Let’s get this right out of the way: yes, there are open sewers. Yes, they can smell truly awful. There are certain streets in Tiruvannamalai where they are especially… breath-taking, even when they’re mostly covered with slabs of concrete. You learn to walk across them on an exhale, or if you have to walk parallel to them, stay as far across the street as possible. I don’t remember it being quite as strong last time I was here. Either the rain last month made it more noticeable, or perhaps I had blocked the memory.
Sometimes you’ll catch a whiff of sewer while you’re waiting for your meal at a restaurant. That’s always pleasant. Our bathroom sink occasionally offers a hint at what’s below, and we have these sort of mothball tablets resting on the drain that don’t smell that great themselves but at least smell better than a sewer, so there’s that.
As you know, India is the land of extremes, so with the gross there’s the glorious. Incense is everywhere and I for one find that to be awesome. The selection is fantastic and super cheap. There’s some burning in all the temples and many homes, and you’ll catch whiffs as you wander a neighbourhood. I visited Mysore on my last trip in 2016 and it’s one of the best-smelling places I’ve ever been. The marketplace with rows of stalls selling incense and perfume oils and just truckloads of flowers for garlands and offerings – dizzying. And there were so many flowers in bloom I’d never seen or smelled before; I picked a blossom that turned out to be some special variety of frangipani, and carried it around huffing it the rest of the day because it was so gently powdery and sweet and I wanted everything to smell like that all the time.
If you have any kind of lung issues, of course, the incense here is not going to appeal to you much. For that matter, neither is the burning garbage that you’ll encounter from time to time, as many Indians find this the most efficient way to get rid of stuff – be it paper or plastic – and either aren’t informed or aren’t bothered by the health hazards. (At least composting is taken care of. The wandering cows do all that work, and it’s WAY more fun to give your compost to an appreciative cow that to just shove it in a bin for the city to collect.) Also, the spraying of DDT in rice fields and on city streets might also not be to your liking. If it bothers you, you can always play “would you rather”: do you prefer a hearty lungful of a notorious, environment-damaging insecticide, or a potential dose of dengue fever from a local mosquito?
Surprisingly, there’s less cigarette smoke here than I had expected when I first came. It may be a regional thing – I haven’t really seen too much of the rest of India. Or it may be a cost thing – likely it’s a smaller subset of Indians who could afford a cigarette habit (betel leaves are more popular around here). So you may be breathing in a lot more burning BPAs than you would in, say, France. But not a fraction of the cigarette smoke you’d get there!
Although Tiru doesn’t have the aromatic splendour of Mysore, there’s still plenty of incense and flowers in the temples and shrines to keep you dancing. A swami walks around Ramanasramam now and then waving a fan at a platterful of burning frankincense, which I adore. Some Indian women wear jasmine garlands in their hair before going to temple, and when those are at nose level it’s a heady moment. On my last trip here, I bought one of the garlands and put it around my neck. After a while I noticed a few Indian women snickering at me, and I gathered that I was only supposed to put that in my hair…. but why would I want to put it somewhere that it’s impossible for me to smell it?! I could live off jasmine fumes!
The irony is that I’m recovering from a cold as I write this, and I can’t smell much of anything. Does that make me incense-itive? At least I’m sniffing fewer sewers.