India is an amalgamation of many different communities, with multiple religions, ethnicities, views, opinions, customs, languages and cultures and traditions. While the country is known for some of the most brilliant scientific minds in the world as well as advanced technology, it’s also home to people whose lives are all about Indian culture and traditions. There are many Indian traditions that are still strictly followed by people across the country, even if surrounded by opposition and controversy. Even in an increasingly modern world, Indian society still places a lot of importance on Indian culture. There are also many customs in India that are a major attraction for tourists curious about experiences beyond their own immediate world.
India’s culture and traditions are seen in various aspects of life. Some are seen in festivals and arts, through song and dance. Others can be a ritualistic part of many a family. Some are the result of religious influence or history. Even a system like arranged marriage is in a way a tradition. Due to its immense population, India has many things that influence its culture. Let’s take a look at some of the most unusual ones and how they came about.
12 Unique Indian Traditions And Customs
1. Pacifying The Rain Gods, Frog Weddings
All over the world, various ethnicities perform different rituals to appease the rain gods. Few, however, are quite as unique as the ones performed in India. Here, frogs are married in a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony, with the hope it will appease the rain gods and initiate the onset of rains. The ritual is performed when the monsoon season (usually between June and September) is delayed, leading to a fear of drought in the largely agricultural nation. Before the ritual, a male frog is named Varun (the god of water), and the female frog is named Varsha (named after the monsoon or rainy season). The practice is so ingrained in the Indian culture and tradition that it is found across the country in multiple states like Assam, Maharashtra, and parts of Karnataka. In some parts of the country, the marriage of other animals like dogs and donkeys in a bid to please the rain gods is also common.
2. A Re-enactment Of Draupadi’s Walk Across Fire, Thimithi, Tamil Nadu
Thimithi or fire-walking is one of the less bizarre, yet unique Indian traditions and is celebrated every year in October and November in honour of Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers in the epic Mahabharata. This festival originated in Tamil Nadu and has also spread to other countries that have a large South Indian population. While, in some parts of the world, a walk across a bed of fire is sometimes done as a show of overcoming one’s fear or to show off extraordinary strength, in Tamil Nadu and countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, parts of South Africa and other countries, Thimithi is a re-enactment of Draupadi’s walk across a bed of fire to prove her innocence after the Kurukshetra battle. This ritual is observed in the villages where Draupadi is considered a village deity, to seek her blessings. Male devotees walk across a stretch of burning coal while balancing a pot of milk or water on their heads. It is believed that those who perform this act will be granted a wish or blessing by the goddess.
3. The Kill Or Be Killed Festival, Bani Festival, Andhra Pradesh
Held by the Devargutta temple in Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool during Dusshera, the Bani festival is celebrated by Hindu devotees, and is considered among the truly bizarre Indian traditions. Every year, hundreds of devotees from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka gather with lathis (sticks) at the temple and hit each other over the head. The festival, which takes place at midnight, is held to commemorate Mala-Malleshwara’s (Shiva) killing of a demon. The ritual, where men hit each other on the head, takes place at midnight when the idols of the deities of Malamma (Parvati) and Malleshwara Swamy (a reincarnation of Lord Shiva) are brought out of the temple in a procession.
The men, most of whom are farmers, continue the ritual till dawn even if they are covered in blood. Medics are present to aid those who are injured. Police personnel are also deployed at the scene, however, they are limited to being audience members as sentiments regarding the rituals run high. This festival has reportedly been celebrated at the temple for over 100 years and was once apparently conducted using axes and spears instead of lathis. Over the last few years, many have been injured during the festival; however, no deaths have been reported.
4. Drop Your Baby For Good Luck, Baby Tossing, Maharashtra And Karnataka
Among the most bizarre Indian traditions, it involves the tossing of babies from rooftops, an annual ritual that has been practiced by both Hindus and Muslims in India for over 700 years. Practiced in Baba Umer Dargah near Sholapur, Maharashtra and at the Sri Santeswar temple near Indi, Karnataka, it’s a ritual where babies are shaken and dropped by an experienced devotee of the shrine from a height of around 30 to 50 feet and caught in a sheet stretched and held tight by a group of men standing right below. The infants are then immediately returned to the parents. This practice, carried out throughout the year, is believed to bring the child and its family prosperity, good luck and health.
The ritual reportedly dates back to the time when infant mortality was high and medical knowledge was scarce. Parents’ of dying children were advised by a saint to build a shrine and toss the sick child from the roof as a display of their trust in God. The legend goes on to say that when the babies were dropped, a hammock-like sheet miraculously appeared mid-air and caught the infants. Since then, parents have promised to toss their new-borns as an offering to God in their prayers for a healthy child. Surprisingly, no injuries have been reported so far. It takes quite a leap of faith to be a part of this ritual. Most such traditions are borne from a deep-rooted faith in higher powers. However, a video of the ritual that went viral in 2009, prompted the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to launch an investigation into the practice and order for it to be stopped.
