Saturday, August 24, 2013

Visiting a South Indian (Hindu) home

(An old pic of our relatives visiting our village in Tamilnadu - paternal thatha's ancestral place)

One of the best ways to get to know another culture is to visit locals in their homes. You really get to see their traditions, customs, and culture. Not only that, but you get to see them 100% in their element. You learn so much about a person by visiting their house - seeing what they worship, how they decorate, their prized possessions, not to mention talking in a setting that is comfortable for them. 

If you've married into an Indian family, or have Indian friends, one of the best bonding experiences is to be invited over to their house. Indians, no matter where they come from, are known for their hospitality. They have a saying, "Atithi devo bhava" which means "Guest is God", and if you are invited over to their house, they will give you the utmost respect. 

Westerners are a bit more formal in the sense that it is impolite to just drop by their house without any warning - Westerners like their schedule, and they like their space. Indians, on the other hand, are not formal at all in that way. You can drop by their house at any time of the day or night - it's "the more the merrier" attitude, and the lady of the house will usually stop everything she's doing and cook you some fresh food or snacks. They are so happy when others' visit them. Last month, we were invited to an Indian dinner party, not by the host, but by another fellow guest (which is a major faux-pas in Western culture) and they were thrilled to have us.

(Dadu's sweets!!!)

When you are invited to a South Indian home, it is polite to bring a small gift of appreciation - something as simple as fruits (mango) or sweets (my favorite is Dadu's sweets in Secunderabad). If you are coming from abroad then you can give them little tourist gifts from your homeland - I like to bring little totem pole figurines in which many South Indians like to display for the Dussehra festival. Or you can also get them a small idol of a God/Goddess for their puja room. I would recommend that you never go empty handed to an Indian home. If you forget, just pick up some fresh fruit to give them. 

Everybody on Earth knows about Indians & their lateness, but I have found that it is just better to be on time. As a foreigner, you don't get to use the Indian Standard Time excuse. But definitely don't come early. If you have to be late, don't be more than 15 minutes late. But again, Indian traffic can be quite unpredictable...

I would also recommend that you dress conservatively. Wearing revealing clothing and tight pants can make Indians very squirmish. The best bet is to wear a loose kurta, or if you want bonus points, you can wear Indian clothes like Salwar Kameez.

You absolutely must take your shoes off before entering a home. Feet/shoes are seen as very unclean in India. In modern homes, they will usually have a shoe rack/area in the hallway near the front door or outside the home. In the olden days, it was customary to physically wash your hands and feet from a water well outside before you enter a home. Nowadays you simply just have to take your shoes off. If there is a newborn child in the house, or if you're visiting a temple, then it is best to wash hands/feet before entering the building. 

When you are greeting the people of the house/host it is nice to put your hands together and say "Namaste" (Hindi) or "Namaskaram" (Telugu), or "Vanakkam" (Tamil). It is a nice gesture to say it in their language, because it shows respect that you are entering their territory and their culture. Do not do the Western style of handshake unless it is offered to you first, and do not hug, unless it is somebody whom you feel very close to who is a fellow female (MIL/SIL is ok). It is a big cultural no-no to touch somebody from the opposite sex. No touching, EVER. Not even in the home. Many Indians are extremely conservative and prudish of any touching between the opposite sex, ever!!! 

One thing you can do - especially if you are a Westerner who is becoming a part of the Indian family - is to bend down and touch the elder's feet and sweep your hands up and touch your heart/head. This is showing respect to the elders and taking their blessings. This earned me major bonus points with the Indian elders and every time I greet our Kolluthatha (great-grandfather) I do this. It is a very sweet gesture that will be seriously appreciated. If you're a girlfriend of an Indian, this will win you major bonus points, because as a foreigner, they will not be expecting you do this.

If it is a South Indian Hindu home, usually a "manjakumkum" will be performed once you enter the house. This is usually done for married women, but I remember it being done for me on my first trip to India when I was just "the school friend". A Manjakumkum is a blessing they will do where they bring a platter of offerings over to you - it can consist of betel leaf, supari, turmeric, kum kum (sindoor), fruits, cloth - which is symbolic of womanhood. It is a special gesture that made me feel welcomed into the household warmly.

(Bonding with the girls in my inlaws' house, Hyderabad 2010)

Once you are in the living room/seating area, you will immediately be offered water. Indians offer water to anybody coming to their house as a courtesy. If an Indian is coming to your house, you MUST remember to give them water when they sit down.

The lady of the house will usually offer you food, or will make food freshly for you. Indian ladies will not take no for an answer, as they are delighted to fill your stomach. Don't ever turn down the food - once you enter the door of an Indian household, you'll never go hungry. Whatever you do, do not offer to help or do the dishes unless you know each other really well. That is a major Western faux-pas - they will feel bad. Just sit and enjoy, and if you want to compliment them - eat more, compliment the flavors of the dish, and say you're tummy is so full. You can also ask for the recipe. Indian elder women love this. They have such a nurturing spirit and they are absolutely obsessed with feeding you, especially guests. Many Indians like to cook fresh everyday, so it is not a big deal.

Many Indians (in India) are strict vegetarians, so expect that in some houses it will be vegetarian (egg is also considered to be non-veg). 

