10 most bizarre traditions of India

India has no shortage of bizarre traditions and taboos that persist to this day.

Published: May 26, 2017 8:30 PM IST

By Anoop Menon

India is no stranger to strange rituals. The country has become home to numerous communities, tribes and religions. Over the centuries, these communities and their traditions and rituals have combined to form all kinds of odd mixtures. Some have developed unique rituals and festivals out of nowhere, and there are some traditions that remain unchanged despite the centuries. Because of this, the country now has a number of really bizarre traditions that you otherwise would not find anywhere else. But their oddness reflects the incredible diversity of India and shines some light on the kind of lives that people here live. Here, then, are 10 of the most bizarre traditions of India that you must see to believe. ALSO READ: 8 festivals that keep India’s spirit alive!

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Dhinga Gavar

Women masquerading as gods during Dhinga Gavar

Women masquerading as gods during Dhinga Gavar

Located in the Thar desert under the watchful ancient eyes of the towering Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur is a fascinating city to visit, especially during its local festival called Dhinga Gavar. The festival is actually based on the more nationally celebrated Gangaur, which starts from the first day of Chaitra following the more popular Holi.

The story behind this festival is thus: the god Shiva, part of the trinity that forms the core of Hinduism, teased his wife Parvati in the form of a cobbler. Parvati, in turn, teased Shiva by taking the form of a tribal woman. On Dhinga Gavar, statues of the folk deity are placed at 11 parts of the old city. The offerings are a mix of dry fruits and cannabis called ‘moi’, and women dress up as various gods and goddesses, tribal folk, policewomen and others, patrolling the streets to protect the deities. Unmarried men roam the streets waiting to get beaten by them, because it is said that they will get married soon if they are struck.

Nag Panchami

A tamer version of Nag Panchami celebrations in Nagpur, Maharashtra

A tamer version of Nag Panchami celebrations in Nagpur, Maharashtra

Nag Panchami is a little more popular than the festival above, and the rituals of this festival revolve around appeasing snakes. The slithering reptiles are actually an important, and positive, part of Hindu mythology. They have been portrayed as prominent characters in various legends, and Nagas are celestial beings are venerated by several sections of the Hindu community. Nag Panchami falls on the fifth day of the Shravana month of the Hindu lunar calendar, and is celebrated in Nepal as well.

The festival is observed in most parts of the country, with the usual fast and prayers. Some places, however, see devotees feeding snakes milk and sometimes even rats. As part of the rituals, temple priests sprinkle flower petals and other auspicious items on the snakes. The village of Baltis Shirale in Maharashtra is said to host the grandest of all celebrations, supposedly with a huge group of snakes. ALSO READ: Nag Panchami: Everything you need to know about this festival

Marriage with dogs and other animals

This one is not a festival, but it is no less of a bizarre ritual conducted, to this day, in many parts of India. The more popular reason for this is that some folks are born during a particularly terrible astrological combination called Mangal Dosh. These guys, called Mangliks, are considered bad news for whoever they marry. So to get rid of the terrible fate that their spouses would be burdened with, they are made to marry an animal, usually a dog or a goat. Sometimes even a tree.

After a quick prayer and offerings made to the gods, the Manglik is now free to marry whosoever he or she chooses. The marriage with animals is also done for other less common reasons, like if the girl has some facial deformation or her teeth arrive too early. Naturally, girls draw the short end of the stick here, but these rituals are thankfully getting less common these days.

Baby Throwing or Dropping

This controversial festival happens in Solapur in Maharashtra, with parents throwing their babies from a tower onto a sheet that is held by villagers. The festival is scary to say the least, but the villagers say that this ritual blesses the children with healthy lives. The government has already condemned the ritual, but you can still find local police and authorities at the event to take care of any problems. The ritual is typically done by parents who have prayed at the Baba Umer Dargah for their pregnancy, but these days it is no longer tied to a single religion; you can find Muslims and Hindus partaking in the ceremony.

Bhai Dooj

Vermilion (Tika) being applied as part of a ritual

Vermilion (Tika) being applied as part of a ritual

A less harmful festival than throwing babies willy nilly is Bhai Dooj, also called Bhaiya Dooj. The festival is popular in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand as another version of Raksha Bandhan. It typically falls during the Diwali celebrations and sees fairly innocuous rituals like applying vermilion on the brother’s forehead and performing prayers to the gods for a long and healthy life for the brother. But some parts of UP and Bihar have a different take on the festival. In many regions, sisters will spend the day cursing and abusing their brothers.

The bizarre ritual can be traced back to the legend of a sister who kept cursing her brother until he got married, thus saving his life. After the day is well spent giving the choicest of bad words to their brothers, the sisters prick their tongues with the thorns of a wild fruit to atone for their sins and ask for forgiveness from their brothers. Bizarre, but at least the babies are safe.

