A Comprehensive Guide to Indian Culture

A Comprehensive Guide to Indian Culture

November 5, 2020 6 min read

A Comprehensive Guide to Indian Culture

When we think about India, we often think of oil lamps, chicken curry, and probably the Taj Mahal. However, Indian history is so rich and ancient that these are just the tip of the iceberg. Today, we’ll be sharing with you some fascinating Indian cultural facts that are bound to captivate your heart, mind, and stomach!

Ancient Indian culture and tradition

Let’s start with one of the most interesting Indian cultural facts. The roots of Indian culture were first recorded during the Vedic period, which started around 1500 BCE in what are today the states of Haryana and Punjab. The name Vedic derives from the most ancient Hindu literature, the Vedas. This collection of four major texts (Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharavaveda) are the earliest recordings of Indian culture. Spells, charms, hymns, and rituals that had been passed down through oral tradition were finally written down for posterity.

The Vedic civilization was followed by the Buddhist era in the 7TH and early 6th centuries BCE. Siddharta Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born in BC 560 and died in BC 480 in the Himalayas. Buddhism became a large part of both the religious and cultural landscape of India and beyond.

Later, as happened with a large part of Eurasia, Alexander the Great made an appearance. He crossed the Indus river in 326 BCE. While in India, he exchanged ideas with the Brahmins, Indian philosophers, generating a legacy for himself as a wise philosopher in his own right. Unfortunately for Alexander, he was wounded while trying to penetrate Punjab and ended up turning back to Macedonia.

From the aftermath, the Mauryan Empire was born. Considered a period of flourishment and unification, the years 322 – 185 BC consolidated most of modern-day India, as well as parts of Nepal, Kashmir, Afghanistan, among others.

These three periods, marked with cultural exchanges, sedimented Indian culture and traditions. As we’ll see below, this varied heritage gave way to continued, rich cultural history.

Indian Fashion Culture

Here’s another cool Indian culture fact. Remember the Vedas? The early recordings speak of clothes made with leaves and barks. Later volumes mention the existence of dyed and embroidered garments. Tailored garments can be traced back as early as the 10th century AD.  Throughout their development, the manufacturing techniques were so well received that even the Roman emperors would buy clothes from the region.

Nowadays, India is the second largest textile exporter in the world, according to the Indian Brand Equity Foundation. Of course, this speaks to the millenary tradition of fashion culture we just discussed. Here are some of the traditional embroidery techniques known to be part of Indian culture and heritage:

  • Crewel. Surface embroidery done in wool.
  • Chikan. A versatile style of embroidery that can be done on fabrics like muslin, organza, silk, and cotton using a varied range of threads. The process begins with stamping block prints on the fabric, then the lines are used as guides for embroidering, and finally the fabric is washed to remove any line traces.
  • Zardosi. Metal embroidery done on silk, satin, or velvet using a silver or gold thread. Beads, pearls, and stones can be used as well.

India is also known for its silk and cotton blends, sported commonly in saris. Saris are long pieces of fabric that are wrapped around the waist and then draped over the shoulder. The most popular type is probably the Kangivaram sari, worn for weddings and special occasions. It originated in the Kanchipuram region and is a symbol of India.

Under British rule, Khadi became the predominant fabric. This hand-woven cotton fabric was meant to lessen the need for imported goods from the UK. The next big shift in fashion came in the 1920s, where the cholis emerged as a response to Charleston dresses. In 21st century terms, the choli is reminiscent of a long-sleeve crop-top and is worn with a sari.

In the 80s and 90s, Fashion schools began to open up everywhere in India. At this time, women were also joining the workforce in significant numbers, leading to their active involvement in the fashion industry. Today, fashion has become an intrinsic part of Indian culture and tradition, as well as a direct reflection of the country’s multiculturalism, which will talk more about below.

Different cultures in India

India is the second most populous country in the world, with 1.33 billion inhabitants. Within its borders, there are more than 20 officially recognized languages, with the primary being English, Hindi and Bengali.

Although most of the population (79.8%) practice Hinduism, there are many Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. This speaks to a variety of cultural and religious traditions coexisting within India, and remains one of the most important facts about Indian culture.

Diwali, the most popular festival in India, is a testament to this cultural mix. Each region celebrates in their own way, venerating different gods and commemorating different events.

Indian food culture

Speaking of Diwali, did you know there are more than 100 types of traditional Indian desserts? Also called mithai, most of these deserts are fried and milk-based, but the flavors, ingredients, and textures vary by region. Although sweets are enjoyed year-round, they are a must for Diwali celebrations.

We started with dessert because life is too short, but let’s talk about the main course. The staples of Indian food culture are basmati rice, chickpeas (specifically Bengal gram), curries, spices and chutneys. Curries are usually enhanced with spices and herbs such as cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, and dried chilies. Chutneys, which are thick spreads, are made from different fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, tamarind, and herbs like mint and cilantro.

Food is usually accompanied by some type of bread such as naan, a type of flatbread, and bhatoora, a fluffy deep-fried bread.

Lamb and chicken are popular in Indian cuisine, however a large percentage of Indians (between 31% and 42%) are vegetarian, resulting in a traditional diet based on lentils, vegetables, and cheese. Even amongst non-vegetarians, meat is not eaten as commonly. Vegetarian culture in India is serious business, with both restaurants and packaged food needing to be marked as lacto-vegetarian or non-vegetarian.

Indian cultural symbols

India is filled with cultural symbols, starting with the whopping 38 World Heritage Sites found within its borders. Perhaps the most emblematic of them all is the Taj Mahal, commissioned in 1623 by Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor. The structure is a mausoleum where Jahan and his favorite wife are buried.

Another crown jewel of Indian cultural symbols is Bollywood. Previously known as Bombay Cinema, Bollywood is the name given to the Indian Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai. The Indian cinema industry as a whole produces around 1,000 films a year, more than any other film industry in the world. Additionally, the films are often produced in all of India’s major languages and are known for their amazing fight scenes and choreographies.

And there you have it! Of course, there are so many other aspects of Indian culture that are worth mentioning and exploring further, but we hope this is a good place to get you started.

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