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Simplicity and Hospitality

A gentle and tolerant people, the people of Karnataka value simplicity and hospitality in keeping with the friendly nature of their land. Perhaps the land has assisted its people to develop its love for the arts, literature, music, poetry and dance. Yet, everywhere can be seen the rewards of physical effort and intellectual striving.

The great Karnataka poet, B.M. Srikantia, whose verses were taught by parents to their young children to foster a sense of pride and belonging, praises her with these words: “A land of gold is this Mysore, A shrine of sandalwood is this Mysore…”

In its original Kannada, the lines are more musical still. They refer to the Alladin’s cave of the Kolar gold mines – amongst the riches in India – and the scented sandalwood forests for which Mysore (the old name for Karnataka State) is renowned. The fabulous silk fabrics, which the names Mysore, Bangalore, Chamunda evoke are as radiant as the beautiful rivers which flow through the land, the Kaveri, the Krishna and its tributary, the Tungabhadra, and as textured and shimmering as the great Jog Waterfalls near the coast. The rain forests in the South are home to that symbol of strength and bravery, the tiveer. Tales of tigers and shikar (hunting) abound in children’s stories and even in contemporary fiction such as the Malgudi Days of R.K. Narayan. The fast receding population of elephants, residents of the forests till today, have been granted a special status in recent times. Statues of elephants are hand-carved by thousands of craftsmen in rosewood, sandalwood and ivory and travel to distant lands, only to find a new home on display shelves. Grace, quiet charm and above all a sense of equilibrium pervade the atmosphere especially in smaller towns and in the countryside, for modern city life, as everywhere, follows a frenzied rhythm, given the race it must run against time and space.

Indeed, we are told that those who move to Karnataka never wish to leave it. What is the magic appeal, even today, of Karnataka? Is it the people, the food, the atmosphere or the art and culture?

The cuisine has a certain affinity with the sister States of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra, and yet retains its individuality, making more use of coconut, cashewnut and the locally-grown spices such as cardamom, cumin seed and black pepper and less of chilli powder and tamarind. On the coast, fish and rice specialities abound, while in the north, wheat is the main cereal. Rice and lentils form the staple fare, although variations such as jowar and ragi, the latter a cereal which resembles mustard seeds, are nourishing and are often used as substitutes. Huli a lentil and vegetable dish and saaru a thin soup form part of a daily menu, together with polyas or seasonal vegetables cooked in such a way that their flavour and colour and retained. To clear the palate at the end of a meal, one could be served Chitraanna – rice flavoured with green chilli and lime juice, fragrant coriander leaves and fried groundnuts. A favourite desert is Mysore paak made from the flour of masur dal, (lentil). An ever-faithful standby to be prepared hot for visitors or unexpected callers, to be packed in tiffin boxes or eaten as a snack or used in place of rice in a main meal is the ubiquitous uppittu, known outside Karnataka as upma. Being made of semolina, a wheat product, lit is reasonably quickly prepared. Indeed, part of the secret of the Kanadigas’s peaceful nature must be conceded to the regional fare, and the women who toil for hours preparing it for the contentment and satisfaction of their families. Since Karnataka accounts for half of India’s total coffee production, a glass of filtered coffee, served in a small, shining stainless steel glass with a bowl underneath for cooling it, served with thick cow’s milk is the one beverage to taste while on a visit. If you prefer, though, chilled butter milk could quench you thirst, but the aroma of the former will stay with you long after the meal is over.

In a typical Karnataka home, another scent that is easy to notice is that of the sweet-smelling Jasmine. Fresh flowers are a must for the morning worship at the family altar. The goddess Lakshmi is placed in a little metal or rosewood shrine on a shelf in the kitchen, and together with the housewife, oversees the day’s cooking. The ladies themselves adorn garlands of fresh flowers in their hair, every single day of the year. Hence any market place in Karnataka, whether in a small town or a big city, has stalls selling flowers and garlands, for worship as well as adornment. The abundance of scented flowers could be one reason for preferring one’s native land – a subtle persuasion not to leave for pastures only apparently greener.

A great binding force here is language, which was the government’s chief consideration while forming the boundary lines of Karnataka and other States in 1965. After Sanskrit, and Tamil, Kannada is the oldest Indian language, and is the State’s official language. It is musical sounding, and has a number of words borrowed from Sanskrit as well as Persian and Urdu, and has in turn loaned certain words to Urdu and Marathi. Urdu is spoken in Bijapur and Bidar in the north. In fact, it originated there during the period when it was part of the old state of Hyderabad, under the Nizam. Kannada is more logical than Sanskrit and Hindi, to the extent that gender is not an arbitrary matter. Objects which are inanimate belong to the neuter gender. Tulu and Konkani are spoken languages only, used by the people living on the coast. Konkani is a full-fledged and expressive system. For written purposes, it handily borrows a script, such as the roman script in Goa, just north of the border of Karnataka, where Konkani is prevalent. Elsewhere, the Marathi or Kannada scripts are used.

