Exploring Indian Culture: Storytelling, Respect and Religions

During my first weeks in India I got to know my Brazilian housemates Anna and Paola, my new roommate Garima from Mumbai, Maddalen from Spain who where all part of the DREAM:IN team, and Nidhi from Idiom – really well. Together we started to plan trips to explore more of India together, the first one being to Mysore for the Dasara festival, a picture of the international crew is below.


The international crew!

First though I wanted to do some exploring on my own, as I learned in Brazil that this really helps me to understand the local culture (see the post called ‘Exploring your Inner Chicken‘). So I decided to take a 3 day trip to Pondicherry, which was previously the French area of India, where French is still spoken to day with French food – Yum Yum!

I took an overnight sleeping bus for 8 hours (unexpectedly this was very comfortable, but I would advise other travellers to take your own sheets and pillows) to get to Pondicherry (also known locally as Pondy) and my exploration took me to an Indian beach, on walks down canals, a trip around Auroville, and into lots of different types of temples and a church.  I found the church in Pondicherry to be much more warm and inviting compared to those I have visited in the past.  Through the people I met, I came to understand that the French still have strong ties with the area: for example, people in Pondicherry can vote in the French elections and the schools in the area teach French language, which you can hear being spoken all around Pondy.  During this trip I also learned that every city in India has an ‘MG Road’ (or Mahatma Gandhi Road).

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My trip to Mysore with the crew above was an entirely different experience. This was the first Indian festival I’d seen, and with my friends I explored Mysore Palace (taking elephant rides and elephant blessing) and learned that the Palace has a room for each of the different religions. During the Dasara festival the palace is lit up, which was an amazing sight when viewed from the Chamundi Hills.  While at the Hills we also visited Chamundeshwari Temple, where some of the monkeys were having a fun time playing in the temple grounds.

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I think the elephant made Maddalen go to sleep :) DSC_1114

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The Dasara (meaning ‘remover of bad fate’) is a royal festival celebrating the victory of truth over evil, and the event itself was amazing. It was great to have Nidhi and Garima with us to tell the stories behind all the characters we saw in the procession. The elephant (my favourite animal) is central to the procession, and arrives at the Golden Howdah (Chinnada Ambari) with the Goddess Chamundeshwari in it. If you are interested in finding out more about the story of the Dasara festival, or about experiencing it in India, check out this website:  http://festivals.iloveindia.com/dussehra/history.html.

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I had wondered how many people we could get in an automatic rickshaw (known locally as an ‘auto’), which is one of the commonest modes of transport in India. On the way back from the festival I found out, we managed to get 8 of us into an automatic rickshaw, so getting out of the crowd and getting back to the hotel was a bit of an ordeal! See the picture below of the event in the auto!


On the way Mysore to we had seen lots of cars dressed up (see image below), it had been a festival to worship machines and tools used in our jobs.


By this point in my trip to India seeing cows on the road, and experiencing all the chaos and noise was becoming my norm – and I started to understand some of the key elements behind what people refer to as India. The key parts of the culture that I came to understand:

  • The important and range of storytelling. Each region of India has developed its own style and tradition of storytelling through the local language, or through music, dancing and art. Each region is so different. In a way, this conveys the complex lives of India, and many of my Indian friends have cultural stories to tell that make you look at life differently, and that can be used to maintain and build community. You can read more on this subject here. Also take a look at this interesting post about the importance of storytelling in cultures with limited history of literacy or written forms, find out more here.
  • The important of displaying respect to superiors, calling people ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. This sometimes made communication difficult for me, as I had become so used to the more informal Brazilian approach.  One thing I had to get used to was the side-to-side nodding of the head, which I noticed happening throughout a lot of my conversations in India. I learned that this gesture started out during British rule, when people could not say ‘No’. But now the gesture can mean anything, and you have to look at people’s eyes to judge whether they are really saying yes or no. Soon you find yourself making the same nodding gesture, in conversation and also when bargaining with people! I also learned that, as a woman in India, you have to show respect by covering your shoulders and arms, and by walking a certain way on the streets.
  • A mixture of religions live right next to each other in India, which means that there are many festivals throughout the year. But what is interesting is that people who are not of the same religion will come out and celebrate each other’s festivals together

I know this is only the start of my understanding of the cultures within India, but I have already learned a lot – mainly that there is so much diversity in every part of India.  With every trip, you come back to Bangalore understanding more about how its works and you start to see things and observe in new ways. I come to understand doing The Design Doctor work, you need to talk time to understand the culture, as culture informs a country innovations mindset.

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