It can seem magical to run off to an ashram a-la Eat Pray Love or to âfind yourselfâ. India is a country of incredible diversity, unique experiences, delicious food, and rich ancient culture. But it can also be scary.
The first time I travelled to India, I was told always to wear dark sunglasses and never to look a man in the eye, as that was seen as an invitation for sex. What?! While that may have been true at some point, in my experience it is not.
So if youâve dreamed of visiting the holy sites and temples of India, or exploring the high Himalayas, you can safely do it without looking at your feet the whole time.
That is not to say that India is all spiritual awakening and universal mysteries. It can also be a place to pick up parasites, be treated terribly, and find yourself in an unsafe situation. The capital, Delhi, made headlines a few years ago for several gang rape events on public buses. I am not writing this to scare you, but to warn you to avoid these pitfalls.
There are posts helping women travel alone in places like Spain or Italy. These places are relatively simple. The formula is: donât walk where there are not families of locals, especially at night, and donât get so drunk you cannot function. Be alert and donât do something you wouldnât do at home. You will be ok.
How to Travel in India as a Solo Female Traveler
- 1 Indian Culture Tips
- 2 Why you will love India
- 3 Culture around women
- 4 Practical Steps
- 5 General India Tips
- 6 Final thoughts
Indian Culture Tips
India is more complex. Culturally, women are seen, on the one hand, as Divine. And, on the other hand, women are seen as less-than-capable, inferior, and sometimes impure.Â How can women be both? And how can you function in a society like this?
Why you will love India
Before discussing the complexities of modern Indian society, you should remember all the incredible opportunities that India has. First, India has thousands of ancient spiritual sites and temples of great spiritual power. This includes over 60 major temples dedicated to the feminine form of the Divine.
India also has a huge variety of climate conditions, geography, and natural diversity. You can see tigers and elephants the jungle, ride camels through a desert, and hike in the snowy mountain peaks. You can see a valley filled with millions of wildflowers in spring, and visit virgin beaches by yourself. There is so much to explore.
Culture around women
A few years ago, I heard from a friend about the daughter of one of the biggest businessmen in India. She was terrified to get married because she didnât have correct sex information, and had heard many horror stories of abusive husbands, painful sex, and unkind mothers-and-fathers-in-law. She preferred to marry her childhood friend, who she did not love, because at least she knew she would be safe.
Even in the wealthiest and most modern families in the big cities of India, it is not uncommon for a womanâs family to arrange her marriage and for her to have very little, if any, say in it. It is also not uncommon for the newly married couple to live with the new husbandâs parents and extended family. There are big cultural pressures for both.
This story is an illustration of the cultural differences you will contend with traveling as a single woman in India. But you can absolutely do it safely, and comfortably!
When you arrive alone in India as a single woman, you are automatically seen as an anomaly. Add the fact that women from western cultures are seen as âlooseâ and unscrupulous, and you need to be extra careful to show your respect for their culture, and protect yourself so you are comfortable.
While looks can be deceiving, in India, looks mean a lot. Respect the dress of the culture. In Delhi or Mumbai you will see women in jeans and western tops, but get outside of the big cities, and you will see women wearing traditional salwar kameez suits or saris. Sometimes in more modern areas you will see long tops over jeans, especially on younger girls.
Take note of what the women around you are wearing and choose something appropriate. This is not the time to try out your new cutoff shorts or tube top. In general, cover your shoulders, your legs, and your hips with two layers (pants and top).
This is a great place to take advantage of the many beautiful prints, high quality fabrics and beautiful embroidery that can be purchased for a small amount while you are in India. Long kurta-style tops are becoming popular in the west, so you can even plan to bring home some as gifts.
The dress code becomes stricter if you plan to go to temples. You should choose something that respects the culture, such as a salwar kameez, or even ask a local friend to help you wear a sari. A simple shawl will help you keep covered. In some temples women cover their heads, although in most they do not. Be alert and follow their lead.
