A country that is bold and unabashed, life in India greets its visitors with a barrage of unique cultural and social elements. Though it goes without saying that the beauty of traveling is experiencing a vastly different culture and society from your own, India can be challenging to the unknowing. And what kind of guidance would we be giving if we didn’t touch on the difficulties – and a few hard truths – about life in India.
For many tourists, traveling internationally can be a relaxing, carefree experience with the biggest hitch being a baggage delay. But if you’re reading this site, it’s likely you agree that the magic of life only starts when you step out of your comfort zone – and India will push you out of yours. It’s impossible to truly experience a new country and culture without being faced with new realities and ideas that challenge your norms.
Two sides to every coin
Life in India involves vast gaps between the rich and the poor, and it is the second-most populated nation in the world. But that is also why it is so culturally wealthy, far surpassing the United States’ own designation as a melting pot.
The world’s biggest democracy and homeland to one of the oldest civilizations, India has made significant contributions to arts, science, philosophy and – of course! – food and trade, and so much more.
Recognizing the duality of life in India is important when planning your trip, because in a country with such structural, economic and class disparities, the bad does come with the good.
A necessary disclaimer
A lot of nuances are needed here. I would never wish for anyone to think I was speaking negatively about such an incredible place. But the fact remains that life in India can be overwhelmingly different from what many are used to. Our intention in this article is to prepare you for the challenges you might encounter while traveling to India. We even hired an Indian editor to make sure we aren’t speaking with false authority.
That is also why we are going to be talking about some hard truths, and not enough about the immense contributions the country has made to the world.
Lastly, India is a world in itself with hundreds of cultures, provinces, languages, beliefs and more… It is simply impossible to sum up such a vast, culturally rich country. Some things that apply to certain parts of India don’t for other parts. However, we still have made some generalizations about life in India for the point of informing the uninitiated.
Should I Go To India?
We had the trip of a lifetime! But I agree that it is not for everyone. One thing is for sure, one does not simply “go on holiday” to India – one travels in the fullest sense of the word. If your main expectation from a vacation is beach vibes & chilling out, you would be better off picking a spot like Bali or Tulum. India is more for people who are ready to trade their comfort zone for an immense cultural experience.
While you are there, you are quickly exposed to many of the negatives to life in India. As your mind is preoccupied with the challenges you face every day during your trip, you can appreciate it more upon return home when you are thinking in retrospect. India is a fascinating experience that takes a little while to digest (much like Indian food for many newbies 😉 ).
Our Guide for Surviving in India
If you are planning a trip to India, you might be asking yourself:
What health advice do I need to consider? Do I need vaccinations?
What are prices like?
When and where should I go?
How do you get an Indian visa?
What should I prepare before I go?
What should I bring?
For these kinds of questions, skip to our essential India Survival Guide.
Life in India Overview
Size: 3.287 million km² (The seventh largest country in the world in landmass) Population: 1.3 billion (according to 2016 World Bank data). The second highest population in the world, but expected to exceed China by 2030. Capital: New Delhi Other major cities: Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Bangalore, Hyderabad, Varanasi, Goa, Jaipur Currency: Rupee
A Colossal Cultural Mix
With all its converging ethnicities, cultures and religions, India may be the most colorful and flavorful country on the planet. The subcontinent is surrounded by three seas on three sides and hemmed in by the Himalayas to the north, isolating it from the world. Thanks to this natural protection, India was able to develop a mind-blowing variety of unique traditions and cultures.
Although united under one flag, many Indian sub-communities could constitute a nation in themselves. The country was already made up of 565 princely states that persisted as divisions of administration until 1947.
The country’s terrain is just as mixed. It encompasses the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, the barren deserts of Rajasthan and jungles so thick one can barely see a foot ahead.
Every community that has settled in the subcontinent has left an indelible imprint on life in Indian – be it the Mongols (who begot the Moghuls), Persians, Africans, Europeans or East Asians.
Pavings its own path
Of these, no doubt the influence of centuries of rule by the long-standing Moghuls and, more recently, the British, have had the greatest impact on the modern country’s history. But India has succeeded in carving out its own course, owing much to the spirit of independence it carries.
