Why Indians Drink Without Touching Lips to the Cup or Bottle

The first time I actually saw someone doing it, it looked strange but I didn’t think too much about it.  I just assumed it was a one-off sort of thing.  But like many things I think about India, man was I wrong.  It’s actually something that I would start to see in action on the streets, at coffee houses and restaurants, by my mates in and around town and at work.  But there is one particular moment that stands out and actually inspired me to finally ask, “What was the deal with Indians and this apparent drinking problem?”

I was sat with my driver Shiva at the truck stop about two hours outside of Bangalore on the way Chennai in Krishna Gree.  Shiva is vegetarian so we ate at the only vegetarian truck stop I had ever seen in my life up to that point (in the U.S. and Europe a veg truck stop wouldn’t fly for sure!).  We had ordered and were awaiting our dinner when all of a sudden a really scrappy looking man walked into the restaurant, checked out the tables closest to the door, selected ours and walked up.  I looked up with raised eyebrows at first and then probably a gaping mouth after a few seconds.  Our table had a pitcher of water and 4 metal cups sitting on it (they all did).  He reached down and picked up one of the metal cups sat on our table, picked up the pitcher of water, poured himself a cup full of water and then drank it.  But he didn’t drink it like I would, by placing my lips on the cup and tipping back the cup little by little.  Noooo!  Our new friend threw back his head, lifted the metal cup up so that it hovered above and NEAR his mouth and then proceeded to pour the water into his mouth from a distance of about a 2-3 centimetres away.  (Read about the road trip and the truck stop here)

It was CRAZY!  Partly because it felt like our table and our “stuff” was invaded by someone without our permission.  Also, partly because it seemed like the guy had a drinking problem.  I mean, I’ve never seen anyone drink that way at a restaurant before.  He finished his cup of water, looked down at me with a curious look and then marched back out the main entrance again.  Seriously… WTF?  I looked at Shiva and he could see my amazement so he started right up and told me, “This is normal, madam, it’s okay.  The water is community, it’s for everyone.”  He also explained that since the water is community that people won’t touch their lips to the cups to avoid germs.

The thing is, I know that if I had tried that exact same move that I would have spilled water all over me and the table probably.  I’ve never tried to aim and shoot water into my mouth like that before and can’t think of a reason or situation where I’d even want to try really – aside now just for the fun of it.  If it were me, I guess I just wouldn’t drink from those glasses.  But that’s not the way things are in India in all scenarios.  There ARE community glasses and perfect strangers do share things at times that I would never have imagined – like the cups on a dining table at a restaurant.

Since that funny night I’ve witnessed the “aim and pour” drinking technique loads of times.  Sometimes it’s in a car with my mates and they are drinking water from their own bottle.  Other times it’s at work or at the fast food place I adore that serves masala dosa (check it out here!  I cooked in a typical Indian restaurant making dosas!).

Such different techniques …. yet same fabulous end result 🙂

Anyway, it still looks strange to me for whatever reason.  My curiosity finally peeked so I started asking around about “why” my friends and people in general poured their water into their mouthes from a distance instead of drinking it like I do.  Were they afraid they would catch cooties?  Was it the cool way to drink?  Their answers varied, as diverse answers always do!  Some of my friends had funny stories dating back to when they were kids, while others gave me more logical ‘adult’ answers.  Here are my favourite answers:

  • The tops of bottles can be dirty so this is the safest way to avoid germs
  • My Mum used to say “Don’t kiss the bottle, it’s not a frog!”
  • If my parents caught me drinking with my lips on a cup or bottle they would smack the back of my head (DANG! I guess I would stop too if my mom whacked me every time I did something!)
  • It depends.  If it’s just me then I will sip as I wish but if there are more people drinking from the same cup or bottle then I won’t.  Unless they are really, really good friends

Okay, okay I get it.  But it’s still strange to me.  In the U.S. we’ll kiss hello to friends and family on the lips.  In Spain we two-kiss people every day, even in business (read all about kissing here).  I can remember sharing bottles and cups of mixed drinks and beer with friends freely since I was in high school.  Even today me and my friends and my family will happily share cups or bottles or straws in drinks or try food off someone else’s forks, etc etc… I wouldn’t think twice about that actually.  And I would certainly never strategically pour water to drink out of my own water bottle, which is something I see my mates and driver do with their own water bottles all the time.

