Fig 1 – Saffron powder – Gaya, India.

Saffron has been an integral part of Indian culture. Known as ‘Sindhoor’, in India it has been considered a symbol of auspiciousness so much so that every Indian women applies Sindhoor on her forehead. This rich red powder is obtained from the stamens of saffron flower.


In this section, we discuss Indian culture and its many facets and show how culture plays an integral part of our everyday life. Every human being evolves culturally in a society through the interaction and interfacing of lives with an overview of our accumulated cultural experience. Thus, our cultural heritage, which is the sum total of all the cultural experiences we have as we evolve in helps us to understand our present life with a better perspective. Indian art, thought and literature are endowed with the timeless values, which are unique outcome of Indian culture. As a result, naturally, the ideas and theories prevailing in our society have a strong and meaningful cultural background.


The main purpose of this section is to showcase how Indian culture developed through centuries and the way Indian culture achieved an important place in today’s world.

Indian culture has the character of being strong to the face so many upheavals and turmoil over thousands of years. Despite many invasions and changing political conditions that occurred through thousands of centuries, Indian culture has retained certain inherent values which are of great importance to the entire humanity. Indian customs, traditions and arts are unique and offer new meaning in every stage of cultural change.

With so many interesting and important aspects of the Indian culture, it is appropriate to examine the uniqueness and the nature of continuity till date by trying to dedicate a sub- section dealing with every aspect of Indian culture. After going through this section, you will be able to understand and appreciate how the Indian culture has evolved through centuries, its cultural integrity and the timeless and eternal values. This will also help you to relate the interdependence of several aspects of human life, which helps oneself to become a cultured person, the changes that occurred from time to time during historical period and the way Indian society sustained itself each time, often despite wars with kings within the country and the foreign invasion.

In short, this section helps you to have a brief overview of the compositeness of Indian culture, the vast variety and the diverse elements of society, in order to understand the culture, certain ideas and concepts about the Indian culture and their relevance to the growth of society. The users of this website may come across some concepts for the first time and may find these concepts abstract too. We have explained these concepts in an interesting way so that you are able to understand these concepts and also to appreciate them.

This major section on Culture has several category of themes, which includes, Indian cultural heritage, Indian architecture, Indian sculpture, Indian Iconography, Indian painting, Indian epigraphy and numismatics, Indian tradition of dance, Indian tradition of music, Indian symbolism and mechanism of understanding, Indian jewellery, Indigenous games of India, Crafts tradition of India and the Arts and Crafts of Indus Civilization.

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Many Facets of Indian Culture

When you visit a place for the first time, you will see the people of that place speaking in a different way, dressed in a different way, eat in a different way and follow certain ways and manners which may be different from that of yours.

But all of us are born in different cultures in terms of family, community and society. As a result of this, each of us develop different way in which we behave, think, dress, understand the world around us, the faiths and beliefs we follow and the language of the region we speak.. This will differ from region to region, society to society and country to country. Many of these practices get handed down from generation to generation on to us. All these have a deep impact on us and as we grow, we absorb these practices consciously and unconsciously and thus they affect our behaviour and the way we live. In short, if you intend to be a part of any culture and experience it and appreciate its nuances, you need to be part of the society and follow some of the ways of that culture.

In the same manner, if you would like experience and appreciate Indian culture, its timeless values and their meaning, you need to know and understand some of the ways of the Indian culture and society.

To understand the context better, let us explore the expressions of culture and cultural traditions of India. Culture, in general sense and Culture in specific sense as defined and explained by many learned people in different and distinct ways. In the general sense, Culture can be defined as a complex system of knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs and many other aspects of a society. However, when the term ‘Cultured’ is used in a the sense of ‘refined’ context, it expresses the sense of being well-mannered, intellectually very high, and charismatic where taste and refinement are an integral part.

In the Sanskrit language, culture is defined as sanskruti, derived from the word ‘Sanskar’, meaning, ritual performance leading to the process of refinement. Thus according to the Sanskrit language, being cultured would refer to be born as social being, but attained social well-being and becomes cultured, or ‘sanskritised’ by going or performing ‘sanskars’ in various stages of his life.

Culture is also understood and defined as a way of life. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India, described culture as “the outcome and basis of training, establishment and development of physical and mental potentials”. Sri Rajgopalacharya, the first Governor General of British India, defined culture “as the collective expression of the thoughts, speeches and deeds of the learned, talented or creative members of a society or a nation”. These statements clearly show the fact that culture is seen or felt through our thought process, literature, language, arts, religion, customs, traditions and the way we know the world around us by studying, interpreting and experiencing them.

