The Way of Life
Spirituality and family lie at the heart of Indian society, with these two tenets often intertwining in various ceremonies to celebrate auspicious occasions and life's milestones. Despite the growing number of nuclear families – primarily in the more cosmopolitan cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Delhi – the extended family remains a cornerstone of both urban and rural India, with males – usually the main breadwinners – generally considered the head of the household.
Marriage, Birth & Death
Different religions practise different traditions, but for all communities, marriage, birth and death are considered important and marked with ceremonies according to the relevant faith. Hindus are in the majority in India (around 80% of the population), while Muslims comprise the largest minority religion (about 14%).
Marriage is an exceptionally auspicious event for Indians. Although ‘love marriages’ have spiralled upwards in recent times (mainly in urban hubs), most Indian marriages are still arranged, be the family Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain or Buddhist. Discreet enquiries are made within the community. If a suitable match is not found, the help of professional matchmakers might be sought, or advertisements may be placed in newspapers and/or on matrimonial websites. In Hindu families, the horoscopes of both potential partners are checked and, if propitious, there’s a meeting between the two families.
Dowry, although illegal, is still a key issue in more than a few arranged marriages (mostly in conservative communities), with some families plunging into debt to raise the required cash and merchandise (from cars and computers to refrigerators and televisions). Health workers claim that India’s high rate of abortion of female foetuses (sex-identification medical tests are banned in India, but they clandestinely occur in some clinics) is predominantly due to the financial burden of providing a daughter’s dowry. Muslim grooms have to pay what is called a mehr to the bride.
The Hindu wedding ceremony is officiated by a priest and the marriage is formalised when the couple walk around a sacred fire seven times. Muslim ceremonies involve the reading of the Quran, and traditionally the husband and wife view each other via mirrors. Despite the existence of nuclear families, it’s still the norm for a wife to live with her husband’s family once married and assume the household duties usually outlined by her mother-in-law. Not surprisingly, the mother–daughter-in-law relationship can be a tricky one, as portrayed in various Indian TV soap operas.
Divorce and remarriage are becoming more common (primarily in bigger cities), but divorce is still not granted by courts as a matter of routine and is generally not looked upon very favourably by society. Among the higher castes, in more traditional areas, widows are expected to not remarry, to wear white and live pious, celibate lives.
Until recently, it was legal for Muslim males in India to obtain instant divorce according to sharia law (by uttering the word talaq, meaning 'divorce', three times). However, in 2017 the Modi government had the 'Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage)' bill passed in parliament, making instant divorce a criminal act, with offenders facing a fine and up to three years in jail.
The birth of a child is another momentous occasion, with its own set of special ceremonies, which take place at various auspicious times during the early years of childhood. For Hindus these include the casting of the child’s first horoscope, name-giving, feeding the first solid food, and the first hair-cutting.
Hindus cremate their dead, and funeral ceremonies are designed to purify and console both the living and the deceased. An important aspect of the proceedings is the sharadda, paying respect to one’s ancestors by offering water and rice cakes. It’s an observance that’s repeated at each anniversary of the death. After the cremation, the ashes are collected and, 13 days after the death (when blood relatives are deemed ritually pure), a member of the family usually scatters them in a holy river such as the Ganges or in the ocean. Sikhs similarly wash then cremate their dead. Muslims also prepare their dead carefully, but bury them, while the minority Zoroastrian Parsi community places its dead in 'Towers of Silence' (stone towers) to be devoured by birds.
The Caste System
Although the Indian Constitution does not recognise the caste system, caste can still wield considerable influence, especially in rural India, where the caste you are born into largely determines your social standing in the community. It can also influence your vocational and marriage prospects. Castes are further divided into thousands of jati, groups of ‘families’ or social communities, which are sometimes linked to occupation. Conservative Hindus will only marry someone of the same jati, and caste is often a criterion in matrimonial adverts: 'Mahar seeks Mahar' etc. In some very traditional families, young men and women who fall in love outside their caste have been murdered.
According to tradition, caste is the basic social structure of Hindu society. Living a righteous life and fulfilling your dharma (moral duty) raises your chances of being reborn into a higher caste and thus into better circumstances. Hindus are born into one of four varnas (castes): Brahmin (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (soldiers and administrators), Vaishya (merchants) and Shudra (labourers). The Brahmins are said to have emerged from the mouth of Lord Brahma at the moment of creation, Kshatriyas to have come from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs and Shudras from his feet. Beneath the four main castes are the Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables), who hold menial jobs such as sweepers and latrine cleaners. Many of India's complex codes of ritual purity were devised to prevent physical contact between people of higher castes and Dalits. A somewhat less rigid system exists in Islamic communities in India, with society divided into ashraf (high born), ajlaf (low born) and arzal (equivalent to the Dalits).
The word ‘pariah’ is derived from the name of a Tamil Dalit group, the Paraiyars. Some Dalit leaders, such as the renowned Dr BR Ambedkar (1891–1956), sought to change their status by adopting another faith; in his case it was Buddhism. At the bottom of the social heap are the Denotified Tribes. They were known as the Criminal Tribes until 1952, when a reforming law officially recognised 198 tribes and castes. Many are nomadic or seminomadic tribes, forced by the wider community to eke out a living on society’s fringes.
To improve the Dalits’ position, the government reserves a number of public-sector jobs, parliamentary seats and university places for them. Today these quotas account for almost 25% of government jobs and university student positions. The situation varies regionally, as different political leaders chase caste vote-banks by promising to include them in reservations. The reservation system, while generally regarded in a favourable light, has also been criticised for unfairly blocking tertiary and employment opportunities for those who would have otherwise got positions on merit. On the other hand, there are still examples of discrimination against Dalits in daily life – for example, higher castes denying them entry into certain temples.
Devout Hindus are expected to go on a yatra (pilgrimage) at least once a year. Pilgrimages are undertaken to implore the gods or goddesses to grant a wish, to take the ashes of a cremated relative to a holy river, or to gain spiritual merit. India has thousands of holy sites to which pilgrims travel; the elderly often make Varanasi their final one, as it’s believed that dying in this sacred city releases a person from the cycle of rebirth. Sufi shrines in India attract thousands of Muslims to commemorate holy days, such as the birthday of a Sufi saint, while many Muslims also make the hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Most festivals in India are rooted in religion and are thus a magnet for throngs of pilgrims. As many festivals are spiritual occasions – even those that have a carnivalesque sheen – it's important for tourists to behave respectfully. Also be aware that there have been deaths at festivals due to stampedes, so be extra cautious in large crowds.
If crowds worry you, stay away. This one’s big. Very big. Held four times every 12 years at four different locations across central and northern India, the Kumbh Mela is the largest religious congregation on the planet. This vast celebration attracts tens of millions of Hindu pilgrims, including mendicant nagas (naked sadhus, or holy men) from various Hindu monastic orders. The Kumbh Mela doesn’t belong to any particular caste or creed – devotees from all branches of Hinduism come together to experience the electrifying sensation of mass belief and to take a ceremonial dip in the sacred Ganges, Shipra or Godavari River.
The origins of the festival go back to the battle for supremacy between good and evil. In the Hindu creation myths, the gods and demons fought a great battle for a kumbh (pitcher) containing the nectar of immortality. Vishnu got hold of the container and spirited it away, but in flight four drops fell on the earth – at Prayagraj (Allahabad), Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. Celebrations at each of these cities last for around six weeks, but are centred on just a handful of auspicious bathing dates, normally six. The Prayagraj (Allahabad) event, known as the Maha (Great) Kumbh Mela, is even larger with even bigger crowds. Each location also holds an Ardh (Half) Mela every six years and a smaller, annual Magh Mela.
For detailed information (including exact dates and locations) of the Kumbh Mela, see www.kumbh.gov.in/en.
Women in India
According to the most recent census, published in 2011, India's population includes 586 million women, with an estimated 68% of those working (mostly as labourers) in the agricultural sector.
Women in India are entitled to vote and own property. While the percentage of women in politics has risen over the past decade, they’re still notably underrepresented in the national parliament, accounting for under 12% of parliamentary seats.
Although the professions are male dominated, women are steadily making inroads, especially in urban centres. Kerala was India’s first state to break societal norms by recruiting female police officers in 1938. It was also the first state to establish an all-female police station (in 1973). For village women it’s much more difficult to get ahead, but groups such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Gujarat have shown what’s possible, organising socially disadvantaged women into unions and offering micro-finance loans.
In low-income families especially, girls can be regarded as a serious financial liability, because at marriage a dowry might be demanded. For the urban middle-class woman, life is usually much more comfortable, but pressures still exist. Broadly speaking, she is far more likely to receive a tertiary education, but, once married, is often expected to ‘fit in’ with her in-laws and be a homemaker above all else. Like her village counterpart, if she fails to live up to expectations – even if it’s just not being able to produce a grandson – the consequences can be dire. This is demonstrated by the extreme practice of ‘bride burning’, wherein a wife is doused with flammable liquid and set alight. A 2017 report indicated there were 21 dowry deaths registered each day across India, with just a 35% conviction rate.
Although the Constitution allows for divorcees (and widows) to remarry, few reportedly do so, simply because divorcees are traditionally considered outcasts from society, most evidently so outside the big cities. Divorce rates in India are among the worlds’ lowest (around 14 in 1000) although they are rising. Most divorces take place in urban centres and are deemed less socially unacceptable among those occupying the upper echelons of society.
In October 2006, following women’s civil rights campaigns, the Indian parliament passed a landmark bill (on top of existing legislation), giving women who are suffering domestic violence increased protection and rights. Prior to this legislation, although women could lodge police complaints against abusive spouses, they weren’t automatically entitled to a share of the marital property or to ongoing financial support. Critics claim that many women, especially those outside India’s larger cities, are still reluctant to seek legal protection because of the social stigma involved.
India remains a largely conservative and patriarchal society. Despite the sexualised images of women churned out in Bollywood movies (although prolonged kissing is still rarely seen on screen), many traditionally minded people consider a woman to be somehow wanton if she so much as goes out after dark or does not dress modestly.
According to India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), reported incidences of rape have been increasing. It's believed that only a small percentage of sexual assaults are actually reported, largely due to family pressure and/or shame, especially if the perpetrator is known to the family – which is true in many cases.
Following the highly publicised gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old Indian physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012, tens of thousands of people protested in the capital and beyond, demanding swift government action to address the country's escalating gender-based violence. It took a further year before legal amendments were made to existing laws to address the problem of sexual assault, including harsher punishments such as life imprisonment and the death penalty. Despite this, sexual violence against women remains rampant. According to the latest NCRB report, Delhi has the highest number of crimes against women – 13,803 out of a total of 41,761 cases registered in 19 major Indian cities. A considerable number of foreign female travellers to India have reported some form of sexual harassment.
The #MeToo movement swept India in 2018, resulting in a number of high-profile men in the media and entertainment industries losing their jobs and facing legal action due to sexual harassment allegations. It also saw a minister in the Modi government, MJ Akbar, resign after being accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women who worked with him during his tenure as a newspaper editor. The #MeToo movement has been widely praised for giving Indian women the collective confidence to speak out against sexual predators.
Cricket has long been engraved on the nation's heart, with the first recorded match in 1721, and India's first test-match victory in 1952 in Chennai (then Madras) against England. It's not only a national sporting obsession, but a matter of enormous patriotism, especially evident whenever India plays against Pakistan. Matches between these South Asian neighbours – which have had rocky relations since Independence – attract especially passionate support, and the players of both sides are under immense pressure to do their respective countries proud. The most celebrated Indian cricketer of recent times is Sachin Tendulkar – fondly dubbed the 'Little Master' – who, in 2012, became the world's only player to score 100 international centuries, retiring on a high the following year.
Cricket – especially the Twenty20 format – is big business in India, attracting lucrative sponsorship deals and celebrity status for its players. The sport has not been without its murky side, though, with Indian cricketers among those embroiled in match-fixing scandals. International games are played at various centres – see Indian newspapers or check online for details about matches that coincide with your visit. Keep your finger on the cricketing pulse at www.espncricinfo.com and www.cricbuzz.com.
The launch of the Indian Super League (ISL; www.indiansuperleague.com) in 2013 has greatly helped promote football in the country. With games drawing huge crowds, and stints by international players such as the legendary Juventus footballer Alessandro Del Piero (who was signed for the Delhi Dynamos in 2014), the ISL has made global headlines. The first week of the ISL in 2014 had 170.6 million viewers – the figure for the first phase of the Indian Premier League cricket was 184 million, which gives a sense of football's growth in popularity. The I-League is the longer-running domestic league, but it has never attracted such media attention or funding.
Tennis has become increasingly popular, with Sania Mirza, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi being India's star performers in the international arena. For more information about Indian tennis see www.aitatennis.com.
India is known for its historical links to horse polo, which intermittently thrived on the subcontinent (especially among nobility) until Independence, after which patronage steeply declined due to dwindling funds. Today there's a renewed interest in polo thanks to beefed-up sponsorship and, although it remains an elite sport, it's attracting more attention from the country's burgeoning upper middle class. The origins of polo are not completely clear. Believed to have its roots in Persia and China around 2000 years ago, on the subcontinent it's thought to have first been played in Baltistan (in present-day Pakistan). Some say that Emperor Akbar (who reigned in India from 1556 to 1605) first introduced rules to the game, but that polo, as it's played today, was largely influenced by a British cavalry regiment stationed in India during the 1870s. A set of international rules was implemented after WWI. The world's oldest surviving polo club, established in 1862, is in Kolkata (Calcutta Polo Club; www.calcuttapolo.com). Polo takes place during the cooler winter months in major cities, including Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai and Kolkata. It is also occasionally played in Ladakh and Manipur. Meanwhile, horse racing traces its roots back several hundred years, with India's first racecourse established in Chennai in 1777. Today, racing takes place in major cities including Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Chennai.
Kabaddi is another noteworthy traditional sport in India. Two teams occupy two sides of a court; a raider runs to the opposing side, taking a breath and trying to tag one or more members of the opposite team. The raider chants 'kabaddi' repeatedly to show that they have not taken a breath, returning to the home half before exhaling.