5. Racing With The Buffaloes, Kambala, Karnataka
Practiced in Dakshina Kannada (South Kanara), Uttara Kannada, and the Udupi district of Karnataka and Kasargod in Kerala, Kambala is an annual festival that involves a buffalo race, which is a popular sport among the state’s farming community. The Kambala, which is held from November to March, is traditionally carried out in paddy fields filled with slush and mud. A jockey controls a pair of buffaloes as they race across the field against another set of buffaloes and accompanying jockey. The sport has been controversial for the past few years as animal activists have claimed that it is in violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The sport was banned by the Supreme Court of India in 2014. However, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Karnataka Amendment) Ordinance, 2017 approved an organisation of the event only if steps are taken to avoid cruelty to the animals.
Traditionally, the Kambala was non-competitive and was seen as a way to offer thanksgiving to the gods for protecting the animals from disease. One of the most unique traditions of India, the Kambala drew the world’s attention in February 2020 when a Kambala jockey Srinivas Gowda won a 145-metre race in 13.62 seconds. They covered the distance of 100 meters in 9.55 seconds beating Usain Bolt’s record of 9.58 seconds.
6. Taming The Raging Bull At The Cost Of Your Life, Jallikattu, Tamil Nadu
While many would choose to run away from a raging bull, Jallikattu, one of the most bizarre traditions in India, calls for its participants to not only face, but also tame, a raging bull. This dangerous sport is followed in Tamil Nadu as part of Pongal (a South Indian harvest festival) celebrations. Hundreds of men chase a bull through a narrow passageway and try and grab the prize that is fixed to its horns by clinging onto the animal. This sport is one of the oldest of India’s traditions as it has been traced back to between 2,500 and 1,800 BCE. The bulls used in this sport are raised wild, and special care is taken to feed and exercise them to make them strong and sturdy for the fight. The men are not allowed to carry any weapons. Meanwhile, the bull’s horns are sharpened.
While neither the bull nor the participants are intended to be killed in this sport, 43 men and four bulls have lost their lives between 2008 and 2014. Jallikattu (which loosely means ‘coins tied to the bulls’ horns’) was banned by the Supreme Court of India in 2014, along with the Kambala, on the grounds of cruelty towards animals. However, in 2017, massive protests were held demanding that the Government of India and the Tamil Nadu Government make it legal. The protests were successful and the dangerous sport is back, and legal.
7. Cow Trampling Ritual, Gowardhan Puja, Madhya Pradesh
After racing with buffaloes and facing down raging bulls, here is another one of the more bizarre customs of India. This one requires you to be trampled by cows! Among the stranger Indian traditions, the Gowardhan Puja, as performed by some villagers in Madhya Pradesh, calls for people to lay face-down on the ground while a group of cows run over them at full speed. The livestock are painted in bright colours and decorated with bells and garlands. This ritual is said to bring the participants good luck and prosperity and is said to have been in practice since the era of the royals. The Gowardhan Puja, on the day after Diwali, is said to have begun when a man prayed for a son and his wish was granted. The villagers started observing this as an annual custom ever since the incident. While the locals deny that anyone is severely injured in the ritual, minor injuries are treated with cow urine and dung.
8. A Stubborn Mark Of Casteism, Madey Snana, Karnataka
This centuries-old tradition was banned in 2010, only for the ban to be lifted a year later after protests from the Malekudiya tribe. Devotees belonging to “lower castes” of Hindus roll on the floor over food left over by the upper caste (Brahmins) on banana leaves (commonly used as plates). The Madey Snana or Spit Bath is observed annually during the festival of Champa Shasti or Subramanya Shasti at the Kukke Subramanya Temple in the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. The ritual, which is also practiced at the Sri Krishna temple in Udupi, is believed to rid the lower caste of various ailments. Progressive thinkers and leaders have been working to ban the controversial practice.
9. Hanging By Hooks, Garudan Thookam, Kerala
Performed in Kerala’s Kali temples, this is a shocking custom where dancers dress up like Garuda, the Hindu deity Vishnu’s eagle vehicle, and hang themselves like eagles from a shaft with the use of hooks pierced into the flesh of their backs and thighs. The dancers, who seem to be in a trance, are hung after they complete a dance performance and are taken around the city in a colourful procession.
According to the myth, Garuda was sent by Lord Vishnu to quench the goddess Kali’s thirst after she killed the demon king Darika in a battle. This bizarre and painful ritual, also known as the Garudan Parava, is conducted as an offering to the goddess and is popular in the Bhadrakali temples located in Kottayam, Alappuzha, Ernakulam, and Idukki, and is observed on Makara Bharani Day and Kumbha Bharani Day.