What is probably more impressive is that these converging identities have preserved their traditional ways despite long years of colonialism and the intrusion of widespread global pop culture. Today, many women still wear the wonderful sari and men the turban. Many Indian folks eat with their hands and marry via an arranged marriage. These traditions persists at all levels of society, from the white-collar engineers building the nuclear head to people living in India’s shanty towns.
Is India ‘Dirty’?
There are a lot of blogs out there whining about how “India is filthy.” Yes, the issue of litter and waste disposal is indisputably a major one in Indian cities. It’s also true that many streets are flooded with debris, and they can stink up the streets. BUT this is not the case everywhere. I find that some blogs like to exaggerate the scale of the issue and talk about surviving India like it’s an act of bravery.
There are a lot of hygiene issues but it is no heroic act to overcome these challenges. The guidelines for staying healthy are quite simple, but also critical. Please, please make sure to read about them here before you go:
Our Little Observations…
One day we needed to wash our clothes, so we tracked down the laundry service being used by 5-star hotels in Mumbai to wash bedsheets and towels. We saw that after linens were washed, they were hung to dry on a line. Then, once dry, they were thrown in a pile on the street to be collected.
Mice freely ran around the counters of a street food vendor we stopped at in Varanasi.
Paneer (Indian cheese) is used in a lot of Indian cooking and is made by hand in the morning. In Varanasi, we saw a cow wander over to lick from the bowl in which a man was making paneer, and he simply carried on mixing.
We witnessed many people relieving themselves in the streets.
Bear in mind that the situation changes according to which city, and where in that city, you find yourself. It would be wrong to generalize the whole country one way or another. Such issues were almost absent in certain parts of the country – namely, Kerala and Goa. For instance, Alleppey, in Kerala, is held up as the cleanest city in India.
Many return from India a bit disturbed because:
1) Hygiene issues were visible on a scale we simply weren’t prepared for.
2) Because of structural issues, which we go into below, many folks in India have been normalized to these issues. But for many foreigners, even seeing a mouse pass in front of a store is reason not to shop there.
Cleanliness in Hinduism:
Though tourists might feel struggle with hygiene in India, it’s good not to forget that cleanliness of the body is extremely highly regarded in Hinduism and, for this reason, homes are tidy and clean and people are expected to shower or bathe every day. India is a very complex place to understand.
The Case of the Bathroom
India is currently trying to address the fact that only 50% of homes are equipped with a toilet. In fact, there is a wider ownership of TVs and cell phones than toilets. So, what does this mean? Over 638 million people are forced to relieve themselves outdoors, on the streets or in the fields every day.
According to the World Bank, India spends 6% of its annual GDP on combating the effect this has on life in India – especially regarding health. Efforts to address the situation have increased in recent years, and systems are being fitted throughout the country. We have seen government sponsored toilet extensions to houses. But there is still a way to go.
One Day in Delhi is Like Smoking 50 Cigarettes
Delhi is the 14th most badly polluted city in the world. A day in the city is held to be as bad as smoking 50 cigarettes. The situation is so bad that smog makes for poor visibility on the roads – to the point that many accidents are caused and even flights have had to be canceled.
Some suggest traditional farming methods contribute to the issue, with smoke from the fires used to clear fields drifting into the cities. According to a Green Peace report, every year in India, 1.2 million people fall ill directly due to air pollution. We had a constant headache during the time we spent in Delhi. So it is not a bad idea to keep your Delhi trip short or wear a face mask.
Although natural water sources are plentiful throughout India, the problem is one of access to clean, potable water, especially in rural areas. India has some of the most polluted rivers in the world, with the holy Ganges river considered to be one of the worst. Some guides even discourage brushing your teeth with the city water. Make sure to avoid ice or water-based foods and drinks as much as possible. Always carry sealed water bottles you’ve bought at a grocery store – never on the street.
The Bigger Question: Why Isn’t It Cleaned It Up?
The Move from Organic to Synthetic: Many link the huge issue of waste disposal to the rapid shift from organic to synthetic materials in daily life in India. For instance, it used to be the case that biodegradable banana leaves were used in place of plates (and sometimes they still are!). Everyone has their own take on this, but I think it’s insufficient as an explanation on its own. After all, the same shift has occurred the world-over, but without so many problems.
