Faux Pas in India

Faux Pas in India

Planning your travel in India can be overwhelming. You probably need multiple vacations to cover its 29 states, enjoy the food and culture of a stunningly diverse population, immerse in spiritual traditions, or dabble in 22 official languages and countless dialects. Abhijeet Deshpande has traveled to 24 of these states and suggests a list of faux pas to avoid landing yourself in arguments.

India

Beware – no two Indians share the same idea of their country. Hence social standards of acceptance vary for each of these and if you ask around, you are likely to get a slightly different version of a list. For whatever its worth, here’s one take.

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Respect Religions

As a visitor, you should have a trouble-free journey across the incredible country. Other than curious looks and people eager to strike a conversation, you may not need to withstand much. Locals are likely to go out of their way to help. Most Indians live by the mantra ‘Guest is God’. Speaking of God, it is important to note that many take their belief in God seriously. Hence, be respectful about the various religions that co-exist here. In general, it is good idea to avoid showing skin when visiting places of worship, avoid touching a sacred symbol or statue with your feet, and avoid tattoos of Indian religious symbols or deities.

Swastika – A Symbol of Well Being

Swastika is one such religious symbol. It is an ancient sign of well-being and continues to be used extensively in India. You would find it on vehicles, on tonsured heads of young boys, on doors and walls of homes, and on the entrances of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples. This hand-traced symbol is also a prime motif during Indian festivals such as Deepavali, the festival of lights. As with everything else, social standards vary for this point too – some people may not know of the Aryan propaganda while few others may proudly call themselves Aryan and yet not know about the Nazi regime! To avoid social awkwardness, it is best to not express shock at sight! For more, you may want to read this: Swastika is pre-Aryan, dates back 11,000 years

Careful with Public Display of Affection

While you may not get noticed kissing your partner in certain cosmopolitan areas of cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, or Bengaluru, it remains a taboo. If caught in such an act of PDA, you may be slapped with an archaic British-era penal code that deals with ‘public obscenity’ and land you in prison. So even though social standards vary, to avoid jail-time in India, it is best to avoid kissing in public spaces. Other than that, hugging a person of the opposite sex may be frowned upon – especially if you are a man interacting with an Indian girl or woman. There’s nothing criminal about hugging, and again social standards vary, but as a safe practice, let locals offer to shake hands or hug.

Careful with Quoting Media

In recent times, India has been portrayed as an unfriendly country for women. Violence against women is deplorable. Period. It would be helpful to do some homework to know which are the most unsafe places in the world for women. Here is rape statistics by country (based on UNODC data). Violence against women is a global problem. So when you visit India, take measures to be safe, just as you would elsewhere. But, in your interactions with others, drop any bias. If you need more on the topic, here’s a perspective by Maria Wirth – Why this focus on ’rapes in India’ by world media?

Shares Smiles

Though most young fellow travelers sport a diversified view of the places they visit in India, few tourists perhaps continue to seek value in poverty porn. They might click and post misery pictures on social media that give rise to questions such as this one – Why do all foreigners from west, while visiting India, try their best to click the worst part of India?. Many Indians frown upon the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ style portrayal of their country. Guard that reputation and request fellow travelers to stop this practice too.


Have you traveled in India? Would you have suggestions for this post? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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Credits: This piece is edited from its original version, written in response to a question, on Quora?

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66 thoughts on “Faux Pas in India

  1. Would love to visit India, with its vast religious beliefs, cultures dialects and more. This is really interesting.

    1. Thank you Beverly. Hope you get to travel to India soon. There is so much to explore. Feel free to reach out for any information.

  2. So many good tips! It is always so important to learn about the culture before you travel somewhere. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and for pointing our a very important aspect of travelling and travel planning. Glad you liked the post.

  3. A well thought out list. I am Indian and most of what you have pointed out makes sense. I was horrified when I saw a video of a tourist being attacked by locals because he had a tattoo of a God on his calf. Poor guy had no idea what hit him. Such lists help people understand what is acceptable in India.

    1. Thank you Pari. Yes, sometimes, when travelling, overlooking cultural aspects and respect for the local norms can be unpleasant as well. Happy that you liked and appreciated the post.

  4. A really thought provoking article that will help many people travelling to India. Luckily I have no one to worry about PDA with!! Ha! But seriously, a great article with points that I would have never thought about.

  5. Hi there! I’ve been to India myself and find these tips super handy. Now, let’s just hope that more and more tourists will respect these things.

    1. Thank you for stopping by and for your comment Anne. Totally agree with you that more tourists should respect the cultural sensitivities when visiting a new place. Sometimes, not doing so could lead to unpleasant experiences. We are glad that you found these tips helpful!

  6. Thank you for these tips. We were just talking about visiting India next year and they are very helpful for first timers like us. Appreciate it so much!

  7. Sounds like you had an incredible experience! Thank you for sharing these helpful tips when traveling to India. Very great subjects to keep in mind!

  8. I agree, no two Indians have the same views about India, despite being Indians. Thats probably because, everyone has different experiences, but you have penned down some really practical tips, which will actually help foreigners, avoid being the odd one out !

  9. These are some great tip for when anyone travels to India. I think the respecting religion is a super important one. Although some people may not practice the faith, they have to remember that they are going into someone else’s culture and must respect that.

    1. Thanks Samantha for stopping by. We have found being open and respecting cultures has always helped when we travel anywhere in the world!

  10. This is a super useful post as I am moving to India next month! We will be in Chennai and Bangalore mainly, but I will avoid PDA just in case!