Indian women rarely go anywhere alone. They are often escorted by a male relative, or move in big groups of friends, family, and servants. As much as you can, use the same system.
If you meet other female travels, or other westerners, join them. Make friends with local Indian women and ask them to join you on activities. There is safety in numbers, and this is especially true of women in India. Find a buddy, or group of people to move around with.
India is not known for its night life. Other than weddings, by 9 or 10 pm everyone is in bed. The days start early, but the nights are short.
The horror stories of rape in India mostly happen at night for one simple reason: there is no one else around. On top of that, it is when men tend to get drunk and lose their inhibitions.
If you can, stay in your hotel or accommodation after dark. If that is not an option, take a car with a driver. Have the driver wait for you right outside where you have to go. Drivers, especially of well-known car hire services, want to maintain their reputation and will help you. If you can, go with one or more other people to make use of the safety in numbers.
Never take the subway or buses at night, especially in big cities. Overnight trains are the exception, but weâll get to that in a moment.
Interaction with men
In India, other than in professional business or family settings, men and women do not interact. They move in separate groups, they do separate activities. They even go through separate security lines at the airport.
Know this and respect it. The unwritten ârulesâ of the culture are different, and this is for your safety.
Never spend time alone in a room with a man. Even in the case of a business transaction, shopping, or with a Pandit. It is widely assumed, especially for spiritual men, that if a woman is alone with a man in a room, he can take advantage of her. Itâs like those are the ârulesâ. Know the ârulesâ and donât put yourself in that situation.
Trains are a great way to travel inexpensively across India. They can also reach destinations without direct flights. As a woman traveling alone on the train, the best advice is to make friends. Usually a family will embrace you and you will become part of their group for the trip. Indian people can also be very warm and welcoming.
In general, Iâd recommend booking 2AC or 3AC class. These are comfortable, higher classes (and cost $1-2 more), but are still open so you are not in a closed room with 3 men, as is often the case in 1AC. You will have a bed/bench you can lie or sit on, and can make friends with your neighbors! This is also where more middle class Indian families travel. You will most likely be surrounded by families and children.
Temples and Ashrams
If you enter an ashram, they will orient you to their rules and customs. Many are accustomed to cater to westerners and have adapted. If not, ask what is appropriate, and keep asking. They will be thrilled to guide you.
For temples, you should leave your shoes outside the temple. Just try to remember where you left them! For temple visits I like to wear a pair of cheap flip-flops both because they will get very dirty and because if they are lost or stolen, it is not a big deal. Also, cheap flip-flops rarely get stolen.
For clothing, choose a salwar kameez with a scarf called a chuni. Or have someone help you wear a sari. However, the most important accessory for a temple is an attitude of respect and reverence.
Jewelry and valuables
Indians love bling, which you will see as soon as you land. There are loud sounds, bright lights, and intricately decorated clothing. The more ostentatious and showy, the better. There is bling everywhere.
There are also different rules about stealing, and such a vast gap between the wealthy and the poor, that stealing is not uncommon. I generally avoid bringing anything valuable, other than my computer, phone, and camera, to India. Skip the real jewelry and pick up some fabulous costume jewelry on your trip.
The same goes for anything that is delicate or valuable: your motherâs cashmere sweater will get filthy and possibly attract bugs, and your favorite silk pants may not make it home. Instead of your favorite journal, inherited from your Grandpa, bring a simple notebook. Very little I bring to India is ever the same by the time I leave.
And remember that you can (with the right budget) get some of the most beautiful silk, cashmere, and jewelry in the world in India!
General India Tips
For a full list of general India tips, you can click here. Be sure to actually read them, as they will make your trip so much easier. But the basic principles are: stay alert; donât assume something will work because it works at home; and never, ever drink the tap water.
I love India and will always consider it one of my homes. For spirituality, there is nowhere better in the world. To truly touch and shake your heart and soul, there is nowhere like India. The spirituality reverberates in the land and whispers on the breeze. With these tips, you can safely enjoy all that this incredible, spiritual country has to offer.
Namaste, as they say in India,
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