If you’re visiting India for the first time, here are 20 things you need to know so that you can find your way around this ancient land, with its many cultures, languages and cuisines.
A quick visual guide
Here’s a quick outline in infographic form. If you want more details, keep reading!
(Click to enlarge)
- Many Indians, especially women, aren’t comfortable with shaking hands. When in doubt, put your palms together for a quick ‘namaste’ and you’ll be fine.
- Touching someone’s feet with your hands is a gesture of deep respect and reverence. On the other hand, touching someone with your feet is considered very disrespectful. If you do so, even by accident, a quick apology will be expected.
- In the same vein, if you have tattoos of gods, goddesses and other religious figures on your legs, it might be a good idea to keep them hidden.
- In many parts of the country, it’s considered good manners to leave your shoes outside the door. If there are shoes or a shoe rack by the door, ask your host if you should take your shoes off.
- Use your right hand to eat, and give and accept food, gifts, money and everything in general. No disrespect to southpaws, but the left hand is considered unclean because it’s the hand that people traditionally use to… clean themselves.
- In India, everything (except fiddly things like noodles) is considered finger food. You’ll usually be given cutlery if you ask for it, but you might want to practice eating rice with your fingers.
- Even though Indian cities are becoming more cosmopolitan, it’s probably best to dress conservatively by default. In most places, wearing shorts or sleeveless tee shirts is frowned upon—whether you’re a woman or a man.
- There are as many cuisines as there are states and official languages in India, and there are a lot of those. So don’t expect the same food as at your local Indian eatery on the corner at home—which, even though it’s called ‘Indian’ is probably Punjabi. On the bright side, you can experiment endlessly with food.
- A lot of—though not all—Indian food is quite fiery. If you have an aversion to spicy food, make sure your host or waiter knows.
- India is a great place for vegetarians, but not necessarily for vegans. Lots of dishes—especially sweets—have dairy in them in some form or another (curds or yogurt, paneer and ghee are just a few). If you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, check before you order anything.
- Each state has its own official language, but Hindi is almost universally spoken. Keep a few Hindi stock phrases handy, and fill in the rest with English, and you’ll be fine. Just try and get your pronunciation right.
- If you’re visiting the state of Tamil Nadu in the south, a few stock phrases in Tamil will also come in handy. Lots of Tamilians see Hindi as an imposition, and won’t speak it.
- Though you can hire self-drive cars and bikes in India, it’s probably not a good idea to try and drive yourself. The chaotic Indian roads are nerve-racking, even for locals. Hire a taxi or a driver instead.
- Train tickets to anywhere are usually completely booked out a month in advance, so don’t count on making any last-minute reservations. In emergencies, though, you can buy a ‘general’ ticket at the station and then try and find a seat in the crowded and none-too-clean unreserved compartments.
- Like everywhere else, India has its share of tourist-targeting swindles and confidence tricks. A popular one by taxi or rickshaw drivers is to tell you that your hotel has closed down, and then to take you to ‘a better one’ where they get paid a commission. Stay alert, take everything with a healthy pinch of salt, and you’ll be fine.
- By law, you need to carry your passport with you at all times. But losing your passport is hugely traumatic, so leaving it in a safe in your hotel and carrying a copy instead is OK too. Keep the original safely locked up, mind you, and not with the reception.
- If you look in any way different from the locals, chances are they’ll find you fascinating. Try and remind yourself that they’re staring out of curiosity—especially if you have light skin—and don’t really mean to be rude.
- Of course, there might be the odd ruffian intent on making trouble. In that case, you can always call 100, the universal number for the police anywhere in India. If you have a non-India number, test it out beforehand to make sure it dials through.
- Lots of areas in India are prone to mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue, and water-borne diseases like typhoid. Get all your shots before you leave home, carry repellant with you wherever you go, and make sure all the water you drink is boiled and filtered, at the least.
- Carry any prescription medicines with you from home—preferably with the prescription. Generic versions of everything else are easily available.
Have I missed something? Leave a comment and let me know!
Too much for you? Check out this visual reference guide
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