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Indian Culture: Traditions and Customs of India

hindu temple
Colorful reliefs of Hindu gods adorn a temple at Meenakshi, India
Credit: jaume | Shutterstock

The culture of India is among the world's oldest, reaching back about 5,000 years. Many sources describe it as "Sa Prathama Sanskrati Vishvavara" — the first and the supreme culture in the world. India is a very diverse country, and different regions have their own distinct cultures. Language, religion, food and the arts are just some of the various aspects of Indian culture. Here is a brief overview of the culture of India.

Language

map of India
Map of India
Credit: pavalena | Shutterstock

India has 28 states and seven territories, and each has at least one official language. While the national languages are Hindi and English, there are about 22 official languages and nearly 400 living languages spoken in various parts of the country. Most of the languages of India belong to two families, Aryan and Dravidian.

Religion

India is identified as the birthplace of Hinduism and Buddhism. A huge majority — 84 percent — of the population identifies as Hindu. There are many variations of Hinduism, and four predominant sects — Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakteya and Smarta.

About 13 percent of Indians are Muslim, making it one of the largest Islamic nations in the world. Christians and Sikhs make up a small percentage of the population, and there are even fewer Buddhists and Jains.

Food

Indian cuisine boasts Arab, Turkish and European influences. It is known for its large assortment of dishes and its liberal use of herbs and spices. Cooking styles vary from region to region.

Wheat, Basmati rice and pulses with chana (Bengal gram) are important staples of the Indian diet. The food is rich with curries and spices, including ginger, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, dried hot peppers, and cinnamon, among others. Chutneys — thick condiments and spreads made from assorted fruits and vegetables such as tamarind and tomatoes and mint, cilantro and other herbs — are used generously in Indian cooking.

 

Many Hindus are vegetarians, but lamb and chicken are common in main dishes for non-vegetarians.

Much of Indian food is eaten with fingers or bread used as utensils. There is a wide array of breads served with meals, including naan, a leavened, oven-baked flatbread, and bhatoora, a fried, fluffy flatbread common in North India and eaten with chickpea curry.

taj mahal
The Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1653.
Credit: saiko3p | Shutterstock

Architecture

The most well-known example of Indian architecture is the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to honor his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It combines elements from Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles. India also has many ancient temples.

Arts

India is well known for its film industry, which is based in Mumbai and is often referred to as Bollywood. The country began as a major producer of movies in the 1930s. Today the films are known for their elaborate singing and dancing and Bollywood produces more films per year than Hollywood.

Indian dance has a tradition of more than 2,000 years. The major classical dance traditions — Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Kuchipudi, Mohiniattam and Kathakali — draw on themes from mythology and literature and have rigid presentation rules.

Clothing

Women in saris
Indian women in saris
Credit: rastoe | Shutterstock

Indian clothing is closely identified with the colorful silk saris worn by many of the country’s women. The traditional clothing for men is the dhoti, an unstitched piece of cloth about 5 yards long that is tied around the waist and legs. Men also wear a kurta, a loose shirt that is worn about knee-length. For special occasions, men wear a sherwani, which is a long coat that is buttoned up to the collar and down to the knees.

Customs and celebrations

The country celebrates Republic Day (Jan. 26), Independence Day (Aug. 15) and Mahatma Gandhi's Birthday (Oct. 2). There are also a number of Hindu festival that are celebrated, including Diwali, a five-day festival known as the festival of lights and marks a time of home-based family celebrations.  

— Kim Ann Zimmermann, LiveScience Contributor

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