Field hockey no longer enjoys the fervent following it once did. During its golden era, between 1928 and 1956, India won six consecutive Olympic gold medals in hockey; it later bagged two further Olympic gold medals, one in 1964 and the other in 1980. During the 2016 Olympics, in Rio, the team finished in eighth place. Recent initiatives to reignite interest in the game have had mixed results. Tap into India's hockey scene at Indian Hockey (www.indianhockey.com) and Indian Field Hockey (www.bharatiyahockey.org).
A record 117 Indian athletes competed in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, but the results were disappointing; India took home just one silver and one bronze medal, finishing 67th on the final medal tally. At these games, Sakshi Malik became the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal (bronze in the women's freestyle 58kg category), while PV Sindhu (women's badminton) became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver.
Feature: Indian Attire
Widely worn by Indian women, the elegant sari comes in a single piece (between 5m and 9m long and 1m wide) and is ingeniously tucked and pleated into place without the need for pins or buttons. Worn with the sari is the choli (tight-fitting blouse) and a drawstring petticoat. The palloo is the part of the sari draped over the shoulder. Also commonly worn is the salwar kameez, a traditional dress-like tunic and trouser combination accompanied by a dupatta (long scarf). Saris and salwar kameez come in a spectacular range of fabrics, colours and designs.
Traditional attire for men includes the dhoti, and in the south, the lungi and the mundu. The dhoti is a loose, long loincloth pulled up between the legs. The lungi is more like a sarong, with its end usually sewn up like a tube. The mundu is like a lungi but is always white. A kurta (shirt) is a long tunic or shirt worn mainly by men, usually with no collar. Kurta pyjamas are a cotton shirt-and-trousers set, generally worn for relaxing or sleeping. Churidar are close-fitting trousers often worn under a kurta. A sherwani is a long coat-like men's garment.
There are regional and religious variations in costume – for example, you may see Muslim women wearing the all-enveloping burka.
Feature: Homosexuality in India
The British-era origins of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code – which harks back to 1861 – makes homosexual sex legally punishable with up to 10 years imprisonment. However, in recent times, this law has seen an extraordinary series of legal twists and turns: homosexuality was decriminalised in 2009, only to be recriminalised in 2013 and then decriminalised (yet again) in 2018.
Although there's growing acceptance of homosexuality, especially among India's younger generation, it's still widely considered taboo in this largely conservative country. There are no reliable statistics regarding the number of homosexuals living in India, because many prefer to keep their identity concealed due to the ongoing social stigma.
Mehndi is the traditional art of painting a woman’s hands (and sometimes feet) with intricate henna designs for auspicious ceremonies, such as marriage. If quality henna is used, the design, which is orange-brown, can last up to one month.
In touristy areas, mehndi-wallahs are adept at applying henna tattoo ‘bands’ on the arms, legs and lower back. If you get mehndi applied, allow at least a few hours for the design process and required drying time (during drying you can’t use your hennaed hands).
It’s always wise to request the artist to do a ‘test’ spot on your arm before proceeding: some modern dyes contain chemicals that may cause allergies; be particularly cautious of 'black henna', which could include harmful chemicals. If good-quality henna is used, you should not feel any pain during or after the application.
India’s Adivasis (tribal communities; Adivasi translates to ‘original inhabitant’ in Sanskrit) have origins that precede the Vedic Aryans and the Dravidians of the south. These groups range from the Gondi of the central plains to the animist tribes of the Northeast States. Today, they constitute less than 10% of India's population and are comprised of more than 300 different tribal groups. The literacy rate for Adivasis is significantly below the national average.
Historically, contact between Adivasis and Hindu villagers on the plains rarely led to friction, as there was little or no competition for resources and land. However, in recent decades an increasing number of Adivasis have been dispossessed of their ancestral land and turned into impoverished labourers. Although they still have political representation thanks to a parliamentary quota system, the dispossession and exploitation of Adivasis has reportedly sometimes been with the connivance of officialdom.
Read more about Adivasis in Archaeology and History: Early Settlements in the Andaman Islands by Zarine Cooper, The Tribals of India by Sunil Janah and Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival by Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf.
India’s most visible nonheterosexual group is the hijras, a caste of transvestites and eunuchs who dress in women’s clothing. Some are gay, some are hermaphrodites and some were unfortunate enough to be kidnapped and castrated. Hijras have long had a place in Indian culture, and in 2014 the Indian Supreme Court recognised hijras as a third gender and a class entitled to reservation in education and jobs.
In the wider community, hijras work mainly as uninvited entertainers at weddings and celebrations of the birth of male children, and sometimes as prostitutes. In 2014, Padmini Prakash became India's first transgender daily TV news-show anchor, indicating a new level of acceptance.
Read more about hijras in The Invisibles by Zia Jaffrey and Ardhanarishvara the Androgyne by Dr Alka Pande.
- Population: 1.35 billion
- GDP: US$2.7 trillion
- Unemployment rate: 3.5%
- Literacy rate: 74% (65/82% female/male)
- Gender ratio: 940/1000 (female/male)
Sidebar: Chokher Bali
Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, Chokher Bali (directed by Rituparno Ghosh) is a poignant film about a young widow living in early-20th-century Bengal who challenges the ‘rules of widowhood’ – something unthinkable in that era.
Sidebar: Books About Indian Cricket
Recommended books for cricket lovers include The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket by Boria Majumdar and The States of Indian Cricket by Ramachandra Guha.
Sidebar: Book About Sati
Sati: A Study of Widow Burning in India by Sakuntala Narasimhan explores the history of sati (a widow’s suicide on her husband’s funeral pyre; now banned) on the subcontinent.
Sidebar: Books About India's Caste System
If you want to learn more about India’s caste system, these two books are a good start: Interrogating Caste by Dipankar Gupta and Translating Caste, edited by Tapan Basu.
Sidebar: Indian Tribal Website
Read more about India’s Adivasis (tribal communities) at www.tribal.nic.in, a site maintained by the Indian government’s Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
Sidebar: Indian Diaspora
India has the world's biggest diaspora population (pegged at around 16 million) according to a UN report, with the largest numbers in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and USA.
Sidebar: Book About Indian Civilisations
The Wonder That Was India by AL Basham gives descriptions of Indian civilisations, major religions and social customs – a good thematic approach to weave the disparate strands together.
Sidebar: Matrimony Websites
Matchmaking has inevitably gone online, with popular sites including www.shaadi.com, www.bharatmatrimony.com and, in a sign of the times, www.secondshaadi.com – for those seeking a partner again.
Sidebar: Women's Boxing
In 2018, Manipur-born mother-of-three Mary Kom became the world's most successful boxer, by winning a sixth gold medal in the Women’s World Boxing Championships.
From elaborate city temples to simple village shrines, spirituality suffuses almost every facet of life in India. The nation's major faith, Hinduism, is practised by around 80% of the population and is one of the world’s oldest extant religions, with roots extending beyond 1000 BC. Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism have a similarly historic pedigree and adherents of Islam form the country's largest religious minorities. Indeed, in a land that has long embraced the sacred, no matter where you travel spiritual India is bound to be a constant companion.
Hinduism has no founder or central authority and it isn’t a proselytising religion. Essentially, Hindus believe in Brahman, who is eternal, uncreated and infinite. Everything that exists emanates from Brahman and will ultimately return to it. The multitude of gods and goddesses are just manifestations – knowable aspects of this formless phenomenon.
Hindus believe that earthly life is cyclical: you are born again and again (a process known as samsara), the quality of these rebirths being dependent upon your karma (conduct or action) in previous lives. Living a righteous life and fulfilling your dharma (moral code of behaviour; social duty) will enhance your chances of being born into a higher caste and better circumstances. Alternatively, if enough bad karma has accumulated, rebirth may take animal form. But it’s only as a human that you can gain sufficient self-knowledge to escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve moksha (liberation from samsara).
Gods & Goddesses
All Hindu deities are regarded as a manifestation of Brahman, who is often described as having three main representations, the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
The One; the ultimate reality. Brahman is formless, eternal and the source of all existence. Brahman is nirguna (without attributes), as opposed to all the other gods and goddesses, who are manifestations of Brahman and therefore saguna (with attributes).
Only during the creation of the universe does Brahma play an active role. At other times he is in meditation. His consort is Saraswati, the goddess of learning, and his vehicle is a swan. He is sometimes shown sitting on a lotus that rises from Vishnu’s navel, symbolising the interdependence of the gods. Brahma is generally depicted with four (crowned and bearded) heads, each turned towards a point of the compass. Worship of Brahma was gradually eclipsed by the rise of groups devoted to Shiva and Vishnu. Today, India has few Brahma temples.
The preserver or sustainer, Vishnu is associated with ‘right action’. He protects and sustains all that is good in the world. He is usually depicted with four arms, holding a lotus, a conch shell (it can be blown like a trumpet so symbolises the cosmic vibration from which existence emanates), a discus and a mace. His consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and his vehicle is faithful Garuda, a fusion of man and bird.
Said to emanate from the causal ocean, from which all physical things are created, the sacred River Ganges (Ganga) flows into the material world from Vishnu's feet, but is held back by the matted hair of Lord Shiva to prevent it destroying the earth.
Shiva is the destroyer – to deliver salvation at the end of each cycle of the universe – without whom creation of the new cycle couldn’t occur. Shiva’s creative role is phallically symbolised by his representation as the frequently worshipped lingam. With 1008 names, Shiva takes many forms, including Nataraja, lord of the tandava (cosmic victory dance), who paces out the creation and destruction of the cosmos.
Sometimes Shiva has snakes draped around his neck and is shown holding a trident (representative of the Trimurti) as a weapon while riding Nandi, his bull. Nandi symbolises power and potency, justice and moral order. Shiva’s consort, Parvati, is capable of taking many forms, including the warlike goddesses Durga and Kali.
Other Prominent Deities
Elephant-headed Ganesh is the god of good fortune, remover of obstacles and patron of scribes. The broken tusk he holds was used to write sections of the Mahabharata, and his animal vehicle is Mooshak, a rat-like creature. How Ganesh came to have an elephant’s head is a story with several variations. One legend says that Ganesh was born to Parvati in the absence of his father, Shiva, and so grew up not knowing him. One day, as Ganesh stood guard while his mother bathed, Shiva returned and asked to be let into Parvati’s presence. Ganesh, who didn’t recognise Shiva, refused. Enraged, Shiva lopped off Ganesh’s head, only to later discover, much to his horror, that he had slaughtered his own son. He vowed to replace Ganesh’s head with that of the first creature he came across, which happened to be an elephant.
Another prominent deity, Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu, sent to earth to fight for good and combat evil. His dalliances with the gopis (milkmaids) and his love for Radha have inspired countless paintings and songs. Depicted with blue-hued skin, Krishna is often seen playing the flute.
Hanuman is a hero of the Ramayana and loyal ally of Rama. He embodies the concept of bhakti (devotion). He’s also the king of the monkeys, but is capable of taking on other forms.
Among Shaivites (followers of the Shiva movement), shakti, the divine creative power of women, is worshipped as a force in its own right. The concept of shakti is embodied in the ancient goddess Devi (divine mother), who is also manifested as Durga and, in a fiercer evil-destroying incarnation, Kali, both worshipped as aspects of Shiva's consort, Parvati. Other widely worshipped goddesses include Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Saraswati, the goddess of learning.
Hindu sacred texts fall into two categories: those believed to be the word of god (shruti, meaning ‘heard’) and those produced by people (smriti, meaning ‘remembered’). The Vedas are regarded as shruti knowledge and considered the authoritative basis for Hinduism. The oldest of the Vedic texts, the Rig-Veda, was compiled over 3000 years ago. Within its 1028 verses are prayers for prosperity and longevity, as well as an explanation of the universe’s origins. The Upanishads, the last parts of the Vedas, reflect on the mystery of death and emphasise the oneness of the universe. The oldest of the Vedic texts were written in Vedic Sanskrit (related to Old Persian). Later texts were composed in classical Sanskrit, but many have been translated into the vernacular.
The smriti texts comprise a collection of literature spanning centuries and include expositions on the proper performance of domestic ceremonies as well as the proper pursuit of government, economics and religious law. Among the well-known works are the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the Puranas, which expand on the epics and promote the notion of the Trimurti. Unlike the Vedas, reading the Puranas is not restricted to initiated higher-caste males.
Thought to have been composed around 1000 BC, the Mahabharata focuses on the exploits of Krishna. By about 500 BC, the Mahabharata had evolved into a far more complex creation with substantial additions, including the Bhagavad Gita (in which Krishna proffers advice to Arjuna before a battle).
The story centres on conflict between the heroic gods (Pandavas) and the demons (Kauravas). Overseeing events is Krishna, who has taken on human form. Krishna acts as charioteer for the Pandava hero Arjuna, who eventually triumphs in a great battle against the Kauravas.
Composed around the 3rd or 2nd century BC, the Ramayana is believed to be largely the work of one person, the poet Valmiki. Like the Mahabharata, it centres on conflict between the gods and the demons.
The story goes that Dasharatha, the childless king of Ayodhya, called upon the gods to provide him with a son. His wife duly gave birth to a boy. But this child, named Rama, was in fact an incarnation of Vishnu, who had assumed human form to overthrow the demon king of Lanka (now Sri Lanka), Ravana.
As an adult, Rama, who won the hand of the princess Sita in a competition, was chosen by his father to inherit his kingdom. At the last minute, Rama’s stepmother intervened and demanded her son, Barathan, take Rama’s place. Rama, Sita and Rama’s brother, Lakshmana, were exiled and went off to the forests, where Rama and Lakshmana battled demons and other dark forces. Ravana’s sister attempted to seduce Rama, but she was rejected and, in revenge, Ravana captured Sita and spirited her away to his palace in Lanka.
Rama, assisted by an army of monkeys led by the loyal monkey god Hanuman, eventually found the palace, killed Ravana and rescued Sita. All returned victorious to Ayodhya, where Rama was welcomed and crowned king.
Sacred Flora & Fauna
Animals, particularly cows and snakes, have long been worshipped on the subcontinent. For Hindus, the cow represents fertility and nurturing, while snakes (especially cobras) are associated with fertility and welfare. Naga stones (snake stones) serve the dual purpose of protecting humans from snakes and appeasing snake gods.
