Coming from Singapore, it is a common sight to see Indians eating with their hands. Growing up I was taught to respect different cultures, and somehow never really questioned the different practices I was used to seeing. I decided to look into the reasons behind eating with hands — in other words, the etiquette of Indian dining, with a focus on hands.
The practice varies with different regions and castes in India; Brahmins and the southerners are stricter when it comes to eating with hands (Indian Tour 2016). They customarily eat with only their right hand, for two reasons. First and foremost, the right hand is used for clean things, and the left hand for filthy things such as cleaning feet. In addition, the left hand is kept dry to for serving and passing food and drinks around. They wash their hands thoroughly prior to, and after, dining. Eating with hands has various historical and cultural premises, as well as health benefits.
The practice of eating with hands started from Vedic times, based on Ayurvedic belief that our bodies are in sync with elements of nature. The Vedic prayer goes, “Karagre vasate Laksmih karamule Sarasvati Karamadhye tu Govindah prabhate karadarsanam”, which means, “On the tips of my fingers is Goddess Laksmi, on the base of my fingers is Goddess Sarasvati, in the middle of my fingers is Lord Govinda. In this manner, I look at my hands” (Tiwari 2014). The humoral system attributes our fingers to five elements:
– thumb: space
– forefinger: air
– mid-finger: fire
– ring finger: water
– pinky finger: earth
Kangulah mudra is taking food with our fingers thumb, forefinger and mid-finger (Tiwari 2014), and with palm facing upwards. There are other ways of eating with different variations of our fingers. In all these ways, we create a physical and spiritual connection with our food and their origins.
Intentions aside, eating with hands has its benefits.
Firstly, it has health benefits.
1. Our hands have good bacteria, which will aid digestion and fight microbes.
2. In addition to good bacteria, eating with our hands also send sensory signals to our digestive systems, releasing digestive juices and enzymes that will help with digestion (True Ayurveda 2012).
Secondly, eating with our hands promotes mindful eating — it is a sensory experience that will allow us to feel the textures of our food, heightening our senses and establishing a more sensual connection with our foods. Moreover, by sensing the temperature of the food, one can decide if it is the right temperature to eat, suited to one’s taste. Eating hot foods with utensils may burn the tongue.
In an interview featured on Quartz, eating with our hands can also evoke an alchemy of emotions. A 25 year old Bengali-American interviewee revealed, “When I go to mom’s house, I always ask her to feed me with her hands because I miss her. It’s the same curry but nothing tastes better!” (Melwani, 2015) Eating with hands does not only establish a more corporeal experience with our foods, it also builds an emotional connection between those we feed and share food with.
In all, the act of eating with hands is spiritual feasting. As the Indian saying goes, “eating food with your hands feeds not only the body but also the mind and the spirit” (Choate 2015).
1. Choate, A. 2015. Why Do Indians Eat With Their Hands?. Patheos (available on-line: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whitehindu/2015/04/why-do-indians-eat-with-their-hands/).
2. Cultural Hints and Etiquette 2016. India Tour (available on-line: http://indiatour.dadaksa.com/etiquette.htm).
3. Eating with your Hands 2012. True Ayurveda (available on-line: https://trueayurveda.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/eating-with-your-hands/).
4. Melwani, L. 2015. Why have Indian-Americans lost the art of eating with their hands?. Quartz (available on-line: https://qz.com/395943/why-have-indian-americans-lost-the-art-of-eating-with-their-hands/).
5. Patel, R. 2012. Vedic wisdom behind eating with your hands. Hindu Human Rights (available on-line: http://www.hinduhumanrights.info/vedic-wisdom-behind-eating-with-your-hands/).
6. Tiwari, B. 2014. The Vedic Science behind Eating With Your hands. Sanskriti Magazine (available on-line: http://www.sanskritimagazine.com/vedic_science/the-vedic-science-behind-eating-with-your-hands/).