Local customs and laws

Customs

Most travellers experience great warmth and hospitality. With it comes an open curiosity about personal matters. You should not be surprised if total strangers ask for details of your job, income and family circumstances or discuss politics and religion.

Conduct

Respect for the foreign visitor should be reciprocated by a sensitivity towards local customs and culture. How you dress is how people will judge you; cleanliness, modest clothes and a
smile go a long way. Scanty, tight clothing draws unwanted attention. Nudity is not permitted
on beaches in India and although there are some places where this ban is ignored, it causes much offence. Public displays of intimacy are inappropriate in public. You may at times be frustrated by delays, bureaucracy and inefficiency, but displays of anger and rudeness will not achieve anything positive, and often make things worse. People's concept of time and punctuality is also often rather vague so be prepared to be kept waiting.

Courtesy

It takes little effort to learn common gestures of courtesy and they are greatly appreciated.
The greeting when meeting or parting, used universally among the Hindus across India, is the palms joined together as in prayer, sometimes accompanied with the word
namaste
(North and West),
namoshkar
(East) or
vanakkam
in Tamil. Muslims use the greeting
assalãm aleikum
, with the response
waleikum assalãm
, meaning 'peace be with you'; 'please' is
mehrbani-se
; 'thank you' is often expressed by a smile, or with the somewhat formal
dhannyabad
,
shukriya
(Urdu), and
nandri
in Tamil.

Hands and eating

Traditionally, Indians use the right hand for giving, receiving, shaking hands and eating, as the left is considered to be unclean since it is associated with washing after using the
toilet. In much of rural India cutlery is alien at the table except for serving spoons, and at most
humble restaurants you will be offered only small spoonsto eat with. If you visit an ashram
or are lucky enough to be invited to a temple feast day, you will almost certainly be expected
t
o eat with your hands. Watch and copy others until the technique becomes familiar.

Women

Indian women in urban and rural areas differ in their social interactions with men. To the Westerner, Indian women may seem to remain in the background and appear shy when approached. Yet you will see them working in public, often in jobs traditionally associated with men in the West, in the fields or on construction sites. It is not considered polite for men to photograph women without their consent, so ask before you start snapping.

Women do not usually shake hands with men as physical contact between the sexes is not acceptable. A westernized city woman, however, may feel free to shake hands with a foreign visitor. In certain, very traditional rural circles, it is still the custom for men to be offered food first, separately, so don't be surprised if you, as foreign guest (man or woman), are awarded this special status when invited to an Indian home.

Visiting religious sites

Visitors to all religious places should be dressed in clean, modest clothes; shorts and vests are inappropriate. Always remove shoes before entering (and all leather items in Jain temples). Take thick socks for protection when walking on sun-baked stone floors. Menstruating women are considered 'unclean' and should not enter places of worship. It is discourteous to sit with one's back to a temple or shrine. You will be expected to sit cross-legged on the floor - avoid pointing your feet at others when attending prayers at a temple. Walk clockwise around a shrine (keeping it to your right).

Non-Hindus are sometimes excluded from the inner sanctum of
Hindu
temples and occasionally even from the temple itself. Look for signs or ask. In certain temples and on special occasions you may enter only if you wear unstitched clothing such as a
dhoti
.

In
Buddhist
shrines, turn prayer wheels in a clockwise direction. In
Sikh
gurudwaras, everyone should cover their head, even if it is with a handkerchief. Tobacco and cigarettes should not be taken in. In
Muslim
mosques, visitors should only have their face, hands and feet exposed; women should also cover their heads. Mosques may be closed to non-Muslims shortly before formal prayers.

Some temples have a register or a receipt book for
donations
which works like an o
bligatory entry fee. The money is normally used for the upkeep and services of the temple
or monastery. In some pilgrimage centres, priests can become unpleasantly persistent. If you wish to leave a donation, put money in the donation box; priests and Buddhist monks often do not handle money. It is also not customary to shake hands with a priest or monk.
Sanyasis
(holy men) and some pilgrims depend on donations.

Guide fees

Guides at tourist sites vary considerably in their knowledge and ability. Government trained and licensed guides are covered by specified fees. Local temple and site guides should charge less. Charges for four people for half a day are Rs 280, for a full day Rs 400; for five to 15 people for half a day Rs 400, for a full day Rs 530. Rs 125 for a language other than English.

Begging and charitable giving

Beggars are often found on busy street corners in large Indian cities, as well as at bus and train stations where they often target foreigners. In the larger cities, beggars are often exploited by syndicates which cream off most of their takings. Yet those seeking alms near religious sites are another matter, and you may see Indian worshippers giving freely to those less fortunate than themselves, since this is tied up with gaining 'merit'. How you deal with begging is a matter of personal choice. Young children sometimes offer to do 'jobs' such as call a taxi, carry shopping or pose for a photo. You may want to give a coin in
exchange. While travelling, some visitors prefer to hand out fruit to the many open-palmed
children they encounter.

A pledge to donate a part of one's holiday budget to a local charity could be an
effective formula for 'giving'. Some visitors like to support self-help cooperatives, orphanages,
refugee centres, disabled or disadvantaged groups, or international charities like Oxfam, Save the Children or Christian Aid which work with local partners, by either making a donation or by buying their products. Some of these charities are listed under the appropriate towns.

Photography

Many monuments and national parks charge a camera fee ranging from Rs 20-100 for still cameras, and as much as Rs 500 for video cameras (more for professionals). Special permits are needed from the Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi, for using tripods and artificial lights. When photographing people, it is polite to first ask - they will usually respond warmly with smiles. Visitors often promise to send copies of the photos - don't unless you really mean to do so. Photography of airports, military installations, bridges and in tribal and 'sensitive border areas', is not permitted.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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