Quintessentially Indian

India is a land of unfathomable diversity. This land of myriad communities hosts some distinctive practices. 

As a citizen of this marvellous country, I never cease to marvel at these sights. Over time, I’ve photographed them, culminating in this collection.

One post cannot hope to capture what is unique about this land. Here, I give you a slice of the unique things you can find in this country. Maybe, in viewing them, you’ll feel like paying a visit.

This post is continually updated.

The Indian Cycle

From my apartment’s balcony, I watch people in the morning. Joggers jog by, walkers walk by, and the occasional car drives by. Nothing unfamiliar.

Sharp at 6:30 AM, the newspaper boy arrives at the building. I observe him riding his ‘newspaper wala cycle’. 

When we think of cycling, names like Giant, Scott, and Trek come to mind; flashy cycles with multiple gears and gizmos. As the sport gains traction in India, more people buy these branded cycles.

But we forget a vast demographic to whom these cycles are inaccessible. They are too expensive. For the Indian masses, the ‘newspaper wala cycle’ remains the most affordable means of transport.

The ‘Atlas Goldline’ Super’ or ‘Hero Jet Gold’ model is found in all cities, coalescing unnoticed into the backdrop.

Atlas Cycles Ltd (more about them here) manufactures this run-of-the-mill bike. It has no gears, no streamlined seat, no carbon fibre frame; it is simple.

My father recounts memories from his youth, racing his friends on the Atlas cycle. It has played a key role in the childhood of many.

Its ubiquity has rendered the Atlas cycle generic. But in it, I see a deeper meaning. 

This cycle symbolises the Indian way of life. It represents all the postmen, the watchmen, the ordinary folk who remain invisible, overlooked. In photographing this automation, I choose to acknowledge these forgotten people.

Caught up in the world of Google and Instagram, have we forgotten there’s beauty in the ordinary?

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The Knife Sharpener 
Knife Sharpener. Shot in Bangalore, Karnataka, India.
The Dhaar Wala

I noticed him from across the lane, his wrinkled hands grabbing my attention. Immediately, I saw a photographic opportunity.

He was a ‘dhaar wala’, a knife sharpener. They are traditionally known for sharpening and selling knives throughout India.

They sharpen blades on a rotating stone disc, one that’s either manual or battery powered. Sparks fly as metal kisses the spinning stone wheel.

Wrinkled hands of a knife sharpener. Shot in Bangalore, Karnataka, India.
Wrinkled Hands

I watched him manoeuvre the blade, his skill speaking louder than words. His nimbleness was evident, years of mastery etched into the folds of skin.

Wielding this apparatus requires dexterity, earned with scores of practice. 

He had a riotous collection of scars along his arms, testimony to the decades spent in this craft.

With more mechanisation, such jobs hang in the balance. In the ambient uncertainty of now, their future looks bleak. 

Read a moving article on them by the Hindustan Times here.

The Indian Flower Garland

Flowers play an indispensable role in Hindu culture. They are presented as offerings to god while doing a Puja—their ritualistic form of worship. It translates to “the flower act”. They believe that worshiping the Gods with flowers will get them blessed.

 Flower markets have sprung up across the city, catering to this demand. You can streets lined with flower sellers, each offering a better price than the last.

One unique job that has sprung up as a result of this is garland making. Many string flowers together into a laurel, that is later integrated into the Puja. Available in an assortment of patterns, It is presented with honour among Hindus.

I find the flower markets excellent for street photography. With the eruption of colours all around you, you are visually overwhelmed. It is hard to find a moment’s rest; you are forever shooting what’s in front of you.

Many perform their Puja early in the morning, so vendors sell their garlands before sunrise. They set up shop at dawn, catering to vast crowds of people. These markets tend to be chaotic, with hawkers hollering prices from all sides.

It is fascinating to see the looks of devotion in customers as they set out into the markets. Only the best quality flowers are chosen; even barely damaged ones are unfit before god.

