Dhotar, Mundu, Lungi and Spices
Although in many of the parts of India we have visited many of the locals have adopted what might be termed Western clothing, a large number of the Keralans still wear the traditional garb which is effectively a wrap worn around the waist. Initially, you might be oblivious to the differences in the garment but there are distinctive variations, each of which has its own distinctive name. After a fortnight I became proficient in spotting which of the variations someone was wearing.
The dhotar or dhoti is made of very fine cotton and is designed to run between the legs. It is normally worn as the Keralan equivalent of Sunday best, particularly at weddings and ceremonial occasions.
The mundu is made of cotton and are white or cream depending upon whether the cotton has been bleached or not. There are two forms of the mundu – a single mundu which is draped once around the waist and the double which is folded in half before being draped. I guess the double is worn when the weather is a bit chillier. Like most garments in this part of the world the preference is for the mundu to be heavily starched during the laundry process.
And the third variant is the lungi which is considered to be appropriate for casual dress or manual work. Unlike the mundu it is more colourful and is sown into a tube shape like a skirt. Generally they are tied in place around the waist with a double knot. Putting them on seems to be a bit of a performance and there are videos on Youtube (natch) which explain the mysteries to the uninitiated. The trick, ultimately, rests in the strength of the knot. Get that wrong and you might shock your neighbours!
Having got the thing on, there are two ways of wearing it – what might be described as half-mast or full-mast. The full-mast way of wearing the garment is to allow it to fall to its full length. Most often it is worn half-mast to just above the knees which allows the wearer to move freely and is ideal if you are doing anything energetic. You often see Keralans walking down the street fiddling with the knots or moving from half to full-mast or back again.
Depending upon the temperature (and the availability of freshly laundered shirts) the men are often bare-chested whilst these days – art suggests this wasn’t always the case – the women wear a two piece mundu set known as the mundum-neriyathum, consisting of a lower garment similar to that worn by chaps and an upper mundu which is wrapped around the waist and upper body and hangs off the left shoulder, usually, but not always, accompanied by a blouse. The women’s mundu generally have a gold stripe known as a kara.
The climate of Kerala means that it is perfect for growing spices and a visit to a spice plantation and the purchase of a hermetically sealed selection of Keralan spices is de rigueur for the tourist. Cardamom (after which the hills are named), cinnamon, clove, ginger, vanilla, chilli, nutmeg, peppers and curry leaves are plentiful and leave a distinctive and not unpleasant aroma in the atmosphere.
Naturally, they are used extensively in the local cuisine as is coconut milk. Whilst the curries can be fiery (although they do tone them down for neophyte Westerners) they are delicious and are a wonderful blend of aromas and distinctive tastes unlike the gloop that is passed off as curry here in England. Fish is a popular main ingredient for the curries but there is a deep vegetarian tradition running through the State and the vegetable curries are wonderful. We took the normal precautions – bottled water only and no salads – and had none of the usual after-effects you associate with India.
A wonderful part of the world and we can’t wait to plan our next trip to this amazing country.