Travel Tips - Social Conduct
Any journey is incomplete unless you interact with the locals. That's when you really catch the pulse of the destination. Cultural differences are inevitable and they come up in all sorts of little things. Although allowances are usually made for foreign visitors, it is still a good idea for those unacquainted with Indian customs to learn the basics in order to avoid causing offence or making fools of themselves. While the list can go on forever, the ground rule is that when in doubt, watch the locals and follow suit. Here are some pointers to a smooth sailing across India.
These are only guidelines and their main purpose is to help you remain safe and not hurt the sensibilities of others even inadvertently
As a traveller, you will constantly come across people who want to strike up a conversation. English not being their first language, they may not be familiar with the conventional ways of doing this, and thus their opening line may seem abrupt, if at the same time very formal. "Excuse me good gentleman, what is your mother country?" is a typical one. It is also the first in a series of questions that Indian men seem sometimes to have learnt from a single book in order to ask Western tourists. Some of the questions may baffle at first ("What is your qualification?" "Are you in service?"), some may be queries about the ways of the West or the purpose of your trip, but mostly they will be about your family and your job.
You may find it odd or even intrusive that complete strangers should want to know that sort of thing, but these subjects are considered polite conversation between strangers in India, and help people place one another in terms of social position. Your family, job, even income, are not considered "personal" subjects, and it is completely normal to ask people about them. Asking the same questions back will not be taken amiss – far from it. Being curious does not have the "nosey" stigma in India that it has in the West.
Indians could be very conservative about dress, notwithstanding what you might have seen in Bollywood movies. Do not get carried away by the sculpture of Khajurao or the exotic coffee-table books on India Exotica! Women and Men are expected to dress modestly, with legs and shoulders covered. Trousers and dresses that cover most parts of the body are acceptable in most places. Remember, there are many centuries coexisting in India almost simultaneously. Short-skirts may be completely acceptable in certain quarters of a city but could land you in serious trouble if you move a few 100 metres from the same location. As an outsider, you are not likely to notice when you have moved from one culture zone to the other as their are no hoardings announcing that. It is better to err on the positive for your own safety, which translates to more coverage and less show of skin. Once again, these are general guidelines and India being an epitome of diversity you may find some of these bits completely contradictory. You will see some Hindu priests in the holiest of temples scantily clothed in a robe that resembles a white sarong! Do not think that gives you the licence to follow suit, unwritten rules could be different for different people in this country, give yourself time to understand that!
Men should preferably wear a shirt in public, and avoid shorts away from beach areas (some locals called short Kutcha, a derogatory term that means undy!). These unwritten-rules go double in temples and mosques. Cover your head with a cap or cloth when entering a dargah (Sufi shrine) or Sikh gurudwara; women in particular are also required to cover their limbs. Men are similarly expected to dress appropriately with their legs and head covered. Caps are usually available on loan, often free, for visitors, and sometimes cloth is available to cover up your arms and legs. In general, Indians find it hard to understand why rich Western sahibs should wander round in ragged clothes or imitate the lowest ranks of Indian society, who would love to have something more decent to wear. Staying well groomed and dressing "respectably" vastly improves the impression you make on local people, and reduces sexual harassment too.
If you want to keep your cool in the Indian sun, cotton clothing is helpful along with a comfortable pair of open sandals. An effective pair of sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat will protect you against the deceptively strong rays. In formal places like the old clubs from the British Raj and some exclusive restaurants at Five-Stars, you are supposed to wear proper leather shoes and tucked-in shirts with collars. The emphasis on tucking in your shirt may mystify you but at a Golf course do not argue with your starter why is he insisting on you tucking-in your shirt or why a pair of jeans is not allowed on numerous Golf-Courses around India.
Another important thing to remember is that a short one hour flight may take you to a place where the kind of clothes that you you would require may change from Arctic to Tropical ones, do your research and do not get caught in the the heat or the cold.
Most of the Indians are happy to be photographed but it is a good idea to take verbal permission and establish a positive, friendly eye-contact with your subjects. In certain temples, hindus could be superstitious about taking photographs of images of deities and inside temples; if in doubt, desist. The same is true of other religious places, take permission from the priest, the father or the mullah!
Funeral processions are private affairs, and should be left in peace. In Hindu funerals, the body is normally carried to the cremation site within hours of death by white-shrouded relatives. At Varanasi and other places, you may see cremations; such occasions should be treated with respect. Photographs should not be taken.
Religion is taken very seriously in India; it's important always to show due respect to religious buildings, shrines, images, and people at prayer. When entering a temple or mosque, remove your shoes and leave them at the door (socks are acceptable and protect your feet from burning-hot stone ground).
Cover your head with a cap or cloth when entering a dargah (Sufi shrine) or Sikh gurudwara; women in particular are also required to cover their limbs. Some temples – Jain ones in particular – do not allow you to enter wearing or carrying leather articles, and forbid entry to menstruating women. When entering a religious establishment, dress conservatively, and try not to be obtrusive.
In a mosque, you'll not normally be allowed in at prayer time and women are sometimes not let in at all. In a Hindu temple, you may not be allowed into the inner sanctum; and at a Buddhist stupa or monument, you should always walk round clockwise (ie, with the stupa on your right).
Homosexuality is generally considered a taboo subject by both Indian civil society and the government. Homophobia is prevalent in India. Public discussion of homosexuality in India has been inhibited by the fact that sexuality in any form is rarely discussed openly. In recent years, however, attitudes towards homosexuality have shifted slightly. In particular, there have been more depictions and discussions of homosexuality in the Indian news mediaand by Bollywood. On 2 July 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexual intercourse between consenting adults, and this new stand of decriminalisation is applicable throughout the territory of India, where Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was adjudged to violate the fundamental right to life and liberty and the right to equality as guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
When eating or drinking your lips should not touch other people's food – jutha or sullied food is strictly taboo. Don't, for example, take a bite out of a chapati and pass it on. When drinking out of a cup or bottle to be shared with others, don't let it touch your lips, but rather pour it directly into your mouth. This custom also protects you from things like hepatitis. It is customary to wash your hands before and after eating.
Tipping is virtually unknown in India, except in swanky establishments in the major cities. Baksheesh, on the other hand, a term which encompasses tipping and a lot more besides, is widespread. You 'tip' in India not so much for good service but in order to get things done. Judicious baksheesh will open closed doors, find missing letters and perform other small miracles. In tourist restaurants or hotels a 10% service charge is often added to bills. In smaller places, where tipping is optional, you need only tip a few rupees, not a percentage of your bill.
The concept of time in India is not the same as in the rest of the world. Technically, IST or Indian Standard Time works for India which is 5 ½ hours ahead of GMT/UTC, 4 ½ hours behind Australian EST and 10 ½ hours ahead of American EST. Beyond that you will need to get used to the idea what tomorrow or yesterday means. It could stretch up to a few years this way or that depending on where in India you are.
Strictly observed in some states and cities when work comes to a standstill and shopkeepers down their shutters. Prominent states in this category are Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Assam and the city which takes the cake are Pune and Bhubaneswar!
Kissing and embracing are regarded in India as part of sex: do not do them in public. It is not even a good idea for couples to hold hands in most of the public places.
Be aware of your feet. When entering a private home, you should normally remove your shoes (follow your host's example); when sitting, avoid pointing the soles of your feet at anyone. Accidental contact with one's foot is always followed by an apology.
Indian English can be very formal and even ceremonious. Indian people may well call you "sir" or "madam", even "good lady" or "kind sir". At the same time, you should be aware that your English may seem rude to them. In particular, swearing is taken rather seriously in India, and casual use of the F-word is likely to shock.