Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:
I moved to Tamil Nadu for four years to do my engineering. I am from Kerala and, to be honest, I didn’t expect too many cultural shocks when I moved there as both Kerala and Tamil Nadu are states in South India. But I was in for not one, but several surprises…
Here are some of the things I found in Tamil Nadu to be vastly different from how it is in Kerala.
Thalai-kuli or ‘head bath’ is basically a bath routine where you wash your hair. I was surprised to see that kuli (bath) in Tamil Nadu refers to having just a shower without washing the hair, and thalai-kuli is a more elaborate procedure that is usually performed on Sundays or on festive days The Tamil girls in my hostel used to start preparations for their weekly thalai-kuli on the previous night itself. On Sunday morning, they’d wake up early and oil their hair heavily. A roommate of mine used to oil her hair until the oil started to trickle down her temples! That was the point when she stopped. Then they’d wash their hair with water and hibiscus powder.
Tamil girls have naturally beautiful thick hair and they look even more lustrous once they’re done with this treatment. What breaks my heart is when they oil their palms and run them though their hair after it has dried completely and they tie it neatly into a tight braid. ‘Flying hair’ is not a desirable trait for a girl, they said.
In Kerala, we take bath twice a day. Every morning, we wash our hair and in the evening, we take a shower. This is mandatory before the morning and evening prayer time. So when I saw this system for the first time in Tamil Nadu, I was quite surprised. It’s not like there was any dearth of water where my college was situated. And the girls in my hostel thought we Malayali girls were something like water spirits who took two baths in a day! Crazy, they called us 😀
A Tamil woman’s daily attire is incomplete without a string of fresh jasmine flowers in her hair. Some women prefer to wear kanakambaram flowers instead, as seen in the picture above. In Kerala, we do wear jasmine flowers in our hair too but it’s restricted to special occasions. A Tamil woman (who is not a widow, of course) is deemed to be incompletely dressed if she doesn’t sport a pottu (bindi) and poovu (flowers). I remember I used to wear jasmine flowers in my hair frequently during my time at university.
Okay so this was probably one of my biggest cultural shocks. The coming-of-age of girls is conducted like a mini-wedding in many parts of Tamil Nadu, especially among the rural and more orthodox traditional families. The newly pubescent girl is dressed up in all bridal finery and lots of elaborate rituals are carried out.
Almost all the girl’s relatives are invited to the function and the girl is showered with gifts and blessings. Post the ceremony, the girl is expected to wear a half-saree or daavani. She does not wear short skirts anymore. A roommate of mine whose sister’s ‘Function’ was carried out while we were at university told us that this was a way of letting the town know that the girl has come of age and that she is eligible for marriage Earlier this was conducted at the girl’s home. Nowadays, these functions are organized in formal halls.
In Kerala, there used to be a small function to celebrate the onset of a girl’s puberty back in the days. But it was a small affair and involved only the women of the house, and of course some other close female relatives.
There are so many more but I guess these are my top picks. During my stay there, I learnt to love their culture and language. My closest friends are from there and I learnt to read, write and speak Tamil with much more ease than my own native language, Malayalam 😀