1. Don’t Wear Tight or Revealing Clothing
Indians adopt a very conservative standard of dress, particularly in rural areas. Western dress standards, including jeans on women, are now prevalent in major cities.
However, to be decent, you should keep your legs covered. You’ll rarely see a well-dressed Indian man wearing shorts, or an Indian woman wearing a skirt above the ankles (although the beaches of Goa and college students are common exceptions!). Sure, you can do it, and most likely no one will say anything. But first impressions count! There’s a common perception in India that foreign women are promiscuous, and wearing inappropriate clothing perpetuates this. You will get more respect by dressing conservatively. Covering your legs and shoulders (and even your head) is especially important when visiting temples in India. Also, avoid wearing strapless tops anywhere. If you do wear a spaghetti strap top, wear a shawl or scarf over it to be modest.
2. Don’t wear your shoes inside
It’s good manners to take your shoes off before entering someone’s home, and it’s a prerequisite before entering a temple or mosque.
Indians will often wear shoes inside their homes, such as when going to the bathroom. However, these shoes are kept for domestic use and never worn outdoors. Shoes are sometimes also removed before entering a shop. If you see shoes at an entrance, it’s a good idea to take yours off as well.
3. Don’t point your feet or finger at people
Feet are considered to be unclean and therefore it’s important to avoid pointing your feet at people or touching people or objects (particularly books) with your feet or shoes.
If you accidentally do so, you should apologize straight away. Also, note that Indians will often touch their head or eyes as a show of apology. On the other hand, it’s a sign of respect to bend down and touch an elder person’s feet in India.
Pointing with your finger is also rude in India. If you need to point at something or someone, it’s better to do so with your whole hand or thumb.
4. Don’t Eat Food or Pass Objects With Your Left Hand
The left hand is considered to be unclean in India, as it’s used to perform matters associated with going to the bathroom. Therefore, you should avoid your left hand coming into contact with food or any objects that you pass to people.
5. Don’t Be Offended by Intrusive Questions
Indians are really inquisitive people and their culture is one where people do anything but mind their own business, often due to a lack of privacy in India and the habit of placing people in the social hierarchy. As a result, don’t be surprised or offended if someone asks you how much you earn for a living and a host of other intimate questions, all upon first meeting. What’s more, you should feel free to ask these type of questions in return. Rather than causing offence, the people you are conversing with will be pleased that you’ve taken such an interest in them!
6. Don’t always be polite
The use of “please” and “thank you” are essential for good manners in western culture. However, in India, they can create unnecessary formality and, surprisingly, can even be insulting! While it’s fine to thank someone who has provided a service to you, such as a shop assistant or waiter, lavishing thanks on friends or family should be avoided. In India, people view doing things for those whom they are close to as implicit in the relationship. If you thank them, they may see it as a violation of intimacy and the creation of distance that shouldn’t exist.
Another thing to keep in mind is that being polite can be viewed as a sign of weakness in India, especially if someone is trying to scam or exploit you. A meek, “No, thank you”, is rarely enough to deter touts and street vendors. Instead, it’s necessary to be more stern and forceful.
7. Don’t outright decline an invitation or request
While it’s necessary to be assertive and say “no” in some situations in India, doing so to decline an invitation or request can be considered disrespectful. This is because it’s important to avoid making a person look or feel bad. This differs from the western view, where saying no is simply being upfront and not giving a false expectation of commitment. Instead of saying “no” or “I can’t” directly, adopt the Indian way of replying by giving evasive answers such as “I’ll try”, or “maybe”, or “it might be possible”, or “I’ll see what I can do”.
8. Don’t expect people to be punctual
There is time, and there is “Indian Standard Time” or “Indian Stretchable Time”. In the west, it’s considered rude to be late, and anything more than 10 minutes requires a phone call. In India, the concept of time is flexible. People are unlikely to turn up when they say they will. 10 minutes can mean half an hour, half an hour can mean an hour, and an hour can mean indefinitely!
