Rice flour decoration in Chennai
My family spent almost three months in India last year as we traveled around the world. Most of that time was in the state of Rajasthan, though we also saw the far northeast as we entered from Myanmar, and Darjeeling, and we briefly visited Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi. The whole time, I never felt we were seeing all of India- not even close. Our friends had told us about the south, and it sounded wonderful but we knew we would not be able to visit there this time. When this opportunity presented itself I was excited and curious about another region of this dense and multifaceted country. What would be the same? What would be different?
Flowers in their hair Garlands of fresh flowers are everywhere I went in north and south India. Streetside vendors use string to make these, which are used in decorations for shrines and car rear view mirrors. In south India, I saw them in women’s hair as well. They are so pretty and the popular chains of white jasmine blossoms smell wonderful. These women were at the beach in Chennai:
Rice flour designs The rice patterns on people’s doorsteps are another thing I don’t remember seeing in the north. MB says that is a spiritual practice considered to honor the deities, in part by feeding the ants. People wash the area at the doorstep then drizzle the powder made from rice in beautiful patterns. The one below is from a neighbor inside MB’s apartment building.
Toilets and what is clean There are “wet” and “dry” toilets in many public restrooms. MB explained that some people consider moisture to be connected to cleanliness and therefore prefer a wet toilet seat. Of course to westerners like me, a wet toilet seat is avoided because it is assumed to be dirty. MB said that this wet=clean idea extends to dishes and that people will actually sprinkle water on a clean, dry dish before using it for serving food. We who wish to avoid ingesting unpurified tap water would rather use a dry dish. It was a new idea for me. I considered that the desert environment of Rajasthan, where I saw women washing dishes with sand, would not support this standard of wetness signaling cleanliness.
Have you eaten breakfast/lunch? We heard this often. It means “how are you?”. I’m glad MB explained this one because it seemed strange that people kept asking us that. Another curious question: What is your good name? And another: to what country do you belong? Believe me, I wonder about that last one myself sometimes! We heard these a lot, and if the person spoke English especially well, they often would ask about our salaries. There is no taboo about discussing money in India like there is in the US.
Menswear I was surprised that south India men wore sarong style garments. We had seen the blousy shorts called dhoti in north India, but almost exclusively white and paired with a loose white shirt and white turban, and always on older men. Here in south India, there were many fabrics, knee length and puffy or ankle length and smooth. MB and I caught glimpses of the shorts they seem to wear underneath.
They don’t play Holi. We did happen on a Holi themed birthday party, more on that later, but that was the exception. I was surprised since Pushkar basically shut down for a day so people could play Holi in the streets, and we saw the Holi powder for sale in Jaipur weeks before the big day. Everywhere we went last year in north India, people were talking about Holi and asking us to play. Not so in the south, though of course they do have many festivals of their own. MB described how most of her first few months in Chennai seemed to be one long festival with parades and temple music late into the nights.
Where’s the chai? I missed the Jaipur chai seller; there didn’t seem to be one in the Velachery neighborhood of Chennai. In fact, people drink coffee! As for food, I had plenty of northern India food, and international things like Thai and Italian at great restaurants but not so much street food, and I’m sad to say I didn’t have any dosas, the South Indian specialty I enjoyed in the north. But the food was great, and inexpensive, and we had amazing meals.