Updated: Aug 16, 2020
India has a diverse mix of peoples, climates, scenery, religions, and cultural influences, and a visit to this fascinating country can be inspiring, moving and, with a population of 1.1 billion, it can also be overwhelming.
India’s intermingling of its diverse culture and religion formulates its uniqueness and charming soul. The country is the epicenter of many of the world’s religions, and Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism all call India their birthplace.
Understanding India's culture, from A to Z
To help better understand this fascinating country, its people and culture, Global Family Travels has put compiled some fun cultural facts about India, from A to Z! Having some of this knowledge will help you reap the greatest rewards when on a journey to Mother India.
A is for Aarti: Aarti is a Hindu religious ritual of worship, a part of puja. This ceremony includes fire, songs sung in praise of the worshiped, flowers, incense, music, etc. The purpose of aarti is to show humility and gratitude to God’s divine form. (Image: Aarti being performed in Varanasi, taken during our Mystical Mamas 2014 tour)
Aarti being performed in Varanasi
B is for Bindi: A bindi is a colored dot worn on the center of the forehead, commonly by Hindu and Jain women as a way to show they’re spoken for in marriage. The word comes from the Sanskrit word 'bindu' and is associated with a person’s mystical third eye. From Vedic times (5,000 years ago), it was used to worship the intellect of both men and women to ensure that thoughts, speech, and action became pure. (Learn more from this blog: Bindis: Their History and Meaning)
C is for Chai and Chapati! Often times eaten together, Chai is one of the oldest drinks in India and Chapati is the most commonly eaten bread in Northern India.
Before the British came to India and established tea plantations, chai was a healing concoction made of herbs and spices. In fact, masala chai is a hybrid of Indian and British tradition. One story goes that chai was developed by accident when a Buddhist monk on his way to China, observed the local ritual of chewing a few wild leaves and tried it himself. Feeling revitalized, he decided to bring it back to India with him.
The Chapati (or roti, which means “bread” in Sanskrit) is the traditional Indian bread. Its inherits its flat and round shape to its name, chapati, meaning “flat” in Hindi. It is prepared without any yeast, only with flour and water and it often used as a utensil to scoop the Indian food that accompanies it.
D is for Diwali, the Festival of Lights, which marks the Hindu New Year and encompasses a five-day celebration of life and the victories of good over evil. Learn all about Diwali in our blog: Diwali in India: The Festival of Lights and How it is Celebrated.
E is for Elephant! India is home to between 50 and 60% of all of Asia’s wild elephants and about 20% of the domesticated elephants. As such, the country is of paramount importance for the survival of the species. The elephant plays a central role in Indian life and has done for many centuries. Elephants are closely associated with religious and cultural heritage, playing an important role in the country’s history. They remain revered today. (Learn more when you get to "G"!)
The growing human population in India threatens the elephant’s habitat, including illegal encroachment into protected areas and forest clearing for food production and building roads. India has some of the strictest elephant legislation in Asia, which should provide adequate protection for the country’s 3,600 domesticated elephants. Learn more about the Indian Elephant and what the World Wildlife Fund is doing and how you can help.
F is for Family! Family bonds are very strong in India. In villages, multiple generations live under the same roof, and even bigger cities this happens. In Hinduism, the family is more important than the individual and the individual is nothing unless he or she is part of a family.
Marriage in India is considered not only necessary for the formation of a family but also for looking after dead family members in the other world. In fact, "grihastha," (in Sanskrit it means being in the household), is one of the stages of life through which every Hindu is expected to pass and refers to the second phase of an individual's life in a four age-based stages of the Hindu ashram system. Learn more about families in India here.
G is for Ganesh and Gandhi! (we needed to mention both of these important figures in Indian culture and history!)
Ganesh is the elephant-headed god of wisdom and learning, as well as the remover of obstacles, and consequently the sign of auspiciousness. In India, it is customary to begin cultural events calling on Ganesh.
Through non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. If you have a chance to travel to India, visit the National Gandhi Museum in Delhi (or Mumbai). And for more inspiration, visit: 10 Life Changing Tips Inspired By Gandhi.
H is for Hinduism: About 80% of the Indian population regard themselves as Hindu. Hinduism is one of the oldest known religions, originating around 1500 B.C in the Indus Valley (now modern day Pakistan), when a central Asian people called the Aryans invaded and conquered India. The Aryan culture gradually combined with the culture of a native people known as the Dravidians, and Hinduism developed from a blend of the two cultures.
The Chamundeshwari Hindu temple in Mysore
There is an abundance of Hindu temples in India, and the oldest Hindu scriptures are called the Vedas. They were composed over a period of nearly 1,000 years, beginning about 1400 B.C. This stage in Hindu history is often called the Vedic period. During Vedic times, believers worshiped a number of nature deities. At the end of the period, the doctrines of reincarnation and karma were adopted.
By the 500's B.C., Hinduism split into various schools of thought. Two of these schools--Buddhism and Jainism--became new religions. The Hindu schools further split into smaller sects. Today, Hinduism includes a great number of schools and sects. Many of the sects were formed by saints or gurus (spiritual teachers). Each sect has its own philosophy and form of worship. But they all accept basic Hindu doctrines that draw on a common system of values known as dharma, as well as the belief that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma and Samsara. Learn more about the Hinduism here.
I is for India! India’s intermingling of diverse culture and religion formulates its uniqueness and charming soul. With a population of 1.3 billion, the people of India speak 17 different languages and live in varied landscapes, from hot deserts and plains to the cold mountain ranges of the Himalayas, but everyone is warm and friendly and proud to be Indian.
