India is a land of diversities. This is true in everything including etiquette and customs. A traveller can find many cultures, lifestyles and etiquette throughout India. Indian cities are more influenced by western culture whereas villages remain untouched. Though Indians are very hospitable and friendly, volunteers are advised to follow these guidelines to avoid misunderstanding and embarrassment.
For Men – There are no strict guidelines for the way men should be dressed. But clothes those show above knees are considered indecent. Shorts are acceptable only when exercising and should be avoided in public places.
For Women – Indians, especially villagers, have rather strict dress code for women. Women must always keep their upper arms, chest, back and legs covered. Clothes that show your upper arms and legs must be avoided. Needless to say about bikinis, halter-tops, tube tops, spaghetti straps, shorts mini-skirts and anything over the top. Forget all that stuff. Dressing ‘sexy’ in India will either offended or attract wrong kind of attention and create problems.
Cargo pants, jeans, skirts that fall under the knee or lower, short or long sleeve shirts and blouses that are at least slightly loose and don’t show your chest are all OK.
Behavior in temples and other holy places.
Etiquette at holy places is basically a combination of general good manners, cultural sensitivity, and respect for others. However, here are the things that you should particularly notice.
- It is very important to dress appropriately. Legs and upper arms must be covered. A long sleeved shirt is preferable to a T-shirt.
- Always remove your shoes/footwear before you enter a temple, mosque or any place of worship.
- Do not touch any holy object with your left hand.
- In temples and holy places, you will typically have to sit in cross-legged on the floor. Pointing one’s feet towards the altar, teacher or elders is regarded as disrespectful. So avoid extending your legs. If you need to stretch your legs, be sure to point your feet away from sacred objects.
- Follow the instructions written on notice boards. In mosques and some other places of worship you may need to cover your head with a scarf.
Behaviour in Public Places:
- Shaking hands as a mode of salutation / greeting is natural and very common in western culture. But in Indian villages, shaking hands between opposite sexes is not appropriate. However, it is OK in cities. Winking is treated as indecent.
- Public display of affection, e.g. kissing or hugging in public, is disapproved.
- Always use your right hand to give or take anything. Giving or taking with your left hand would be treated as a sign of disrespect. Don’t touch the food items with your left hand. Left hand is considered to be unclean.
- Head is considered to be the sacred part of the body. Don’t touch someone else’s head, not even to pat the head of a child.
- Shoes and feet are considered to be symbols of uncleanness. Your shoes or feet touching another person would be treated as an act of insulting. Do not let your feet touch any person. Apologize if your shoes or feet touch another person. You would notice Indians making a simple gesture of apology if they accidentally touch someone with their feet.
- Standing tall with your hands on your hips is perceived as aggressive. Particularly women must avoid that.
- Pointing with your finger is considered rude. Whistling in public is treated as an indecent gesture.
- Staring at you? Take it easy. – Staring at strangers is considered indecent in western culture, but does not have that importance in India. People here do not hesitate to stare at anything or any one new or different. As a foreigner, you would obviously be the centre of attraction. Many people in Indian villages and small towns are quite unfamiliar with foreigners. So everything about you creates an intense interest among them.
- Don’t get irritated if people at trains or public gatherings ask you many questions. Questions that would sound rather personal from western perspective are so common from Indian point of view. These may include enquiries like How much you earn? How old are you? How much this cost? Are you married? etc., This is the way a common Indian tries to get interaction with a stranger. There will be nothing except curiosity behind these questions. Answering these questions with a smile would make you appear friendly and you surely would be going to win their hearts. An average Indian would certainly treat a foreigner as his guest and comes forward to do any help they can. A friendly gesture and a gentle smile always have a very good effect.
Of all, there cannot be a well-laid list of Do’s and Don’ts. Here you should remember that the world and life viewed from your own cultural point of view is only one of the several manifestations of the same thing. You are going to witness the world from another angle, which is very ancient, beautiful, mysterious and, of course, a little confusing. Surely you are going to learn invaluable things that are impossible to learn in any other way. Try to notice the positive aspects of the people and culture you travel through. At the end everything from this prehistoric culture will leave you with a feeling of fulfilment and unmatched satisfaction. These experiences could be the most treasured ones throughout your life.