12 Shocking Indian Traditions and Rituals

Sunday, March 3, 2019

India is a land of diversity, and diverse is its culture. There are some traditions and rituals which are unique to this country. And with its population over a billion, there are many rituals followed without any scientific explanation behind them. While some are fun, some can be very painful, and they indeed are.

Call it blind faith or superstition; these are some weird Indian traditions many people follow by heart, inherited from ancestors.

#1: Thimithi – Tamil Nadu

Thimithi is a fire walking ceremony practiced in Tamil Nadu, where the devotees walk slowly on a bed of hot coal.
Thimithi is a fire walking ceremony practiced in Tamil Nadu, where the devotees walk slowly on a bed of hot coal.

This ritual of walking on fire is practiced in honor of Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas. People say Draupadi walked on a bed of fire to prove her purity, after the Mahabharata war. The war was fought between Pandavas and Kauravas because Draupadi was insulted by Kauravas.

The devotees believe their wish will be granted if they walk on a bed of red-hot coal and come out safe. They have to walk on it slowly and in the process, burning their feet. Many people fall and burn other body parts too.

When and where: In the state of Tamil Nadu, around October-November

#2: Nag Panchami

Snake worship is yet another tradition practiced all over India. On a certain day each year, people give their offerings to the snakes, including milk!
Snake worship is yet another tradition practiced all over India. On a certain day each year, people give their offerings to the snakes, including milk!

This snake festival is widely followed among Indian traditions. The fifth date of the Shravan month (sometime in July-August) is marked as the day for worshipping snakes. People believe that snakes won’t bite on this day and feed them milk. Funny thing is, snakes usually do not and cannot digest milk!

Read more: How Do Himalayans Celebrate Nag Panchami?

Live snakes, without their fangs removed, are worshipped on this day. People shower flower petals on them and also haldi (turmeric) and kumkum (vermillion) powder, wishing for their long lives.

When and where: All over India, around July-August

#3: Bani Festival – Andhra Pradesh

Bani Festival, where the devotees celebrate the killing of a demon by Lord Shiva with stick fighting is one of the unique Andhra Pradesh festivals.
Bani Festival, where the devotees celebrate the killing of a demon by Lord Shiva with stick fighting is one of the unique Andhra Pradesh festivals.

The Bani festival is held on Dussehra. On this occasion, devotees gather at a temple in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh with lathi (thick wooden sticks) to celebrate. And how does the celebration goes? They hit each other on the heads at midnight, and the celebration continues till dawn with the devotees drenched in blood wholly.

Read more: Learn About These 10 Colourful National Festivals of India!

They do this to recall the killing of a demon by Lord Shiva. A unique way of celebration, isn’t it?

When and where: In Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, around September-October

#4: Thaipoosam – Tamil Nadu

Thaipusam Festival is a celebration in which the devotees honor Lord Murugan by piercing their body with hooks and lances.
Thaipusam Festival is a celebration in which the devotees honor Lord Murugan by piercing their body with hooks and lances.

In Thaipoosam, you can experience one of the most painful Indian traditions. People celebrate the ritual of body piercing to honor Lord Murugan, who received a spear to kill the evil Tarakasura. During the Tamil Thai month, devotees keep fast for 48 days and pierce their body parts with vel (spears), lances and hooks. Thaipusam is more about food for the soul than food for the body.

Read more: 8 Most Impressive Palaces in India

Many also practice piercing their tongues and cheeks with skewers. As a result of which serious injuries happen and thus, hampers speech delivery. Some even try to pull vehicles or other heavy objects with a rope tied to the hooks.

When and where: In the state of Tamil Nadu, around January-February

#5: Garudan Thookam – Kerala

Garudan Thookkam is one of the painful Indian traditions where the participants are hung on a shaft with hooks. It is one of the traditional rituals in Kerala.
Garudan Thookkam is one of the painful Indian traditions where the participants are hung on a shaft with hooks. It is one of the traditional rituals in Kerala.

Another painful ritual is the Garudan Thookam, performed on Makara Bharani Day and Kumbha Bharani Day in Kerala. Artists make dance performance dressed like Garuda (Lord Vishnu’s vehicle). After the dance, they are hung from a shaft and taken around in a procession.

OK, what’s painful about it? They hang with the help of hooks, put into their flesh on the back. Offbeat? Yes.

When and where: In the state of Kerala, in April

#6: Aadi Festival – Tamil Nadu

Aadi Festival is one of festivals in Tamil Nadu with unique way of celebrating. The devotees gather to celebrate the protest against British by allowing the priest to perform the coconut breaking ritual on their heads!
Aadi Festival is one of festivals in Tamil Nadu with unique way of celebrating. The devotees gather to celebrate the protest against British by allowing the priest to perform the coconut breaking ritual on their heads!

This relatively new tradition is going on at a temple in Karur, Tamil Nadu. British wanted to build a track on the land where the temple is but faced protests from the villagers. So, they asked the villagers to break the 187 coconut shaped stones with their head, and the train tracks won’t be built.

And to the bad luck of British, villagers succeeded. People still follow the tradition and allow the temple’s priest to break coconuts on their head. They believe it will bring good luck and health.