The flower holds enormous relevance in Indian society. A major sub-economy in India run entirely on faith. It speaks to the incredible power of religion.

Elephants in Indian Culture
Forest stream

One evening, I decided to walk around my neighbourhood in rural Kerala. Ascending a hillock, I watched the sunset over the rolling hills.

Then, a dark shape caught my eye. I turned, and a few meters in front of me was a full-grown elephant! I froze. Speechless, my adrenaline hit the roof.

Fortunately, she was a domesticated elephant, her leg bound to a nearby tree. She belonged to a neighbouring temple. While this is a common sight in Kerala, it took me by surprise.

Elephants are an intrinsic part of Kerala culture. People adorn them in gold caparisons during festivals and parade them through the streets. Most prominent temples own elephants, with 60 belonging to the world-famous Guruvayur temple. They even feature on the State Government’s emblem.

The elephant is an integral part of Indian history and culture. Being the National heritage animal and Lord Ganesha’s avatar, it enjoys a place in the annals of India.

In the past, kings captured elephants from the forest and domesticated them. They served various roles in these kingdoms, from vehicles of kings to cavalry in battle. Their immense size and fearful demeanour made them a vital part of the military.

Now since elephants consume vast amounts of fodder, rearing them became uneconomical. So kings would let them grow wild till they were 20 years old when they were caught and put in stables.

Then began the domestication process. Wild elephants possess a tenacity that is befitting of their species. Taming them is a rigorous and arduous process. It involved several beatings and long-drawn starvation, which shattered their wild instincts. Unspeakable cruelty broke their spirits, forcing them into slavery.

Elephants play a crucial role in seed dispersal, spreading seeds far and wide. This ensures the continuity and survival of vast tracts of forests. Some trees require their seeds to pass through the intestinal tract of elephants to germinate properly.

Once tame, they proved highly useful— as transporters of heavy materials to fearsome perches to wage wars from. They were a visible sign of an army’s fighting potential.

In capturing elephants, the kings would often employ the indigenous forest people. They were learned in the subtle intricacies of the forest and thus knew how to ensnare these beasts. With their help, they amassed a sizable number of elephants.

Elephant Fine Art photography. Shot by Ishan Shanavas

The capture of elephants was an intriguing endeavour. Sanskrit literature speaks of 5 methods, one of them being the “Khedda Method”. In this approach, wild elephants are driven (Khedna means drive in Hindi) into a stockade by mahouts atop “kumkis” (domesticated elephants). Then they would separate members of the captured herd, ensnaring individuals with ropes and tying them to sturdy trees. (Read about it here)

The ancient kings of India needed elephants and thus required the forest. As a result, they took strong measures to preserve the environment. The jungle was offered the same protection as any other province. They brought the forest, its people and animals in kinship with the rest of the kingdom. The need for war elephants, and the subsequent economic gains, tied the kingdom to the forest.

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Today we are a world away from the use of elephants in war. Now elephants are used primarily for agricultural or religious purposes(Read my post on Temple elephants here). But while the elephant is still relevant in our lives, our attitude to them has changed.

No longer do we afford them and their habitat the same care. As we speak, corporate giants cut down their habitats searching for resources. With this habitat fragmentation, they venture into fields, thus coming in contact with people.

The human-elephant conflict has reached drastic proportions. The lack of edible foliage pushes these animals into fields, where they gobble up vast swathes of crops. In retaliation, farmers set out to kill elephants, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.

No longer do we see any economic gains from preserving elephants. And this has several repercussions.

Herd of Elephants Bathing. Shot in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, India.
The Elephantine Bath

The habitat of the elephant has drastically reduced over the years. Their decline has rapidly increased over the last two centuries. The elephant’s evolution makes them an indicator of the environment’s health. This is seen in their inability to recover from significant habitat changes.

Their need for large quantities of fodder and water, their slow reproductive cycle and their vulnerability to cold makes them highly vulnerable to environmental changes.

