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Rural Tamil Nadu (Prerequisites: Basic India and Intermediate India)

I've been spending about a week touring some of the smaller towns and villages in Tamil Nadu, with the kind guidance of some Jesuit brothers with the Caussanel Foundation for Children and Aging (http://www.littleshope.org). How that came about is a long story, but it was a very interesting trip (and actually, I've been taken such care of that I probably wouldn't have needed any prerequisites at all). So here's some of what I found there:

There is no winter in Tamil Nadu, not what I call winter. This is really getting into the tropical regions, and it's still sweaty hot whenever the sun's out. This is reflected in differences in house construction: a lot of small dwellings (and not only the poorest temporary shacks) are built partly of flats made of woven palm leaves, and the roofs are thatched with palm leaves.

It's strange to be out away from the cities; I've gotten so used to _Bos urbanus_ that it was rather startling to see a bunch of cows grazing in a field. I found myself wondering how they got so far out here and what they could find to eat, with nobody to give them cucumber peelings and old chapattis. There's a lot of livestock herding, from the village woman hauling along three goats-on-a-rope to the kids smacking a couple dozen cows across the road with small sticks.

Clothes are a little different here; in the south men mostly wear the lungi (when they're not in Western-style trousers or even shorts), a sort of simplified dhoti or sarong that's wrapped and tied around the waist. It's usually kilted up into a sort of short skirt with the hem lifted and tied over the waistband to form a second layer. (The torso's covered with a Western-style shirt or T-shirt or tank top, or a more traditional scarf/shawl thing, or nothing.) The fashion dictate that cholis (sari blouses) must match or coordinate with the sari is of less concern to villagers (many of whom doubtless don't have the luxury of owning lots of different coordinating pieces), and some of the resulting combinations would make an urban lady scream. (The most striking examples I saw were a vivid rainbow-tie-dyed choli with a cotton "ethnic print" sari in earth tones, and a shiny iridescent pink satin choli with a villager-style cotton sari in bright orange and white. Trust me, they didn't go.) Some of the most traditional (or poorest) village women (usually elderly) don't wear the choli at all. Similarly, some old village men wear a traditional (tribal costume?) loincloth instead of a lungi, just a flap in front and a flap in back.

You don't get any points for knowing or speaking Hindi in Tamil Nadu (though it came in quite handy in Bangalore where they deal with a lot of north Indian as well as foreign travelers). In fact, I hardly saw any nagari (northern script) on signs or advertisements the whole time I was there: instead, there were billboards apparently boosting the use of Tamil (a member of the Dravidian language family that is non-Indo-European and not grammatically related to Sanskrit or Hindi and other north Indian languages), since the only sentence on them I could read said in English "Long Live Classical Divine Tamil". Tamils are extremely proud of their own ancient culture and not very receptive to what they consider the encroachment of northern ways masquerading as "pan-Indian". I bet you could stop a depressed Tamil in the act of committing suicide by telling him that suicide is a north Indian custom that the BJP thinks should be adopted throughout the country. If the "Hindi-imperialists" are promoting it, the Tamils want no part of it; for instance, unlike most of the southern states, they have refused to make Hindi instruction mandatory as a second language in schools. The advantage for videshi travelers, of course, is that consequently the most important second language is English, and almost everybody speaks at least a little of it.

—— Kim Plofker
2003-12-29 02:18:21


       
 
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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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