India’s history is shaped by three periods– Ancient India, Medieval India and Modern India. The birth of the Indus Valley Civilization and the coming of the Aryans was the era of Ancient India, which include two phases, the pre-Vedic and Vedic age. Hinduism began in the Vedic period. Learn more about India’s Ancient history here.
The unification of India began under Emperor Ashoka, who was a patron of Buddhism and helped spread its doctrines to many parts of Asia. In the eighth century, Islam arrived in India and, under the Delhi Sultanate, it became a political force in the country. The Mughal Empire followed, under which India once again achieved a large measure of political unity. Learn more about India’s Medieval history here.
The first Europeans who arrived in India in the 17th century were the Portuguese in the south, which followed by the British and French who all fought over trading rights in India. The collapse of the Mughal Empire happened around this time too, paving the way for regional states. The English emerged as ‘victors’ in the contest for sovereignty, and set up the East India Trading Company and by the early 19th century, India was under the British Raj. After a long struggle for freedom from British rule, India became an independent nation state in 1947. Learn more about India’s freedom struggle here.
J is Jaipur, the “Pink City!”
Jaipur is Rajasthan’s capital and is an fascinating historical city and the gateway to India’s most colorful state. Known as the “Pink” city after the stone used in its buildings and walls, its bright and chaotic streets ebb and flow with a contrast of old and new vehicles, including leisurely cycle-rickshaws, motorbikes, buses and camels!
In the midst of this mayhem, the splendors of Jaipur’s majestic past are islands of relative calm evoking a different pace and another world. At the city’s heart, the City Palace continues to house the former royal family; the Jantar Mantar, the royal observatory, maintains a heavenly aspect; and the honeycomb Hawa Mahal gazes on the bazaar below. And just out of sight, in the arid hill country surrounding the city, is the fairy-tale grandeur of Amber Fort, Jaipur’s star attraction.
Attractions in Jaipur that we visit on our travels to India include:
Amber Fort, a classic, romantic Rajasthani Fort Palace
Nahargarh Fort , a retreat overlooking Jaipur, with impressive views of the city
Kanak Vrindavan, a lush garden complex
Maharaja's City Palace, the former Royal residence, partially converted to a museum
Hawa Mahal, a sandstone palace with a unique honeycomb exterior
Jantar Mantar, the largest stone and marble observatory in the world
L is for Ladakh! Once an independent Buddhist kingdom at the crossroads of vital trade routes between China and the Middle East, Ladakh, often called “Little Tibet” or “Land of the Broken Moon” Set deep in the Himalaya on the western edge of the Tibetan plateau, the region belongs to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and Leh, Ladakh’s capital (at 11,500 feet) is one of the highest and driest inhabited places on earth. Ladakh is one of Global Family Travels' favorite destinations to visit and we will always travel to... in fact, we are headed there again this summer, on our Ladakh: Learn, Serve & Immerse trip.
Besides the Great Himalaya, three other major mountain ranges pass through Ladakh: the Karakoram, Zanskar and Ladakh. The beautiful high terrain of this region, dotted with hillside monasteries and villages, is surrounded by massive glaciers and numerous peaks above 20,000 feet. Travelers are recommended to spend the first couple of days acclimatizing to the altitude before enjoying the many activities the region offers.
As part of our community service work in Ladakh, we have the honor of supporting two organizations that preserve Ladakhi culture and promote quality education; namely the Siddhartha School Project and the Ngari Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, which hosts orphans or children from very poor, local families who normally wouldn’t be able to send them to school.
Learn more about Ladakh from our many blog posts:
M is for Mendhi. Mendhi, also called henna, is a tatoo-like decoration often worn by women at weddings and festivals. The paste made to design the decorations is made from henna leaves and oil grinded into a paste, which is squeezed by the artist thought a cone to make patterns on the hands and feet. As the design dries, it turns red.
N is for Namaste or Namaskar: Namaste or Namaskar is a customary greeting in India and Nepal that is said with two hands folded together at the chest and is a way of showing respect.
Namaste—and its common variants namaskar, namaskaara, and namaskaram—is one of the various forms of formal traditional greeting mentioned in the Vedas, and the word mean: "The divine in me bows to the divine in you." This spiritual connection comes from its Indian roots, and is used in yoga classes around the world at the end of class.
O is for Odissi: Odissis the ancient traditional dance in India that was performed in temples by men and women wearing silk sarees, ankle bells and crowns. It is one of the four most important classical dances in India and takes years of training to do it well.
P is for Paravati or Parvati , who is the Hindu Goddess of the mountains, marriage and households, and represents positive change. Happily, Paravati is always working behind the scenes at Global Family Travels because she is in our legal name, Paravati Family Travel!
Paravati is worshiped in countless different forms and names all across India from the tiniest villages to cities. Devotees will scale high mountains and go deep into dark forests to seek her. The abbreviated story is that Paravati won over the heart of the reclusive God and great yogi, Shiva, who was meditating in a cave, mourning the loss of his first wife, Sati. She is also known by many other names: Uma, Guari and Shakti.
Shiva and Shakti - As the cosmic couple, they are worshipped together. While Shiva is Purusha, the latent masculine energy of the universe, Parvati is Prakruti, the vital feminine energy. The Ying and Yang of Hinduism. And, although they appear to be distinct they cannot be separated, just as one cannot separate heat from fire.