“Try to enjoy the great festival of life with other men”- Epictetus.
Festivals are always windows into one’s culture and traditions. Most of the Indian festivals are celebrated with pomp and show, with lights and sweets, with laughter and food, and above all, with genuine love showered, irrespective of religions and communities. Every festival, be it Diwali or Ramzan or Christmas, is a shared celebration with mutual cultural borrowing and giving. When I posted pictures of Pongal celebrations of our church on social media, people were first skeptical. Then there were guarded comments, and finally the flood gates broke lose as I spoke of other celebrations in Catholic church, like annual Tamil festivals in the temples around Tamil Nadu where the celebrations start with a flag hoisting on day 1, and end with the grand ‘sapparam’/’ther’ or juggernaut on the 10th day.
The harvest festival of Pongal
Be it a temple, a church or a dargah (mosque), the celebrations of the annual festivals are always the same, following a distinct pattern with flowers, music, crackers, dance, and of course, the beliefs and trust in the Supreme Being. Pongal is the annual harvest festival of Tamil Nadu and is celebrated in mid- January with gusto. Nature blesses people aplenty irrespective of their religious inclinations, and hence Pongal has become a steady ‘in house’ festival of the Christians. The Catholic church celebrates this with aplomb. The date of this cultural festival coincides with the Feast of Epiphany (Feast of the Three Kings). Just as the three kings offered gifts to the new born Jesus, Tamil people through Pongal feast offer the first produce of harvest to the Baby Jesus, representing the valuable gifts of love and kindness.
As the festival is a thanksgiving festival to the God who has blessed the peasants, the Holy Mass is celebrated with agricultural produce taking centrestage. Rice, milk, sugarcane, turmeric, holy water and a decorated mud pot are placed. People assemble in front of the church for blessing of the pongal preparation. The priest blesses the ingredients, places the pot over a temporary stove made of three stones, lights the fire, and starts the celebrations. The church wears a festive look, decorated with banana trees, mango leaves, coconut flower stalks, and with rangoli. Our church usually has a rangoli/kolam competition where people compete with various “anbiyams” groups formed within the church congregation.
The entire area around the church is marked with small square plots for the kolams. The priest and his assistants assess the kolams and award marks, as the milk comes to a boil in the pot and rice is shoved in. As the rice boils and the milk starts to drip down the pot, the congregation gathers to celebrate. The spilling milk denotes prosperity. The traditional “kulavai” sound by gathering the mouth into an ‘O’ and moving the tongue right and left repeatedly with sound emanating from the vocal chords rent the air. Along with it, the voices also shout “Pongalo Pongal”. Once the Pongal is cooked, the congregation and priest move into church for the holy mass and prayers.
After the Holy Mass where further produce is submitted to the church, the congregation and priest move to the pongal pot and holy water is sprinkled by the priest in the cooked pongal. Once it is done, there is a community feast of Pongal with people sharing the cooked pongal. The prizes were announced for the kolam competitions and then the traditional “uriyadi” game for men starts. This is much akin to the North Indian Dahi Handi, where a mud pot filled with water/flower petals, prize tied to it is hung at a height and eyes of the person who plays is tied with cloth. The person has to trust his gut instinct and smash the pot with a long stick handed over to him.
Young man after young man come and go, losing the game. When finally someone hits the pot, the crowd cheers loudly in sheer delight. The pongal eaten, kolams judged, prizes distributed and the church almost empty, I said my last prayer. When I came out of the church and looked back, I could see the used pot still sitting atop the stove placed on the kolam, with sugarcanes offering a canopy. Until next Pongal, I would carry forward the sweet memories of ghee dripping pongal served hot on banana leaves and thermo bowls.
The Vedar Pari festival
Royapuram is a fishing hamlet that lies to the north of Chennai. The populace comprises of ethnic fishermen, their forefathers said to have come from Durgarayapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. The Vedar Pari festival of Royapuram is a festival that is celebrated by the indigenous people, irrespective of their religion. The story of Vedar Pari revolves around the mythological tale of Lord Muruga (Shanmuga, the six faced God) guarding the ‘thinai’ – millet fields of tribal girl Valli, as he is smitten by her, and snatching her away on his horse, taking her to his temple.
