Culture – General
- Be prepared to be surprised. India is a country of diverse landscapes, languages, customs, religions and cultures and it is home to more than a billion people. What is considered acceptable behaviour in some parts may not be in others. This contrast is probably best observed when you compare the cities to the semi-urban or rural areas.
- Being sensitive and considerate towards society, customs, and culture gets you very far and is much appreciated by Indians. A flexible approach, relaxed and fun attitude will help you in all situations.
- Be considerate and ask for permission before entering temples/mosques. Some temples do not allow foreigners to enter all areas. Look for signs. Dress conservatively.
- Smoking in public places is an offence. You could be fined. Social etiquette doesn’t encourage smoking in front of elders or in religious spaces. Just like back home, bin your butts.
- Try to use your RIGHT hand when you’re eating or for any exchanges.
- Many locals do not encounter foreigners often and are fascinated to the point of staring unashamedly. This is merely curiosity and should not be misconstrued as rudeness. Smile and greet them by saying Namaste or Namaskar and you might break the ice.
- The western concept of personal space and the Indian concept are very different. Imagine a population of over a billion people in a land mass that’s a third the size of Australia.
- People often ask a lot of personal questions. Don’t feel offended by the curiosity, use the opportunity to interact with the locals and learn more about their culture. You may choose not to answer all questions. In either case, it is best to be always polite.
- Poverty and begging are realities of everyday Indian life. Giving money to beggars is generally discouraged.
Dressing for India
- In small towns and villages, Indians dress conservatively. You will feel a lot more comfortable if you are modestly and respectfully dressed. One aspect of conservative dressing is to cover your shoulders and knees whenever possible.
- It is considered common courtesy to remove your shoes while visiting someone’s home and temples, mosques and even some churches. Some businesses, especially fabric, would also expect you to leave your footwear at the door. Quite a lot of seating in traditional artisans/crafts businesses are at floor level (usually mattresses spread out on the floor). Be prepared to sit in your lotus postures for prolonged durations. Dress appropriately.
- Snake charmers and bear and monkey tamers treat the animals cruelly. Don’t encourage them by tipping/photographing them.
- Try not to have your camera glued to you face to try and get that ‘perfect shot’. Some of the best experiences in India can’t be captured using a camera.
- As a rule of thumb, ask for permission before taking photographs and respect them if they say no. Often, people don’t like their women and children photographed.
- Do not photograph people bathing in public, eating, Muslim women in general, certain religious ceremonies, funerals and cremations and military installations or border posts.
- Conversely, be prepared to be photographed by locals at tourist hot-spots, especially if you’re a woman. Revel in your new-found celebrity status.
- Support locally owned businesses, hotels, restaurants and other services.
- With a lot of artisans, Gandhi’s ideology of ‘work is worship’ holds true. Respect their workspace, since it’s their temple.
- Artisans and art and craft business owners will often offer you tea/cold drinks/snacks when you visit them. This is merely a sample of Indian hospitality. Don’t feel obliged to say no or yes. Just remember, some of the best yarns (no pun intended) with artisans and craftsmen are had over endless cups of tea!
- You cannot buy and export any items that are more than a 100 years old from India, without special permits. The Wildlife Act is also very strict in India; check before you buy anything made of materials derived from wildlife (Products like leather etc. made from domesticated animals are obvious exceptions).
- Tipping is customary in India. People working in hospitality don’t get paid too well and often tips help them make a living. The general rule of thumb for tipping is 10-15% of your bills in restaurants and small currency to bellhops, porters etc.
- Tap water across India is considered unsafe for drinking. However, empty plastic bottles have created rubbish islands in all major oceans and are dumped on the sides of roads all around India. Carry steel water bottles with you. You can use water purification tablets, portable water purifiers and boiling to safely drink tap water. Try and buy as few plastic bottles as possible. Many hotels have 20-litre bottles of purified water or water purification systems that you can use to refill your bottles.
Don’t forget to pack your patience and your sense of humour.
This guide has been compiled by Chandra Sundareswaran, an Indian expat in Melbourne, who has worked in both the craft and the travel industries in India. Banner photos @Kate Wood