaits here. That’s why you can’t talk about only one culture of India, one language or one religion. India has 28 states and 7 regions, each region cherishing its own culture. As a matter of fact, there is no official language in India, although many of us assume that all Indians speak Hindi. Surprise! Only 41 percent of Indians speaks Hindi, the rest speaking Bengali, Tamil, Urdu, Telugu, Marathi and other, summing up about…1500 languages. However, due to its colonial past, English is also widely spoken in India, especially in the education, government and business sectors. So, you see, even from a glance, India is much more than you have imagined it to be.
Religion and etiquette bring Indians together
While Indians have many languages and cultures, they all find common ground when it comes to religion. About 84 percent of Indians are Hindu, including here the four major branches of Hinduism: Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakteya and Smarta. India is indeed the birthplace of this religion, and still respects its beliefs ardently. It’s not surprising at all that many Europeans and Westerners come here to find themselves and to embrace the wisdom of Hinduism. After all, if you can’t find spirituality in India, you probably won’t be able to find it anywhere else in the world. Just read “Eat, Pray, Love”! (kidding!). You can also find Muslims, Christians and Buddhists in India, but Hinduism dominates the divinity scene.
Another surprise comes from the Indian etiquette! You will easily notice both British and Asian influences in their everyday life. So, you won’t feel totally out of place during your stay in India, but you won’t feel at home either, unless you do some reading and studying ahead. For example, they are not big fans of cutlery when dining, and they never arrive on time, since punctuality is definitely a bad manner. Well, in this context, I might say that this etiquette rule is certainly trending in Europe.
Emotions come to life through art
All forms of art are cherished in India, Indians expressing their emotions through dance, music, painting and their famous Bollywood movies. Indians have been dancing since 2 BC and embraced an impressive variety of dances, from classical and folk to contemporary. Bharatnatyam, Manipuri, Kathakali, Kathak, Odissi, Kuchipudi, and Mohini Attam are just a few of the most popular classical dances in India. Music accompanies Indians wherever they are, and while they have two important classical music schools – north India Hindustani and south Indian Carnatic styles, they are open to all types of music, from pop and rock to jazz and hip hop. When it comes to Indian movies, it’s enough to mention that they release about 900 movies annually, to understand their passion for this form of art.
Architecture is as important to Indians as is art, and their superb monuments and palaces prove that. The Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world and a truly, truly impressive gesture of love, is still dazzling millions and millions of tourists from all over the world. You can find superb architectural gems all over India, many of them combining Indian, Islamic and Persian styles.
A world of colors and flavors
And this is the moment when colors invade your senses! This is when I talk about their clothing style and the women’s love for beautiful silk saris, available in all the colors you can find on our precious planet. While men traditionally dress in dhoti, an unstitched piece of cloth tied around their waist and legs, women get to be wrapped in a world of smooth, delicate, colorful saris. Of course, their traditional clothing varies from region to region, but the colors of the rainbow are always there to light up the days and bring joy around them. However, don’t imagine that everybody is wearing their dhoti and sari to work. Modern, western dressing style is popular in India, especially among young people.
Colors often find their way in Indian food too, and whenever you’re going shopping for food, you are going to end up in the middle of a party for the senses. Condiments make the rules in Indian cuisine and they come in vibrant colors of yellow, orange, red, green. Curry is everywhere, dictating the main flavor of the cuisine, followed by ginger, turmeric, coriander and dried hot peppers. Indian cuisine took over the world and no one is surprised why! During my trip to India, I discovered, with great pleasure, that many Hindus are vegetarians. As you now, cows are sacred animals in India, so if you can’t live without your beef steak, India is definitely not the place for you. They do however eat lamb and chicken, and they use plenty of Basmati rice and wheat as staples.
Some clichés are true
If there is one cliché true about India is that Indians do smile a lot. It’s not because they have expensive villas and cars, successful business or hot dates, but because they find happiness in simple things. And since they are all living their lives surrounded by positive thoughts and energy, they also don’t like to say “no” to anyone. As a matter of fact, instead of disappointing you if they can’t help you, they will say what you want to hear, but in a vague manner. While some might consider this a dishonest way of communicating, they are just trying to keep everything positive.
And also, yes, they practice train surfing – ride outside the trains, and life often happens inside trains, with many Indians considering the cars their temporary homes. So, it’s never surprising to see a passenger shaving in the train or a vendor selling his merchandise.
When traveling to India, be prepared to forget everything you think you know about this country (except for the smiling and train surfing!) and open to learn everything there is to know!