Indian Culture | Hooray for Bollywood! And Vindaloo Too!

Indian Culture and the Birth of the World

Ok, nothing in Indian culture beats a Bollywood Punjabi dance in our eyes. Seriously, if you're having a down day and need a pick-me-up, try popping in almost any Indian film and you will have achieved nirvana. Here's a sample to get you started: Hip Hop vs Bhangra.

Well. . . it works for us anyway. But we're really smitten by the concept of "True Love" combined with song and upbeat dance numbers and face offs between the old school and the new.

If you're unsure whether you'd like Bollywood films or not, ask your self these important questions.:

» Are you a Gleek?

» Are you attracted to physically fit, dark-haired, sloe-eyed people?

» Do you laugh, cry and feel euphoric after a Pixar movie?

Bollywood films are nothing like the show Glee, or like Pixar movies, though they do have some underlying elements of each. Like a belief in fundamental goodness despite the evil in the world, and a compulsive need to just break into song or dance on occasion. That's where the physical fitness comes in, as some of those Bollywood actors can really dance!

Anyway, if you answered yes to any of the above questions, you might want to give Bollywood a shot. We suggest you start off with one of the "crossover" films, like "Bride and Prejudice."

If you answered yes to all of the above questions you're ready for big time Bollywood! Try watching almost any movie starring Shah Rukh Khan or Kareena Kapoor.

But alas, Bollywood is not the sum total of all Indian culture or even the recent history of India. SO. On to the real culture stuff. . . like the food!

The Culture of India | Much More Than Tandoori

Indian food is literally a melting pot reflecting the history of India. Religious beliefs promoted vegetarianism and made eating beef a taboo, though dairy products are very common in the diet. The Mongols and the Brits added their own gastronomical influences. The cuisine also has variations across the many regions of India.

There are entirely too many styles of Indian cooking to list here, but there are some basic things you should know:

» When you order chicken, do not expect a plate with a thigh, breast, leg or wing. Indian cooks generally cut chicken into chunks, not according to parts Westerners are accustomed to.

» Cows are sacred. You won't find beef except in the more remote areas of India, though you will find many forms of dairy: yogurt, cheese that looks like cubed tofu, and butter. » If you go to a McDonald's, the burgers are generally made from pork.

» Many Westerners experience at least a mild case of "Delhi Belly" while visiting. Make sure you pack the appropriate medicines just in case!

There are so many spices used in Indian cuisine, but some of the more common ones are ginger, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon and lots of chili powder.

You'll also find extensive use of coconut milk and vegetable oil . Though rice is a staple, so are lentils, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, spinach and flat breads. Uses for all of these ingredients vary from region to region.

The History of India: A Brief Overview

History of India

It begins in what is now Pakistan. The earliest known civilization in the history of India flourished in the Indus Valley around 5,000 years ago. The people of the region called the Indus River "Sindhu", thus the religion these people followed was Hinduism. Most historians believe Hinduism is the world's oldest religion.

India has spawned many religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. But immigrants have also brought Islam, Judaism and Christianity to the country. About 80 percent of the Indian people are Hindus.

Social status in Indian culture is regulated by a caste system, which is technically illegal. The system existed for thousands of years though, and still dominates society. According to legend, Hindu social levels called varnas originate from body parts of a supreme being.

» The Brahmans at the top of the system have emerged from the beings mouth. They are allowed to become priests and teachers.

» Kshatriyas arose from the arms of the being, and this caste forms rulers and soldiers.

» Vaisyas are merchants and traders who come from the thighs of the being.

» Sudras are of the feet, and they are destined to be laborers.

Within these social striations or varnas, there are hundreds of castes and subcastes too. Additionally, there is another group, the lowest rung on the social ladder, known as The Untouchables, or "Dalits".