Plants can also have sacred associations, such as the banyan tree, which symbolises the Trimurti, while mango trees are symbolic of love – Shiva is believed to have married Parvati under one. Meanwhile, the lotus flower is said to have emerged from the primeval waters and is connected to the mythical centre of the earth through its stem. Often found in the most polluted of waters, the lotus has the remarkable ability to blossom above murky depths. The centre of the lotus corresponds to the centre of the universe, the navel of the earth: all is held together by the stem and the eternal waters. The fragile yet resolute lotus is an embodiment of beauty and strength and a reminder to Hindus of how their own lives should be. So revered has the lotus become that today it’s India’s national flower. The Rudraksha (meaning 'Shiva's eye') tree is said to have sprung from Shiva's tears, and its seeds are used as prayer beads.
Worship and ritual play a paramount role in Hinduism. In Hindu homes you’ll often find a dedicated worship area, where members of the family pray to the deities of their choice. Beyond the home, Hindus worship at temples. Puja is a focal point of worship and ranges from silent prayer to elaborate ceremonies. Devotees leave the temple with a handful of prasad (temple-blessed food), which is shared among others. Other forms of worship include aarti (the auspicious lighting of lamps or candles) and the playing of bhajans (devotional songs).
Islam is India's largest minority religion, followed by approximately 13.4% of the population. It's believed that Islam was introduced to northern India by Muslim conquerors (in the 16th and 17th centuries the Mughal empire controlled much of North India) and to the south by Arab traders.
Islam was founded in Arabia by the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century AD. The Arabic term islam means to surrender, and believers (Muslims) undertake to surrender to the will of Allah (God), which is revealed in the scriptures, the Quran. In this monotheistic religion, God’s word is conveyed through prophets (messengers), of whom Mohammed was the most recent.
Following Mohammed’s death, a succession dispute split the movement, and the legacy today is the Sunnis and the Shiites. Most Muslims in India are Sunnis. The Sunnis emphasise the ‘well-trodden’ path or the orthodox way, while Shiites believe that only imams (exemplary leaders) can reveal the true meaning of the Quran. India also has a long tradition of Sufism, a mystical interpretation of Islam that dates back to the earliest days of the religion.
All Muslims, however, share a belief in the Five Pillars of Islam: the shahada (declaration of faith: ‘There is no God but Allah; Mohammed is his prophet’); prayer (ideally five times a day); the zakat (tax), in the form of a charitable donation; fasting (during Ramadan) for all except the sick, young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those undertaking arduous journeys; and the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, which every Muslim aspires to do at least once.
Sikhism, founded in Punjab by Guru Nanak in the 15th century, began as a reaction against the caste system and Brahmin domination of ritual. Sikhs believe in one god and, although they reject the worship of idols, some keep pictures of their 10 gurus as a point of focus. The Sikhs' holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, contains the teachings of the 10 Sikh gurus, several of whom were executed by the Mughals. Like Hindus and Buddhists, Sikhs believe in rebirth and karma. In Sikhism, there's no ascetic or monastic tradition ending the cycles of rebirth. Almost 2% of India's citizens are Sikhs, with most living in Punjab.
Born in present-day Pakistan, Guru Nanak (1469–1539) was largely dissatisfied with both Muslim and Hindu religious practices. He believed in family life and the value of hard work – he married, had two sons and worked as a farmer when not travelling around, preaching and singing self-composed kirtan (Sikh devotional songs) with his Muslim musician, Mardana. He is said to have performed miracles and he encouraged meditation on God’s name as a prime path to enlightenment.
Nanak believed in equality centuries before it became socially fashionable and campaigned against the caste system. He was a practical guru, as in the principle of kirat karni: ‘a person who makes an honest living and shares earnings with others recognises the way to God’. He appointed his most talented disciple, not one of his sons, to be his successor. His kirtan are still sung in gurdwaras (Sikh temples) today, and his picture is kept in millions of homes in and beyond the subcontinent.
Sikhs strive to follow the spiritual lead of the Khalsa, the five Sikh warriors anointed by Guru Gobind Singh as perfectly embodying the principles of the Sikh faith. Wearing a dastar, or turban, is mandatory for baptised Sikh men, and devout Sikhs uphold the 'Five Ks' – kesh (leaving hair uncut), kanga (carrying a wooden comb), kara (wearing an iron bracelet), kacchera (wearing cotton shorts) and kirpan (carrying a dagger or sword).
Despite its historical importance in India, less than 1% of the country's population is Buddhist today. Bodhgaya, in the state of Bihar, where Buddha achieved enlightenment, is one of Buddhism's most sacred sites, drawing pilgrims from across the world.
Scholars generally identify two predominant extant branches of Buddhism: Theravada (Doctrine of the Elders) and Mahayana (The Great Vehicle). Broadly speaking, followers of Theravada subscribe to the belief that attaining enlightenment – and thus liberating oneself from the cycle of birth and death – can be achieved by practising the Noble Eightfold Path (sometimes dubbed 'The Middle Way'). Theravada Buddhism focuses on the premise that self-effort is the path to enlightenment, with meditation playing a key role. Meanwhile, adherents of Mahayana believe Buddhahood (spiritual enlightenment as per Buddhist teachings) can be attained via the bodhisattva path – a state in which one deliberately stays in the cycle of rebirth to help others achieve a state of awakening. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings.
A sub-branch found in India is Tibetan Buddhism. Established in the 8th century AD, it incorporates teachings of Mahayana Buddhism as well as a range of rituals and spiritual practices (such as special mantras) derived from indigenous Tibetan religious beliefs such as the Bon religion. Supernatural beings are an important part of Tibetan Buddhism and come in the form of both benevolent and wrathful entities. India has notable Tibetan Buddhist communities, including Dharamsala (Himachal Pradesh), Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh), Rumtek (Sikkim) and Leh (Ladakh).
Buddhism emerged in the 6th century BC as a reaction against the strictures of Brahmanical Hinduism. Buddha (Awakened One) is believed to have lived from about 563 to 483 BC. Formerly a prince (Siddhartha Gautama) from the Nepali plains, Buddha, at the age of 29, embarked on a quest for emancipation from the world of suffering. He achieved nirvana (the state of full awareness) at Bodhgaya, aged 35. Critical of the caste system and the unthinking worship of gods, Buddha urged his disciples to seek truth within their own experiences.
Buddha taught that existence is based on Four Noble Truths: that life is rooted in suffering, that suffering is caused by craving, that one can find release from suffering by eliminating craving, and that the way to eliminate craving is by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path consists of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness and right concentration. By successfully complying with these one can attain nirvana.
Buddhism had somewhat waned in parts of India by the turn of the 20th century. However, it saw a revival in the 1950s among intellectuals and Dalits who were disillusioned with the Hindu caste system, with nearly half a million people converting under the guidance of Dalit leader, BR Ambedkar. The number of followers has further increased with the influx of Tibetan refugees.
Jainism arose in the 6th century BC as a reaction against the caste restraints and rituals of Hinduism. It was founded by Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha.
Jains believe that liberation can be attained by achieving complete purity of the soul. Purity means shedding all karman, matter generated by one’s actions that binds itself to the soul. By following various austerities (eg fasting and meditation), one can shed karman and purify the soul. Right conduct is essential, and fundamental to this is ahimsa (nonviolence) in thought and deed towards any living thing.
The religious disciplines of followers are less severe than for monks; some Jain monks go naked. The slightly less ascetic maintain a bare minimum of possessions, which include a broom to sweep the path before them to avoid stepping on any living creature, and a piece of cloth tied over their mouth to prevent the accidental inhalation of insects.
Today, around 0.4% of India's population is Jain, with the majority living in Gujarat and Mumbai. Some notable Jain holy sites include Sravanabelagola, Palitana, Ranakpur and the temples of Mt Abu.
There are various theories circulating about Christ’s link to the Indian subcontinent. Some, for instance, believe that Jesus spent his ‘lost years’ in India, while others say that Christianity came to South India with St Thomas the Apostle, who allegedly died in Chennai in the 1st century AD. However, many scholars attest that Christianity's arrival can be traced to around the 4th century, when a Syrian merchant, Thomas of Cana, set out for Kerala with around 400 families.
India's Christian community today stands at about 2.3% of the population, with the bulk residing in South India. Christianity is also widely practised in northeast India, with its origins believed to hark back to 1626, when two Jesuit missionaries visited this region. Today, the northeast has India's three Christian-majority states: 74.6% of the population are Christian in Meghalaya, 87% in Mizoram, and 88% in Nagaland. Manipur and Arunanchal Pradesh also have notable Christian communities at 41.3% and 30.3% respectively.
Catholicism established a strong presence in South India in the wake of Vasco da Gama’s visit in 1498, and orders that have been active – if not always welcome – in the region include the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits. Protestant missionaries are believed to have begun arriving – with a conversion agenda – from around the 18th century, particularly in India's tribal regions in the northeast.
Zoroastrianism, founded by Zoroaster (Zarathustra), had its inception in Persia in the 6th century BC and is based on the concept of dualism, whereby good and evil are locked in a continuous battle. Zoroastrianism isn’t quite monotheistic: good and evil entities coexist, although believers are urged to honour only the good. Both body and soul are united in this struggle of good versus evil. Although humanity is mortal, it has components that are timeless, such as the soul. On the day of judgement, the errant soul is not called to account for every misdemeanour – but a pleasant afterlife does depend on one’s deeds, words and thoughts during earthly existence.
Zoroastrianism was eclipsed in Persia by the rise of Islam in the 7th century and its followers, many of whom openly resisted this, suffered persecution. Over the following centuries some immigrated to India, where they became known as Parsis. Historically, Parsis settled in Gujarat and became farmers; however, during British rule they moved into commerce, forming a prosperous community in Mumbai.
In recent decades the Parsi population has been spiralling downward; there are now believed to be less than 62,000 Parsis left in India, with most residing in Mumbai.
Feature: The Sacred Seven
The number seven has special significance in Hinduism. There are seven sacred Indian cities, which are all major pilgrimage centres: Varanasi, associated with Shiva; Haridwar, where the Ganges (Ganga) enters the plains from the Himalaya; Ayodhya, birthplace of Rama; Dwarka, with the legendary capital of Krishna thought to be off the Gujarat coast; Mathura, birthplace of Krishna; Kanchipuram, site of the historic Shiva temples; and Ujjain, venue of the Kumbh Mela every 12 years.
There are also seven sacred rivers: the Ganges, Saraswati (thought to be underground), Yamuna, Indus, Narmada, Godavari and Cauvery.
The word 'Om' has significance for several religions, and is one of Hinduism's most venerated symbols. Pronounced ‘aum’, it’s a highly propitious mantra (sacred word or syllable). The ‘three’ shape symbolises the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe (and thus the holy Trimurti). The inverted chandra (crescent or half moon) represents the discursive mind and the bindu (dot) within it, Brahman.
Buddhists believe that if 'Om' is intoned often enough with complete concentration, it will lead to a state of blissful emptiness.
Feature: Tribal Religions
Tribal religions have merged so far with Hinduism and other mainstream faiths that very few are now clearly identifiable. Some basic tenets of Hinduism are believed to have originated in tribal culture.
A considerable number of tribal groups in India are animist. They believe that certain objects, animals or places are inhabited by spiritual entities. Religious ideas are closely intertwined with nature – a stone, river, tree or mountain etc may be deemed to have a spirit form. One example is the Mizos of northeast India who may walk around with large stones, believing them to be the abode of spiritual forces. Meanwhile, the Naga tribes of northeast India believe the earth was created out of water by a series of quakes triggered by an earthquake god. It is the sons of the earthquake god who have watched over the world ever since and delivered punishment to those who do wrong.
Also in the northeast exist tribes who follow Donyi-Polo (translated as 'Sun-Moon'), which is said to have emanated from Tibet's pre-Buddhist Bon religion. The sun and moon represent female and male energies – somewhat like the concept of Yin and Yang. Devotees believe in the oneness of all living creatures.
Feature: Anatomy of a Gompa
Parts of India, such as Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, are known for their ornate, colourful gompas (Tibetan-style Buddhist monasteries). The focal point of a gompa is the dukhang (temple), where monks assemble to chant passages from the sacred scriptures; morning prayers are a particularly atmospheric time to visit gompas. The walls may be covered in vivid murals or thangkas (cloth paintings) of bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) and dharmapalas (protector deities). By the entrance to the dukhang, you’ll usually find a mural depicting the Wheel of Life, a graphical representation of the core elements of Buddhist philosophy.
Most gompas hold chaam dances (ritual masked dances to celebrate the victory of good over evil) during major festivals. Dances to ward off evil feature masks of Mahakala, the Great Protector, usually dramatically adorned with a headdress of human skulls. The Durdag dance features skull masks depicting the Lords of the Cremation Grounds, while Shawa dancers wear masks of wild-eyed stags. These characters are often depicted with a third eye in the centre of their foreheads, signifying the need for inner reflection.
Another interesting activity at Buddhist monasteries is the production of butter sculptures, elaborate models made from coloured butter and dough. The sculptures are deliberately designed to decay, symbolising the impermanence of human existence. Many gompas also produce exquisite sand mandalas – geometric patterns made from sprinkled coloured sand, then destroyed to symbolise the futility of the physical plane.
Feature: Religious Etiquette
Whenever visiting a sacred site in India, dress and behave respectfully – don’t wear shorts or sleeveless tops (this applies to men and women) – and refrain from smoking. Loud and intrusive behaviour isn’t appreciated, and neither are public displays of affection or kidding around.
Before entering a holy place, remove your shoes (tip the shoe-minder a few rupees when retrieving them) and check if photography is allowed. You’re permitted to wear socks in most places of worship – often necessary during warmer months, when floors can be uncomfortably hot.
Religious etiquette advises against touching locals on the head, or directing the soles of your feet at a person, religious shrine or image of a deity. Protocol also advises against touching someone with your feet or touching a carving of a deity.
Head cover (for women and sometimes men) is required at some places of worship – especially gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and mosques – so carry a scarf just to be on the safe side. There are some sites that don’t admit women and some that deny entry to nonadherents of their faith – enquire in advance. Women may be required to sit apart from men. Jain temples request the removal of leather items you may be wearing or carrying and may also request that menstruating women not enter. When walking around any Buddhist sacred site (chortens, stupas, temples, gompas) go clockwise. Don't touch them with your left hand. Turn prayer wheels clockwise, with your right hand.
