What are some cool things about India

India! Culture, clichés & sacred cows

What do you think of first when you think of India? Bollywood and colorful robes? Taj Mahal and yoga? Or are poverty, slums and violence against women more typically Indian? The sacred cows are also definitely way ahead. A journey through Indian clichés, which is not only about the supposedly untouchable animals, because the topic of culture in India is too colorful and diverse for that.

My journey through India takes three months and I should come across a lot of clichés along the way. But first it all starts with a stopover in Delhi: time for a few hours of sleep, and I also want to see at least a little of the city, because I may never return here.

A taxi takes me to the Qutub complex. I gave the driver a free hand wherever I was going. After all, I hardly know anything about the Indian capital.


Islam is also part of India

The Qutb complex is part of the world cultural heritage, here are the ruins of the first mosque on Indian soil. They come from another time, from the end of the 12th century, Delhi had just been taken by Muslim invaders. And the Qutub Minar, a now somewhat crooked victory column, is also here. It is one of the tallest buildings of Islamic architecture. So there is no doubt that Islam also belongs to India. Muslims form the largest religious minority in the Hindu country today. A “minority”, which, however, comprises an unbelievable 170 million people, more than most Islamic states have inhabitants. A cultural peculiarity that would be hard to imagine anywhere else than India, the seventh largest country in the world.

On the way back to Indira Gandhi International Airport, the taxi torments through the slow-moving traffic. Cows cross the road. Unimpressed by the traffic chaos, a herd runs around between the cars. The cliché lives on. Welcome to India!

Meatless India?

In the evening I land in Raipur, capital of the state of Chhattisgarh. I choose my accommodation near the bus station, because I want to continue the next morning, the industrial city of Raipur would not be a good start for my trip to India. And here, too, there are cows lying on the side of the road, stoically following the hectic hustle and bustle of the traffic junction. I haven't been in the country yet for 24 hours, but the sacred animals are already firmly rooted in my image of everyday Indian life.

There are only vegetarian dishes, I find out in the restaurant around the corner. And should later gradually learn the importance of a meatless diet in India. In some places it can even be difficult to find a restaurant with non-vegetarian dishes at all. India, a Mecca for vegetarians? In any case, vegetarianism has a millennia-old tradition here. India's legendary freedom fighter Mahatma Ghandi was also a vegetarian. His credo: "The size of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by how it treats the animals."

Sacred cows slaughter

So the Indians are a people of vegetarians? Not at all. According to a rough estimate, 40 percent of the people prefer meatless food, so almost half a billion people, what a number! But not the majority. In addition, the tendency is decreasing, especially the middle and upper classes crave meat, reports the Deutschlandfunk. The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper even speaks of around 30,000 illegal slaughterhouses in India. And it seems downright grotesque that Hindus, many of whom reject the slaughter and consumption of animals, travel en masse to Nepal in order to witness the killing for sacrificial purposes in the small neighboring country. Which is banned in several Indian states. Shouldn't the great Gandhi turn in his grave in the face of this cultural decadence?

"What is your country?"

The Chitrakot waterfall near Jagdalpur is the widest waterfall in India. Some Indian women want a photo with me. I am surprised. It was actually I who wanted to snap the women in their colorful saris in front of the waterfall, now I am part of the motif myself. It shouldn't have been the last time, many Indians are keen to be photographed with foreigners. You should get used to the mentality of the people quickly anyway, what else can you do? Anyone who travels to India will at some point come to the point that he can no longer hear you, the frequently asked curious questions “what is your country?”, “Where are you from?” or “what is your name?”. The Indian preference for selfies is also noticeable, not unusual in itself, but compared to other countries it seems extreme.

It is hardly surprising that cows can also be seen at the Chitrakot waterfall. It almost seems as if the animals want to pose for some snapshots too.

Sundays are busy in Jagdalpur, the capital of the Bastar district. People from the surrounding villages come to the Haat, which is the name of the trading post on the site of the Sanjay Market. The cows running around are quickly shown their limits. There are blows when the four-legged friends snap at the crunchy, tasty vegetables. Objects also fly after the sacred animals, which are obviously not that inviolable.

Indian and alcohol

Visiting the Adivasi in the Jagdalpur area: my local guide Awesh Ali drives me every day by moped to the villages of the indigenous people, officially called tribals. By chance we get into a wedding party. The people have their lamps on, especially the groom is as tight as an adder. The festival goes on for three days, so staying power is the order of the day. What do people give themselves to the edge? Mahua is the name of the intoxicating drink, a product made from fermented flowers. It goes without saying that I will try it. Only the invitation to participate in the dance, rather an attempt to pull myself into their midst with gentle force, I firmly reject. The dancing, rather wavering wedding party is two days ahead of me in terms of alcohol levels.

A few weeks later I'm in Puducherry - after Pondicherry, the name that was valid until 2006, affectionately known as Pondy. There it is said that Indian weddings are alcohol-free. I've known better for a long time, it can be one way or another. In general, the way you deal with alcohol in India is very different. Some states have a ban on alcohol. In others, on the other hand, there is brisk demand in the local liquor stores, where high-proof spirits sell significantly better than beer.

