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.
1. 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.
Learn more about Religion in India.
2. The Great Hindu Epics
The two great Sanskrit epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have had a large impact on Indian culture and philosophy. Over the centuries, their stories have inspired a great deal of art, music, dance, and theatre.
The Mahabharata is the longest epic poem in the world and was written by Vyasa, a sage and also a major character inside the poem. This story is thought to have taken place sometime between 400 and 100 BCE.
The epic recounts the rivalry between two families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, in which the protagonists are the five heroic Pandava brothers. The story especially focuses on Arjuna, who the support of the god Krishna who acted as his moral guide and charioteer.Krishina acts as the chariot driver for the master warrior, Arjuna
The struggle culminates in the battle of Kurukshetra, during which Krishna delivers the famous discourse on the eternal reality of immortality and how one can achieve spiritual liberation by upholding one’s dharma.
This discourse is given to Arjuna, who has to face many large moral dilemmas. All the dialogues between Krishna and Arjuna comprise the Bhagavad Gita.
The Ramayana is the other epic poem. This one was composed by Valmiki between 500 and 100 BCE. The epic tells the story of Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, whose life is a representation of fulfilling one’s dharma, or moral code.
Just like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana doesn’t simply tell a story but also discusses duties, rights, and social responsibilities in an allegorical way.
In the Ramayana, Rama was prevented from becoming king of Ayodhya and sent into exile with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman. While they were in exile the forest, the demon king Ravana kidnapped Sita.
With the help of the monkey god, Sugriva, Rama defeated Ravana and rescued Sita. They then returned to Ayodhya triumphantly and their story symbolizes the victory of good over evil.
Learn more about The Story of the Hindu Epic Ramayana and its Main Characters.
Containing a fountain of wisdom about the moral order of the universe, the nature of existence, the proper goals of human life, and the teachings of how to behave, the epics continue to play a fundamental part in the daily life of millions of Indians today.
Learn more about The Great Hindu Epics.
3. Hindu Gods
Hinduism is considered a henotheistic religion, which means that Hindus worship a single deity, Brahman the universe itself, but still recognize the existence of other gods.
According to Hinduism, Brahman lives inside each person’s soul and is waiting to be discovered by following different paths. Worshipping other gods are varying paths to approach Brahman and everyone is encouraged to do it in the way that suits them best.
The most important gods in Hinduism are the Trimurti, consisting of Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). Brahma creates everything in the Hindu concept of time, which is cyclical and not linear.Shiva is one of the supreme beings that create, protects and transform the universe.
Vishnu is the sustainer of life and the one who protects the world from danger. When the world faces a threat, Vishnu will be incarnated as one of his various avatars. His most famous avatars are Rama, the ideal hero in the epic Ramayana, and Krishna, the charioteer of Arjuna in the epic Mahabharata.
Shiva is the destroyer who transforms the universe. Shiva can be distinguished by the third eye on his forehead. He is considered to be the patron of yoga, meditation, and the arts. Parvati is Shiva’s wife. She is known as the goddess of fertility and beauty and also called the Divine Mother. Both the gods Ganesha and Kartikeya are Shiva’s sons.
Learn more about Top 10 Most Important Hindu Gods.
4. 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.
Learn more about Top 12 Festivals and Celebrations of India.
5. Indian Dress
One of the most remarkable features of Indian apparel is the ingenious way in which a simple length of unstitched cloth is used.
Long pieces of cloth are often gracefully draped as a sari which is a long dress that covers the right shoulder and is tied around the waist with the pleats tucked into an underskirt. A cloth can also be wrapped around the head as a turban or around a man’s waist as a dhoti or sarong.
Traditional Woman’s Clothing
There is a variety of traditional clothing worn by Indian women and the style of draping differs from region to region.
The sari, the most representative traditional clothing, consists of a 5.5-meters long and 1-meter wide cloth that is draped around the body and can be worn in more than 80 different ways. The most common style sees the sari wrapped around the waist with the pallav (end-piece) either drawn over the left shoulder or draped over the head.More expensive sarees were ornated with elaborated floral ornaments or brocades
The salwar kameez, consisting of a baggy trouser (salwar), a loose tunic (kameez), and a dupatta (scarf) is a more modern style of Indian clothing that was originally worn by women in Punjab but is now popular all over the country.
The anarkali suit, a variation of the Salwar Kameez, is a long dress-like garment consisting of a fitted bodice with a skirt that is often heavily embroidered worn with tight-fitting pants (churidar pyjama), and a dupatta (scarf). An anarkali suit is mainly worn by women in North India, especially when attending occasions like annual celebrations and events.
Traditional Men’s Clothing
There are also many traditional clothes worn by Indian men, the most popular of which are the Dhoti and Sherwani.
The dhoti is the national male attire, especially in South India, and comprises of a long piece of fabric that is either tied around the waist or tied around the waist tucked between the legs to form a type of pants. The upper garment of Dhoti is often a long-sleeved kurta.
A sherwani is the traditional outfit worn by grooms and is a long coat with a high collar that usually has exposed buttons through the length of the jacket. Sherwanis are paired with fitted pants called the churidar pyjama. This combination is usually worn in light colors like cream, ivory, or gold.Sherwani is the traditional dress worn by grooms, and usually, it is cream, light ivory or gold.
Learn more about Indian Traditional Dress.
6. Indian Architecture
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.The most well-known example being the incredible Taj Mahal
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.
Learn more about Taj Mahal.
7. Indian Art
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.Bharat Natyam dance is usually accompanied by Carnatic music
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.The rhythm is of Indian music is kept by the artist playing the tabla, which is a kind of drum
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.
Learn more about Indian Performing Arts.
8. Indian Cuisine
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.
Learn more about The One-Stop Guide to Indian Food.
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.Indian cuisine is famous for its use of spices
The specific blend of spices used to create garam masala changes from region to region.
Learn more about Flavors and Spices of India.
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.
Learn more about Indian Street Food vs Thai Street Food.
9. 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 Another important animal in India is the Bengal tigerwhich 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.Another important animal in India is the Bengal tiger
The population of Indian elephants is distributed all across the country and can be seen on a guided tour.
Learn more about Wildlife in India.
10. 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.
11. Greetings of India
Though English is widely spoken and understood in India, most Indians are delighted and appreciative when a visitor attempts to speak their language. The traditional way to say hello in Hindi is Namaste (pronounced: nam-as-stay). Namaste can be used at any time of day and is sometimes spoken as Namaskar or Namaskaram.
Namaste is usually said with hands pressed together, palms touching, and fingers pointing upward in front of the chest. The greeting may sometimes include a slight bow to show more respect. Namaste is the best way to start a conversation, as it is a respectful Hindi greeting and shows your courtesy to the local people.Namaste is the best way to start a conversation
The Anjali Mudra, the salutation pose, shares the same hand gesture and meaning as Namaste. Anjali Mudra is widely practiced among Asian Buddhists when worshipping and is also incorporated into many yoga postures such as the Samasthiti. Samasthiti posture consists of standing with the feet together and the hands held at the heart chakra with the thumbs resting against the sternum.
Other popular Hindi phrases like haa (hah) meaning ‘yes’, nah hi (nah-hee) meaning ‘no’, kripaya (crip-ee-ya) meaning ‘please’, shukriya (shu-cree-ya) meaning ‘thank you’, and maaf keejiye (maf kee-gee-yay) meaning ‘excuse me’ are useful phrases in daily conversations and can be practiced by visitors during their trip.
Learn more about How to Say Hello in Hindi.
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.