9. Don’t expect people to respect your personal space
Overcrowding and scarcity of resources lead to a lot of pushing and shoving in India! If there is a line, people will certainly try and jump it. To prevent this from happening, those who are in the line will commonly stand so close to each other that they’re touching. It can feel unnerving at first, but it’s necessary to prevent people from cutting in.
10. Don’t show affection in public
There’s a joke that it’s okay to “piss in public but not kiss in public” in India. Unfortunately, there is truth to it! While you may think nothing of holding your partner’s hand in public, or even hugging or kissing them, it’s not appropriate in India. Indian society is conservative, particularly the older generation. Such personal acts are associated with sex and can be considered obscene in public. “Moral policing” does occur. While it’s unlikely that, as a foreigner, you’ll be arrested it’s best to keep affectionate gestures private.
11. Don’t overlook your body language
Traditionally, women don’t touch men in India when meeting and greeting them. A handshake, which is a standard western gesture, can be misinterpreted as something more intimate in India if coming from a woman. The same goes for touching a man, even just briefly on the arm, while speaking to him. While many Indian businessmen are used to shaking hands with women these days, giving a “Namaste” with both palms together is often a better alternative.
Although tipping in India is not compulsory, doing so is a nice gesture. In some circumstances, a small tip is expected. The rules of etiquette for gratuity in India are a little muddled as a colonial past, tourism, and cultural influences clash.
It’s no surprise many travellers in India aren’t sure whether they should tip or not. A majority of countries in Asia don’t have a culture of tipping, although that may be slowly changing as Western influence spreads cultural mutation.
Tips in India are typically referred to as baksheesh. Think of giving baksheeshes a small act of appreciation for good service. You will be asked for baksheesh in India often but may refuse anytime.
Tips in India are often much smaller (up to 10 per cent) than what is expected in the United States and other countries where employees depend on customer gratuity as an important part of their salaries.
How Much to Tip in India
As always, exact numbers are debatable and depend on the quality of service, but there are some loose guidelines.
Although seeing the poverty in India makes Westerners want to be overly generous and err on the side of giving too much, doing so causes cultural mutation over time. Expectations for gratuity shift as tourists get preferential treatment. Locals, who aren’t in the practice of tipping as much as tourists, find they can’t get decent service in their own countries. Staff would rather wait on the naive tourists.
- For meals: around 10 per cent; 15 per cent if someone really went out of their way.
- Hotel porters: 20 rupees per bag carried
- Taxi drivers: round up the fare to the nearest multiple of Rs.10.
- Airport transfer drivers: 50 rupees for timely service
- Guides and personal drivers: between 100 – 300 rupees per day, depending on service.
- Barbers, spa staff, and anyone providing a direct, personalized service to you will appreciate a small tip at the end of a job well done. When in doubt, default to 5 per cent, and go up to 10 per cent for great service.
Things to be aware of
a. The traffic and crowds
With well over a billion people calling the subcontinent home, India is the second-most populous country in the world. You’ll be keenly reminded of this factoid after you arrive, particularly in cities such as New Delhi where overcrowding is a problem. The overcrowding problem is especially prevalent on the streets; clogged traffic is the norm, and the soundtrack is usually a cacophony of horns honking. Overindulgence of the car horn isn’t as rude as you may think; it’s actually blown as a safety measure and even out of courtesy to hopefully prevent accidents.
b. Dealing with extra attention
Western travellers often receive a rock-star amount of attention in India, usually friendly but sometimes in the form of staring. You’ll probably be asked to pose for photos with locals. Female travellers will inevitably be the target of lots of staring. Returning a man’s gaze could be misconstrued as flirting; instead, ignore them completely or wear sunglasses. Solo women may also want to turn down photo requests to eliminate the chance that photos are later used inappropriately for bragging rights.
c. Dealing with beggars
Despite lots of economic growth, the wealth divide and caste system are very prevalent: you’ll encounter beggars of all varieties — particularly in urban areas — throughout India. Unlike other parts of Asia, the beggars in India can be extremely persistent, sometimes even grabbing your arms and legs. Encountering the young children begging on the streets is heartbreaking, but you are contributing to the problem when you give money. Many children are kidnapped, mistreated, and exploited by “bosses” who force them to beg in organized gangs. If you give, the whole vicious circle continues to be profitable to those on top and will never end.
