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Travel Guide > Asia > India

India People & Culture

  
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India has a very rich and diverse mix of culture and tradition, dominated by religious and spiritual themes. There is no single unified Indian culture, and it's probably the only country where people of so many different origins, religious beliefs, languages and ethnic backgrounds coexist. There are 3 main sub-cultures: North, East and South. Most of the ancient Indian culture is preserved in the South which is famous for its classical arts, such as Carnatic music and classical Indian dance.

The Northern part of India has a rich heritage of Hindustani Classical Music and vibrant dance forms. Art and theatre flourish amongst the bustling cities of the country, against the backdrop of the ever expanding western influences that flavour life in the large metropolises of India.

The East is popular for its many forms of folkdances and music. These art forms are enriched by a strong east asian influence.

Religion and rituals customs

In mosques, churches and temples it is obligatory to take off your shoes. It may also be customary to take off your footwear while entering into homes, follow other people's lead.

It is disrespectful to touch or point at people with your feet. If done accidentally, you will find that Indians will make a quick gesture of apology that involves touching the offended person with the right hand, and then moving the hand to the chest and to the eyes. It is a good idea to emulate that.

Books and written material are treated with respect, as they are considered as being concrete/physical forms of the Hindu Goddess of Learning, Saraswati. A book should not be touched with the feet and if it has accidentally touched, the same gesture of apology as is made to people (see above) should be performed.

The same goes with currency, or anything associated with wealth (especially gold). They are treated as being physical representations of the Goddess Lakshmi (of Wealth) in human form, and should not be disrespected.

Avoid winking, whistling, pointing or beckoning with your fingers, and touching someone's ears. All of these are considered rude.

The Swastika is commonly seen in India, as it is considered a religious symbol for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is not widely regarded as a symbol for Nazism in India, and in fact, had its origins in Hinduism long before the birth of Nazism, so Western visitors should not feel offended if they see a Swastika in a temple or in the home of a local. It does not mean the person is a Nazi supporter, and does not symbolise anti-Semitism. The correlation between the Swastika and anti-Semitism is mostly not even understood.

Etiquette

Any give or take of anything important should be done with the right hand only. This includes giving and taking of presents, and any transfer of a large amount of money.

Travellers should be aware of the fact that Indians generally dress conservatively and should do the same. Shorts, short skirts (knee-length or above) and sleeveless shirts are not appropriate off the beach. Cover as much skin as possible. Both men and women should keep their shoulders covered. Women should wear baggy clothes that do not emphasize their contours. However, if you move to metropolitan cities, there is much more liberalism of wearing western outfits and skimpy clothes though still they may become a centre of stare from men. But they should avoid moving alone at night.

Keep in mind that Indians will consider themselves obliged to go out of the way to fulfill a guest's request and will insist very strongly that it is no inconvenience to do so, even if it is not true. This of course means that there is a reciprocal obligation on you as a guest to take extra care not to be a burden.

It is customary to put up a token friendly argument with your host or any other member of the group when paying bills at restaurant or while making purchases. The etiquette for this is somewhat complicated.

  • In a business lunch or dinner, it is usually clear upfront who is supposed to pay, and there is no need to fight. But if you are someone's personal guest and they take you out to a restaurant, you should offer to pay anyway, and you should insist a lot. Sometimes these fights get a little funny, with each side trying to snatch the bill away from the other, all the time laughing politely. If you don't have experience in these things, chances are, you will lose the chance the first time, but in that case, make sure that you pay the next time. (and try to make sure that there is a next time.) Unless the bill amount is very large do not offer to share it, and only as a second resort after they have refused to let you pay it all.

  • The same rule applies when you are making a purchase. If you are purchasing something for yourself, your hosts might still offer to pay for it if the amount is not very high, and sometimes, even if it is. In this situation, unless the amount is very low, you should never lose the fight. If the amount is in fact ridiculously low, say less than 10 rupees, then don't insult your hosts by putting up a fight. Even if by chance you lose the fight to pay the shopkeeper, it is customary to practically thrust (in a nice way, of course) the money into your host's hands.

  • These rules do not apply if the host has made it clear beforehand that it is his or her treat, especially for some specific occasion.

Sensitive topics

Pakistan is a sensitive subject about which many Indians will have strong views. Avoid getting into a conversation about the whole issue. It's fine to have a chat about your visit to Pakistan, the people, Indo-Pak cricket matches etc. Just don't discuss politics.

Avoid insulting or questioning religious beliefs unless others are doing so too.

Be cautious when discussing the caste system, since Western viewpoints on this topic are often antiquated or inadequate (or both). Recent changes in society have meant that in some urban areas, caste prejudice is non-existent.

Sri lanka is also very sensitive subject in subcontinent. The recent genocides in Sri lanka has created ripples and unrest in southern part of India, especially Tamil Nadu.





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