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Abeja Dispatch

Trains and Plaid Mini-skirts…A Trip to Southern India
June 10, 2000

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Sebastian and Benadicta with their parents and grandma on the train

School's out! Yippee! That's great for Indian school children, but not so great for the Odyssey World Trekkers. For one thing, we won't be able to visit any more classrooms. But, more importantly, summer means that families are beginning to travel on vacation and all the trains are completely booked!

I was on the waiting list for the 32-hour long train ride from Mumbai (Bombay) in northwestern India to Chennai (Madras) in the southeast along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. There was no way I was going to get a seat, so I was frantically asking around for help. I did not want to stay in Mumbai!


"Come with me!" a kind man said, holding the hand of a young girl. "We have 11 people and four are children so we can just squeeze you in!" I climbed aboard, settled in next to a group of kids, and we were off. Mani and his extended family saved me from being stuck in Mumbai.

As the train picked up speed, we made ourselves comfortable and I began to chat with Mani's family. Early on, I learned that his family is Tamil, and proud of it! Though they live in Mumbai right now, the family originally comes from the state of Tamil Nadu, where Chennai is the capital city. Now that school is out, Mani, his brother and sister, and all of their spouses and children are traveling together back to Tamil Nadu to visit the rest of the extended family.

The Tamil people have their own language (also called Tamil) and a culture which is very old. Tamils' skin is noticeably darker than most Indians and Tamils consider themselves to be the REAL Indians. When the Aryan people invaded India about 3000 years ago, they mixed in and started families with the local tribes. When this happened, the Tamils moved south, never mixing with the Aryans. These pre-Aryan cultures are known as Dravidians and Tamil is a language and culture descended directly from the Dravidians.


hawking - peddling or selling wares by shouting
rickshaw - a light, two-wheeled, hooded, person-drawn cart used as a taxicab
sarong - a colorful piece of cloth worn like a skirt by men and women
Madras - a city on the S. E. coast of India; also a plain-weave fabric, originally from Madras, noted for its bleeding colors
secessionists - a group that has cut itself off as a separate part from a state or religious body

Just when I was beginning to feel a hunger pang for lunch, Mani's sister Roseline pulled ready-made packages of homemade Southern Indian food out of a bag under her seat. Each serving was wrapped up in a piece of banana leaf - now that is truly disposable, biodegradable packaging! Before the Aryans, and later the Muslims, came to India, the entire subcontinent was vegetarian. Typical southern food is 100% vegetarian and the homemade dishes are the BEST! I sat with 12-year-old Sebastian and his 9-year-old sister Benadicta eating rice paddies, called iddlies, with spicy coconut chutney. Based on their names, I suspected that Mani's family was, like most Tamil families, Christian and not Hindu. Sebastian, Benadicta and I munched our delicious lunch as we watched the slums of Mumbai slowly disappear behind us.

During a 32-hour train ride, we had a lot of time to chat. I learned a few words in the Tamil language. (For example, varnakum means "Hello.") Because the Tamil people are so proud, I've heard that they prefer not to speak India's national language, Hindi, and that they fought against it during the time of India's independence. Of course, Benadicta and Sebastian go to an English language school where they live in Mumbai so they speak Tamil (their mother tongue), English, and Hindi, the national language. I knew only one language when I was their age!

Tamils are so proud of their own culture that Chennai has a huge film industry, producing hundreds of Tamil movies a year, (more than Bollywood!). That's a lot of films for only one state! I wonder if any of the films are translated to one of the 16 other main languages in India.

Related Links

Tamil Nadu:

Regional Information - States and Cities of India:

Henna Tattoos:

The hours on the train continued to roll by and Arul, Mani's wife, painted an intricate design onto my hand with henna, a semi-permanent dye made of the leaves of a henna plant. Henna tattoos are a tradition all over the Middle East and here in India. I have admired these tattoos on others during my travels but this is the first one I have ever had! After Arul had finished her design, I carefully climbed into the top of the three bunk beds that folded out from the wall and curled up for some sleep. The next morning, I washed off the henna and discovered a beautiful orange tattoo and fingernail "polish" that will last for at least a month! It's beautiful!

