The Legendary Lungi

Adapted from a piece by our friend Chiplunkar I bring you the tale of the legendary lungi. It’s pronounced “Lu” as in “Loo” and “ungi” which rhymes with “Mongey” (add your nasal Malyali accent here). The lungi is worn by men in the South Indian states and worn with pride by all men in Kerala. You see a man in a lungi and you assume he’s up to no good. But this is not the case in Kerala where men of all stature – shop keepers, auto drivers, MLAs – will sport the revolutionary garb. Just as the state bird of Kerala is the mosquito, her state attire is the lungi.

The lungi has a sister in the “sarong” of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. But none of these countries can match the utilitarian value of the the lungi in India. My husband wears lungis with great pride and has a collection that can rival Donna Karen’s fabric range. In the Navy a man who wears a lungi is held in very high esteem – he is a real man. Here is a picture of his distinguished collection:

Lungi collection

The lungi is simple and down to earth, much like the Malyali wearing it. It is just a strip of cloth that you wrap around your waist and tie to secure. Many people will stitch the two ends of the lungi so one has a hoola-hoop around the waist till the ankles. This technique of tying the lungi might seem simple but it requires breath control and yoga contortions and it gives the wearer much joy to tie and re-tie his lungi, usually flapping it around and airing it out of trapped odours in the process.  The lungi is not held up by a belt, velcro, rope or duct tape. It is mallu magic that keeps it from dropping to the ground, revealing all beneath the veil of shame. The technique of tying the lungi is passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and legend, much like the British Constitution.

The Lungi can evolve no further – it is at the top of its sartorial evolutionary category. It is a one-size-fits-all affair. The only thing that changes is the pattern and there are hundreds of these – checks, floral curtain patterns, dots, stripes etc.The fancy version of the lungi is the “mundu” in Kerala and “Vaishti” in Tamil Nadu. This is white or cream with a gold or green and red thin border worn at births, deaths, weddings, festivals and bandh (strike) days.

The lungi can be adorned with a half sleeved shirt, T-Shirt, baniyan or nothing at all on the top half. The only footwear accompanying the lungi is bathroom slippers (flip flops), sandals or no footwear at all. A lungi can be worn at full mast or half mast. The full mast lungi is worn to show respect to elders,  the dead and to guard the purity of delicate ladies against the rainforest that coats the mallu man’s legs. The major disadvantage of the full mast lungi is when you are being chased by a dog. Running in a lungi can result in stepping on the front of it and bringing down the tent. To change from the full mast to half mast position, the mallu man will flick the bottom edge of lungi up from the ground with a expertly co-ordinated manoeuvre using the snap of the heel of the foot, catching the bottom edge just as it rises up for a second, as fast as a Clint Eastwood’s gun draw. The half mast lungi is far more versatile. One can play cricket, jump on to a moving train, dance freely and even climb a coconut tree. Manu’s laws state that ladies from good families will not look up at a man climbing a coconut tree to protect her modesty.

Malyalis wear the lungi all year round. In summer the lungi provides an excellent cooling system and easy ventilation for between the legs. The lungi will help malyalis combat global warming. A lungi can be worn at any time of the day or night, to wear in public or to sleep in. At night when it gets chilly the lungi can be pulled over the head and can double up as blanket and night dress. The multiple uses of the lungi included: a swing or hammock to rock a baby to sleep, swim wear, sleeping bag, parachute, face mask, handkerchief, napkin, shopping basket and fishing net. “Lungi pulling” – the recreational sport of pulling off another’s lungi is common in households with two male members or among toddy shop patrons.

The Lungi Wearing Mallu Union (LUW MU, pronounced LOVE MU) an NGO that works for the upliftment of the lungi strongly disapprove of GenNext wearing bermuda shorts with corporate logos under their lungis. They believe that American corporations in league with the CIA are restricting the lungi wearer’s freedom of movement and expression.

As the years go by the lungi becomes as soft as an appam but as holes begin to develop the lungi is eventually decommissioned to enter a new life as a table cloth or duster. The lungi is a truly classic Indian product – multi-purpose, reusable and built to stand the summer heat.

About nonsense girl

Galley slave, freelance ethnographer, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden. London returned, married my best friend, a Tamilian stuck in Andhra. www.nonsensegirl.wordpress.com
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2 Responses to The Legendary Lungi

  1. gkorula says:

    Brilliant! You are truly a lungi aficionado and I urge you to shed the shorts and return to your lungis – grab a tablecloth if you must. I didn’t know that the direction of the lungi-tie differed between religious communities. Next time in Kerala I shall investigate whether this is urban legend or fact. Love it! Keep reading

  2. mh says:

    the flick of the lungi to halfmast it is an art perfected just as you flicked the rifle or the sword with class and confidence! you did that with elan and you were ‘in’.

    i still remember vividly the day i graduated from knickers to the lungi..it was indeed this six feet of versace that separated the men from the boys.

    actually the very nomenclature of the piece of cloth varies with designs.there are cheqed lungis which are endearingly called ‘kalli’, which has metamorphosed to ‘kaili’ which is just another lungi in a different name.just that it has executive cheqs.

    theres that saffron lungi- called kavi and ayyappa black lungis!

    even religious identities could be gleaned from the lungi, with one community wearing it from left to right and another the other way round.

    lungi- north of kasaragod is the omnibus word for every wrap. i must say the nuance of the lungi gets lost in that word. i have felt like weeping when course mates asked me if i wore a lungi for my wedding! just as lungi was for low life and freedom, the mundu was formal! thence life becomes complicated with double and single layers, double color borders and so on..

    i remember the imported synthetic lungis that never ever obeyed ones orders..but one still wore it for style statement. ive also seen malaysian batik lungis being a fad in early eighties.

    incidentally the india today(?) last week had a snippet that indicated how the humble lungi is en vogue on ramps in europe. that’s ‘lungi today’.

    alas, i wear fabindia shorts today..a far cry from lungi. some day i will reevolve back to le lungi

    really loved the lungi one. please keep them coming. thank you!

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