Customs and Cuisine of India
What’s in a Name?
India is so diverse, so the saying goes, that her states are as different from each other as the countries in Europe. Unlike some sayings, this one is rooted in fact and steeped in history. Each state in India has its own “native” language and despite some similarities, oftentimes very different cuisine, attire, music, and traditions. Thus, this month we journey not just to the country of India but to the state of Rajasthan and to the city of Jaipur.
The capital of the state of Rajasthan (the abode of Rajas, i.e., Kings) located to the Northwest of the country, Jaipur is the largest city in the state and the tenth most populous in the country. Named after its founder, the Maharaja Jai Singh, Jaipur has the distinction, among many others, of being India’s first planned city. Known as the “pink city” for the preponderance of buildings with salmon-hued walls, Jaipur is a popular tourist attraction, a World Heritage Site and home of two UNESCO heritage sites. Records tell the story behind the pink walls. Originally built of white limestone and Indian red brick powder, the walls were naturally a blush tone. This natural color was augmented in 1876 by the order of the then-King Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II, with “terracotta pink” paint in preparation for the visit of the Prince of Wales, H.R.H. Albert Edward. Spurred by the reception this received, Sawai Ram Singh issued a royal decree requiring walls of all storefronts and homes to continue to be painted/maintained the same hue, a tradition that lives past the British colonial times and into independent India.
The people of the state of Rajasthan are known as Rajasthani and those dwelling in the city of Jaipur are referred to as Jaipurites. The dominant faith practiced is Hinduism (77.9 percent, 2011 census estimate) followed by Islam (18.6 percent), Jainism (2.4 percent), and others such as Buddhism and Christianity (1.2 percent). Historically, the “Rajputs,” literally translated to mean “sons of kings” but applied to descendants of rulers and landowners, were the dominant ethnic group. While in current times, this group comprises a much smaller percentage of Rajasthan’s residents, they continue to hold considerable clout and social standing. The caste system, based on lineage, continues to be adhered to with the Brahmans (the priestly caste) being at the top of the caste hierarchy followed by the Mahajans (trading caste), the Jats (peasant caste), and Gujars (herding caste). Aboriginal tribes including the Mina, Banjara, Gadia Lohar constitute about a tenth of the population. One of the oldest known communities in India, the Bhil inhabit certain parts of southern Rajasthan. Commonly spoken languages include Hindi (the official state language), Rajasthani, Dhundhari, Marwari, Bili, Punjabi, Urdu, and English. The literacy rate, per 2011 estimates at 80.51 percent for males and 52.66 percent for females, are below the national average but represent an improvement from decades past.
The Family Unit
The joint family with male head of household is the traditional family unit. As is the case with much of India, there continues to be the tussle between traditional social structures and contemporary values. While much of Rajasthan is rural, Jaipur is both urban and plugged into global trends. Despite this, within the confines of the home, the traditional structure holds. Men continue to be the head of households, women continue to be subservient to men, and their roles continue to be gender-specific. Traditionally, marriages were arranged within the same religious/caste groups and the family of the bride had to pay an agreed upon dowry in the form of cash, gold, or assets such as a house to the family of the groom. Now ruled illegal, the practice nevertheless continues. Marriages are seen as uniting two families and moving out of the family home post-marriage is seen as a rejection of the family and highly discouraged. Divorce is likewise stigmatized with the stigma attaching primarily to the female half of the couple. In cities like Jaipur, “love matches” are beginning to eclipse “arranged matches” and the nuclear family is beginning to be more the norm.
The Food of Rajasthan
Contributing to the area’s cuisine are its history, its legacy of being an abode of Kings/warriors/hunters and its natural features. Among these are the Thar Desert (the “Rajasthan Desert” or “Great Indian Desert”), which occupies much of northwestern part of Rajasthan, making for a dry, sandy area that can get as hot as 129 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and below freezing in the winter. The food of Rajasthan has evolved to overcome these limitations by using dry ingredients and foods with a long shelf life that are hearty and rich. Desserts are made with full fat milk and ghee (clarified butter). Famous dishes in Rajasthani cuisine include
- Dal baati churma: Easily considered the state dish, the Baati is unleavened bread that has a long shelf life. Dal is curried lentils and Churma is a sweet mixture of ground wheat, jaggery, and clarified butter. The Baati is eaten with the curried lentils and the churma.
- Gatte ki subzi: Chickpea flour dumplings that are steamed/fried and then braised in a stew made of buttermilk and tomato. It is served with rice or roti (Indian flatbread).
- Laal Maas/Maans: Laal =red, Maas = meat. A spicy stew of mutton cooked in an onion, tomato, and red chili paste. Eaten with rice or roti.
- Mohan Maas: A creamy meat stew spiced with cardamom and cinnamon.
- Ker sangri: Ker is a wild berry, while Sangri is a long bean, both plants are known to survive drought-like conditions and are a significant source of plant-based protein. Pickled together, this tangy dish is eaten with rotis that are made with millet flour.
- Balushahi: A flaky doughnut like pastry that is soaked in syrup.
- Ghevar: Served for most special occasions, this honeycomb like sweet is made with flour and ghee and sweetened with saffron scented syrup or condensed milk and garnished with pistachios.
The Rajasthan Way of Life
Words that best describe the state, city, and its people are “colors,” “royalty,” and “commerce.” Colors, rich and saturated, be it on the walls of buildings, in the tie-dye and block print fabrics (bandhej and lehariya ) that originated from this part of the world and has been co-opted by fashion designers the world over, in the red turbans worn by the men and jewel-toned saris worn by the women, colors, are everywhere. The state derives its name from the many generations of Kings who ruled over it and takes great pride in being home of the warrior class. Life in Rajasthan continues to be steeped in tradition but manages to coexist with more modern accoutrements. Palaces and temples are abundant as are cellphones and coffee-shops.
In naming Jaipur a World Heritage Site, UNESCO declared the city to have been “designed to be a commercial capital that has maintained its local commercial, artisanal, and cooperative traditions to this day.” Planned by a scholarly King with a nod to astrology, science, and mathematics, the urban plan of the city incorporated “Vastu Shastra” (the ancient Indian science of architecture that is akin to Feng Shui). With colonnaded streets and nine public squares called chaupurs symbolizing nine planets, each block of the city contains a grid of streets marked by cardinal direction. Two chaupurs in the north were to accommodate palaces, while the other seven were systematically assigned to government buildings, homes, shops, and temples to create a mixed-use urban plan. Today, these are bustling commercial areas with boutiques that sell jewelry with precious and semi-precious stones, printed fabric, rugs, and more.
A walk to the park or to the temple at the start of one’s day before heading to work/school is a common ritual in the city of Jaipur. A culturally vibrant city, book fairs, art exhibitions, theater and trade fairs are commonplace and well-attended by Jaipurites in the evenings after work/school and on weekends. Cotton is the preferred fabric for clothing, as an antidote to the hot weather. Women and girls wear saris or suits (harem pants and a long tunic top and shawl draped around the chest) or jeans/skirts/shorts with cotton tops. Males wear jeans/trousers/shorts with cotton shirts. “Namaste” is a common greeting. Elders are to be revered and greeted and their blessings are sought by bending and touching their feet. “Khamma-Ghani” is a phrase used to both greet someone “hello” or to say “goodbye.” Hospitable, friendly and good-natured but with an inherent sense of pride in their history, the Rajasthani and Jaipurites are one of many reasons Rajasthan continues to be a draw for tourists the world over.
View Recipes from India