Thursday, September 13, 2007

What the Indian wore

When I was reading Aram's comments on an old post, I felt that I had to write something about dressing, however ill-qualified I am to write about good dressing. I am like Bertram Wooster writing 'What the well-dressed man is wearing', while wearing a bright red cummerbund. However, here goes...

The celebrated commentator on Kalidasa's works, Mallinatha, was once teased by a few urchins about his tattered clothes. Immediately Mallinatha retorted "kim vAsasA chIkiri-bAkirENa ... vaiduShyamekaM viduShaam sahaayam" (= what if the clothes are tattered, ... knowledge is the only companion of the learned). Clothes, though often derided as superficial and a token of vanity in both men and women, reflect the culture of the society.

Even from very ancient times, the traditional dress of the Indian male has remained unchanged. A dhoti and an uttareeya are enough to dress him elegantly. Some men wear turbans and other head-dresses, but I do not know if it is common. Shaving the head of all hair except a tuft called shikhe, is required. This is mostly the mark of professional priests, these days. But folks at ISKCON also sport a shikhe. I know of a gentleman in the US who crops his hair regularly, but leaves a few hair intact.

The distinction between a brahmachaari and grihastha in the matter of dress, itself is a nice thing to know. In the uddhava gIta in the twelfth skanda of the Bhaagavatam, some rules are laid down for the brahmachaari to follow. A brahmachaari is not supposed to shave his beard or moustache, not supposed to look at himself in the mirror and not apply perfume. In short, he is not supposed to pay any attention to how he looks. His sole aim should be to learn. (My Mom actually enforced this rule of no-alankaara on us when we were students, though we were girls!) Only after he completes his education, when he becomes a snaataka (graduate), is he to pay attention to his dress.

As far as I know, the grihastha is required to be clean-shaven and should always wear the uttareeya (the upper garment). The uttareeya can be worn in different ways - put on the left shoulder and wrapped around the chest from below the right arm, so that the right shoulder* is exposed, or draped around the shoulders so that the back is covered. Some people tie the uttareeya around their waist, because it is convenient.

In the olden days, it was necessary to wear clothes that were not stitched (asyUta-vastra). DVG, in his 'vaidika-dharma sampradAyastharu' remembers Chandrashekhara Avadhaani, tying up all the torn places in his dhoti, because stitching was not allowed. Even now, some people follow the no-stitching rule, but it is restricted only for times when religious ceremonies have to be performed.

As it is to be expected, women even in the olden times were fond of adorning themselves. Hardly any sanskrit poem is bereft of the description of women's dresses. Kalidaasa mentions lip-paint (OShTharAgaH) in Vikramorvsheeyam. In both Raghuvamsham and kumArasambhavam, he describes incompletely dressed ladies rushing out to see the newly-weds, Aja and Indumati in the former and Shiva-Parvati in the latter. In the fourth act of shaakuntalam, he describes various garments and jewels that the trees of the forest brought forth, to adorn Shakuntala.

When it comes to clothes, unlike the men's, women's dress has undergone a lot of change. In the olden days, women also used to wear un-stitched clothes. As far as I know, it used to be a three-piece garment. But now, the traditional dress is the sari and a blouse. While dhotis are worn in the same way throughout India, there are at least ten different ways to wear a sari. In Karnataka itself, we have the Kodagu type, the North-Karnataka-type of kacche and the usual city-way. Bengalis, Tamilians, Maharashtrians all wear their sarees in distinctive ways. While women in many parts of North India cover their heads with their pallus, South Indian women (except in North Karnataka, I guess) do not. This custom is probably because of the weather, or because of repeated invasions of North India by outsiders.

To quote a cliche, change is the only constant thing in life. Old costumes give way for new ones, which give way for newer ones. Fashion should always follow comfort. But it is always nice to reminisce about old costumes, just like old times. While we cannot relive old times, we can still wear the old costumes, right?

