India is a playground for the intrepid traveler, offering everything from diverse landscapes to cultural history through its temple complexes. You also have access to bustling, dynamic cities and world-renowned food and friendly locals. When visiting India, however, there are customs and laws to respect and comply with. To help you avoid accidentally offending someone (or worse), here are some tips for understanding Indian etiquette.
Indians traditionally greet others by pressing both of the hands together in a prayer gesture called a namaste. An integral part of Indian etiquette, it denotes deference for the elders and can be used to express a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ If you want to show great respect, namaskar and pranaam are more formal variants.
Namaste is rarely used between people of the same age groups and friends. Instead, you could shake hands–which is a common practice in metropolitan cities. It’s best to wait for the opposite party to extend their hand. Hugging is okay between same-sex friends.
Addressing someone properly is also important. Use courtesy titles such as ‘Miss’, ‘Mr.,’ or ‘Mrs.’ You can call strangers ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ and ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’ to those you know well. To be more formal and respectful to a stranger who is around your age, add gender-neutral suffix ‘-ji’ to the end of a person’s name.
It’s well worth learning the ways Indians address each other such as behen (sister) and bhai/bhayya (brother) for the reaction you’ll get from your new friends.
Attitude towards dress is more relaxed in urban Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or Goa, but if you head into more rural areas or small towns and villages you should dress modestly to avoid attracting unwanted stares. As a general rule, wear clothes that cover your shoulders and reach below your knees. Steer clear of body-hugging and see-through clothing. Instead, opt for a comfortable salwar kameez, or a kurta and a loose-fitting pant.
When visiting a place of worship–especially Dargah or Gurudwara –both men and women are required to cover their head with a cloth. In some Hindu temples, particularly in South India, men are required to wear a dhoti (a piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and legs). Jain temples do not allow entry to those wearing or carrying leather items. It’s always a good idea to check with the locals if your outfit is acceptable before visiting a holy place.
Cultural faux pas
Shoes are to be removed before entering someone’s house (unless the host has clearly said that you can keep them on) and religious places. Some local stores or shops in South India will also require visitors to take off their shoes.
It’s bad manners to step over people. Exposing the soles of your feet to other people or anything sacred, like the image of a deity, is highly disrespectful, as is touching objects like books with your feet. If it happens inadvertently, immediately express your apologies by touching your hand to the other person’s arm or object and then touching your own forehead.
One important thing to be aware of in India is the different functions of the two hands. In general, the left hand is considered unclean and reserved for toilet duties, while the right hand is used for eating, handling merchandise, shaking hands, and other activities. Remember never to receive prasad with your left hand, as it is considered inauspicious. Pointing your finger at someone can also be seen as incredibly offensive. If you want to indicate someone or something, do so with your entire hand.
Other things to keep in mind
PDA in India is frowned upon and also considered a punishable offense. Transgressors can be sentenced to three months imprisonment or a fine under section 294 of the Indian Penal Code. Keep the affectionate gestures private.
Public nudity is unacceptable and illegal in India. If you were hoping to go topless sunbathing, stick to the private beach resorts and hotels in Goa which do allow it (but ask first in order to avoid any problems). Slaughter, possession, and eating beef is illegal in many Indian states, as cows are considered a sacred symbol by India’s Hindu majority. It is highly advisable to check before ordering a beef dish.
Some religious structures in India have a no-camera policy, while in some places it’s allowed for a fee. At others, it’s freely permitted. It’s a good idea to ask a local or the person at the ticket counter before taking photos of sacred places.
Photography of the funeral procession is strictly forbidden, as it is at government buildings, military bases, or airports. Indians are a beautiful people, and you might want to take photos of them. It’s important to show respect and be mindful of their personal space. Ask before photographing people.
Need more advice about what you should wear when visiting India? Check out our guide!
Header photo by Frank Holleman.