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Exotic India: Landscape, Celebrations, Temples, and Art Forms
This article is part of the "India survival Kit", a collection of articles written by an American expat living in India.
To the average westerner, India is an exotic land of Maharajahs and elephants, multiple gods and eccentric yogis, saris and sequined skirts, strange long names and software engineers. In truth, India is all of this and more. The ancient land continues to retain its past grandeur and traditions even in the midst of modern civilization. A foreigner visiting India for the first time will be overwhelmed by the richness and diversity of her culture.
Landscape and regional diversity
In the north-east the state of Meghalaya is a land of rain, waterfalls, gorges, and caves. The state has hundreds of caves, many of which are yet to be discovered. Meghalaya is among the top 10 caving destinations in the world.
In the north-western part of India lies the Thar Desert in the state of Rajasthan. The Rajput warrior-kings who ruled here built fortified cities of predominantly yellow and pink sandstone. These forts and palaces are still intact today and some of them have been converted into hotels. Rajasthan is one of India’s popular tourist destinations, and is known for the colorful costumes of its natives, and for its folk music and dance.
Between Kashmir and Rajasthan lies Punjab, which is one of the most affluent states in the country. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy here, and the Punjabi men are known for their physical strength. The Sikhs – followers of Sikhism whose men grow their hair and wear colorful turbans – are native to Punjab.
In the east lies Bengal, home of several Hindu spiritual giants as well as literati including Rabindranath Tagore and several modern English writers. West Bengal, as the state is officially called, also houses part of the Sunderbans, the largest tidal mangrove forest in the world and home to the famous Bengal tiger.
The southern part of India is completely different from the north – in landscape, climate, food, people, language, and even art forms. The peninsular south, which has a predominantly tropical climate, has thick forests and rolling hills in the center, and lush plains and sandy beaches closer to the coasts.
On the southernmost end of the west coast, is Kerala, touted as ‘God’s own country’, with boats that serenely ply its innumerable waterways against a backdrop of coconut groves. Goa is situated immediately to the north of Kerala and is known for its beaches. This region was once occupied by the Portuguese and its Indo-European architecture is evident in its Spanish-type villas and Renaissance-style churches. A substantial portion of the population of Goa and Kerala is Christian. Goa is also home to the Vindaloo, a dish that is a staple in Indian restaurants abroad but is little known inside India, except of course in Goa.
Tamil Nadu lies on the southern part of the east coast. The state is known for its thousands of large temples with characteristic towers built through the ages by several dynasties of kings. Here, and in many other parts of India, you can find temples – big and small – in every street.
Diwali, the festival of lights, is the most popular Hindu festival, the equivalent of Christmas in the west. It occurs in October or November every year. Houses are lit up beautifully with lamps and bursts of fireworks are seen in every nook and corner of the country.
Dussehra, which is a ten-day festival that occurs about a month before Diwali, is celebrated differently in different parts of India. In parts of southern India, rows of dolls are displayed in houses and guests are invited every evening to sing and partake of the offerings to God. In Bengal and its largest city, Kolkata, the festival is a propitiation of the Divine Mother Goddess Durga, and has a carnival atmosphere with crowds vying to visit hundreds of idols of the goddess made especially for the occasion. In parts of northern India, the Ramayana, one of India’s two great epics, is enacted and effigies of demons are burnt to symbolize their destruction by Lord Rama, an incarnation of the Supreme Being.
Apart from the nationwide festivals, there are other celebrations that are regional or specific to a particular city like the Rath Yatra (Festival of Chariots) in Puri, Orissa; the Pooram festival in Trichur, Kerala; Pongal and Baisakhi (both harvest festivals) in Tamil Nadu and Punjab respectively; the Kumbha Mela which occurs four times in 12 years and is rotated between four north Indian cities. The last Kumbha Mela, held in 2007 at Prayag, Uttar Pradesh attracted over seventy million people, the single largest gathering of people in the world. Even festivals from other religions like Christmas, Easter, and Ramadan are celebrated with enthusiasm and fervor.
Temples and art forms
In ancient Indian civilization, it was in the temples that art forms like music and dance originated. The temple dancers of Tamil Nadu used to perform the Bharathanatyam as a religious ritual. This is one of the most popular forms of dance in India today. There are also other classical dance styles like Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh, Mohiniattam and Kathakali from Kerala, Odissi from Orissa, Manipuri from Manipur, and Kathak from North India, which has some Persian and Moghul influence. Some of these dances are performed to south Indian classical music called Carnatic music, one of the two major Indian classical music styles, the other being Hindustani. The songs that are set to Carnatic music are mostly devotional, many of them composed centuries ago. Hindustani songs include devotional, emotional, and poetic expression.
Apart from the forms of music and dance described above there are numerous regional folk and tribal varieties. European influence has also given rise to musical forms with a western slant.
Hope you enjoy your visit to India!
Editor: Nisha Giri
The India survival Kit is divided into four sections:
I) Cultural tips for newcomers to India
II) Doing business in India
III) An American's diary
IV) Street English in India: Indian English and the Indian way of communication
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