My guess is that these habits were adopted in the past to combat some health concerns.  Maybe there was inconsistent proper sterilization of bottles, and that it’s probably really not necessary to pour water from bottles anymore.  Please do me a favour and share your personal story or insight as I would love to have a more definitive idea about why this practice is so alive and well today.

XOXO Angela

© 2011 Angela Carson

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Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 32 countries on 4 continents, residing in 7 of them (currently Kuala Lumpur is my home). By day I'm a digital nomad and by night I'm a passionate storyteller. I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!
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28 Comments on “Why Indians Drink Without Touching Lips to the Cup or Bottle

  1. “It depends. If it’s just me then I will sip as I wish but if there are more people drinking from the same cup or bottle then I won’t. Unless they are really, really good friends” — That would be my answer too… 🙂

  2. I suck at that. My problem isn’t with the aiming(though I had half the water drip down my chest most of the time) Its with the continuous gulping of water at that angle, I just choke and spurt out. However, the reasons behind this action is mostly hygiene related.(Its the assumption that if you put your lips around the bottle and drink, there might be chances of water going back into bottle from your mouth) I rather buy my own bottle, but in certain circumstances there might not be any other options. For example at a railway station, there would be a drinking water tap with a single glass chained to the tap. If you are comparing it with social kissing, it would be like kissing a person with sweaty cheeks…I guess air kissing was invented as a result heh 🙂

  3. Ah… a question for me… This is a cultural custom practiced by 90% of indians – the term in hindi for half eaten food, shared drinks, a vessel where someone was eating from (technically if part of what was eaten is put back on the plate eg:- bones, chewed mango pickle, rinds extracted from food.) is ‘jhootha’ – literally meaning ‘pre sipped / tasted food’, another meaning of this hindi word is ‘liar’. If there is double dipping, many people do not drink / eat from the plate / glass or skirt around the double dipped area. This is the central belief behind this style of drinking – not health, cleanliness, etc.. If a glass is (suspected to be / believed to be) shared between people, they will drink in this manner.

    • Wow, love your answer… it was a fun mini cultural lesson 🙂 Double dipping is an interesting line to cross if you aren’t amongst good friendsor family… I wouldn’t like it either with strangers. Thanks for your answer “anonymous” … –angela

      • its basically all abt hygiene….this way u don’t transfer bugs from ur mouth / saliva to the other person who put his/her mouth to it….now we know that many germs can be transmitted via saliva…. in those days a scientific explanantion was not given but we would never flout the norm practised…its not at all difficult and ev…….its the same reason why we Indians don’t kiss in greeting but bring our palms in namasthe pose ….apart from the fact that we (our Higher Self)actually is supposed to greet the HIgher Self in th eother person…we don’t also normally share a bite….you’d appreciate the same sytem of drinking frm a water fountain at the airport…tho’ i found it difficult to master it initially !! wedont sip water frm a bottle even if we use d it exclusively for ourselves bcoz the bacteria frm the mouth are regurgitated , as it were , back into the bottle where they’ll multiply rapidly….

