by Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach
Many people wonder what are the rules and etiquette tips for attending a Hindu function in India or abroad. These tips can be applied to many different kinds of functions, but were inspired as a continuation to tips on Varalakshmi Vratham celebrations.
There are many questions one may ask about what is expected while attending a Hindu ceremony. Here are some questions and answers:
What do I wear to a Hindu Function or Holy celebration?
I suggest to dress conservatively. Am I saying that Indians all dress conservatively? No, but in general Indians will appreciate women and girls to come dressed conservatively. If you do not have Indian dresses, that is fine. Come dressed in long skirts (do not show your legs), modest tops and try to tie your hair back if it is long. It is acceptable to wear jewelry, like bracelets, earrings, anklets, and necklaces. If you have Indian dresses, do try to wear them if you’re comfortable, but it is not necessary. It is also appropriate to wear a bindi sticker on your forehead if you have it. This is optional.
Do not wear your shoes inside a Hindu or Indian person's home, Hindu temple or especially in the prayer area of a Hindu prayer alter. In these situations, it will be noticed that shoes will be taken off and kept by the door outside the home/temple or inside the door of the building at a specified place. Some Hindu temples have a separate shoe room with a foot wash area. If it is cold, bring socks to cover bare feet. It's ok to wear socks, but not outside shoes as they are considered dirty and dirty the place.
Do I have to come alone? Can I bring someone so I don't feel lonely?
Ask your hosts if you can bring someone to accompany you if you were invited alone. Ask if the event is for women only or men can join too. For some holidays, like Varalakshmi vratham, only women and children attend. Some very traditional people may only invite married women to this celebration. Though, some families do not follow the formalities and men and unmarried women can also attend. I was actually invited to attend the puja when I was not married because the ladies in the group included married and non-married women. Sometimes people make exceptions for foreigners or non-Indian, non-Hindus simply because sharing their culture and traditions is an expression of hospitality.
Should I bring anything? Is it bad manners to come empty-handed?
Ask if you can bring some food. Food served after the prayer is called 'prasadam'. Some set the unopened food containers in front of the puja stand while the puja is going on so the food gets the blessings of the Devi. Most likely your hosts will not tell you to bring anything. However, it's best not to go empty handed. It's suitable to bring fruits (banana, apple) or a desert item that is vegetarian, and without eggs. Rice pudding is a good option. If you have an Indian store near you, you can go there and ask the shop keeper about the non-egg based sweets available for purchase. Choose which one looks good to you. It is also suitable to bring fresh flowers.
Can I participate by chanting the prayer or sloka?
If you have a booklet to recite the prayer it is ok to try to recite if you so desire. People were very encouraging to me when I tried to recite. It can be challenging though, as Sanskrit sound pairings are hard to make. Try your best and there is no need to recite everything. If you stop sometimes and start again it is fine. Even if you do not recite, that is also fine. You can pray silently to yourself.
Can I participate in the function by touching stuff or going near the alter?
All women will take prayers from Devi via the fire (aarthi). There may be other opportunities for women to offer things to the Devi, like water, flowers, food items. If all women take turns, be vigilant and watch and repeat what they do. This is how all the others learn too! (Parents guilde their children's arms and hands through the motions to teach them, for instance.) Take special care not to touch anything with your left hand. Some people do accept food by putting their right hand on topof their left. This is acceptable because the left hand is not actually directly touching it. When puja is over, after aarthi and before food is usually the time, the kum kum is passed around. Kum kum is a red powder that people apply with their third finger of their right hand to the space between their eyebrows (if unmarried) and to the part of their hair (if married). If you are comfortable, you can also apply it. There may also be turmeric (haldi) and vibuthi (cow dung ash). Take a little with each finger, observe how others apply it, and copy them. Take care with turmeric as if you get it on your clothes, it will stain. If you do not want to use it, that is perfectly fine, too.
Are there any special rules I should follow before eating food?
