Cultural symbolism of sweat


South asian cultures have an aversion to sweat. Sweat is an odious indicator of manual labour, and by extension social inferiority. In ancient times as it is now, physical labour occupies the basement of the socio-economic pyramid.  In the cultural subconscious it signifies poverty and servitude. Representing minimal education and lack of prospects — polite language for that old unmentionable — low caste. 

As a supposedly Democratic Socialist Republic, we celebrate the noble sweat drenched toil of the farmer and the worker. Superficially for political purposes of course. The epitome of which are silly events where past and current kings strutted their farmer/king role in a mockery of ancient tradition. Then waltz off in the cool of their palanquins back to the palace behind barricades.

In the daily reality, to sweat (outside the realm of sports or the gym) is to suffer. Whether in the fields, forward defence lines, or a bus stuck in traffic. Consequently, air conditioning is valued (at an unspoken primal level) as an essential protection against sweating. It is more consistent than the organic fresh breeze and holds back the invisible demon of humidity — something outside the power of a mere fan. 

Protection against sweat is the primal power that access to air conditioning exudes. It is the basis of air conditioning’s place as a status symbol in Sri Lanka – something I have blogged about to an annoying degree. Thankfully this post is the last drop I can wring from the topic.

The easiest way for a male to demonstrate his imperviousness is to wear a tie. A ridiculous noose in the usual humidity. Its impracticality clearly separates the wearer from unfortunate associations of manual labour.  By extension represents access to air conditioning and with it an association with managerial authority. At a subtle level, is an array of deodorants which I find uncomfortably feminine for a man to wear.

The tie — like the role of English in Sri Lanka – is an extremely loaded symbol in Sri Lankan culture. A topic  that requires a separate blog post if not a book. Until then there’s the comment box below.

Yes yes there’s a war on too.

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