Taking photos inside a shrine, at a funeral, at a religious ceremony or of people taking a holy dip can be offensive – ask first. Flash photography may be prohibited in certain areas of a shrine, or may not be permitted at all.
Feature: Communal Conflict
Religion-based conflict has been a bloody part of India’s history. As well as centuries of fighting between Hindu and Muslim armies, the post-Independence partition of the country into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan resulted in horrendous carnage and displacement of people.
Later bouts of major sectarian violence in India include the Hindu–Sikh riots of 1984, which led to the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi, and the politically fanned 1992 Ayodhya conflict, which sparked Hindu–Muslim clashes.
The ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is also perilously entwined in religious conflict. Since Partition (1947), India and Pakistan have fought two major wars over Kashmir and have had subsequent artillery exchanges, coming dangerously close to full-blown war in 1999. The festering dispute over this landlocked territory continues to fuel Hindu–Muslim animosity on both sides of the border.
Sidebar: Dalai Lama & Karmapa
Buddhism's spiritual icon, the 14th Dalai Lama, resides in India, as does the 17th Karmapa (the head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism).
Sidebar: Books About Hinduism
Unravelling the basic tenets of Hinduism are two good books, both called Hinduism: An Introduction – one is by Shakunthala Jagannathan, the other by Dharam Vir Singh.
Sidebar: Sadhu Definition & Book
A sadhu is someone who has surrendered all material possessions in pursuit of spirituality through meditation, the study of sacred texts, self-mortification and pilgrimage. Learn more in Sadhus: India’s Mystic Holy Men by Dolf Hartsuiker.
Sidebar: English Translations of Holy Hindu Texts
Two recommended publications containing English translations of holy Hindu texts are The Bhagavad Gita by S Radhakrishnan and The Valmiki Ramayana by Romesh Dutt.
Sidebar: Hindu Pantheon
The Hindu pantheon is said to have a staggering 330 million deities; those worshipped are a matter of personal choice or tradition.
Sidebar: Book About Hindu Folklore
Did you know that blood-drinking Kali is another form of milk-giving Gauri? Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik sheds light on this and other Hindu beliefs.
Shiva is sometimes characterised as the lord of yoga, a Himalaya-dwelling ascetic with matted hair, an ash-smeared body and a third eye symbolising wisdom.
Sidebar: Zoroastrian Towers of Silence
The Zoroastrian funerary ritual involves the ‘Towers of Silence’, where the corpse is laid out and exposed to vultures that pick the bones clean.
Sidebar: Books About Sikhism
To grasp the intricacies of Sikhism, read Volume One (1469–1839) and Volume Two (1839–2004) of A History of the Sikhs by Khushwant Singh.
The Great Indian Bazaar
India's lively bazaars offer a treasure trove of goodies, from fabulously patterned textiles and silver ornaments to finely crafted woodwork and gemstone jewellery. There's an eclectic mix of village creations, with most regions having their own customs, some of them ancient. Indeed, village handicrafts are not only beautiful, they also provide employment at grass-roots level and encourage traditional manufacturing practices to prosper. Note that there is a ban on the export of some antiques to help preserve the country's heritage.
Bronze Figures, Pottery, Stone Carving & Terracotta
In southern India and parts of the Himalaya, small images of deities are created by the age-old lost-wax process. A wax figure is made, a mould is formed around it, and the wax is melted, poured out and replaced with molten metal; the mould is then broken open to reveal the figure inside. Figures of Shiva as dancing Nataraja tend to be the most popular, but you can also find images of Buddha and numerous deities from the Hindu pantheon.
The West Bengalese also employ the lost-wax process to make Dokra tribal bell sculptures, while in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region, the Ghadwa Tribe has an interesting twist on the process: a fine wax thread covers the metal mould, leaving a latticelike design on the final product.
In Buddhist areas, you'll come across striking bronze statues of Buddha and the Tantric deities, finished off with exquisitely polished and painted faces.
In Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram; Tamil Nadu), craftspeople using local granite and soapstone have revived the ancient artistry of the Pallava sculptors; souvenirs range from tiny stone elephants to enormous deity statues weighing half a tonne. Tamil Nadu is also known for bronzeware from Thanjavur and Trichy (Tiruchirappalli).
A number of places produce attractive terracotta items, ranging from bowls and decorative flowerpots to children’s toys and images of deities. Outside temples across India you can often buy small clay or plaster effigies of Hindu deities.
Carpets Carpets Carpets!
Carpet-making is a living craft in India, with workshops throughout producing top-notch wool and silk pieces. The finest carpets are produced in Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and West Bengal, while you can find reproductions of tribal Turkmen and Afghan designs in states such as Uttar Pradesh. Carpet-making is also a major revenue earner for Tibetan refugees; most refugee settlements have cooperative carpet workshops. Antique carpets usually aren’t antique – unless you buy from an internationally reputable dealer; stick to ‘new’ carpets.
In both Kashmir and Rajasthan, you'll find coarsely woven woollen numdas (or namdas), which are much cheaper than knotted carpets. Various regions manufacture flat-weave dhurries (kilim-like cotton rugs), including Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Kashmiris also produce striking gabbas (rugs with appliqué), made from chain-stitched wool or silk.
Children have been employed as carpet weavers in the subcontinent for centuries. Child labour maintains a cycle of poverty, by driving down adult wages, reducing adult work opportunities and, importantly, depriving children of their education. The carpets produced by Tibetan refugee cooperatives are almost always made by adults; government emporiums and charitable cooperatives are usually the best places to buy.
Costs & Postage
The price of a carpet is determined by the number and the size of the hand-tied knots, the range of dyes and colours, the intricacy of the design and the material. Silk carpets cost more and look more luxurious, but wool carpets usually last longer. Expect to pay upwards of US$250 for a good-quality 90cm-by-1.5m (or 90cm by 1.8m, depending on the region) wool carpet, and around US$2000 for a similar-sized carpet in silk. Tibetan carpets are cheaper, reflecting the relative simplicity of the designs; many refugee cooperatives sell the same size for around US$100.
Some people buy carpets thinking that they can be sold for a profit back home, but unless you really know your carpets, you're better off just buying a carpet because you love it. Many places can ship carpets home for a fee – although it may be safest to send things independently to avoid scams – or you can carry them in the plane’s hold (allow 5kg to 10kg of your baggage allowance for a 90cm-by-1.5m carpet, and check that your airline allows outsized baggage). Shipping to Europe for a carpet of this size costs around ₹4000.
Virtually every town in India has at least one bangle shop selling a wide variety, ranging from colourful plastic and glass to brass and silver.
Heavy folk-art silver jewellery can be bought in various parts of the country, particularly Rajasthan; Jaipur, Udaipur and Pushkar are good places to find silver jewellery pitched at foreign tastes. Jaipur is also renowned for its precious and semiprecious gems (and its gem scams). Chunky Tibetan jewellery made from silver (or white metal) and semiprecious stones is sold all over India. Many pieces feature Buddhist motifs and text in Tibetan script, including the famous mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus). Some of the pieces sold in Tibetan centres, such as McLeod Ganj and Leh, are genuine antiques, but there’s a huge industry in India, Nepal and China making artificially aged souvenirs. For creative types, loose beads of agate, turquoise, carnelian and silver are widely available. Buddhist meditation beaded strings made of gems or wood also make nice souvenirs.
Pearls are produced by most Indian seaside states, but they're a speciality of Hyderabad. You’ll find them at most state emporiums across the country. Prices vary depending on the colour and shape: you pay more for pure white pearls or rare colours such as black, and perfectly round pearls are generally more expensive than misshapen or elongated pearls. A single strand of seeded pearls can cost as little as ₹600, but better-quality pearls are upwards of ₹1500.
As cows are sacred in India, leatherwork is made from buffaloes, camels, goats or some other animal skin. Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh is the country’s major leatherwork centre.
Most large cities offer a smart range of modern leather footwear at very reasonable prices, some stitched with zillions of sparkly sequins. The states of Punjab and Rajasthan (especially its capital, Jaipur) are famed for jootis (traditional, usually pointy toed slip-on shoes). Chappals, wonderful (often curly toed) leather sandals, are sold throughout India, but are especially good in the Maharashtrian cities of Kolhapur, Pune and Matheran.
In Bikaner (Rajasthan), artisans decorate camel hide with gold to produce lovely mirror frames, boxes and bottles, while in Indore (Madhya Pradesh), craftspeople stretch leather over wire-and-cloth frameworks to make toy animals.
Metal & Marble
You’ll find copper and brassware throughout India – candleholders, trays, bowls, tankards, figurines and ashtrays are popular buys. In Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the brass is often inlaid with exquisite designs in red, green and blue enamel.
Many Tibetan religious objects are created by inlaying silver in copper; prayer wheels, ceremonial horns and traditional document cases are all relatively inexpensive. Resist the urge to buy kangling (Tibetan horns) and kapala (ceremonial bowls) said to be made from inlaid human leg bones and skulls – they are illegal.
In all towns you can find kadhai (Indian woks, also known as balti) and other cookware for low prices. Beaten-brass pots are particularly attractive, while steel storage vessels, copper-bottomed cooking pans and steel thali trays are also popular souvenirs.
The people of Bastar in Chhattisgarh use an iron-smelting technique similar to the one discovered 35,000 years ago to create abstract sculptures of spindly animal and human figures. These are often also made into functional items such as lamp stands and coat racks.
A sizeable cottage industry has sprung up in Agra reproducing the ancient Mughal art form of pietra dura (inlaying marble with semiprecious stones).
The best range of Indian musical instruments is available in the larger cities, particularly Kolkata, Varanasi and Delhi. Prices vary according to the workmanship, degree of ornamentation and sound quality of the instrument.
Decent tabla sets (paired Indian-style drums), with a wooden tabla (tuned treble drum) and metal dugi or bayan (bass-tone drums), cost upwards of ₹5000. Cheaper sets are generally heavier and often sound inferior.
Sitars range anywhere from around ₹5000 to ₹25,000 (sometimes even more). The sound of each sitar will vary with the wood used and the shape of the gourd, so try a few. Note that some cheaper sitars can warp in colder or hotter climates. On any sitar, make sure the strings ring clearly and check the gourd carefully for damage. Spare string sets, sitar plectrums and a screw-in ‘amplifier’ gourd are sensible additions.
Other popular instruments include the shehnai (Indian flute), sarod (like an Indian lute), harmonium and esraj (similar to an upright violin). Conventional violins are good value – prices start at around ₹3500, while Kolkata is known for its quality acoustic guitars (from ₹3000).
India is a major centre of contemporary art, and its larger cities are well stocked with independent galleries. Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Kolkata are among the best places to look for shops and galleries selling contemporary paintings by local artists.
Reproductions of Indian miniature paintings are widely available, but the quality varies: the cheaper examples have less detail and are made with inferior materials. Udaipur and Bikaner in Rajasthan have a particularly good range of shops specialising in modern reproductions on paper and silk, or you can browse Delhi’s numerous state emporiums.
In regions such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, you’ll come across miniature paintings on leaf skeletons that portray domestic life, rural scenes and deities.
In Andhra Pradesh, cheriyal paintings, in bright, primary colours, were originally made as scrolls for travelling storytellers.
The artists’ community of Raghurajpur near Puri (Odisha) preserves the age-old art of patachitra (cloth) painting. Cotton or tassar (silk cloth) is covered with a mixture of gum and chalk; it’s then polished, and images of deities and scenes from Hindu legends are painted on with exceedingly fine brushes. Odisha also produces chitra pothi, where images are etched onto dried palm-leaf sections with a fine stylus.
Bihar’s unique folk art is Mithila (or Madhubani) painting, an ancient art form preserved by the women of Madhubani. These captivating paintings are most easily found in Patna, but are also sold in big city emporiums.
Superb thangkas (rectangular Tibetan paintings on cloth) of Tantric Buddhist deities and ceremonial mandalas are widely sold in Tibetan Buddhist areas, including Sikkim, parts of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Some perfectly reproduce the glory of the murals in India’s medieval gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries); others are simpler. Prices vary, but bank on at least ₹4000 for a decent-quality thangka of A3 size, and a lot more (up to around ₹50,000) for large intricate thangkas. The selling of antique thangkas is illegal, and you would be unlikely to find the real thing anyway.
Indian shawls are famously warm and lightweight – quality pieces can often be better than the best down jackets. Shawls are made from all sorts of wool, and many are embroidered with intricate designs.
The undisputed capital of the Indian shawl is the Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, with dozens of women’s cooperatives producing fine woollen pieces. These may be made from wool (the cheapest, from around ₹700), angora (mohair – hair of the Angora rabbit) or pashmina (the downy hair of the pashmina goat). Avoid shahtoosh shawls, made from the hair of wild antelopes that are killed in the process.
Ladakh and Kashmir are major centres for pashmina production – you’ll pay at least ₹6000 for the authentic article. Be aware that many so-called pashminas are actually made from a mixture of wool and silk; however, these 'fake' pashminas are still very beautiful, and a lot less expensive, costing around ₹1200.
Shawls from the Northeast States are known for their warmth, often with bold geometric designs. In Sikkim and West Bengal, you may also find fantastically embroidered Bhutanese shawls. Gujarat’s Kutch region produces some particularly distinctive woollen shawls, patterned with subtle embroidery and mirror work. Handmade shawls and tweeds can also be found in Ranikhet and Almora in Uttarakhand.
Saris are found throughout India and come in a stunning array of textiles, colours and designs. Real silk saris are generally the most expensive, and the silk usually needs to be washed before it becomes soft. The ‘silk capital’ of India is Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu (Kanchipuram silk is also commonly available in Chennai), but you can find fine silk saris in centres including Varanasi, Mysuru (Mysore) and Kolkata. Assam is renowned for its muga, endi and pat silks, produced by different species of silkworm and widely available in Guwahati. You’ll pay upwards of ₹3000 for a quality embroidered silk sari.
Patan in Gujarat is the centre of the ancient and laborious craft of patola-making. Every thread in these fine silk saris is individually hand-dyed before weaving, and patterned borders are woven with real gold. Slightly less involved versions are produced in Rajkot. Gold thread is also used in the famous kota doria saris of Kota in Rajasthan.
Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, is the traditional centre for the production of himroo shawls, sheets and saris, made from a blend of cotton, silk and silver thread. Silk and gold-thread saris produced at Paithan (near Aurangabad) are some of India’s finest – prices range from around ₹7000 to a mind-blowing ₹300,000. Other regions famous for sari production include Madhya Pradesh, with its cotton Maheshwari saris (from Maheshwar) and silk Chanderi saris (from Chanderi), and West Bengal, for its baluchari saris from Bishnupur, which employ a traditional form of weaving with untwisted silk thread.
Khadi & Embroidery
Textile production is India’s major industry and around 40% takes place at the village level, where it’s known as khadi (homespun cloth) – hence the government-backed khadi emporiums around the country. These inexpensive superstores sell all sorts of items made from khadi, including the popular Nehru jackets and kurta pyjamas (long shirt and loose-fitting trousers), with sales benefitting rural communities. Khadi has become increasingly chic over recent years, with India's designers referencing the fabrics in their collections.
You’ll find an amazing variety of weaving and embroidery techniques all over India. In tourist centres such as Goa, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, textiles are stitched into popular items, including shoulder bags, wall hangings, cushion covers, bedspreads, clothes and much more. In Adivasi (tribal) areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan, small pieces of mirrored glass are embroidered onto fabric, creating eye-catching bags, vests, cushion covers and wall hangings. The region of Kutch (Gujarat) is particularly renowned for its embroidery.
Appliqué, Tie-dye & Block-print
Appliqué is an ancient art in India, with most states producing their own version, often featuring abstract or anthropomorphic patterns. The traditional lampshades and pandals (tents) used in weddings and festivals are usually produced using the same technique.
Gujarat has a diversity of textile traditions: Jamnagar is famous for its vibrant bandhani (tie-dye work) used for saris and scarves, among other things, and Vadodara is renowned for block-printed fabrics, used for bedspreads and clothing. Ahmedabad is a good place to buy Gujarati textiles.
Block-printed and woven textiles are sold by fabric shops all over India: each region has its own speciality. The India-wide retail-chain stores Fabindia (www.fabindia.com), Anokhi (www.anokhi.com) and Soma (www.somashop.com) are striving to preserve traditional patterns and fabrics, transforming them into home-decor items and Indian- and Western-style fashions. Anokhi has the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing, which demonstrates the crafts.
Odisha has a reputation for bright appliqué and ikat (a Southeast Asian technique where thread is tie-dyed before weaving); the latter is also a speciality of Hyderabad. The town of Pipli, between Bhubaneswar and Puri, produces striking appliqué work. The techniques used to create kalamkari (cloth paintings) in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat are also used to make lovely wall hangings and lampshades.
Woodcarving is an ancient art form and today you'll find an impressive mix of traditional and contemporary designs. In Kashmir, walnut wood is used to make finely carved screens, tables, jewellery boxes and trays, often inspired by the decorative trim of houseboats. Willow cricket bats are another Kashmiri speciality.
Wood inlay is one of Bihar’s oldest crafts – you’ll find wooden wall hangings, tabletops, trays and boxes inlaid with metal and bone.
Sandalwood carvings of Hindu deities are one of Karnataka’s specialities, but you’ll pay a price for the real thing – a 10cm-high Ganesh costs around ₹3000 in sandalwood, compared to roughly ₹300 in kadamb wood. However, the sandalwood will release fragrance for years.
In Udaipur (Rajasthan), you can buy vividly painted figures of Hindu deities carved from mango wood. In many parts of Rajasthan you can also find fabric printing blocks carved from teak wood.
Buddhist woodcarvings are a speciality of Sikkim, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and all Tibetan refugee areas. You’ll find wall plaques of the eight lucky signs, dragons and chaam masks, used for ritual dances. Most of the masks are cheap reproductions, but you can sometimes find genuine chaam masks made from lightweight whitewood or papier mâché from around ₹3000.
Other Great Finds
It’s little surprise that Indian spices are snapped up by tourists. All towns have shops selling locally made spices at great prices. Karnataka, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu produce most of the spices that go into garam masala (the ‘hot mix’ used to flavour Indian dishes), while the Northeast States and Sikkim are known for black cardamom and cinnamon bark. Note that some countries, such as Australia, have stringent rules regarding the import of animal and plant products. Check with your country’s embassy for details.
Attar (essential oil, mostly made from flowers) shops can be found around the country. Mysuru (Mysore) is famous for its sandalwood oil, while Mumbai is a major centre for the trade of traditional fragrances, including valuable oud, made from a rare mould that grows on the bark of the agarwood tree. In Tamil Nadu, Ooty (Udhagamandalam) and Kodaikanal produce aromatic and medicinal oils from herbs, flowers and eucalyptus.
Indian incense is exported worldwide, with Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Mysuru, both in Karnataka, being major producers. Incense from Auroville in Tamil Nadu is also well regarded.
A speciality of Goa is feni (liquor distilled from coconut milk or cashews): a head-spinning spirit that often comes in decorative bottles.
Quality Indian tea is sold in Darjeeling and Kalimpong (both in West Bengal), Assam and Sikkim, as well as parts of South India, such as Munnar in Kerala and the Ooty area in Tamil Nadu’s Western Ghats. There are also top tea retailers in Delhi and other urban hubs.
In Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, colourful jari shoulder bags, embroidered with beads, are a speciality. Also on the portables front, the Northeast States are noted for their beautiful handwoven baskets and wickerwork – each tribe has its own unique basket shape.
Jodhpur in Rajasthan, among other places, is famed for its antiques (though be aware that exporting antiques is prohibited).
Artisans in Jammu and Kashmir have been producing lacquered papier mâché for centuries, and papier mâché bowls, boxes, letter holders, coasters, trays and Christmas decorations are now sold across India, making inexpensive yet fabulous gifts (those with more intricate work command higher prices). In Rajasthan, look for colourful papier mâché puppets, typically sold as a pair and often depicting a husband and wife, and beautiful little temples, carved from mango wood and brightly painted with religious stories.
Fine-quality handmade paper – often fashioned into cards, boxes and notebooks – is worth seeking out. Puducherry (Pondicherry; Tamil Nadu), Delhi, Jaipur and Mumbai are good places to start.
Hats are also popular: the Assamese make decorated reed-pith sunhats, and Tibetan refugees produce woollen hats, gloves and scarves, sold nationwide. Traditional caps worn by men and women of Himalayan tribes are available in many Himachal Pradesh towns.
India has a phenomenal range of books at very competitive prices, including leather-bound titles. Big city bookshops offer the widest selections.
Feature: Putting Your Money Where It Counts
Overall, a comparatively small proportion of the money brought to India by tourism is believed to reach people in rural areas. Travellers can make a greater contribution by shopping at community cooperatives set up to protect and promote traditional cottage industries and provide education, training and a sustainable livelihood at the grass-roots level. Many of these projects focus on refugees, low-caste women, tribal people and others living on society’s fringes.
The quality of products sold at cooperatives is high and the prices are usually fixed, which means you won’t have to haggle. A share of the sales revenue is channelled directly into social projects, such as schools, healthcare, training and advocacy programs for socially disadvantaged groups. Shopping at the national network of Khadi and Village Industries Commission emporiums will also contribute to rural communities.
Wherever you travel, keep your eyes peeled for fair-trade cooperatives.
Feature: The Art of Haggling
Government emporiums, fair-trade cooperatives, department stores and modern shopping centres almost always charge fixed prices. Anywhere else, you may need to bargain as prices can be highly inflated – shopkeepers in many tourist hubs are accustomed to travellers with lots of money and little time to spend it, so you may end up being charged double or triple the going rate.
The first ‘rule’ to haggling is to never show too much interest in the item you’ve got your heart set on. Second, resist purchasing the first thing that takes your fancy. Wander around several shops and price items, but don’t make it too obvious: if you return to the first shop, the vendor will know it’s because they are the cheapest (resulting in less haggling leeway).
Decide how much you would be happy paying, and then express a casual interest in buying. If you have absolutely no idea of the going rate, a common approach is to start by slashing the price by half. The vendor will, most likely, look aghast, but you can now work up and down respectively in small increments until you reach a mutually agreeable price. You’ll find that many shopkeepers lower their so-called ‘final price’ if you head out of the store saying you’ll ‘think about it’.
Haggling is a way of life in India and is usually taken in good spirit. It should never turn ugly. Always keep in mind how much a rupee is worth in your own country's currency, and how much you'd pay for the item back home, to put things in perspective. If you're not sure of the 'right' price for an item, think about how much it is worth to you. If a vendor seems to be charging an unreasonably high price, look elsewhere.
Feature: Gandhi’s Cloth
More than 80 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi urged Indians to support the freedom movement by ditching their foreign-made clothing and turning to khadi – homespun cloth. Khadi became a symbol of Indian independence, and the fabric is still associated with politics. The government-run, nonprofit group Khadi and Village Industries Commission (www.kvic.org.in) serves to promote khadi, which is usually cotton, but can also be silk or wool.
Khadi outlets are simple, no-nonsense places, where you can pick up genuine Indian clothing such as kurta pyjamas (long shirt and loose-fitting trousers), scarves, saris and, at some branches, assorted handicrafts – you’ll find them all over India. Prices are reasonable and are often discounted in the period around Gandhi’s birthday (2 October). A number of outlets also have a tailoring service.
Sidebar: Kalamkari Cloth Paintings
In Andhra Pradesh, intricately drawn, graphic cloth paintings called kalamkari depict deities and historic events. A centre for this ancient art is Sri Kalahasti.
Sidebar: Buddhist Shops
In towns with Buddhist communities, such as McLeod Ganj, Leh, Manali, Gangtok, Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Delhi, keep an eye out for ‘Buddha shops’ selling prayer flags, singing bowls and prayer wheels.
Sidebar: Shahtoosh Shawls
Be aware that it’s illegal to buy shahtoosh shawls, as rare Tibetan antelopes are slaughtered to provide the wool. If you come across anyone selling these shawls, inform local authorities.
Sidebar: Book About Indian Textiles
Indian Textiles, by John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard, explores India’s beautiful regional textiles and includes sections on tie-dye, weaving, beadwork, brocades and even camel girths.
Sidebar: Regional Crafts
Crafts aren’t necessarily confined to their region of origin; artists migrate and are sometimes influenced by regional aesthetics, resulting in some interesting stylistic combinations. For example, you can visit a community of Rajasthani potters on the outskirts of Delhi.
Sidebar: Tarakasi Silverwork of Odisha
Cuttack in Odisha (Orissa) is famed for its lacelike silver-filigree ornaments known as tarakasi. A silver framework is made and then filled in with delicate curls and ribbons of silver.
Sidebar: Indian Jewellery
Throughout India you can find finely crafted gold and silver rings, anklets, earrings, toe rings, necklaces and bangles, and pieces can often be made to order.
Sidebar: Shopping Tips
Be cautious when buying items that include international delivery, and avoid being led to shops by smooth-talking touts, but don't worry about too much else – except your luggage space!
Sidebar: Bidri Craftwork of Karnataka
Bidri, a method of damascening where silver wire is inlaid in gunmetal (a zinc alloy) and rubbed with soil from Bidar, Karnataka, is used to make jewellery, boxes and ornaments.
Sidebar: Rajasthani Handicrafts
Rajasthan is one of India's prime handicraft centres. Its capital, Jaipur, is renowned for block-printing and blue-glazed pottery sporting pretty floral and geometric motifs.
India's magnificent artistic heritage is a reflection of the country’s diverse ethnic groups and traditions. You'll encounter artful treasures around almost every corner, including the vivid body art of mehndi (henna), the soulful chants emanating from temples and the brightly decorated trucks rumbling along dusty roads. The wealth of creative expression is a highlight of travelling here, with many of today’s artists fusing ancient and contemporary techniques to produce works that are as evocative as they are edgy.
The ancient Indian art of dance is traditionally linked to mythology and classical literature. Dance can be divided into two main forms: classical and folk.
Classical dance is based on well-defined traditional disciplines. Following are some classical dance styles:
- Bharatanatyam (also spelt Bharata Natyam) Originated in Tamil Nadu, and has been embraced throughout India.
- Kathak Has Hindu and Islamic influences and was particularly popular with the Mughals. Kathak suffered a period of notoriety, when it moved from the courts into houses where nautch (dancing) girls tantalised audiences with renditions of the Krishna-and-Radha love story. It was restored as a serious art form in the early 20th century.
- Kathakali Has its roots in Kerala; sometimes referred to as ‘dance’ but is essentially a kind of drama based on mythological subjects.
- Kuchipudi A 17th-century dance-drama that originated in the Andhra Pradesh village from which it takes its name. The story centres on the envious wife of Krishna.
- Odissi From Odisha (Orissa); thought to be India’s oldest classical dance form. It was originally a temple art, and was later also performed at royal courts.
- Manipuri Has a delicate, lyrical flavour; hails from Manipur. It attracted a wider audience in the 1920s, when acclaimed Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore invited one of its most revered exponents to teach at Shantiniketan (West Bengal).
India’s second major dance form, folk, is widespread and varied. It includes the high-spirited bhangra dance of Punjab, the theatrical dummy-horse dances of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and the graceful fishers’ dance of Odisha. In Gujarat, the colourful group dance known as garba is performed during Navratri (Hindu festival held in September or October).
Pioneers of modern dance forms in India include Uday Shankar (older brother of the late sitar master Ravi), who once partnered with Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Rabindranath Tagore was another innovator; in 1901 he set up a school at Shantiniketan that promoted the arts, including dance.
The dance you'll probably most commonly see, though, is in films. Dance has featured in Indian movies since the dawn of 'talkies' and often combines traditional, folk and contemporary choreography.
Indian classical music traces its roots back to Vedic times, when religious poems chanted by priests were first collated in an anthology called the Rig-Veda. Over the millennia, classical music has been shaped by many influences, and the legacy today is Carnatic (characteristic of South India) and Hindustani (the classical style of North India) music. With common origins, they share a number of features. Both use the raga (the melodic shape of the music) and tala (the rhythmic meter characterised by the number of beats); tintal, for example, has a tala of 16 beats. The audience follows the tala by clapping at the appropriate beat, which in tintal is at beats one, five and 13. There’s no clap at the beat of nine; that’s the khali (empty section), which is indicated by a wave of the hand. Both the raga and the tala are used as a basis for composition and improvisation.