Sri Aurobindo, (1872 – 1950), the great interpreter and creative exponent of Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, based his thoughts and interpretations on the Vedas and Upanishads, which are age old and authentic philosophical and spiritual texts of India, writes about ancient Indian culture and civilization as “More high-reaching, subtle, and profound than Greek, more noble and humane than Roman, Egyptian,more vast and original than any other Asiatic Civilization, more intellectual than the European, and in the end possesses the virtues and values of all these and more. He adds that “It is the most powerful, self-possessed, stimulating and wide in influence of all past human cultures”. Here, Indian culture and its values echo in the voice of Sri. Aurobindo. The strength and the power of his statements are drawn from the Vedic source of wisdom which is unparalleled and unique, which have evolved through the millennia.

The uniqueness of Indian culture is the unshakable strength of Vedic values taught, argued, interpreted and reinterpreted, which were incorporated into the life of commoners and intellects alike. Of this, many have mentioned the culture and spirituality of the Indian way of life “ high on all the summits of thought and religion, permeating art and literature and religious practice and social ideas and affecting even the ordinary man’s attitude to life” (Sri. Aurobindo). All these opinions give us a picture of Indian culture as age old, spiritual and powerful through which the views on Indian life is formed and interpreted.

Every Culture is Recognised through the Religious Expression

Every society calls for a system of beliefs and practices, which when followed create a system of living. This is a natural phenomenon which later evolved as religion. This might be different for each society. Religion however is perceived in the current times in a negative manner by the younger generation. However, if you understand that religious system has helped every society to bring about social control in a natural way, you can then appreciate the positive effects of the religion. Thus, religion through millennia has played an important role in shaping the life of an individual and society in a larger sense.


Fig 2 & 3 – Yajna – Fire Oblations, Performed at Shanti Dhama, Kanakapura

As long as the religion takes its position as guiding and inspiring the lives of people and inculcating in its followers the temperament of tolerance towards the practices of other groups, it enjoys a positive status. In India, this attitude of tolerance towards fellow beings and other groups has been followed since Vedic civilization.

The Vedic culture always was an indicator of the spirit of harmony and never encouraged disharmony of any kind. What’s more, the other virtues of Vedic religious systems and beliefs were eco-friendly, tolerant, and radiated a spirit of oneness amongst other religions. During the historical development of the Vedic period basics of ‘sanatana dharma’ meaning eternal religion such as Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism and many more religious streams evolved. If we understand the essence of all these religious streams, it becomes clear to us that they have a common source of Vedic wisdom and retained within them the Vedic spirit of life. Further, in course of time Islam and Christianity made an entry into our nation. But our original sense of religious tolerance and philosophical outlook has guided us to live in cooperation in a multi-religious society.

Even during the period of Mughal rule, India was open to Sufism, which integrated the principles of Vedanta and Islam. In India, ever since the Vedic times, religious fundamentalism was never a way in social well-being. Because of the fact that Indian society loved and respected religious freedom, a fundamentalist attitude was never practiced in India. All religions were followed, practised and respected by the people in the length and the breadth of the country.

The most spectacular forms of Indian cultural expression are closely associated with religion. This is because, religion in India helped transform the society and lay some foundations that helped evolve a very healthy culture and society. For example, some of the traditions in the Hindu religion are functional, practical and prescribed for upkeep of personal health and the surroundings clean. For example, taking bath every day and worshipping only after taking bath, cleaning the house every day, lighting the lamps in the evening without fail, not to wear used clothes etc., are other examples of inculcating in people a sense of keeping themselves and their environment clean and remaining spiritual. Later these practices were made to be strictly adhered to. This gave rise to a society that had certain healthy values and habits.

Our religious beliefs and habits also gave rise to magnificent structures namely temples. These are not only places of spiritual enhancement; they were and are like the centres of socio-cultural life of the society. All temple traditions have cultural relevance and practiced a variety of social activities. Moreover, temples also were useful to the society in so many ways. For example, temples generated employment opportunities for various sections of people like architects, chariot makers, stone and wood cutters, sculptors, painters, priests, teachers, accountants, epigraphers, dancers, musicians, garland makers, traders, cooks, guards, officers and many more people. Moreover, our religious beliefs also influence our daily lives. Marriage rituals, the food we eat, the clothes we wear are all governed by our religious norms and is influenced by the religion we belong to. For example, the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh women of Punjab wear salwarkhamese where as the women in south of India more commonly wear saree as in Tamilnadu. Thus, our cultural traditions such as food and dress sense are shaped by many different factors other than religion.

Indian religious tradition talks about ‘vasudaivakutumbakam’, meaning that ‘the entire universe is one family of God’. Through the ages the Vedic chants, Buddhist chants, Jaina chants, sufi songs (Islamic-Hindu combination), folk songs, and even our poetic compositions of saints from all over the country during Bhakti (devotional) movement have talked about this concept and all these reflected the unique essence of Indian religion. The women saints like Akka Mahadevi (Karnataka), Meera Bai, (Rajasthan), Andal (Tamilnadu), and Lai Ded (Kashmir) have richly contributed to the Indian literary and religious tradition of India.