Click image
for larger view
My hand with the henna washed off and the orange tattoo, and Benadicta's hand with the henna still on it, drying

When we reached Chennai, I was sad to say good-bye to Mani's family, but so happy to get off of that train. At first glance, the city of Chennai seemed a lot like most of India's large cities: crowded, chaotic and HOT. Don't tell the proud Tamils that I said so!

Outside the train station I encountered many familiar sights: big British colonial buildings, wallahs (salespeople) hawking everything from chaisaris. The rickshaw drivers competed for my attention, and as I studied these men, I noticed something I had not seen before. They were wearing plaid mini-skirts! Ok, well, not exactly miniskirts, but large pieces of cloth, folded and wrapped around their waists like a sarong. The skirts are called lungis and men wear them at all different lengths. In this heat, many men wear them really short. I chose one of the rickshaw drivers and as this skinny, dark man steered me and my backpack into the wild traffic I thought, "Ah! Now I understand why cotton plaid fabric is called 'Madras!'" I wonder if golfers know that their madras pants originated as mini-skirts for men?

Your Turn!!!

Why do some people feel that skirts are reserved only for women or rare occassions? (See Scotland, India) Does what you wear define your gender? If so, why?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

Even with a map, I had no idea where I was headed. All the signs were written in Tamil, a language that looks to me more like artistic doodling than a language. Isn't it crazy!

My first stop is in the heart of Chennai, where it all began, at Fort St. George. What?! After all that talk about Tamil pride, it's a bit strange to realize that the capital city of Tamil Nadu started as a British Fort. I sat down, drank a cold, sweet limewater from a sweet-lime-water-wallah, and then headed in to find out all the details. Check out my next dispatch for the whole story!

Tamils in Sri Lanka

Not far from Tamil Nadu, in the Bay of Bengal, sits the island country of Sri Lanka. The majority of people living on this island are called Sinhalese. They are descendents of the first inhabitants of the island, and are predominantly Buddhists. In addition, Sri Lanka has a fairly large minority of Tamils who follow the Hindu religion and live in the northern part of the island. Their ancestors were brought over from Tamil Nadu to work the tea and other plantations many generations ago. Over the years, these Tamils have come to call Sri Lanka their home.

Today, the Tamils are treated poorly by the Sinhalese majority, and several radical, militant groups of Tamils have begun to demand their own separate country on the island. These secessionists have come together as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), a very powerful military force. Theirs is a perfect example of what your teachers are always telling you, that violence doesn't solve anything. The Tamils were being treated poorly, as a result, they turned to violence, and now they're treated even worse!

In 1990, the LTTE captured the large Jaffna peninsula and used the territory to operate its own government. While this "government" was in place for five years, it was not officially recognized by most of the world. After several peace talks failed, the current president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, recaptured the peninsula. Since then, in the capital city of Colombo, there have been many terrorist attacks upon civilians by the Tamil Tigers. In addition, there have been several attempts to murder President Kumaratunga. Today, she is still recovering from a bomb blast that took one of her eyes last year. A militant Tamil leader in Geneva was quoted as saying the following about President Kumaratunga: "She needs to be lucky every time, but we need to be lucky only once!"

This year, in late April, the LTTE captured Elephant Pass, the most strategically powerful military installation on the Jaffna Peninsula. As I write this dispatch, the LTTE is again securing its control over most of the peninsula. A team of Norwegian Negotiators is trying to work out a cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE rebels. The government troops are trapped on the peninsula, so the LTTE has a lot of bargaining power at this point.

Everyone here in Tamil Nadu has their attention focussed on the fate of their distant kinsmen in Sri Lanka. What is going to happen? Check your newspapers and TV news...and if they don't report on it, call and ask them why not!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine - Far Out Places, Familiar Problems
Kavitha - It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superwoman! (Part II)
Kavitha - It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superwoman!!!!!!

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