While the past kings brutally caught wild elephants, they understood the value of the forest and its animals. They strived to protect their environment, realising that the jungle was vital to the kingdom.

Because we don’t see an economic gain from saving elephants doesn’t mean they have no benefits. For one, elephants play a crucial role in seed dispersal, spreading seeds far and wide. This ensures the continuity and survival of vast tracts of forests. Some trees require their seeds to pass through the intestinal tract of elephants to germinate properly.

2 Asian elephants in water Fine Art Black and White photography. Shot by Ishan Shanavas in Anakulam, Kerala, India.

And just because there is no direct economic benefit to saving elephants, does that mean we forgo them altogether. Are they not fellow inhabitants of this planet, like you and me? Many millennia have gone in their evolution, culminating into magnificent beings. As Earth’s apex species, we must safeguard the tenants we share this world with.

The elephant is a striking and sentient animal. They carry themselves with a certain grace, symbolising all that is majestic about India. It would be a terrible dereliction of duty to let them fade into the books of history.

For further information, read Thomas R Trautmann’s “Elephants and Kings – An Environmental History.

The Coconut Tree Climbers
A Coconut Tree Climber. Shot in Kozhikode, Kerala, India.
A Coconut Tree Climber.

Gripping the trunk tightly, he climbed the 60 ft tall coconut tree. He ascended with lightning speed, limbs moving in perfect synchronisation. In no time, he reached the top.

Then, using his sickle, he hacked off all the old leaves. He chopped the ripe coconuts off the stalk, sending them plummeting to the ground. 

He was a Koyilettakkaaran, a coconut tree climber (Paravanmaar in southern Kerala). They clamber up coconut trees to pluck the ripe coconuts and prune the dead leaves.

A Coconut Tree Climber. Shot in Kozhikode, Kerala, India.
A Coconut Tree Climber.

Coconut trees, and by extension the coconuts themselves, play a central role in Kerala culture and economy. The leaves are used formaking  sheds and baskets, the husk for ropes and mats. Coconut oil is used for hair treatment, and is incorporated into traditional dishes. Coconut water is a staple drink in the state.

A Coconut Tree Climber. Shot in Kozhikode, Kerala, India.
A Coconut Tree Climber.

Trimming coconut trees is a dangerous job, only for the daredevils. Scaling these trees with no harness is no mean feat. It calls for extreme skill, not to mention immense strength.

Both their hands and legs wrap around the tree trunk and are secured together by a small rope between them. Gripping this tightly, they place their feet on the base and thrust forward. Continually adjusting their grip, they ascend.

Watching them scramble upwards, one’s heart pounds. One misstep and they could fall to their deaths. 

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But this does not deter them. They are seasoned professionals, after all. Their toughened hands and feet speak for the years spent in this profession. They defy death every day for a living.

The cost of trimming one tree is a nominal 70 rupees (≅ 1 USD). In addition, they receive a bonus of 2 coconuts per tree.

Collecting Coconuts. Shot in Kozhikode, Kerala, India.
Collecting Coconuts.

This is a dying profession. As fewer locals take this job, migrant workers fill their position (read about it here).

It awes me that they would choose such a dangerous profession. There are many risks involved; paralysis at the very least. As the sole breadwinners, losing their mobility would greatly impact their families’ lives.

They are courageous and yet so humble. I salute them.

A Coconut Tree Climber. Shot in Kozhikode, Kerala, India.
A Coconut Tree Climber’s equipment

The Indian Auto Rickshaw

The auto-rickshaw is the Indian taxi for the masses. You find these open-air yellow vehicles almost throughout the country. They are an iconic element of the Indian cityscape, often seen sneaking between cars and buses in busy traffic.

Cheaper than regular taxis, it is the mode of transport when you need to get somewhere in a hurry. 

Catching an auto is an exciting experience. Head to the main road and stick your hand out facing the oncoming traffic. The autos (as they are called) with no passengers swerve away from the traffic towards you.

