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People & Language

The fabric of Indian society is woven with myriad threads. The result is multi-textured, many layered and though this diversity has fuelled some dissension, it continues to be India’s strength. One of the most marked things about Indian society is the great diversity. This applies to religion, ethnicity and language as much as to the economic situation. The yawning gap between the rich and the poor is bridged by a large middle class of small businessmen, professionals, bureaucrats etc.

Most Indians actively practice their religion, and despite the creeping westernisation, most of India is socially orthodox. That means that caste distinctions have not been forgotten, man-woman interaction may be frowned upon, and the public display of affection is strictly no-no. The cow is sacred and ‘all ye who forget that-be doomed’. The left hand, which is an indispensable tool for Indian ablutions, is considered impure and isn’t used in passing things around.

On the whole the Indians are a warm welcoming people. The guest is next only to God and crooks and touts notwithstanding, and curious looks and probing questions notwithstanding, you’ll find that they are great hosts. Their idiosyncrasies just make it all the more interesting; be patient and you will learn to love the complete package.

The national language of India is Hindi, which in one form or another is spoken all over the north. In the Deccan (south India), the languages are completely different. The states were formed on the basis of language so each has its own. On the whole though, dialects, accents, idioms and linguistic flourishes change every few miles. There are 18 official languages but over a thousand recognised dialects. English is widely spoken


India is known for it's religious diversity. It’s the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. It’s among the few places to have a resident Zoroastrian population. The Syrian Christian Church is well established inKerala; the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, old churches in Calcutta and Delhi, synagogues in Kerala, temples from the tiny to the tremendous, ‘stupas’, ‘gompas’ and the Bodhi tree, the Ajmer Sharif and Kaliya Sharif in Bombay, all reflect the amazing multiplicity of religious practice in India. Tribal people in the northeast, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat practice forms of nature worship.

Secularism is enshrined in the Constitution.


From DC to Dakota, Warwick to what-have-you, Indian spices are letting off steam everywhere in the whole wide world. And you come to India and realise......hey, there’s nothing authentic about it! Every kitchen, every man, woman, cook, chef does it different.

A meal in the north would typically constitute chapattis or rice with dal (lentil curry) and a dish of vegetables or meat. Pappads (wafers fried or toasted to a crisp), yoghurt and pickle are usual accompaniments. The chapatti is a round flat unleavened bread of which you tear bits to scoop the curry. Variations of the chapatti are paratha, poorie, bhatoora, and Tandoori naans.

Idli, dosa, vada, sambar, uppama! In the south, too, a meal centres on a base of rice, or as in the South –Indian case, semolina preparation. The idli is a steamed rice cake and the crisp salty pancake often stuffed with potatoes is the dosa. Eaten alongside is the South-Indian dal - "sambhar", sour, hot, souped -up with vegetables. The Brahmins are vegetarian, but the rest consume sour-hot fish, mutton, and chicken with gusto. In Kerala seafood is simmered in coconut milk and delicately flavoured with curry leaves. Most Indians eat three meals, each one full-fledged.

Savoury snacks like pakoras pep the evening cuppa. Anything coated in batter (of chickpea, flour et al) and deep-fried will pass for pakora. Also, readily available on the roadside are snacks like bhelpuri (spiced up puffed rice) and paaprichaat (wafers and boiled potato doused in curd and sauces). Vegetarians will feel like they’ve come home, specially in the south. But no matter where you are, in a plush restaurant or a roadside ‘dhaba’, in Kunnur or Kullu, you can be sure of sumptuous vegetarian meals.

All along the coast and extensively in the northeast fish is consumed almost as a staple. Both fresh water and sea fish are popular. Indians love their sweets. There is great regional variety and among the most popular types is the Bengali "mishti".

There’s also a huge variety in drinks. Besides ‘chai’ (tea) and coffee, sweetened/salty churned yoghurt called lassi, the ubiquitous ‘neemboo-pani’ or lemon-water, fruit juice in tetra packs and aerated drinks are readily available in India. IMFL expands into Indian made Foreign Liquor and spans the entire range from beer to whiskey. Some examples of local brews are ‘chaang’ in Arunachal, toddy in the South and Goa’s famous ‘feni.’

Culture & Crafts

Music: Much of India’s classical music is devotional and a lot of that, devoted to the flute playing god, Krishna. The North Indian Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic streams are distinct and both have a complex ‘raga’ framework. Ghazals in Urdu reflect on life and are light on the ear. Every region has a distinctive folk tradition too. Instruments that would typically accompany Indian music are the stringed veena, sitar, and the Indian drum: tabla or mridangam in the south.


The legacy of dance in India is tremendous. On temple walls, on an urban stage, in impromptu bursts by a mellow evening fire, men and women twinkle their toes in expression of joy. The classical dances of India are numerous. Characterised by stylised movements and elaborate costumes, these dances communicate age-old tales of love, longing and rage. Kathakali of Kerala, Bharatnatyam of Tamil Nadu, Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh, Manipuri and Odissi from Orissa are the prominent dance forms in this country that sways to an altogether novel beat. The robust bhangra of Punjabi men, the graceful whirling of Rajasthani women, the gentle sway of northeastern dancers, vigorous tribal dances, every corner has developed it’s own unique form.


There is a robust theatrical tradition. The Yakshagana, nautanki and puppetry are ancient folk forms that live on till date. This tribe of wandering performers is on the decline but there still are occasional performances on the rudimentary stages of the rural areas. Rustic and coarse the flavour might be, but the techniques are surprisingly sophisticated. There is a growing body of contemporary work both in English and in the vernacular.


The earliest specimens of Indian painting are the ones on the walls of the Ajanta Caves dating back to 2nd century BC. The typical ‘figures in profile’ art of India came to be when the Jain manuscripts were being illustrated. The Mughals had a huge impact on Indian art. The miniature, which had been only on palm leaves in the northeast, came into prominence. The influence of Persian art brought placid garden scenes, illustrations from myths, legends and history into Indian art. Later schools include the Bengal School of Tagore and the Company School of European influence. More recently the opulent paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, the paintings of M.F. Hussain, Jamini Roy and Ganesh Pyne among others rule the art scene.


Word craft, handicrafts, architecture and sculpture all contribute to this rich and varied domain. Indian literature, both in English and in the vernacular, is ever more popular around the world. Handicrafts are as varied as the country itself. The Mughal and colonial structures and the temple architecture across the length and breadth of the country are testaments to the lands exciting past. Sculptures adorn temple walls, stupas, street junctions and ancient caves. The oldest schools are the Gandhara and the Mathura.


The Hindi movie industry is the most prolific in the world. Based in Bombay, hence Bollywood, this spool-spitting machine takes on the onerous responsibility of fuelling India’s prime passion. There is sheer joy in the easy stereotypes of muscle-flexing machismo, leering villainy and leading ladies of Hindi filmdom, but not all Hindi films are a simmering brew of action, romance, and song and dance. There is a parallel stream of "art" cinema though it’s not nearly half as popular as the "commercial" stream. Giving competition to the Bollywood masala film is the equally spicy south Indian fare. Regional cinema is fairly popular in its local context and with serious cinema-goers.

Cricket! Oh for the love of a six-er! India grinds to a halt when the country’s eleven don their colours. In cricket-crazy Calcutta, old folk gather to trash the ‘new fangled’ limited-overs format; in front of a million TV sets, four million pray for victory (often knowing they’re praying for a miracle!) tirelessly. It’s a mad-mad-mad world and in India cricket stars adorn the doors of innumerable cupboards.

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