An informal pre-departure orientation from a participant’s perspective.
Indian culture: where to begin?
Culture is everywhere and everything – it shapes how we understand our world. Culture is made up of language, traditions, values, beliefs, institutions, and social relations. Indian culture shapes every aspect of India, just as our own Canadian culture affects our thoughts and actions.
As outsiders we’ll never be able to understand everything about Indian culture, but even the tiniest bit of insight will make it all clearer. Life in India can seem mysterious, confusing, or downright illogical, but if you put it into the context of Indian culture, things suddenly start to make sense.
So what do I need to know?
Like everything else in India, culture varies greatly across the country. As discussed in the history section, Indian culture is adapted and assimilated from a series of invasions by Aryans, Arabs, Turks, and Europeans, each of which contributed to the existing Dravidian culture. This makes for a very eclectic mix of arts, crafts, architecture, music, and dance in each region.
Generally speaking, Northern India is more or less united by Hindi language and was heavily influenced by Mughal rule in the 16th to 18th century. Southern Indian culture is much more fragmented, with a wide variety of languages and distinctive traditions.
Some of the basic components of an Indian meal are lentils, yogurt, vegetables and chutney with either bread or rice. Southern cooks prefer the hot spice of coconut chutney, while Northern cooks use the sweet-sour savoury taste of tamerind. Both are delicious!
Photo: Southern Indian Thali: The best meal that I have ever had! For CAN$1, we had all-you-can-eat vegetable curries, rice, chutney, raita, yogurt, and sweet dessert! All served out of big metal buckets onto a fresh banana leaf! Fantastic!
The Basics of Behaviour
You’ve probably heard this all before, but here is a quick list of the behavioural rules that you need to keep in mind:
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Here is my very best piece of advice, which I hope that you will remember even if you forget everything else. I saw this on a t-shirt once, and it sums up my beliefs perfectly:
As foreigners, development 'experts', or university students, it is easy to feel superior. Please remember that the India Semester is a learning opportunity, not your chance to save the world. Be respectful of Indian beliefs, and reserve your judgements for yourself.
Indian culture offers a vast wealth of traditions, arts, literature, and music, but it also has weaknesses, like the institutionalized discrimination against women and lower castes. Remember, in learning about the good, you don’t have to accept all of the bad – you just need to understand how it fits into the whole picture. Patriarchy and the caste system initially developed because for some reason they helped Indian society to survive in difficult historical situations. Celebrate the parts of Indian culture which you like, and be supportive of Indians who are working to promote equality and fairness.
For a continued discussion of these cultural issues, please look at the equality section.
India has changed dramatically in recent history, and so has its culture. Alongside tradition there is also a very modern side to India, including Bollywood, internet cafes, and Indian MTV music videos. This new culture is most prevalent in the cities and among higher income groups, but it is also part of the everyday life of all Indians. The massive Indian diaspora (Indians who live outside of India) has helped to create an increased international awareness and shared global culture.
Photo: 'The New India' is represented by the ubiquitous glossy advertising for Bollywood movies (as above), soft drinks, and other new products and services.
For a mouthwatering description of Indian food region-by-region, take a look at http://stylusinc.com/business/india/food.htm
For an in-depth discussion of Indian arts and crafts, check out some of the links at http://www.princetonol.com/groups/iad/lessons/middle/india.htm
The Lonely Planet gives a good discussion of sacred Indian culture (click here)
Updated: 2006 November 16