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India's Cultural Do's and Don'ts | Know Before You Go

With more than 1.2 billion people, India is a country of thousands of ethnic groups, language dialects, and diverse traditions. Taking into consideration this array of cultural practices and beliefs, there is some general etiquette to follow when traveling to this dynamic country.

Here are some guidelines to follow during your stay in India:

  • A traditional way of greeting and bidding farewell is the warm salutation namaste (nah-mah-stay) or the more formal namaskar (nah-mah-scar). Place the palms together and bow slightly, especially when meeting an older person. Men and women do not typically touch, so avoid shaking hands unless the person you greet offers first. “Hello” is an increasingly common informal greeting in urban areas, though “goodbye” is generally considered too final, as if asking the person for permission to leave. Using language along the lines of “see you later” is preferred, or simply namaste.
  • Elders should be treated with marked respect.
  • Show patience and refrain from displays of anger.
  • Public displays of affection are discouraged, though you may see members of the same sex holding hands in a friendly manner.
  • Dress modestly. Women, in particular, should avoid revealing clothing. This means no sleeveless or low-cut shirts or tank tops, and no shorts. Make sure your knees are covered.
  • “Eve-teasing” is the Indian euphemism of sexual harassment. Essentially, this means that Indian men openly stare at female tourists, especially if they are dressed in revealing clothing. To minimize this occurrence, take the normal precautions such as looking after yourself in crowded, public places and, again, avoid exposing too much flesh.
  • When a person gives a headshake or bobble, tipping the head from side to side, this often means “yes” or “good.” It is also meant as an encouraging gesture while listening and means “I understand.”
  • Take photographs of people or objects only after receiving permission. Always ask first, and if they say “no,” respect it.
  • In many Hindu temples, non-Hindus are not allowed to walk inside certain parts of the temple complex.
  • People often give offerings to temple deities such as lotus blossoms and coconuts, and you may receive a prasad—typically a small sweet or fruit—from a priest in return (remember to take it with your right hand).
  • Leather articles such as wallets, belts and bags are prohibited inside many Hindu temples. Be cognizant that these are sacred places where people come to pay their respects and recognize that photography may be inappropriate.
  • Never point with your index finger, particularly at sacred items or paintings. Instead, motion with your chin or extend your hand, palm flat and skyward, at the object you’re referencing.
  • When visiting temples or entering an Indian home, remove footwear and hats. Dress conservatively in a way that expresses respect for the place of worship or household.
  • Wash your hands before and after eating.
  • Avoid touching people with the left hand, as it is considered unclean and will cause insult. Keep this in mind and use your right hand when giving or accepting any object. To use both hands is even more respectful.
  • Only touch food with the right hand. However, the left hand may be used for holding utensils, glasses and bowls.
  • Feet and shoes are considered dirty. Do not step over a person sitting or lying on the floor, as it is offensive. Never touch anything with your feet, and don’t point the bottom of your feet at religious altars or toward people. To avoid this, sit cross-legged or kneel on the floor while in a temple or holy place. If you must extend your legs, point them away from sacred icons. Never turn your backside to a religious statue.
  • If you accidentally bump someone’s feet with your foot or shoe, quickly apologize. You can express your apology for the oversight by touching your forehead or eyes.
  • If you are invited to someone’s home, it is customary to bring a small gift such as a box of sweets.
  • Note that when you are a guest in someone’s home, your hosts may sit and watch you eat. Accept food when it is offered, though you are not required to finish your plate.
  • Don’t feel offended if you are asked personal questions, such as “How much do you earn?” “Are you married?” or “Do you have kids?” Questions like these are considered common conversation.
  • Never give money to begging children and women. If you give even a small coin, many more people will instantly materialize and can aggressively follow you. In addition, be aware that holy men near temples and sacred rivers may ask for compensation after tying a dyed red-and-yellow thread around your wrist and pressing a dot of red turmeric on your forehead.
  • Giving out candy and other sweets is particularly damaging, as they contribute to dental problems, especially in remote villages. Handing out gifts also creates unrealistic expectations. More positive suggested ways to communicate with children include blowing bubbles, drawing funny pictures, tossing a Frisbee or ball, or taking photos on a digital camera and showing them their images. 

Header Credit: Arian Zwegers [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr
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