I often receive follow-up questions to the Social Etiquette portion of our India Destination Guide. India's society has manners that define its beautifully diverse (and often complex) culture. There is a unique blend of traditionalism and modernity and many travelers are in awe of the social structure. Here are a few of the most common questions I received in the last few months:
I have seen a few Western Indian movies that show the left hand is considered unclean. Is this still widely believed? I am left-handed and have concerns that I will offend those around me when I eat.
Traditionally, only the right hand was used for eating or receiving food in India. The left hand was used for washing and therefore not considered clean. However, times are changing and it is now acceptable in many communities for left-handed individuals to eat with their dominant hand. Generally speaking, this rule does not apply to foreigners, though many movies may dramatize this as a grandiose cultural faux pas. Perhaps more important is to make sure common food and snacks are not contaminated with saliva. It is considered rude and also unhygienic for a food item or utensil that has come in contact with the person's mouth or plate to be shared. (The exception to this is food shared among close friends and family members.)
Is it taboo to hold hands in public? Also, can a man shake a woman's hand and vice versa?
In traditional Indian culture, it is very rare to see a man and woman hold hands or engage in any public display of affection. However, times are changing and the younger generations, particularly in more populated areas, are more likely to express themselves. It is best to use discretion and not engage in any excessive public displays of affection.
As for hand shaking between the opposite sex, it is more common between the younger crowd or in a business environment. When meeting an elder or in more formal situations, it is best to greet with the traditional Namaste. Press your hands together in front of your chest with all fingers pointing toward the sky, look the recipient in the eye, and say Namaste.
I understand India is a conservative country. Can I wear shorts, t-shirts, and skirts during my trip?
The appropriate dress code corresponds to the areas visited. Rural areas are usually more conservative and I recommend pants, capri pants, loose t-shirts, or skirts that are below the knee. You may also choose to wear traditional Indian clothes. Depending on the location, some women may also be asked to cover their head with a shawl or scarf. In metropolitan areas, women often dress in a more relaxed manner. However, it is still advisable to not wear clothing that is too short, tight, or revealing.
I have been invited to the home of a family friend for dinner. What is an appropriate gift?
Flowers, a box of chocolates, or sweets are considered an appropriate gift for the host. If they have small children, I also recommend bringing a small toy, book, or coloring book/crayons for each child. One of our travelers once asked about bringing a bottle of local wine. Many Indians do not keep alcohol in the home, so I suggest asking a mutual contact if the wine would be accepted.
The Sodha Travel team is here to answer your questions about India's culture and customs, so please ask us anytime!