India is a country full of diverse cultures, religions, and languages that never ceases to amaze. From its impressive architecture to its fragrant spices, exploring India is an experience that engages all your senses.
There are plenty of opportunities to dive deeper into Indian culture while you are traveling. Our favorites include participating in festivals, exploring the architecture of the Mughal empire, taking a cooking class to get hands-on experience with Indian food, and experiencing India’s natural side by taking a safari in search of the majestic Bengal tiger.
Whatever activities you choose to do while you are in India, you will get a glimpse of a rich and varied culture that you will never forget. In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about Indian culture to give you some ideas about what to do during your travels.
- India has one of the oldest cultures of the world which began almost 4,500 years ago.
- Religion played an extremely important role in shaping Indian culture.
- Indians celebrate many festivals throughout the year including Holi, Diwali, Onam, and more.
- India is full of marvelous architecture including structures the Mughal and the British empires.
- Food, with its rich and unique flavors, is another fundamental aspect of Indian culture.
- When you explore India, you will have the opportunity to admire some unique traditions that you won’t find anywhere else.
Religion in India
India is a land of ancient traditions and religious practices. Both Hinduism and Buddhism began in India and today are the third and fourth-largest religions in the world. India is one of the most religiously diverse countries on the planet with people who worship all the major world religions and as well as some others like Jainism and Sikhism.
Religion is fundamental to many people’s lives and this is widely reflected in the culture and everyday life of Indians.
84% of Indians consider themselves to be Hindu. Hinduism is divided into four major sects – Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakteya, and Smarta. Dharma (the universal truth), ahimsa (nonviolence), and karma are the pivotal concepts in both Hinduism and Buddhism.
About 13% of the Indian population is Muslim. Christians and Sikhs account for a small portion of the population. Although Buddhism began here, not many Indians still practice it today.
Festivals in India
Festivals are one of the most striking examples of how religion influences Indian culture. India is especially famous for its number of festivals that take place throughout the year. Each region of the country also has its own unique festivals. In India, it can be said that every week there is a major festival going on somewhere.
Major Festivals in India
If you plan on visiting India, joining in a festival celebration is an unforgettable experience. Of course, you won’t be able to see all of them, but we strongly recommend you join in the celebrations of the following festivals if you happen to be in the country when they occur.
- Diwali is also known as the ‘festival of lights’ and as become an increasingly popular celebration not only in India but also in many other countries. Diwali celebrations last 5 days and start with religious rituals in the morning. At night people go out to celebrate by wearing new clothes, eating sweets, and lighting thousands of diyas, or traditional clay lanterns.
- Holi is the world-famous ‘festival of colors’ that is celebrated by people taking to the streets and throwing powdered color and water at each other. This holiday marks the arrival of spring and the end of winter. It’s an occasion to enjoy life with new people and to forgive past wrongs.
- Ganesh Festival (also known as “Ganesh Chaturthi”) is celebrated mainly in the state of Maharashtra. This festival is dedicated to Ganesh who is the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom. This holiday lasts for 10 days and is celebrated with huge idols of Ganesh that are carried to the ocean where they are immersed in the sea in a purifying ritual.
- Navaratri lasts for 9 nights and takes place in autumn. This holiday and is an important Hindu festival that is celebrated in different parts of the country for different reasons. Navaratri is usually observed to honor the goddess Devi.
- Onam is celebrated in the South Indian state of Kerala and is an important harvest festival that includes many different cultural activities such as dances, games, and boat races. The holiday is also celebrated with a grand feast where large portions of food are served on banana leaves.
Indian architecture is unique and easily recognizable. The most well-known example being the incredible Taj Mahal which is a mausoleum that was built by the emperor Shan Jahan to honor his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. This impressive construction blends elements from various architectural styles including Islamic, Persian, Turkish, and Indian.
India has thousands of ancient temples that just as beautiful as the Taj Mahal. Across the country, there are many different styles of temples, but the basic structure is always the same. Most temples include an inner sanctum where the most important image of a deity is located and then other structures that surround it.
While traveling in India, you will get to see many different examples of what is known as the Indo-Islamic architecture such as the Buland Darwaza gateway to Fatehpur Sikri or the Tomb of Shah Rukn-e-Alam.
Art is highly revered in India and plays an important role in shaping the culture and society of each region. Indian art often focuses on telling a story and displaying emotions. Because of its beauty and incredible emotional impact, Indian art is steadily becoming more and more popular throughout the world.
A great way to experience Indian culture as a traveler is to attend an Indian dance show. Indian dance dates back 4000 years to the Indus Valley Civilization and is a beautiful expression of joy and wonder. The same dance style that is practiced in India today is also shown in ancient books and on temple walls.
In Indian dance, nothing is random and every small gesture and facial expression has a specific meaning allowing the dance performance to tell an intricate story. There are eight classical forms of Indian dance, many of which incorporate stories of mythological events. When traveling across the country, you can also see less formal regional styles of dance.
Deeply embedded in Indian society, music is divided into two classical forms: the Carnatic, mostly played in the southern regions, and the Hindustani. Indian classical music has been heavily influenced by Hindus texts such as the Samaveda.
