Why do Tamils paint their cows?

I’ve just been looking back over this blog and noticed the post about Pongal from 2012. If you want to know why Tamils paint their cows you will need to read this! Today is Day 1 of Pongal, so I would like to wish a happy festival to all of my friends who will be celebrating.

In the previous post I mention the beautiful green rice fields after the monsoon. Sadly, there is less rice in the fields this year after a poor monsoon so everyone is hoping that this year things will get back to normal.

Happy Pongal!

 

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There’s an elephant in the High Street!

Last week I took some of the guests to visit our local town of Dindigul, a great place to see life as it is for millions of Indian people today.  Whilst there we were lucky enough to witness the Masi festival of the local Kottai Mariamman Temple.

The streets were crowded with people there for the opening ceremony of the month long festival.  First of all we came across stalls which were giving away free food – sponsored by local temples or businesses.

Free food!

We then moved into the Palani road.  This is where we usually buy electronic goods, computer equipment, building supplies etc. yet on this day we found it to be a swirling riot of colours, incredible noise and subtle scents.  For me it felt very strange to see the road thronged with people carrying their temple gifts on their heads…

Celebrating the goddess

…or playing their drums for the deity.

Temple drummers

 An incredible mixture of the ancient and modern.  But that was just the beginning!  To our surprise we saw a temple elephant leading the procession.

elephant in the High Street

A beautiful creature decked out in its festival finery and decorative paint.

temple elephant in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu

Three men accompanied the elephant – two on foot and one riding – to ensure that she remained calm and played her role to perfection.

Palani Road, Dindigul with elephantt

As with all temple elephants, this one could be persuaded to pass on her blessing.  All that our guest was required to do was to place 10 rupees in her trunk (which she passed to her mahout) and then bow his head for her to place her trunk on him in blessing.

Blessing from temple elephant

Many people handed their children up to sit on the elephant – either to take a photo or as a blessing – but many of the children were not impressed!

riding the temple elephant, Dindigul

we are not amused!

The amount of time that goes into preparing the elephants robes is impressive.

temple elephants robes, India

We thought we had seen everything and were just about to move on when the car carrying the goddess approached.

Temple car, Palani Road, Dindigul

This was a huge trailer covered in flowers, the bright patters which adorned it were also flowers attached to the superstructure.  The worshippers pushed and jostled and crowded around to get as close as they could to hand over gifts of flowers either at this car or one of the ones following.

Temple car, Tamil Nadu, India

There were thousands of people, each with their small bag of flowers, and the scent was overpowering.  The flowers were to be used by the priests during the day as they offered unbroken puja (worship) to the goddess  for 24 hours, so everyone knew that their flowers would be placed on the shrine at some point during the day.

Goddess of the Kottai Mariamman Temple, Dindigul Tamil Nadu

HIndu priest collecting the flowers

The festival will continue for the rest of this month although the remaining processions will take place at night so that more people can attend – and stop further disruption to one of the busiest streets in Dindigul.

Flowers placed before the Hindu goddess

We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon such an act of worship in the middle of a bustling town, and to have been treated with such kindness and generosity by all whom we met –both man and beast!

Hindu priest, South India

Hindu temple elephant, Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, South India

For the local newspaper article please see The Hindu

A light by any other name…

Deepawali light

Sorry I’ve been away for so long but I have been experiencing issues with internet connection – one of the joys of living in rural southern India!

Last week saw the whole of India caught up in the four day celebration of Deepawali (shortened to Diwali), the biggest Hindu festival. It is the festival of lights (deep meaning light and avail meaning a row i.e., a row of lights).

The origin of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India, when it was probably an important harvest festival although there are many different legends about how it began. Some believe it is the celebration of the marriage of Lakshmi with Vishnu. In Bengal the festival is dedicated to the worship of Kali. Most people worship Ganesh at home during Diwali as he is a symbol of wisdom and good fortune. Diwali also commemorates the return of Rama with his wife Sita after Rama had been in exile for 14 years. It also remembers how Rama killed the demon-king Ravana, so is a celebration of good overcoming evil. It is said that, to celebrate the safe return of their king, the people of Ayodhya lit the whole kingdom with little clay lamps and set of fireworks.

