Why in India they touch the feet of their elders?
Be careful where you put your feet in India!
For instance, when you are sitting, you must not point your feet towards others, especially if they are old.
Or, one of the worst insults you can do to a Hindu is to throw a shoe in his face (I just found that out and find it good to know!). Walking on a guy while trying to climb onto a train berth also works quite also... (this I have tested for you! At the same time I am not sure any of my compatriots would like it too much either!)
In fact, when a Hindu touches your foot or shoe by accident, he makes a weird gesture (reaching out to your foot and then to his heart or his chin): his way to apologize. A question of education. Like when some people apologize after sneezing...
Morality: guys, avoid playing footsie under the table with a girl to hit on her!
You must remove your shoes at the temple (always) and in houses (in general). It’s quite an easy operation because many Indians wear open shoes, which also reduces foot odors...
And what about foot mycosis? I remember how I laughed when a French friend got shit scared of catching some because he was forced to walk in the puddles in flip-flops (monsoon obliges). I had never thought of it! What makes me laugh even more is discovering, by doing some research, right now, I learn that the foot fungus and other dermatophytes, are a major health problem in tropical countries like India, with sometimes risks of epidemic. When I think about the floor of that temple filled of rat piss and rain water! At the same time it is not so much of a surprise when you think about all the stray dogs with scabies. Or about all these people delousing each other on the sidewalks. But no need to panic: I never caught any mycosis in seven years!
If you want to shock an Indian you can put your feet on a book, a journal, a computer, a piece of paper. It is just like if you stamped on the goddess of knowledge, Saraswati, who is embodied in all these objects. You may be wondering how one ends up with his feet on a book but when you study very late every night, you often end up instinctively with your feet on your desk as it eases blood circulation.
Similarly apparently Hindus should not blow on fire. Yeah it would be like blowing on the face of the God of fire, Agni. Not very polite is it?? That said I have seen many people blowing birthday candles!
The feet symbolism dates back to the Vedic time (the Vedas being texts of the fifteenth century BC) where the universe was the body of the God: there was a top and a bottom. The pure and the impure. Feet are at the bottom and therefore unclean, impure.
Any rule has an exception. Obviously. When it comes to feet, the exception is the feet of the gods, the spiritual leaders and the elders which are not dirty. So it's not gross to touch them; it is even a sign of respect. It is a gesture made on many occasions: a departure or return from traveling, a wedding, a festival, a religious ceremony etc. In the old times children had to touch the feet of their parents when going to bed and getting up.
My ex-favorite Indian had explained to me that in the Kerala tradition the eldest brother of the bride had to wash the feet of the groom, as a sign of respect.
When you bend to touch the feet of an elderly person he usually doesn’t let you finish your gesture and replies by touching your forehead and blessing you with wishes of long life, prosperity and wealth.
This custom seems to be very very old since it is mentioned in the Mahabharata (an epic that is not dated but probably more than two thousand years old) where it is written “touching the feet of the mother, father, teachers and elders with devotion and serving them until they are content and give their blessing, is what makes a person great and strong”.
It does not really explain the origin of the gesture. But I found an explanation I quite like. When you do yoga you are taught some notions of energy circulation. It is thus thought that by touching the feet of others we absorb their energy and in turn by placing their hand on our forehead they allow the energy to move from the hand to the head.
http://www.iloveindia.com/indian-traditions/touching-feet.html; http://www.window2india.com/cms/admin/article.jsp?aid=5991; http://www.volunteeringinindia.org/etiquette-and-customs.htm; http://www.sanskrit.org/www/Hindu%20Primer/feetsymbolism.html