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India is an incredibly huge country with every state having it's own language, culture, food, climate and etiquette. There is therefore no one-fits-all rule in India, but like in many other countries the South of India is generally a bit more traditional and conservative than the North of India (many invasions formed and reshaped the culture in the North, whereas the culture in the South was not as much influenced by other countries).
You will see that in Tamil Nadu the Hindu religion is still very active with the highest amount of temples in the whole of India. People celebrate spirituality here, they draw kolams (symbolic patterns, see picture on the right) in front of their houses every day to invite good spirits- and leave the bad ones outside. Many families perform their pujas- rituals and prayers- inside their homes every day and make sure that the house and it's inhabitants stay blessed. Women pluck flowers from their gardens and decorate the home altars as well as make garlands for their gods and their own hair.
With the strength of religious ideas also come traditional ideas of how to dress and behave. You will see many women in Chennai are still wearing a saree, and many men are wearing a dhoti. Other traditional clothes includes Salwar Khamez (a wide pants and a "kurta" top with sleeves as well as a scarf that is called "dupatta"), a more modern form of that dress is a leggins or churidar with longer top (kurta) and a scarf (dupatta) in different vibrant colors and patterns. The general rule for being modest is wearing something over your shoulder as well as something that is at least knee length. Very tight clothing from top to bottom as well as sleeveless shirts, spaghetti or translucent tops or revealing clothes are usually not worn here. For men it is also recommended not to wear sleeveless shirts or pants that are shorter than knee-length.
Like any other country, also Chennai is changing. Many of the young people are now embracing Western fashion such as jeans and t-shirts and there are more and more brands in India that connect Indian clothes with Western influences. But if you travel or stay in Chennai and want to be allowed into the temples or other places of respect, it is important to show that respect to the people in the same way by dressing appropriately. Many people are very happy when they see that foreigners dress in a manner that is respectful to Indian customs and traditions and will more likely connect to you.
The food in South India is spicy, spicy and more spicy. Chilies are a favorite item of seasoning and what is perceived as incredibly spicy in the West is here seen as more or less bland. If you go to restaurants and cafes it is therefore recommended to tell the waitors that you dont want your food spicy (unless you really do)! If you happen to eat something that was very hot, the best advise is to get buttermilk to neutralize the heat in the mouth and stomach. Other great aids against the heat in general and to get back nutrients are coconut water (fresh coconuts are available on most street corners) and fresh watermelon juice. Moreover, South India has incredibly delicious dishes such as dosas and once you figured out your spice level you will definitely enjoy the culinary journey in India. It is also a food heaven for vegetarians because many people here are vegetarians and you will find plenty of options everywhere as well as many restaurants that are purely vegetarian.
For foreign people many things in Chennai might be challenging in the beginning- the heat, the humidity, the noise, the pollution, the traffic, the mosquitos and the chaotic street life in which cars, honking rickshaws, cows, pedestrians, emus and motorbikes all seem to cruise and walk around. It is important for your experience to stay open and focus on the positive aspects while here- your studies, the celebration of spirituality, the friendliness of people and the communal life. Many people in Chennai will quickly and happily come to help you if you have ever lost your way or dont know about a dish, a touristic sight or a cultural custom. The people are often incredibly helpful and happy to connect and show their wisdom about the culture. Spice markets and shops can be easily found and the coffee of Tamil Nadu is famous in India. If you want to bring home gifts to your loved ones we recommend you to bring home some original South Indian coffee!
If you have any questions or are unsure about the cultural traditions or customs, don't hesitate to contact us at any point of time.
For your stay in Chennai we recommend you to bring:
- an open mind 🙂
- a water bottle, so you can bring it to the center and make sure you stay hydrated during the day
- mosquito repellent or even a mosquito net to put over your bed if you are very sensitive
- notebooks for your studies, so you can write down notes as well as enough pens
- the books that you will need during the modules are also available for purchase in our center, so you don't need to buy them ahead of time
- we have mats at the center but you are welcome to bring your own mat
- you can bring a foldable desk if that helps you to write better, but most of our students just write on the floor
- clothing: short sleeved tshirts and tops, preferrably longer ones with short sleeves or 3/4th length sleeves. Wide comfortable pants and leggins, all pants at least knee length
- sunscreen if you are sensitive
- sunglasses, during daytime the sun in Chennai is very bright
- any food items or supplements and medicines that you need for your stay
- you can get money here at the ATMS, but could bring some exchanged money for the first days
- a hat if you are very sensitive to the sun
- un umbrella or raincape if you come during monsoon season (usually starting in July/August and going until October)
- a spare charger for your phone as well as adpaters if necessary for your electronic devices
- handbags that can be closed in case you are walking around the markets