Culture and Etiquette in Nepal
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Many different ethnic groups coexist in Nepal, each with their own complex customs. In the Kathmandu Valley, where they mix the most, there’s a high degree of tolerance of different clothes and lifestyles – a fact that travellers sense, and often abuse. Away from the tourist areas, however, ethnic groups are quite parochial, and foreign ways may cause offence. That said, many taboos relax the further and higher you head into the mountains, as Hindu behavioural norms are only partially shared by Buddhist and animist ethnic groups.
The do’s and don’ts listed here are more flexible than they sound. You’ll make gaffes all the time and Nepalis will rarely say anything. When in doubt, do as you see Nepalis doing.
As a foreigner, you’re likely to be an object of curiosity, and you may be joined in the street or on the trail by someone who just wants to chat. Nepalis will constantly be befriending you, wanting to exchange addresses, take photos and extract solemn promises that you will write to them.
Giving the Nepali greeting, namaste (“I salute the god within you”), your palms held together as if praying, is one of the most attractive and addictive of Nepalese customs. It isn’t used freely or casually: think of it as “how do you do?” rather than “hello!” If you want to show great respect, namaskar is a more formal or subservient variant.
Another delightful aspect of Nepali culture is the familiar ways Nepalis address each other: it’s well worth learning didi (“older sister”), bahini (“younger sister”), daai (“older brother”), bhaai (“younger brother”), buwa (“father”) and aamaa (“mother”) for the warm reaction they’ll usually provoke. To be more formal or respectful, just add ji to the end of someone’s name, as in “namaste, John-ji”.
The word dhanyabaad is usually translated as “thank you” but is normally reserved for an act beyond the call of duty – so if you feel you have to say something, “thank you” in English is widely understood.
The gestures for “yes” and “no” are also confusing to foreigners. To indicate agreement, tilt your head slightly to one side and then back the other way. To tell a tout or a seller “no”, hold one hand up in front of you, palm forwards, and swivel your wrist subtly, as if you were adjusting a bracelet; shaking the head in the Western fashion looks too much like “yes”. To point use the chin, rather than the finger.
Hill Nepal is less rigid than much of India, but caste is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. Nepal “abolished” the caste system in 1963, but millennia-old habits take time to change. Though professions are changing and “love marriage” is more popular, caste and status still determine whom most Nepalis may (or must) marry, where they can live and who they can associate with. Foreigners are technically casteless, but in the remote far western hills they can be considered polluting to orthodox, high-caste Hindus. Wherever you travel you should be sensitive to minor caste restrictions: for example, you may not be allowed into the kitchen of a high-caste Hindu home.
Status (ijat) is equally important. Meeting for the first time, Nepalis observe a ritual of asking each other’s name, home town and profession, which helps determine relative status and therefore the correct level of deference. As a Westerner you have a lot of status, and relatively speaking you’re fabulously wealthy.
Probably the greatest number of Nepali taboos are to do with food. One underlying principle is that once you’ve touched something to your lips, it’s polluted (jutho) for everyone else. If you take a sip from someone else’s water bottle, try not to let it touch your lips (and the same applies if it’s your own). Don’t eat off someone else’s plate or offer anyone food you’ve taken a bite of, and don’t touch cooked food until you’ve bought it.
If eating with your hands, use the right one only. The left hand is reserved for washing after defecating; you can use it to hold a glass or utensil while you eat, but don’t wipe your mouth, or pass food with it. It’s considered good manners to give and receive everything with the right hand. In order to convey respect, offer money, food or gifts with both hands, or with the right hand while the left touches the wrist.
Nepalis are innately conservative in their attitudes to clothing, and it’s worth knowing how you may come across. The following hints apply especially in temples and monasteries.
Men should always wear a shirt in public, and long trousers if possible (shorts are fine on well-used trekking trails). For women in villages, a sari or skirt that hangs to mid-calf level is traditional, though trousers are acceptable these days. Shoulders are usually covered, and vest-tops are considered risqué. Girls in Kathmandu and Pokhara do wear shorts or short skirts, but this is relatively new and you run the risk of being seen as sexually available. Generally, looking clean shows respect – and earns it. Ungroomed travellers may find themselves treated with significantly less courtesy.
Only women with babies or small children bare their breasts. When Nepali men bathe in public, they do it in their underwear, and women bathe underneath a lungi (sarong). Foreigners are expected to do likewise. In Nepal, the forehead is regarded as the most sacred part of the body and it’s impolite to touch an adult Nepali’s head. The feet are the most unclean part, so don’t put yours on chairs or tables, and when sitting, try not to point the soles of your feet at anyone. It’s also bad manners to step over the legs of someone seated.
