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A Glimpse into India’s Unique Gift Giving Culture

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The Origins

Amid the third era of highly influential and profound Tamil literature, the ancient poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar wrote 1330 couplets in the 4th century BCE. The collection, widely considered a masterpiece of Tamil Literature, was ripe with philosophical ideas and musings and ethical codes of conduct. The book called the Thirukkural, or alternately- Poyyāmoḻi, literally meaning “words that never fail”, was one of the first in the literature to talk about the idea of dana; a Sanskrit and Pali word that meant generosity. It soon came to be associated with various gifting traditions and rituals in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. 

The concept of dana is closely related to the practice of dharma. With dharma in question, ideas of duty and obligation always follow- manifesting into the various cultural practises around gift-giving in our country. From a mandatory extra rupee in monetary gifts to food vessels being in a constant exchange cycle between neighbours, gift-giving in India persists as slightly formal, slightly curious but wholesome rituals of affection that encourage community relations and interpersonal bonds. However, the transition of cultural gift practises to a more personalised one shows how an evolving country has its culture adapt. Historically, the essence of gifting was often associated with ideas of charity and duty. In many ways, this still holds but certain transformations have taken root. Several hadiths in Islam have also been suggestive of the importance of mutual gift-giving. A common saying amongst Islamic culture is “tahaabu, tahaadu”, translating roughly to “exchange gifts, and spread love to one another”. 

Food

Common to most Indian communities is the ritual of exchanging food as gifts. In a way, these communities have institutionalised food into the practice of several traditions and festivals. During Ramadan, Muslims are often encouraged to feed each other to break the fast, or iftar, and donate grains on Eid, a tradition known as zakat-ul-fitr. Besides, most Indian festivals’ standing rule is that it is incomplete without the exchange of mithai or sometimes even dry fruits. 

Vessels

There also comes the contemporary tradition of the eternally loaded vessel, perpetually in momentum between two (or sometimes more) neighbours. Not once has an empty vessel been returned to my house, nor has one left it. The bowl that the Aunty from below sent to our house, chock full of the most delicious gajar ka halwa, left the very next day, scrubbed and washed and refilled with freshly made pieces of ghughra and chutney.  

“The undhyu (a dish) you made was really nice. I was getting your vessel back and I know you really liked the Thai Curry last time, so I got some of it for you!” 

Peculiarities

Several Indian communities frown upon the act of handing something over to someone with the left hand- and this is especially true when it comes to giving one another gifts in the form of food. 

Another peculiarity of gift-giving recently unveiled to me were the cold, round metallic coins weighing down envelopes of cash gifts, often given to me by relatives. This practice is comparable to the tradition of Eidi where cash gifts are often given to children by relatives and family friends during Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. This auspicious custom, or shagun, is supposed to denote something that is “indivisible”- to symbolise the infinity of blessings and the continuity and abundance of joys well-wishes. 

Weddings

Besides festivals, the space and time most associated with gift culture is that of weddings. With their myriad traditions, quintessential Indian weddings, distinctive to each community- often involve a few pompous, obligatory gift customs. 

Besides festivals, the space and time most associated with gift culture is that of weddings. Quintessential Indian weddings, with their myriad traditions, distinctive to each community- often involve a few pompous, obligatory gift customs. Sikhism, the parent religion of the tradition of langar often referred to as a “gift to humanity” with its nondiscriminatory, inclusive and incredibly generous approach- has a number of rituals that involve gift giving and exchanging. Their wedding traditions begin with the Roka and the Sagai, involving an exchange of sweets and cash, as well as clothes and jewelry at times. This is followed by the exchange of red and white ivory bangles and golden baubles for good luck, known as kaleeran, during the Choora Chadana ritual. Finally, the Pagphera marks the end to the wedding festivities with even more gifts and blessings. Although the clothes and jewelry are often brand new, some families and traditions call for family heirlooms, like sarees and bangles, being passed down to the newlyweds- like in the Sikh wedding tradition known as Sagan.

Several other communities in India harbor unique traditions of gift giving during wedding celebrations. Paharvani is one such Marwari custom, where a silver vessel known as a Kachola, is gifted by the family marrying into another. Bengali pre wedding traditions include the Gae Halud Tattva and the Adhibas Tattva, both including six sarees, cosmetics, fish, sweets and curd- the former being gifted to the bride, and the latter to the groom. 

Symbolism

In the Zoroastrian tradition of Haft-Sin, seven symbolic items are arranged on a table on Nowruz, or Parsi New Year. An exchange of gifts with a friend of mine’s relatives and family friends has been a recently developed tradition to celebrate the festival. Once in a while, items from the Haft-Sin would grace my house, and a couple of times, graced hers through my hands. The seven items include mung, pudding, olive, vinegar, apple, garlic, sumac, wheatgrass, fruits and barley- but there are numerous variations. The day is also traditionally celebrated with gifts such as flowers and sweets. 

Cultures of gift-giving in India seem to be rooted in religious beliefs and practises- often embodying an actual motivation, but simultaneously transcending that obligatory sense to establish warm and welcoming traditions. It’s also incredibly fascinating to identify the distinctive identity that each practice seems to embody- the glitz of the wedding gift customs, for instance, and the modest but hearty unspoken tradition of never returning an empty vessel, as well as the deceptively altruistic and straightforward ritual of langar. Gift giving is indeed a love language and one that the communities in India certainly seem to have a handle on.

Experience Further

This delightful song by Canadian Indie band Stars, was recently introduced to me by a beloved friend. I instantly fell in love with the lyrics and it’s catchy synth- pop pulse, and found myself listening to it on repeat for weeks. It was within that time period that this article was written, and I came to closely associate the two- and it didn’t make for a bad combo. The spirit of the song seemed to coincide with the ideas of giving and community that I was exploring, and that made for a satisfying and inspiring listen. 

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About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.

Disclamer

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