Culture 6 – Indian clothing, literature and its history


Main article: Clothing in India

Punjabi woman dressed traditionally for ‘Teej’ festival.

Illustration of different styles ofSari & clothing worn by women in India.

Traditional clothing in India greatly varies across different parts of the country and is influenced by local culture, geography, climate and rural/urban settings. Popular styles of dress include draped garments such as sari for women and dhoti or lungi or panche (in Kannada) for men. Stitched clothes are also popular such as churidar orsalwar-kameez for women, with dupatta (long scarf) thrown over shoulder completing the outfit. Salwar is often loose fitting, while churidar is a tighter cut.[70] For men, stitched versions include kurtapyjama and European-style trousers and shirts for men. In urban centres, people can often be seen in jeans, trousers, shirts, suits, kurtas and variety of other fashions.

In public and religious places, Indian dress etiquette discourages exposure of skin and wearing transparent or tight clothes.[71] Most Indian clothes are made from cotton which is ideal for the region’s hot weather.[72] Since India’s weather is mostly hot and rainy, majority of Indians wear sandals.[73]

Indian women perfect their sense of charm and fashion with make up and ornaments. Bindi, mehendi, earrings, bangles and other jewelry are common. On special occasions, such as marriage ceremonies and festivals, women may wear cheerful colours with various ornaments made with gold, silver or other regional stones and gems.

Bindi is often an essential part of a Hindu woman’s make up. Worn on their forehead, some consider the bindi as an auspicious mark. Traditionally, the red bindi was worn only by married Hindu women, and coloured bindi was worn by single women, but now all colours and glitter has become a part of women’s fashion. Some women wear sindoor– a traditional red or orange-red powder (vermilion) in the parting of their hair (locally called mang). Sindoor is the traditional mark of a married woman for Hindus. Single Hindu women do not wear sindoor; neither do over 1 million Indian women from religions other than Hindu and agnostics/atheists who may be married.[70]

India’s clothing styles have continuously evolved over the course of the country’s history. The 11th-century BCE Rig-vedamentions dyed and embroidered garments (known as paridhan and pesas respectively) and thus highlights the development of sophisticated garment manufacturing techniques during this period.[74] In 5th century BCE, Greek historian Herodotusdescribes the richness of the quality of Indian cotton clothes.[75] By the 2nd century AD,muslins manufactured in southern India were imported by the Roman Empire and silk cloth was one of the major exports of ancient India along with Indian spices.[76] Stitched clothing in India was developed before the 10th century CE and was further popularised in the 15th century by Muslim empires in India.[76]Draped clothing styles remained popular with India’s Hindu population while the Muslims increasingly adopted tailored garments.[77]

During the British Raj, India’s large clothing and handicrafts industry was left paralysed so as to make place for British industrial cloth. Consequently, Indian independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhisuccessfully advocated for what he termed as khadi clothing — light coloured hand-woven clothes — so as to decrease the reliance of the Indian people on British industrial goods.[78] The 1980s were marked by a widespread modification to Indian clothing fashions which was characterised by a large-scale growth of fashion schools in India, increasing involvement of women in the fashion industry and changing Indian attitudes towards multiculturalism. These developments played a pivotal role in the fusion of Indian and Western clothing styles.[79]

Languages and literatureEdit








Language families in India and its neighbouring countries. India has 22 official languages – 15 of which are Indo-European. The 2001 census of India found 122first languages in active use. The second map shows the distribution of the Indo-European languages throughout the world.

Rigveda (padapatha) manuscript inDevanagari, early 19th century. After a scribal benediction (“śrīgaṇéśāyanamaḥ ;; Aum(3) ;;”), the first line has the opening words of RV.1.1.1 (agniṃ ; iḷe ; puraḥ-hitaṃ ; yajñasya ; devaṃ ; ṛtvijaṃ). The Vedic accent is marked by underscores and vertical overscores in red.

Literary records suggest India had interacted in languages of other ancient civilisations. This inscription is from Indian emperorAshoka, carved in stone about 250 BCE, found in Afghanistan. Inscriptions are in Greek andAramaic, with ideas of non-violence against men and all living beings, as the doctrine ofEusebeia – spiritual maturity.

Numerous words from India entered English vocabulary during the British colonial era.[80][81] Examples: bandana,banglesbungalow andshampoo.

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit …

— Sir William Jones, 1786[82]

The Rigvedic Sanskrit is one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Aryan language, and one of the earliest attested members of theIndo-European language family. The discovery of Sanskrit by early European explorers of India led to the development of comparative Philology. The scholars of the 18th century were struck by the far reaching similarity of Sanskrit, both in grammar and vocabulary, to the classical languages of Europe. Intensive scientific studies that followed have established that Sanskrit and many Indian derivative languages belong to the family which includes English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Celtic, Greek, Baltic, Armenian, Persian, Tocharian and other Indo-European languages.[83]

The evolution of language within India may be distinguished over three periods: old, middle and modern Indo-Aryan. The classical form of old Indo-Aryan was sanskrit meaning polished, cultivated and correct, in distinction to Prakrit – the practical language of the migrating masses evolving without concern to proper pronunciation or grammar, the structure of language changing as those masses mingled, settled new lands and adopted words from people of other native languages. Prakrita became middle Indo-Aryan leading to Pali (the language of early Buddhists and Ashoka era in 200-300 BCE),Prakrit (the language of Jain philosophers) and Apabhramsa (the language blend at the final stage of middle Indo-Aryan). It isApabhramsa, scholars claim,[83] that flowered into Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi and many other languages now in use in India’s north, east and west. All of these Indian languages have roots and structure similar to Sanskrit, to each other and to other Indo-European languages. Thus we have in India three thousand years of continuous linguistic history recorded and preserved in literary documents. This enables scholars to follow language evolution and observe how, by changes hardly noticeable from generation to generation, an original language alters into descendant languages that are now barely recognisable as the same.[83]

