India is a vibrant country with as many as 29 states and 07 union territories. Each state has its own unique culture, traditions, cuisines, dresses, festivals, religions, and regional languages. Amid such astounding diversity, India as one country resonates some cultural values and customs that are common across its margins, and may be kept in mind for a smooth and hassle free trip to the subcontinent.
In India, religion is a solemn topic and given a lot of weightage in life by an average Indian. All those interested in exploring some of the archaeologically significant religious sites here, must adhere to a code of conduct that's applicable inside almost all the temples. The temples in South India tend to have few more specific conduct rules to enter the temple premises than North India. However, there are some commonplace conduct rules expected to be followed to maintain the sanctity of the religious sites and as a mark of reverence.
(a) Take your shoes off before entering the place of worship. There will be a shoe rack/ corner earmarked for depositing footwear right outside the temple premises.
(b) Wear clothes that cover your whole body. Wearing shorts, off-shoulders or see-through dresses etc. while visiting a place of worship is considered inappropriate, as it may present a cause of distraction of fellow visitors during their prayers, even if for a fraction of a second and quite involuntarily so, but nonetheless an unnecessary and avoidable nuisance. From this school of thought props the general Hindu culture that prohibits wearing skimpy clothes to places of worship, as a mark of respect to the shrine, deity and the people praying along with you.
(c) Leather articles/ dresses are not allowed inside Jain temples.
(d) Menstruating women are forbidden from entering into Jain and Hindu temples.
(e) In South India, many temples forbid entry of non-Hindus into the inner sanctum. The South Indian temples may have additional restrictions that may vary from temple to temple.
(f) In mosques, non-Muslims are generally disallowed during prayer time and women are not let in at all.
(g) Clockwise circumambulation around the seating deity is a norm across all the temples.
(h) Taking photographs is generally prohibited inside all temples.
Cremation and funerals in India are observed in a peaceful and private manner. Everyone wears white clothes to mourn the death of a near-dear one, and the occasion is solemn. Photography of a lit pyre or mourning gathering etc. should be completely avoided as a mark of respect.
Indians generally perceive kissing and embracing in public as inappropriate. These gestures are widely considered as a part of sexual intimacy between couples and there stems the awkwardness. While big cities/ tourist enclaves are less conservative, smaller towns find couples holding hands in public a big deal and strange. As such, it is advised to exercise restraint while displaying of affection and warmth to your partner in public when in India. However, men in India may hold hands in public and it will be seen nothing more than brotherly love between the men.
In India, the sitting with your feet at anyone is considered a mark of disrespect. Even accidentally touching someone/ something with your foot is deemed to attract an apology. To remove shoes at the doorstep when entering someone's home is considered an integral part of good mannerism. While sitting at someone's bedside, sitting towards the feet signifies humility and sitting close to the head is considered a sign of arrogance. In fact, the body parts of a human body have been attached a hierarchy in Hinduism, where the head is the most superior and feet are placed at the bottom of the hierarchy. It probably explains why stepping on just about anything pious or important, even by mistake, must follow with an apology, and it is considered as a mark of deep respect to bending down and touch feet of an elder.
Indian food is generally eaten with fingers. As a thumb rule, Indians eat with the right hand only. Left hand in India and most of Asia is ordinarily used to wash one's bottom after defecating. So, it is customary to extend one's right hand for shaking hands, or passing food, money or gift.
Indian customs and traditions do not endorse people to have pickings food. It is recommended not to pass on bread been bitten directly out of your mouth or bottle or cup touched by your lips to be shared with others. If you wish to share a water bottle with others, you better drink water from it without touching your lips to its mouth. It is also considered an essential etiquette to wash hands before and after having food.
It may be owing to the general ambiguous impression of westerners, or the residual after-effects of the old colonial rule that all foreigners in India are generally perceived as rich people with suspicious standards of morality and physical hygiene. That explains why it is commonplace in India for foreigners to be pestered by beggars, over-eager taxi-drivers/ auto-rickshaw drivers or store keepers.
The people across India are mostly interested in the tourists. You can often find people staring at you, and many try to strike up a conversation when presented with an opportunity. English spoken in India is formal and sometimes outdated belonging to the autocratic colonial times. Indians are not really familiar with the conventional ways of English speaking and can come up with intrusive questions in the first meeting, like what is your qualification?, Are you married? Are you in service? etc. In India, subjects such as family background, income, job, marital status and such information are not considered personal, but suitable topics to strike a polite conversation. The significance of religion and morally correct conduct is again underlined in the Indian psyche as most Indians cannot digest someone not having a religion at all, or some travelling with a member of opposite sex who is not a husband or a brother. However, Indians in bigger cities, especially metropolitans, have a better understanding of western ways and may not come across much astonished than otherwise.
To conclude, unlike the cliché impression - India is much more than the land of Taj Mahal, poverty, mystics, call centers and veiled women. India today is a developing nation with a complex character that is increasingly shedding traditional mindset in favor of cosmopolitan lifestyle, especially in metropolitan cities. Nonetheless, there are some Indian customs and first impressions deeply ingrained in the local psyche. Learning about these customs and pre-occupations puts you in a better position to handle situations, while traveling in India.