*The right shoulder is regarded as the place where Gods enter the body at birth. A part of the first samskaara, jaatakarma, is medhaajanana, where the father touches the right shoulder of his just-born, before the umbilical cord is cut. Supposedly, this will make the child follow the tradition of the father. This information from Devudu's mahaadarshana.


Aram said...

"we can still wear the old costumes, right?"

Lots of enlightened corporates invite their staff to observe the Ethnic day once in a year.

We had a young, handsome English professor, Mr. Nair who always used to wear a Kerala mundu.

I am amazed at the wealth of information in your post.

Durga said...

I flicked this from

I received this a few days back from the Spam King of my ISB batch and can’t resist posting it. Whoever wrote this originally deserves the praise/pleasantries. So here goes “The Southie’s dhoti and how to rattle it” ……….

Other men gird their loins, Southie men gird their dhotis. Underestimated by the rest of the world as a mere garment, a foolish extension of the loincloth, it’s only the Southie male who knows that the dhoti can be much, much more. (Bringing to mind the opening line of Love Story. “What do you say about a one-and a half-metre tundu ….”)

Well to start with, the Southie’s dhoti is a piece of minimalist art. No clumsy acres of cloth to be feverishly gathered and pleated, no frenzied crawling between and around the legs. Just a pithy bit of pristine whiteness, enough to go around the waist once, with some left over for the two ends to overlap - barely. It’s also a free spirit, secured by just one firm tuck at the waist, the rest left to hang free, unrestrained. Because the Southie knows that a dhoti is not just something to wear but to wield, much the way a skunk does his stink or a bimbo her cleavage. And so as Time dawned on mankind (somewhere between Mohenjo and Daro), the art of dhoti rattling came to be, the art of how to swagger, strut, scare, conquer and tame - all with a piece of cotton as bland as your granny’s khichdi. Which is why, like Sharon Stone’s hemline, the Southie’s dhoti is built to have the unfettered freedom to rise or fall, fold over or flap across, even cleave open to lay bare the magnificence of Southie machismo.

Naturally, this means that the Southie dhoti spends very little time being full length - i.e modestly covering its wearer from waist to toe - and a lot of its time being folded up to reveal calves, knees, thighs (and sometimes – gasp! – even more) depending on how things are going. Now before you leap to any rash conclusions about the Southie male’s secret exhibitionist tendencies (“we’d have never guessed with all that vibhuti!”) let me tell you that without knowing how and when to fold or unfold your dhoti (while wearing it, naturally) there’s no way you can rattle it. (Nor diddle your mundu.) It’s a bit like trying to wrestle without a partner or to tango without feet. And depending on your dexterity and timing, you can deploy your dhoti to play popular male sports like mine-is-bigger-than-yours, my-daddy-can-beat-up-your-daddy-not-to-mention-what-he-can-do-to-your-mummy and you-can-take-it-and-stick-it-up-you-know-where.

Needless to say, the art of dhoti rattling has been stitched into the Southie’s Y chromosone and there was a time when every good Southie boy worth his weight in molaga podi learnt it much before he learnt how to manage rasam on a banana leaf. Alas, with the invasion of the pant and the pyjama, it’s now a dying art in the cities, but is still alive and well where paddy is lush, the coconut tender, the jackfruit ripens like prickly, pregnant hippos and the air is laced with the fragrance of black hair gently wallowing in coconut oil.

Now though it is said that there are as many ways of diddling a dhoti (or wiggling your veshti) as there are recipes to make your idli batter rise, here are the few basic moves common to all schools.

