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India: Etiquette, customs, facts and vital information

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Location: South Asia, bordered by Pakistan, Myanmar, and China in the North, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Bay of Bengal in the East, Sri Lanka in the South, and the Arabian Sea in the West.

Capital: New Delhi2-8-2011 3-45-13 PM

Climate: Highly variable depending on region. Hot, dry summers in the North followed by cold, dry winters. The South experiences hot, wet summers with tropical rainfall known as monsoons. The winter months from November to February have warm, humid days and comparatively cooler nights.

Population: 1,129,866,154 according to July 2007 estimates. The Indian economy is set to rise and is counted as the 12th largest in the world. 25% of the population live below the poverty line and this is a whopping figure when seen as a quarter of a billion. Unemployment rate is calculated to be close to 8%.

Ethnic Make-up: There are about 2,000 documented ethnic groups in India. It is a multicultural diversity that defies description.

taj mahal archReligions: Hindus 80.5%, Muslim 13.4%, Christian 2.3%, Sikh 1.9%, Others including Jews, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis 2%. Being a secular state, there is freedom to practice any religion. There is no present ban on evangelism, though some state governments have begun to note the disruptive forces that cause communal tensions due to conversions.

Language: Hindi is the national language, but there are about 22 other languages also recognized as official at the state and national level. In addition to these, about 200 other languages and their dialects are spoken by large communities of people. English is widely spoken and understood.

Government: Democratic Republic

Travel Issues: You require a valid visa to visit India and this can be obtained from an embassy in your country. You need a valid passport, a completed application form, two passport sized photos, visa fees, and a self-addressed and stamped special delivery envelope

Health & Safety: You need to immunize yourself against Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Polio, Hepatitis B, MMR, Malaria, Tetanus and Diphtheria. If you plan to spend time in rural areas, Japanese encephalitis and rabies are recommended. Take precautions against traveller’s diarrhea contracted when eating from roadside stalls.

 varanasi, india
Varanasi and Taj Mahal photos by  amanderson2


The People: Indians are generally very traditional, conservative people who are very family-oriented. Religion is a way of life and they hardly begin any activity without first offering prayers. Though one country, the people of various states have distinct modes of culture, language, dress, rituals, food, and even behaviour patterns. Respect for elders is a given and so is tolerance for other religions.

shiva statueThe Religion: The major religion is Hinduism with about 80% followers. It is more a way of life that permeates all aspects of life. There are about 33,000 gods in the pantheon, each having patronage over a distinct aspect of life. They believe in karma and re-incarnation.

Role of Family: Extended families have given way to nuclear families, especially in the cities. However, family bonds are revered and elderly parents are respected and taken care of. In villages, the extended families in large compounds still hold sway, with a patriarchal elder in charge. There is a bias against the girl child, while a yearning for sons to populate the family tree is intrinsic.

India family Jammu
Indian family in Jammu – photo by babasteve

Ancestors: There is enormous respect for the dead. Lengthy rituals and ceremonies are conducted for the welfare of the dead. There is a strong belief in re-incarnation depending on the merits acquired in the present life-time. This varies depending on culture, religion and community.

Recreational Activities: In rural areas, there is a range of recreational activities and games that have been handed down by generations. City kids have their playstations, and computer games. Cricket, hockey, football, chess, and tennis and badminton are all popular in that order.

Anything else important for this culture: Generally referred to as a poor third-world country, the wealth of certain strata of society might come as a surprise. Though there is a vast swathe of population that can barely afford one meal a day, there is an upper middle class with affluent life-styles that will not take kindly to being clubbed with the rest.

It is considered fine to be curious about personal details such as marital status, lifestyle, and other things you’d rather not talk about to strangers. Be evasive yet pleasant. Being unmarried might trigger efforts at matchmaking as singleness is considered “pathetic.”

 kids in rickshaw in india
Photo by mckaysavage


Meetings & Greetings: The traditional form of greeting involves holding your palms close before your chest while saying Namaste, which roughly translates to: I bow to the divinity in you. Hand shakes are acceptable among both genders in business circles. If a woman decides to do the traditional greeting, go with it.

