Kerala Men

As a nominal Keralite, I feel that I can comment on Kerala with impunity. This piece was written after a visit to Trivandrum. I was attempting humour but someone from Kerala told me that I just came off as insulting. Oops!

Sat, Jul 06 2013. 12 43 AM IST

Of ‘mundus’, moustaches and massages
There are three things that are important to a Malayali male—mundu, meesha and murukkaan

Dhara is a deeply relaxing procedure that should be undertaken for at least five days. Photo: Thinkstock
It is easy to fantasize about men in Kerala because there is just so much maleness on display. Men are often topless, and wear airy mundus or dhotis: perfect attire for this land that is absurdly verdant—still. A sarong is a cheap imitation. It is too colourful.
Anything that is draped requires minimal colour and design. Just look at those Greek sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum. You don’t see them kitted out in colourful regalia. When garments depend on drapery rather than cut, it’s best to keep them simple. Indians understood this. Traditional saris are shorn of over-embellishment. They reflect regional character and are just right.
Keralites understand this best of all. The women wear off-white saris with a thin border, either made of pure zari or a dash of colour. This kasavu mundu, or set mundu, duplicates what the men wear, with a tad more ornamentation. During Onam, there are entire auditoriums full of women clad this way. They look like whirling pearls.
While the women run the house, Kerala men stay outside and protest. Every other day, there is a jhaathai or protest. Keralites are smart enough to see the inequities of society but too lazy to correct them. So they do the only thing possible. The men protest and the women hoard gold.
At one protest, I watch a line of men lift one end of the long mundu so that it alluringly displays a single hairy leg as they saunter across the road. Perhaps slit evening gowns were invented after seeing Kerala men in their dhotis. There are three things that are important to a Malayali male—so the saying goes—mundu, meesha and murukkaan. The first is the dhoti, the second refers to the moustache and the third refers to chewing tobacco. This was in the past. The younger generation would just as soon wear pants instead of the mundu. They smoke cigarettes instead of chewing tobacco. But they still swear by moustaches.
I don’t get moustaches. I prefer the north Indian visage that is shorn of hair. It is the Rajasthani and Keralite men that insist on moustaches. Doesn’t it tickle the other party during amorous encounters? And why would you cover sensual lips with hair? During one jhaathai or protest, I saw a man with pouty lips. They were exactly like Angelina Jolie’s. You could barely see them because they were covered with grey hair. Now why would you do that?
Most of the men have full heads of thick, black, often curly, hair that is brushed back as if it were gelled. The gel that is used here is no chemical product; just oodles of coconut oil. The women have long curly hair too and limpid black eyes. The therapist who is giving me an Ayurvedic massage is a Kerala beauty: wet, curly hair that falls below the waist; straight parting; two strands of hair taken from just above the ear and braided to hold it back. The net effect is Egyptian. Kerala women look like Cleopatra, except that they bathe in coconut oil instead of milk.
I have a simple routine when I am in Thiruvananthapuram. I eat lots of soft Santha Bakery bread and submit to oodles of Ayurvedic massages. I’ve had them done with the feet at Somatheeram—heavenly. I’ve tried all of CGH Earth’s resorts; and I’ve tried no-frills Ayurveda hospitals that go by names such as Vasudeva Vilasam, or Sushruta. The thing with Ayurvedic massages is that you need to have a high tolerance for foul-smelling oils. And you need to endure these treatments for at least two weeks in order to enjoy their benefits.
My grandfather was an allopathic doctor, but he would suspend operations during the month called Karkidakam, when the torrential monsoon softened the body and made it pliant for snehana—which is what Ayurveda calls its massages. Snehana sounds to me like affection. It is a good word for what is essentially a covert act: pulling out the body’s toxins to the surface so that they can be eliminated through brutal colonics such as enema and nose washes. Kerala still pauses during the rains and people of all strata indulge in Ayurveda. You can tell the good places from the mediocre ones by asking a single question: Will they give you a procedure called the “dhara”, in which oil will be poured on your forehead? Dhara is deeply relaxing. Ayurveda considers it a fairly powerful procedure, and authentic Ayurvedic hospitals will insist that you take the “dhara” for five days at least. They won’t give it to you on a whim, like any old massage. The Taj Malabar refused to give me dhara years ago, when I was spa-hopping through Kerala for the now-defunct Gourmet magazine. I could take the abhyangam, or normal massage, they said, but none of the more serious procedures (these can be deleterious when done as a one-off thing).
Sometimes I do the next best thing. I go to the Kottakkal Ayurveda shops that surround the Government Ayurveda College in Thiruvananthapuram and buy their choicest oils and decoctions. I pause at Prabhus Books, Sukumar Book Stall, and several other book stores that line the road. I rejoice that independent booksellers thrive in Kerala. I go back home to my…umm…young coconut water that has fermented and acquired healthy properties.