Both Carnatic and Hindustani music are performed by small ensembles, generally comprising three to six musicians, and both have many instruments in common. There’s no fixed pitch, but there are differences between the two styles. Hindustani has been more heavily influenced by Persian musical conventions (a result of Mughal rule); Carnatic music, as it developed in South India, cleaves more closely to theory. The most striking difference, at least for those unfamiliar with India’s classical forms, is Carnatic’s greater use of voice.
One of the best-known Indian instruments is the sitar (large stringed instrument), with which the soloist plays the raga. Other stringed instruments include the sarod (which is plucked) and the sarangi (which is played with a bow). Also popular is the tabla (twin drums), which provides the tala. The drone, which runs on two basic notes, is provided by the oboe-like shehnai or the stringed tanpura (also spelt tamboura). The hand-pumped keyboard harmonium is used as a secondary melody instrument for vocal music.
Indian regional folk music is widespread and varied. Wandering musicians, magicians, snake charmers and storytellers often use song to entertain their audiences; the storyteller usually sings the tales from the great epics.
In North India you may come across qawwali (Sufi devotional singing), performed in mosques or at musical concerts. Qawwali concerts usually take the form of a mehfil (gathering) with a lead singer, a second singer, harmonium and tabla players, and a thunderous chorus of junior singers and clappers, all sitting cross-legged on the floor. The singers whip up the audience with lines of poetry, dramatic hand gestures and religious phrases as the two voices weave in and out, bouncing off each other to create an improvised, surging sound. On command the chorus dives in with a hypnotic and rhythmic refrain. Members of the audience often sway and shout out in ecstatic appreciation.
A completely different genre altogether, filmi (music from predominantly Bollywood films) includes modern, slower-paced love serenades, along with ebullient dance songs. Some of India's most timelessly iconic film music composers and singers include Kishore Kumar, RD Burman, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar. Contemporary art-house music has filmi roots but is often more experimental. A composer and musical director who has won many accolades – including two Academy Awards – for his innovative style is Chennai-born AR Rahman. Films which feature his acclaimed musical scores include Roja, Lagaan, Jodhaa Akbar, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. Rahman has excelled at integrating classical Indian music with world tunes, including electronic and orchestral fusion.
Around 1500 years ago artists covered the walls and ceilings of the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra, western India, with scenes from Buddha’s past lives. The figures are endowed with an unusual freedom and grace, and contrast with the next major style that emerged from this part of India in the 11th century.
India’s Jain community created some particularly lavish temple art. However, after the conquest of Gujarat by the Delhi Sultanate in 1299, the Jains turned their attention to illustrated manuscripts, which could be hidden away. These manuscripts are the only known form of Indian painting that survived the Islamic conquest of North India.
The Indo-Persian style – characterised by geometric design coupled with flowing form – developed from Islamic royal courts, although the depiction of the elongated eye is one convention that seems to have been retained from indigenous sources. The Persian influence blossomed when artisans fled to India following the 1507 Uzbek attack on Herat (in present-day Afghanistan), and with trade and gift-swapping between the Persian city of Shiraz, an established centre for miniature production, and Indian provincial sultans.
The 1526 victory by Babur at the Battle of Panipat ushered in the era of the Mughals in India. Although Babur and his son Humayun were both patrons of the arts, Humayun’s son Akbar is generally credited with developing the characteristic Mughal style. This painting style, often in colourful miniature form, largely depicts court life, architecture, nature, battle and hunting scenes, as well as detailed portraits. Akbar recruited artists from far and wide, and artistic endeavour first centred on the production of illustrated manuscripts, covering topics from history to mythology, but later broadened into portraiture and the glorification of everyday events. European painting styles influenced some artists, and this influence occasionally reveals itself in experiments with motifs and perspective.
Akbar’s son Jehangir also patronised painting, but he preferred portraiture, and his fascination with natural science resulted in a vibrant legacy of paintings of flowers and animals. Under Jehangir’s son Shah Jahan, the Mughal style became less fluid and, although the bright colouring was eye-catching, the paintings lacked the vigour of before.
Miniature painting flourished first at the Mughal court in the 16th century, as well as the Deccan sultanates (Golconda, Bijapur, Bidar etc). As Mughal power and wealth declined, many artists moved to Rajasthan, where the Rajasthani school developed from the late 17th century. Later, artists from Rajasthan moved into the Himalayan foothills of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where the Pahari (Hill Country) school flourished in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The subject matter ranged from royal processions to shikhar (hunting expeditions), with many artists influenced by Mughal styles. The intense colours, still evident today in miniatures and frescoes in some Indian palaces, were often derived from crushed semiprecious stones, while the gold and silver colouring is finely pounded pure gold and silver leaf.
By the 19th century, painting in North India was notably influenced by Western styles (especially English watercolours), giving rise to what has been dubbed the Company School, which had its centre in Delhi. Meanwhile, in the south, painter Ravi Varma painted schmaltzy mythological scenes and portraits of women, which were hugely popular and gave Indian subjects a very Western treatment. Look out for the distinctive stylised works of Jamini Roy, depicting village life and culture.
Rabindranath Tagore, born in Kolkata in 1861, is especially famed for his contribution to literature, but he was also a gifted artist. With no formal art training, he began dabbling in painting in his 60s and created more than 2000 pieces. His individual style of melding classical Indian art traditions with uniquely modern (often simple and bold) flourishes attracted praise from art critics, especially in Europe. However, Tagore remained largely dismissive of his own artistic skills. Today, his paintings are widely lauded and feature in various exhibitions. India's National Gallery of Modern Art (http://ngmaindia.gov.in) lists 102 of Tagore's works.
The Madras Movement pioneered modern art in South India in the 1960s, while in the 21st century, paintings by contemporary Indian artists have been selling at record numbers (and prices) around the world. One very successful online art auction house is Saffronart (www.saffronart.com). The larger cities, especially Delhi and Mumbai, are India's contemporary-art centres, with a range of galleries in which to view and buy art.
India’s film industry was born in the late 19th century – the first major Indian-made motion picture, Panorama of Calcutta, was screened in 1899. India’s first real feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was made during the silent era in 1913, and it’s ultimately from this film that Indian cinema traces its lineage.
Today, India’s film industry is the biggest in the world – twice as big as Hollywood. Mumbai, the Hindi-language film capital, aka Bollywood, is the biggest, but India’s other major film-producing cities – Chennai (Kollywood), Hyderabad (Tollywood) and Bengaluru (Bangalore; Sandalwood) – also have a considerable output. A number of other centres produce films, in their own regional vernaculars too. Big-budget films are often partly or entirely shot abroad, with some countries vigorously wooing Indian production companies because of the potential spin-off tourism revenue these films generate.
Hundreds of feature films are produced annually throughout India. Apart from millions of local Bolly-, Tolly- and Kollywood buffs, there are also millions of Non-Resident Indian (NRI) fans, who have played a significant role in catapulting Indian cinema onto the international stage.
Broadly speaking, there are two categories of Indian films. Most prominent is the mainstream 'masala' movie – named for its 'spice mix' of elements. Designed to have something for every member of the family, the films encompass a blend of romance, action, slapstick humour and moral themes. Three hours and still running, these blockbusters are often tear-jerkers and are packed with dramatic twists interspersed with numerous song-and-dance performances. In Indian films made for the local market there is no explicit sex, and not even much kissing, although smooching has made its way into some Bollywood movies. However, lack of nudity is often compensated for by heroines dressed in skimpy or body-hugging attire, and the lack of overt eroticism is more than made up for with intense flirting and loaded innuendos.
The second Indian film genre is art house, which adopts Indian ‘reality’ as its base. Generally speaking, these films are socially and politically relevant. Usually made on infinitely smaller budgets than their commercial cousins, they are the ones that tend to win kudos at global film festivals and awards ceremonies. Bengali cinema, best represented by the work of Satyajit Ray, is particularly well regarded. In 2013, Dabba (Lunchbox), a non-Bollywood romantic comedy written and directed by Ritesh Batra, won the Grand Rail d'Or at Cannes International Critics’ Week.
Indian films that have made it to the final nomination list of the Academy Awards (Best Foreign Language Film category) are Mother India (directed by Mehboob Khan, 1957), Salaam Bombay! (directed by Mira Nair, 1988) and Lagaan (directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001).
India has a long tradition of Sanskrit literature, although works in the vernacular have contributed to a particularly rich legacy. In fact, it’s claimed there are as many literary traditions as there are written languages.
Bengalis are traditionally credited with producing some of India’s most celebrated literature, a movement often referred to as the Indian or Bengal Renaissance, which flourished from the 19th century with works by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. But the man who to this day is mostly credited with first propelling India’s cultural richness onto the world stage is the Bengali Rabindranath Tagore, with works such as Gitanjali (Song Offerings), Gora (Fair-Faced) and Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World).
One of the earliest Indian authors writing in English to receive an international audience, in the 1930s, was RK Narayan, whose deceptively simple writing about small-town life is subtly hilarious. Keralan Kamala Das (aka Kamala Suraiyya) wrote poetry, such as Summer in Calcutta, in English and her memoir, My Story, in Malayalam, which she later translated to English. Her frank approach to love and sexuality, especially in the 1960s and '70s, broke ground for women writers.
India has an ever-growing list of internationally acclaimed contemporary authors. Particularly prominent writers include Vikram Seth, best known for his epic novel A Suitable Boy, and Amitav Ghosh, who has won a number of accolades; his Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. A number of India-born authors have won the prestigious Man Booker, the most recent being Aravind Adiga, who won in 2008 for his debut novel, The White Tiger. The prize went to Kiran Desai in 2006 for The Inheritance of Loss; Desai is the daughter of the award-winning Indian novelist Anita Desai, who has thrice been a Booker Prize nominee. In 1997 Arundhati Roy won the Booker for her novel The God of Small Things, while Salman Rushdie took this coveted award in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, which also won the Booker of Bookers prize in 1993.
Rangolis, the strikingly intricate chalk, rice-paste or coloured powder designs (also called kolams) that adorn thresholds, especially in South India, are both auspicious and symbolic. Rangolis are traditionally drawn at sunrise and are sometimes made of rice-flour paste, which may be eaten by little creatures – symbolising a reverence for even the smallest living things. Deities are deemed to be attracted to a beautiful rangoli, which may also signal to sadhus (ascetics) that they will be offered food at a particular house. Some people believe that rangolis protect against the evil eye.
Sidebar: Indian Classical Dance
Indian Classical Dance by Leela Venkataraman and Avinash Pasricha is a lavishly illustrated book covering various Indian dance forms, including bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Kathakali.
Sidebar: Understanding Raga Music
To tune into the melodious world of Hindustani classical music, including a glossary of musical terms, get a copy of Nād: Understanding Raga Music by Sandeep Bagchee.
Sidebar: Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema
Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen chronicles India’s dynamic cinematic history, spanning from 1897 to the 21st century.
Sidebar: Rabindranath Tagore
The acclaimed writer, poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 for Gitanjali (Song Offerings). For a varied taste of Tagore’s work, read Selected Short Stories.
Sidebar: Jaipur Literature Festival
India has an array of literary festivals. One of the most popular is the Jaipur Literature Festival (www.jaipurliteraturefestival.org), which features a range of local and international writers.
Sidebar: Books About Indian Art
Get arty with Indian Art by Roy C Craven, Contemporary Indian Art: Other Realities, edited by Yashodhara Dalmia, and Indian Miniature Painting by Dr Daljeet and Professor PC Jain.
Sidebar: Satyajit Ray
Bengali director Satyajit Ray (1921–92) is considered the father of Indian art films, winning global awards for movies such as Pather Panchali and Aparajito.
Sidebar: Website of Performing Arts
Explore India's vibrant performing-arts scene – especially classical dance and music – at Art India (www.artindia.net), a detailed resource covering everything from Carnatic music to modern dance.
India's remarkable assortment of historic and contemporary sacred architecture draws inspiration from an array of religious denominations. Although few of the wooden and occasionally brick temples built in early times have weathered the vagaries of nature, by the advent of the Guptas (4th to 6th centuries AD) of North India, sacred structures of a new type – better engineered to withstand the elements – were being constructed, and these largely set the standard for temples for several hundred years.
For Hindus, the square is a perfect shape, and complex rules govern the location, design and building of each temple, based on numerology, astrology, astronomy and religious principles. Essentially, a temple represents a map of the universe. At the centre is an unadorned space, the garbhagriha (inner sanctum), which is symbolic of the ‘womb-cave’ from which the universe is believed to have emerged. This provides a residence for the deity to which the temple is dedicated.
Above a Hindu temple’s shrine rises a tower superstructure known as a vimana in South India, and a sikhara in North India. The sikhara is curvilinear and topped with a grooved disk, on which sits a pot-shaped finial, while the vimana is stepped, with the grooved disk being replaced by a solid dome. Some temples have a mandapa (fore-chamber) connected to the sanctum by vestibules. The mandapa may also contain vimanas or sikharas.
A gopuram is a soaring pyramidal gateway tower of a Dravidian temple. The towering gopurams of various South Indian temple complexes, such as the nine-storey gopurams of Madurai’s Sri Meenakshi Temple, take ornamentation and monumentalism to new levels.
Commonly used for ritual bathing and religious ceremonies, as well as adding aesthetic appeal, temple tanks have long been a focal point of temple activity. These often-vast, angular, engineered reservoirs of water, sometimes fed by rain, sometimes supplied – via a complicated drainage system – by rivers, serve both sacred and secular purposes. The waters of some temple tanks are believed to have healing properties, while others are said to have the power to wash away sins. Devotees (as well as travellers) may be required to wash their feet in a temple tank before entering a place of worship.
From the outside, Jain temples can resemble Hindu ones, but inside they’re often a riot of sculptural ornamentation, the very opposite of ascetic austerity.
Buddhist shrines have their own unique features. Stupas, composed of a solid hemisphere topped by a spire, characterise Buddhist places of worship and essentially evolved from burial mounds. They served as repositories for relics of Buddha and, later, other venerated souls. A further innovation is the addition of a chaitya (assembly hall) leading up to the stupa itself. Bodhgaya, where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became Buddha, has a collection of notable Buddhist monasteries and temples. The gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) found in places such as Ladakh and Sikkim are characterised by distinctly Tibetan motifs and chortens, a more angular Tibetan style of stupa.
