India Semester Abroad

India Semester Abroad

University of Guelph

  An informal pre-departure orientation from a participant’s perspective.




Academic: Culture

UG India Semester 2008











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:

  • Use your right hand! Your left hand is just for wiping your backside and other dirty jobs, and your right hand is for everything else!
  • Take your shoes off! When you enter a house or a sacred area, go in socks or bare feet. In public places, you can either put your faith in common courtesy, or you can pay someone a few rupees to watch your footwear.
  • In some upper caste households, it may not be appropriate for you to enter the kitchen because of strict rules of religious cleanliness. As much as you want to learn to make chapattis, you don’t want to make extra work for your host family or their servants!
  • Before you arrive, try to decide how you are going to interact with people asking for money. You probably won’t stick to this plan all the time, but it will help you to cope with the hundreds of requests. If you are going to give money, be prepared to have young children follow you for blocks. It is heart-wrenching to say no, but it is also frustrating to be constantly pestered. I chose to give small amounts of money when there was some privacy, and made larger donations to charities and NGOs along the way.
  • It is common for men in India to pee along the side of the road, so be prepared to avert your eyes often! (We once worked out that we would see about 1500 men peeing beside the road during the 3 month semester ... I wonder if that is really true?!) Unfortunately women don’t have the same convenient option, so you’ll have to go looking for the nearest toilet!
  • On trains and in most wealthy households, there is a choice between ‘western’ toilets and ‘Indian style’ squat toilets. I’d choose a squat pot any day- it is easy (except sometimes on a train!), you don’t have to touch anything, and it is more fun! You can either buy your own toilet paper in local stores, or learn to use water or your hand- it is up to you!



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:

  • India is here to change you ... not for you to change it.

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.



Modern India

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

For an in-depth discussion of Indian arts and crafts, check out some of the links at

The Lonely Planet gives a good discussion of sacred Indian culture (click here)



Updated: 2006 November 16