Shoba Narayan eats her aviyal doused with virgin coconut oil.


  1. Sage Vyasa has already exhausted all the good humor about God in Shrimad Bhagavatham… ( Rasa Leela, Ahalya shapa moksham, Gajendra moksham, Ajamila charitam and so it goes…) though the devotees around could feed you with some more… All that’s left for us is to narrate our spiritual adventures in those tranquil, early morning hours (after 8:30 pm, their could be devotional music), in an artistically created ambiance roughly 300 years back…You can also watch the simplicity of His Highness `Padmanabha Dasa’ Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the Maharaja of Travancore ( who ruled the erstwhile Travancore state as Dasa of the Lord Shri Padmanabha and till this day remains His true servant ) who visits the temple everyday at 7:15 am, to pay his obeisance to the deity… He still pays a penalty of Rs.133/- on days when he couldn’t make it to the temple (which is very rare of course, like on occasions while he has upcountry visits scheduled).

    Then if you find time, slip out into the agraharams surrounding the temple that houses over 10,000 brahmin homes, where ladies with wet towels wound around their long hair knots would be out drawing beautiful Kolams as early as 5.00 am…And there are so many other temples including Lakshmi Varaha moorthy, Srikanteswaram just about 10 minutes walk from the Temple. You’ll get enough and more to write about.

    You can as well visit Kowdiyar Palace, the Museum, Kuthira Maliga (immediately as you step out through the east entrance) and marvel at the level of sophistication even during those days…!

    I am not a great fan of Guruvayoor since it is always crowded and one has to spend minimum 3 hours standing in a queue… As I have never stayed there (since I always drive across from Eranakulam, land there at about 4.00 am and return by noon) I can’t quite think of any place to stay… There are hotels, restaurants, lodges all around the temple though. I am a TVM-ite and haven’t had enough of Lord Padmanabha Swamy despite spending the first 20 years of my life there and making annual visits since then for the last 27 years… Do forgive me on that count…!!!


  2. A visit to TVM and no reference to a Darshan of the reclining Lord Padmanabha Swami, arguably the wealthiest of shrines in the world…? Suggest include it next time. Ideally you could do a `Nirmalya Darshanam’ at 3.30 am, when there will be less crowd and as the term suggests you could take a dekko of the deity when the heavy doors of the sanctum sanctorum are thrown open for the first time for the day. The aroma of oil lit lamps, the floral decor (your favorite jasmine will be in abundance) and the deity itself in pure gold is quite a spectacle. The shrine itself is carved out of a single lump of rock and is called `Ottakkal Mandapam’….!!!

    And then of course, the delicious ambalapuzha paal payasam and panchaamritam that you can book for the day and get it by about 10 am. You don’t have to go out as you can spend the three hours in the large temple premises where beach sand spreads are available for a good sit down. The best part is that you don’t even have to miss your morning walks as the Kovil Prakaaram is a huge square with medieval sculptures carved on every inch of innumerable pillars around. Slip out for a quick breakfast through any of the four entrance ( I would suggest west entrance where you have Venkateshwara Bhavan restaurant that serves nice hot vegetarian breakfast) and get back in time to pick up your prasaadam ( lip-smacking ambalapuzha paal payasam and panchaamritam )…

    Do that and try another write-up… Let’s see if you even notice the Mundu, Meesha, Murukkan and Massage monikers… 🙂


    1. Will do Krishna. Only thing is how to be funny about God???
      Have been to all of the above places. I love love Kerala temples– including Vaikom.
      Planning a trip to Guruvayoor. Do you have any suggestions on places to stay?


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