1. The Buffalo Bhoothalingam Draw (Inspired by the Bucking-Bronco Kick.)

Used to answer the Call of the Testosterone. And when the call comes, to the swelling of the chest and the quivering of the moustache, (maybe even the clash of a few cymbals), in one lightning motion, you shoot out a leg backwards to kick the lower end of the dhoti upwards into a waiting hand. And before anyone can say Karaikudi Kunjukunju Mudaliar, the dhoti will lie trussed up at loin level and you are all set to defend the honour of gramam, gotram or garage mechanic. Can be accompanied by dialogues like “Yenna da, rascal!” or words to that effect, but the more stylish practictioners prefer to let the dhoti do all the talking.
(If your dhoti is already folded up, just go in reverse making sure that when you unfold it, you don’t yank the whole damn thing off. It requires years of practice to know and find the location of that little bit of dhoti that will do the trick.)

2. The I’m-the-King-of-Kondalampatti Klutch. Equivalent to pissing on territory and therefore normally used to fix who is the dominant male in this part of the jungle. At the sight of a threat, shoot out leg (always backwards), kick dhoti (always upwards) and instead of folding the whole thing up around loins, just hold up one end (sometimes both if the threat is severe) in hand to part the dhoti like the waters of the Red Sea and make way for two hairy (hopefully), muscular (hopefully), mard-key-bacchey legs which will then proceed to walk all over everybody. In days of yore, this was much more effective when done striding through paddy fields with a minion scurrying behind holding aloft a huge black umbrella to protect your beautiful black complexion from being ruined by the sun.

3. The Gird-of-the-Loin. Used before the commencement of anything from climbing a coconut tree to signing that corporate merger. (Also very useful while riding anything with two wheels) It signals that you’re now open for and mean business. A variation the B. Bhootalingam Draw, minus all the thunder and lightning and how high you fold the dhoti is determined by the complexity and seriousness of the task at hand. (WARNING: To be deployed without underwear only when unaware of presence of polite/female company and/or when answering an urgent call of nature.)

Which leaves us with just a couple of unanswered questions. The first - if the Southie’s dhoti spends so much of its time aping a miniskirt, what comes to mind is a question has so often haunted humanity about the Scottish kilt. What underwear? Well let’s just say that it has never been Venky’s secret. Because the Southie, never knowing how high his dhoti may ride, chooses his under-the-dhoti-wear remembering the Girl Scout motto. “Be prepared”. Hence the popular choice – despite the invasion of the briefer VIP or the even more dashing Jockey - continues to be what is called “drayers” - knee-length kacchas in dashing stripes or shorts in basic khaki – covering all matters that must remain private no matter what your dhoti may do in public.

And the second question is…. You know what they say about the Southie’s dhoti - that it’s like a coconut. Known to fall off but no one has ever seen one do so. So the second question is - how does it stay up? There are many whispered rumours. (And there are those who have been known to use a belt, but they are charlatans really, shunned and denounced by the real Makappuwamis) Some say that it is coffee, strong enough to put the hair on your chest and keep your dhoti on. Some say a daily dose of rice and buttermilk, enough to just distend your stomach to the required rotundity. Others say it’s avvakai pickle, hot enough to sear your dhoti into your middle….The truth is no one knows. My bet? Testosterone…..

(FOOTNOTE: Now there may be some of you whose brow may be furrowed on account of my not having mentioned the lungi. I have just one word for it. Disgusting. A raucous, loutish, revolting genetic aberration that will never be recognized as a legitimate relation by any true aficionado of the Southie’s dhoti.)

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

I second Aram, your posts are full of information. One question: what is the significance of wearing un-stitched? Is it some form of 'madi'?

Your comments about 'no-alankara' for students was also interesting. Students these days could really follow that advice. In the US at least, we have 5 year old girls that want to wear lipstick ;-). Now we can tell them that it is not just their prudish parents that are enforcing it - it is actually mandated in the shastras.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very informative post! You are really well read.

Aram said...

While on this fascinating subject of "What the Indian wore" we must also not forget the Digambara (wearing the sky for a dress?) way of dressing of the Jain munis and nuns.

I guess, the nudist style originated in India with the Digambara sect of Jains.

They can be seen even today, mostly in Karnataka and especially in the districts of Hassan, Belgaum, and Dakshina Kannada.

