Respect is a major point that must not be overlooked if you want to travel to India. With exception of the Bollywood Mecca of Mumbai and the raving night life of Goa, India is an ultra conservative country. One must understand that although the entertainment industry is a powerful and influential force, it does not dictate the Indian society as much as its western counterparts. This is one of the biggest contrasts that you must come to know and get used to. If you are a woman, you must be extermely observant and respectful of your dress. What may seem appropriate attire in sweltering, sub 100 degree heat in your own country may not in some parts of India. Unfortunately, for all the women out there who are not able to show off their daisy dukes, personal appearance is not as strict for men. Because of this, most of these travel tips are dedicated to the fellow Shaktis (female energies) of the world.
Economically wise, India is on the rise, but do not mistake this recent boom in tourism to become anymore lenient on the dress. In more touristy towns such as Varanasi and Pushkar during the summer months, I have noticed an increase in hot pants, tank tops and t shirts on women. Despite a flourishing of foreign flesh breathing in the crisp Indian air, there is a strong undertone of resentment growing from this lack of respect and ignornace, coming especially from the older generation. Remember that when it comes to prospective business, you will always be greeted with a smile, but do not mistake this as genuine friendliness if you come into a silk shop wearing a skirt that reveals your silk lingerie.
It is not common or encouraged for Indian couples to casually date. Unlike most western cultures, almost all marriages in India are arranged. Although “love marriages” are slowly becoming acceptable, arranged marriages have been and continue to be a part of Indian culture since Mother India first opened her womb thousands of years ago. Because of this, it is not every day for an Indian man to see a scantily clad woman, smoke cigarettes, make eye contact and return flirts. Futhermore, please be aware of how you present yourself. What may at first seem ego lifting and bolstering of your self conscious could actually be deep repressed lusty feelings coming from a man who has never had sex and cannot wait for marriage to have it. Unfortunately women who do cover up their bodies continue to face harrassment. Do not be surprised if you catch someone in the corner snapping a picture of you with their cell phone or asking to have a picture of you and your boyfriend to only have him cropped out. However, please keep in mind that these are common instances that must be taken with a grain of salt inorder to preserve your sanity for other circus-like adventures.
It is strongly recommended to travel with a significant other or a group of friends to prevent situations that can put you in harm’s or more bluntly, an Indian arm’s way. However, if you do happen to meet an Indian man, trust your gut and use your intuition. If he is a stranger and you feel that he is genuinely friendly, it is encouraged to introduce him first to your group of friends then hang out one on one. Keep in mind that if you return flirts and engage in physical contact, an Indian man could mistake what may seem as a meaningless fling as a prospective marriage. If you do choose to date, please be aware of the vast cultural differences. It is not recommended to lead anyone on to the point where they may do something they regret. With respect to Osho and the teachings of Tantra, India is a sexually repressed country and sexual intercourse before marriage is heavily taboo. So before you decide to do what seems hot and sexy in the moment, realize that your Indian partner faces much greater consequences.
For women it is best to wear clothes that cover the arms, legs and neck line. The chest can be covered with a scarf. However wearing traditional Indian clothes such as a saree, will ensure you a higher level of respect. Sun glasses are also recommended not only for protection from the sun, but to also hide your eyes from unwanted stares. Long dangly earrings, gaudy jewelry with exception of bangles, large visible tattoos and piercings other than the nose and ears may also give the wrong impression as well.
As I said eariler, men do not have to be as aware concerning there dress and appearance. However, there still are a few rules of conduct that are recommended to follow. Although some Indian men prefer to wear shorts, a majority choose to wear pants and dhotis. The reason being is that it is more respectful to wear in temples and the dhoti has been the popular fashion for thousands of years. Furthermore, other than the beach and bathing, it is not common to seen Indian men without their shirt. Moreover, If you plan on visiting many temples, it is recommended to wear sandals for the ease of removing. Additionally, some Moslem and Sikh temples may require a head covering to enter. White is also the color of purity and is suggested to wear if you plan on staying at an ashram or visiting holy sites. For this reason, you should pack an extra set of white clothes, in case one pair ever gets dirty. The same regarding color, can be said for women as well.
Concerning hair, there are no rules. Since the dawn of time, Sadhus (holy men) and those who particularly worship Shiva, have worn their hair matted and in dread locks. However this is not a mere fashion statement, but an act of renouncing vanity and honoring the locks of Mahadeva (Shiva) which flow out like the Ganges. Because India has a reputation for Yoga, meditation and other new agey goodness, it attracts an almost pseudo hippy-like counter culture who often like to wear their hair out in dreads. Although there is nothing wrong with this, please be aware that the average Indian does not wear dreads and this act is often reserved for those who are searching for God. If you have dreads, do not be surprised if you get stares because the Indians may view it as peculiar for an average westerner to wear their hairstyle in this manner.
This rule of thumb can also be applied to facial hair as well. If you do choose to grow out your beard be aware that you will get numerous offers from barbers who wish to cash in on your facial crop. With exception of some sects of spiritual seekers and the Sikhs, it is not common for Indian men to wear beards either. Therefore long facial hair on westerners is also viewed as unusual, especially if it is not for religious purposes.
As the world shifts from the ego to the heart center, more and more people will look to India for answers on how to rehabilitate the mind, body and spirit. The Indian tourism industry is booming and is working on more sustainable forms of business. That being said, if India is to develop in the right direction and curve their tourism into the right direction, we as tourists must respect the countrie’s cultural norms and heritage.