Visiting India: the truth about the local faux pas. I enjoy writing about India and its culture. Often it is very diverse from the customs and way of living I am used to in Poland. Yet, traveling the world changed my thinking a lot. I am not surprised about different approaches, lifestyles, or cultures. I admire them with eyes wide open.
When visiting other countries or places, we tend to focus on what to do. This time, I want to tell you the reverse about India: the local faux pas. Faux pas? Literally, it means “false step” in French. The phrase refers to “an embarrassing or tactless act or remark in a social situation”.
What are some of the most common and also unique faux pas in India? No matter if you are planning to relocate or only to travel to India, this list is a must-read before your journey.
And don’t miss one of my recent articles about India:
Relocating to Bangalore: My surprising three years perspective
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE LOCAL FAUX PAS
#1 Do not expect everyone to speak English or Hindi
When you arrive in India, do not expect every person to speak English or Hindi. Yet, don’t worry about it too. There are 23 official languages in India, including English. In India, many people are fluent in English. Yet, the country’s population is so vast that you will also encounter many people with basic or no English. The best advice: before your travel, check the official language of that region/s. The chances are high that it won’t be Hindi.
TRAVEL TIP: Before your travel, check the official language of the region/s you will visit, and learn 2-3 basic words. It might help!
#2 DO NOT CLEAN YOUR NOSE IN PUBLIC
Surprised? I was very surprised! To make a long story short: cleaning your nose in public is not ok, burping in public is ok. Now imagine: I am allergic to dust, I catch a cold pretty easily, and the spicy food makes my nose run and run! I can’t live without tissues! 🙂 Plus, Poland is the opposite: cleaning your nose in public is ok, and burping is not ok. The summary is that you should be thoughtful when cleaning your nose in India.
TRAVEL TIP: If possible, clean your nose in a bathroom or go/turn on the side. If the spicy food doesn’t allow you to run to the bathroom every 2 minutes, turn on the side and clean your nose quietly.
#3 Do not enter temple or home with shoes
If you plan to visit a temple or a local home, remember to leave your shoes outside. Temple is the home of God so shoes can’t be worn.
In the south of India, it might also be the case in some smaller shops. Being Polish, I am used to removing shoes before entering someone’s house. Is it safe to leave shoes in front of the temple? Generally yes. However, it is part of the cultural risk! 🙂 I have never haf my shoes stolen but I know it can happen.
TRAVEL TIP: Relax, it is India. Leave your Louis Vuitton or Christian Louboutin shoes at home before visiting a temple! 😉
#4 DO NOT ENTER the TEMPLE WEARING SHORTS OR A SKIRT
I think that this is a bit more known fact. Do not enter the temple wearing shorts, a skirt, or having your full shoulders uncovered. Wear modest clothes, and there won’t be any problems entering a temple.
TRAVEL TIP: Carry with you a shawl. You can use it as a skirt or shoulders cover when entering a temple. Additionally, it might protect you from the sun or even the wind when traveling in a rickshaw.
#5 Do not make your underGARMENTS visible
In many corners of the world, it might be common or even fashionable to show some parts of your underwear, for example, a sports bra. Avoid it in India, especially as a tourist. I remember, back in 2009, when my office friend (female) used to run after me and fix my blouse for me all the time, making sure nothing is seen.
TRAVEL TIP: Swimming costume: yes – but only on the beach or swimming pool. And even there, select a modest one. At home in India, I have sporty swimming costumes. While at home in Poland, I keep the ones for sunbathing! 🙂
#6 DO NOT SHOW NUDITY
Following on the previous point: exposing nudity is not appropriate in India. Interestingly, it is common to show your tummy area. I guess because wearing a saree lady’s tummy area is usually fully visible. That’s part of the culture. Exposing cleavage or buttocks is a big faux pas in India.
TRAVEL TIP: What do I wear in India? I wear both my Indian and western clothes, including shorts, skirts, or dresses. I make sure to balance my outfit well. For example, I avoid a spaghetti top and shorts at the same time. But I jump in shorts and a t-shirt nearly every day. When I select a top, I wear it with 3/4 leggings.
#7 DO NOT DEMONSTRATE AFFECTION IN PUBLIC
That’s a famous item! And still it is a valid one. Demonstrating affection in public in India is illegal. No matter how much you love your partner while traveling in India, do not kiss, hug, or even hold hands in public. You can express your love by words or other gestures! 🙂 Same-gender physical contact is allowed
TRAVEL TIP: Take it seriously. “Under the section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, causing annoyance to others through “obscene acts” is a criminal offense with a punishment of imprisonment up to 3 months or a fine, or both.”
