Having been under the jurisdiction of the British for many years, western travellers may assume that India is relatively easy to fathom. With centuries of European influence on traditions and customs, one might feel it would be easy to navigate without too much cultural research. India, however, has fought hard to maintain its individual identity. As such, it’s a fascinating land filled with exotic flavors, traditions and customs to discover and, at the same time, a social faux pas is as easy to make here as in any other Asian country. Fret not, though; we’re here to give you the inside scoop on India, so you can appreciate and manage its many intricacies.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw European traders fighting for dominion over India’s strategic ports and precious lands, taking advantage of the country’s divided states left behind weakened by the crumbling Mughal empire. The British were ultimately the conquering force, and throughout the 19th century India became the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, remaining under rule until India gained its independence in 1947. However, despite heavy outside influence, a strong Indian character remained ingrained in the country’s culture and it can be seen and felt strongly today. Apart from its millennia of ancient history and civilization shaping the country well before colonial rule, India is the birthplace of four religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism and, in turn, numerous philosophies including yoga, ayurvedic medicine, karma and reincarnation. Naturally, the diversity of those indigenous beliefs, coupled with an established tolerance of others, makes for a colorful and contrasting landscape. So, allow us to help you traverse that landscape with confidence and respect, by flagging up five cultural nuances you need to understand when visiting India.
Tip One: Left-handed people beware
In India, your left hand is reserved for the more unsavoury functions of life, like wiping your bottom and cleaning your feet. Unsurprisingly then, it is a faux pas among Indians to use it to eat. It’s permissible to hold a cup or knife or fork with the left hand, but they don’t hold food directly, pass food or wipe their mouths with it and certainly never put it in their mouths. Indeed, even beyond the dinner table, it is not considered good manners to pass anything with the left hand or point at someone with it. For visitors, of course, Indian people make exceptions and while this is a historic cultural rule, nowadays in all big cities and even most small towns, people will understand if you make a slip-up. The only case where it would cause offence is if you were to accept Prasad (nuts or sweets given to devotees in a temple) with your left hand; you should always take it with your right hand and on the palm. While we’re on the subject of food, it is important that your lips don’t touch other people’s food – this makes it jhutha, or sullied, which is taboo. Finally, don’t order beef (just don’t!)
Tip Two: Dress to impress
Generally speaking, it is better to cover up and dress neatly and conservatively at all times in India. This is partly for religious reasons, and is especially important in temples, stupas and mosques, where legs and shoulders should always be covered; if you want to enter a Sufi dargah or Sikh gurudwara, you’ll need to cover your head as well. It is also, though, just considered good form to dress respectably; you will make a good impression on the locals, who will respond more positively if you adhere to modest dress codes. This is especially true for women, who should stick to trousers, long skirts and high necklines to avoid disapproval or hassle – but gents should avoid shorts too, particularly outside urban areas. Even in cosmopolitan beach destination Goa, nudity is prohibited and while some flout the rules and sunbathe topless, it is very unpopular with the locals.
Tip Three: Brush up on the art of conversation
Part of the joy of travel is surely getting a glimpse of another culture or into another person’s life, and a good example of this on a visit to India is conversation. Not only do Indians approach conversation very differently, but indeed, your life is top among the topics about which they will want to chat. While you may find it odd for a stranger to abruptly strike up a personal conversation, it’s merely considered a polite show of interest here. You’ll likely be asked where you are from, about your family and your job – often and repetitively – so be prepared to repeat the information. What’s more, don’t be surprised if you find yourself debating certain subjects; locals may be intrigued by your decision to travel to India – especially if you are alone, lack a religion or are an unmarried couple. Feel free to engage in the exchange, and to discuss any questions you have about India and Indian lifestyle; the objective is often simply that everyone feels they have made a few good points. On the subject of social interactions, it’s polite to greet people with a “namaste”, with palms together and an incline of the head. Often, when meeting and greeting in India, locals will ask for a photo with you; go ahead if you’re happy to, and if not, politely decline.
Tip Four: Visiting a temple? Leave your belt and wallet at the hotel
As we’ve already alluded, religion is not only taken very seriously in India, but there are lots of them, and each comes with its own set of rules and observances. In most holy places you will be expected to remove your shoes (though you can leave your socks on to protect your feet from the hot stone floors). From here, the commonalities diverge; Jain temples forbid entry to women who are menstruating and anyone carrying or wearing leather. Some Hindu temples, especially in the south, don’t allow entry to non-Hindus, and those that do require very modest dress codes and prohibit photography. Many mosques, on the other hand, don’t allow entry to non-Muslims during prayer, and some don’t allow women at all. Buddhist stupas allow access to everyone, as long as you’re appropriately dressed, but you should always walk around them clockwise.
Tip Five – Give a thumbs up at your peril
Gestures can be tricky in India. In many cases, you can use common sense: avoid pointing at people or standing with your feet apart and hands on hips, or other overtly aggressive body language. Then, there are those gestures that are best avoided in Asia in general: don’t point your feet at anyone and if you accidentally touch someone with your feet, apologize quickly and sincerely. In company, it’s polite to stand up when an elder enters the room and you should offer them your seat. There are, though, gestures that are entirely unique to India that can be difficult to get your head around at first. In southern India, nodding the head from side to side means “yes”, while in the north the same action means “no”. Meanwhile, a well-meant thumbs up can be woefully misconstrued. Known in India as a “thenga”, for centuries the gesture has been used to make fun of the loss of face of another person. Though the ubiquity of Facebook’s big blue “like” button means the more universal use of the thumbs up is generally understood in most Indian cities (especially if delivered with a big smile), it may be best avoided if possible, particularly in more rural areas.