Saturday, August 23, 2008


By Prashanth Krishnaswami

Tired of the dull detached life in the city? Take a trip down to a village during a festival, especially Pongal! Pongal is arguably the most important Thamizh festival of the year.

The Thamizh calendar is a bit different from the Western calendar that we use.
This website shows both calendars for the current year, one month at a time.

The Pongal festival starts off on the last day of the Margazhi month (according to the Thamizh Calendar). The day is called Bhogi. It is a day when people thoroughly clean their homes and collect unwanted and unusable articles. Later in the evening, those articles that can be burnt are thrown into a bonfire and burnt publicly. In villages, where people live in thatched huts, the entire thatched roof is taken apart and reconstructed.

The walls of the hut are made from sand. They are loosened with water and a new mixture is formed. The walls are also reconstructed. The entire family sleeps in a fresh house on Bhogi night. The air is filled with happiness and a feeling of togetherness.

The next big day is Pongal. It is the first day of the Thai month (according to the Thamizh calendar). Hence, Pongal is also called Thai Pongal. The day begins with the women in each house designing a Kolam outside the house in front of the entrance. Each woman would try to make her Kolam the most elaborate amongst others in the street. There will be a small implicit contest among women in the street. The old unwanted and unusable articles that were burnt during Bhogi will be replaced by new ones respectively. Everyone would wear new clothes and use the new articles with great enthusiasm on this day. Fresh stock of rice would be taken in the house and a Pongal(dish) would be made from the first portion of rice in this stock.People go out and meet friends and share the festive happiness and prosperity.

The third day is called Maattu Pongal (Cattle Pongal). Cattle are generally regarded with respect in Thamizh tradition. This fact is illustrated by the fact that an entire day of festivity is dedicated to cattle. Their horns are painted with bright colours and their necks sport new bells. Special prayers are said and rituals are performed for their good health. People cook special food items and offer them to the cattle to eat first. Some women sing folk songs in praise of cattle mainly about the feminine charm of the cow and the fierce bravery of the bull. In a village called Alanganallur, a large scale bull fight takes place every year on this day. A man who can tame is a bull is considered to be a fierce and courageous hero. Thus, the bull is placed at the pinnacle of bravery and used as a benchmark to even assess a human’s bravery. Such is the respect that Thamizh tradition bestows upon cattle!

The last and fourth day of the Pongal festival is called Kaanum Pongal. This is the day when families go out of their homes on long trips for the entire day. Usually, a trip to the temple is on the agenda. In some cases, families would go to a distant temple to appease a particular God. This is followed by a trip to meet elderly folks in the family to secure their blessings and to greet them on the festive occasion. Lunch is packed and carried during the trip. All the members of the family make it a point to sit together and eat lunch without fail. During the evening, families go to the beach or to a place of amusement (zoos, museums, cinema etc) and have fun till it gets dark.

How we celebrate festivals in the city isn’t half as grand as how people celebrate in the villages.

Thamizh - The Tamil way of saying Tamil.

Pongal(festival) - A 4 day festival that falls around January 14th every year.
Bhogi - The first day of the 4 day festival
Thai Pongal - The second day of the 4 day festival
Maattu Pongal - The third day of the 4 day festival
Kaanum Pongal - The fourth and final dayPongal(dish) - Rice is collected in pots and cooked with milk till it overflows. There are many variants of this dish.
Margazhi, Thai - Months on the Thamizh calendar.
Kolam - A design made by sprinkling rice powder on the floor. Colour powders are mixed with rice powder to get multi-coloured designs.
Alanganallur - A panchayat town in the district of Madurai in Tamil Nadu.


By Sandhya Ramachandran

Who would have imagined that a 9-yard long piece of coloured cloth with some dazzling zari work could transform someone into a gorgeous lady?!

Well, the madisaar does just that!