When and where: In Karur, Tamil Nadu, around July-August

#7: Madey Snana – Karnataka

During Madey Snana, the higher-caste Brahmins eat the food served on leaves. Afterwards, the lower-caste Dalits roll over the leftover food.
During Madey Snana, the higher-caste Brahmins eat the food served on leaves. Afterwards, the lower-caste Dalits roll over the leftover food.

The Madey Snana (Spit Bath) is a ritual practiced in some regions of Karnataka. The prasadam (food) is served on leaves, and people sit on the floor to eat it. And after the higher caste Brahmins finish their meal, the lower-caste Dalits roll over the leftover food on the plates. People believe that this will cure them, get healthier and more prosperous.

What’s interesting is that even though the practice has been banned, the lower caste people don’t want this tradition to stop. 

When and where: In Mangalore, Karnataka, mid-December

#8: Animal Weddings

One of unusual facts of India is that animal marriages, such as this monkey marriage, are arranged to appease the Rain God who will in turn provide rain to vitalize the crops.
One of unusual facts of India is that animal marriages, such as this monkey marriage, are arranged to appease the Rain God who will in turn provide rain to vitalize the crops.

Even with so much modernization, India is still an agricultural country. Thus, a significant part of the population depends on timely rains. And animal weddings is believed to be one of the ways to please the Rain God. Yes, there is a God who brings showers, directs the monsoon winds.

Unlike other traditions you read above, animal weddings are not limited to a particular region. In Assam, a frog wedding is performed by Hindu marriage rituals. Same happens in Maharashtra, accompanied by a celebration. Even priests are available to do the ceremonies properly. Donkeys are married off in Karnataka and some hold dog weddings. Want to join the party?

Not only animal weddings, but there also is a tradition of the human-animal marriage. It is done to eliminate any risks due to the mangal dosh in their horoscope. Another practice to (sort-of) exorcise someone with mangal dosh is to wed him/her off to a tree.

When and where: All over India, during the rainy season (June-September)

#9: Throwing babies from the roof - Maharashtra

In India, specifically Maharashtra, babies are tossed from to roof to the crowd holding a blanket to catch the baby. This is one of the most shocking Indian traditions that should bring good luck to the babies.
In India, specifically Maharashtra, babies are tossed from to roof to the crowd holding a blanket to catch the baby. This is one of the most shocking Indian traditions that should bring good luck to the babies.

Among the most shocking Indian traditions is the dropping of babies from the roof. Although prevalent among Muslims, Hindus practice it too. At a dargah (shrine) in Sholapur, Maharashtra, the tradition is to drop the babies from the tower. The crowd below stands with a large blanket to catch the baby (usually, less than two years of age). The parents believe that this brings good luck to the babies.

Something similar is prevalent in a Karnataka temple near Indi for the last 700 years.

When and where: In Sholapur, Maharashtra

#10: Mourning of Muharram

Mourning of Muharram in India is associated with intensive fasting and self flagellation with chains.
Mourning of Muharram in India is associated with intensive fasting and self flagellation with chains.

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar. And in this month the Muslims across the country remember the Battle of Karbala and mourn the death of Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. They keep fast for ten days and on last day, they carry out this uneasy ritual.

Read more: Things to Know About Muharran

The devotees whip themselves with chains (which have knives and razors at their end) until they are soaked in their blood. It’s another thing that they feel nothing. 

When and where: All over India, around August-September

#11: Aghoris

The Aghoris practice a lifestyle that practices consuming the meat of the corpses and doing drugs to allegedly channeling dark magic.
The Aghoris practice a lifestyle that practices consuming the meat of the corpses and doing drugs to allegedly channeling dark magic.

The Aghori sadhus are followers of Lord Shiva and are known for their off-beat practices. They live on or near the cremation grounds, and you can spot them easily with their ash smeared bodies.

Unlike other sadhus, they do drugs, drink alcohol and eat meat, the meat of the corpses. Not only do they consume flesh, but they also use the bones as vessels and jewelry. Also, it is said that an aghori knows and performs black magic and thus, is also called a tantrik.

Primarily spotted in Varanasi (or Banaras), you can find aghoris scattered all over India. 

When and where: In Banaras, Uttar Pradesh

#12: Jallikattu – Tamil Nadu

In Jalikattu, the participants compete to attain the prize from the head of the bull.
In Jalikattu, the participants compete to attain the prize from the head of the bull.

In English words, it’s bull-fighting. Reminds you of Spain? Well, the Indian version is more dangerous. The game (or ritual) of Jallikattu is played during the festival of Pongal. A wild bull has a flag/prize put on its horn and men compete with each other to get it first.

In another version, the one who can hold onto the bull or ride on it for the longest time is the winner. There also are competitions to control the beast (without using weapons), and the one who succeeds is declared the winner. Does it seem like the deadliest of Indian traditions? It might be.

When and where: In the state of Tamil Nadu, mid-January

These are just some of the most shocking Indian traditions and rituals!

The list isn’t exhaustive, and there are many other shocking practices in India. But I am just hoping that someday these bizarre traditions get replaced with some logical ones.

Abhijeet Kumar a freelance content writer for aSabbatical.com
We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.