The small and distinctive region of Coorg in Mangalore has its own language, Coorgi, which has resemblances to Tulu and kannada. The Koudavas or Coorgis, are a distinct ethnic group with their own customs, cuisine and culture. Said to be descended from the ancient Scythians, they believe in ancestor worship and also revere a mother goddess. This affinity with Hinduism took place possibly by assimilation. A warlike people, they gave independent India some of its first generals, such as General Cariappa and General Thimayya. One should not miss the opportunity to be a guest at a Coorgi wedding or the feast which follows, as it is a fascinating experience, different from any other.

The fascination for the old and the new, the respect for tradition accompanying the search for modernity are most evident in the world of entertainment. Cinema going is a much loved pastime, especially in Bangalore, and some of the most artistic film makers come from Karnataka, like M.S. Sathyu and Girish Karnad. At the New Year festival of Yugadi, on the first day of the month of Chaitra, poetry reading festivals in Kannada and classical music conferences hold audiences enthralled. Love for poetry and music run deep here and its inclusion in daily life is a soothing, balancing influence in our mad world.

In Karnataka too, as everywhere in India, the wise past is ever-present, nourishing, cautioning and occasionally simply witnessing the youthful play of the present.


In most Indian communities, a bath or snan is de rigueur, a vital part of most cultural traditions. There re ways and ways of bathing but the oil bath prevalent in South India is a sure winner.

For the Kannadiga, an oil bath is both a link with the past and a way to ensure longevity, good skin and hair. In most traditional Kannada households, huge copper cauldrons for heating water are a permanent fixture and bespeak of a deep commitment to the fine art of an oil bath.

The ritual of an oil bath is definitely an art form. Contrary to its name, an oil bath is not about bathing in oil – you need a few ounces of gingelly or castor oil and gallons of hot water. It is not an idiosyncrasy on the part of the Kannadiga to have an oil bath but is a practise based on scientific principles. It is believed that regular oil baths help to banish ushna, the inner heat of the body, thereby preventing many ailments. The oil bath keeps the mind calm and ensures a healthy, glowing body.

An oil bath begins with liberal amounts of oil applied on the head and hair. The scalp is rubbed vigorously for it to absorb the oil. After some time, it is the body’s turn to be massaged well. A few minutes later, buckets of hot water are poured over the head and shoulders to wash off the excess oil not absorbed by the hair and body. The water must be as hot as possible to bear by the person. Then a natural soap solution, extracted from the soapnut is applied to the hair to get rid of the oil. The body is scrubbed with herbal powders and special mixes to wash off the oil. Hot water is poured repeatedly over the body and the result of this endeavour – a clean body and a relaxed mind. For adults, oil baths are a pleasure, an effective way of washing off stress but for children, oil baths are a punishment. Not only do they have to ensure sitting still for hours, but if the soapnut solution seeps into the eyes, the burning sensation persists for hours and is very painful.

The time taken over an oil bath is a matter of pride and varies from region to region in Karnataka. In Malnad, an oil bath stretches over a couple of hours unlike Mysore where it takes less than an hour. Second only to the Malayalis in the oil bath tradition, Kannadigas use at least ten to twelve buckets of water per person.

Haircare receives a fillip from the oil bath tradition, a fact verified by the long and lustrous hair most Kannadiga women have. Often after an oil bath, hair is not rubbed dry with a towel. Instead fragrant herbal powders are sprinkled onto charcoal embers over which a large loosely woven basket is upturned. The woman lies down with her hair spread over the basket and soon her hair dries in the fragrant smoke, absorbing much of the fragrance. In fact, there is a special ritual, the mogina jade to celebrate a maiden’s long, thick, beautiful back hair. In summer when the jasmines are in full bloom, young girls decorate their long plaits with jasmines and the family hair ornaments. They are then presented in all their finery to neighbours, friends and close relatives, almost akin to a debutante’s coming out ball in Western societies.

Photographs of this special day are sure to find a place in family albums and every girl has sweet memories of her mongina jade when she was the focus of everyone’s attention.

In today’s world, with its frantic pace of life, the oil bath is increasingly becoming an old fashioned luxury. Not many have the time or the means to indulge in regular oil baths. However, traditional Kannadigas still swear by the efficacy of the oil bath and this you can tell from their smiling faces.