New year celebrations, announced in urban heartlands get so much coverage that cyclical and quasi agricultural festivities come and go by rather quietly. This January has been something of a bonanza for the quieter festivals.Of course a lot of these festivals are celebrated in South India, sometimes in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Often times Andhra and Karnataka also pitch in and the Southern countryside reverberates with the celebrations. On some occasions most of rural India comes together to celebrate harvest festivals.
This year Thiruvadarai fell on a sunday, the eighth of January.The Thiruvadarai festival is bound by the complex rituals of fasting and feasting. Primarily celebrated by women and young girls, it marks the metamorphosis of Manmathan (the god of love) who had been reduced to cinders by the radiation from Shiva's third eye. Cajoled by Uma who supposedly attains Shiva through long austerities on this particular day, Manmathan is allowed to take on a formless entity. So young women desirous of marriage to Shiva like husbands fast and pray. Meanwhile married women celebrate eternal cosmic concupiscence by collecting in groups, having ritual baths in rivers and ponds with much singing and joyous dancing
While we were encouraged to bathe diurnally, the same stimulus was not extended to ritual dancing on such occasions. So we grew up with sombre and measured annual Thiruvadarai celebrations whose collateral benefits were delicious foods, produced by skilled in house female labour. There is golden brown kali, made by washing, drying roasting and then grinding rice into a semolina type texture. To this roasted mung lentils are added. The rice and lentil mix are boiled in jaggery water with coconut shavings and subsequently pressure cooked. What we get is a delicious sweet rice, to which a garnish of ghee and nuts is added. This is served along with a dish usually made of seven root vegetables(yezhu thaan kootu) cooked with spices and tamarind. Living in the North, away from a lot of root vegetables, new culinary variations have asserted themselves, but a combination of potato, cauliflower, zucchini, peas and carrots and sweet potato garnished with coconut makes for a delicious combine.
A few days after Thiruvadaria begins the onrush of harvest festivals. Boghi in the South and Lohri in the North are celebrated at this time. Beginning with Boghi, celebrated to propitiate the rain god into sending good showers, spring clean the house and throw household waste into bonfires, all these festivals are an exercise in outstanding cosmic PR. Lohri is part of the harvest festival in Punjab and North India , celebrating the last day of the sun in Sagittarius and heralding the end of the intense cold season. Bonfires are lit in front of houses and til, gur, peanuts and popcorn are distributed. Everyone collects around the bonfire to partake of all these snacks and songs and merriment.
This is followed by Makar Sankranti and this is time for thanksgiving to the Sun god for an abundant harvest. Apparently all the slumbering devas wake up, possibly to the smells of til patti and pongals and this morning is so auspicious that everybody rushes off to bathe in nearby holy rivers, in the hope of an instant cold water cleansing adrenalin high, if not the promise of eventual salvation. They are of course in hallowed company, because an original patriarch, Bhisma Pitamah waited for this day to arrive in order to depart from this world, of course in a yuga long gone by? Makar Sankranti is apparently celebrated all over southern Asia, is known by different names and a range of festivities. The common uniting link is the fact that it marks the progression of the sun in the sign of Capricorn or makara.
Makara sankranti is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu. In the South rice and lentils and rice and jaggery are boiled together to make pongals, both salt and savoury and teamed up with a coconut and yoghurt vegetable stew called avial. Within individual homes large quantities of pongal and avial are made and trays carried to the homes of immediate neighbours. Visitors to the house and domestic help also share in the feasting in the cities.
The Pongal season ends with Kanu Pongal, which falls a day after pongal. Kanu pongal is reminiscent of rakshabandan because the festival involves praying for the welfare of brothers worldwide. Brothers usually toodle off, in search of the pot of gold at the end of distant rainbows and Kanu is the quaint custom of making offerings to cows and birds (usually sparrows and crows) while praying for the well being of brothers. Since cows are bespoke in urban areas and relatively difficult to access, we have confined ourselves to feeding the birds.
.The birds who visit my terrace wonder at the largess doled out on huge leaves for them. There are servings of pongal, sweet and salt and avial and assorted coloured rice rolled into tiny balls. Whimsical human, they say to each other over the unexpected one day annual feast that turns a Nelson's eye to their dining requirements for the rest of the year. What of the brothers who are invoked? Do these symbolic rituals tug at their heartstrings, remind them of their natal homes, older associations and connections shared childhoods and slowly fraying ancient dreams?
The varieties of rice though provide a multi-hued palette of colours for the eye and flavours for the palate, reiterating the vibrant shades and textures of a bountiful harvest. The pictures below are from last year's Kanu Pongal platters.