India is one of the world’s oldest existing cultures, having begun about 4,500 years ago. Although the early Western societies may have regarded Indian culture as inferior, the Indians were actually very advanced for their time and contributed many key concepts in architecture, mathematics and medicine.
One famous aspect of Indian culture is its food. Indian food is well known for incorporating a wide assortment of herbs and spices. Common staples are wheat and rice, usually served with curries. A larger than normal percentage of the Indian population is vegetarian – between 20 to 40 percent. Additionally, Indians traditionally eat with their fingers or by scooping the ingredients up with bread – a cultural aspect that some non-Indians still view with disdain. In actual fact, eating with the fingers is a highly refined art not only in India, but also in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
Indian cultural clothing is still worn today by many modern Indians, not only those residing in India but also Indians who have moved to other parts of the world. Women typically wear a sari, a cloth spanning about 4.57 to 6.4 meters long, which is wrapped around the body and worn like a dress. In more urban places, women may wear a salwar kameez, a long dress outfit covering long pants. Traditional clothing for men consists of a dhoti or lungi, a loose bottom wrap usually worn in warm climates. It is usually worn alone, with the person going topless.
There is no official language in India, but its constitution recognizes 23 official languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, Telugu, Marathi and Bengali. India also practiced an intricate set of religious beliefs since early on, becoming the country of origin for Hinduism and Buddhism, the third and fourth largest religions in the world. Today, many of the historical sites preserved are sacred places, such as the Temples of Rameshvaram and Badrinath – also showcasing the advanced architecture of ancient India.
One of India’s most iconic pieces of architecture is the Taj Mahal. Commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the temple is made of full white marble and was finished in 1653, after 22 years of construction. It is considered one of the New Wonders of the World. The Taj Mahal was built in honor of Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of Shah Jahan. The two enjoyed a loving and intimate marriage. Mumtaz Mahal was beautiful and smart, and was greatly loved by the people for her kindness. Inseparable from her husband, she accompanied Shah Jahan as he went to war, even though she was pregnant and almost due. Unfortunately, she died in the arms of her husband at the military camp, a day after giving birth to the couple’s fourteenth child.
In Shah Jahan’s grief, he reportedly stayed in his tent and wept for eight days. Bringing his wife’s body in a grand procession back to Agra, he set to work designing the most magnificent mausoleum to put others to shame. It is believed that Shah Jahan himself worked on the architectural plans, with input from his advisors and great architects of India. Finally, when the Taj Mahal was completed, Shah Jahan had his wife interred within. He himself was eventually buried alongside her in the grand temple.
China is another ancient civilization alongside India, bringing with it a rich heritage of thousands of years. One of the most famous philosophers, Confucius, came from around the fifth century BC and inspired many beliefs that still persist today.
The language of China comprises of one writing system and numerous spoken dialects, of which Mandarin is only one. In fact, the many Chinese dialects are so distinct as to be uninterchangeable, sometimes even functioning like completely different languages. Despite that, the written word has remained the same since its creation thousands of years ago. Unlike phonetic writing systems, written Chinese is represented with characters in pictographs and ideographs, where each character represents one syllable. Although the traditional writing system is still in use in some countries such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, mainland China uses the simplified writing system nowadays, which was developed by the communist government in an attempt to increase the literacy rate.
China started out as a feudal state, but became an empire under the rule of Qin Shihuang. It then transitioned to the Han Dynasty after three years. The Imperial Examination System, introduced during this period, was a rigorous examination that often required at least ten years of study before one could hope to pass. Any who scored well would be invited to take up a lucrative position in the government courts, deemed to be a high honor. Even if a successful candidate were not awarded such a position, they could expect to be showered with gifts and respect when they returned to their home village. This practice began the culture of meritocracy and a strong emphasis on education, which still remain in Chinese culture all over Asia today.
For much of the later dynasties, the people of China experienced an oppressive rule, although not without opportunities for art and architecture. In particular, calligraphy and music were held in high esteem, and they were often reserved for the upper class. Artisans who were able to partake in art appreciation were usually nobles.
China has historically been a patriarchal society, even up till very recently. For instance, only men were allowed to take part in the imperial examinations, fight in the military and serve in court. Although popular media has inspired us with stories of heroines such as Mulan, most of the women of China were in a precarious position. One of the practices women were subject to was foot-binding, which probably originated around the tenth century and later spread to all social classes. The upper-class families had the highest percentage of women with bound feet – nearly a hundred percent, perhaps because women in lower classes were required to help with hard labor in the fields. Foot-binding was a painful practice that involved breaking the toes and arch of a young girl’s feet before they were fully grown, binding the result in tight bandages for a lifetime, in order to permanently shrink the foot to fit into tiny three-inch lotus shoes. Small feet were perceived as dainty and a sign of femininity. Many women and girls bound their own feet, partly out of social pressure and also the fear of not being able to find a man who would marry a woman with normal-sized feet. However, because their tiny, misshapen feet rendered them unable to move far from home, the practice made girls heavily reliant on their families, and later on their husbands. It took decades for foot-binding to finally go out of fashion. Even though efforts were taken to curb it in 1912, many girls still continued to bind their feet in secret. Today, all that remains of the foot-binding practice are a bare handful of elderly women who have survived far past their peers.