India country overview

The culture of India

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

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Daily life of India

Family and kinship

In Indian society, the family is recognized as the cornerstone of social structure. The preference for extended family arrangements is pronounced, involving multiple married couples from various generations living together, sharing financial responsibilities, and operating a communal kitchen. Marriage is a near-universal institution, with divorce being an uncommon occurrence, and the expectation that each union will yield offspring.

Marriages are predominantly arranged by family elders, who consider factors such as caste, kinship, financial standing, education, and astrological compatibility. Following tradition, a bride typically relocates to her husband’s residence. However, urban areas are witnessing a gradual increase in self-selected “love marriages” that are not arranged by family members.

Within these family units, a hierarchy based on gender, age, and for women, the number of male offspring, dictates social standing and influence. The eldest male, be it the father, grandfather, or uncle, is generally regarded as the head of the household, while his spouse oversees the domestic duties of the female members. Males are afforded a higher status than females, leading to disparities in the treatment of boys and girls. This discrepancy is evident in differing health outcomes between genders, and, although concrete data is scarce, it is speculated to contribute to the occurrence of female infanticide and the termination of pregnancies based on gender detection. The dowry system, which imposes a significant financial burden on the bride’s family to provide a suitable dowry, is a contributing factor to this gender preference.

In the traditional context, women were expected to revere their husbands to a divine extent, and the cultural norm of wifely obedience persists. This reverence may extend beyond a husband’s life, as some caste groups prohibit the remarriage of young widows.

The Hindu matrimonial tradition views marriage as the “gift of a maiden” (kanyadan) from her father to the groom’s family, accompanied by a dowry to support the couple’s new life together. However, the expectation of dowries has escalated in some instances, leading to extreme demands by the groom’s family. Tragically, this has resulted in reported cases of brides being subjected to mistreatment or violence to leverage additional wealth from their fathers. Such “dowry deaths” have sparked a backlash against the dowry system in some modern, urban families.

In contrast, Muslim marriages are seen as contractual agreements initiated by the bride’s father or guardian. Although dowries are present, there is an expectation of reciprocity, with the groom pledging a mahr—a promise to provide financial security to his bride during her lifetime.

Beyond familial ties, caste plays a pivotal role in Indian social dynamics. Within a village, caste members share a sense of fictive kinship and collective responsibility. This extends to the entire village community, as demonstrated when a woman marries and moves to a different village; she retains her identity as a daughter of her birth village, and any mistreatment in her marital home may elicit concern and action not only from her caste but from her natal village as a whole.

Festivals and holidays

Across the diverse landscapes of India, each region boasts its own revered pilgrimage destinations, venerated local saints, and legendary folk figures. These areas are also the epicenters of various religious festivities and associated fairs, deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of the nation. Additionally, a plethora of festivals are uniquely tied to specific villages, temples, castes, and religious sects.

Among the multitude of religious celebrations observed widely throughout India, certain festivals stand out for their popularity and national significance. Vasant Panchami, typically occurring in February as determined by the Hindu lunar calendar, is a festival dedicated to Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge and learning. Holi, which falls between February and March, is a jubilant occasion that temporarily dissolves traditional social hierarchies, as participants joyfully douse each other with colored water and powder. Dussehra, celebrated in the months of September and October, is marked by dramatic enactments of the epic Ramayana. Diwali, known as the Festival of Lights and observed in October or November, is a time of illumination and the exchange of gifts, symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness.

In addition to these religious observances, India also commemorates significant secular holidays. Independence Day on August 15th is a patriotic celebration of the nation’s freedom, while Republic Day on January 26th honors the date when the Constitution of India came into effect, marking the country’s transition to a full-fledged republic.

Clothing of India

In India, the attire is often simplistic and generally unstructured. Males, particularly in rural regions, commonly don a plain dhoti, which is a piece of cloth arranged in a skirt-like fashion around the waist, or a lungi, which is more form-fitting and prevalent in the southern and eastern parts of the country. Typically, the upper part of the body is left uncovered unless the weather calls for additional layers, such as a shawl in cooler temperatures or a turban to shield from the sun’s heat. More prosperous individuals and those from higher social strata tend to opt for tailored shirts, with a growing preference for Western designs. Tailored attire, including various styles of pants, jackets, and vests, is more commonly worn by Muslims, Sikhs, and city residents.

An illustration of traditional Indian female attire can be seen in a mid-19th century gouache painting from Tiruchchirappalli, India, which depicts a woman adorned in a sari. The sari, accompanied by a short blouse, is a widespread garment for women across most of India, though the draping style can differ significantly by region. In Punjab, many female students, older women, and urbanites often wear the shalwar-kameez, which pairs trouser-like bottoms with a long shirt, reserving saris for special events. In Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat, voluminous ankle-length skirts with blouses are customary. Footwear is not commonly worn by rural populations, particularly among women, who favor sandals when necessary.

Tribal Indian communities exhibit a diverse array of clothing styles, some of which, like those of certain Naga tribes, are notably elaborate. Nevertheless, Western fashion is becoming more prevalent throughout India, particularly among the urban and educated male population. Moreover, Western-style uniforms are now a common sight in many Indian schools, worn by students of both genders, and this trend extends to even rural areas of the country.

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