India is one of the most diverse countries in the world. It has a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural society. Many different religions are followed here; Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism. The diversity of religion has resulted in an assortment of different customs and traditions, including forms of social greeting.
Say hello; the meaning of namaste
The traditional and customary way to greet people in India is the word ‘namaste’ (pronounced na, ma, stay). Indians generally prefer this non-contact form of greeting to a handshake or an embrace. It can be used for everyone regardless of gender, age or social background.
In some parts of India, like the south, people use ‘namaskar’ or ‘namaskaram’. Namaste is derived from Sanskrit and is a combination of two words, ‘namaḥ’ – meaning bow or salutation – and ‘te’ – meaning ‘to you’. Namaste therefore means “I bow to you” or “I bow to the soul in you” or “I respect the divinity in you that is also within me”. It says that the life force, the divinity, is the same in all.
The word namaste is accompanied by a graceful gesture which involves pressing both palms together and placing them at chest level, fingers pointed upwards. Usually people do a quick bow of their heads along with the gesture. When greeting an elder, or at places of worship, the head is bowed down completely. The position of hands also plays an important part – when folded hands are placed on the forehead or above the head, it indicates deep respect. This gesture is used mostly at places of worship. When greeting someone, you can choose to use just the gesture, and drop the word. It is understood that the gesture itself signifies namaste. Namaste is generally used as a greeting or salutation by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.
Other traditional greetings
Other communities such as Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Parsis etc have their individual tradition of greeting. Sikhs use the phrase ‘Sat Sri Akal’ which roughly translates into ‘God is the ultimate truth’. Or the phrase ‘Vaheguru ji ka khalsa / Vaheguru ji ki fateh.’
Muslims use ‘Salaam’ or the full ‘Assalaam Aleikum’ (‘Peace be upon you’), accompanied by a gesture – sweeping your right hand up and placing it on your heart. Tibetans use ‘Tashi Delek’ which means something like, “May everything be well”. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, people use ‘vanakkam’. Khasis of Meghalaya will greet you with ‘khublei’ or ‘may God bless you’.
Embracing as a means of greeting
Hugging, embracing or kissing is not a very common way of greeting in India unless it is in urban cities or with close friends and family. Indians as a rule do not like physical contact when they greet each other. Among Indian Christians, a greeting can involve a hug and a kiss within family and close friends. However, some religious occasions have a tradition of greeting by hugging.
For instance, during the Muslim festival of Eid, men hug each other as a way of greeting or celebration. It’s a special hug – as per tradition, they hug once, then move heads to the opposite shoulder, then back to original shoulder again. Similarly, in the eastern state of West Bengal, during some festivals (like Durga Puja) and occasions like Nobo Borsho (Bengali New Year), it is common to see men embracing each other with the traditional embrace of ‘kolakuli’ (again done three times). The ‘kolakuli’ is a male-only thing and is done between those of the same age. In case of elders, the way of greeting becomes a ‘pranaam’ – touching the feet with hands.
The ‘pranaam’ is one of the very few instances of an Indian greeting when one gets physical. It is a form of salutation that involves a younger person taking the blessing of an elder. It is also done with gurus, and icons/images/idols of gods. In response, the elder places a hand over the head of the person as a way of blessing.
Here’s how the ‘pranaam’ is commonly done – dip down and touch the feet of the elder with the right hand, then touch the hand to your chest. However, there are other, more intricate ‘pranaam’ styles – the ‘ashtangana’ which is a full prostration when you touch the ground with your knees, belly, chest, hands, elbows, chin, nose, and forehead; the ‘shastanga’ (touching the ground with toes, knees, hands, chin, nose); ‘panchanga’ (touching the ground with knees, chest, chin, temple, forehead); and the ‘dandavata’ (bowing forehead down and touching the ground).
Namaste can be used to end conversations too. In India, several communities use different versions of the phrase ‘See you soon’ or ‘We’ll meet soon’ when bidding farewell.
There’s ‘phir milenge’ – a Hindi phrase meaning ‘we shall meet again’, used when bidding farewell. In Bengal, people prefer the word ‘aashchhi’, which roughly translates to ‘I’ll be back’. Muslims use ‘alvida’ (‘goodbye’) or ‘khuda haafiz’ (may god keep you safe). ‘Rab rakha’ is used by the Sikh community and has a similar meaning. In Kerala, it’s ‘sukhaayiriku’ or ‘take care’.