Photo courtesy of Punit Parnanpe/AFP
One morning last year two foreigners entered Jama Masjid and shot a TikTok video. Handstanding with their clothes askew inside the 360-year-old mosque in India’s capital New Delhi, the short clip of the women quickly circulated online. The mosque administration was upset; they felt the historic place of worship had been disrespected. “Any religious place one goes to should be treated with respect,” said Syed Ahmed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of the mosque, among India’s most visited spots, told VICE News. “We hadn’t anticipated such a possibility until it happened. We could only take measures to prevent it once it did.”
Soon after, the administration strengthened security, restricted the entry of foreigners for several days and put up boards explicitly disallowing the shooting of videos. The tourists also apologised.
In 2019, more than 10 million foreign tourists visited India and forex earnings hit 2.2 lakh crores. Religious spots in India like Varanasi, Pushkar and Haridwar see swarms of foreigners keen for tourism and enlightenment. But occasionally faux passes mar these cultural encounters.
Last week, a French woman was arrested for shooting a video of herself half-naked on the sacred Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge in Rishikesh, a popular North Indian destination. The police claim that the video was part of promotional material for her bead business and she told them her disrobing was not intended to offend locals. They arrested the woman under the Indian penal provision relating to public obscenity. “This was the first such incident,” RK Saklani, the head of the police station that filed the report, told Vice News. “Normally it is foreigners who have complaints about locals.”
Soon after the incident Saklani held a meeting with about 100 hoteliers and yoga instructors on educating foreign tourists on local sensitivities such as avoiding smoking near temples or drinking in public. “Sometimes foreigners don’t know about local ways,” he said.
Religious leaders, police and tour guides said that foreign visitors are generally well-behaved and respectful of local customs, often more so than Indians themselves. But even the well-meaning are prone to goof-ups precipitated by cultural clashes.
Some Hindu temples do not allow foreigners or non-Hindus. But at the Jagannath Temple in the east Indian state of Oodisha, that has not stopped a few from trying to enter. In April 2017, an Argentinian man evaded security and got in. The same year, a German forcibly entered and allegedly assaulted a priest. Jagannath Mahapatra, a temple official said that security staff come across foreigners and non-Hindus who attempt to enter a few times a year. “On such days we have no choice but to throw out the entire bhog [ritual-related food offerings] and start making it again,” he said. This had to be done as temple rules were breached and the offering couldn’t be made to the deity under the circumstances.
Similarly, when a British man claiming to be a Hindu convert entered the Guruvayur Temple in the southern India’s state of Kerala in 2008, despite it being off-limit for non Hindus, the priest reportedly conducted a “purification” ceremony.
Places of worship often have an implicit or explicit dress code, expect people to remove their shoes and cover their legs or shoulders. At Jama Masjid, gowns are provided for temporary use in case too much flesh is on display. Photography is disallowed in some shrines, and in Jain temples leather objects are verboten. Several sites maintain significant security measures and CCTVs through the premises to crack down on mischief-mongers.
At Varanasi, among India’s holiest cities, devotees at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple may honour the deity with sacred water from the Ganga. Rajendra Tiwari, a priest, told VICE News that some years ago a foreigner uncapped his mineral water bottle and started doing the same. The tourist had committed a major cultural booboo---he couldn’t offer just any water, least from a bottle he drank from. “Imagine what the devotees would have felt about this,” said Tiwari, who quickly intervened to stop the man. “His mistake was that he didn't understand the significance of what was happening. If people don't understand, then what is the point of entering?” Now foreigners are barred from participating in such rituals. Tiwari blamed the government for opening the temple up to foreigners.
Public displays of affection are frowned upon in India, and can even be legally prosecuted under archaic indecency and obscenity laws. “They may take a photo hugging each other, but in our culture, you have to maintain a distance between men and women,” said Hameed Chishty, whose family has been in charge of the administration of Hazrat Khawaja Gharib Nawaz Dargah, a Sufi shrine in the north Indian city of Ajmer. He said that a majority of the tourists were cooperative and were quick to correct themselves if alerted to any improper behaviour.
Holy towns like Varanasi and Pushkar may see more frequent infractions. In 2005, an Israeli couple was fined Rs 1000 (about USD 14) by a local court in Rajasthan for kissing during their Hindu wedding ceremony-- they said they had not cause offence. The same year a Finnish woman took a naked dip in the holy lake and proceeded to walk back to her hotel in her birthday suit about 300m away, according to witnesses. Livid locals held protests and police booked a complaint.
Tourist havens like Goa routinely receive clueless holiday-makers. Two temples in the beach state moved to debar foreigners in 2011 from entering the premises following inappropriate behaviour.
Much of the onus on ensuring propriety falls on tour guides and travel agents who escort visitors. Ramit Mitra, co-founder of DelhiByFoot Adventures, a heritage and cultural experiences company, said that he lists detailed instructions for foreign visitors, and specifies the dos and don'ts of both dress code and behaviour before taking them to religious spots. “It’s not the beaches of Goa that you can do as you please,” he said. “Most people understand, only about 2 percent make a fuss about these things.”
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