India: Saree

#8 in my India series. I walk among looms at a saree factory, part with a few more rupees and share what I learn about the risks of Delhi Belly (or worse).


This is #8 in my series on India.  If you are new to my blog and would like to start at the beginning, just follow the link below.

  1. India: Impressions


Our last day in Maitreyi, and an excursion to an organic cotton saree factory was on the cards. We were greeted at ETHICUS Appachi with snacks (khichdi, bottled water and malt biscuits) and staff who spoke very good English. A young woman in salwar kameez showed us samples of their cotton at each stage of its processing. Inside the factory floor, the men wove lengths of cloth at speed, bouncing on their bottoms like seated Bollywood dancers, coordinating rhythmic legs with arms. Weaving is men’s work; well-paid with opportunities for advancement as their skills improve. However, just as labour-intensive as weaving is the women’s work of spinning the coned yarn onto spindles for the shuttles, hand tying tassels, pressing and folding cloth and, of course, giving factory tours and swiping credit cards on Eftpos machines.

Along one of the corridors between the hand-built wooden looms, four men worked to wind the long warp threads of a 50,000 colour cloth yet to be woven, famous for its use of every Pantone colour. The finished articles were for sale in the shop – a desert square, checked scarf with corner tassels at $100AU. Some heavy shopping ensued, with a saree wrapping demonstration and many deliberations over table cloths and napkins. I grew tired of this pretty quickly and played musical chairs with others who found shopping tedious. Later in my Indian adventure, I also had the curious pleasure of being wrapped in a saree – mainly for the enjoyment of my host. That was the plasticky, stiff kind of saree made in synthetic fibres and looked ridiculous on me (as evidenced by some embarrassing photos). Here at the factory, ETHICUS Appachi are making something much more special and price their sarees accordingly.

My own quick and decisive purchase at the factory was a coarse cotton stole with indigo yarn-dyed border and square pattern. It took me about ten seconds to decide that was all I needed. It is thick and a little rough, in stark contrast to the finest beige muslin being woven at snail’s pace by the factory’s master weaver. Specially made for a baby-wear brand based in Paris, he worked meticulously on the cloth, gently hand-tying broken warp threads and ensuring the even spacing of the weft. He smiled as he worked and took pride in showing us his skill.

Having been living at a vedic retreat for a week at this point, I had time to reflect on subtle changes in my digestion. Our three square meals bookended and bookmarked our day; breakfast at 8am, lunch at 1pm and dinner done by 7pm. We’d been supplied with wonderful thalis; millet porridge, idli, coconut chutney, sambar and fruit for breakfast; mild curries and boiled vegetables with popadoms and a jaggery pudding at lunchtime; more curry for dinner with chapatis, stories from our day and plans for an early night. Although everything was delicious, I often felt ravenously hungry between meals as we had no animal protein, not even eggs. Even the milky masala chai tea I had to avoid most days, due to an almost lifelong intolerance of dairy.

Curiously, since my month in India spent gradually consuming more and more unpasteurised milk products, as well as those that had been boiled post-pasteurisation, I’ve developed a new and enduring tolerance to dairy. Back home, I can now eat cheeses of all kinds, drink milk and consume copious amounts of ice-cream without unpleasant consequence. It’s a revelation. But what is truly miraculous is my avoidance of gastro at all during my trip. I ate salads, meat and seafood, drank tap water* and ordered drinks with ice in them. I even ate with my hands most of the time. It is considered a very pitta trait, of course, to have a cast iron stomach, but clearly I was very lucky. Before embarking on my trip, I’d been told a story by someone who couldn’t verify its truthfulness, but amused me with it all the same. Apparently, an Australian woman she didn’t know personally was disappointed to be leaving India without contracting the gastro she desired to lose some weight. As a last hurrah, she licked the floor of Delhi airport and died three days later.

Becoming sick or injured in India would be pretty bad by my reasoning, as medical centres are just hole-in-the-wall sort of adventures and hospitals seem few and far between in cities that feel like sprawling ghettos. I didn’t get to see inside hospitals so can’t comment on facilities, staffing or sanitisation. My advice? Just avoid street food. It’s filthy and grossly unhealthy anyway as it’s deep fried and then left in putrid old pans in the sun. But worse than that are the habits of the men who are cooking it – not one of them washes their hands after peeing, shitting or spitting right beside their stall. Then they hand you the food. You decide.


* Tap water in India is a very risky thing to consume, harbouring parasites, bacteria and heavy metals like arsenic so I do not recommend you drink it as I did. The most I drank at any one time was about half a cup and only out of politeness to my host. With Aquatabs in my backpack, I was able to reuse my plastic bottles by refilling then purifying many litres of my daily drinking water. 

Khichdi – comfort food cooked in one pot; rice, lentils, coconut and cashews. Pronounced sort of like ‘kid-ja-dee’

Salwar Kameez – trousers and tunic of varying styles, often worn with a matching scarf. 

Idli – little white pancakey things, plain and made of rice flour (I think).

Sambar – lentil and tamarind watery curry with vegetables like beans, shallots, okra and tomatoes. 

Jaggery – Indian cane sugar and a good source of minerals. 


Want to keep reading…?

9. India: Tourists

10. India: Blue 

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