I am curious to know how and when this dress or rather dresslessness came into vogue and the reasons behind it. Maybe under the title, "Why The Indians wore nothing."

December Stud said...

You may ahve heard this Bernard Shaw story.

He was famously known to have the elast dressing sense. Apparently, he was invited to some big gathering ad was giving a speech standing on the stage. Every few seconds he was pulling his pant up since it was too big for him.

At the end of the speech a lady came by to compliment him on his speech. She told him that she enjoyed the speech a lot. She also wanted to subtly tell him that his dress sense sucked. So, said that it would have been better if he wasn't pulling his pant all through the speech.

His immediate response "Trust me madam, it would have been far worse if I hadn't done that"

parijata said...

I love wearing the saree, but often it is only for religious and festive occasions, because I find it a little difficult to manage it. A couple of my teachers (one Physics, one Maths) used to wear panche to college. They even had the shikhe. And new students always mistook both of them to be Sanskrit lecturers :)

I think that one can become digambara when he/she totally loses abhimaana for the body. A few years ago, during the kumbha mela (I think), there were many sadhus from all parts of India. Needless to say, many of them were not clothed at all. A couple of foreign women tried to do the same, but were told off by the officials, the reason being that it was allowed for sadhus and not others. I doubt if it is possible to totally lose our fondness for the body. We suffer when it suffers... Many thanks for supplying the topic for yet another post :)

Thanks for the comment. I think the Southie's dhoti means the daTTi panche. I am not sure where I read this, but the brahmachari (student) is supposed to wear the daTTi panche, and the grihastha is supposed to wear kacche panche.

Yes, un-stiched clothes are supposed to be "madi".

And I think that the no-alankara rule is a good one for students. They don't have to be shabby, but they should not worry about looks. You have put it very well!


No, I had not heard that one. Bernard Shaw never ceases to amaze me!

Aram said...

Thanks for a new insight about shedding the abhimaana for the body. Reminds me of names like Stud and SOME Body. :)

It is a little confusing, though. Yoga starts with taking care of one's body so that good health and long hours of meditation are possible without distraction of aches and an unwilling body.

Bapu was called by Winston Churchill (?) as a "half-naked fakir."

What would you call the dress he used to wear?

Haven't read much about the father of the nation. But I think, Bapu's reasoning was that as the millions of Indians had very little to wear, he too vowed on a minimalist dress.

Wonder if he had lived longer would he have succeeded in improving everybody's lot so that he too could dress like his favored Jawahar.

A couple of centuries ago India used to clothe the world, I understand. The famous Dhaka muslin was so smooth, it could be fitted inside a matchbox. Gurcharan Das says in India Unbound that the industrialization in England killed the Indian weaving industry.

Aram said...

"I love wearing the saree, but often it is only for religious and festive occasions, because I find it a little difficult to manage it."

Even in sarees, there are lots of traditional styles - the Kodava, Gujarati, Kairali, Rajasthani and the Tamil styles and maybe lots more.

I vaguely remember my grandmother and her generation wearing sarees somewhat in the Tamil style when going out for any functions.

"Difficult to manage.." Maybe the traditional Tamil style might solve that but it maybe out of fashion for a highly accomplished engineer lady.

A joke in poor taste goes: A kanjoos new husband did not want to displease his new wife when she asked for a new saree. It seems he tactfully told her, "Priyey, I don't like a saree to come between us."

Aram said...

What the Tamil Indians Wear Now...

Was watching today P.Chidambaram walking into the Parliament building. Peculiar dress - Lower half wearing the traditional Adda Mundu (Adda Panchey? what do they call it in Tamil?)and the upper half wearing the western full-sleeved shirt?

Even Murasoli Maran also used to follow the same style. As also the Malayalee PK Antony.

Why this amalgam of Indian and Western styles?

However, when visiting abroad, they go in full suit.

Ela said...

Great work.