Looking like a Respectable Married Woman in South India

As our trip went on, my clothes underwent a transformation. I wore jeans, a nice t-shirt, little jacket, and my high heeled boots my first day in Bangalore.  By the end, I was wearing salwar kameez, bangles, bindi, chappals, and mangalsutra/thali.

These experiences come from visiting a medium sized city in Karnataka, South India.  Also I visited a rural village, Jog Falls, and Banvasi’s temple.

Chappals

This was the first transformation.  Our second day in Satya’s hometown we were taken to the shopping district for chappals.  The main consideration was visiting.  Taking shoes off is a must when entering anyone’s home.  Shoes are also considered the dirtiest thing.  Me unzipping the boots each time I was visiting, touching my hands to the shoes just wasn’t going to work.  Plus, wearing boots and socks was hot.  The solution-chappals.    Chappals are sandals that are backless that you can slip in and out of made of leather.  Flip flops made of rubber and plastic are called “slippers” and “sandals” equal sandals with straps that you cannot slip in and out of.

We bought our chappals at a store much like an American shoe store-brightly lit, benches to try on shoes, attendants bringing shoes out from the back, etc.  We didn’t buy them from a market stall, although there are certainly many selling shoes of all kinds.  We bought Bata ones, a brand that seems to be everywhere in India, though not here in the U.S.

Salwar Kameez

Luckily, I brought one that I bought online here.  I quickly learned that despite what Satya said and what his sister said, jeans and a t-shirt was not going to work in India.  When we visited people or when I went out in public I wore either the salwar kameez I brought with me or the salwar kameez outfits given by the wives of Satya’s cousins (one of the nicest things was that as a newish married couple, we received gifts of clothes, money, puja items). 

Did I see women wearing jeans?  Only in Bangalore.  Teenage girls in high school/college can wear them in the medium sized city we were visiting (daughter of a cousin).  One of Satya’s married older cousins, about 40, wore a salwar kameez outfit everytime I met her.  It made sense-she was extremely busy as a wife, mother, and a doctor studying for a new certification.  Other than her, nearly all married women wore sarees all the time.  Especially for formal occasions, married women seem to wear sarees.  When we visited Satya’s old elementary and high school, the female teachers asked me, “Where is your mangalsutra?”  “Do you know how to wear a saree?”  (All the female teachers wore sarees.)

Also, a warning to all the tall women may have problems with readymade salwar kameez outfits.  I’m 5’9” and have a long torso so a lot of them didn’t fit quite right.  When relatives asked my mother in law my size, she said, “Oh, she is about my size.”  My mother in law is 5’2”!  We all had a good laugh over that.  Anyway, my sister tried on some of the outfits and they fit her perfectly-she is 5’5”. 

Also, on the same chappal trip, we bought some Indian-style “tops”.  These were very cute, but again not worn by anyone over the age of 21.  The brands should have clued us in-one was called “18 Fire”.  I had to use the XL size and even that was snug.  Here, I’m a M.  This is not to say all Indian women are tiny-I was not the tallest woman in the family or the widest but readymade clothes seem aimed at the youngest and thinnest women.

Bindi

One item I could not leave the house without.  I used the little stick on ones that you can buy in a pack at the market for 5 or 10 rupees/pack.  Those were perfectly acceptable.  Satya likes me to wear them.  Without a bindi he says my forehead looks “naked”.  Older women use kumkum (a red powder) instead of the stick on kind.  Do I wear a bindi in my everyday American life?  No. 

Bangles

On our trip to the market the night before the small Indian wedding ceremony we had my mother in law made sure I had bangles.  Indian women wear bangles.  It didn’t seem to matter if they were married or widowed-they all had bangles.  What kinds?  Gold bracelets interspersed with glass bangles.  What colors?  Green is most traditional for new brides and for weddings in general.  Red is also popular for everyday.  Sadly, my hands do not fold easily so I could wear small bangles.  It seems the smaller, the better.  At first, the bangles took some getting used to because to me, I felt like a cat with a bell on because every time I moved, I jangled.  Now I kind of like the sound. 

I do wear bangles here everyday but only a few on each wrist.  My advice-get the ones with the color all the way through the bangle.  If the color is painted on, after a few months the color will go away and you will be left with yellowish bangles instead of bright green.  Glass bangles seem to be preferred, but they are a bit more expensive than the metal ones.  I think it is worth it though.  Satya bought me some metal ones here and they were annoying.  Glass makes a nicer sound, glitter will not fall everywhere, and if you wear them overnight your arm will not get weird black marks like they will from the metal ones.  Glass ones take a while to find though-I asked at 4 shops here before I found one that carried glass bangles.

