The Indians love celebrations and a year in India is carried in the spirit of many celebrations and markets. Nearly every day there seems to be some social event that often stretches late into the night, where fasting and light feasting go hand in hand. Not only during celebrations but also in daily life, the Indians wear traditional universal garments based on one long strip of cloth wrapped around the body or around their heads as a turban.
Despite the increasing influence of western fashion trends, most Indians still wear traditional outfits. The colorful sari, decorated with glittery stones enhances the charm and beauty of Indian women and does not restrict motion. With men, a turban is more than a fashion accessory. Its shape and color make a statement about social status, religion and membership in a caste and regional origin.
The Indian, largely vegetarian cuisine, features a general and rich use of spices. Hindus never eat beef and members of the upper castes are usually vegetarians. The main foods are rice, grains, legumes, milk products (yogurts, ghee butter), vegetables and spices.
The most common process for meals in Indian cuisine is slow cooking or steaming on low heat. Also popular are pan-frying, grilling or baking in a clay oven, called tandoor. Meat, vegetables and other ingredients are usually prepared by chopping to cubes or slices, less often whole. A very diverse mix of foods reflects various origins of the population and climate, but also social backgrounds, the castes. The only common base for the whole of India is tea and rice. Dhal is also very popular (a type of legumes soup), chutney (pickled fruits or vegetables), chapattis (flour flat bread), thalis (various vegetable meals) and in terms of deserts, kheer (rice with milk) and kulfi (a pistachio ice cream).
Indians traditionally eat with their right hand, often with the aid of a piece of flat bread, which they use instead of a spoon. The table should not lack various sauces, chutneys, yogurts, pickled vegetables and spices in which you dip individual morsels. Indians serve several meals at the table simultaneously and diners add a bit of each on their plates. Soups and main courses are served at the same time. Sweets, fruit, tea or coffee are offered after the main meal.
It’s clear that this mixture, common among restaurants, may be difficult to digest for Europeans and it’s better to either try something from the wider selection of simple street food or dine in renowned hotels or restaurants.
An example of the gastronomic experience is certainly the Jaipur Maharaja Feast, or Maharaja Menu, that truly honors the fine cuisine of the city of Jaipur in the Rambach Palace hotel in Jaipur. The culinary art of great local chefs offers refined palettes of flavors, fragrances, colors and spices in a unique royal cuisine. But it’s difficult to absorb such a storm of diverse flavors at one sitting, when many meals are served at the same time and the transitions from powerfully spiced meals to milder flavors require a great deal of focus.
As an appetizer, we try Sikandari Raan (lamb leg, baked in tandoor on caraway-seed with rum), Kadak Seekh Kebab (spiced grilled chicken), Mahi Tikka Tandoori (freshwater fish), Bhutteyan da Kebab and Tamatar Dhania Shorba. After such an already demanding beginning, main courses are served on a large copper tray with several smaller dishes, among which were Masalendar Champ (lamb with onions and spices), Dal Survarna Mahal (lentils, tomatoes, garlic stewed in a tandoor overnight with a special cream and butter). After desserts, followed a selection of at least ten different teas. The Maharajas used to drink a local liqueur with all their meals that, unfortunately, wasn’t available at the time of our feast.
Despite the fact that many religions are followed in India, over 80% today are steering toward Hinduism. The Muslim Persians used to use the word Hindu to identify all non-Muslim people living beyond the river Indus. In principle, the word was used in a similar manner as Christian Europe used the word pagan for all non-Christians. Hinduism cannot be understood as a religion in the European sense (unlike Judaism, Christianity or Islam). Rather it is the ‚dharma’, a way of being. This is the expression for the traditional Indian philosophical and religious concept, based on historic spiritual practices that are part of their lifestyle. We best get to know the extensive pantheon of Hindu Gods in the sculptural decoration of temple architecture that represents a visual explanation of Hindu mythology with countless deities, headed by Brahma, the Creator, who is a part of the Holy Trinity (Trímurti) that also includes Vishnu, the keeper and protector of the Universe and Shiva, the God of destruction. The peace and coexistence of such a large and diverse nation such as India can be drawn from two significant epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that are full of wisdom regarding human behavior, emotions and moral dilemmas. After centuries, these epics influence Indian culture and philosophy and direct the lives of millions of Indians.
The sixth century before Christ witnessed the birth of Buddhism, one of the most important religions founded by a king’s son, Gautama Siddharta, called Buddha. At the age of 30, he gave up his life at the royal court, left the palace, his family and devoted himself to penance and fasting alongside the ascetics, with the goal to resolve the purpose of human existence through meditation and to define the rules of a proper life. However, six years spent in poverty and seclusion didn’t produce the desired enlightenment. Buddha returned to people, but continued with his meditations that brought him the ‘understanding of truth.’ Afterward, he devoted himself to preaching and passing on his principles, a teaching open to everyone, including women, without castes and sacrifice. Even today, Buddha’s teachings of our connection with Universal energy are up to date and correspond with the current findings of quantum physics. His principles of proper living, respect to other people’s beliefs, rightful actions, efforts and charity are deeply rooted in today’s principles of morality.
Vardhamana Mahavira was the spiritual father of Jainism, another religion born at the same time. This religion, along with Buddhism, also gained many followers, because it didn’t recognize the caste system or sacrifice and was open to everyone, including women. Mahavira believed in the ascetic lifestyle, in truth without acquisitive intent. Also for his religion, God was not important. Both religions put emphasis on the laws of the Universe and preached the ahinsa, non-violence to all sentient beings. Today’s belief in reincarnation (the path of the soul from one life to another) comes from Jainism.
The third religion is Sikhism, included in Hinduism and based in the Indian Constitution. The founder of this faith is Guru Nanak. This belief represents the basics of Sikh thinking and separates them into three requirements: mindfulness of God, honest hard work and charity. Every Sikh’s goal in life is to achieve unity with God through the unity of everything. At the same time, all Sikhs must attempt to free themselves from the shackles of ‘five thieves,’ which are lust, rage, greed, attachment and ego. Sikhism has several visible features through which it differs from other world religions. Guru Granth Sahibis not only a holy book, but rather a collection of teachings of the gurus and is considered to be the last, material guru. The holy book is in verse of a specific rhythm. The individual hymns are read aloud, so that believers may not only mentally look into the content of the words and thoughts hidden in them, but also concurrently tune into the sound frequency and, during a meditation, step out of the illusion of the material world.
The Sikh clothing, Ban, is a uniform of sorts. It’s the reference to the last Guru and enables a quick identification of Sikhs in a crowd. Despite the Sikhs intent to serve mankind, their easy identification prevents them from avoiding responsibilities, such as to protect the weaker or treat everyone with respect. All people, regardless of their faith, nationality, race, sex or caste are welcome in the Gurdwaras. In certain situations, it is necessary for the Sikhs to accept the role of a soldier to protect themselves and all who cannot protect themselves. They differ from other Indian population with their exceptional care and precision.
Indira Gandhi, former Indian Prime Minister, once wrote “My country is simply different and that’s precisely its secret – one learns to accept life in all its diversity here.”
Authors: Iva a Joseph DREBITKO
Photographs: Iva Drebitko, archive