Traditions and customs of India

What traditions and customs are there in India?

Immersion in the world of Indian customs and traditions.


Food in daily life

About half of the population eat rice as a staple food, while the rest subsist on wheat, barley, maize and millet. Therefore, there are important geographical differences in diet. Just as fundamental is the divide between those who eat meat and those who are vegetarian.

Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Christians all eat meat, with the important proviso that the first three groups do not eat pork. Lower caste Hindus eat any meat except beef, while members of the higher castes and all Jains are normally vegetarians, with most even avoiding eggs.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Every caste, tribe, town, village and religion has a panoply of traditional ceremonies that are observed with enthusiasm and wide participation. Most of these ceremonies have a religious basis, and most are linked to the deities of Hinduism.


Although different regions and religions have a wide variety of marriage regimes, arranged marriage is a traditional feature of virtually all communities; today, except among the urban middle classes, it is still a widespread practice.

Marriages that are not arranged by the couple’s parents, often referred to as “love marriages,” are viewed as impulsive acts of passion. The most common style of marriage unites a couple who barely knew each other beforehand.

It is through the institution of arranged marriage and its correlate, caste endogamy, that parents exercise control not only over their adult children, but also over the social structure and caste system.

In general, the country has two main types of marriage: one in North India, in which the man must not marry a close cousin, and one in South India, in which a cousin, either the mother’s brother’s daughter or father’s sister’s daughter, is the ideal spouse.

Many South Indian castes also allow marriage between uncle and niece. The state of Maharashtra has intermediate forms.


The Indians are usually very hospitable, even when they are poor, and go out of their way to make the visitor feel comfortable. Women normally take a deferential attitude towards men, especially towards their husbands and fathers-in-law. All people tend to show deference to religious figures and government officials.


Religious beliefs

In the 1991 census, 82% of the population was Hindu. However, 12 percent of Indians are Muslim, a fact that makes this one of the largest Islamic nations in the world.

The next largest religious category is Christians, who make up just 2 percent of the population and are closely followed in number by Sikhs. The only other groups of numerical importance are Buddhists (less than 1 percent) and Jains (less than half a percentage point).

Rituals and sacred places

The thousands of rituals and millions of shrines, temples, and other holy places of many religions defy categorization here. For Hindus, the great pilgrimage temples are the most sacred centers, while for Muslims the tombs of saints (“pir”) are the most important. For Buddhists, many of them foreign visitors, sites associated with the Buddha are crucial.

Death and the afterlife

While Muslims, Jews, and Christians pray for their souls to go to paradise after death, Hindu ideas about life after death are very different. Muslims, Jews, and Christians bury their dead in cemeteries, as do most Zoroastrians today.

However, Zoroastrians are noted for their Towers of Silence in Bombay and some other cities: stone structures where dead bodies are exposed to the air and particularly to the vultures that congregate there.

Most Hindu communities have a core belief in reincarnation. The basic idea is that the soul can reincarnate for an unknown number of rebirths and that what the soul must reincarnate depends on the balance of its sins and good deeds in past lives.

This belief justifies the inequalities of the caste system: One is born into a particular caste, either high or low, as a result of the accumulated virtues or sins of his soul in a previous life. One can never hope to get out of caste from him in this life, but he can in the next reincarnation. Particularly evil individuals can be reincarnated as animals.

Hindus normally cremate the dead in a pile of logs, but the very poor may resort to burial. Extremely holy figures may be buried in a sitting position, as may members of the Lingayat sect.

Secular celebrations

Public holidays in most states include January 1 (Gregorian New Year), January 26 (Republic Day, when the constitution was adopted), May 1 (International Labor Day), May 30 June and August 15 (Independence Day), October 2 (Gandhi’s birthday), December 25 (Christmas) and December 31 (New Year’s Eve).

Parsi New Year and Telugu New Year, both celebrated locally, are celebrated at different times.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

Historically, the arts flourished under the support of two main categories of patrons: the great Hindu temples and the princely rulers of states, both small and large. In the last two centuries, the patronage of British art residents and collectors has become important.

In independent India, a national art institute, the Lalit Kala Akademi, promotes the visual arts through conferences, awards, exhibitions, and publications.