10. Celebration Of The Menstrual Cycle, Ambubachi Mela, Assam
One of the most unique customs of India, the Ambubachi Mela is an annual Tantric festival organised at Guwahati’s Kamakhya Temple in June. For three days, the temple’s doors remain closed to pilgrims, only to open on the fourth day. The three days are considered to be the time when the goddess Sati menstruates. According to legend, Sati, who died after jumping into the fire after her father insulted the Hindu deity Shiva, was cut into pieces by Vishnu in an attempt to stop an angry Shiva from completing the tandav nritya (dance of destruction), which would have resulted in the destruction of the universe. Located atop the Ninanchal Hill, the Kamakhya Temple is where Sati’s womb and genitals fell to the earth after being chopped to pieces.
Every June, it is believed that Sati goes through her menstrual cycle. On the three days when the temple’s doors are closed, the temple is believed to turn red, and the time is considered auspicious, where women celebrate and pray for fertility. When the doors are opened on the fourth day, the devotees receive a piece of cloth that is soaked in what is claimed to be Sati’s menstrual fluid. Tantrics and sadhus, who don’t usually make public appearances, also visit the temple during this festival.
11. Playing With The Spirits, Bhoota Kola, Karnataka
This custom is followed by the Tuluvas (native Tulu speakers) who reside in the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka and some parts of Kerala. The word Bhoota refers to spirits and Kola means play in Tulu. This is a ritual of worship for spirits that protect the villages from calamities, making them prosperous. It’s performed from December to January.
The ritual is a wonderful combination of storytelling, colours, costumes, dance, and music, and has its origins in nature worship. It is truly one of the most unique Indian traditions as the scenes that occur during the ritual are like nothing you would have seen before. It is both scary and fascinating. During this ritual, paddanas (ballads) that speak of the virtues and deeds of the spirits are narrated, to invite the spirits to possess a person who will act as a temporary vessel. The possessed dance to the hypnotic and rhythmic drum beats throughout the night. After the ritual, the possessing spirit grants the devotees blessings and confidence to face any problems, and in some cases also helps to resolve interpersonal or village disputes through arbitration. While Bhoota Kola is restricted families where all the members gather to organise the ritual, other people are also invited to witness the event and seek the blessings of the spirits.
12. Fashion Show For Camels, Pushkar Camel Fair, Rajasthan
The Pushkar Camel Fair is one of the truly unique customs in India where, for five days, camels are shaved, dressed up, paraded, entered into beauty contests and races, and finally traded. Several musicians, dancers, acrobats, magicians, and snake charmers also participate in the fair to entertain the crowds. This fair is held every year in November during the Kartik Purnima full moon, in the town of Pushkar, and brings together thousands of camels, cattle, and horses. This is one of the many traditions in India that is fun to watch.
This mela (fair) is a unique showcase of livestock, farmers, traders and villagers who come from all over Rajasthan. It also attracts scores of tourists every year and features competitions such as Matka Race, prizes for the longest moustache, and bride and groom competitions.
- Matka Race: Here, women have to carry matkas (earthen pots) filled with water and run for a short distance while trying to spill as less water as possible.
- Longest Moustache: This is one of the most popular activities at the mela where the men showcase their moustache.
- Bride and Groom: In this competition, brides and their grooms dress up in traditional wedding attire and walk the ramp.
Additionally, pilgrims also take a dip in the Pushkar lake, as it is considered auspicious. It’s said that anyone who takes a holy bath on the full moon day will receive special blessings of good fortune and a washing away of all sins.
Also read: Why is Rajasthani culture so fascinating?
Bizarre, Yet Fascinating Culture!
While some of what is on the list of customs and traditions in India may be bizarre, they are definitely fascinating and followed strictly by many in the country. The vast population of the country along with its many different types of people mean that there are varying levels of belief and faith in traditions. Even the modern Indian, both men and women, are brought up with some influences of cultural traditions in their life mostly via family. The social system of India, where emphasis is paid to families and a sense of community help carry this forward. These unique rituals, traditions and culture of India, also attract curious foreigners. However, the culture of India oftentimes falls in grey areas. Although some traditions and cultures have a long history, in recent years, they can be viewed as hindering progressive thinking or trampling on individual rights in the name of a longstanding tradition. While it is integral to respect the cultures and traditions in India, we also need to be mindful of those practises that are exploitative of minorities and animals, and therefore dangerous and inhumane.
Some common traditions of India are the Aghori sadhus of Varanasi, The Hola Mohalla warriors of Punjab, The Buddhist chanting of Ladakh, Chhau dance of Odisha, Thimithi aka the fire-walking tradition of Tamil Nadu and a festival to worship snakes: Nag Panchami.
India doesn’t have a main tradition due to various cultures that reside here. Religious and social aspects play an important role in determining traditions and cultures followed by families across the country.
The tradition of greeting someone with ‘Namaste’ is one of the most popular Indian traditions.
A custom also called a traditionis a common way of doing things. It is something that many people do, and have done for a long time.
Some common customs and traditions in India are mentioned in the list above.