Brace yourself for a major culture shock, for nothing can really prepare you for your trip to India. India can leave you in wonder and awe, and at the same time surprised and shock you, in more ways than you can imagine. And if you think India is the proverbial land of the Elephants, the Maharajas and Snake Charmers, then you will be disappointed on that front. You will not find them around street corners, as depicted in books and movies. Here are the things to know about Indian Culture before visiting India.
India is vibrant and colourful, and it is crowded, noisy and dusty (and dirty in places). But, that is what sets it apart. It is all these elements that make India what it is. The country has a very rich heritage and culture that dates back to ancient times. People are bound by culture and have remained connected to their roots. Many call India a paradox; it is modern, yet steeped in tradition.
You will notice all of this as you traverse across its lands, soaking in the historic and natural beauty that is on offer. But, it is the everyday cultural and social encounters that you must be really prepared for. As a tourist traveling to India, it is important that you educate yourself on the cultural traditions and situations that you will experience there, and learn the best ways to respect that culture and fit in, without hurting sentiments.
Indian’s are generally conservative, and women especially do not reveal too much skin. It is different in big cities, where you will find people dressed in shorts and dresses, but it is in small towns and villages that you must really conform to the ‘proper’ clothes. Remember no cleavage, and cover your arms and legs, especially when you are on a sightseeing trip or out shopping or out for a stroll.
Indians do not wear footwear inside places of worship. Keep that in mind when you visit a sacred place. Most temple complexes have counters, where footwear can be deposited, for safekeeping, for free. You will be given a token for your pair, and you can collect it after you have finished your visit.
Removing footwear before entering someone’s house is the expected norm, in most parts of the country. Also, take off your footwear, if you find a pile of shoes lying outside a shop that you are about to enter.
Use Your Right Hand
The left hand is considered unclean, in Indian culture, so avoid eating with your left hand, when in public. Always extend your right hand to take whatever is being offered to you. The same goes for when you are giving someone something, for instance, use your right hand to make a cash payment.
Mind Your Feet
Touching the feet of elders, to seek their blessings is a common practice in India. However, the accidental brushing of your foot, against someone can be insulting. Quickly apologize, if that ever happens.
Get Used to Stares
Do not be aghast if people stop in their tracks and just stand and stare at you. It is not seen as offensive; so, get used to it. Just smile and keep going about whatever you are doing.
No PDA, Please
Public display of affection is quite a taboo in India. So, keep all the hugs, kisses and smooches for behind closed doors.
English Breaks Barriers
English is widely spoken across India. A few people might not match your level of fluency, but you will be able to communicate with them, most of the time. There are 29 states in India and each of them has its own dialect. You will be surprised to know that Indians from different regions, within the country, use English to communicate among themselves.
Also, most places have signboards in English. And, if you speak the language, you will always find someone to assist you.
Etiquette in Places of Worship
Temples in different parts of the country have different dress codes. Entry into some temples in the Southern part of the country has restrictions on what can be worn inside the temple. It is mandatory for women to cover their heads inside a Hindu temple. Men and women need to cover their heads inside a Sikh temple.
Touts, Vendors & Beggars
You will find all three at almost all tourist places. They will follow you, harass you and will not stop until they get you to buy something from them or you give them some money. The best way to avoid this annoyance is to ignore them. Do not make eye contact and continue walking or doing whatever you are doing. It can get awfully frustrating when you get surrounded by such people since they can tug at your hand or clothes and even block your path.
Do not make the mistake of giving alms to someone begging for money, for you will soon be encircled, quite literally, by all the alms-seekers. Do not stop to admire goods carried by street vendors or listen to the bargain deals made by touts. Shop at authorized souvenir shops or reputed outlets that promise genuine products at a fair price. At tourist spots, go straight to the Government-owned ticket counters, where you can get entry passes and hire the services of official guides.
Indians are Hospitable
Ancient Hindu scriptures describe a guest as – Atithi Devo Bhava – which means that a guest is equivalent to God. A tourist is considered a guest and most natives will go out of their way to make a foreign traveler feel at home.
You have to visit an Indian home, to experience Indian hospitality. Most homes will offer you tea or coffee, without you asking for it. Remember, it is impolite to refuse something that has been offered to you. You will be expected to eat/drink whatever is set before you.
Indians are also known to pile your plate with food, even when you refuse. It is a sign of being a good host. So, watch out for those extra calories that you will gain.
Finally, just be alert and keep your wits about you, the way you would do in any other part of the world. The best way to enjoy India is to ignore things that gross you out and appreciate all the good stuff. It is a different culture, after all.