Indian Culture : What Makes it Unique From Rest of the World

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Holi Festival by Kerry Bian

Occupying a considerable portion of South Asia, India is a country of one of the most diverse populations, representing a government of the constitutional republic. Since the ages of the Indus Valley civilisation, India had been a fairly politically and culturally self-contained territory. It was not until the British set their colony in the land that a Western and foreign culture massively impacted and influenced the country. The beauty of the Indian culture is derived from its rich history.

Here, we explore the position where the country stands as of now in its cultural aspect. Despite modernisation and Westernisation, Indian culture and the traditional practices are held on to with considerable vigour. In its deepest pockets, many lead a primarily orthodox lifestyle. However, the country as a whole is as colourful and complex, as its plethora of people that it is home to.

Languages in India

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India, a land of 28 states and seven union territories, does not have one official language. In a survey conducted by the Times of India, results showed that almost 60 per cent of the citizens speak a language which is not Hindi. As recorded in the 2011 language census, there are 121 languages which are spoken by 10,000 people or more in India.

The 121 languages are presented in two parts: the 22 languages which are a part of the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, and the languages not included in the Eighth Schedule. The latter comprises 99 languages plus the category total of ‘other languages’, which encompases all those languages that returned less than 10,000 speakers each at the all-India level.

The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution includes languages like Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, Maithili and Dogri, to name a few.
According to the latest 2011 census, more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in the whole of India as mother tongue.

Religion in India

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Photo by Debashis RC Biswas

India is characterised by a massive population of people who belong to a diverse list of religions. Identified as the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, India is a home to a varying number of religious communities, many of which are minorities, including Muslims, Christians, Judaists, etc. India includes not only the vast majority of the world’s Hindus but also the second-largest group of Muslims within a single country.

The largest democracy in the world, India is religiously pluralistic and multiethnic, and the Constitution provides for the security, free expression and equal human rights of the minorities. However, since the past decade, the country has experienced very high levels of social hostilities and brutalities that have germinated from religious issues.

Food Culture in India

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Indian Cuisine by Chan Walrus

Just like how diverse and enriching the country is in its culture, so is its cornucopia of various types of cuisines, comprising recipes prepared usually from indigenously grown spices, herbs, vegetables, fruits and grains. Indian food is influenced by occupation, like the seafood dishes of the fishing community of Maharashtra, religion, like the rich preparations of meat and biryani influenced by the Islamic rule, ethnicity, like the varying sweet dishes of the Bengalis festivals and regional specialities.

Wheat, rice and pulses are staples of the Indian diet. The gastronomical variety is rich with different types of Indian spices, including coriander, cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon. The condiment of ‘chutney’, prepared from fruits, vegetables, herbs and nuts are quite popular in Indian cooking. While a considerable amount of the population is vegetarian, relying mostly on ‘paneer’ and grains, meat preparations of lamb and chicken are common as main dishes for the non-vegetarians.

While historical events such as invasions, trade relations and colonialism have played a role in introducing certain foods to this country, Indian cuisine has also influenced foreign cuisines across the world, especially those of Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, Southeast Asia, North America and the Caribbean.

Art and Architecture of India

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Atanta Cave Paintings – Kunal Mukherjee via Flickr

The prehistoric rock art in India is an early art form based on carvings, engravings or drawing on cave rocks. The oldest examples are the Bhimbetka petroglyphs found in central India and believed to be at least 290,000 years old. Buddhism originated in India at some point in the 6th century BCE and gave rise to the sculpting of stone and bronze pieces of religious themes. The Ajanta and Ellora caves host magnificent examples of Indian cave paintings and sculptures, which are treasured heritage sites that upheld the grander of Indian culture.

The creation of art flourished under the sponsorship of the Islamic rulers of the Mughal Empire, established in the 16th century. This era saw the birth of the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal.

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Taj Mahal by Balaji Srinivasan

During colonial rule in India, the British established art schools that promoted European styles, while back in Europe there rose demand of Indian artefacts. The western and eastern traditions, therefore, influenced each other and developed a romanticised Indian style of merged practices.

Since independence, Indian artists have searched for new styles and techniques to further the experiments on contemporary art movements. However, the dependence and inspiration of historic and ancient practices are still prevalent.

Indian architecture has seen innumerable intricacies and extravagant exploits. Many Hindu temples featured very distinctive towers in the form of truncated pyramids and had hundreds of sculptures ornamenting the walls. Mughal architecture incorporated Islamic elements. Arches and domes were widespread, and the decoration was full of stylised geometric patterns.

Indian Music

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Image – Prabhu B Doss via Flickr

The major traditions of classical music of India are the North Indian classical music called Hindustani, the South Indian and Sri Lankan expression Carnatic and the East Indian expression is called Odissi.

Classical music, based on ‘raga’ and ‘taal’, dates back to the Vedic scriptures where chants developed a system of musical notes and rhythmic cycles. Today, Indian classical music is taught in several institutions, and it is a prerequisite to learn under the expertise of a skilled teacher, incorporating observation, listening, and memorising skills. Indian dance and theatre traditions have prevailed for years. The major Indian traditional dance forms include Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Kuchipudi, and Kathakali. Drawing on themes from mythology and literature, the dance forms showcase unique presentations on postures, gestures and movements and are traditionally performed to the melody of classical music.

Traditional Indian Clothing

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Photo by Ujjwal chouhan

Traditional Indian clothing encompasses various types of drapery that are woven from silk, cotton or wool. The women wear sarees. Each ethnicity has a unique style of draping. Salwar Kameez and Kurti are taking over the modern lifestyle. The men wear dhoti, pyjama, shirt, sherwani, or achkan. Depending on the customs, they might also team up with jackets and caps. For winter, there are exquisite shawls, like the ones from Assam, that portray the unique embroidery and style of their specific areas of origin. Ritualistic and cultural performers don elaborately designed costumes that pertain to their ethnic traditions.

Indian Customs and festivals

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Photo by Amol Nandiwadekar

Festivals of India bring together the people in a harmony of celebration, often regardless of religion, like during the Ganpati Utsav in Maharashtra or the Durga Puja in West Bengal. Diwali is a brilliant festival of lights and sounds, with firecrackers livening up the night sky. Harvest festivals are celebrated all over, like Pongal of Tamil, Lohri of Sikhs and Poush Sankranti of Bengalis. While the Dussehra and Navratri are embraced with grandeur, the ones like Holi and Raksha Bandhan primarily aim at bringing together people with warmth.
It is not easy to define the culture of India in one compartmentalised endeavour. Every ethnicity and religion that the land harbours has its unique nuances and rich heritage. It is a land where multiculturalism is a significant socio-political aspect, one which, if not allowed to persist, will result in severe deterioration of the lives of an important part of the population.

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