I’ve just returned from two weeks in the Tamil Nadu state of South India—mostly based in the city of Coimbatore. Sometimes you visit new countries and experience new food or see different landscapes and take back a memory or two of a wow experience. Here, nearly everything I saw and did was completely off my radar—in wondrous, interesting and perplexing ways alike. There were too many new experiences, ancient traditions and cultural practices to count—things that I’m still learning about as my trip memories wash over me. That’s the best kind of travel—the kind that changes you and makes you grow. Here are a few of the things that stood out amongst the whirlwind of things to take in. These are the five things you can’t miss in India.
Hindu temples are everywhere and not to be missed. The towers made of figurines tell stories: at the bottom are demons and animals; the middle, the story of humans; and the higher up are gods and goddesses at work and play. Inside is practically empty with the focus on the image of the deity itself and wide meditative space for the soul. When visiting, it’s respectful to wear modest clothing that covers your shoulders and legs (no spaghetti strap tops, ladies, and no shorts, guys!) To leave the dirt of the outside world behind, take off your shoes before entering or leave them in the car because you may not find them again in the sea of worshipper shoes. Once inside, you may get to witness a puja, the traditional Hindu prayer ceremony. You’ll feel like you’re going back to an ancient world (or watching the Discovery Channel in real time.) A shirtless Hindu priest wearing a simple wrap around his waist with paste or powder markings on his skin performs a series of rituals. He may bathe a representation of the deity in milk, curds, honey, butter, and water. You might see the god figure dressed in rich fabrics, adorned with jewelry and flower garlands, and anointed with sandalwood. Devotees will have come offering flowers, fruits and other food and water. Chants will echo. Bells will ring. And the scent and smoke of incense will fill the air.
During my visits, each time, the priest cracked open a coconut with a machete like knife to offer the water and its fruit. (There’s a lot of symbolism in the hard-shelled yet fleshy white coconut as an auspicious fruit that is resilient and pure.) Bananas are often offered, and sometimes sea salt or other foods. The priest lights a candle flame and waves it in circles in front of the deity. Next, he passes it around on a brass tray holding white ash and red powder. If you’d like to receive a blessing, when the priest comes your way, put both hands around the flame and waft the sacred fire’s smoke to your face. Then, take a pinch of the ash to dot your forehead with a tilak (or third eye) and follow it up with a dot of the red powder. Sometimes the priest will apply the markings for you. This process can be repeated each time you visit another temple. It’s possible to have layers and layers of tilaks on your forehead—so you can literally count your blessings as you go.
The Art of Mhendi
One of the most fun girly things I did shortly after arriving was get a mhendi—the art of henna painting on the body. You can get them on the backs of your hands, your palms, arms and feet. The temporary ink is from the henna plant and applied from a small tube quite like one a chef would use for pastry. The women artists were amazingly adept at both replicating designs we picked from Pinterest boards and creating on-the-spot designs at their whimsy. Once the designs are done, you set the “tattoos” by rubbing coconut oil over your skin and sometimes over a heat source, like a steaming pot. It’s supposed to bring the color out and make it last longer. I don’t have any real tattoos and as a clumsy athletic gal have always said I never want to scar myself on purpose. But this experience was addictive and started to make think if I did get a tattoo, a permanent mhendi wouldn’t be half bad. It was beautiful to watch getting done, fun to wear and sad when it started to fade away. It’s traditional to get done for weddings but also for festivals and holidays—plus you’ll see people on the city streets who offer to do them just as a tourist experience. And men (though less common) can get them, too!
South Indians can communicate many shades of meaning without ever uttering a word.
The much talked about head wobble, bobble, or headshake—whatever you call it—is unmistakably Indian and more prevalent in the south. Google it and you’ll find close to 100,000 results showing how this nonverbal communication is performed. There are countless analyses of what it means from respected sources like the BBC, CNN, and scholars and writers of all kinds. So, what does it mean? Many sources, even native Indians, interpret the head wobble differently but that’s because it can, in fact, mean so many different things. Sometimes it means yes, you agree. Sometimes, it’s thank you. And other times, it’s a sign of respect, acknowledgement or just good will. Whatever the case, it’s infectious and it’ll be hard not to catch yourself doing the wobble back. Kinda of brings new meaning to the Bobblehead, doesn’t it?
Non-Rules of the Road
I’ve driven in some crazy traffic. From the speed demon autostradas of Italy to the pot-hole ridden roads of Central America and the narrow seaside-mountain-carved roads of Corsica, I have been in some “oh $%/.!” kind of traffic. But South India takes the proverbial cake. Honking is so frequent, it’s almost used a courtesy that you’re coming up behind someone rather than a get-out-of-my-way signal, and traffic regulations seemed nonexistent. More often than not, our car was straddling the dotted white line, and not for a minute but for the whole trip! One day on a very early 5 a.m. drive when there were barely any other cars around, our driver was straddling the left lane and the shoulder. No traffic in sight and he picks the shoulder?! Plus, forget the annoyance of looking for a place to U-turn, Indian drivers just turn around right where they are. Nevermind if you’re now FACING on-coming traffic. If it’s more convenient, that what they do. Pass on the left. Pass on the right. Just keep passing because following behind another vehicle would make too much sense. I don’t recall a single speed limit sign, but maybe that was because my eyes were always half closed from narrowly nicking a motorcyclist, crossing pedestrian or giant, overloaded bus too wide to fit in its lane. I asked my friends could these people even have licenses. The answer? Sometimes!
The cow is a sacred animal in Hinduism and other world religions. So you’ll find many Hindus do not eat beef and cows can be seen casually ambling down city streets as if they own the place. They do, therefore, have the right of way. Those things, I can understand. But take cow dung or cow patties: now flying off Internet “shelves” from India’s online retailers. (No joke.) For some it’s a fertilizer or a source of fuel but it’s also widely used as a floor covering and disinfectant. That’s right. Cow manure has anti-bacterial properties so Indians often cover their patios and sometimes walls of their homes with cow dung mixed with lime or yellow-colored rice flour. You’ll notice in villages the walkways in front and around a home are dusty yellow. This is likely dried cow dung paste—applied regularly to “wash” the floors. It’s also thought to ward of mosquitoes and diseases harmful to humans. The only problem with nature’s best antiseptic? It still smells like cow poop.
You may have read my posts earlier this week on packing for India, and what to expect of Indian cuisine (and if not, now is a good time to get caught up)! If this blog post has got you feeling ready to experience these can’t miss sights in India for yourself, check out our discounted flight prices for students and what to do when you get there!