Another traveler, Sarah McDonald, a 30-year-old geologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, decided to buy a ticket for a wedding during her 2019 backpacking trip in India with a friend. Ms. McDonald recalled getting “called out” for not wearing a sari at one ceremony that they were told to do so for.
“We were backpacking, so there was sort of no way that we were going to be able to get these tailored, beautiful gowns for the wedding,” she said. “We tried to buy saris, but when we were in our rooms trying to put them on, we couldn’t make it work. It’s a bit complicated. So we wore flowy skirts and pants that had some decorative, Indian-style embellishments.”
Ms. McDonald said she didn’t feel any concern about coming into a traditional, sacred event as an outsider. “There were a lot of eyes on us, because we definitely stood out,” she said. “But I didn’t really feel anxious about breaking any customs or disrespecting any religious rituals.”
In interviews, some travelers referred to traditional clothing as “costumes” and religious ceremonies as “Bollywood performances.” While the general absence of cultural sensitivity often occurs out of ignorance, Dr. Bhandari said that “race and ethnic identities can lend a sense of superiority and confidence to ‘experience’ someone else’s celebration.”
Rochona Majumdar, a professor of South Asian studies at the University of Chicago, added that cultural experiences are often packaged to be consumed quickly. “There’s a certain entitlement here,” she said.
But another issue that arises, Dr. Majumdar said, is a “flattening out of Indian culture.” She added, “it’s a very big country, and weddings aren’t held in the same way everywhere.” She added, “For example, where I’m from in Bengal, people typically don’t dance in their weddings, and yet now you have a standard model of what an Indian wedding is, and it looks very much like watching Bollywood.”