India’s culture is a unique kaleidoscope – as baffling, to many, as it is fascinating. Everywhere amid this kaleidoscopic setting, there are curves and circles, inviting and including, alluring and enclosing. Indian art features spirals and curvaceous lines – vines and tendrils, the globe of the sun, benevolent serpents. Round-figured goddesses, circular armlets, oval gemstones, arches and domes, circles of dancers, round-haloed deities, curling elephant trunks, crescent moons, and spiraling conch shells. These representations reflect the all encompassing nature of Indian culture, which has integrated into its own panoply of customs, philosophies, and materials influences from every corner of the earth to form a uniquely rich and splendid civilization.
It is India’s enigmatic “otherness” that so fascinates the first-time visitor, for perhaps no other country in the world can offer so much contrast – traveling within the subcontinent feels at times like traveling through time. From the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, where prayer flags flutter against an impossible blue sky, to the golden deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, where women wear saris saturated in fuchsias and saffron; from the vast plains of Madhya Pradesh, dotted with ruins and deep jungle, where the tiger roams and the rhino runs wild. Sylvan beaches, among the longest in the world to the lush tropical mountains off the Malabar Coast, the spectrum of images and experiences is breathtaking.
“In religion, all other countries are paupers. India is the only millionaire.” So wrote Mark Twain on his visit to India. Everywhere, at all times, people in India are engaged in interaction with the divine, seeking to make things better in this life – or in the next. The people of India speak one or more of fifteen languages and over 200 dialects; they may be Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Zoroastrians or Jews. For there is not just one India but many, that coexist and overlap and merge into one another in a magical montage.
With its wealth of religions, gods, goddesses, saints, heroes and saviors, India celebrates almost every day of the year and that’s what makes it such a colorful destination. Some festivals are observed throughout the subcontinent, but most celebrate local deities and cults and mark the occasion of a god’s incarnation, victory over a demon or marriage to a deity. Others follow the changing seasons and mark pastoral occasions. Hindu festivals usually follow the lunar calendar and both the full moon and the new moon, where ritual fasting and feasting go hand in hand.
The architecture of India is rooted in its history, culture and religion. Indian architecture progressed with time and assimilated the many influences that came as a result of India’s global discourse with other regions of the world throughout its millennia-old past. The architectural methods practiced in India are a result of examination and implementation of its established building traditions and outside cultural interactions.
Cultural life includes not only the folk observances that people have brought from the villages, but also traditional urban practices and modern innovations. Classical Indian dances and ancient Sanskrit dramas are performed in concert halls not far from galleries of modern art, cricket fields, and the studios of avant-garde architects.
Indian cooking is one of the great cuisines of the world. Not only does each Indian community and ethnic and regional group have a distinct cuisine, but there is a great deal of fusion within the country – subtle variations and combinations you’re only likely to pick up once you become familiar with the basics.
Through its history of five millennia, India has played host to a multitude of peoples and cultures. Those who remained were effortlessly accommodated into the Indian Kaleidoscope. And to this day, few can journey through India without discovering some vital part of themselves as well.