February 11, 2013

Indian Observations

We returned from South India over a week ago now and have finally recovered from jetlag. So I've gathered my thoughts on our trip and put together my observations...

Our route in South India

Our itinerary: We started in Mumbai, then flew south to Madurai. In Madurai we met our awesome driver Rony, and drove about two hours to Karakkudi in the Chettinad countryside. Next we circled back to Madurai for a couple of days. Then we drove four hours out of Tamil Nadu and into Kumily in the state of Kerala. After a couple of days there we drove another four hours to Alleppy for a night on the backwaters. The next day we drove 1.5 hours to Kochi for our final night/day.

See my previous post on Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai.

These are my observations as a tourist in South India. I understand that the South is quite different from the North, where Indians say that life is much more difficult. The South benefits from thriving agriculture and the IT industry.

People are fastidious about their appearance. Even in dusty, smoggy streets full of animals and trash, nearly every person is wearing a pressed sari or shirt. Even in very rural areas. For the most part women are perfectly manicured and adorned- plaited, shiny hair with flowers in it, gold jewelry, bindis and blessing on their foreheads. Babies even wear gold bangles on their wrists and ankles. And no two saris are alike! It's enchanting. This pride in appearance made me feel constantly shabby!

The emerging middle class has made a dramatic impact. Our hilarious guide in Madurai told us that Indians want three things: 1) An American salary, 2) An Indian wife, and 3) Chinese food. The general wealth in India is really new. People aspire to own iPhones (if they don't already), there are helmet laws, life insurance advertisements, MRI centers, and smoking is outlawed in public spaces. India is much, much more developed than I thought it would be, and is dramatically more modern than say, Burma, or even Egypt or Vietnam. I estimate that 30-50% of the guests of the hotels we stayed at were Indian.

That said, for all of the wealth the IT boom in Bengaluru has brought to South India, some people we spoke to had deep resentment for the indulgence of the lifestyle of these nouveau riche. We heard a lot of talk about the promiscuity, fatness, "love" marriages, and irresponsible decadence of that crowd. Overall India is a very conservative country and while the economic boon of the IT industry has benefited the country tremendously, the people actually working within it are not respected for their lifestyles.

Catholicism is for wimps. I went to parochial school and was subjected to the ritual and drama of the Catholic church, which apart from Mormonism, is probably the most detached from reality major religion in the west. No religion I've ever witnessed however, not in rural Thailand or Vietnam, or Turkey or Egypt or Morocco, can even touch the wild, whimsical, wonderful wackiness of Hinduism.

Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai
Parade at Meenakshi temple in Madurai

Shrine at Meenakshi temple in Madurai

Meenaksi tower
another god
At Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai
Partition may be the roots of problems in India. In 1947 India gained independence from Britain. Despite Mohandas Ghandi's deep concerns, India was divided ("partitioned") into states according to religion. Each state has its own religious style and its own language. While perhaps the governors responsible for this intended for citizens live in communities of those with common values, this division seems to have created contentious relationships within the country. We heard people talk about one another- and differences were immediately clear when we traveled from the state of Tamil Nadu, which is deeply religious and rural, to Kerala, where Christianity seems more common. I'm no scholar so that's all I am going to write about this.

Trash is a major issue. This may be one of the major hurdles India faces as it aspires to become a modern nation. For all the pride in personal appearance in homes and shops, the public spaces are a wreck. Not just streets; beaches, parks, and rivers have mountains of trash. Many times we saw people simply discard plastic bags and paper cups and plates directly on to the roadside. It's a tragedy and there is a lot of education to be done. Hopefully, the government - and the people - begin to address this unfortunate issue.

Color. The USA is so beige. Why not have fireworks for an ear piercing ceremony or paint a cow hot pink?

Market in Madurai

Flowers garlands in Madurai

Chettinad mansions
Flower market in Madurai

Pineapples in Mumbai

Stayed tuned for future posts, including my thoughts on the role of women in India, some special hotel finds, and the goodies I brought back.

Me, happy in Madurai


  1. Great post as always! Funny you say the US is so beige. Usually that's how Joe and I describe a typical american diet: a beige plate of fried food, bread, and cereals. India sounds great!

    1. Thanks Camille! I really appreciate that you read and comment! XOXO