Getting an auto driver to accept you as a passenger is always challenging. It is up to the driver’s fancy whether to take you or not. They ask where you need to go and then quote a price. 

Then the bargaining ensues. You deduct the price by 30%. They refuse. You insist. They quote a lower price. You refuse.

Sometimes you reach a compromise. Sometimes you don’t.

Riding an auto is an essential part of the Indian experience.

Autos all have an electric meter installed in them, a device that calculates your price (Rs 25 minimum) according to your time spent in the vehicle. But almost no driver uses it. They tend to quote prices of their own. 

Seated behind the driver in the open air vehicle, you watch the world as you zoom though the city. Behind the seat you typically find disco speakers, often blasting cinema songs at high volumes. Frequently decked with paintings and cinema posters, auto come in all sorts of amusing looks.

Many auto drivers have switched to platforms like Uber or Ola to get passengers in recent years. The app has an algorithm that standardises the price, much like the electric meter. Like booking an Uber taxi, Passengers book an auto through the app. After entering their destination on the app, they see the time the auto will take to reach them and the price they will have to pay.

Due to the fixed rates, more and more people have turned to these apps. Drivers who don’t use the app find it increasingly difficult to find passengers.

Another, albeit uncommon way of catching an auto is via prepaid auto stands. Typically found at railway stations, you pay drivers a fixed rate at these booths to ensure no exploitation.

The auto is built to accommodate 2-3 people, but it is not uncommon to see entire families crammed into one. Sitting on each other’s lap is a given in these cases. It is quite a sight to see when six people fill the vehicle.

Autos are also often used to transport luggage. You can easily find autos with utensils, suitcases or other goods sticking out from the sides as they drive across roads.

Boy sleeping in Auto-Rickshaw. Shot in Bangalore, Karnataka, India.
Slumbering in an Auto-Rickshaw

The Covid-19 pandemic wrecked the livelihoods of so many auto drivers. As more people keep to their homes, the search for customers becomes cumbersome. Some have been put out of business altogether.

Riding an auto is an essential part of the Indian experience. It continues to be emblematic of India.

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Cows & Indian Traffic

It is a well-established fact on Indian roads that when a cow blocks the traffic, you don’t honk or shout. You either bypass it, or you switch off and simply wait it out.

Cows freely roam the streets of India, from villages to metros. It is habitual to see one on the road, sitting and chewing cud. Growing up in such a milieu, this was never bizarre. But now, I realize that this is a unique portrayal of the Indian experience.

With this revelation, I set out to photograph the normality of an Indian cow jam. 

Armed with my camera, I cycled around Bangalore, in search of cows.

Locals quizzically eyed me when I asked about recent cow activity.

Soon enough, I found a herd in the middle of a main road.  Vehicles swerved by as I approached them, facing the incoming traffic head-on

I opened the tripod and set up my gear. I was going to take a long exposure photograph, a photographic technique that depicts motion. (watch this video)

I spent over hours exploring all angles for the right shot. 

Interested bystanders observed as I lugged around the tripod. Some asked if I was from the press.

This was the resulting image. I converted it into black and white to remove the distracting elements, displaying the image solely for the message.

Cows are lethargic, without a care for the world. So when you find yourself in a cow jam, don’t get annoyed. Instead, try looking at their sluggish tendencies. They will fascinate you.

Coming up
  • The Indian paper-Wala
  • The Indian Cycle Rickshaw
  • The Indian Bike rickshaw 
  • Peanut Wala
Thank you for reading all the way to the end!

I want to thank you, the reader, for revelling in this collection. All this work was ultimately for you.

If you liked it, it would mean the world to me if you shared this with someone you know. Whatsapp, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook—whatever your medium of choice.

If you’re interested in my work, you’d LOVE my newsletter – The Owlet. Every week, I share my work, writing and favourite content from across the net. I’ll deliver these emails directly into your inbox, for free!

Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

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