Although the Indian society was divided into many caste groups, harmony has been maintained between the people of different religions through ages. And this is because of what our religions preach “the oneness of god principle”, which in turn influence our culture. Thus, religious tolerance was the basic principle of Indian culture. From such an atmosphere, spirituality and the science of Yoga have emerged as cultural traditions. Indian spirituality and Yoga are great contributions to world today. The folk traditions are known as living traditions which are immensely colourful, rich and close to nature.

Fine Arts, the mirror of cultural expression:

The fine arts are one of the important forms of cultural expression. Dance, music, painting, sculpture, drama, architecture have evolved through centuries and have special place in Indian society. There is a wide range of varieties in each of these because they have acquired changes during historical period. Each of these arts communicates a message and signifies the way the ideas and emotions expressed through the means of artistic language. For example the Buddha as shown in the fig 4 and Mahavira sculptures communicate the feelings and the state of peace and tranquillity.


Fig 4 – Buddha – Gaya, India: is a city of ancient historical and mythological significance. It is one of the major tourist attractions of Bihar.

The sculptures of dancing Shiva tells us how Gods enjoyed dancing and imparted philosophy through dance, the Panchatantra stories are the depictions on the walls of temples and also paintings from Rajput period tell us not only the taste and interests of the rulers of princely states but also the communicate valuable messages through the animal kingdom. If we take music we have classical traditions such as Hindusthani, Carnatic, popular traditions like Sufi, folk songs, bhajans, kirtanas, Bhakti sangeet, Rabindra sangeet, film music etc. India is very rich in the development of all such artistic traditions without which one cannot think of India and Indian culture.

Literary Tradition, a reflection of culture:

The Indian literature is a repository of rich unbroken tradition beginning with the Vedas, Upanishads, the Darshanas, the Agamas and Tantras, Puranas followed by the Kavyas. Even when it comes to Vedic literature, Sanskrit poetics of Kalidasa, and the poetics of other languages including Hindi and other regional literature show the finer expression of Indian imagination, understanding of life and philosophy. The classical language like Sanskrit and local language like Prakrit also have evolved in such an environment showing signs of rich Indian imagination, understanding of life and philosophy. Thus, Indian cultural life is clearly reflected in these various forms of literature.

Epics and their influence on Indian culture:

Indian cultural values are seen and felt through the narration reflected in its great epics namely Ramayana and Mahabharata. The story of these two epics is well-known to almost all Indians. Despite this, there is an undying thirst in them to watch or read in any form of expression. Even now the epics being enacted in classical arts, folk arts, drama or on television and people enjoy these narrations.

If you watch them you will realize that the cultural values seen in these epics are applicable to even current times. These epics are so interesting and impressive that even other countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, and Nepal have also imbibed the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata in their culture.

Greatness of Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is said to be the longest poem in the world with 100,000 stanzas and the Bhagavat Gita is literally meaning The Song of the Bhagavan, often referred to as simply the Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the Mahabharata. Lord Krishna’s, in the form of the charioteer imparted the Bhagavat Gita on the battlefield to Arjuna, the Pandava prince.

Considered as one of the texts of the Prastanatraya (Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and Bhagavad Gita), the Bhagavat Gita is considered to be the most sacred text of the Hindus. Authored by Vyasa Maharashi it is in a dialogue form known as Jnanopadesha and runs to eighteen chapters.

Krishna initiates Arjuna into the philosophy of Sankhya and Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and ultimately manifests his magnificent form occupying the whole universe, which is known as ‘Vishwaroopa’, the Universal form. To work selflessly and complete your task without emotion and total devotion to the divine and without expecting any reward are some of the key messages given by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita and hold relevance even in the contemporary culture of India.

KarmanyeVadhikaraste, Ma phaleshoukadachana,

Ma Karma PhalaHeturBhurmateySangostvaAkarmani

You have the right to work onlybut never to expect its fruit,

Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse: 47

Pilgrimage Culture

Pilgrimage to sacred places forms an important aspect and commitment of the spiritual discipline of the people of almost all religions in the world. Certain places are considered holy due to some mythological, puranic or religious belief attached to it. Thus, the devoted Buddhist goes to Bodh-Gaya as in Fig 6, the Christian to Jerusalem, the Hindu to Varanasi etc. These holy places deepen one’s sensitivity for spirituality and inspire them to understand God or the Truth.