The Effect of the Caste System: Another theory links the issue to the caste system. It suggests that in a system where certain castes can’t even touch the shadow of certain casts, it has become impossible to share the same public space. People are drawn more to their private spaces. So the feeling of ownership of public spaces has degraded resulting in apathy in public spaces.
The Issue of Pride: This theory is linked to the above reason. The act of cleaning is seen only worthy of the lowest order of the caste system (Untouchables, or Dalits). When Mahatma Gandhi told Indian Congress members in 1901 that the caste system was an unconscionable aspect of life in India and that everyone ought to clean their own toilet, he was greeted with ridicule. In order to lead by example, Gandhi, a member of the upper caste, cleaned his own toilet in full view of others.
It should also be noted that the state is now working on initiatives to clean up India’s streets.
How Important is the Caste System?
The caste system has been a part of Hindu culture for the last 3,000 years. For more on some of the principles of Hinduism, click on the link to our brief guide.
The Four Castes
The highest group are the “Brahman” – This group is the abode of highly regarded wise men such as priests, doctors and lawyers. Belief holds that the Brahman was created by the mind of the god Brahma.
The second tier at the “Kshatriya” – The group is for warriors, kings and administrators – created to protect the Brahmans and were created from Brahma’s arms.
The third group is the “Vaishya” – Merchants and tradesmen. This group is thought to come from the legs of Brahma.
The fourth group is the “Shudra” – Farmers and workers. This group comes from the feet of Brahma.
There also exists a class that has no place in the caste system. The “Untouchables” or “Dalits” are given jobs deemed below that of other Hindus, such as collecting trash, slaughtering animals and manufacturing leather. They are alienated from the majority of Hindu groups in Indian life and they inhabit areas far from others.
Caste System Among the non-Hindus
The caste system was born of Hindu principles. However, as the dominant culture in the region (80% of the population are Hindu), it penetrated all parts of the society. There are some similar hierarchies that have made their way into Muslim, Sikh and Christian groups in India.
The caste system governs all areas of social and communal life in India. Trades are passed down from father to son and marriages can only occur between members of the same caste. Even drinking from the same well is deemed inappropriate, and it is not possible to ascend from one group to another.
Although the system is officially outlawed and a coalescence has occurred in the cities, it still holds sway in most areas of the country. In order to combat the worst effects of the system, a programme of affirmative action has been afforded groups like the Dalits in both the education system and for representation in parliament. KR Narayanan became the country’s first Dalit president.
Slow but steady change
As the power balance tipped in favor of the trading and commercial castes, a gradual loosening of the old norms has taken place in the country’s major cities. This has reinforced the work embarked on in eradicating the system since the Indian Constitution outlawed the practice in writing.
But the problem is deep-rooted, and given that for 2 out of 3 citizens, life in India extends little further than the kind of villages and rural towns where progress is slowest, the problem looks likely to persist into the future.
Given that, in many regions, voting is coordinated along class, ethnic and caste lines, it is clear that the caste system is much upheld through its use as a political tool.
Marriage and Weddings in India
As evidenced from any Bollywood movie, the question of marriage is an important one in India. This is also why weddings are no small affair. There are countless regional and cultural variations on the ceremony, and the exact nature of the agreement, but a number of traditions transcend local differences, one in particular that has captured the minds of many though it was once practiced the world over: arranged marriage.
Marriages for love are fairly uncommon in India. There is much pressure on people to get married as soon as possible, and the idea of pre-marital relationships is still rather taboo (even if it occurs).
Highest Rates of Arranged Marriage
Even today, most of India’s marriages are a product of a deal between families before the would-be happy couple have had a chance to meet. If the family can’t find a good candidate themselves, they put an “ad” online or even in the paper. These ads include salaries, profession, appearance (especially skin tone), dietary information, neighborhood and even a dowry on offer. An alternative is to go to a local match-maker – an agency full of CV files where one can peruse candidates.
Even the parents of many second and third generation Indians in foreign countries seek an Indian bride or groom for their children, searching far and wide for a good fit.
