Table of Contents
India is a land of rich cultural heritage, with a history spanning several thousand years. It’s the place of origin of many of the world’s great religions and philosophies (think Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism), and is known for its cultural diversity, film industry, large population, food, passion for cricket, and colorful festivities.
With all this, there are many national official and unofficial symbols that represent India. Here’s a look at some of the most popular.
- National Day: 15th of August – Indian Independence Day
- National Anthem: Jana Gana Mana
- National Currency: Indian Rupee
- National Colors: Green, white, saffron, orange and blue
- National Tree: Indian banyan tree
- National Flower: Lotus
- National Animal: Bengal tiger
- National Bird: Indian peafowl
- National Dish: Khichdi
- National Sweet: Jalebi
National Flag of India
The national flag of India is a rectangular, horizontal tricolor design with saffron on the top, white in the middle and green at the bottom and a dharma wheel (dharmachakra) in the cente.
- The saffron-colored band indicates the courage and strength of the country.
- The white band with the navy-blue Ashoka Chakra indicates truth and peace.
- The dharma wheel can be found in most major Indian religion. Each spoke of the wheel symbolizes a principle in life and together they symbolize the 24 hours in a day which is why it’s also known as the ‘Wheel of Time’.
- The green band signifies the auspiciousness of the land as well as fertility and growth.
The flag was chosen in its present form during a Constituent Assembly meeting in 1947 and since then it’s been the national flag of the Dominion of India. By law, it should be made of a special hand-spun cloth called ‘khadi’ or silk, popularised by Mahatma Gandhi. It’s always flown with the saffron band on the top. The flag is never to be flown at half-mast on Independence Day, Republic Day or on state formation anniversaries, as it’s considered to be an insult to it and the nation.
Coat of Arms of India
The Indian coat of arms consists of four lions (symbolizing pride and royalty), standing on a pedestal with the Ashoka Chakra on each of its four sides. In the 2D view of the symbol, only 3 of the lions’ heads can be seen since the fourth is hidden from view.
The chakras come from Buddhism, representing honesty and truth. On either side of each chakra is a horse and a bull which signify the strength of the Indian people.
Under the symbol is a very popular verse written in Sanskrit meaning: the truth alone triumphs. It describes the power of truth and honesty in religion and society.
The symbol was created by the Indian Emperor Ashoka in 250 BC, who had only a single piece of finely polished sandstone used to sculpt it. It was adopted as the coat of arms on the 26th of January 1950, the day India became a republic, and is used on all types of official documents including the passport as well as on coins and Indian currency notes.
The Bengal Tiger
Native to the subcontinent of India, the majestic Bengal Tiger is ranked among the largest wild cats in the world today. It’s the national animal of India and plays a significant role in Indian history and culture.
Throughout history, the Bengal tiger has been a symbol of power, magnificence, beauty and fierceness while also associated with valor and bravery. According to Hindu mythology, it was the vehicle of Goddess Durga who is typically depicted on the back of the animal. In the past, hunting a tiger was considered the highest act of bravery by noblemen and kings, but now it’s considered illegal.
Known as the ‘Royal’ Bengal Tiger in the past, this magnificent animal is currently facing the threat of extinction due to poaching, fragmentation and loss of habitat. Historically, they were poached for their fur which, even today, is sold illegally in certain parts of the world.
The dhoti, also called panche, dhuti or mardani, is a lower part of the national costume worn by men in India. It’s a type of sarong, a length of fabric wrapped around the waist and knotted in the front that’s commonly worn by Indians, South East Asians and Sri Lankans. When worn properly, it looks similar to baggy and slightly shapeless, knee-length trousers.
The dhoti is made from an unstitched, rectangular piece of cloth about 4.5 metres in length. It can be knotted in the front or back and comes in solid or plain colors. Dhotis made of silk with specially embroidered borders are generally used for formal wear.
Dhoti is typically worn over a langot or a kaupinam, both of which are types of undergarments and loincloth. The reason for the clothing to be unstitched is because some believe that it’s more resistant to pollution than other fabrics, making it the most suitable to wear for religious rituals. This is why the dhoti is commonly worn when visiting the temple for the ‘puja’.