(Secunderabad rooftops at night)

Many in our South Indian family prefer to eat with their hands, so there is usually a small dish of water with lemon given - or in more modern homes, just use the bathroom to wash your hands. As a foreigner, they will give you utensils, but if you feel up to eating with your hands you can surely try. But it's harder than it looks!
***A funny story - one time one of my aunties visited India, and the bowl of water/lemon was offered at the end of the dish and she DRANK it!!! She thought it was an end-of-meal soup!!!!***

When we visit our family in India, the main conversation at the dining table is "Do you like India?", "Do you like Indian food?", "It's very hot outside, how are you managing the heat?", and then they will ask husband-ji about work - that's the type of conversation. And that's about it. They usually won't ask you anything personal unless you have a very informal relationship.

At the end of the visit, you can say thank you, tell them you're very happy to visit, and that the food was excellent and that you're so full. When you're leaving the house, a "vettal pakku" may be performed for a safe journey. Indians are known for their hospitality, and even if you show up at midnight, they'll practice "Atithi devo bhava". Us Westerners definitely need to learn some tips from them! In my experience, visiting various relatives at their homes and all of us just hanging out together is more culturally revealing than going to see any monuments. Inside the Indian home is where the real heart and soul is in India.



  1. I think I should ask D to read this post. This is so informative.
    One of my cousins co-sister lived in USA for over a decade and then returned to India. She wore 3/4 pants there and aunties were gossiping behind her back. I was so annoyed and told them to give her a break. She is just wearing a 3/4 pant. Sometimes they make up something because they are bored. lol.
    I like that story about one your aunty drinking the water with the lemon. That is so funny.
    D sometimes tries to eat with his hands. It looks as if he is trying to shovel the snow. I wonder if eating with hand requires some muscles to develop.
    Anyway good post.

    1. Hi Raina, Did you get my comment on your Rakhi post? I have been having problems with wordpress submitting my comments on a bunch of sites even though I even tried to change computers. :(
      I think you should show your BF the post, I think he will like it. When are you planning to take him to India? It will be such an adventure for him!
      Eating with hands is so difficult for Westerners, I look like an idiot! I think it has something to do with the coordination of the fingers going together at once to put the ball of rice in the mouth.

  2. Grrr just wrote a comment and WP kicked me out!
    Was just saying how I love the practical, down to earth advice!!
    By contrast in Punjab shoes are worn all the time (by Sikhs - except in places of worship) and we only knee touch, and in our family only men touch feet as women are to keep their heads held high and be proud.
    A cousin once convinced a friend's new 'simple' bride to drink the lemon water as she did not know what it was!!!

    1. Thanks so much! I love to hear the differences within the Indian culture, it is astounding :) So many differences between your northernmost point to our Southernmost point. I like the idea of men doing the feet-touch ;)

  3. Hi Alexandra,
    This is R. I just found all your comments in Spam. I do not why my blog is automatically sending all the comments to spam. I am sorry about that. I do not remember playing with any settings. I thought I will let you know here, because you probably will check the comments here more frequently. I will approve them as soon as I am done cooking.
    Thanks for letting me know.

    1. Oh thank god they went through! I think I tried to comment 3 times and said it all differently. Please only publish you feel is the best one. Or else I will look like some insane!!!

  4. I finally got time to look at them and reply. That was a big long comment you made and I understand how frustrating it can be when some thing like that happens. Thanks again for being patient with me. I hope this doesn't happen again.

  5. Great tips. I have a question somewhat related to the topic of this post and on the other hand to the visit of your MIL - there is no touching of the opposite sex in an Indian home, especially in front of elders. How did you manage the cultural differences when your MIL was visiting, did you still allow yourself to touch your husband in front of her? What adjustments did you do and what did you not, regarding this or something else?

    I think it's a fine line to tread since Indian parents have a tendency to think their son's home is a natural extension of their own home where the senior person's word and habits go; however, the son and especially the firangi bahu have been used to a very different level of freedom in what they consider to be *their own* home (that's not to say the in-laws shouldn't visit, of course, but there are obviously some different expectations. Just the question of whether you are a guest in their home when you go to India and whether they are guests in yours when they come to Canada can itself be a major cause for conflict since different rights and duties follow from both).

    1. The no-touching thing was very hard for me to do, especially in India.
      At our house, my inlaws come to visit us for 3 months at a time usually, and we haven't butted heads too much. My hubby has got more comfortable around my MIL so he will give me a hug and a kiss and it's not a big deal. But he is still not as expressive with his emotions when she is around, he becomes more macho.
      The only thing I butted heads with my MIL was that she totally seized my kitchen and took it hostage. I literally could not even step inside the kitchen without her peering over my shoulder wanting to know what I was doing in there. So that was a little frustrating, but she was doing all the cooking, so I couldn't complain too much!
      Another thing I struggled with was getting my MIL outside the house. She is very self-conscious and thinks that everyone stares at her outside, which is not true. I like to go out a lot with the baby and I like to take her along but she often refuses and we fight about that. In Canada we believe it is healthy to be outdoors and get fresh air. Whereas in India, there is no fresh air! LOL

  6. Dear All, I have quite different experiences - maybe because I was living with a North Indian family (for 1 month) as a "school/work friend". Every time someone came to visit the family I had to hide in a dark room. Once the mom called me out from the shower to go to the room because people were coming. Had to wait almost one hour before I could dress up. When my boyfriend had guests (even his age guys) and I wanted to sit and talk with them, the mother wanted to call me out to not to disturb the boys....
    At greetings touching the led of the people is rella ya must. Sometimes I literally had to "run" after my boyfriend's mum to be able to touch her feel because she did not wanted to take me into consideration.
    Even as a guest they expected from me to help in the kitchen or to clean with them. Until I did not the mum had an opinion about me...
    The main talking topics were wedding, money, how to make more of it and jewelery and religion.
    I did not have the chance to see other relatives home although I was an open secret in the town.
    This was the ugly truth.


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