In the negotiations for a marriage, a dowry can be asked from the bride’s family! This tradition emerged in good faith. As a daughter would not be returning to the family home, it was considered logical that a father gives his daughter her share of inheritance at marriage. However, over time, it since seems to have become a test of the value of a potential husband. Plus, the cost of the wedding is put on the bride’s family.
Given Indian weddings are no small affair and can see the attendance of 500 or more people, the cons are pretty evident and daughters were thus deemed less desirable. In the most tragic cases, this led to the abandonment of female infants – but the state has largely addressed this issue and intervened. Balance in gender has now finally reached a healthy 9.4 girls to every 10 boys.
Attending an Indian Wedding? Some things to look forward to:
Henna Party: A henna night is celebrated by female family and friends the night before a wedding. Incredibly ornate classic designs and motifs are decorated on the bride’s hands with henna. One maxim is that the darker the henna stain makes on the skin, the more passionate the marriage will be! Some hold the bride shouldn’t have to go back to work until the time the henna wears off completely. Guests can also expect to be adorned with henna.
Groom’s arrival: The groom arrives before the bride’s family at the wedding venue in a huge convoy. Songs are sung to welcome him.
Three symbolic elements of a Hindu wedding include: 1. A four-posted pavilion called a mandap. Each post represents one of the couples’ parents. 2. A holy fire representing life and 3. a Hindu priest.
Walking around a fire: The couple circles the mandap four times before the priest symbolically places a shawl around both parties.
Education in India
School education has been compulsory for all children ages 6-14 since 2010. However, attendance is poor, with the result that only 10% of the country attends university and 75% are literate. Since the population is massive, a rate of 25% illiteracy makes India the country with the biggest illiterate population in the world.
This is in stark contrast to the fact that 36% of NASA scientists, 38% of American doctors and 12% of US scientists all hail from the subcontinent. Just another example of the huge contrasts and contradictions of Indian life.
In 2012, news that Jyoti Singh was raped and murdered by six men on a bus in Delhi sent shock waves across the world and led countless Indian women onto the street in protest.
But generalizations are tough to make and, statistically, Sweden, Norway, the US, Italy, as well as a host of countries generally perceived to be “safer” appear to have a higher rate of incidents of rape. However, the stats are offered by official state reports and, in India, rape that occurs between partners is not considered a crime and multiple acts of rape between the same people are considered one case. Also, the number of women who report such a crime varies country to country but, in India, the fact remains that women have more barriers when it comes to speaking up about sexual assault.
That said, India has only relatively recently begun confronting attitudes towards sexual abuse and the issue has now entered public discourse, with incidents gaining a higher media profile than ever before. The struggle of life in India for women is now receiving the place in the media it deserves. The road will be a long one, but progress is underway.
Much more than I expected, I found myself to be the only woman on the street after sunset. There is still a widely shared view that a woman’s place is her home. Yet, there are great examples of powerful women in India, too. In the above photo, you see the team of Indian female scientists who led India’s first mission to Mars celebrating their success.
It’s not just the airports that require a security check to get in but any Starbucks, McDonalds or hotel in Delhi or Mumbai! After all, India has seen more than its fair share of terrorist incidents. The relationship between India and Pakistan is one wrought with tension, and many tragic incidents have emerged as a result. India itself is also home to some religious/leftist/minority nationalist terrorist groups. India largely blames Pakistan for supporting these groups in terror attacks and others blame the UK or the Indian deep state itself as being behind the rivalries that divide the terrain here. While who is behind the attacks is up for debate, the toll is quite evident and somber.
Terrorism in Figures
Number of Cases
Number of Deaths
Targets can take the form of state buildings, public transport, crowded events (marches, party rallies, celebrations, festivals, etc.), places of worship, bars, restaurants, shopping malls, hotels, and places where foreigners gather. The risk is increased on election days, during foreign ministry meetings, and national holidays such as Diwali, Republic Day (26 January) and Independence Day (15 August).
We were in India during Independence Day, but didn’t attend any events that could be deemed risky. We never felt any consequences of terrorist attacks or threats over the course of our trip. But it pays to stay on the look-out – true for everywhere in the world these days, be it London, Paris, Istanbul or Mumbai. It’s better not to let paranoia get the better of you. After all, life will go on despite these sad affairs.