Bani Festival

Kurnool, where the Bani Festival takes place

Kurnool, where the Bani Festival takes place

Every year, the Devaragattu Temple in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh is host to a rather odd festival called Bani. The festival falls during the more popular Dusshera, and sees devotees hitting each other with lathis through the night. The bloody ritual starts at midnight and continues until the sun rises, and pilgrims from neighboring Karnataka and all across Andhra Pradesh come to take part and witness the act. Dusshera, as you may know, marks the end of Navratri and the victory of the goddess Durga over a demon.

The Bani festival celebrates something similar; it marks the victory of Mala Malleshwara, a form of Shiva, over a demon. You can find police personnel and medical staff on standby during the festival, since injuries are obviously quite frequent. The temple’s priests believe that the festival has been going on for more than a century, and spears and axes were used before they downgraded to something a bit more tame and less likely to maim others.


The pierced back of a Hindu devotee taking part in the Thaipusam festival in Malaysia

The pierced back of a Hindu devotee taking part in the Thaipusam festival in Malaysia

From Andhra, we move down south to the state of Tamil Nadu, famous for its share of oddball festivals. The Jalikattu festival recently courted controversy and is now pretty familiar to everyone, so we won’t touch on that. But there is another festival worth mentioning for its oddness: Thaipoosam. This festival venerates Kartikeya (known down south as Murugan), the son of Shiva and Parvati. Specifically, it celebrates Kartikeya receiving his celestial lance to destroy the demon king Tarakasura’s army. To commemorate a feat so intense, the festivities are intense as well.

Thaipoosam involves an extensive fast for 48 days, after which devotees pierce their bodies with lances, skewers and hooks. You can find road processions in some parts of the state where devotees pull heavy objects, even tractors, with the hooks on their skin. They pierce their cheek and tongue, and many of them dance in a trance-like state to the drums and cries of other devotees. ALSO READ: Why the Thaipusam festival is not for the weak-hearted

Cannibalism among the Aghori

Aghori Sadhu smoking Chillum

Aghori Sadhu smoking Chillum

Next we look at the Aghori sect of Shaivites, revered by many and often shunned and avoided by others. The Aghoris believe that Shiva is perfect and so is all that has been created, and to shun anything at all would, in fact, mean that they are shunning perfect. So nothing is taboo, including the various post-mortem rituals that they take part in. Aghori monks can be found at cremation grounds, with the ashes of the dead smeared on their bodies.

Aghoris, in fact, get their sustenance from the cremation grounds of Varanasi. Their clothes are from the dead, their food from the River Ganga besides the grounds and their firewood from the pyres. Some Aghoris are known to also consume the meat of the dead, in the most bizarre form of cannibalism. Dead bodies that are often found floating on the river are gathered by the Aghoris and consumed raw.

Made Snana

Kukke Subramanya Temple, where Made Snana is actively practised, Photograph Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Kukke Subramanya Temple, where Made Snana is actively practised, Photograph Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

One of the positive philosophies followed by the Aghoris is that they do not desire social recognition, nor do they they follow the hierarchy of castes that is still prevalent in India today, blinding many people. A case in point is the practice of Made Snana, observed in some Karnataka temples to this day. The practice involves lower-caste folks rolling over the leftover food of higher-caste Brahmins, because they believe that it ca cure of them of diseases.

The practice naturally draws considerable criticism, but many still come to see the ritual as it happens. The Dalits and tribal folks have, meanwhile, spoken in support of the ritual, saying that it is not a forceful practice but one that is done with full devotion towards their gods. Made Snana was briefly banned for a year by the government before being lifted after widespread protests.

Lath mar Holi

Women beat up men with long sticks as a ritual in the Lathmar Holi celebration

Women beat up men with long sticks as a ritual in the Lathmar Holi celebration

And finally, we go back to North India, specifically Uttar Pradesh. In the town of Barsana, Holi is celebrated in a very different way. As you may have guessed from the name, the festival involves hitting people with sticks. The story behind this goes back to the Hindu god Krishna, whose city Mathura lies just around 42 km from the town. Krishna is said to have visited Barsana, the village of his consort Radha. As he was wont to do, Krishna mischievously teased Radha and her friends, but the women of the villagers took offense and chased him away.

The practice of Lath mar Holi commemorates the story, with men from Nandgaon, the village where Krishna was raised, visiting Barsana to play the festival of colors. And in the Radha Rani temple of the town, women beat up the men with their sticks while others sing songs and cry in praise of Krishna. Interestingly, Barsana is home to the only temple that venerates Radha. ALSO READ: Here’s why you should not miss Holi celebrations in Varanasi

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Published Date: May 26, 2017 8:30 PM IST