Sanskrit has had a profound impact on the languages and literature of India. Hindi, India’s most spoken language, is a “Sanskritised register” of the Khariboli dialect. In addition, all modern Indo-Aryan languages,Munda languages and Dravidian languages, have borrowed many words either directly from Sanskrit (tatsama words), or indirectly via middle Indo-Aryan languages (tadbhavawords).[84] Words originating in Sanskrit are estimated to constitute roughly fifty percent of the vocabulary of modern Indo-Aryan languages,[85] and the literary forms of (Dravidian) TeluguMalayalam and Kannada.Tamil, although to a slightly smaller extent, has also been significantly influenced by Sanskrit.[84] Part of the Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, the Bengali language arose from the eastern Middle Indic languages and its roots are traced to the 5th-century BCEArdhamagadhi language.[86][87]

Hindi is mutually intelligible with Urdu, both languages being standardised registers ofHindustani. Urdu is generally associated with South Asian Muslims. The main difference between the two is that Hindi is generally written in the Devanagari script, whilst Urdu is written in Nastaliq, but, when spoken colloquially, both are mutually intelligible. Mutual intelligibility decreases, however, in specialised contexts where Urdu has borrowed words from Persian and Arabic, whilst Hindi has done so from Sanskrit and English.

Tamil, one of India’s major classical language, descends from Proto-Dravidianlanguages spoken around the third millennium BCE in peninsular India. The earliest inscriptions of Tamil have been found on pottery dating back to 500 BC. Tamil literature has existed for over two thousand years[88] and the earliest epigraphic records found date from around the 3rd century BCE.[89]

Telugu, one of India’s major classical language, descends from South-Central Dravidian language spoken around the third millennium BCE in all over south India. Early inscriptions date from 620 AD and literary texts from the 11th century, written in a Telugu script adapted from the Bhattiprolu script of the early inscriptions.

Another major Classical Dravidian language,Kannada is attested epigraphically from the mid-1st millennium AD, and literary Old Kannada flourished in the 9th- to 10th-centuryRashtrakuta Dynasty. As a spoken language, some believe it to be even older than Tamil due to the existence of words which have more primitive forms than in Tamil. Pre-old Kannada (or Purava HazheGannada) was the language of Banavasi in the early Common Era, the Satavahana and Kadamba periods and hence has a history of over 2000 years.[90][91][92][93] The Ashoka rock edictfound at Brahmagiri (dated 230 BCE) has been suggested to contain a word in identifiable Kannada.[94]

Oriya is India’s 6th classical language in addition to Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.[95] It is also one of the 22 official languages in the 8th schedule of Indian constitution. Oriya’s importance to Indian culture, from ancient times, is evidenced by its presence in Ashoka’s Rock Edict X at Kalsi palitiditu (Dhauli, Jaugada palitiditu), dated to be from 2nd century BC.[96][97]

In addition to Indo-European and Dravidian languages, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman languages are in use in India. Genomic studies of ethnic groups in India suggests the Austro-Asiatic tribals were likely the earliest settlers in India. India’s language and cultural fusion is not only because of large migrations of Indo-Aryans from central Asia and west Eurasia through the northwest, the genome studies suggest a major wave of humans possibly entered India, long ago, through the northeast, along with tribal populations of Tibeto-Burman origins. Genome studies ofFst distances suggest the northeastern Himalayas acted as a barrier, in the last 5000 years, to human migration as well as to admixing. Languages spoken in this part of India include Austro-Asiatic (e.g. Khasi) and Tibeto-Burman (e.g. Nishi).[98][99][100][101][102]

Manuscript illustration of theBattle of Kurukshetra.

According to the 2001 and 2011 India census, Hindi is the most spoken language in India, followed by Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu.[103] In contemporary Indian literature, there are two major literary awards; these are the Sahitya Akademi Fellowshipand the Jnanpith Award. Eight Jnanpith awards have been awarded in Kannada, six in Hindi, five in Bengali, four in Oriya andMalayalam, three each in Marathi, Gujarati,Urduand Telugu and two each in Assamese, and Tamil.


The Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are the oldest preserved and well-known epics of India. Versions have been adopted as the epics of Southeast Asian countries like Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses in seven books (kāṇḍas) and 500cantos (sargas),[104] and tells the story of Rama (an incarnation or Avatar of the Hindu preserver-god Vishnu), whose wife Sita is abducted by the demon king of Lanka,Ravana. This epic played a pivotal role in establishing the role of dhárma as a principal ideal guiding force for Hindu way of life.[105]The earliest parts of the Mahabharata text date to 400 BC[105] and is estimated to have reached its final form by the early Gupta period (c. 4th century AD).[106] Other regional variations of these, as well as unrelated epics include the Tamil Ramavataram, KannadaPampa Bharata, Hindi Ramacharitamanasa, and Malayalam Adhyathmaramayanam. In addition to these two great Indian epics, there are five major epics in the classical Tamil language —SilappatikaramManimekalaiCivaka-cintamaniand Valayapathi-kundalakesi.

Please look for my next episode Culture 7 for more information on Indian culture.

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