A Guide to Religious Etiquette in India

India is a land of cultural and religious diversity. Unlike the Western world, religion permeates every facet of life in India. I recall that on my first trip to India, I was surprised to see religious icons everywhere I went, including places of business such as banks and grocery stores. Since religion is such a big part of life in India, it is important for visitors — including those who are not themselves particularly religious — to prepare themselves for the proper way to show respect in religious settings in India.

The good news is, although the religions are very diverse in India, many of the same rules of etiquette apply, regardless of the religion.

Here are the two main things to keep in mind, when you visit a church, mosque, or temple in India.

Remove Your Shoes Before Entering Religious Buildings in India

There is some variation from one building to another when it comes to the need to remove shoes before entering a place of worship in India. For instance, every time I visited a Hindu temple, or even stepped into a puja room (shrine) in a private home, I was expected to remove my shoes. In contrast, some, but not all Christian churches required me to take off my shoes. The good news is, it doesn’t take long to figure out whether or not to remove your shoes, as you can simply look to see what everyone else around you does.

Some places of worship have a place where you can “check in” your shoes and get a token of some sort that is used to claim the shoes when you come out of the temple. In others, people simple leave their shoes outside the entrance of the place of worship.

Be forewarned that the pavement surrounding the place of worship may be hot. On many occasions I wished I had a pair of socks with me to protect the soles of my feet, so you might want to have a pair along with you, just in case.

Women Should Cover Their Heads in Places of Worship in India

When a woman covers her head in India, it is a sign of respect. Therefore, when entering a place of worship in India, women should make a point of covering their heads. In Christian churches, women may not always cover their heads when entering the church, but will be expected to cover their heads during prayer.

Indian clothing for women, such as saris and the popular salwar kameez are made in such a way that the pallu (fabric that goes over the shoulder of a sari), and the dupatta (scarf worn across the chest when wearing a salwar kameez), are used to cover the head when needed. If wearing western clothing, a woman can carry a scarf with her to use to cover her head when in places of worship in India.

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