  4. BTW, i can never drink from your american water fountain…. It chills my jaw bones man !

    • ahhhhhh really? haha Well, I haven’t used one in 10 years either since I had been living in Spain until recently and they don’t use them there either. –angela

  5. When I came to India, I was also surprised by that way of drinking. But they are taught to do so from school, because in school kids get sick very fast. Anyway at work I prefer to carry my own bottle of water, I failed to learn indian way of drinking 😀

  6. Hey Ange,
    didn’t you witness the aiming the wine from the bota into the mouth t5hing in Spain? Not a big thing. Just got to open the throat and swallow, head back. And i must say that in my sojourn in the wilds of Mexico i saw the same care being taken in communal glasses and such. Except for the mescal bottle. I guess the theory being that if the germs survived mescal, they deserved to live and flourish.
    As others have noted, it is an ‘oosthi’ thing, here in India..
    When i was running a clinic here in B’luru, i’d wander down to the lunch room and shmooze with the staff. In the course of the shmoozing and in an attempt to bridge the management labor divide i hearkened back to a trick of establishing intimacy (of the socially acceptable kind) from my Indian childhood. Then, adults at family functions and the like, ate separately from the kids who were fed first. In fact the men ate in a group and then the women of the (rural) house. It was considered very common for me to wander over to where my dad and uncles were supping and be fed choice bits from their plates. Much bonding occurred.
    One day, one lunch time, i asked one of the nurses to give me a taste of something that looked delicious. Much giggling and laughter later, after i had been fed, as though a child, the morsel, labor relations improved, appreciably.
    .

    • Hi, yes I have drank wine that way and it almost always ended in disaster.. Spaniards tend to use a napkin under the mouth when doing this, they aren’t too proud to protect their clothes 🙂 angela

  7. I drink the Indian way too, even from my own bottle (was once smacked by my mother on the back of the head for putting the water bottle to my lips). Imagine all the back wash in the bottle and then the bottle sitting around in the hot climate. What a wonderful environment for all those germs to multiply! Yuk… I cringe when people here (not India) take liberties with my water bottle.

    • Wow, the smacking on the back of the head is a pretty common training technique here in India it looks like 🙂 I think only kids back wash because they don’t really have the art of drinking from a bottle mastered yet. In my opinion adults never do this unless they don’t normally drink from a bottle and aren’t used to it. Anyhooooo….thanks for commenting. Hope you’ll keep reading my blog 🙂 ange

  8. Oh Angela, by the end of your stay I hope you view differences for just what they are – “differences” and NOT problems. Everyone on the planet doesnt have to drink liquids the same way, and no, it isnt a ‘drinking problem’. That certainly isnt how we consume our alcohol.

    You’ve done a pretty good job of listing reasons why we do this,and yes, hygiene is the main issue.

    By the way, it is also a skill, and something westerners would probably enjoy having on those occassions that involve straight from the bottle vodka drinking contests. See if you can do it yourself before you diss this skill and please dont try it when you are alone – in case you choke.

    • Hi Hannah, thanks for taking the time to comment. Although I think you might mistake some of my humour (or intended humour) because I don’t see this as a problem at all, just another fun night and day difference I’ve discovered in my new home. It was just a play on the term “drinking problem” to start my story 🙂 Ohhhh, and I’ve never heard of drinking contests like that, you’ve seen more than I have…sounds disgusting eh!!!???!!!

  9. haha, wow you are very hardcore! My daughter and I (and my friends) always drink from the bottles in the fridge with our lips on them. Interesting how different things can be, isn’t it. I love it. Cheers, angela

  10. Hi, mostly it’s an Indian hygiene thing even if some of em doesn’t know why they do (its imprinted by their parents). I know… we keep things trashy, but worry about these sort of hygiene things. Remember, it’s the land wrote a book on sex long before people actually knew there are so many things in sex, but still its a taboo to talk about em. So it’s one of those sort-of.

    I do that depending on who is sitting next to me. If it’s a close friend or a family, I’d drink the usual way (with the lips on the bottle mouth, etc) and if it’s a stranger then my lips wouldn’t touch the bottle mouth.

    Mainly it’s to do with sharing the water (or sharing the same cups/bottles or possibility of sharing). I’ve seen some people French-kissing with all saliva around the mouth of the bottle while drinking and how would you share water from em (well, honestly I wouldn’t even bother asking from em).