The Lord Muruga of Kandhakottam temple is carried in heavily decked ‘pallaku’/ doli by the families who have been carrying the Lord for centuries. The Lord traverses the distance of about 4-5 kilometers from Parrys Corner in Chennai to Royapuram. Here at the Vedar Pari grounds of Muthukumaraswamy temple, the God is removed from the doli, moved into the temple and washing with holy water and other rituals take place. The Valli Goddess of the temple is also bathed and dressed in all finery. The special procession Pari or horse made of flowers, arrives soon. The God and Goddess bedecked with jewels and finery sit on the horse and go around the town in procession.
As my friend Rhoda and I reached Royapuram for my ‘first-hand’ experience of the festival, the full force of the North Chennai hospitality hit me. It was organised hospitality with rows and rows of shops along the road, resembling a village fair that I had seen ages ago. The crowd, the festive mood, the shops and the religious fervour altogether had created an ethereal world. There were hawkers everywhere, with multitude of eatables and knick-knacks for sale. Without wasting time on the market sights, we went straight to the temple grounds. People were hurrying about everywhere, with sudden ‘worship points’ that had come up with photos of Lord Muruga, accompanied by schoolboys. The little ones had tiny hundi, some had placed plates with few coins to indicate that the ‘special darshan’ needed to be paid. People who couldn’t reach the sanctum of the closed temple paid their respects to these pictures and paid these ‘sudden God boys’!
As it was said the Lord and Goddess would be seen only after the ceremonial bathing and decorating and it would take a couple of hours, we slowly made our way out of the ground. It was heartening to see handful of burkha clad women praying to the God, distributing food to the pilgrims as thanksgiving for favour received from Lord Muruga. We came to an old house as we meandered around. There was this beautiful old woman with soulful green eyes that shone like green fire. She waved to us and said she had come from nearby Tondiarpet, and she was once a drama artiste. The woman sitting next to her suggested she sing a song for us, and with all earnestness the drama artiste started singing in her mellifluous voice. A small group of pilgrims had gathered around us and we stood awestruck by the song.
Most of the houses had placed a table laden with fruits, flowers, lamps, incense in front of a photograph of the Lord and a steady stream of people kept worshipping these too. We started walking along the ‘hawker market’ along the road. There are ‘cheating companies’ that let us throw rings over objects which no one seemed to win anyway. Then we chanced upon this Narikorava (tribal) little girl who might have been around 15/16 years old, sitting with a sleeping baby on her lap. The mother of the baby was sitting next to them, stringing beads. There was a rainbow of beads around the two women and the baby sleeping in peace on her lap led me to ask the same question again, ” Who is happy?” Definitely not me, I mused. With no roof over their heads, armed with their traditional knowledge and art of making these beads, the women looked at peace with themselves.
Our next stop was at the Muslim lady who was selling hurricane lamps and photographs of Hindu Gods. She was very clear in the names of the Gods and treated her customers who were mostly Hindus, with utmost respect. Falling in love with the ancient looking tiny hurricane lamps, we bought one each. There was this man selling palmyrah knick-knacks. The shakers for kids, small boxes, purses, baskets and what not! We again fell for the natural produce and bought a couple of palmyrah leaf purses. On enquiry he said he was from Pulicat, a village about 40 kilometers away from Royapuram. A Dutch colony once known for its Palayacottah lungis, the fishing village is now struggling to survive, thanks to Government’s purchase of lands for Sriharikota ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) base.
The ethnic people had switched over to palmyrah object making, thanks to efforts of a few NGOs. As we kept the small talk with him flowing, lots of information about his childhood and current state of affairs flowed into the conversation. Wishing him good luck, we purchased a pack of halwa and started our walk back. The festival was more about the plurality of religions in the city than a celebration of a particular religion or community. This was the India our forefathers had envisaged, the India that we had once seen up close, and the one that we hope would what be as we leave it for our children. Pongal or Vedar Pari, the festivals were more of Tamil culture, Tamil pride. As the famed Sangam Tamil poet Kaniyan Poongundran said, “Yadhum oorey, yavarum kelir”, my only wish is Tamil Nadu remains the same, the man’s verse dated 2000 years ago that says, ” Every place is mine, every man is my relative”.