Every country has a unique identity but what is different about India is the wide range of unique identities within the same country. Given the long history of this vast country, it is no surprise that there are age-old traditions still being followed but what makes these traditions unique is that some of them exist throughout the length and breadth of the country while some of them are very generic to only one state or region or religious community. These traditions have stood the test of time and innumerable foreign invasions only due to the strong beliefs attached to them. Some of these traditions may overwhelm people from other countries but these are a part of life for a majority of Indians.
1. Millions of Gods and God-men
Indians’ religious fervour can be best experienced in its temples and during festivals. There are countless Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism, each representing a certain Shakti (power) that is believed can be harnessed by praying to that particular deity. For instance, Lakshmi, the goddess of bounty, bestows not just wealth but also courage, children, and beauty while Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge gives wisdom. There are special rituals in each of the temples that house these gods, which are unique to that particular region.
Another unique identify of religious zeal in India is seen in the number of people that declare themselves as “God-men.” Most of these God-men are gurus that teach religion and religious practices and are believed to have special powers and they have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of ardent devotees that follow them. Religious meetings with these god-men are not uncommon even in cities where even the heads of state and the country go to have darshan or a meeting with these god-men.
2. Religious Fastin
What is now considered a fad in the west is actually an age-old Indian tradition. Intermittent fasting, or fasting for long hours at a stretch, is followed in a majority of households in India for religious reasons. People fast for almost the entire day, from sunrise to sunset, and end the fast only after seeing the moon or a star. It is common to not eat or drink at all during this period but there are exceptions, such as drinking of tea or buttermilk is allowed. Most people fast at least once a week or once a fortnight, and especially on the day of “Ekadasi” which eleventh day of the lunar phase. It is also common to observe a fast during certain festivals such as the “Karva Chaut” which is observed by married women in the northern part of the country. It is said to bring health and longevity to their husband’s life and the fast is broken by looking first at the moon and then at the husband through a sieve at the end of the day.
3. Arranged marriages
Another unique Indian tradition is arranged marriages in which the marriage is “arranged” by family members instead of by the person that is actually getting married. This tradition is common in many Asian countries but is observed most strictly in India to the extent that people that oppose this tradition are socially ostracised or even killed in some parts of the country. Youngsters are also in favour of this unique custom and arranged marriages are actually found to have a higher rate of success!
4. Animal worship
Indians worship any form of Shakti or power and the power of animals in this agricultural country cannot be understated. From cows to snakes and even turtles and frogs, animals are considered sacred and they are revered and worshipped in temples and during certain festivals. One of the major festivals in India is the Nag Panchami during which snakes are worshipped across the country. People throng to snake pits and offer milk and eggs to snakes. On this day, it is considered a sin to kill even a worm and it is believed that those who worship snakes will be saved from any untimely death due to snake bites in the future.
5. Multiple New Years
India is probably the only country where different regions celebrate their own New Year’s day! While some south Indian states celebrate “Ugadi” or new year’s day in the month of April, a lot of people in the northern part of the country consider “Diwali” or the festival of lights as the beginning of their new year. Kerala has its own new year’s day in the form of Vishu while the Parsis have Navroz, the Biharis have Bighu, the Punjabis have Vaisakhi, the Maharashtrians have Gudhi Padwa, the Gujaratis have Bestu Varas, and the Assamese have Rongali Bihu. It is believed that over 20 types of new year’s days celebrated in India!
6. Festivals Round the Year
*“Life is a celebration”* is not just a saying in India; there is a celebration around every corner, throughout the year. Apart from the main festivals that are celebrated across the country, such as Dusserah, Diwali, Ganesh Chathurdhi, Id-ul-Fitr and Christmas, there are regional festivals that are celebrated with much fervour. Some of these are: the Pushkar Camel Fair in Pushkar, Rajasthan (late October to early November), the Uttarayan kite festival in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (second week of January), Arattupuzha Pooram in Kerala (late March to early April), Bihu in Assam (January, April, October), Gangaur in Rajasthan (March), and the Dusserah festival in Mysore (September/October). Other than these, each region has its own deity which is worshipped in a three-day or a five-day festival.
7. Fire walking
This unique tradition is seen particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu in the southern part of the country. A week before the Diwali festival, a festival known as Theemithi is held during which devotees walk over a stretch of burning coal with bare feet. It is believed that a person of strong faith will not suffer burns. This practice is followed even in other parts of the country, especially in villages.
8. Worship of the Feminine Power
A truly unique tradition in Hindu religion is the worship of the Divine Mother as the form of Shakti or power. Hinduism sees God in the masculine form and his power in the feminine form and hence more importance is given to the Shakti or the power. Shiva’s consort Parvathi or Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi are worshipped to attain the blessings of the supreme power. In some parts of the country, young girls are worshipped during the Dusserah festival. Even the rivers are given feminine names such as Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswathi, Kaveri and Narmada and are considered sacred. In fact, the Kamakhya temple in Assam celebrates the most natural biological process in a women- the menstrual cycle and the woman’s ability to bear a child.
9. Religious carnivals
Given the sheer number of religions and festivals in India, it is no surprise to see carnivals happening throughout the year as well. Everything from a small village carnival to a huge dance or a music festival that draws crowds from all over the world indicates that Indians love to enjoy themselves and that they appreciate arts, culture and traditions.
One of the biggest religious carnivals in the world is the Kumbh Mela that is held in either in Haridwar, or Allahabad or Nashik or in Ujjain on a rotational basis, on the banks of the holy river, Ganga. Bathing at any of the holy rivers: Ganga, Yamuna or Godavari is considered to absolve the person of all sins. The main Kumbh Mela is held four times every 12 years while a Maha Kumbh Mela is held once every 144 years, based on the Vikram Samvat calendar. It was estimated that over 120 million people attended the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2013 over a two-month period. This festival is believed to be around 2000 years old and is considered so important that UNESCO has included it in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Kerala hosts temple carnivals from February through April in most of its major temples. These are usually very grand affairs with large processions, extravagantly decorated elephants, energizing dance fireworks and boat races.
The Rath Yatra or the Chariot Festival in Puri, Odissa, is another extravagant carnival that is attended by lakhs of people every year. Held in July of every year, the three main deities of the Puri temple, Sri Jagannadha, Balabhadra and Subhadra, are taken from the main temple in elaborately decorated chariots to another temple where they are kept for nine days before being brought back again to the main temple.
The Hemis Gompa Festival in Hemis Monastery, Ladakh, is one of the oldest carnivals in the region. It marks the birth of the Buddhist Guru, Sri Padmasambhava, and is marked by traditional dances and music played with long horns and trumpets. It is held on 23rd or 24th of June every year.
The Brahmotsavams in Tirupati-Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh is another yearly carnival that lasts for nine days. During these nine days, the Lord Venkateshwara or Balaji is decked up in different avatars and taken around the city every evening.
10. Sanyas or Renunciation
In Hinduism, Sanyas is a form of renunciation from worldly affairs. It is believed to be the best way to attain moksha or salvation and spiritual enlightenment. It is the last stage in the four ashramas or stages of life recognised in Hinduism after brahmacharya (life of a celibate), grihastha (life of a householder), and finally vanaprastha (life of a hermit). A person may however take up Sanyas at any age or stage in life, depending on one’s spiritual aspirations. People who take Sanyas lead very austere and ascetic lives and usually retire into the Himalayas to meditate their lives away.
A similar renunciation practice is also seen among Buddhists (Nekkhamma) and Jains (samyagdharma). It involves leading a life of austerity, discipline and taking up certain vows such as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and non-attachment or non-possession.