The government supports the Sahitya Akademi, created in 1954 to promote excellence in literature; to the National School of Theater (1959); and to the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1953), which promotes dance.


India has some of the world’s earliest literary works, beginning with Sanskrit, which may be the oldest literature in any Indo-European language.

The Rig Veda is the oldest of the four Vedas, long religious texts composed in an early form of Sanskrit in the late 2nd century BCE. It was followed by three other Vedas, all liturgical in character, and then by the major Upanishads during the 8th century. to V aCE

The first significant secular document in Sanskrit was a sophisticated grammar that fixed the structure of the language, probably in the fourth century BC Then, during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, the text of the great epic Mahabharata, the longest poem in the world, was established. around 300 BC, although it continued to develop until around 100 BC

Around 200 BC the second great Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, emerged, probably taking its final form four centuries later. Both epics incorporated material from existing folklore.

By about the 3rd century BCE, the Tripitaka or Three Baskets, the Buddhist canon in the Pali language (closely related to Sanskrit), was fixed. It would soon become the most influential body of literature in the eastern half of Asia and has remained so to this day, especially in Chinese and Japanese translations.

At that time the image of the social structure of India was codified by two books. In the late 4th century, Kautilya, who is said to have been the prime minister of Chanakya, wrote the Arthastra, a Treatise on the Good, which was rediscovered in 1909.

Soon after came the compilation of the Laws of the Manu (Manusmrti). This treatise on religious law and social obligation described in detail a possibly utopian society in which there were four caste blocks, the varna, each with its own occupation, status, and religious duties.

This book continued to exert immeasurable influence on Indian society for the next two thousand years and the varna model remains a popular image of Hindu caste society.

Around 150 AD, the Tamil Sangam, an academy of poets and philosophers, began in southern India and lasted for decades. Although its history is shrouded, it set the stage for an outpouring of medieval poetry in Tamil, a Dravidian language. Some of this work was devotional, but much was secular in its appeal, including the earliest known work of Indian women writers.

The most famous example of this poetry was the Purananuru, an anthology of four hundred poems praising Tamil rulers. Equally important, the Kural was a collection of moral maxims compiled by Tiruvalluvar in perhaps the 3rd and 4th centuries. It has been compared to the Tamil Quran.

At about the same time, there was a flourishing of Sanskrit drama in the northern parts of India. In the 4th or 5th century lived the greatest Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa. The best-known plays that have survived from this time are Shakuntala and The Little Clay Cart, the former written by Kalidasa and the latter a comedy perhaps also written by him.

During the Middle Ages, science and philosophy flourished in Sanskrit texts. Perhaps the best known, if least scientific, work was the Kama Sutra or a treatise on love by Vatsyayana, who wrote it in a legal style of Sanskrit around the 3rd century.

The Middle Ages witnessed an avalanche of religious and philosophical literature not only in Sanskrit, which remained the main liturgical and academic language, but also in various regional languages. Logic, metaphysics, devotional poetry, and commentary developed over the centuries.

In the period 850-1330 an important new philosophical literature appeared in Karnataka, beginning with the Kavirajamarga. This was Jain literature written in the medieval language of Kannada. At the end of the 12th century, Lilavati was written by Nemichandra, the first novel in that language. Other allegorical novels followed, as well as Kesiraja’s grammar of medieval Kannada.

Around 1020, another Dravidian literature, in Telugu, debuted with the grammarian Nannaya Bhatta and the poet Nannichoda. At about this time, the Malay language became differentiated from Tamil. A century later, the oldest known manuscript was written in Bengali. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Mukundaraj became the first man to write poetry in Marathi.

In the early 15th century, two poets brought Bengali literature to the fore: Chandidas and Vidyapati, with the latter writing in both Sanskrit and Bengali. Contemporary with them were two Telugu poets, Srinatha and Potana, as well as the most beloved Hindu poet, Kabir (1440-1518).

Kabir wrote in a medieval regional language closely related to Sanskrit. Although Kabir was a low-caste Hindu, he was inspired by Sufism and criticized the caste system, ritualism, and idolatry. In 1540 he was followed by India’s first major Muslim poet, Muhammad de Jais, who wrote the allegorical poem Padmavat in Hindi.

Kabir’s contemporary was one of the greatest female poets, the Rajput Mirabai, who wrote in both Hindi and Gujarati. A century before her, Manichand had written an important historical novel in Gujarati.

Tulsidas’s 1574 Hindi version of the Ramayana seemed to be the forerunner of numerous versions of the Ramayana in regional languages.

At that time there was a strong Persian cultural influence in some parts of the country. One of the rulers of the Muslim province of Golconda (later Hyderabad) was Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, a poet who wrote in both Persian and Urdu, which was a new form of Hindi that contained many Persian words and was written in Persian script. Arab.

In 1604, the Adi Granth, the canonical text of the Sikh religion, was established in Punjabi. Thirty years later, a book in Urdu prose, Vajhi’s Sab Ras, appeared, also in northwest India.

In the southernmost parts of the subcontinent, the Kannada Rajasekhara poem of Sadakshara Deva, the works of the Gujarati storyteller Premanand (1636-1734), and the influential Marathi poems of Tukaram (1607-1649) were also written in the mid-17th century.

With the advent of the printing press in South India, Tamil literature experienced a renaissance. Arunachala Kavirayar wrote The Tragedy of Rama in 1728, and the Italian Jesuit Beschi wrote the Tamil poem Tembavani in 1724 under the pseudonym Viramamunivar (it was not published until 1853).

Also of interest was the 18th-century “Indian Pepys” Anandaranga Pillai, a Tamil who lived in the French colony of Pondicheåry. His long diary has been published in Tamil, French and English. Another prominent Tamil poet and bard was Tyagaraja.

In the 18th century, there was another flourishing of Urdu poetry by Vali, Hatim, Sauda, ​​Inch’a, and Nazir. By Nazir’s time, British hegemony in India was well established, and with it the spread of regional printing presses, the opening of the first modern universities, and the growing influence of European literary forms, especially in the English language.

This influence is evident even in writers who published in their mother tongue. Bengal in particular experienced a great literary and intellectual revival in both English and Bengali, including the novels of Bankim Chandra Chatterji and India’s first Nobel Laureate, the poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore.

A parallel literary revival in Hindi occurred in the early 20th century, with Premchand’s early novels. Tamil also began to produce English-influenced novels.

In the 20th century this modernization continued, driven by the ease of publication and the growing size of the reading public. An unexpected development during that century was the rise of numerous world-class and award-winning novelists writing in English, often not residing in India. Today London’s Salman Rushdie from Bombay and Delhi’s Arundati Roy from Kerala are pre-eminent.

Graphic arts

India has a multiplicity of visual arts dating back more than four thousand years. The old painting has not survived, but the urban architecture and some small sculptures have. Most of the thousands of seals that have been found are masterpieces of glyphic art, showing the great animals of northwest India in miniature relief.

The main visual arts emerged in the context of religious worship. Sanskrit manuals still survive stipulating the rules for the production of Hindu religious statues, temples and paintings.

The distinctive regional styles of temple architecture are a feature of the landscape and a clear sign of the presence of Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Christianity and Hinduism in every part of the country.

Within Hindu temples there are a wide variety of images of the deities, some skillfully carved in stone, others cast in bronze or silver, and others modeled in terracotta or wood.

The painting was an ancient achievement, although the climate has not been conducive to conservation. Wall paintings from the 2nd and 3rd centuries and monumental Buddhist sculptures can still be seen in the caves of Ajanta (Madhya Pradesh).

Despite Islamic prohibitions on the representation of the human face, painting and drawing flourished under the Moghul emperors. Realistic portraits, historical scenes, and botanical and zoological subjects were evoked with sensitive line and subtle color palette during this period.

Oil painting dates back to two centuries ago, when the first European portrait painters began to work in India. Today there are many professional graphic artists, some inspired by ancient Indian traditions and others by modern abstract expressionism.

Art schools, public exhibitions, and coffee table books are the means to reach their audiences today, while religious patronage has all but evaporated.

Performing arts

India has the largest film industry in the world. In 1996, 683 films were certified by the Board of Censors. Although television even reached rural India more than twenty years ago, cinema remains the main form of popular visual art.

In 1996, India had 12,623 cinemas, with a weekly attendance of between 90 and 100 million. Radios are very widespread, mainly as a source of light music, but not as a major source of information.

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