Kingfisher from the teapot

At first I was surprised that they serve Kingfisher, the name of the most famous Indian beer, wrapped in newspaper. And think to myself, maybe it's supposed to be used for cooling. However, I soon learn that there is not a license to sell everywhere, hence the conspicuously inconspicuous “disguise”. After all, not having a license doesn't mean you can't get beer. On the contrary, it works amazingly smoothly almost everywhere. The curious highlight: In Kochi they hand me the Kingfisher in a teapot. And it's pretty well chilled.

Dharavi, the flagship slum

Dharavi in ​​Bombay is considered the largest slum in Asia. But who can judge that at all? After all, you are not even sure how many people actually live here. The estimates vary between 500,000 and 1 million people. Some numbers are lower, others are higher. I want to get an idea of ​​Dharavi, the supposed slum in Bombay, which is now called Mumbai. By the way, I'm not the only one who likes the old name better.

Dharavi surprised. It is very busy, there is recycling, shredding, washing and melting. Plastic, paper, rags and leftover paint, everything is processed. And that should be a typical slum? I am learning that slum is one thing above all else: the name for an extremely densely populated and illegally populated area. The people are amazingly well organized and some of them are probably not as poor as you might think. Exciting material for a film:Slumdog Millionaire has been awarded several Oscars, only the residents of Dharavi are said to be “not amused” about this form of high-profile representation of their homeland. Especially since only a small part of the strip was filmed on site.

Fishing à la China

The first impression: mighty fishing nets in the sunset, attached to heavy wooden structures. This is how Kochi, the port city in Kerala, greets me. Merchants from the court of Kublai Khan are said to have introduced the nets in the 13th century. This type of fishing no longer seems to be very effective. Several men are each required to haul in the heavy equipment, but without any significant result. The situation is very different with the fishermen who go out to sea a few meters away in conventional boats and come back with respectable catches.

Chinese fishing nets as a synonym for diverse cultural influences, brought to India by foreigners. In Kochi alone, the Portuguese, Dutch and British have virtually given each other the handle. The Chinese networks undoubtedly make the greatest impression.

Life and death on the Ganges

A face appears in my field of vision. I hadn't noticed the man approaching, my full concentration was on the fire. In several places on the banks of the Ganges, the ghats, they burn the dead. Hundreds. Every day. Around the clock. The remains migrate into the water. The man's face doesn't look good. Ulcers grow there. He holds out his hand to me, he wants money. I have arrived in Varanasi, the penultimate stop on my trip through India.

The dead are cremated on the banks of the Ganges while the living bathe in the river. They wash themselves or their laundry. Some also drink the holy water, which is actually quite a dirty broth. Contaminated by garbage, feces and remains. That too is a piece of Indian culture. For a week in Varanasi I study the Hindu cult of the dead. And see an Indian cow for the last time in the holy city. What I only realize afterwards in the former Calcutta. In the city they now call Kolkata, totally atypical for India, there are no cows. But a tram, it's the only one in India.

Now what is typically Indian?

I've learned that a lot of the common stereotypes don't apply. Almost everything can be either like that or like that. Or completely different. There are people in India who do not eat meat, while others do. Some slaughter animals, others sacrifice them. Some Indians do not drink alcohol, others drink more. Yoga, typically Indian? I haven't met a single Indian who practices yoga. Prem Kumar in Kovalam is the exception, but he is also a yoga teacher, it is his profession.

Keyword “hygiene”: It is true that India has a huge waste problem and that it is sometimes quite dirty. The other side: Most Indians bathe or wash themselves twice a day, but if in doubt they go to the nearest well, somewhere on the street. Or a pond. I ate from the floor in a house in the country somewhere in central India, in the truest sense of the word. With a banana leaf as a plate. It may sound strange, but it couldn't be cleaner than there.

India: extreme and photogenic

Three months are too short to really understand such a country. I was only able to scratch the surface a little to get an impression of Indian culture. Will I return someday? I can't tell, maybe not. India is exciting. Extreme. And also extremely photogenic. And yet it didn't pull me under such a spell that I really want to go back there. But that is not because I then need a week to “arrive” again, to find my way back home. Where it is suddenly unusually quiet and clean. Where people don't go to the side of the road or on the beach.And where there is no constant spitting, burping or spitting.

There is a lot more to report. Anecdotes on other cultural topics. From my experience with Bhang Lassi in Udaipur, for example. The cannabis drink, sweet and fruity, but with a powerful intoxicating effect. Or from Indian space cookies, which are wonderfully suitable for surviving long journeys by bus or train - as if in sleep. The subject of train travel in India would provide material for a report of its own anyway. I spent about a week in total on trains and buses.

India: Diversity & Contradictions

Then there is the subject of sex and tenderness, actually a taboo in the Indian public. I always have to think of the adult depictions of love acts at Indian temples. Or to the likeable artist in Raghurajpur, who proudly presented me with his well-done illustrations of the Kama Sutra. Not without smiling mischievously. I should have bought the work of art from him, it would be a remarkable reminder of India, this country full of contradictions. For which one thing is particularly typical: its unbelievable diversity. And the sacred cows, of course. Even if they are nowhere near as inviolable as the reputation that precedes them suggests.

Recommended Reading - India's Culture and Clichés

More reading tips

Author, travel reporter and travel blogger. After being persuaded to end his previous professional career (to avoid the bad word bullying), curiosity drives him out into the world and he tells stories on the go.