India cultural vacations & responsible tourism

There are a lot of new cultural norms to adjust to when you travel to India and just as local people greet their guests with respect, we should return the compliment. Sometimes we arenít aware that we are transgressing cultural norms, or causing offence, so do please read our tips below.
Dress codes

Dress codes

Being aware of cultural sensitivity is very important when it comes to dress sense in India. For women, in particular, showing bare legs, shoulders and wearing low cut tops are a faux pas. And, in fact, if you cover yourself with light cotton, it is actually cooler as the sun isnít hitting your skin. Women should also have a shawl to cover their head in a temple or mosque.
It can be confusing, as many Western women find traditional saris quite revealing. Some cover all the skin, and others let plenty of it hang out, especially above the waist. In the desert heat of Rajasthan, for example, it isnít unusual to see bellies, backs and a bit of breast hanging out, all to keep cool. And in some of the big cities, you will see most women under a certain age dressing in ways that follow Western fashions, with all the usual high street stores doing their bit. So it does vary. But if in doubt, especially in rural areas and in places of worship, keep it covered.
Sophie Hartman, owner of our supplier Chinkara Journeys, specialising in central India:

ďIíve really struggled with people whom Iíve specially asked to dress modestly (we operate in a very under-visited part of India where people arenít used to seeing white people, let alone bare white legs and arms) whoíve then emerged in shorts and a strappy top and asked the guesthouse owner if theyíre ok as they are. Hotel owners are far too polite to say anything and although everyone is lovely where we work, local people are embarrassed.Ē

Religion & places of worship

Religion & places of worship

The majority of Indians identify as being Hindu, other religions being Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and BahŠ'Ū. In just about all places of worship, temple, mosque or gurdwara, remove your shoes before entering. And donít presume that you will enter, either. Some temples in Kerala, for example, are closed to non worshippers, and if they do invite you in, men will be asked to remove shirts. Women must be well covered, head to toe.
The same goes for mosques where non practitioners are usually not invited in, certainly not women. Under no circumstances should you take photographs at any place of worship, even at weddings and particularly not funerals.

Language in India

Hindi is the main language in India although, as there are 22 official languages in the country, English is often used as a common denominator. However, it does show a huge amount of respect to learn some Hindi. Here are some common phrases:

Dhanyavad = thank you, although not used willy nilly in India, so donít think local people rude if they donít say it.

For a more formal, Ďthank you from the bottom of my heartí say Shukryia, from Urdu.

Kitna hai = how much?

Aap keise hain? = How are you?

Meal times

Meal times

For many visitors to India, the hardest thing to get used to is eating with your hands. However, once you get used to it you wonít want to go back to cutlery. Food is about all the senses in India. You touch it, smell it and then taste it. In urban areas, you are more likely to be given cutlery, but try not to feel weird about eating with your hands. The other thing you need to get used to is eating with your right hand only. This is very important as the left hand is considered unclean. Remember this when go to break bread too. Right is right. And wash your hands well before and after meals; this is all part of the ritual.
You can read more here about eating etiquette in India. Or just go on one of our food and cooking vacations. No better way to learn about all the tricks and treats.
Charitable donations

Charitable donations

Always seek advice from your vacation company before bringing charitable donations. Giving pens to children in India is always done with good intentions of course. But it has got a little out of hand and kids bunk off school to get pens, stockpile and sell them. If you really want to donate, ask about a good local charity to support. Most responsible vacation companies will have an association with a local charity which is sustainable and transparent.
If you do want to donate items while in India, remember that you can often source products locally and then distribute them accordingly. With pens and school gifts, always give them to a head teacher to distribute, rather than to the children directly. Please note that we do not support trips to orphanages. Read more about our stance on Ďorphanage tourism'.
Photography

Photography

India is a photographersí nirvana with colourful fabrics, fascinating cultural scenes, stunning landscapes, rituals and festivals. However, it is very important to be responsible when it comes to taking photographs. Always ask and resist the temptation to click without conversation, remembering how you would want to be treated back home. Would you want someone taking a picture of your children without asking, or sticking a camera in your face as you went about your daily tasks? You wonít die if you donít get that shot.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Uzi Yachin] [Jaipur street: Annie Spratt] [Woman - traditional dress: elCarito] [Prayer - mosque: Rajarshi MITRA] [Indian food: PublicDomainPictures] [Children: Loren Joseph ] [Man with moustache: Church of the King ]
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