The first day of the festival, Naraka Chaturdasi, celebrates how Krishna killed the demon king Naraka.

On the second day of the festival, Amavasya, people worship Lakshmi the goddess of wealth. Amavasya also tells the story of Vishnu who defeated the tyrant Bali and banished him to hell. Bali was allowed to return to earth once a year, to light millions of lamps to dispel ignorance and darkness and to spread love and wisdom. It is on the third day of Deepawali — Kartika Shudda Padyami – that Bali steps out of hell and lights the lamps to signify good defeating evil.

The fourth day, Yama Dvitiya, is a family day where sisters invite their brothers to their homes.

So, for four days, all of India (including Athoor village!) celebrated Diwali with lamps and fireworks which are said to be an expression of thanks to the gods for health, wealth, knowledge, peace and prosperity; some say that the sound of the fireworks lets the gods know how thankful people are for the goodness they have received.

So, in all of the stories connected with Diwali, we see good overcoming evil, and there is the hope that this will continue through the next year. There is an expectation that humans have a part to play in this, committing ourselves to doing good deeds to bring us closer to divinity.

During the celebration of Diwali there are lights everywhere, the scent of incense and candles, a feeling of togetherness, hope and joy. And at this time, all around the world there are other people getting ready to celebrate their ‘festival of lights’. The Jews are looking forward to Channukha whilst Advent and Christmas will soon been here for Christians.

All over the world people of different faiths are celebrating together the triumph of good over evil; light dispelling ignorance and darkness; the coming of joy and hope. As a turbulent 2012 draws to a close perhaps we should take time to reflect on all the things which we share in common rather than all the things which divide us.

Diwali lights

A new star rises…India Independence day

65 years ago today India became a free nation. I can think of no better way to celebrate that than to leave with you some of the words spoken by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, just moments before the midnight hour on 14th August 1947. It is surprising how, 65 years later, those words still describe the Indian nation, now moving forward into a new chapter of her history.

Happy Independence Day!

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment, we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity…

….The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?…

…The past is over and it is the future that beckons us now. That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfill the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

And so we have to labour and to work, and to work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart. Peace is said to be indivisible, so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.

To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.

The appointed day has come -the day appointed by destiny- and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent. The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken. Yet the turning-point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about.

It is a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia and for the world. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the East, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materializes. May the star never set and that hope never be betrayed!

We rejoice in that freedom, even though clouds surround us, and many of our people are sorrow-stricken and difficult problems encompass us. But freedom brings responsibilities and burdens and we have to face them in the spirit of a free and disciplined people…

…The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.

We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be. We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.

To the nations and people of the world we send greetings and pledge ourselves to cooperate with them in furthering peace, freedom and democracy. And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service.

Jawaharlal Nehru, 14th August 1947.

 

Police, chicken biriyani and a Hindu god

 

There is just one day a year when I would ask you to not visit us at Lakeside.  This year that day was18th July.  The Sadaiyandi festival.

The path up the hillside

Just five minutes walk from us are two banyan trees.  Beneath one is a statue of Durga, a mother goddess, whom women pray to if they want a child.  Under the other is a statue of Sadaiyandi who is a local protector god.  From the banyan grove there is a steep narrow winding footpath up the hillside to a small cave temple.  Inside are some small statues to various gods including Ganesh who is always a great favourite in south India.  This small cave has been a focus of worship for as long as people can remember.

On the day of the festival at least 40,000 (yes forty thousand!) people travel down our single track road to the grove, most of them climb the hillside to the cave before having a picnic in the grove or down by

The cave temple

the lake.  To describe it as ‘chaotic’ would not be too far from the mark.  Hindu worship is always lively and to have so many people in one place can lead to arguments, accidents on the hillside, pick-pockets, drunkenness – the same as anywhere in the world where huge crowds gather.

