Forget spandex, it's saris for Bangalore joggers

Undeterred by flowing saris or tunics, modest Indian exercise enthusiasts take to a city park with gusto.

Many wear saris. Some don salwar kameezes, knee-length Indian tunics with loose pants. Others sport track pants and tees. One or two can't leave their burqas behind for religious reasons.

These women have come to a 300-acre wooded haven in the heart of congested Bangalore to walk and jog - minus any contour-hugging lycra or spandex.

The concern for modesty rubs off on men as well. They're attired mostly in baggy shorts and tees, though some wear slacks. One or two are wrapped in an Indian white dhoti, the costume favored by Gandhi.

Jogging and walking are catching on in India, but few places can match the zeal and camaraderie found in Cubbon Park. In other parts of the world, fitness is a grueling, lonely experience, with i-Pods or perhaps a personal trainer for company. But here, there's little that's personal about personal fitness. Working out is an outing - with sons, uncles, brothers, grandmothers, husbands, wives, daughters, cousins, and family relations only Indians could invent.

"Sometimes the park is so full that we walk brushing shoulder to shoulder," says Indira Shanmugam, a Cubbon Park regular for two decades.

Personal trainers seem redundant when everybody is interested in your absence yesterday and the pace of your exercise. "Why are you going so slowly?" one woman asks a man. Another comes to the sluggard's defense: "It's his second round, that's why."

Shutting oneself off with an i-Pod seems unthinkable. That might preempt possible romantic interludes, domestic exchanges, professional schmoozing, or just plain gossip.

You meet so many people here," says Mrs. Shanmugam, waving to a woman going the opposite way. "I met her here." She drops the name of an important judge: "He comes to Cubbon Park."

Shanmugam, a yoga instructor, bristles at the notion that the fitness craze was brought to India's "Silicon Valley" by Indians just returned from the US, known locally as NRIs (nonresident Indians). "The NRIs don't come here," she says. "Nor do the young professionals. They have their own gyms and lawns in their condominiums."

Only in the past five years have gyms become a phenomenon. Now they are commonplace in middle- and upper-class areas. But the regulars of Cubbon Park were way out ahead of the craze.

Shanmugam suggests the fitness culture grew out of Bangalore's heritage as a former British cantonment. The city has always had retired military personnel living close to the 140-year-old park, which borders most of the key institutions, such as the legislative assembly building, courthouse, museum, and library. Ex-soldiers and professionals would walk over to the park to exercise.

Its roads are closed between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. That's when joggers and walkers enjoy a space where the cool air, freshened by rain trees and jacarandas, offers a pleasant contrast to city odors.

Serious disciples fan out on the central lawn. A thirty-something group engages in the controlled movements of tai chi; a young trio does push-ups.

And then there are the women in saris. They don't jog; they just walk briskly. But in one group, the women, clad in the six yards of flowing cloth that define a sari, bravely execute jumping jacks. "Their families are conservative and won't let them wear anything else," says Shanmugam, who is in track pants. [Editor's note: The original version understated the amount of cloth used to make a sari.]

Wardrobe malfunctions seem imminent. But the ladies transcend their sartorial limitations, their tennis shoes flashing as they leap.

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