    1. All the best with your move Amber. There will be a lot to explore. We have experienced and enjoyed living in both the cities and the culture is very different. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Probably one of the hardest things I dealt with in India was the staring – not out of any creepy, but just because I was so clearly a foreigner with my white skin, it was bound to attract attention – especially in some of those very small rural villages. Respecting religion is crucial – but certainly my first view of the swastika made my eyes pop open, until I understood how it was being used.

    1. Thanks Juliette. Yes, sometimes it can be awkward. You got us reminded of our experience in Tennessee when we went backpacking into Smoky Mountains. We remember being stared at from top to bottom..LOL.. Travel experiences to small towns can be similar across the world. In some countries, we were also asked to be clicked with! Haha… Happy to note you got a new meaning for Swastika! Cheers.

  12. I haven’t been to India yet so I was fascinated reading your article. I wasn’t aware of the swastika at all and being a Southerner, would definitely never have given hugging a second thought. Thanks for the great advice and warnings.

  13. This is such a brilliant post. First time I am reading something I should not be doing in India and yet feeling positive about it.

  14. I actually DID know that about the swastika, because I saw a white swastika incorporated into a work of art on display in Europe when I was a kid and gasped. My Dad guided me to the sign that explained (like you do so well in this article) the original meaning behind the sign. Great post!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and letting us know your experience of understanding the meaning of Swastika as a kid 🙂 Appreciate your kind words.

  15. A very informative and helpful article for foreigners. I don’t agree with equating actual safety with rape statistics though. The number of things which girls avoid doing in India at the fear of getting abused is what bothers me the most. Hope things are going to change for the better and safety of women in India dont need to come with a long list of terms and conditions 🙁

    1. Thanks Sinjana for sharing your thoughts. The key point this post highlights is an unhelpful boxing of a universal gender issue into a national boundary. Having lived in Asia, Europe and North America, we were surprised to witness how the scenario of safety is pretty much the same everywhere for women. Your concerns are shared by many across the world in their respective countries. Statistics merely provide a perspective. Safe Travels. Happy Travels. 🙂

  16. I havent been in India yet but its on my list! Its such a colourful, cultural and beautiful country, I just would love to go there and explore as much as I can. And every person Ive met from India was so nice!

  17. Great tips and I think for the most part they can be carried over to most countries we visit. I did not know about the law for pda though that’s a good thing to remember lol.

  18. Interesting read! It’s good to know about the country culture before heading there so you do not do the wrong things and always make sure to respect the resident culture. Definitely a useful article for all of us who is planning a trip to India.

    1. Yes Ee Sing and thank you for your reflections. Respecting the local culture is very important for good experiences, for travelers as well as residents.

  19. Great post. I liked that you talked aboutthe sexual harassment issue. You usually hear about India in the news in that connection and not about other wonderful thaings that going on in the country.
    I traveled to India in the past and i agree you should protect your self in India like any other place in the world.

    1. Good to know that you have traveled to India and find it not very different from many other places in the world where you would follow common safety practices! Happy travels 🙂

  20. Fantastic article! Really thought provoking for travelers across the globe who wish to visit incredible India. I second your point of rape stats and sharing only misery of the Country by foreigners. It is something serious to take on.

  21. I travel to India a few times a year because I’m fascinated by the culture and diversity – there is always a surprise around the corner. This is super helpful for anyone traveling to India. I was aware of the Swastika as I too was a little shocked the first time not knowing the true meaning.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Vanessa. Wonderful that the diversity and culture in India keeps you coming back! Happy travels and do look up our other posts specifically on Northeast India for your future visits. Cheers.

  22. The first time I saw the swastika in India I was horrified. Then I saw it again and I had to Google it’s origins. I was happy to find out that it was not what I thought that it was. It’s so easy to get the wrong end of the stick in a foreign country.

    1. Haha. Happy to note that you looked up to find out what Swastika means. This is one of the important points here to educate visitors to India about it’s meaning.

  23. These are all great tips! While traveling it’s important to respect the local customs and understand that things might be a little different from what you’re used to back home. Whenever I travel to India I’ll keep all these in mind!

  24. Being an Indian living in UK, many non Indian origin friends often ask about what to be careful about when in India and I think your blog sums it all beautifully. I can share it with them to let know. Great job👍

    1. Thanks Archana. Please do share it on for a better understanding of India’s culture by first time visitors here. Appreciate your validations! Cheers.

  25. These are some wonderful tips for first-time travellers to India esp. the point about the Swastika since Westerners may get quite a shock from seeing it all around.

    1. Yes.. we have seen and heard about that shock 🙂 Hence, sharing here what Swastika means in India. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  26. Very well written. The sentimental values are high in India and people visiting need to understand that. This post will definitely help 🙂

  27. This is an extremely helpful and well written cultural guide and will come in handy when we visit India. Thank you!

  28. What an interesting post! Being French I completely understand the importance of avoiding faux-pas as we have a lot of etiquettes to follow in my culture and you may be judged if you don’t respect them!

  29. Thanks for the list. I especially liked the last point. I visited India about 10 years ago and I was staying with a friend in Bangalore and traveling to Delhi. The India I’ve seen was very different from the “Backpackers standard” as I’ve had a chance to interact with many locals and see how people on different economic levels live. It angers me when someone has a very biased view of a country and plays into stereotypes, which is why I try my best to meet people from a country I’m visiting to get some more exposure and a glimpse into the real life. India is a beautiful and diverse country and I loved partying in the beautiful, luxury hotels as much as I loved eating homemade food with my hands at my friends’ places.

    1. Wow! We loved to hear your experience of traveling in India! Wish you many more amazing journeys and memories. 🙂

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