The Untouchables form a special group destined to deal with the dead or take other jobs that are considered unclean according to Hindu law. Dalits can't drink from the same wells, tend to be illiterate because they lack education opportunities, and become victims of violent crimes. You can read more about the Dalits here: National Geographic News

Indian Culture and History

Earliest Indian history originates in the Indus Valley. In this region, the Vedic period of Indian culture arose from the texts of Vedas, which were written in a form of Sanskrit about 1500 BCE. This group spoke an Indo Aryan language, which was part Indo-Persian and part Indo-European.

Coincidentally, these Indo-Aryan peoples revered a swastika-like symbol as an icon of good luck.

In the sixth century BCE, the Persians took Pakistan. Later that century, Siddartha Gautama was born. According to legend, he was the warrior son of royalty. Witness to severe human suffering, Siddartha Gautama entered a forest and a life of severe renunciation, only to realize he was adding more suffering to the world. Replenishing his body (he nearly starved to death) the young man sat under a tree to meditate and eventually attained Nirvana, or Enlightenment. Siddartha Gautama became the first Buddha.

Indian History and Culture

Also in the sixth century, yet another religion was founded by Mahavira Jains, who introduced Jainism to Indian culture. Like Buddhism, Jain followers seek to achieve enlightenment. They also practice a life of non-violence to all things from the microscopic to the alien. Jainism still exists.

Alexander the Great took some areas of India in the late fourth century BCE. Persian and Greek culture played their roles to influence Indian culture. Indians copied the Persian system of government in particular, to organize their political system.

The next change in Indian culture and society came with the Golden Age of India, which ranged form about 200 BCE to about 500 CE. Trading routes to Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Bali, Sri Lanka and others stretched across Asia, and India developed a strong maritime force.

Emperor Augustus of Rome established trade with India around 1 CE and the Gupta Empire of India spawned remarkable improvements in science, technology, literature and more.

Muslim armies invaded India, adding their own twists to the culture of India. This occurred around 700 CE. Christianity didn't arrive until the 1500s with European visitors, but so did the Turkish-Mongol-Persian Mughals intent on setting up their dynasties. Sikhism was also founded at this time. The Sikhs believe in truth and justice all wraped up in one god, and the religion still thrives in the Punjab.

Taj Mahal

In 1600, European traders from several companies formed The East India Company and set up shops in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, and in 1628, Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal.

The British companies involved in The East India Company enjoyed much favor in India. They were allowed to bring exotic products from Europe and in return, didn't need to pay the Mughals much, if anything, in taxes. Their trading territories expanded considerably over the next 200 years, and the British traders began monopolizing most Indian trade with Europe, as well as opium imports to China.

It was all very profitable for the Brits for quite a while, though things went sour in the 19th century. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, or the First Indian War of Independence. Several factors came into play to spark the rebellion.

» Caste, is one of those elements. The East India Company employed Indian armies with three main divisions. One division recruited soldiers of the higher caste ranks, while the others were not caste-conscious. This created religious divisions in the ranks, because the higher caste soldiers required separated privileges and other considerations.

» Tallow, which was used to grease paper cartridges. To release the gun powder, a soldier had to bite off the end of the cartridge. The tallow was either made from beef or pork, taboo to either the Hindus or the Muslims.

» Money, and doesn't it always come down to that? The Indian civilians were disgruntled for a variety of reasons, whether they felt the British charged too much for land use, or interfered with the traditional system of noble Indian land ownership.

Darjeeling Toy Train

Now. . . there was a lot more to this rebellion than the three points above, but it would take weeks to tell it all. So let's just say that in the end, the Brits came off very badly. Reports of straight out murder were widespread and caused very negative reactions in both India and England.

But even though the violence marked the beginning of the end for the British traders, their legacy lives on in modern Indian culture. For one thing, English is one of two official languages of India. The other is Hindi, of course, and a number of regional dialects also still exist. Britain also helped India make some strides building and modernizing the country's infrastructure. So overall, the temporary colonization of India by Britain had both positive and negative consequences.

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