Cary has become synonymous in Triangle parlance with the worst kind of suburban sprawl. But if you know where to look, it’s also home to the best kind of urban density. Take Chatham Square at the far eastern end of the central business district. In recent years, this nondescript, open-air shopping center near the intersection of Maynard Road has been reborn as a thriving hub of South Asian commerce. Here, you can get fitted for a sari, eat a gourmet vegetarian meal, have your eyebrows “threaded” and pick up the latest Bollywood video hit–all within a few big-city blocks. On Saturdays, the parking lot is a blur of pastel-colored silk and late-model mini-vans. The breeze is laced with something rich and hot; you can almost see the smells wafting out of open doorways in waves of marigold and brown.

It’s been almost 10 years since Nagi Reddy opened the Triangle Indian Market in one of the smaller storefronts here. Reddy, who began his career as a botanist, says he set up shop “almost as a hobby” since he already had a day job and no training in business. Since then, the food store has grown so popular it has moved to a bigger location in the shopping center and become the unofficial anchor of the surrounding “Little India.” (It also anchors Reddy’s own growing commercial fleet. Besides the market, he owns the Udipi Café up the block, which has a sumptuous vegetarian buffet. He also owns Spice and Curry restaurant in Durham and is a partner in Galaxy Cinema at Cary Towne Boulevard.)

Chatham Square is home to other ethnic stores. A Korean grocery and a Mexican restaurant are on the North Lake Street end. But on weekends, the crowds are predominantly South Asian.

When did the shopping center’s transformation begin?

“In 1998 and 1999 there was a big software boom and the Y2K problem, and companies here hired so many people from India,” explains Reddy, who is now happily dividing his 70-hour workweeks between his various businesses. “I opened my store and I convinced other Indian friends to open other businesses. Many people who come here to the market tell me they can’t find such things even in big cities like Chicago.”

Squeezing down the store’s stocked-to-overflowing spice aisle, it’s easy to see what he means. There are jars of orange sherbet-colored sambar, cumin, mustard seed, star anis, ginger, nutmeg and red chili powder that looks formidable even behind glass. In the freezer are Indian ice creams (Kaju Draksh, Falooda Kulfi and Tutti Fruiti are among the flavors) and in the veggie section are crates of Chinese okra, plantains, Thai eggplant and karela–which looks like a bumpier version of a cucumber–for $1.99 a pound.

Store clerk Gita Mohan says people come from Virginia and the Triad to shop here, adding, “It’s not just Indians but African and Mexican people too.” The market also has an extensive video and DVD collection that covers epics such as the Mahabharat, as well as the latest releases in a dozen regional South Indian languages.

A few doors down at Shamim Beauty Parlor, a couple of locals are getting their eyebrows “threaded.” This technique for thinning and shaping involves the deft movement of taut thread over a customer’s brows. The salon, which is located in a former dance studio and still has several mirrored surfaces, also specializes in bridal and party makeup (think henna tattoos). Owner Shamim Sheikh lived in New York before moving to Cary a decade ago. “This is my neighborhood,” she says proudly. “It’s really developed in the last three to four years. When I moved here, it used to be very quiet. Now, it’s like one-stop shopping. You can park and walk around to all these stores.” She’s been working on a Web site and other ways to draw more local clients. Something seems to be going right: The two women who are having their brows threaded this afternoon are first-time customers.

Across the parking lot, one of the shopping center’s newest stores is featuring a visit from an astrologer–a special each Saturday in March. Kalashri, which opened last fall, is a treasure trove of ethnic clothing, painting, jewelry and collectibles. The name means “ultimate in art,” says owner Raj Sirohi, a native of Delhi and former member of the Indian Army. But these pieces are meant for the home, not the museum. There are altars for deities of varying sizes; sofas decorated with foil and teakwood; silk cloth paintings; all manner of screens, cages and trunks–even a wine cabinet made from a “palki,” a medieval wooden litter for brides. Items range from the fanciful (pharaoh bookcases) to the fantastic (palm leaf paintings from the Kama Sutra). Prices range from bargains ($10 for handmade beaded purses) to big-ticket ($1,999 for a brass altar). In the sari corner, customers can buy ready-made outfits or multihued cloth for garments, curtains or furnishings. The best find in the store just might be Sirohi himself, with his chatty enthusiasm for ethnic art and artists. Want to know where this year’s spring festival is being held? He knows. Got a question about a particular Indian deity? Just ask. Oh, by the way, has he ever been to that rambling antique store across the street? He has.

Things we ran out of time to do in Chatham Square: browse through CDs at Palika Bazaar; sample “Indian fast food and ice cream” at Cool Breeze; ask about the Islamic clock at Super Grocery and Fresh Halal Meat (they sell goat, beef, chicken and lamb prepared according to Muslim ritual); order something from the Circus Family Restaurant across the street; see what Sirohi found to like about L.T. Fleming Antiques next door; go back for seconds at Udipi Café.