Hindu Places of Pilgrimage. The Hindus have a large number of holy places from the Himalayas in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. Of all the places the Himalayan region has been considered most suitable for spiritual practices through the ages. Places like Badrinath, Kedarnath, Amarnath and the Kailas, Manas Sarovar, Muktinath, Haridwar in Fig 5


Fig 5 – Haridwar: is an ancient city and municipality in the Haridwar district of UttarakhandIndia. Haridwar is regarded as one of the seven holiest places to Hindus.


Fig 6 – Bodh-Gaya: is a religious site and place of pilgrimage associated with the Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Gaya district in the Indian state of Bihar. It is famous as it is the place where Gautama Buddha is said to have obtained Enlightenment (Bodhimandala) under what became known as the Bodhi Tree.

Vaishnavi Devi all on different altitudes of Himalayas are the kshetras,which every Hindu in his life time would like to visit and have divyadarshan. This entire region is considered as very sacred and known as Devabhumi, the region of Gods. Inspired by the Himalayas, the abode of Shiva, many people from time immemorial have been going to the caves and forest-retreats to solve the mystery of life. The River Ganga is another important symbol of Indian culture, along the banks of Ganga and her tributaries, and pilgrimage places are situated including the five Prayags, and Varanasi. Countless saints and sages have meditated and performed their penance on the shores of the rivers like Ganga, Yamuna, Sindhu, Brahmaputra, Narmada, Godavari Tunga Bhadra, and Kaveri. Therefore, they are considered holy in the eyes of the Hindus. There are innumerable places of pilgrimage on banks of these rivers and the Indian cultural heritage evolved and flourished in these river valleys.

In ancient India the ‘ashramas, the hermitages of great rishis were visited by people. They could seek the guidance of the learned sages who lived in it. With the passage of time, these also became pilgrimage places. Similarly, the places associated with Rama in the epics of Ramayana and Krishna in the epics of Mahabharata is also considered as holy and sacred places.

Great temples were built by the kings of many dynasties. Every place where a big sanctuary was built and worshipped was performed with meaningful and elaborate ceremonies were conducted which began to attract crowds of people. Even these became places of pilgrimage to later generations.

Even in the Vedic age, there was a conscious attempt to keep the people united through the bond of common culture. There are songs composed and sung throughout the country in the form of celebrating the great rivers and mountains which are considered holy. The songs are in praise of great Indian rivers: Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. The Mahabharata mentions seven mountains, which are held sacred viz. Raivatka, Vindhya, Sahya, Kumara, Malaya, Sri-parvata, and Pariyatra. Similarly, there are seven sacred places viz. Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya(Hardwar), Kasi (Banaras), Kanchi, Avantika (Ujjain) and Dvaravati (Dwaraka).These are believed to possess the power to grant salvation to anyone who visits them.

In addition, there are twelve ‘jyotirlingas’(the illuminated Linga forms of Shiva) and fifty-one Sakti-pithas ( the worshipping centres of female energy or the goddesses) located in different parts of the country. A great service of uniting the Hindus in a common religious and cultural consciousness was championed by Sri Sankaracharya in 8th century. He established four sacred mutts, the monasteries at Sringeri in the south, Badarinarayan in the north, Dwaraka in the west and Puri in the east. Similarly, the four lakes namely Bindu, Pampa, Narayana and Manasa are also considered sacred.

From time to time, a great interest in pilgrimages was awakened by the life of great saints and prophets. Thus, great saints like Adi Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Chaitanya, Basava and other

spiritual leaders influenced people towards a religious and spiritual attitude of life.

This entire discussion has focussed on the importance of Indian culture by throwing light on culture as the integral or the inner essence of our country. The unique culture is an important expression of our society, which shows us how we remain united despite our diversities. The basic characteristics of our culture are unique and timeless and involve aspects such as respecting the elders, respecting other religious beliefs, living in co-existence, not harming the natural elements and such others. Indian culture teaches us how to be tolerant with the differences in a society and live in harmony.

The spiritual path of Yoga is a universal phenomenon given by the Indian sage Patanjali about 2,500 years ago. Today, Yoga is a system and practice having health and spiritual contents and is in vogue throughout the world. It is also one of the major contributions to the present world too, which has in turn emerged from Indian Culture. The Indian culture has extended beyond the present boundaries of India. Indian Culture expanded in the countries like Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka thus considered as Greater India.

Further Reading:

Ed. S.N. Sridhar & Nirmal K. Mattoo, ANANYA a Portrait of India, published by The Association of Indian Americans, 1997

Swami Harshananda, A concise Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, Volume I, Volume. II, Volume III, Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore, 2008

Cultural Heritage of India – 6 volumes published by Ramakrishna mission

Sri.Aurobindo, Foundations of Indian Culture

Mathew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture

Yogendra Singh Culture Change in India – Identity and Globalisation

Pramod K. Nayar An Introduction to Cultural Studies

Ed..S. Saraswathi, Culture, Socialization and human Development