There was an article in the Hindustan Times yesterday noting that many people in beach towns in Goa are upset because foreigners have been visiting their temples in beach wear. The Mahalasi Narayani temple administrators have banned foreigners, and many others are imposing strict dress codes. In any case, shorts and swimsuits are not considered appropriate attire for visiting temples or any other place of worship anywhere in India, and Goa is no exception. Appropriate attire generally means shirts and long pants for men, and modest dress for women. How modest? Well, look at how much of their body the majority of locals cover and do likewise.

Some people seem to believe that temples, etc. are primarily meant to be tourist attractions, but that is absolutely not the case. Actually, religion is important to the vast majority of Indians, including many who hesitate to let it be known for fear of being thought uncool, especially because many Westerners see it that way. Indians generally love their temples and don’t like them to be treated disrespectfully.

Aside from going to temples, many people think it’s fine for women to go around in bikinis and skimpy shorts and halter tops in Goa because “everyone does it”. I disagree. The majority of locals don’t dress like that, do they? No matter where you are in India, there are always people—though they may be in the background—who will be offended. The attitude that “it’s their problem if they don’t like what I’m wearing” is completely inappropriate. As guests in another country, it’s important respect the culture, which in this case happens to be one that does not give the highest importance to individual expression—and it’s not our job to try to change it. Anyway, if you don’t give respect, you certainly won’t get it back.

Not incidentally, wearing skimpy clothes in India is almost universally regarded as a sign that you are available for sex, even if you are with your partner. So unless you are out looking for sex and don’t care who it’s with, don’t advertise that you are. In a country where sexual opportunities for unmarried men are extremely limited, it’s really unfair (and sometimes dangerous) to flaunt your assets and get them excited if you aren’t willing to play.

This is what I wrote in my book, Enjoying India: The Essential Handbook: “. . . the reality is that men do get easily aroused, and they don’t always manage to control their urges. Since in India there are few legitimate opportunities for sex outside of marriage, men all too commonly feel extreme sexual pressure and frustration, so it is foolish to do anything that will inflame these feelings. Because the society is so conservative, Indian men are easily aroused by modes of dress and behaviors that are not considered even slightly provocative in the West. The trouble is that if a man gets aroused by the way you dress or act, it’s not just his problem; it’s your problem if he treats you like a prostitute because he thinks you’re inviting sex when you aren’t—and it can be an extremely dangerous problem indeed if he loses control and assaults you.” [This is copyrighted, but you are welcome to share it or post it on other forums or blogs as long as you use the whole thing and quote the source.] I know many people don’t want to believe this, but what to say? Anyway, I’m diverging from the main point here, which is about respecting the culture.

In any case, modest swimsuits are far more appropriate than bikinis—and if you aren’t actually in the water swimming, then it’s best to cover up a bit. A sarong and T-shirt or light shawl will do just fine for hanging out on the beach. In town or village, it’s important to be a bit more dressed.

There was also an article in the same paper that reported a violent protest against the government giving aid to English-medium schools, which is another indication that Goans are not altogether happy with foreign influences. They want their children to be studying in Konkani (the local language) or Hindi.

It’s well-known that certain places in Goa have a heavy drug culture, and there’s really no getting around the fact that visitors who come mainly for drugs and rave parties tend to be so focussed on their own pleasure that they are often a bit deficient in cultural sensitivity. Apart from bringing an influx of insensitive tourists, the drug scene has inevitably brought with it an increase in crime and corruption. Also, most locals really don’t want their children getting involved in the drug scene. So it’s hardly surprising that Goans are rather fed up with the whole foreign drug culture, no matter how much money it brings into the local economy.

All in all, respecting other cultures and religions shows that you are not suffering from some insecurity about your own. Now that’s really cool.

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