Mangalsutra

If you are traveling to South India and you are a married woman, it is best to wear this.  Why?  Because this is the equivalent to the American wedding ring.  Everywhere we’d go, people would ask about this.  It did not matter if the people were Christians or Hindus-everyone wore them.  Besides it is also important for ceremony.  Whenever a married woman visits another married woman, at the end of the visit they bless each other by applying kumkum and sometimes turmeric to the forehead and the large circles of the mangalsutra.  Sometimes small gifts are also exchanged like rice or fabric for a saree blouse, although the fabric is now mostly for tradition and ceremony and not to really make a saree blouse.

I went with Satya’s parents when we picked out the mangalsutra at the jewelers.  First we selected the chain-small gold and black beads.  Then the large flat circles were selected along with three larger gold balls.  Mine is very similar to my mother in law’s and Satya says it is Maharashtrian style.  I guess that makes sense since we were in Northern Karnataka.   Yes, I do wear the mangalsutra everyday here in the U.S.  I received mine during the small temple wedding ceremony and afterwards felt “more official” and more a real part of the family.

Conclusion

Now I know a lot more about what to expect and how to look like a respectable married woman (I feel old writing that).  Once I did get whistled at in the market-was without mangalsutra, and wearing jeans and an American blouse.  Satya deemed that a great insult and wanted to notify the police (I thought that was an overboard reaction, but he says in the South to whistle at someone else’s wife is a great insult.)  I’m a little nervous though about the next trip.  Satya says that his relatives were “low balling” me and that next time their expectations may be higher.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. reena
    May 10, 2010 @ 12:40:33

    hi,as an indian i found your article quite amusing.though i am not a south indian ,i can tell you that leaviing the major cities, everywhere else it is similar.smaller towns of india are not much influenced by the west.

    Reply

  2. Meeka
    May 12, 2010 @ 15:38:14

    So how many second looks did you guys get while shopping in Bangalore?

    I don’t remember. I do remember feeling very awkward and out of place the first day when I was dressed completely Western-style. At the end, wearing bindi, chappals, mangalsutra, bangles, and kameez I felt much better.

    Then to, I was trying to take everything in and look everywhere at once so I didn’t count how many people stared. I was staring at everything else.

    Reply

  3. Kuldeep Chauhan
    Jun 19, 2010 @ 07:41:38

    I disagree with reena’s point – I think the the smaller towns that are having this identity crisis – where they try to copy the west.
    I don’t know. I’d have to do more and wider traveling around. My sister-in-law has been shocked by some of the fashions the women wear even in the small towns-transparent, revealing clothes. I didn’t see that myself on my trip.

    Reply

  4. Mrs. Thundikandy
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 17:07:40

    Hello, I am also an American married to a South Indian and I am awaiting my first trip there. I have about 3 very dressy salwar kameez and 3 more casual salwar kameez. I also have 3 saris. Two of them are very formal and one is more casual in the traditional style of Kerala, South India where my husband is from. I got married in the Kerala style sari here in the USA. I am looking forward to my visit there as well. My in-laws talk to me on the phone a lot or through emails, but being there will be a great experience for me. I am so happy that you made this post. I feel a lot better having some sort of guidance on what to expect. I had already told my husband that when I go there, I won’t wear western clothes. Also, the salwar kameez are so comfortable that I would prefer to wear it every day here in the USA as well! I also don’t have a mangalsutra and will need to get one. My husband bought a necklace for me here which is more western, so I will need one to feel more “official.” I can completely relate to the problem with buying clothes because it is true that they are made for very small and thin people. All of my garments had to be made by a seamstress with the exception of my salwar kameez. I am 5’5 and usually wear either a large or XL because of my breasts. I am now more excited than ever about visiting India because of your post. Thank you for this!

    Reply

    • minnesotameetskarnataka
      May 27, 2011 @ 22:23:03

      I’m glad the post helped! How did your trip go? You were smart to go to a tailor-I should have done that from the beginning! All the best wishes for your trip!

      Reply

      • Mrs. Thundikandy
        May 29, 2011 @ 18:21:50

        We are planning to go in the fall of this year and I am SO excited! Thanks for your reply and I’ll be sure to update you on how my trip went.

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