Modern Indian music is often a mixture of folk, rock, and pop.
Almost everyone has seen or heard of Bollywood which is the popular name given to the movie industry based in Mumbai. Typical Bollywood films are known for their catchy songs, melodramatic plots, and energetic acting. Song and dance are a fundamental part of these movies, and many times entire movies are created around the soundtrack.
Indian cinema has been incredibly successful with around 2000 movies being produced every year.
Indian cuisine is extremely varied and learning about it is a never-ending process. Each region of the Indian subcontinent has its own cuisine characterized by the soil, climate, culture, and locally available spices and herbs.
Two of the strongest influences in Indian cuisine are religion and Islamic rule. Islamic rule brought certain famous delicacies to India such as samosas and tandoori kebabs. The influence of Hinduism also caused the creation of delicious vegetarian options such as egg curry and paneer, which is an Indian cheese that is commonly substituted for meat.
Of course, colonialism and other foreign invasions also played a great role in shaping Indian cuisine as we know it today. The arrival of the Portuguese in Goa caused a spicy fusion of the two cuisines in that area. Similarly, British colonization led to the creation of popular street foods like the Kathi rolls of Calcutta.
Main Ingredients Used in Indian Cuisine
Vegetables, rice, flour, and lentils are some staple foods of Indian cuisine. Dal, a dish made with lentils, is one of the most common dishes prepared all over Indian.
Usually, Indians use a type of clarified butter called ghee when cooking. Although northerners sometimes use peanut oil, Bengalis use mustard oil, and South Indians use coconut oil.
Chicken and mutton are the most commonly used types of meat in India. Beef is not eaten by Hindus and can only be found in certain specific areas such as Goa.
Indian cuisine is famous for its use of spices such as chili powder, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, ginger, coriander, and so on. While traveling in India, you will find a lot of dishes that are seasoned with garam masala, a powder made with seven dried spices. The specific blend of spices used to create garam masala changes from region to region.
Street Food in India
India is well-known for its delicious street food and you cannot leave the country without trying it. The best way to sample the country’s street food options is to join a street food tour. On the tour, a local will guide you around the city and show you the best dishes to try, how to eat them, and those to avoid.
Street food tours are great because you will be able to try a lot of different dishes while seeing how they are prepared. We recommend you join a tour like this as soon as you arrive in India so that you will already have a little bit of knowledge to help over the rest of your journey.
Wildlife in India
In order to understand Indian culture, it’s important to learn about the rich wildlife that characterizes the country. The most important animal in India is by far the cow. Cows are a sacred animal to Hindus, as they are believed to bring fortune and wealth.
Feeding a cow is seen as an act of worship and eating beef is still a taboo in India.
Another important animal in India is the Bengal tiger. Our favorite place to admire this majestic big cat is at Ranthambhore National Park which located between Agra and Jaipur. Besides tigers, at Ranthambhore, you will also see many other animals including the sambars, spotted deer, langur monkeys, and peacocks.
The population of Indian elephants is distributed all across the country and can be seen on a guided tour.
Unique Customs and Traditions in India
Below we have listed some unique customs and traditions that truly make India an interesting and culturally complex country.
Varanasi: the Aghori Sadhus
The Aghori sadhus are wandering monks who have given up all their possession to gain eternal spiritual liberation. This group of monks worship Shiva, the god of destruction, and are known for meditating on corpses, practicing cannibalism, and preserving skulls to be reminded of the transient nature of life.
Punjab: the Hola Mohalla Warriors
Hola Mohalla is a Sikh festival that lasts three days and takes place in March, right after Holi. Hola Mohalla is the start of the Sikh New Year. The main celebrations of this festival are held in a small town in Punjab, which becomes a lively carnival setting.
Here, the Nihang Sikhs put on an impressive display of their martial art skills while people chant, read poetry, and pray before the glorious parade that closes the festival.
The Buddhist Chanting of Ladakh
Included in UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the tradition of Buddhist chanting is celebrated every day in the monasteries of Ladakh. The lamas (Buddhist priests) sing and recite the teachings of Lord Buddha so that all the believers can attain spiritual and moral well-being.
To accompany the chants, monks play bells, drums, cymbals, and trumpets.
Chhau Dance of Odisha
Part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Chhau dance is performed by all-male troupes with the purpose of telling a story through movement.
Its complex choreography combines martial arts, acrobatics, and athleticism. The themes of the dances are mostly religious and taken from Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Shaivism.
Chhau dance performances occur every year in spring.
Thimithi - the Fire-Walking Tradition
Thimithi began in Tamil Nadu, but today it is also celebrated in Singapore, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. This festival is held every year in October to honor the wife of the five Pandava brothers who are characters in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata.
During the festival, men walk on a sheet of burning coal while carrying a pot of milk on their heads as a sign of extreme devotion.
Explore Indian Culture with Asia Highlights
Although Indian culture is so multifaceted that it would take years to fully understand, taking a trip to India is a great way to delve in and start learning about this country’s unique values and customs. At Asia Highlights, we can help you plan the perfect trip to India. Let our knowledgeable staff take care of everything so that you will only have to think about exploring, learning, and relaxing.