Religion in India
As we mentioned, around 80% of the country is Hindu. It is important to read up on the basics of the beliefs and value system surrounding Hinduism to avoid ignorant questions or assumptions. After all, many aspects of life in India are informed by its principles. Click on our page covering the basics of Hinduism for a brief overview.
The country has a large number of Muslims, making up 13% of the population, with 2% being Christian (mainly in Kerala, Goa, Tamil Nadu and the Meghalaya region), 2% Sikh, (mainly in Punjab), 1% Buddhist (Maharashtra region), 0.4% Jain (Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Gujarat regions as well as big cities), and 1.6% other (Jewish, Zoroastrian, Bahai, and various tribal religions).
Both Jainism and Buddhism emerged as a response to Hinduism, but share many common elements. If 0.4% appears insignificant, don’t forget we are dealing with a country whose population totals around 1.3 billion. Even that tiny percentage represents 5.2 million people. Likewise, the 13% of the population who are Muslim make up the second largest Muslim population in the world!
Social life in India mainly revolves around food. Every occasion is marked by a variety of mouth-watering items. You can ask for food not to be super spicy, but it will never come without spices. I once asked a waiter to just fry up a fish without any spices. The result was much panic for the poor guy – as if there was no other way to cook it!
As we both love spicy food, it was a great pleasure to enjoy the variety of yummy Indian specialties on our first day. The thali and naans did flow. But it can grow to be a bit much after a few weeks, though. If you need a break, you may encounter foreign staples in the big cities, but even these will have an Indian twist to them.
How do pickles, lentils, and rice sound for breakfast? In the big hotels, you may get the option of pancakes or eggs, but in smaller cities, this won’t be an option.
Throughout the country, the best vegetarian options usually involve paneer cheese cut up and mixed with a vegetable sauce. Food in the southern part of the country is generally more replete with vegetables. Naan bread needs no introduction, and goes down great with everything. Okra and lentils make some superb main ingredients. Everyone is a great fan of the lentil-based daal.
Our favorite, without a doubt, is a thali combination platter, served with naan and a little rice. It’s basically like tapas, but it does the job. Indian food is so varied and unique that you are sure to survive the best part of two weeks with nothing else.
One thing is for sure, wherever you go it is important to sample the delicacies. When else are you going to get the chance? After all, there’s plenty of time for you to stuff your face with your regular treats when you get home!
A Country of Unbelievable Contradictions
Prepare yourself for a mental meltdown in your attempts to understand life in India. Here are just a couple of examples we had fun trying to comprehend:
The Ganges is a sacred river. Many believe the water has cleansing properties for the soul. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t also serve as a wonderful place for sewage to end up.
Sex is still largely taboo. It is not common to even see men and women sitting together in many places. Likewise, skimpy clothing – even spaghetti strap tank tops – are not deemed appropriate. However, there seems to be no taboo about taking it all out to urinate in public in some places!
The cow is a sacred animal. And eating beef is a big no no for many, but whipping the animals to get them to pull plows is fine.
Alcohol consumption and possession is illegal in Bihar, Gujarat, Nagaland and the Union Territory of Lakshadweep. Life in India is mainly legislated at a state level. This means states apply their own separate rulings to issues such as alcohol. Thus, while alcohol is a rather luxurious commodity in some states, in Goa it is completely tax-free.
Lie in India under the Raj
Another subject worth dipping into before, or even during your trip, is that of the British Raj. The British spent around 300 years in India and thus had a huge effect on Indian life. They first arrived to set up trade with the Moghul Empire – one of the richest, most powerful empires in the world. They gradually shifted this power dynamic until India represented “the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire.”
Even a brief introduction to this chapter of history is enlightening in terms of understanding political dynamics, the birth of the modern world, and the consequences of cultural encounters between powerful groups.
Mahatma Gandhi is without a doubt the most famous personality to emerge from the Indian subcontinent and is an icon of social justice in his own right. His concept of passive resistance made waves not just in India but across the globe. Protest leaders as far afield as Martin Luther King in America’s civil rights movement to Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s struggle to end apartheid would hold Gandhi’s ideas and actions in high praise.
