We all love Bollywood, bhangra and biryani—but there’s much more to discover about India. From important inventions and ancient cities to a temple of rats (yes, rats), this gigantic and fascinating country—home to over 1.3 billion people—has endless tales and traditions.
Here are 10 things you didn’t know about India—until now.
India has 22 recognised languages
The official languages of India are Hindi and English. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many tongues of India. Other widely spoken languages in India include Tamil, Urdu, Kashmiri, Bengali and Santali.
And let’s not forget Sanskrit. It’s considered to be the oldest in the world and is the language used for most ancient Hindu texts. Unfortunately, it’s barely spoken outside Hindu temples. Fondly called the “mother of all languages”, Sanskrit is said to be the language of the demi-gods.
India brought shampoo to the world
When you step out of the shower after a thorough hair wash, you’ve got India to thank for your clean and silky locks. That’s because a long, long time ago, a group of people in an Indian village mixed dried Indian gooseberry with other herbs. The result? An effective paste for washing hair. The recipe is still used in parts of the country today!
The word ‘shampoo’ comes from the Hindi word ‘champo’.
India is home to the most ancient city in the world (some might say)
According to some, Varanasi is the world’s most ancient surviving city. The holy city is situated in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and is believed to be the home of the Hindu god Shiva and goddess Parvati.
Many devout Hindus flock to Varanasi in the final weeks of their life as pilgrims, as it’s believed that taking your last breath in the ancient Indian city to achieve Moksha, a Hindu term for enlightenment. There is even a charity-run “death hotel” that welcomes those who wish to live out their last days in such a holy place.
Varanasi also goes by the names Banaras and Kashi.
India is famous for post offices
India doesn’t only have the most post offices in the world—it also has the world’s only floating post office! Send your postcards from a houseboat on the edges of the beautiful Dal Lake, near the Kashmiri city of Srinagar.
The scenery—including snow-covered mountains surrounding the lake—is what draws thousands of tourists to the area each year.
The tallest statue in the world is in India
Depicting revered Indian statesman and independence activist Vallabhbhai Patel, the Statue of Unity is the tallest statue in the world. And it’s a great source of pride for many Indians. Patel was the first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of India once it had gained independence. He was also a fan of Gandhi and his non-violent movement for Indian independence.
The statue stands at an impressive 182 metres! It lives on the banks of the Narmada river in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Snakes and Ladders came from India
One of our personal favourite childhood games, Snakes and Ladders actually hails from India. According to folklore, the game—also known as ‘Shoots and Ladders’—was created by a poet-saint called Gyandev, over 800 years ago.
Its purpose? To teach children right from wrong. The snakes represent vices, or immoral activities that can lead to our downfall. Meanwhile, the ladders symbolise virtues, or opportunities to rise up.
The original name for this centuries-old game is ‘Mokshapat’.
There’s a Temple of Rats in Rajasthan
Though seen in many parts of the world as disease-ridden pests, rats fare better in Rajasthan, where there’s a temple dedicated entirely to them. The Karni Mata Temple is a Hindu temple that’s home to 25,000 rats.
All rats that live and roam in the temple are revered but the few white ones are especially sacred. People even share food and drink with them, believing that the rats’ saliva has healing properties.
The most isolated people in the world live in India
North Sentinel Island is said to be the most untouched place in the world. It forms one of the Andaman Islands and is home to the Sentinelese people. These islanders are so isolated that India has a ban on people getting closer than approximately 9km to the island.
Unusually, the Sentinelese welcomed anthropologist, Madhumala Chattophadhyay in 1991. But, in recent years, they’ve been more hostile to attempted visitors including Christian missionary John Chau. He ignored the Sentinelese people’s hostility in 2018 and was ultimately killed on a second attempt at landing on the island.
Indians have many superstitions
… and here are a few of our favourites:
Cutting nails and hair on Saturday brings bad luck, according to some Hindus
They believe that doing so brings bad luck because it makes the planet Saturn (shani) angry.
You can prevent bad dreams by keeping onions and knives under your bed
Some Indians keep both an onion and a knife beneath the bed of a newborn baby to keep their dreams sweet. Apparently, the onion also gives you clear dreams of your future partner.
Has the sun already set? Put the broom down
That’s right. Sweeping after sunset is strongly discouraged! Doing so means you’ll shortly come into some bad luck. It’s also known to drive Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and purity) from the home. Hold on to your wallet!
India is the home of chess
Snakes and Ladders isn’t the only common game to trace its origins back to India. The earliest form of chess is thought to have been created in India too. This goes way back to the 7th century AD (potentially even before then).
Quickly, the game spread to Persia, and it then spread through the Arab world and arrived in Southern Europe. Soon, the whole world knew about this gripping game.
We’re aware that the Covid-19 crisis has recently overwhelmed Indian homes and hospitals. We’d like to offer our condolences to all those who have lost family and friends, and our support to all those dealing with the stress and fallout of the pandemic. You are in our thoughts.