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Customs of India

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Women’s Advancing Roles

“Custom, then, is the great guide of human life,” wrote Scottish philosopher David Hume. Knowing the customs of a country is, in effect, a guide to understanding the soul of that country and its people. The following Sidebar is intended to provide a glimpse into the unique world of this nation’s customs: how people marry, how families celebrate holidays and other occasions, what people eat, and how they socialize and have fun.

Marriage and Family

Many marriages are still arranged by parents; the degree to which the children are consulted depends on the family. Marriage is sacred to most Indians and is considered to endure beyond death. Weddings are times of great celebration, expense, and feasting. Ceremonies are often elaborate and vary widely from region to region.

In many Hindu ceremonies, the bride and groom exchange garlands and promises before they circle around a fire seven times to solemnize the marriage. Bright clothing, jewelry, and flowers are part of almost every type of ceremony. The bride's parents commonly give a dowry, such as money or land, to the groom's family, although the practice is illegal.

Indians are generally religious and family oriented, and their lives are deeply rooted in tradition. The interests of the family take precedence over those of the individual. Families are generally large, but the government is actively encouraging family planning to curb rapid population growth. Extended families often live together or near each other, and form the basic social and economic unit of rural Indian society. The elderly are respected and cared for by their families. The father is considered the head of the household. Middle-class families, especially in urban areas, are becoming more nuclear. A middle- or upper-class father expects to take care of the children financially until they have finished an education and taken a job—regardless of how long it takes. Most working- and middle-class women work outside the home due to economic necessity, and a growing number of urban women are joining the professional workforce.

Eating

Foods vary widely in India, depending on the culture and region. For example, rice is a staple in the south, while roti (wheat bread) is the staple in the north. Indian meals are usually very spicy. Different types of curry, made with eggs, fish, meat, or vegetables, are popular. Vegetarianism is widely practiced, often for religious reasons. All castes and religions have their own rules and customs governing food. Hindus consider cows to be sacred and they, like Sikhs, will not eat beef. Observant Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol.

Eating habits also vary considerably. Less traditional—most often urban—families will eat together and follow many Western customs. Traditional families may use the right hand instead of utensils for eating their food. Also, women often eat after other members of the family and any guests.

Socializing

The namaste is the traditional greeting used in India; it is performed by pressing the palms together (fingers up) below the chin, and saying “Namaste” (Namaskaram in the south). To greet superiors or to show respect, a slight bow is added. “Hello” and “Hi” are also acceptable greetings. Out of respect for a woman’s privacy, Indian men do not usually shake hands with or touch women in formal or informal gatherings. Indian men will, however, shake hands with Westerners, and educated women may do so as a courtesy. It is polite to use titles such as Shri for a man, Shreemati for a married woman, Kumari for an unmarried woman, or the suffix -ji with a last name to show respect. Muslims use the salaam gesture of greeting, which is performed by raising the right hand toward the forehead, with the index finger pointing to the forehead and the rest of the hand pointing upwards. It is similar to a salute but not as rigid or formal. Indians usually ask permission before taking leave of others.

Most visiting occurs in the home, and visits between friends or family are often unannounced. The need for prior arrangements is increasing in large cities. At social gatherings, guests are often adorned with a garland of flowers, which they then remove and carry in the hand as an expression of humility. Guests invited for a meal customarily bring sweets, flowers, or fruit for the hosts. Indians often consider it impolite to say no to an invitation; if they cannot attend, they are more likely to say they will try to attend.

Many Indians do not wear shoes inside the home. Most at least remove their shoes before entering the living room. Hosts offer their guests refreshments such as tea or coffee and fruit or sweets, which it is polite to decline once or twice before eventually accepting. When visitors are ready to leave, they often indicate it by saying “Namaste.” In temples, saffron powder, holy water from the Ganges River, and sometimes sweets are offered to visitors as prasad, or blessings from the gods; it is discourteous to refuse these gifts. Women cover their heads when entering sacred places. In traditional society, women are often not involved in social functions.

Recreation

India has a thriving film industry—one of the largest in the world. Every major city has numerous cinemas. Musicals and romances are most popular. People also enjoy watching television and videocassettes, reading, and debating anything from philosophy to politics. Dance performances and music concerts are popular. Cricket, soccer, and field hockey are favorite sports. The many religious and folk festivals throughout the year play an important part in the lives of the Indian people.

Holidays and Celebrations

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The International New Year (1 January) is recognized in India, although the Hindu New Year occurs in March or April. Republic Day (26 January) celebrates the founding of India as an independent republic, and many parades are held on this day. Independence Day (15 August) celebrates India’s independence from the United Kingdom. Labor Day is observed on 1 May, as in Europe. Another official holiday is the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhi Jayanti) on 2 October. On this day people make pilgrimages to the place where the Indian independence leader was cremated.

Important Muslim holidays include Id ul-Fitr, Id uz-Zuha, and Muharram. Id ul-Fitr celebrates the end of the month of Ramadan, when Muslims go without food or drink from sunrise to sundown. Id uz-Zuha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, honors Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at Allah’s behest. Muharram commemorates the martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad's grandson. Both Muslim and Hindu holidays are based on the lunar calendar.

Despite the small percentage of Christians in India, Good Friday (the Friday preceding Easter) and Christmas Day (25 December) are legal holidays.

In addition to these legal holidays, there are many festivals throughout the year, celebrating certain deities, the arrival of spring, and other events. Among the most important of these include Vasant Panchami, at the end of January or early February. This is a Hindu festival of spring, during which people wear yellow clothing to symbolize the mustard flower, which announces the arrival of spring.

Holi, in late February or March, is another lively spring festival celebrated by Hindus. During Holi, people smear red, green, and yellow powder on each other and spray each other with colored water. The night before Holi, huge bonfires are lit, symbolizing the destruction of evil. In theory, during this holiday castes are forgotten and all citizens are equal.

Baisakhi, in April or May, is the Hindu solar new year. It is celebrated with temple worship, ritual bathing, and fairs featuring music, dancing, and fireworks. Naag Panchami, in July or August, is a Hindu festival honoring snakes, to which offerings of milk or flowers are made. Janmashtami, in August or September, is one of the most important of Hindu festivals and celebrates the birthday of Krishna, who was a hero to both rich and poor.

Dussehra is a Hindu holiday observed throughout India in October or November to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. It is quickly followed by Diwali, or the Festival of Lights. This is a joyful period in India. Festivities center around the festival’s namesake, with lamps and fireworks lighting up the sky. Gifts and sweets are exchanged at this time and people prepare feasts.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas