I never really consciously thought about my hands or what they were doing on a daily basis until I arrived in Nepal. How many of us do really? Well, I knew I was right-handed and wore watches on my left hand like everyone else, but that’s where the distinction ended for me. How I used them (to drive, eat, carry things, etc) was simple a matter of what needed to be done and which hand was simply closer.
Turns out which hand you use in Nepali culture is kind of a big deal. You don’t want to use the wrong hand or it might offend the more traditional Nepalis who hold certain beliefs towards each hand.
Basically, the left hand is considered “polluted” and you should be careful not to offer it to someone as it would be taken as an insult. Maybe the easiest way to understand why comes from the fact that most Nepalis do not use toilet paper or tissues (which they find unhygenic) so that’s where the left hand comes in for – you know – washing certain body parts with. So naturally, there’s a sanitary association there for why you wouldn’t want to do important or social things with it.
The right hand is the one you should use to give someone something with, to pay or to receive with. Lightly touching your right elbow with your left hand while giving or receiving with your right hand gives the act a higher value. It shows a humbleness and respect towards the other person. This is similar to the Nepali use of “Namaskar” instead of “Namaste” when addressing elders or people of high respect.
You also use the right hand there to eat with. It was interesting to see that this consciousness is reflected in other things, such as in painting their nails. I was staying with a family that had two little girls who changed their nail colors almost daily (like most little girls their age) but one day I noticed they never painted the fingers on the right hand. When I asked them why, they explained that they weren’t allowed to by their parents as it was the “clean” hand for eating. Interesting, huh?
Although this custom might sound bizarre to the outsider, it is something to be mindful of while visiting the country. It took me a while to get used to it (hopefully not offending too many locals in the process) but it’s a little thing that the Nepali appreciate even if you are a foreigner.