To monitor all of this 150 police officers are stationed in the area, a particular focus is down by the lake to make sure no one tries to go swimming after drinking – there have been drownings in past years.  Lakeside hosts the group of 10 or more police Inspectors who have overall charge of the festival, providing them with a chicken biriyani lunch and a place to rest when off duty.  We enjoy it very much as it gives us a chance to get to know them better, and discourages ‘sight-seers’ from the temple!

For us the night before the festival is the most difficult part as there are fireworks and music all night long.

No sleep for us on the night of Sadaiyandi festival!

View from the cave temple

An Indian Catholic wedding in Tamil Nadu

We recently attended the wedding of some Indian Christian friends.  The groom has been incredibly helpful to us in banking matters since our arrival in India, and we now feel like a part of his family.  The couple both come from a village on the south-east coast of Tamil Nadu – a very strong Christian area with Portuguese influence.

 

 

 

As with all Indian weddings music is very important and each couple hires a band to welcome them to the church and lead them in procession from it.

 

 

 

Here, the groom is entering the church under a double umbrella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have been to many Indian weddings and they all have their attraction.  There is a calm solemnity in the Muslim weddings, and a lively exuberance in the Hindu weddings.  I personally found the Catholic Christian wedding service and mass most enjoyable because the entire congregation participated in the hymns, creeds and prayers.  For me there was a sense of participation which I found quite moving.

 

 

 

 

During the service the couple made their vows and exchanged rings before lighting candles around a cross.  They also exchange beautiful garlands which is a typical part of all Indian weddings, no matter what the religion.

 

The bride wore a beautiful traditional sari, and also a white veil and train at least 10 feet long!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As they emerged from the church after the service the band played loudly and enthusiastically while the happy couple were led to their car under the double umbrella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the reception they cut the cake

which was shared with the guests whilst the couple made themselves comfortable on their ‘throne’ on the stage.

 

 

 

Guests then went in turn to formally great the couple on the stage and wish them all the best for the future.

 

 

 

We wish the happy couple all the best for their future life together!

Easter Greetings from Lakeside

The state of Tamil Nadu has a population of over 72 million (2011 census figures). It is a vibrabant population with deep spiritual roots, and many of our foreign guests at Lakeside are surprised by the diversity of faiths – the biggest building in our village of Athoor is a Catholic church.

88.3% of the population of Tamil Nadu are Hindu, 6% Christian, 5.5% Muslim with the remaining very small number belonging to other faiths (e.g. Jains). In the towns and villages of Tamil Nadu the religions live side by side; although Christians and Muslims tend to have their own living areas centred around their places of worship these are well integrated into the life of their neghbours. The capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai, is believed ot be the place where Saint Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus, was martyred and so Christianity has a rich history in this area.

We currently have five staff at Lakeside, two of whom are Christian with the remaining three Hindu. Today, our two Christian staff are on leave, celebrating Easter with their families. We would also llike to take the opportunity today to wish a very Happy Easter to all of our friends and customers from everyone here at Lakeside.

The owners and staff at Lakeside wish you a very happy and peaceful Easter.

How to cure chicken-pox – The Muttaiamma festival

Fire pot for Muttaiamma

This festival, which lasts for four days, is specific only to the two villages closest to where we live – Athoor and Akkarapatti – and two days ago was the main day for celebrating.  The festival is in honour of ‘Chicken Mother’, the goddess who is believed to be able to cure you of illness, particularly of chicken-pox.  (In Tamil ‘muttai’ means egg and ‘amma’ means mother).  Regardless of your views on the Hindu pantheon (see my earlier post about Ganesh) there was a great deal of devotion and spirituality on display at this festival.

I was privileged to be invited along to join the celebrations and share in a family meal afterwards.

This is a family festival, as are all Indian celebrations, and these children have the day off school to attend.

An extra day off school!

Each village closes its school for the local festivals but have to make up the time elsewhere so that all schools are open for the same number of days during the year.