Always greet and address the senior most person in the group first. Use appropriate title with the family name, rather than the first name. The suffix ji added to a name indicates respect.

Gift Giving: This is big business in India. Gifts are exchanged for the hundreds of festivals and holidays, births, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and other occasions. When visiting or invited to dinner, it is customary to take along a suitable gift. This is normally something sweet packaged with aplomb. Gifts are put away and not opened in view of the guests.

You do not gift leather products to Hindus, or alcohol to Muslims.

Women in IndiaDress Code: This is an extremely conservative society, especially so in the northern states. If you were dressed in shorts and an old t-shirt, you would be taken for a poor person who can’t afford full pants. It is important for women to be fully covered. An Indian salwar suit is ideal to beat the weather. The cities are more forgiving and anything decent is acceptable. However, women should still avoid short shorts and mini skirts as harassment on the city streets is quite common. For business meetings, a suit is appropriate. For men, a business suit is mandatory.

Dining Etiquette: Indian food is best enjoyed with your hands, and cutlery may not be provided in most places. However, in upmarket restaurants, cutlery will be provided and you will be expected to use it to keep the upmarket image intact. If eating with your hands, it is important to not sully the entire palm area, but use only the fingertips to convey food to your mouth. Lowering your head may help you achieve this without too much trouble.

 south indian food
Photo by roland

You do not serve beef to Hindus or pork to Muslims. It is best to avoid alcohol in mixed company. Most North Indians are vegetarians and it would be rude to ask for meat when dining with them. Wait for all to be served before commencing to eat; normally in family situations, everybody waits for the elder to begin before they do. You are expected to finish everything on your plate, though some communities leave a small handful to go back to nature.

man in indiaVisiting a home: Visitors are welcomed even if they drop in unexpectedly. They are immediately invited in and made comfortable. You will be offered plenty of food and drink no matter what time of the day, and it is your job to eat what you possibly can. You will literally be treated like a god, according to traditional norms. Leave your footwear outside, even if they say it’s alright not to. Take a gift along for the children in the form of chocolates or candies.

Communication Style: This is a wee bit complicated since Indians almost never say no or contradict outright, as this is considered insulting. So while they may not commit to anything they’re not ready for, they might not tell you directly, giving you the impression that you’re half-way there when you haven’t even started.

Dos and Don’ts: Public display of affection is frowned upon. If you inadvertently touch anyone with your foot, apologize immediately as this is considered insulting. Beachwear is appropriate on the beach, but don’t even walk to your room without a robe or a towel wrapped around you. Getting agitated over delayed trains or bad roads will not get you anywhere as this is a way of life, and not considered an undue cause for inconvenience.

Photo of women in red clothing by Koshyk
Shiva photo by mattjkelley
Indian man with smile by zedzap

4 Responses to “India: Etiquette, customs, facts and vital information”

  1. Walter Hanson Says:

    I helped a friend with his lawn last weekend planting seed and such. I was in a bit of a hurry as I had some other errands to attend to but was invited into his home for breakfast. I declined and did indicate that I had some other things to tend to. He was born in the US and his parents are from India. I hope I did not insult him. Please comment.

  2. Cara Says:

    Although in Indian culture it is deemed appropriate to accept offers of hospitality, since your friend was born in the U.S., he is probably understanding of both cultures. You obviously are being kind and helpful, so I am sure that says that you care greatly about him and his family. Perhaps you can accept his next offer of hospitality if time allows.

  3. mohit sharma Says:

    the map of india..which you are showing that is highly objectional and hurting , kashmir is a integral part of india the worlds biggest democracy. please give respect to more then one billion people’s feelings.

  4. admin Says:

    Thanks for pointing out that we had a picture of an outdated world globe. We have now replaced it with a more up to date map.
    Warmest regards,

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