If you are wondering what this madisaar is all about, here's what one needs to know. The Madisaar is the style in which the Sari is worn by the Brahmin community in Tamil Nadu, India.
While saree-draping could be discussed over a thesis-length report -what with each area in India having its own style- be it the Nivi or the Kodagu or the like- the Madisaar is something that is native to Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
When life was more relaxed and breaking traditions was anathema, madisaars were what married women strutted around in, everyday in the house. As lives became fast paced and a woman had to multi-task, the madisaar was fast replaced by it's toned down 6-yard conventional saree.

One can catch sight of maamis(aunts) adorned in madisaar and strutting about in style today, at traditional Brahmin functions. Festive occasions and ceremonies- from the wedding, Seemantham(baby shower), all important poojas(holy prayer), and death ceremonies- along with their storehouse of customs and preparations, also demand that the women wear the traditional madisaar.

Women in madisaar are a pretty picture to behold! The nine yards are draped around them in a mind-boggling manner of twisting the cloth- clockwise and anti-clockwise, in turns! For all those who go clueless at all the instructions, there are readymade madisaars available in the market!!! And in case, one does not have a friendly Ambujam Maami or a Rajam periamma to tie it for them, the net comes to the rescue! Various threads in discussion boards, step-by-step procedures on websites etc, make it easy for one to tie the madisaar on their own.
Madisars are available in a variety of materials such as silk, cotton, cotton-silk blends, polyester-cotton blends, etc. Whatever be it, the picture of a smiling madisaar maami with jasmine entwined hair, a big red bindi(dot) adorning her forehead and traditional gold jewellery, somehow seems to conjure up a feeling of prosperity and that all is well within the house.

Indus Ladies)
Stand with your legs about 2 ft apart

1. Make 5-6 pleats( lengthwise) in one end of the saree.
2. Keep these pleats on your left (at the back) and hold it above your waist line with your left hand
3. Bring the saree around your body and make a knot at the left back in your waist line.. Do not disturb the pleats. The pleat should comfortably dangle over the knot.
4. Bring it to the front and tuck one edge almost near your right edge of your hip and then again take it to the center and tuck it there
5. Make the pleat (width of the saree) and bring the whole saree to the back under your legs.
6. Tuck the saree at the back (waist line).
7. Bring around the saree through your left after tucking the shorter edge slightly at your right.
8. Bring the saree around your body again
9. Pass it on to your right shoulder arranging the border.
10. Bring the border around and tuck in the front.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Snacks of the past

By Sandhya Ramachandran

Ever asked your father what he had after school on an average day? Snacks of the past were so different from what we have today. Here's a look at the absolutely different and simplistic kind of snacks that people had in the past…

There was neither pizza, nor any kurkure to answer those 'Hungry Kya?' questions. There was kodukka puli. Then there were those spicy mango slices; not to forget the annachi pazham thundu. Bakery products were just beginning and gave stiff competition to the oora-vechcha-maahani.

Every young boy and girl would have been given some annas of change to get themselves a slice of mango or pineapple from the fruit-seller near school to munch-on all the way home. The mangoes were unripe, cut and smeared with masala or just chilli powder for an added taste (just like the stuff you get today in the beachside). The pineapple slices were wrapped in newspaper-the then tissues! On reaching home, after a wash, they would have had a murukku or thattai- those savouries that we taste only on festivals and functions were an everyday treat for them. Sweets too were not uncommon. The paatti of the house usually took out a laddoo or athirasam as a treat. No, they never had his Frooti tetra-packs or a pack of Bingo.

In such times of simplicity, bakeries were just beginning to spring up in street corners- an anglicized development. There used to be sponge cakes, rusk, the soft bread and buns. Sooner, the cream cakes emerged. And so did Indianized versions like the masala bun came into the picture.

There were very little options when it came to drinks. It had to be fresh fruit juice, karumbu juice or the rose milk. In tall glasses, one could find push carts and stalls selling them-slaking the thirst of the passers-by. The advent of the goli-soda/ paneer-soda turned it into as an instant thirst-quencher. In its murky green bottle and with a goli/marble wobbling in its neck, this soda was supposed to give instant energy, especially to tired long-distance travelers.

