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India is a land of esoteric customs and exotic cultures that often bewilder and even shock those from outside the country. Each and every custom and tradition in India is associated with centuries of history and defined by a philosophical worldview that is unique to the country. Indeed, customs can vary vastly and even contradict when crossing between one state and the next, making the country a cornucopia of the exotic and idiosyncratic. Here are some of the most unique and distinctive cultures, customs, and traditions of India that only the locals can understand.
This unique custom that is common across northern parts of India is observed in the month of October solely by married women. During the day of the Karva Chauth, married Hindu women fast from daybreak until sunset without touching so much as a drop of water. According to tradition, the fast is said to guarantee the safety and longevity of their spouses and protect them from evil. One of the unique aspects of this festival is the traditional ritual with which the women break their fast. According to the custom, the women cannot see their spouses until the fast is broken and only do so after looking at the moon with a sieve and then looking at their husband’s face with the same sieve.
Performed a week before Deepavali (Diwali) in the Tamil month of Aipasi, the Theemithi is one of the most difficult rituals in Tamil culture. To attest their devotion and faith in God, dozens of devotees literally ‘walk’ through a stretch of burning coal with bare feet. It is said that if the person’s faith is strong they will not suffer burns. While originally a custom indigenous to Tamil Nadu, it has spread to several countries with pre-colonial and colonial Tamil diaspora such as Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Reunion, and even Singapore. While only adults are allowed to take part, it is common practice for adults to carry their children on their shoulders while crossing the burning coal stretch.
While the popular and more controversial ritual associated with this festival is the Jallikattu or bull taming, it isn’t the only one. Maatu Pongal is celebrated on the third day of Pongal, the Tamil festival of harvest and the sun and involves praying to the cow (Maadu/Maatu) as a deity. On this day, Tamil families serve the cow food first before eating and bring stray cows into their homes to bless their abode.
This tradition, which is popular in certain parts of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is observed during the festival of Holi and involves the married women of the Hindu community literally beating their husbands with a long and thick stick! The name of the tradition derives from the Hindi words lath meaning stick, and mar meaning to beat. Celebrated primarily in the towns of Nandgoan and Barsana, the story behind this ritual is that on the day of Holi, a playful Lord Krishna tried visiting Radha in the village of Barsana but was chased away with staves by gopis or the womenfolk of the town.
As far as followers of western customs and traditions are concerned, the Ghunghat is one of the most bewildering customs in India. While Ghunghat simply relates to a face veil that is worn by Hindu women, it is different from the Islamic tradition of the burqa. It is associated with the tradition of arranged marriage in Hindu communities, where the bride is supposed to keep her face covered from the husband at all times before the wedding, so much so that in some conservative societies, the husband doesn’t even know what his spouse looks like before the first night of their wedded life! This is because the entire wedding, right from making the match is taken care of by the families of the bride and groom. While the practice has become lenient in recent years, it still continues in some traditional families.
Associated with the purest form of asceticism, the naga sanyasis of North India are a community of saints and sadhus who forsake the material world for a life amongst nature and devotion to God. A naga sanyasi doesn’t just have no familial ties, but they do not even show themselves to the outside world on any occasion other than the Kumbh Mela festival, where they arrive in hordes. The most striking aspect of the naga sanyasis is their lack of clothing, with most of them marching naked on the streets during the Kumbh melas.
Another group of ascetics known for their disdain for clothing are the Digambar Jains. The philosophy of Digambar Jainism, a religion separate from Hinduism but also originating from India, is the total renunciation of the material world and everything associated with it. The word Digambar means ‘those clad in the sky’ and they consider the sky itself to be their clothing and thereby forsake normal clothing. They form the more orthodox segment of Jains, with the other being the Swethambar Jains, who are always clad in white (Derived from the word Sweth, meaning white in Sanskrit).
The Saraswati Puja festival of Navaratri is a day celebrated in South India in honour of the goddess of knowledge and the arts, Saraswati. However, what is unique about this day is that even though it celebrates knowledge, people, especially children and students are not allowed to open any book or read even a single word! While this tradition is followed only in certain parts of South India, the idea behind this is that on the occasion of Saraswati Puja, all books and knowledge is supposed to be offered to the goddess and prayed to.
Snakes are feared all across the world for their poisonous nature and the lethal danger they pose to humans. However, India is one of the few places in the world where snakes are not only just prayed to, but even have their own festival. And while all snakes are considered deities in the country, it is especially the king cobra, considered to be one of the deadliest snakes, that is the most revered. The festival which celebrates snakes as deities is known as the Nag Panchami, and on this day, cobras are fed milk and sometimes even rats! Celebrated on the fifth day of the Shravan month (between August and September), it is said that when prayed to, the snakes do not bite humans on this day.