The custom of not complimenting babies stems from the belief that compliments would attract the envy of the gods – the ‘evil eye’ – and thus bring bad luck to the baby. To ward off the evil eye, Indian babies will sometimes be given a temporary mark on their forehead and wear black bracelets. This will remind you not to compliment them.
Brahmins, India’s highest caste, have a lovely custom of giving a party for pregnant women and loading them up with bangles. The jangling of the bracelets is supposed to emulate the sound of children laughter, bringing happiness to the life of the baby in the belly.
Avoid touching items or smelling flowers or plants (basil for instance) that have been offered to the gods. You may see a beautiful flower or suchlike on a driver’s dashboard. This is the equivalent of a small altar. In the same way many Indians carefully maintain altars in their homes, with figurines of deities which are regularly washed, dressed and fed. To touch them or otherwise interfere with these would amount to soiling a person’s offering to their god of choice.
Trees, especially those of the banyan family, are often considered sacred and people will tie coloured threads (known as moli) to them while making a wish, or a small cradle if the wish is for a baby. People will return to the tree to give thanks when their wish has been fulfilled. An anecdote tells that the inhabitants of a town which had suffered a lot of crime and other misfortune once decided to marry two old trees to avert the evil eye. A thousand people attended the ‘wedding’, covering the trees with flower garlands and red cloth.
Cows and various other animals, like rats, monkeys and elephants, are also sacred in India because they are the vehicles, vahanas, of the gods. Sometimes they are also seen as the home (temporary or permanent) of the souls of the dead. This is the case with the crow and the dog, for example, which might explain why Indian people are not especially fond of dogs – unlike in Europe where they are a favourite pet.
The cow is the best known sacred animal in India. The cow, or rather Nandi the Bull, is the companion and means of transportation of the god Shiva. It is also the animal which, above all others, provides nourishment to humans; the ‘Ocean of Milk’ which is seen as a mother to all. So be careful not to run into a cow in the road, and do not ask for beef in restaurants!
If you see people all dressed in white with a cloth over their mouth and carrying a kind of duster in their hand, they are Jain monks or nuns. Their respect for nature is so great that they do not want to kill any creature by treading on it or even breathing it in. This custom is known as ahimsa, ‘to kill nothing’ or ‘to do no harm to any living creature’, a concept also strongly propagated by Mahatma Gandhi, in life and in politics.
Recently, as cities in India have grown more crowded, cow-friendly policies have caused problems, especially in road traffic. The city of Delhi has been reported as hiring dozens of urban ‘cowboys’ in charge of catching and moving cows outside the city limits. There is also apparently a plan to attach reflectors to the behinds of elephants, in order to avoid cars colliding with them.