A Guide to Etiquette and Customs for Travelers to India

Bengaluru local, Nainaa, shares her tips on etiquette and customs to help you settle in to the Indian culture easily.


Photo © Peter Teys

Indians are a polite lot. They’re not likely to point out your social faux pas – unless you’re at a place of worship.

Even so, it pays to know what their cultural pet peeves are.

How to Dress Appropriately

Always dress modestly in India – especially if you’re a foreign tourist who’s prone to more than a few curious glances. As a woman, wearing revealing clothes with deep cuts or ‘skin show’ can attract anti-social elements.

Heading to a party? It’s a common misconception that it’s okay to dress like a hippie in India. You’ll be surprised at how fashionably men and women dress in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore – sporting global brands like H&M and Forever 21.

Unlike its cities, wearing ‘modern clothing’ is not recommended in villages. Instead, choose loose, conservative clothing. You could opt for a comfortable kurta with a salwar if you’re a woman, or pants if you’re a man.

Photo credit: Peter Teys

How to Behave in Public

Public displays of affection are a big no-no. Kissing in public is taboo – even though Bollywood movies have another story to tell!

The “side hug” is considered a casual, friendly gesture between members of the same gender.

While using public transport, be mindful of offering your seat to elderly people or those traveling with young children. It’s an unsaid social rule.

Crossing the roads in India can be tricky. Make sure you have a local friend to help you maneuver through heavy traffic, as vehicles don’t wait, and rules aren’t obeyed.

Photo credit: Yasmin Bright

How to Address People

The remnants of colonial times, ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’, are used across all strata of society.

While introduced to people, you’ll usually be given their first name. Don’t hesitate to use it, except if it’s an elderly person. Affix a Mr. or Ms. to their names if you’re in a formal situation.

Informally, you could use ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’ – even though they won’t have the remotest chance of appearing on your family tree.

For more useful Hindi phrases, click here.

Living in a Local Homestay

The first rule in the book is to leave your footwear at the door, unless told otherwise by the host.

While it’s common to use your hands while eating Rotis, you can ask for a spoon to eat your rice – unless it is a modest, rural homestay.

While eating, don’t bite or sip on something and pass it on. It’s now "jhootha", or tainted.

Remember to wash your hands with soap before and after a meal. It’s not only hygienic, it gets the stubborn curry smell off your hands.

How to Approach Photographing Locals

The easiest way to photograph locals is to chat with them first.

Rural Indians are particularly friendly and will love posing for you – all you have to do is show them the picture you’ve taken.

Photographing children in urban areas must be avoided, unless their guardians approve.

Snake charmers, musicians, or street performers outside tourist places usually demand a fee.

Photographing locals. Photo credit: Yasmin Bright

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1 Comment

  • travelling crone said

    Everywhere I look these days there is India! Looks like it will be in my future since that is how I usually pick my countries LOL
    Some good tips, thanks.

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