Male friends will often hold hands in public, but not lovers of the opposite sex. Couples who cuddle or kiss in public will at best draw unwelcome attention. Handshaking has increased, but not all women will feel comfortable to shake a man’s hand.
Major Hindu temples or their innermost sanctums are usually off-limits to nonbelievers, who are a possible cause of ritual pollution. Where you are allowed in, be respectful, take your shoes off before entering, don’t take photos unless you’ve asked permission, and leave a few rupees in the donation box. Try not to touch offerings or shrines. Leather is usually not allowed in temple precincts.
Similar sensitivity is due at Buddhist temples and monasteries. If you’re granted an audience with a lama, it’s traditional to present him with a kata (a ceremonial white scarf, usually sold nearby). Walk around Buddhist stupas and monuments clockwise.
If invited for a meal in a private home, you can bring fruit or sweets, but don’t expect thanks as gifts tend to be received without any fuss. Take your shoes off when entering, or follow the example of your host. When the food is served you may be expected to eat first, so you won’t be able to follow your host’s lead. Take less than you can eat – asking for seconds is the best compliment you can give. The meal is typically served at the end of a gathering; when the eating is done, everyone leaves.
Sherpas and some other highland groups regard the family hearth as sacred, so don’t throw rubbish or scraps into it.
Indian-style hustle is on the rise in Nepal. You’ll get a dose of it at the airport or any major bus station, where hotel touts lie in wait to accost arriving tourists. They also cruise the tourist strips of Kathmandu, offering drugs, treks, and, increasingly, sex. For the most part, though, Nepali touts are less aggressive than their Indian brethren, and if you’re entering Nepal from North India, where aggressive touts have to be dealt with firmly, you should prepare to adjust your attitude. Ignore them entirely and they’re likely to ignore you. If that doesn’t work, most touts will leave you alone if asked nicely, whereas they’ll take a rude brush-off personally.
The tourist zones are full of other lone entrepreneurs and middlemen – touts by any other name. Ticket agents, rikshaw-wallahs, guesthouse-owners and guides are ever-anxious to broker services and information. They usually get their commission from the seller; your price is bumped up correspondingly. In general, cutting out the middleman gives you more control over the transaction. You should find, however, that a few rupees (and smiles) given to people whose services you may require again will smooth the way and make your stay more pleasant.
Dealing with beggars is part and parcel of travelling in Nepal. The pathos might initially get to you, as it should, but you will probably adjust to it fairly quickly. A thornier dilemma is how to cope with panhandling kids.
A small number of bona fide beggars make an honest living from bakshish (alms). Hindus and Buddhists have a long and honourable tradition of giving to lepers, the disabled, sadhus and monks. It’s terrifyingly easy for a Nepali woman to find herself destitute and on the street, either widowed or divorced – perhaps for failing to bear a son or from a dowry dispute. There are no unemployment benefits in Nepal, and many who can’t work and have no family turn to begging (or prostitution).
In the hills, ailing locals will occasionally approach foreigners for medicine: it’s unwise to make any prescriptions unless you’re qualified to diagnose the illness. However, before leaving the country you can donate unused medicines to the destitute through the dispensary at Kathmandu’s Bir Hospital, or to the Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre in Kathmandu, which gives them to monks.
Throughout Nepal – principally along the tourist trails – children will hound you. Repeatedly shouting “namaste” or “hello” at the weird-looking stranger is universal and often kids will ask you for “one dollar”, “chocolate” or “pen”. They’re not orphans or beggars, just ordinary schoolkids who’ve seen too many well-meaning but thoughtless tourists handing out little gifts wherever they go. A firm-but-gentle hoina holaa! (“I don’t think so!”) is usually enough. Few children would ever ask a Nepali for money, so reacting like a local will quickly embarrass them. Sometimes, however, they will tag along for hours; the best defences are a sense of humour and/or a strategic lack of engagement.
Street children are a different case – don’t give (or not directly), and watch your wallet.
Even if you’re not going on a trek, hiring a guide is a great way to get under the skin of Nepal. Most people only think of hiring a guide for a trek, but they’re even more essential when tracking wildlife in the Terai parks. If you find a good guide, stick with him (guides are usually male); a day guide in Chitwan, for instance, might well be willing to accompany you to Bardia National Park. In town, would-be guides, often masquerading as friendly students, position themselves strategically at temples and palaces, but you’ll probably do better to find one through a hotel or travel agent. An inexperienced guide hired informally will usually charge about Rs800–1000 a day; paying around double that for an experienced and knowledgeable guide would be fair. Generally, you get what you pay for.