    Sometimes we don’t drink normally (well, non-Indian normal) even if it’s from our own coz its always possible that we might share it with someone else.

    Likewise, you might have seen some houses/places have different kind of toilets (eastern) – something like a hole on the floor sort of. The same logic applies here. In western toilets lotsa people put their bum on the seat and with the eastern kinda toilets no one puts their bum on anything and hence no chance of skin diseases, etc. Also its a good work out (imagine sitting like that for some minutes, good workout for the leg muscles) and also will make sure people don’t spend too much time in the toilet 🙂

    Ok, went a bit off the topic here 🙂

    Anyhow, am preparing a list of things you might find it weird in India. Might send it to you “if I finish” em soon.

    Some of the habits that might fascinate you:
    ————————————————————————-
    when you get into a house for something good, you’d be asked to step in with your right leg first (right hand/leg for good things).
    Also your action will be offensive if you give anything to anyone using your left hand.
    Most of the people from South India (again, 4 states) don’t like anyone wearing shoes/slippers into their house and its offensive (so if you do go to anyone’s house and see a shoe rack or place next to the front door, drop your shoes unless you are told not to).

    well, the list goes on.

    Note: Btw.. things differ in each and every state. Becoming Bangalorean doesn’t mean that you’ve understood rest of India 🙂 When you travel to other states, you might encounter different stuffs that ain’t practised in Bangalore. Mostly South India kinda have common weird things (4 states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andra Pradesh).

  11. Funny, not a single mention about caste. Just google caste and the role of food in caste hierarchy.

    • No, no mention of caste because I just wrote it from my daily life experiences and didn’t research this one. I asked my buddies and driver Shiva a few questions but that was it. I saw the 24 page pdf you sent me but … it is 24 pages, haha. If you want to summarize that would be super, I’m working on a new project and not reading anything unrelated to that unfortunately. –ange

  12. In India in many religions, people are prohibited to have food/water that had been tasted by someone, it is considered as impure. I am an Indian but even I stick to drinking water by touching my lips to glass/bottle. But if there is someone around,who can’t have water coz someone did touch his lips to glass, then I adjust with the situation.

  13. Hi All,

    This being followed from their childhood, who follow their own way, that`s been taught by parents and teachers.

    BTW : I am here to know if there is any specific word in English for ” drinking water from a cup or bottle without touching lips “.

    Thanks, Kusa

  14. As beginners you can start by putting your thumb around the neck of the bottle and then rest the thumb on your lips, so that bottle does not touch your tongue/lips.

    Also I do remember reading an article where they mentioned about some kind of dye test. The put some dye on the some one’s tongue and when he drank the water by putting the mouth to bottle, some dye from tongue got back into the bottle. So its like your are spitting in your own bottle if you.

    Thanks, Bikram.

  15. Apparently, this carries over as a habit into situations where it isn’t necessary. I observed a coworker of mine pour some water into a small disposable cup (think Dixie cup although not necessarily that a specific brand) that she had just pulled from a dispenser. She proceeded to drink the water from the cup in this manner and then threw the cup away.

    The cup had not previously been used by another person nor was it ever going to be (unless someone picked it out of the garbage but that introduces its own set of considerations) but still she drank in this manner. Like you, I was bewildered by this action – enough so that I went searching and found your diary.

  16. I think it has to do with communal…for the most part (totally generalizing here), it seems that the Indian culture is all about community. My mom, who’s lived in the United States for about 37 years still drinks out of a bottle without touching her lips. She only does this when I am around and we are away from home. That’s when it dawned on me, that in a situation where people think they might have to share the water/drink they will not touch the lips as courtesy/cleanliness toward others. So now, anytime i hand over a bottle of water to my mom, and say “this is yours to keep”, she knows its ok to touch her lips to the bottle –

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