- Everyday Life
15 Indian Gestures and their meaning
09 Feb 2022
Communication in India is sometimes not easy. And not only for travellers and foreigners, but sometimes even for Indians who do not speak regional Indian languages. The saying "communicate with hands and feet" can be taken literally in India. Countless gestures are used for communication, which underline or even completely replace verbal communication. Indian gestures are not always intuitively understandable. Therefore, we have created this guide to Indian gestures and their meanings for you.
Do you want to travel through India? Then be sure to check out our article on Dos and Don'ts when travelling in India!
Probably the most famous Indian gesture is the folding of the hands in front of the chest to form a Namaste. This greeting is understood and often used throughout India. If you are in a professional context, shaking hands is also common.
The famous head wiggle causes problems for many newcomers to India. For them, wiggling from left to right often seems indecisive. But it usually means "yes". The longer you travel in India, the finer your antennae will become to understand what is meant by the head wobble. Sometimes it is shortened to a barely perceptible head twitch - especially among rickshaw drivers - when they agree to the destination and want you to hop in.
The head wobble can sometimes just mean that the other person understands you and does not necessarily agree. A clear shake of the head, however, means "no", just as it does with us.
In India, people count with their hands differently than in Germany. One is indicated by the index finger, followed by the middle finger, then the ring finger and the little finger. The thumb then represents the number five. However, there is a special feature here.
If someone wants to ask you to pay five rupees, they will not hold up their entire hand, but tap their thumb with the four fingers (similar to our gesture for speaking). This gesture is also used when someone asks you to wait for five minutes. This is usually done completely non-verbally. So don't be surprised if you are left standing with this gesture. Your counterpart will come back after five minutes.
Everything is great!
This Indian gesture is easy to understand: Forming a circle with thumb and index finger and spreading the other fingers means "everything is great!". Very often it is used in the context of food. So if you want to praise food, you should use this gesture, which you may already know from diving. If you also wiggle your head from left to right, the compliment is perfect.
Speaking of food. Equally easy gestures to understand are those for eating and drinking. To symbolise eating, place your fingers on your thumb and bring them to your mouth. Imagine trying to pick up grains of rice with your right hand and then bringing them to your mouth. To drink, bring your fist to your mouth with your thumb and little finger extended and your thumb pointing towards your mouth. But watch out: This gesture for drinking is sometimes used for drinking alcohol, which is generally not very well received in India.
Our gesture to beckon someone is reversed in India. While in Germany the palm of the hand points upwards and the fingers are moved back and forth towards us, in India the palm of the hand points downwards. Nevertheless, the fingers indicate just as much the direction in which one wants to direct the other person - namely towards oneself. To our understanding, this may seem like a condescending beckoning, but it is by no means impolite in India.
How practical that in India there is a gesture of negation! This is done by extending your hand palm down and then shaking it side to side as if to say, "Mmm, I'm not so sure about that!" or "it’s so lala". This gesture is very useful when you are asked for change by the conductor on the bus or when you want to refuse the hundredth refill at a wedding dinner.
Ordering the bill
In India, this is also usually done non-verbally. Instead of waving at the waiter and telling him that you would like the bill, you can easily signal to him that you would like to pay. To do this, you have to make eye contact with the waiter and then write in the air as if with an invisible pen. Easy for him and easy for you!
In India, gifts are always given with both hands, no matter how small the gift. This is a form of respect. It is also a form of respect to receive the gift with both hands.
By the way, don't feel offended when your gift is not unwrapped right away. It is common in India to open gifts later and not infront of the guests.
Whereas in Germany you hold up two fingers and say "I swear", in India you touch your throat with your thumb and forefinger and say "pakka".
An important apology in India is often expressed by touching the earlobes with both hands. Sometimes the arms are even crossed. However, this gesture is only used in special cases - i.e. not if you accidentally bump into someone.
Another form of apology is used when someone accidentally touches the other person with their foot. To express respect for the divinity in every human being, the other person is touched with the right hand and then one's own chest and chin are touched as a blessing.
By the way, animals, food and books should also not be touched with the feet in India.
Going to the toilet
A particularly practical gesture mostly used at school is one that signals to the teacher that the child wants to go to the toilet for a moment. The fist is shown with the little finger spread out. The teacher then only has to nod (or wiggle) his or her head to confirm.
How would you show that you have caught a big fish? Surely you would hold your arms out in front of you and then hold your hands at the distance that represents the size of the fish. In India, measurements are shown quite differently. Here, the left arm is stretched down in front of the body and the right hand is used to show the length measurement on the arm. The length from the fingertips of the outstretched arm to the marked point is meant.
Paying respect to elders
If you have ever seen a Bollywood film, you may be familiar with this gesture. Respect is paid to elders and a blessing is requested from them by bending down to their feet and touching them with both hands. The blessing is given by the older person touching their head. This gesture is very special, so it should not be used lightly.
Expressions of beauty
A particularly elegant gesture is the expression of beauty. It is usually only used for women or girls. It involves framing the face of the beautiful person with both hands from top to bottom and then bringing the hands to one's own temples and curling them up as fists.
A similar gesture is often used with young children to show affection. This involves squeezing the cheeks with the fingertips and then bringing the right hand to the mouth and kissing it.
The thumbs up usually means that all is well. In South India, however, this gesture is used differently. Here, the thumb is raised a little and you look questioningly to find out what is going on. If you also stretch your head in a demanding way, the gesture is reinforced. But as is often the case in India, each region has its own traditions and gestures. In the north of the country, for example, you will probably be met with incomprehension when you make this gesture.
You can find this gesture in Karnataka, for example. Want to know more about this state in the south of India? Read more about Karnataka here!
By the way, Thums up is the most popular cola in India. Originally independent, it now belongs to Coca-Cola.
Even though it is not a gesture, hand-holding has to be considered in this guide. Holding hands falls under the category of PDA (Public Display of Affection), which is not allowed in many places in India. However, this only applies to men and women. Holding hands between women or between men is not a problem. The sight of a group of young men walking hand in hand/arm in arm along the beach would be unusual in Germany, but is quite normal in India. This hand-holding has nothing to do with romantic love, it merely expresses friendly affection.
We hope this guide to Indian gestures and their meanings helps you get around in India. If you know of any other gestures or have questions about gestures you don't understand, feel free to write to us in the comments or to [email protected]!
Written by : Tanja Holbe
Cover Photo Credit: Atharva Tulsi - Unsplash
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