Etiquette is a tricky thing, especially when you’re in a foreign country and you’re dealing with multiple ethnicities in one country. For this reason, Nepal, a country with a rich tapestry of cultures, religions, and lifestyles, is a complex country to navigate. It is also one of the most beautiful to witness. When you’re mindful and conscious of how you act, it rewards you by showing you a land full of centuries-old customs and gestures, influenced mostly by the high altitude of the Himalayas and the prevalence of Hinduism and Buddhism. Here you’ll see a hodgepodge of yaks, temples, stupas, a stunning countryside full of prayer flags, mountain horizons and a semi-nomadic people that hold on to the traditions of the land.
While you are an outsider, and therefore, a small faux pas is deemed forgivable, it’s good to go into a country well-aware of its culture and rules of etiquette. So, without further ado, here are some good customs in Nepal to keep in mind.
1. Walk clockwise around Buddhist sacred stupas and monuments
The act of walking around sacred areas, clockwise, is called circumambulation. Buddhists believe that objects that need to be venerated, such as a stupa, a Bodhi tree (where Buddha once attained enlightenment), or any Buddha image need to be circled around three or more times as an act of respect. Going clockwise is a symbolic gesture of following the life of Buddha - east for his birth, south for his enlightenment, west for setting in motion the wheel of Dharma, and north for his liberation. In other words, it is the right life path.
Address: 44600 Kathmandu, Nepal
Website: Bouddhanath Temple
2. Bring a gift when invited to a local’s house without expecting a hearty thanks
It’s an honor to be invited to a local’s home. While eating is typically done without fanfare, it’s also one of the many social areas with the most customs. If you have been invited to a local’s home, as a hospitality gift, you can bring sweets or fruits. Do not expect that they will go out of their way to express their joy, though. Nepalese express appreciation in a more subtle manner. They usually just say thank you and push the gift aside, and proceed to dine right away.
3. Practice tolerance for beggars and women
Generally, foreigners are somewhat of a novelty wherever you are in Nepal, especially if you venture out to the countryside, outside modern Kathmandu or Pokhara. A lot of locals will want to talk to you, take photos with you, or even invite you to their homes. Part of the attention is also from children and women who beg on the streets for bakshish or alms. As a Hindu and Buddhist, country, Nepal has been known to uphold maximum tolerance for them, as should you. Be firm that they won’t get anything from you, however, do not be harsh when saying it. Women, especially, are prone to harsh cultural conditions because they often get excommunicated from their homes for failing to bear a son or because they didn’t agree with the suitor’s family about dowry.
Help children and women in Nepal
Address: All over Nepal
Website: Invisible Girl Project
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4. Eat and give only with the right hand
Editor's Note: There's no photo available at the time of writing
Many of the country’s intricate customs are done during eating. Use the right hand for eating, wiping the mouth, or passing food along. You can use the left hand for holding a glass or a utensil. The left hand is also usually reserved for more intimate cleansing acts in the toilet. Giving and receiving gifts such as food, gifts, or money, should also be done with the right hand as a sign of respect. The left hand is just used to support the right.
Volunteer in Nepal to learn more about customs
Address: 9788 Kathmandu, Nepal
Website: Volunteer in Nepal
5. Don’t show too much skin
While the infiltration of Western tourists has somehow let Nepal become tolerant of this rule, it should still be taken into mind when you’re packing for your trip. This practice actually also applies to most parts of South Asia. Men usually wear shirts and long trousers. Women usually wear sleeved shirts with long skirts. Shoulders or any other part that, in the Nepalese culture, alludes to anything sexual, makes the person uncomfortable and should be respected.
6. Leather is prohibited inside sacred areas
As mentioned earlier, the prevalent religion in Nepal is Hinduism. To the Hindus, the cow is considered a sacred symbol of wealth. Therefore, it is a religious no-no to kill or disrespect a cow. This Nepal tradition also means that any byproduct, like leather, is considered sacrilege. Entering a temple wearing leather is breaking a code of ethic. Be respectful, and put that leather bracelet or necklace in your bag (unless your bag is made of leather as well, then it’s best to leave that outside too.)
7. Avoid pointing the soles of your feet towards anyone
The forehead is the most sacred part of the body and in the Nepalese culture, to touch it is to transfer your energy to the other person, and so Nepalese don’t touch the forehead of little children. On the other hand, the dirtiest or most unclean part of the body, according to the Nepalese, is the feet. Do not point the soles of your feet towards anyone as you will be seen, again, as transferring your negative energy to the other person.
While it’s always good to be fully prepared and knowledgeable about the social customs of Nepal, this is not to say that interacting with locals is fastidiously hard. The opposite is quite true - interaction with the locals in Nepal is easy. Most Nepalese are very friendly, and they are equally curious about you as you are about them. Many of them will go out of their way to point you in the right direction, and some of them will even tag along just to continue the conversation and make you feel safe. If you need assistance, all you need to do is approach a local and greet them with a hearty “Namaste”, the most prolific perhaps of all customs. What more beautiful way to start a friendship than to say “I salute the God within you”.
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