Photo credit: Dhyanji (Creative Commons license)

Most visitors to India learn the greeting namaste, which can be used both for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. It’s a word that’s understood throughout most of India, even where it’s not used by the locals.

Simple as it is, it’s often mispronounced by visitors, so here’s a little lesson.

The a’s in namaste are pronounced like the u in ‘number’ or in ‘us’. The emphasis is on the second and third syllables, with the ste—which is pronounced exactly like ‘stay’—having the vowel drawn out.

Namaskaar is a similar greeting, though it’s one that you probably won’t hear as often, especially in tourist places. The first two syllables are the same, and the final syllable is pronounced just like the English word, ‘scar.’

Namaskar and namaste are deeply meaningful in Indian culture and tradition. Many people use the two words interchangeably, though there are subtle differences. Namaste is often used when greeting one person or children, while namaskaar is used when greeting a group or respected elders. Namaskaar is more formal, and conveys a higher measure of respect. It is an acknowledgement of the universal Divine that resides in each person.

Both are properly accompanied by the greeting gesture in which palms are pressed together at the level of the heart (or higher), with the fingers pointing up, and with a very slight bow. The name of this gesture is also namaskaara, which is the original Sanskrit word from which both words are derived.

Namaste is also the usual greeting in Nepal. It’s also common in other parts of Asia.

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