#8 DO NOT HOPE TO SUNBATHE WITH PEOPLE FROM INDIA
This item you will not find in travel guides or many other blogs. I learned it during my travels to India. Do not hope to sunbathe with people from India. For example, in the case of Europeans, it is a common (and desired) practice to lie down on the beach or by the pool and sunbathe. People do not like to have pale skin. In India, it is the opposite.
People avoid taking the sun, getting their skin darker. There is a preference to go to the beach or swimming pool in the morning or late afternoon. The good news is: there is less crowd during sunny hours.
TRAVEL TIP: In India, you won’t be able to find body lotions to make the skin darker or brown. If you need them, bring them with you. Instead, you can find many products to make skin lighter in color.
#9 DO NOT DRINK TAP WATER
It is not only a faux pas but also a potential health issue: do not attempt to drink tap water. Also, avoid being paranoid, as I was during my first visit to India in 2009. I used to wash my teeth with mineral water. 🙂
TRAVEL TIP: In the restaurants, you will be offered two types of water: mineral (bottled) and regular. Opt for the regular water. It is filtered water, free of charge. It is safe to drink. Mineral water, especially in the 5-star hotels, is overpriced.
Comparison: Bisleri bottle water (1 liter) in the shop costs 20 rupees. Mineral water (1 liter) in the restaurants cost ~200 rupees.
#10 DO NOT HOPE TO EAT BEEF
In India, cows are traditionally viewed as sacred. Avoid asking about beef meet when going out to the restaurants or visiting local people.
States like Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Karnataka ban the slaughter of cows completely. Other states like Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland Meghalaya, Sikkim, Manipur, Tripura, and Mizoram have no laws which prohibit cow slaughter.
TRAVEL TIP: The approach might vary state by state. You can double-check it in advance before visiting the respective regions. E.g., in Karnataka, “the new law bans the slaughter of cow, calf of a cow and bull, bullock of all ages [completely], and buffaloes below the age of thirteen years.” So there are restaurants that serve buffs meat, and it is legal.
#11 Do not eat with the left hand
Do not eat with the left hand in India unless you are a left-handed. In temples, even if your are a leftie, use your right hand. In many parts of the world, including India, the left hand is considered unclean. It is used when going to the bathroom, cleaning feet etc. Hence, always eat with your right hand.
TRAVEL TIP: Since I am Polish, I am used to eating with fork and knife. In India, people eat mainly with a teaspoon (used for rice, lentils etc.) or with right hand. So by default left hand is not needed. If you find it challenging to “forget” using it, place your left hand on your knee and continue eating with right hand only.
#12 Do not give money with the left hand
Similarly to the point mentioned above, do not use your left hand to give money or other things. Once I was rejected giving the money. I was handing it using my left hand. Use your left hand for holding things: opening your wallet or bag, and your right hand for giving things.
TRAVEL TIP: You might notice, for example, in hotels, people use both hands when giving things (e.g., hotel bills). In India, it is a sign of respect.
#13 Do not eat food before prayers on the festival days
In the Hindu religion, people do not eat food before prayers on festival days. They would fast till the specific “pooja” (prayer) time. Two examples can be Shivratri (the marriage of Lord Shiva and Shakti) or Janmashtami (the birth of Lord Krishna). Additionally, it is not allowed to do pooja or visit temples after eating non-veg food.
TRAVEL TIP: Merge into the local culture. If you are joining someone locally for a festival, check in advance if eating on that specific day is allowed or not. It might mean a bit of fasting but will allow you to feel the local culture and follow people’s traditions.
#14 Do not photograph funeral processions
Funeral processions are private affairs and shouldn’t be disturbed. In many places, like Varanasi, you may see cremations. In Hindu funerals, the body is usually carried to the cremation site on the same day of death or the following one. As the funerals and the customs are different from the Western ones, do not gaze. Treat such occasions with respect and avoid taking pictures.
TRAVEL TIP: In India, white is the color of mourning. The black color is unrelated to death.
#15 Do not assume it is a NO
It is time for the Indian head’s wobble! During your stay in India (or maybe online videoconferencing calls) you might notice many people wobbling their heads. I call it a “wave” movement of the head. It is similar to the body language of the sign “no”. However, do not assume it is a “no” nor a “yes”. It often refers to the word “accha” which means good. It might also mean “I understand”.
TRAVEL TIP: What is the most common body language sign in India? Joining hands for the Namaste (good morning) sign. Whenever you meet an elder person it is the perfect way to greet them.
PS. #16 Do not attempt to trespass on military or defense areas in India. Just like on the main picture, taken in Bangalore. the message is very clear. “Trespassers will be shot”!
Did I miss any important faux pas from India? If yes, add it to the comments below. If you haven’t been to India yet, what surprised you the most from the above list? Share in the comments below. Sharing is caring!
Moments that matter, no matter the faux pas.
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