When taking food, before eating it, observe what the others do before they start eating it. Some will simply take the food and eat it. Others, many others, may actually take the plate of food, or a portion of the food in their fingers or palm of their right hand and put it to their eyes. This is almost like a Christian prayer before eating. It is another way to bless God for the food that is about to be eaten.
How do I greet my hosts and other guests?
Greet women by saying Hi, and if comfortable you can reach for their hand, not to shake it but simply hold it (shaking hands is not necesarry). Watch if and how others do it, for many Americans this can be uncomfortable because it is not usually how we greet girl-friends. Greet men by Namaste (Hands in prayer position in front of chest), simply saying ‘Hello,’ or shaking their hand. Also, do not be surprised if people want you to hold their children, even if you just met them. Refer to the priest as Pujariji. Do not call the priest by his name. Many may bend down and touch the feet of the pujari after the puja is over. In this way, the worshiper gives respect and takes blessings of the pujari. In return, the pujari may touch your head, or touch it with a silver crown and recite a short prayer of good luck. After taking the blessings from the Pujari, the pujari usually gives food. Take this in the right hand and bring it up to your eyes before eating it. Watching others is the best way to learn these gestures.
Anything else I should remember?
Last, but never least, always remove your shoes when you enter the home. Few may wear shoes in the homes, especially outside India, but never in the areas prayers are held. Even if people wear house shoes (slippers) they will remove them for prayers.
What would prevent me from attending?
If you have your period (menstruating) do not go. Most communities of Hindu women do not attend to pujas, temple visits or holy activities when on their period. They stay home, take rest and some even have husbands, or extended family to help with housework at this time.
Taking Leave and Saying Good-bye
In most cases, it's good etiquette to stay until the end. Do ask your hosts ahead of time how long it will last, so you can plan accordingly.
Keep aware of the other guests, often once one starts to leave, and others start to leave, then you can also start to leave. Often it may seem like a 'mad exodus'. Though people may trickle in, often late, people will often all leave together in one big mass. This is good for you, join in and give your thanks before 'taking leave.'
Before actually putting on your shoes, the hostess would offer you something akin to a 'party favor bag' in Tamil called Thamboolam. These are easy to create, and are cloth bags or a small packet which include a number of items. Raji has shared,
"Musts for thamboolam - betel leaves, betel nuts,turmeric, bananas, coconuts. Kumkumam is offered separately along with sandal paste to be applied on the forehead. Packets of kumkumam, or litle boxes of kumkumam are also given. Additional optional items are blouse pieces and bangles."
Watch how others receive the thamboolam and copy them. Often it is presented on a silver or other platter along with kum-kum powder. Do not take the platter, but take a bit of kumkum with your third finger of right hand and place the powder between your eyebrows. Then, pick up the thamboolam with right hand, or if hostess hands it to you receive it in an open palmed right hand (left hand can be underneath, but not touching thamboolam), then raise to eyes to thank God.
I hope these tips are useful in attending pujas at home or in the temple. Do leave your feedback and additional thoughts here. I appreciate you spending your time on my site.
Thank you for spending your time on Alaivani.com
Author of this post, Jennifer Kumar was an active member in the Tamil and Malayalee communities in USA. Jennifer lived in India and earned her Master's degree in Chennai. In 2011, Jennifer has returned to live in India a second time. She is a cross-cultural coaching helping people get adjusted to lifestyles between U.S.A. and India: Indians, NRIs, Americans and anyone else! If you'd like to know more about her, follow her on Facebook or see her coaching website by clicking here. Thanks.
Related Posts Sites:
Samplings of Thamboolam by Raji
Varalakshmi Vratham in Chennai, Raji Muthukrishnan. These photos nicely show decorations, prayer alter and thamboolam.
Varalakshmi Vratham - Summer's Tribute to Eight Forms of the Goddess
What are the eight forms of Lakshmi and how can prayer lead to wonderful things in life?
108 Names of Laxmi (Lakshmi)
Story of Varalakshmi Vratam – Varamahalakshmi Vrat Katha: Narrations of three legends, myths or reasons behind celebrating Varalakshmi Vratham: Charumati, Shyamabala, and Chitranemi.
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Updated April 2013