Six months after the British left India, Gandhi would be assassinated by a Hindu nationalist. Gandhi had a huge effect on Indian life. Many Indians see Gandhi as the “father of the nation,” but he is not popular with everyone.
The reason for this is that Gandhi can not only be seen as a crucial figure in the achievement of Indian independence. He was also a revolutionary who fought tirelessly to eradicate the injustices of India’s long-established caste system.
Make sure you clue yourself in on the man himself before you head out to India. Our article, Who is Gandhi, is certainly worth a peek.
Another Great Personality You Ought to Know: Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru hasn’t quite achieved the international fame of Mahatma Gandhi but is at least just as admired as a great activist in the promotion of India as an independent, secular, democratic state – and one of the country’s founding fathers. Nehru spent much of his early life fighting British rule together with his mentor Mahatma Gandhi, and spent much time in and out of prison in the process. He ruled India from the time independence was declared in 1947 until his death from a heart attack in 1964.
Nehru’s family had a huge effect on life in India, before and after independence. His father had twice headed the National Congress and his sister would become the first female prime minister present at the United Nations. His daughter Indira would twice take the same office.
Like Gandhi, Nehru also studied law in the United Kingdom but was never interested in becoming a lawyer. He entered politics at a young age. Aside from helping achieve Indian independence and establishing the new country as a secular state run via parliament, he also promulgated reforms aimed at improving social conditions for life in India. These included laws regarding female equality and outlawing the caste system…
However, with such a vast and varied political geography, it is impossible for Nehru not to have fallen foul of critics. Many point to his agreement to divide former British India into India and Pakistan – a separate state for Muslims, as an unconscionable stance. Critics also point to his recognition of Communist China (India being the first state to do so), as a poor decision given China would soon enough capture Indian territory in the Himalayas.
The Controversial Leader Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi was not in fact related to Mahatma Gandhi. Indira Priyadarshini was the daughter of former president Nehru but coincidently went on to marry a Parsi husband with the surname Gandhi.
Nehru was loved throughout and beyond India. Due to his popularity with Indians, it was largely considered that Indira Gandhi would be primed to continue the work that her father had done throughout his time in office. Although she served in office twice from 1966-77 and from 1980-84, Indira Gandhi did not prove quite so popular.
Victories and Controversies
Her economic and agricultural reforms had a great effect on Indian life. Meanwhile, her diplomatic moves were key to bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict with East and West Pakistan. However, her uncompromising manner and a string of scandals wrought the ire of many Indians against Indira Gandhi.
In 1978, she was imprisoned for improper conduct during elections and for using public resources during the campaign. However, the even more dismal failure of her replacements in office led to her return to power by 1980.
She was killed in 1984 by two Sikh bodyguards in response to the awful damage inflicted on an important Sikh holy site during a military operation backed by Gandhi.
Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi took over from his mother after her death, but himself fell victim to an assassination in 1989.
The Indian Capital: New Delhi
New Delhi is home to a population of over 26 million and is the second most populated city in the world. After Mumbai, the capital is the second richest city in the country, home to 18 billionaires and 23,000 millionaires.
Like our home town of Istanbul, the city has formed the center of numerous empires and still forms the seat of the Indian government. Also, like our hometown, traffic here is intense, but the city is generally better maintained than Mumbai. If you are planning a trip, then check out our article on Delhi.
Indian form of Government
According to its constitution, India is an “independent, socialist, secular republic” and is ruled via the parliamentary system.
As India covers an expansive and varied area, the state is administered along state lines. India is made up of 29 states and 7 union territories. The central state manages issues regarding international affairs and the economy, while domestic affairs relating to Indian life are generally handled on a state level. Each state sets its own laws regarding health, education, and social initiatives. This is why alcohol, for instance, can be illegal in one place and not in another.
What Language is Spoken in India?
India is home to over 1,600 different languages!
22 of these languages are recognized as official: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Meitei, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Brahui.
The most commonly spoken languages are Hindi and English.
English emerged as a lingua franca for Indian life, thus many TV programs and newspapers are in English. Most Indians are educated in their local language during primary school and are taught in English from the 5th grade on.