In the evening the goddess will be paraded around the village in this vehicle, and those who have taken part will share in a special dish made from seven varieties of rice, dhal and beans.

Bathing in the river

But first the main participants will bathe in the local river (the level rather low now that summer is here!) with their family supporters looking on and drummers creating a rhythmic backing.

Each participant carries a clay pot of fire from the river to the temple, over a kilometre away.  To create the fire they burn neem wood and ghee (clarified butter).

The pots are carried in the bare hands – no gloves – and everyone is milling around to try to stay close to family and friends. 

There seems to be no such thing a ‘health and safety’ at a celebration like this!

 It takes incredible devotion to carry two of these pots at the same time.

Circling the temple

 All of those carrying the pots (both men and women) wear garlands of flowers.  Once they reach the centre of the village they walk once around the temple before going inside.

Inside the temple

 The interior of the temple is very hot and filled with smoke (hence the poor quality of the picture!).  The pots are taken to the altar for a blessing and then the people move back outside.

This pot is being carried by Satish who works for us at Lakeside. 

To show her devotion this woman is being rolled along the ground around the temple.  I don’t know if she was rolled all the way from the river or just at the temple – I had varying explanations!

As you can see, her clothing is wet.  This is not just from the river but because we had our first rain of the year that day too – a very auspicious sign for the festival.

Using neem leaves to protect from burns

There are obviously burn injuries during the festival where people brush up against the pots, or just from carrying them.  The burns are treated with crushed neem leaves; this man is using neem leaves to carry his pot (he has probably already burned his hands). 

The neem is a large tree (growing up to 35 metres tall) and is valued for its medicinal properties – hence its use at the festival of a healing goddess.

The pots are carried from the temple to the other side of the village where they are floated on ponds.

As evening draws nearer this family are watching the father take the pot down to the water.  The Sirumalai hills make a perfect backdrop.

This young boy has just recovered (or maybe just recovering?) from an illness, possibly chicken-pox, and has been painted to attract the mother-goddess’ attention and to ask for her healing.  He is wearing bundles of neem leaves.

The pots are carried into the water and carefully floated on the surface.

If you look closely you can just see our ‘little blue boy’ on the right hand side of the picture.

The paint is washed off of the boy by his father whilst prayers are said for his recovery and in thanks to the goddess.

After releasing their pots the participants have a final ritual bath in the water.

Offerings to Muttaiamma

 To see the pots floating on the water in the gathering dusk is a truly beautiful sight.

Indian village wedding

The ceremony took place at a very small temple just a few yards from the brides home.  The building was so small that the wedding took place outside.  It all began with the gifts to the gods being blessed during puja (worship).  Coconuts and bananas feature heavily in the ceremony.  The priest rings a bell and carries a flame to signify the presence of the gods while the couple exchange beautiful garlands of flowers.

The father of the bride placing a tilaka on her forehead.Everyone present places a tilaka, a mark of ‘good luck’ on the foreheads of the couple.  This represents the ‘third eye’ or minds eye’ which is associated with the gods and is a sign of meditation and spirituality.  A photo is taken of each one – and no-one smiles except us westerners!

 

The bowl on the right contains coloured rice which is thrown over the couple – a sign of luck and fertility – and all share in the items blessed during puja.

 

This old man is the village drummer who was beating his drum throughout the ceremony.  A village wedding is a noisy affair with loud music and with everyone telling the bride and groom where to stand and what to do.  It is difficult to equate this noise and movement with the weddings we are used to in the west; there doesn’t appear to be any reverence but that is the same with much Hindu worship.  This is just a difference of custom however, there is a deep spirituality which runs through life in Tamil Nadu and respect for the gods is not lost just because there is movement and noise, after all a wedding is supposed to be a joyous occasion and so  there is a great deal of excitement and happiness!

The bride and groom process through the village behind the drummer with all their friends and family following behind.

 

 

 

 

 

The entrance to the ‘marriage hall’ where the reception takes place is always flanked by banana trees with great bunches of bananas hanging below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Once inside the bride and groom receive their wedding gifts.  Some are actual gifts but the majority of the guests give money which is recorded in a little book.