In 262 BC, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism, and as a penance built the Great Stupa at Sanchi, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It is among the oldest surviving Buddhist structures in the subcontinent.
India also has a rich collection of Islamic sacred sites, as its Muslim rulers contributed their own architectural conventions, including arched cloisters and domes. The Mughals uniquely melded Persian, Indian and provincial styles. Renowned examples include Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, Agra Fort, and the ancient fortified city of Fatehpur Sikri. Emperor Shah Jahan was responsible for some of India’s most spectacular architectural creations, most notably the Taj Mahal.
Islamic art eschews any hint of idolatry or portrayal of God, and it has evolved a vibrant heritage of calligraphic and decorative designs. In terms of mosque architecture, the basic design elements are similar worldwide. A large hall is dedicated to communal prayer and within the hall is a mihrab (niche) indicating the direction of Mecca. The faithful are called to prayer from minarets, placed at cardinal points. Delhi’s formidable 17th-century Jama Masjid is India’s biggest mosque, its courtyard able to hold 25,000 people.
The Sikh faith was founded by Guru Nanak, the first of 10 gurus, in the 15th century. Sikh temples, called gurdwaras, can usually be identified by their bud-like gumbads (domes) and nishan sahib (a flagpole flying a triangular flag with the Sikh insignia). Amritsar’s stunning Golden Temple is Sikhism’s holiest shrine.
Sidebar: Temple Architecture Website
Discover more about India’s diverse temple architecture at Temple Net (www.templenet.com), which has temple-related information from festival details to a glossary of terms.
Sidebar: Temple Architecture Books
Masterpieces of Traditional Indian Architecture by Satish Grover and The History of Architecture in India by Christopher Tadgell give interesting insights into temple architecture.
Sidebar: Gompa temple
The focal point of a gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) is the dukhang (temple), where monks assemble to chant passages from sacred scriptures.
India's Wildlife & Parks
The wildlife of India comprises a vast array of animals from Europe, Asia and ancient Gondwanaland, all swirled together in a diverse mix of habitats from mangrove forests and jungles to deserts and alpine mountains. India is famous for its big, bold species – tigers, elephants, rhinos, leopards and bears. But there's much more, including a mesmerising collection of colourful birds and some of the world’s most endangered and intriguing wildlife, such as the Ganges river dolphin and the Asiatic lion.
India's Iconic Species
Tigers, elephants and rhinos are among India’s most renowned wildlife, all of which are scarce and in need of stringent protection.
Asian elephants – a completely different species to the larger African elephant – are revered in Hindu custom and were able to be domesticated and put to work. Fortunately, they've not been hunted into extinction (as they were in neighbouring China) and many still survive in the wild. Because they migrate long distances in search of food, these 3000kg animals require huge parks; interspecies conflicts often erupt when herds of elephants attempt to follow ancestral paths that are now occupied by villages and farms. Some of the best parks for elephant viewing are Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand and Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka.
There are far fewer one-horned rhinos left and two thirds of the world’s total population can be found in Assam's Kaziranga National Park, where they wander lush alluvial grasslands at the base of the Himalaya. A 2018 census revealed the number of one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga stood at 2413, an increase of 12 from the 2015 census. They may look sedate but rhinos are unpredictably dangerous – built like battering rams, covered in plates of armour-like skin, and using their sharp teeth to tear off chunks of flesh when they attack.
And then there's the mighty, majestic tiger. This iconic animal is critically endangered but can be seen, if you're lucky, at tiger reserves around the country – one of your best chances of spotting one is in Madhya Pradesh.
Tourism & Conservation
Wildlife-watching has become one of India's prime tourist activities, and there are hundreds of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries offering opportunities to spot rare and unusual creatures. Your visit helps send a message to the government and local people that protecting endangered species and fragile ecosystems is important and of economic value.
Cats & Dogs
India is especially famed for its tigers, but is also home to 14 other species of wild cats. Hunting and human encroachment pose an ongoing threat to these animals.
Protection efforts have been successfully made on behalf of the Asiatic lion, a close relative of the more familiar African lion. A century ago there were only 20 of these lions left in the world, but their current population, an estimated 600 according to a 2018 census, indicates that they seem to be doing quite well in Gujarat’s Sasan Gir National Park, the world's last surviving sanctuary of the Asiatic lion.
Up to 600 snow leopards are believed to exist in the alpine altitudes of Ladakh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh – where it is the official state animal. This much-celebrated big cat is so elusive that many locals claim it can appear and disappear at will. Your chances of seeing one are small, but if you're really keen to seek this ghost-like feline, try Himachal Pradesh's Spiti region for starters.
Other wild cats include the clouded leopard and its smaller cousin, the marbled cat, both of which lurk in the jungles of the Northeast Region. They are strikingly marked with rosettes and rings for camouflage in the dappled light of their forest homes. India also has several species of primitive cat-like predators known as civets.
The country is also home to around 3000 wild Indian wolves, which can best be seen in Gujarat's Blackbuck National Park. The rare, and most ancient, breed – the Spitian Himalayan wolf – can be heard howling over the Spiti Valley. Jackals, foxes and dholes (wild dogs) can be spotted in enclaves around the country.
The most abundant forms of wildlife you’ll see in India are deer (nine species), antelope (six species), goats and sheep (10 species), and primates (15 species). In the open grasslands of many parks look for the nilgai, India’s largest antelope, or elegantly horned blackbucks. If you’re heading for the mountains, keep your eyes open in the Himalaya for blue sheep – with partially curled horns – or the rare argali, with fully curled horns, found in Ladakh. The deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat are home to arid land species such as chinkaras (Indian gazelles), while the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans delta have chitals (spotted deer), who cope with their brackish environment by excreting salt from their nasal glands. Chitals are also the most prolific deer in central India's high-profile tiger reserves.
India’s primates range from the extremely rare hoolock gibbon and golden langur of the northeast to species that are so common as to be regarded pests by some – notably the stocky and aggressive rhesus macaque and the slender grey langur. In the south, the cheeky monkeys that loiter around temples and tourist sites are bonnet macaques.
Despite having amazing biodiversity, India faces a growing challenge from its burgeoning human population. Wildlife is severely threatened by poaching, human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss. One report suggested India had over 500 threatened species, including 247 species of plants, 53 species of mammals, 78 species of birds, 22 species of reptiles, 68 species of amphibians, 35 species of fish and 22 species of invertebrates. In 2012 the International Union for Conservation of Nature released a list of the 100 most threatened species in the world. It included four Indian species; a spider, a turtle and two birds – the great Indian bustard and the white-bellied heron.
Even well-resourced conservation projects, such as Project Tiger, face ongoing challenges. Every good news story seems to be followed by yet another story of poaching gangs or tiger or leopard attacks on villagers. All of India’s wild cats, from snow leopards to panthers, are facing extinction from habitat loss and poaching for the lucrative trade in skins and body parts for Chinese medicine (a whole tiger carcass can fetch upwards of UK£32,000). Still, conservation efforts are seeing some notable successes, with a particularly positive growth rate among the country's tiger population.
Even highly protected rhinos are poached for the medicine trade – rhino horn is highly valued as an aphrodisiac in China and as a material for making handles for daggers in the Gulf. Elephants are widely poached for ivory, and travellers can help by not buying ivory souvenirs. Reliable statistics are difficult to find (due to the illegal nature of poaching), but ivory poaching has reportedly been responsible for anywhere between 45% and 70% of all male elephant deaths in three Indian provinces.
Various species of deer are threatened by hunting for food and trophies, and the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, is nearly extinct because its hair is woven into wool for expensive shahtoosh shawls.
India’s bear species remain under threat, although sloth bears are experiencing a reprieve with the recent demise of the dancing bear industry. In the rivers, India’s famous freshwater dolphins are in dire straits from pollution, habitat alteration and direct human competition. The sea-turtle populations that nest on the Odisha coast also face environmental challenges.
Threatened primate species clinging on in rainforests in the south include lion-tailed macaques, glossy black Nilgiri langurs and the slender loris, an adept insect-catcher with huge eyes for nocturnal hunting.
With more than 1200 species of birds, India is a fascinating destination for birdwatchers. Many birds are thinly spread over this vast country, but wherever critical habitat has been preserved in the midst of dense human activity, you might see phenomenal numbers of birds in one location. Winter can be a particularly good time, as wetlands throughout the country host northern migrants arriving to kick back in the lush subtropical warmth of the Indian peninsula. Throughout the year, wherever you may be travelling, look for colourful kingfishers, barbets, sunbirds, parakeets and magpies, or the blue flash of an Indian roller. Keen birdwatchers will take a special trip into the Himalaya in search of one of the world’s most highly sought-after species, the enigmatic ibisbill.
Once considered the premier duck-hunting destination in the British Empire, when royal hunting parties would shoot up to 4000 ducks in a single day, the seasonal wetlands of Rajasthan's Keoladeo Ghana were elevated to national park status in 1982, and the park is rightly famous for its migratory avian visitors. Now whittled down to a relatively small pocket of habitat amid a sea of villages and agricultural fields, this is still one of the world's finest birdwatching destinations. Even better, Keoladeo Ghana and its abundant bird-life are easy to explore: just hop on a bike at the gate and tootle around the flat tracks that weave among the park’s clearly defined ponds and marshes.
Once almost entirely covered in forest, India's total forest cover is now 22.7%. Despite widespread clearing of native habitats, the country still boasts around 50,000 plant species, of which some 5200 are endemic. Species on the southern peninsula show Malaysian ancestry, while desert plants in Rajasthan are more clearly allied with the Middle East, and the conifer forests of the Himalaya derive from European and Siberian origins. The Forest Survey of India has set an optimistic target of returning to 33% cover.
Outside the mountain forests found in the Himalaya, nearly all the lowland forests of India are subtypes of tropical forest, with native sal forests forming the mainstay of the timber industry. Some of these tropical forests are true rainforest, staying green year-round – such as in the Western Ghats and in the northeast states – but most forests are deciduous; during the hot, dry months of April and May, many forests lose their canopies, as leaves wither and fall from the trees. This is often the best time to view wildlife, as the cover is thinner, and animals seek out scarce waterholes.
High-value trees, such as Indian rosewood, Malabar kino and teak, have been virtually cleared from the Western Ghats, and sandalwood is endangered across India due to illegal logging for the incense and woodcarving industries. A bigger threat to forested lands is firewood harvesting, often carried out by landless peasants who squat on gazetted government land.
Some trees have special religious significance in India, including the silk-cotton tree, a huge tree with spiny bark and large red flowers under which Pitamaha (Brahma), the god of creation, sat after his labours. Two well-known figs, the banyan and peepul, grow to immense size by dangling roots from their branches and fusing into massive jungles of trunks and stems – one giant is nearly 200m across. It is said that Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a peepul (also known as the bodhi tree).
The foothills and slopes of the Himalaya preserve classic montane species, including blue pine and deodar (Himalayan cedar), and deciduous forests of apple, chestnut, birch, plum and cinnamon. Above the snowline, hardy plants such as anemones, edelweiss and gentians can be prolific, and one fabulous place to see these flowers is at the Valley of Flowers National Park in Uttarakhand.
India’s hot deserts have their own unique species – the khejri tree and various strains of scrub acacia. The hardy sea-buckthorn bush is the main fruiting shrub in the high-altitude deserts of the Himalaya.
National Parks & Wildlife Sanctuaries
Prior to 1972, India only had five national parks. The Wildlife Protection Act was introduced that year to set aside land for parks and stem the abuse of wildlife. The act was followed by a string of similar pieces of legislation with bold ambitions but few teeth with which to enforce them.
India now has 104 national parks and 543 wildlife sanctuaries, which constitute around 5% of India’s territory. Additional parks have been authorised on paper but not yet implemented on the ground, or only implemented to varying degrees. There are also 18 biosphere reserves, overlapping many of the national parks and sanctuaries, providing safe migration channels for wildlife and allowing scientists to monitor biodiversity.
We highly recommend visiting at least one national park or sanctuary on your travels – the experience of coming face-to-face with a wild elephant, rhino or tiger will stay with you for a lifetime, while your visit adds momentum to efforts to protect India’s natural resources. Wildlife reserves tend to be off the beaten track and infrastructure can be limited – book transport and accommodation in advance, and check opening times, permit requirements and entry fees before you visit. Many parks close to conduct a census of wildlife in the low season, and monsoon rains can make wildlife-viewing tracks inaccessible.
Almost all parks offer jeep or van tours, but you can also search for wildlife on guided treks and boat trips. Some parks may offer elephant-back safaris, but we don't recommend these due to the detrimental health implications for elephants, and because of the techniques used to train them to carry people. Due to increasing animal welfare concerns, some wildlife reserves have completely halted elephant-back safaris, while others may only allow tourists to walk alongside elephants, not ride them.
Rules introduced in 2012 put an end to 'tiger shows', whereby resting tigers became sitting ducks for tourists, who were taken off their jeep and put on elephants to get close to the, presumably peeved, tiger. Also, in many reserves, safari vehicle visits have been reduced and some tiger sanctuaries may be closed to safaris one day a week. These rules still are in flux, so do find out the latest situation before booking your safari.
Feature: Project Tiger
When naturalist Jim Corbett first raised the alarm in the 1930s, no one believed that tigers would ever be threatened. At the time, it was believed there were about 40,000 tigers in India, although no one had ever conducted a census. Then came Independence, which put guns into the hands of villagers, who pushed into formerly off-limits hunting reserves seeking highly profitable tiger skins. By the time an official count was made in 1972, there were only 1800 tigers left, and the international outcry partly prompted then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to make the tiger the national symbol of India and set up Project Tiger (National Tiger Conservation Authority; http://projecttiger.nic.in). It has since established 50 tiger reserves totalling 71,027 sq km, which protect not only this top predator but all animals that share its habitat.
After some initial success against the practice, continuing poaching caused tiger numbers to plummet, from 3600 in 2002 to 1706 in 2011. Despite countless rupees and high-tech equipment devoted to saving this majestic animal, out of 63 wild tiger deaths in 2013, only one was from old age, while 48 were from poaching. Fortunately, the most recent tiger census results, published in January 2015, show an encouraging rise in India's tiger population, to 2226. This census revealed that the country's highest number of tigers, in the age group of 1½ years and over, are in Karnataka, which has a total of 408 tigers. Karnataka is followed by Uttarakhand with 340 tigers. Other states with more than 100 tigers are Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Assam, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh.
