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 pregnant woman a party and loading her up with bangles. The jangling of the bangles is supposed to emulate the sound of laughter, bringing happiness to the life of the baby in the belly.
The inhabitants of a town which had suffered a lot of crime and other misfortune once decided to marry two old trees to move the evil eye away. A thousand people attended the ‘wedding’, covering the trees with flower garlands and red cloth. You will often see coloured threads, known as moli, and sometimes tiny wooden cradles hanging from trees in India.
Trees, especially those of the banyan family, are often considered sacred and people will tie strings 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.
Avoid touching items or smelling flowers 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, including figures 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.
Cows and various other animals, like rats, monkeys and elephants, are 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.
In Europe, animals like black cats or crows are sometimes believed to be vehicles of the devil. This is why it is considered bad luck if your path is crossed by a black cat. Funnily enough, it is not the same with dogs. In England, there is an old superstition that a person who is followed by a stray dog will be blessed with good luck. If the dog follows you on a rainy night, however, it brings bad luck.
In Ireland, spitting on a baby will bring it luck. In Wales, babies are luckier: you just need to put honey on their head to get the same effect. In Hungary and the Czech Republic, a pregnant woman who wants her child to be a boy will put sunflowers seeds on her window ledge. If she wants a girl, she will put sugar there.