d. Travel tips for female travellers
Female travellers often receive a lot of extra attention from local men in India. Sometimes boundaries are pushed beyond staring. Female travellers can reduce some of the unwanted attention by dressing more conservatively. Avoid tight-fitting clothing; consider wearing ankle-length skirts and covering the shoulders. The beautiful local shawls sold everywhere are an excellent investment and easy to carry.
e. Petty theft and scams
Although armed or violent muggings aren’t too common, being vigilant makes a difference. Plan ahead so that you don’t have to walk alone at night, keep your valuables close at hand in busy places, and never leave your bag out of reach (e.g., in a chair at your table nearest the street). When using an ATM, be conscious about anyone who may be watching or could follow you. Pickpocketing is a problem on public transportation and in crowded urban spaces — pretty well throughout India.
There are several national and regional airlines serving all corners of the country, including some budget carriers.
There are no restrictions on bringing a bicycle into the country. However, bicycles sent by sea can take a few weeks to clear customs in India, so it’s better to fly them in. It may be cheaper – and less hassle – to hire or buy a bicycle locally.
Buses go almost everywhere in India and are the only way to get around many mountainous areas. They tend to be the cheapest way to travel. Services are fast and frequent, and rarely need to be booked in advance.
Roads in mountainous or curvy terrain can be perilous; buses are often driven with wilful abandon, and accidents are possible on any route.
Avoid night buses unless there’s no alternative: driving conditions are more hazardous and drivers may be inebriated or overtired.
All buses make snack and toilet stops (some more frequently than others), providing a break but possibly adding hours to journey times.
Shared jeeps complement the bus service in many mountain areas.
Car & motorcycle
Hiring a Car & Driver
Most towns have taxi stands or car-hire companies where you can arrange short or long tours.
Not all hire cars are licensed to travel beyond their home state. Those that are will pay extra state taxes, which are added to the hire charge.
Ask for a driver who speaks some English and knows the region you intend to visit. Try to see the car and meet the driver before paying anything.
A wide range of cars now operate as taxis. From a proletarian Tata Indica hatchback to a comfy Toyota Innova SUV, there’s a model to suit every budget.
Hire charges for multiday trips to cover the driver’s meals and accommodation – drivers should make their own sleeping and eating arrangements. Many hotels have inexpensive rooms specifically set aside for drivers.
Long-distance motorcycle touring is hugely popular in India. However, it can be quite an undertaking; there are tours for those who don’t want the rigmarole of going it alone.
The most common starting point for tours is Delhi, though Manali is another possible hub, and the most frequently visited destinations include Rajasthan, South India and Ladakh.
Buses, cycle-rickshaws, autorickshaws, e-rickshaws, tempos (big, brutal-looking autorickshaws), taxis, boats, tongas (horse-drawn carts), metros and urban trains provide transport around India’s cities.
Autorickshaw & E-rickshaw
Similar to the tuk-tuks of Southeast Asia, the Indian autorickshaw is a three-wheeled motorised contraption with a tin or canvas roof and sides, usually with room for two passengers (although you’ll often see many more squeezed in) and limited luggage.
They are also referred to as autos, scooters and riks.
Autorickshaws are mostly cheaper than taxis (typically around half the price) and usually have a meter, although getting it turned on can be a challenge. You can call autos via the Ola Cabs Auto app (www.olacabs.com), which electronically calculates your fare when you finish the journey – no more haggling!
Travelling by train is a quintessential Indian experience. Trains offer more space and a smoother ride than buses and are especially recommended for long journeys that include overnight travel. India’s rail network is one of the largest and busiest in the world, and Indian Railways is the world’s eighth-largest employer on earth, with roughly 1.3 million workers. There are more than 7000 train stations across the country.
The best way of sourcing updated information is online, through sites such as Indian Railways (www.indianrailways.gov.in/railwayboard), Erail (https://erail.in) and the very useful Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/india).