Since we’ve introduced two new India trips, it’s a good time to familiarize yourself with some cultural norms in India. Whether you’re on our Tiger Volunteer Adventure or Tigers, Temples & Taj trip, you’re bound to interact with locals often. It’s also likely that you’ll take some of your free time to venture off the beaten path and explore like a local. And you should!
Before you immerse yourself in the country’s beautiful and historic culture, know this: Westerners tend to be a bit surprised by some of the cultural norms in India. For example, simple gestures and behaviors that are normal at home may be offensive to traditional locals here.
Part of the trip planning process should include learning more about the customs of your destination. Doing so will make your trip even more enjoyable. Take a look at our list of cultural norms in India and get ready for an extra smooth trip once you land!
CULTURAL NORMS IN INDIA INCLUDE VARIOUS PHYSICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Feet are considered unclean – but nowhere near as unclean as footwear.
It is a traditional belief in India (and most other Asian countries) that feet are unclean. Additionally, footwear is considered even more unclean. This has a lot to do with the fact that shoes are what come in contact with germs, dirt, and other substance when walking in the streets. A good rule of thumb when entering any place of worship (especially) or anyone’s home: Wear sandals or shoes that are easy to take off. Once shoeless and seated, be aware of where your feet are. They shouldn’t be pointing at any other people, any religious artifacts or images on the walls, or any alters. This includes the soles of the feet especially – don’t point them at people! If you inadvertently point your feet toward someone, step on someone’s belongings, or touch someone’s feet, apologize sincerely and immediately.
Be careful of what you do (and don’t do) with your left hand.
Much like feet, left hands are also considered unclean. Traditionally, the left hand is used to clean oneself with water after defecating. Blowing your nose and scraping wax out of your ears are also left-handed jobs. Even though washing hands is normal, the “unclean” stigma sticks. How can you avoid offending those around you? When giving and receiving gifts, use both hands or just your right hand – never just the left hand. Similarly, do not use your left hand to handle or eat food.
Cultural norms in India include personal space. Try not to get overly (physically) friendly.
You may see some deviation from this among a handful of metro areas, especially from the younger crowd. In most cases, you’ll want (and be expected) to allow people their personal space. A casual “hello” hug or pat on the back, arm slung around another’s shoulder, or quick peck on the cheek may feel normal to you, but wouldn’t necessarily be received well by a traditional Indian native. In fact, even shaking hands still isn’t commonly accepted as normal. This doesn’t mean you need to navigate your trip from a proverbial personal bubble, but it does mean that you should be mindful that your idea of personal space and touching may differ significantly from Eastern versions.
Gestures are a very commonly used form of communication in India. But, think before you gesture! What you think you mean may be completely different than those watching you.
Do you think twice about waving hello or pointing at something when you’re at home? Probably not. In India, these gestures have very different connotations. Waving your hand side-to-side as if to say hello can actually mean “no” or “go away!” to the recipient. Pointing your finger (or two fingers) is considered rude and typically not used for anyone but inferiors. Oftentimes, thumbs, entire (open) hands, and even chins are used instead.
CULTURAL NORMS IN INDIA: VISUALS & TRADITION
You might see a Swastika – but it doesn’t mean quite what you think.
Imagery and symbols are both vivid and common in India, and you very well may run into a Swastika (with its arms pointing either direction). Quick history lesson: The Sanskrit word “svasti” (from “svastika”) is actually a blessing affirmation of life. This has been used by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains long before it was appropriated by Nazi Germany and given negative connotations. The incidence of the symbol being used (particularly publicly) is dwindling a bit because so many people from other countries find it so offensive, but it has not been completely eradicated. Remember, it doesn’t hold the same meaning traditionally as the meaning you’ve grown up associating with it.
Be aware of your clothing. It’s best to not get too casual or revealing.
Yes, this means you should leave your ultra-revealing tops and designer ripped up jeans out of your suitcase. While Indians don’t have any issues with somewhat casual attire and Western styles, you’ll find these styles to be very clean, conservative, and oftentimes even pressed. Dreaming of wearing a traditional sari? Go for it. Rather than seeming like you’re imitating, you’ll be viewed as respectful of cultural norms in India.
CULTURAL NORMS IN INDIA: TIPS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Don’t expect to grab a burger while you’re out and about.
In India, the cow is considered a sacred animal and most Hindus avoid eating beef. In fact, in many Indian states, it is illegal to slaughter a cow. Possessing beef or slaughtering cows could result in up to fives years in jail and/or a fine of up to 10,000 rupees in certain areas. There are a couple of places where eating beef is acceptable (like in Kerala, where there is a higher concentration of Christians), but it isn’t likely. Check with your tour guides, consult the internet, or ask local friends before you attempt to seek out any beef.
You’ll probably hear “Namaste” – often.
Most dedicated yogis will tell you that Namaste (NA-ma-stay) is common. While not unheard of, it’s not commonplace in Western societies. Along with the spoken word, you’ll probably also encounter a gesture – that of two palms together in a prayer-like position over the heart, with the head nodded slightly while speaking. Sometimes you’ll even see the gesture without hearing any spoken word, but the meaning remains the same. This common hello and goodbye accompaniment is known to mean (translated): “The God in my heart greets the God in yours.”
If you’re late, you’re on time.
This is one of the cultural norms in India that Westerners tend to have a tough time getting acclimated to. Here, being late isn’t considered rude (within reason; think: 30 minutes). Believe it or not, being exactly on time can actually be interpreted as rude. Take this opportunity to be fashionably late – and feel free to bring a small gift if being hosted (especially for a meal).
CULTURAL NORMS IN INDIA: JUST FOR FUN, SPORTS
There is certainly no shortage of things to see and do in India, no matter your interests. From incredible food to robust history, magnificent architecture to a Bollywood that rivals (and surpasses, in many ways, our Hollywood), and exquisite wildlife, you may have more options than you have spots available on your bucket list. One fun suggestion: Take in some local sports. Cockfighting may not be your speed, but have you ever seen camel races? Camel racing is a growing sport in the country. Check local schedules as you’re planning your trip. Conversely, you may also be able to catch some cricket, soccer, field hockey, badminton, tennis, chess, wrestling, table tennis, or basketball. Be sure to do some research before you go!
Cultural norms in India are many and vary widely. While this isn’t a comprehensive list of every norm you may be interested in, it’s a great place to start. Check out this Edith Cowan University resource for even more information on practices and etiquette in India.
Which of these cultural norms in India is most surprising to you? Which would you add to the list? Tell us in the comments section below!