India is a vast country with a rich cultural history spanning thousands of years. With over 1.4 billion people, India is the second most populous country in the world and is home to incredible diversity in terms of language, religion, cuisine, and customs. This diversity also means there are many cultural norms and taboos that differ across regions and communities. Being aware of actions and behaviors that may be seen as disrespectful or offensive in India is important for anyone visiting or interacting with Indian people and culture.
Touching Someone’s Feet
Touching someone’s feet, also known as charan sparsh, is a traditional Indian gesture that is often seen as disrespectful if done inappropriately. Touching the feet of elders, teachers, and holy figures is considered a sign of respect in Indian culture. However, touching the feet of someone inappropriately, such as a business colleague or stranger, would likely be seen as strange or offensive. It is best to observe and understand when charan sparsh is appropriate before attempting to do it yourself.
Pointing Your Feet at Someone or Something Sacred
In India, the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Pointing your feet or shoes at another person is seen as very disrespectful. Similarly, pointing feet towards religious idols, temples, holy books or places is considered highly offensive. Be mindful of the direction your feet are facing when in places of worship or around holy objects.
Eating with Your Left Hand
The left hand is reserved for personal hygiene in Indian culture, while the right hand is used for eating, greeting others, and other clean tasks. Eating or passing food with your left hand should be avoided, as this implies the food is unclean. Be sure to use only your right hand when dining in India.
Displaying Affection Publicly
India remains a predominantly conservative country, especially with public displays of affection. Hugging, kissing, and other intimate gestures in public are generally frowned upon. More progressive urban areas are growing accustomed to some PDA between younger generations. However, it is advisable to keep intimate gestures private, particularly when interacting with older individuals.
Wearing Revealing Clothing
Revealing clothing such as shorts, mini-skirts, sleeveless or sheer tops, and anything showing bare shoulders or cleavage is considered inappropriate in India, for both men and women. Dressing modestly is the cultural norm across India. Be sure to cover shoulders, chest, midriffs, and upper legs when getting dressed.
Gesturing with a Finger
Beckoning someone with a pointed finger or using a finger to point at objects is offensive in India. The finger pointing gesture is only used to scold small children or animals. For getting someone’s attention, wave your entire hand instead of pointing a finger.
Giving Money, Food, or Other Gifts with the Left Hand
As the left hand is associated with unclean acts in India, only the right hand should be used when offering money, prasad (blessed food) in temples, or any other object to another person. Pass items with both hands or just your right hand.
Touching or Patting Children on the Head
Patting someone’s head, especially of children, is considered rude in India. The head is believed to be a major energy center which should not be touched. Avoid patting children on the head and instead show affection by holding hands or a gentle pat on the back.
Overusing “Please” and “Thank You”
While most cultures appreciate politeness, repeatedly using “please” and “thank you” in India can come across as insincere or obsequious flattery. Use these phrases sparingly and appropriately according to the closeness of your relationship.
Giving Items Made of Leather to Brahmins
Brahmins, who belong to the priestly class in Hinduism, traditionally avoid items made from leather which are seen as ritually impure. Gifts like wallets, purses, or belts made of leather should not be given to Brahmins.
Letting Clothing or Bags Touch Someone’s Feet
Allowing the soles of your shoes, clothing hems, or bags to touch another person’s feet is considered extremely rude in India. Feet are seen as unclean, so avoid contact between feet and other objects. Check before sitting that your feet aren’t directed at or touching someone else.
Using Feet to Move or Point at Objects
As feet are regarded as dirty, using your feet to move or point to things is unacceptable. Never use your foot to slide an object towards someone or kick an object to draw attention to it. Bending down and using your hand is always preferable.
Pointing at or Touching Religious Items with Feet or Shoes
Feet and footwear should never come in contact with or point in the direction of religious idols, books, offerings, temple thresholds, etc. Be sure to remove footwear before entering places of worship and avoid directing feet towards religious objects.
Touching or Picking Up Sacred Offerings
Items offered to deities like flowers, sweets, money, etc. are considered sacred once blessed. Picking up or touching these prasad offerings with your hands is disrespectful, unless you intend to accept and eat the prasad yourself.
Overstaying as a Guest
Indian culture emphasizes hospitality, and guests are treated with great respect. However, overstaying that hospitality for too long can come across as taking advantage. Make sure to depart close to when expected unless your hosts insist otherwise.
Turning Down an Offer of Food or Drink
Generously offering food, snacks, tea and water to guests is considered highly virtuous in Indian culture. Turning down an offer without a valid reason is seen as rude. Accept when your hosts offer refreshments, even if just a glass of water.
Opening Gifts in the Giver’s Presence
When receiving gifts in India, it is considered polite to wait to open gifts until the giver has left. Opening a gift in front of the giver can come across as impatient or ungrateful. Wait until you can open it privately and then call or thank the giver.
Giving Clocks, Handkerchiefs, or Scissors as Gifts
Traditionally, clocks, handkerchiefs, and scissors given as gifts in India are considered inauspicious, as they signify closing time, tears, and the severing of relationships. Avoid giving these items, especially to older individuals who adhere to superstitions.
Touching Books or Money with Feet
Touching books, money, or other valuables with your feet or shoes is greatly frowned upon, as feet are considered polluted and lower parts of the body. Be careful of how you place and handle objects that are considered pure or sacred.
Navigating culture and etiquette in India requires close observation of social norms that often differ from Western customs. Avoiding taboos around feet, the left hand, public affection, revealing clothing, and hospitality faux pas will help you avoid causing serious offence. Politeness, modesty, and using your right hand can go a long way in showing respect. India’s diversity means customs may vary, but understanding the most common taboos is a great start.