Then on to the reception.  This is the same for most weddings with people sitting at long trestle tables.  They don’t all eat at the same time, as soon as they have eaten they get up and someone else takes their place.  The only difference between weddings of the rich and poor is quality of the venue and food.

Here the meal is a very simple one consisting of idli (a steamed rice cake), rice and samba (a sort of vegetable stew) with payasam (a sort of sweet rice pudding).  All of the food is served on the banana leaf at the same time by the catering staff who are constantly moving round serving, clearing and setting new places.

 

 

It is still the custom for the family to give the bride a lot of gold on her wedding day, and weddings are as extravagant as they can afford (usually more than they can afford).  This was a relatively inexpensive wedding but with the gold given and the food for the reception it still cost about the equivalent of around 16 years wages for the father.  For someone in the UK on a minimum wage that would be roughly equivalent to a wedding costing over £177,000.  And if the family have more than one daughter then they have to spend the same on them all.  This is not a problem for the rich, but poverty is still a huge problem in India with the poor having to get into debt in order to do the right thing for their daughter.  I believe that there is little hope of many of the poorest of the poor ever improving their lives until this custom changes.

P.S. Please excuse the standard of the photos, they are really just ‘snaps’ as I didn’t want people to feel that I was treating the wedding like a ‘tourist photo opportunity’!

Pongal celebrations!

Agriculture is the keystone of life here in southern India and the changing seasons are celebrated with puja (worship) at local shrines, but also with a great deal of happiness, food and loud music!  At the moment there are acres and acres of rice which was planted after the monsoon and is now about halfway to harvest.  The rice is a beautiful verdant green and the paddy fields look like an ocean of grass as the cool breeze we have at the moment sends ripples and waves across it.

Here in Tamil Nadu we have just celebrated Pongal – the harvest festival which welcomes the auspicious change in the suns direction as it begins to move northwards.  Winter is now behind us and we move towards the summer – but it’s not a winter that any of my friends in Europe would recognise!

Pongal is a very popular festival for all Tamils regardless of their religion – whether Hindu, Christian, Muslim or something else they all get involved.  The festival lasts for 4 days, so don’t try to get too much work done during Pongal because it just won’t happen! 

Day 1 is for cleaning out all the unwanted things in your house and repainting.  Many of our local villagers are poor but their houses look great with their new whitewash sparkling in the sun. 

Day 2 is dedicated to the sun god.  Prayers are said and Pongal rice (a lovely sweet mixture) is eaten. 

Day 3 is a day of thanksgiving for cattle which are a central part of life in southern India.  Cattle and oxen (and any other animals you can lay hold of such as sheep, goats or the pet dog or cat!) are washed and painted with brightly coloured powder paints in an amazing array of dots.  The cattle also have their horns painted, then all of the animals are fed pongal rice.  Best of all for the cattle, particularly the bullocks which pull the carts, they have a day of rest! 

Finally, Day 4 is a day to share with the family – new clothes, food fun and games.  Pongal is a great festival for bringing people together.

As well as Pongal rice everyone eats sweet sugar cane.  Even our Alaskan Malamute Loki enjoyed it last year! 

If you have a sweet tooth why not try making some pongal rice?

Ingredients 1 cup of long grain rice, 1/8 cup of moong dhal, 1 cup of milk, about ¾ cup of melted butter, 1 ¾ cup of brown sugar, ½ teaspoon of cardamom powder, small handful of raisins, about 8 or 10 cashew nuts, 

Method

1. Cook the milk, rice and dhal together until well done (you will need to add some water during cooking).

2. Fry the cashews and raisins in some of the melted butter until they are a golden brown then put them to one side.

3. Boil the brown sugar in some water until it becomes a thick syrup.  Add the cooked rice and keep stirring on a low heat until well mixed.

4. Add the remainder of the melted butter, stirring all the time.  Then add the cardamom powder – keep stirring!

5. Sprinkle the nuts and raisins on top and serve.