Monday, January 16, 2012

Festivities in the New Year

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.


  1. I like the way you have stacked the rice items over a green bun (unless of course it is a wall painting). How did you do that? Looks delicious too with the pasta ribbon on top. Totally out of this world!

    1. the pasta ribbon is actually flat rice noodles in a sesame paste? and the plates refused to be uploaded any other way: therefore the wall painting effect?

  2. Goofy’s comment notwithstanding, it is a nice travel down the memory lane for those that remember Thiruvathirai of yesteryears. It was a community festival those days in the agraharams and a lot of cowdung and rangoli was involved too besides the feasting and fasting. Today it is not considered a sterile environment for the new generation and you seldom hear of Thiruvathirai festival except perhaps in Chidambaram. Thiruvathirai is the sixth star, Ardra in Sanskrit, and is the Goddess of good luck and fortune. And she is celebrated on the full moon day in Dhanur masa in Hindu mythology. She is also known as Betelgeuse by astronomers. It is the brightest star (about 30 million times larger than our Sun) and is next in line to go supernova in about 10 million years. I guess that’s when lady luck runs out of steam. Ironically, the symbol commonly used for Betelgeuse is a tear drop!