The Indian Elephant is another unofficial symbol of India, a highly powerful and significant symbol in Hinduism. Elephants are often seen depicted as vehicles of Hindu deities. One of the most loved and popular deities, Ganesha, is depicted in the form of the elephant and Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance is usually portrayed with four elephants which symbolize prosperity and royalty.
Throughout history, elephants were trained and used in battle because of their immense power and the strength to remove any obstacles. In India and certain Asian countries like Sri Lanka, having elephant imagery in one’s home invites good fortune and luck, while placing them at the entrance to the home or building invites this positive energy in.
The Indian elephant has been listed as ‘endangered’ since 1986 on the IUCN Red List and its population has declined by 50%. There are several conservation projects currently being carried out to protect this endangered animal and hunting them is illegal although it still happens in some parts of the country.
The veena is a plucked, fretted lute with a three-octave range that’s extremely popular and important in classical Carnatic music of South India. The origin of this instrument can be traced back to the yazh, which is quite similar to the Grecian harp and its one of the oldest Indian musical instrumentals.
The North and South Indian veenas are slightly different from each other in design but played almost the same way. Both designs have long, hollow necks which allow for legato ornaments and portamento effects often found in Indian classical music.
The veena is an important symbol associated with the Hindu goddess Saraswati, the goddess of learning and arts. It’s in fact, her most famous symbol and she’s typically depicted holding it which is symbolic of expressing knowledge that creates harmony. The Hindus believe that playing the veena means that one should tune up one’s mind and intellect so as to live in harmony and attaining a deeper understanding of their life.
Bhangra is one of the many traditional dances of India which originated as a folk dance in Punjab. It was associated with Baisakhi, the spring harvest festival and involves vigorous kicking, leaping and bending of the body of short Punjabi songs and to the beat of the ‘dhol’, the two-headed drum.
Bhangra was extremely popular among farmers who performed it while doing their various farming activities. It was their way of making the work more pleasurable. The dance gave them a sense of accomplishment and to welcome new harvest season.
The current form and style of Bhangra was first formed in the 1940s and since then it has evolved greatly. The Bollywood film industry began to depict the dance in its films and as a result, the dance and its music is now mainstream not only throughout India but all over the world.
The king cobra (Ophiophagus hanna) is the largest known venomous snake which can grow up to 3m in length, with the ability to inject as much as 6ml of venom in one bite. It lives in thick jungles and dense rain forests. Although it’s such a dangerous creature, it’s also very shy and is hardly ever seen.
The cobra is specially revered by both Buddhists and Hindus which is why it’s the national reptile of India. The Hindus believe that the shedding of its skin makes the snake immortal and the image of a snake eating its tail is symbolic of eternity. The famous and much-loved Indian deity Vishnu is usually depicted atop a cobra with a thousand head which is also said to represent eternity.
In India the cobra is worshipped throughout the near and the famous Nag-Panchami festival involves cobra worshipping and many people perform religious rites, seeking the good will and protection of the cobra. There are many stories surrounding the reptile in Buddhism, the most famous of them being that a large King cobra shielded the Lord Buddha from rain and sun while he was sleeping.
The syllable ‘Om’ or ‘Aum’ is a sacred symbol that is said to represent God in three different aspects of Vishnu (the preserver), Brahma (the creator) and Shiva (destroyer). The syllable is a Sanskrit letter that was first found in the ancient religious Sanskrit texts known as ‘Vedas’.
The sound ‘Om’ is an elemental vibration which attunes us with our real nature and the Hindus believe that all creation and form come from this vibration. The mantra is also a powerful tool used to focus and relax the mind in yoga and meditation. It’s usually chanted either on its own or before spiritual recitations in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
Khichdi, the national dish of India, comes from South Asian cuisine and is made of rice and lentils (dhal). There are other variations of the dish with bajra and mung dal kchri but the most popular one is the basic version. In Indian culture, this dish is usually one of the first solid foods fed to babies.
Khichdi is highly popular throughout the Indian subcontinent, prepared in many regions. Some add vegetables like potato, green peas and cauliflower to it and in coastal Maharasthtra, they also add prawns. It’s a great comfort food which is quite a favorite among the people especially since it’s very easy to make and requires only one pot. In some regions, khichdi is usually served with kadhi (a thick, gram-flour gravy) and pappadum.
The above list is by no means an exhaustive one, as there are many symbols that represent India. However, it does capture the diverse range of India’s influence from food to dance, philosophy to biodiversity.