Feature: Unbearably Good News
In 2012 the Indian government announced that the dancing bear industry was extinct. After several centuries – and three decades after it was made illegal – this cultural tradition finally ended, with few lamenting its demise. In fact, the practice was bought out when the few remaining bear-handling communities, known as Kalandars, were redirected into more profitable enterprises.
Feature: Animal Attacks
Human-animal conflict has been spiralling upwards across India as wildlife habitat shrinks and human settlement expands.
There has been a growing number of reports of tigers taking up residence in inhabited areas, following hot on the heels of a huge increase in urban leopards, which have been spotted wandering around villages and even large towns. What is interesting is that the incomers are often tolerated by locals as a form of biological pest control. It has long been acknowledged that tiger attacks on humans are mainly carried out by elderly tigers, while healthy younger tigers prefer to pursue their normal prey of boars, deer and other wildlife. The sense of symbiosis is striking: humans plant crops that attract boars, which in turn wreak havoc on the crops until tigers step in to restore the balance. At the same time, the presence of humans may deter prowling male tigers, which might otherwise attack a female’s cubs.
Nevertheless, authorities still advise caution, with around 100 people reportedly killed or injured annually by wild jungle cats. While such attacks tend to get lots of press coverage and cause panic, it's actually rare for tigers to turn into true man-eaters; those that do are generally old, injured or both. In comparison, around 46,000 people in India die each year of snakebites, according to the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene – accounting for nearly half of the world's 100,000 annual snakebite deaths. Meanwhile, approximately 22,000 people are believed to die annually from (often rabid) dog and monkey bites.
Feature: Big & Small
India's largest contiguous protected area is the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, in Uttarakhand, covering 2237 sq km. It includes India's second-highest peak (Nanda Devi – 7817m) and the famous Valley of Flowers. India's smallest national park is South Button Island, in the Andamans, at less than 5 sq km.
Feature: Parks & People
While national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are crucial to protecting the habitats of India's endangered species, their creation has had some tragic consequences. As a result of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which banned people from living in parks, about 1.6 million Adivasis and other forest-dwellers were evicted from their traditional lands. Many were resettled in villages and forced to abandon their age-old ways of life, resulting in profound personal suffering and irreplaceable cultural losses. Today, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 forbids the displacement of forest-dwellers from national parks (except in so-called 'critical wildlife habitat'), and should protect the four million or so people who still live in them. It's still too early to tell how successful the law will be at helping tribes remain in parks – and how their continued presence will impact fragile wildlife habitat.
For more on the Forest Rights Act and issues surrounding 'people in parks', visit www.forestrightsact.com; also see the Traditional Cultures Project at www.traditionalculturesproject.org.
Sidebar: Website Resources
- Wildlife, conservation and environment awareness-raising at www.sanctuaryasia.com
- Wildlife Trust of India news at www.wti.org.in
- Top birdwatching information and photo galleries at www.birding.in
Sidebar: Books About Wildlife
- Mammals of India (Vivek Menon)
- Treasures of Indian Wildlife (AS Kothari and BF Chappgar)
- The Maneaters of Kumaon and The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (Jim Corbett)
Sidebar: Top Parks North
- Corbett Tiger Reserve
- Kaziranga National Park
- Keoladeo National Park
- Ranthambhore National Park
Sidebar: Top Parks Central
- Bandhavgarh National Park
- Kanha National Park
- Panna National Park
- Sundarbans Tiger Reserve
Sidebar: Top Parks South
- Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park
- Nagarhole National Park
- Periyar Tiger Reserve
Sidebar: India's National Symbols
India's national animal is the tiger, its national bird is the peacock and its national flower is the lotus. The national emblem of India is a column topped by three Asiatic lions.
Sidebar: India's Flower Species
India has an estimated 18,000 species of flowering plants, constituting around 6.5% of the world's total plant species.
Sidebar: Snake Species in India
India has 270 species of snake, of which 60 are poisonous. Of the various species of cobra, the king cobra is the world's largest venomous snake, reaching a length of 5m.
Sidebar: Wildlife Photography Tip
For memorable wildlife shots, a camera with a long lens – at least 300mm – is essential.
Sidebar: National Park Landscape
Located almost perfectly in the centre of the country, Bandhavgarh National Park is one dynamic example of what the original Indian landscape might have been like. Here you can explore meadows, forests and rocky ridges in a thrilling search for tigers, leopards and other big fauna.
Around 2000 plant species are described in texts on ayurveda (traditional Indian herbal medicine) and many are still widely used in the country.
India's topography is stunningly varied, with everything from steamy tropical jungles and coastal mangrove forests to windswept deserts and icy mountain peaks. At 3,287,263 sq km, it is the largest Asian country after China, and forms the vast bulk of the South Asian subcontinent. The latter ancient block of earth crust carried a wealth of unique plants and animals like a lifeboat across a prehistoric ocean before slamming into Asia about 40 million years ago.
The Lie of the Land
Look for the three major geographic features that define modern-day India: Himalayan peaks and hills along the northern borders; the alluvial floodplains of the Indus and Ganges (referred to locally as the Ganga) Rivers in the north; and the elevated Deccan Plateau that forms the core of India's triangular southern peninsula.
As the world’s highest mountains – with the highest peak in India (Khangchendzonga) reaching 8598m – the Himalaya create an almost impregnable boundary between India and its neighbours to the north. These mountains formed when the Indian subcontinent broke away from Gondwanaland, a supercontinent in the southern hemisphere that included Africa, Antarctica, Australia and South America. All by itself, India drifted north and finally slammed slowly, but with immense force, into the Eurasian continent about 40 million years ago. This buckled the ancient seafloor upwards to form the Himalaya and many lesser ranges that stretch 2500km from Afghanistan to Myanmar (Burma).
When the Himalaya reached its great heights during the Pleistocene (less than 150,000 years ago), it blocked and altered weather systems, creating the monsoon climate that dominates India today, as well as forming a dry rain-shadow to the north.
Although it looks like a continuous range on a map, the Himalaya is actually a series of interlocking ridges, separated by countless valleys. Until technology enabled road-building into the Himalaya, many of these valleys were virtually isolated, creating a diverse array of mountain cultures.
The Indo-Gangetic Plains
Covering most of northern India, the vast alluvial plains of the sacred Ganges (Ganga) River are so flat that they drop a mere 200m between Delhi and the waterlogged wetlands of West Bengal, where the river joins forces with the Brahmaputra River from India’s northeast, before dumping into the sea in Bangladesh. Vast quantities of eroded sediments from the neighbouring highlands accumulate on the plains to a depth of nearly 2km, creating fertile, well-watered agricultural land. This densely populated region was once extensively forested and rich in wildlife.
Gujarat in the far west of India is separated from Sindh (Pakistan) by the Rann of Kutch, a brackish marshland that becomes a huge inland sea during the wet season. The waters recede in the dry season, leaving isolated islands perched on an expansive plain.
The Deccan Plateau
South of the Indo-Gangetic (northern) plains, the land rises to the Deccan Plateau, marking the divide between the erstwhile Mughal heartlands of North India and the Dravidian civilisations of the south. The Deccan is bound on either side by the Western and Eastern Ghats, which come together in their southern reaches to form the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu.
On the Deccan’s western border, the Western Ghats drop sharply down to a narrow coastal lowland, forming a luxuriant slope of rainforest.
Offshore from India are a series of island groups, politically part of India but geographically linked to the landmasses of Southeast Asia and islands of the Indian Ocean. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie far out in the Bay of Bengal, while the coral atolls of Lakshadweep (300km west of Kerala) are a northerly extension of the Maldive Islands, with a land area of just 32 sq km.
With well over a billion people, ever-expanding industrial and urban centres, and growth in chemical-intensive farming, India’s environment is under considerable pressure. An estimated 65% of the land is degraded in some way, most of it seriously, and successive governments have consistently fallen short of most of their environmental protection goals. Many ongoing problems have been linked to the Green Revolution of the 1960s, when chemical fertilisers and pesticides enabled huge growth in agricultural output but at enormous cost to the environment.
Despite numerous laws, corruption has continued to exacerbate environmental degradation – exemplified by the flagrant flouting of laws by some companies involved in hydroelectricity and mining. Usually, the people most affected are low-caste rural farmers and Adivasis (tribal people), who have limited political representation and few resources to fight big businesses.
Agricultural production has been reduced by soil degradation from over-farming, rising soil salinity, loss of tree cover and poor irrigation. The human cost is heartrending, and lurking behind all these problems is a basic Malthusian truth: there are far too many people for India to support.
As anywhere, tourists tread a fine line between providing an incentive for change and making the situation worse. For example, many of the environmental problems in Goa are a direct result of irresponsible development for tourism. Always consider your environmental impact while travelling.
Changing climate patterns – linked to global carbon emissions – have been creating worrying extremes of weather in the country. While India's per-capita carbon emissions still rank behind those of the USA and Europe, the sheer size of its population makes it a major polluter.
It has been estimated that by 2030, India will see a 30% increase in the severity of its floods and droughts. In the mountain deserts of Ladakh, increased rainfall is changing time-honoured farming patterns, while glaciers on nearby peaks are melting at startling rates. The rise of destructive flash flooding in India has been linked to climate change, with deforestation playing an additional role in triggering landslides. Some of India's most recent devastating floods have occurred in Uttarakhand (in 2013), the Kashmir Valley (2014) and Gujarat (2017), with each causing widespread loss of life and property. The latest disaster was in 2018, when abnormally heavy monsoonal rainfall thrashed the southern state of Kerala, killing close to 500 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.
Conversely, other areas of the country are experiencing reduced rainfall, causing drought and social upheaval over access to water. Meanwhile, islands in the Lakshadweep group, as well as the low-lying plains of the Ganges delta, are being inundated by rising sea levels, also linked to climate change.
Since Independence, more than 50,000 sq km of India’s forests have been cleared for logging and farming, or destroyed by urban expansion, mining, industrialisation and river dams. Even in the well-funded, highly protected Project Tiger parks, the amount of forest cover classified as ‘degraded’ has tripled due to illegal logging. The number of mangrove forests has halved since the early 1990s, reducing the nursery grounds for the fish that stock the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. According to news reports, from 2005 to 2007 India lost around 2206 sq km of dense forests; from 2015 to 2017 this increased to an estimated 6407 sq km.
India’s first Five Year Plan in 1951 recognised the importance of forests for soil conservation, and various policies have been introduced to increase forest cover. This has yielded some success, but many regulations have been ignored by officials and criminals, as well as by ordinary people clearing forests for firewood and grazing. What can travellers do? Try to minimise the use of wood-burning stoves while you travel, and support charities working with rural communities to encourage tree planting.
Arguably the biggest threat to public health in India is inadequate access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation. With the population steadily marching upwards, agricultural, industrial and domestic water-usage levels are all expected to soar, despite government policies designed to control water use. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, out of more than 3000 cities and towns in India, less than a dozen have adequate waste-water treatment facilities. Many cities dump untreated sewage and partially cremated bodies directly into rivers, while open defecation is a simple fact of life in most rural (and many urban) areas. It's reported that over 500 million people in India face severe water shortages, with an estimated 200,000 dying annually due to polluted water.
Rivers are also affected by runoff, industrial pollution and sewage contamination – the Sabarmati, Yamuna and Ganges are among the most polluted rivers on earth. At least 70% of the freshwater sources in India are now polluted in some way. Over recent years, drought has devastated parts of the subcontinent, particularly Rajasthan and Gujarat, and has been a driving force for rural-to-urban migration.
Water distribution is another volatile issue. Since 1947, an estimated 35 million people in India have been displaced by major dams, mostly built to provide hydroelectricity for an increasingly power-hungry nation. While hydroelectricity is one of the greener power sources, valleys across India are being sacrificed to create new power plants, and displaced people rarely receive adequate compensation. Water disputes are also a bone of contention between India and Pakistan.
Feature: Straddling the Future
India is grappling with a growing dilemma: how to develop, modernise and expand economically, without destroying what's left of its environment, or adding to the global climate problem. The government has come under criticism for some conflicting stances. On one hand, Prime Minister Modi has made it his personal mission to clean up the Ganges River, has launched the much-publicised Swachh Bharat campaign to reduce trash pollution nationwide, and supports large-scale solar power generation, aiming to increase renewable capacity to 175 gigawatts by 2022.
But the government faces challenges when it comes to domestic coal mining (a major source of greenhouse gas emissions). India is the world's second-largest producer of coal, but for electricity, despite domestic production having risen in recent decades, the rate of growth is not meeting demand, making India increasingly reliant on imported coal.
Air quality is of great concern to citizens, especially in urban hubs such as Delhi. Vehicular and industry emissions are major contributors to air pollution in the capital city, while crop burning also poses a grave problem. Each winter, farmers in Delhi's neighbouring states burn over 30 million tonnes of crop stubble, with the smoke carried by wind to the landlocked capital city. The smoke contains a highly toxic mix of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide. The government has, so far, failed to take adequate measures to address root causes of the dire air pollution situation.
Sidebar: WHO Air Pollution for India
Recent World Health Organization (WHO) air pollution data revealed that a staggering 14 Indian cities (including Delhi) were among the world's 20 most polluted.
Sidebar: Organic Sikkim
In 2016 the northeastern state of Sikkim became India's first fully organic state, with around 750 sq km being converted to certified organic land.
Sidebar: 'Down To Earth' Environmental Website
Get the inside track on Indian environmental issues at Down to Earth (www.downtoearth.org.in), an online magazine that explores stories often overlooked by mainstream media.
Sidebar: India's Population by 2024
A UN study predicts that by 2024 India will overtake China to become the world's most populous nation. It expects India's population to reach 1.5 billion by 2030.
Sidebar: Population Density Statistics
India, 2.5% of the planet's landmass, is home to 18% of the world’s population – making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Sidebar: Noise Pollution
Noise pollution in major Indian cities has been measured at over 90 decibels – more than 1½ times the recognised ‘safe’ limit.
Sidebar: Andaman & Nicobar Islands
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands comprise 572 islands and are the peaks of a vast submerged mountain range extending almost 1000km between Myanmar (Burma) and Sumatra.