I remember, as a kid, I used to be very fond of a local brand of ice-cream made in my native village. These ice-cream vendors used to arrive promptly at one's streets, as they made their rounds on their carts, in the village, yelling out "ice-creaaaammmmm"! My parents however, had just the ice golas- crushed ice pressed on to a stick and squirted with syrup. These Indian popsicles are still available in the market and relished.

My mother reminisces about the Kodukka Puli and the Oora-vechcha-Mahaani. The Kodukka Puli was a fruit of a tree. It resembled a tamarind and hung in bunches and swirls from the Kodi(branch) and hence the name. Some ladies in her village used to cut the maahani variety of mango into inch sized bits and with allow it to soak in water with a dash of salt and chilli powder. This Oora-vechcha-Mahaani used to be one of the hot-favourites amongst kids of her area, she recounts.

Many of the varieties of food available in the past have changed and many still continue to thrive. The change in eating habits and preferences has changed the market availability of these commodities. Be it Kodukka Puli or Kurkure- as long as it takes the tongue on one hell of a roller coaster ride in flavours, we don't see anybody complain.

This is to declare that the author and the organization do not support or work for the brands that are mentioned in this post.


Kurkure- a crispy snack with a sprinkle of salt, masala powder and chilli powder. Also a brand name
Bingo- a brand of chips
Frooti- a brand of mango drink

Hungry Kya?- Are you hungry?

kodukka puli- A type of vegetable that resembled a tamarind and had a bland taste.
annachi pazham- Pineapple fruit
thundu- slice/piece
oora-vechcha-maahani- Mahani is a variety of mangoes. In its raw form it is soaked in a salt-chilli powder mix.
Annas- currency unit formerly used in India, equal to 1/16 rupee
murukku – a savoury made with flour that is coil shaped.
Thattai- a flat savoury made with flour.
Paatti- grandmother
laddoo – a sweet, bright yellow in colour, that is rolled into ball-shapes.
athirasam- a flat type of sweets
karumbu- sugarcane
goli-soda/ paneer-soda- a soda available in green bottles with a marble wobbling in the neck.
ice golas- popsicles

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Watch Mittai… Panju Mittai… Soan Papdi…

…It happens only in India
By Sandhya Ramachandran

('It happens only in India' is a series of articles about endangered/extinct/existing elements of our tradition, things that are so unique to us and about a slice of everyday life in India. Be it the vibhuthi or the veshti, the madi-aachaaram or the Karva Chauth, the watch mittais or the Kodukka Puli- these are tales about everyday Indian objects/ occurrences/ practices the author is slowly gathering from her parents, grandparents and friends. Reason- 'It happens only in India')

"Long ago, there used to wander on the streets, sellers with a long stick, with sweet rolled on it. A twist here and a twirl later, for 5 paisa, one could get a duck, parrot, cat or any other shaped sweet-watch on your wrist! And whatever extra bit was left was lovingly stuck to your cheek by the sweet-wallah. The 'watch-mittai' was just sugar with added colours but it used to be such a rage when I was a kid," concludes my mother in a nostalgic tone.

Gone are the days of this innovative sweet. No one even knew what it was, until director Shankar showed it in his film Mudhalvan, making me break into the question of 'What is a watch-mittai?'

In the age of Ferrero Rochers and Dairy Milk, no child has ever sunk its teeth into a watch mittai! The simple pleasure of having a small watch-like sweet on your wrist and eating it off in glee has been absolutely replaced by foil-wrapped chocolates in swanky covers and myriad colours!

If the watch mittai has almost become extinct, leaving one or two rare existences, the panju-mittai has somehow held its fort. In bright yellow and shocking pink, these sweets are sold in the beaches, exhibitions and sometimes, there are panju-mittai making machines installed in weddings!

Then, the sugar-boiled mittais were in. Today, one still gets them at some shops (like the Ambika Appalam Depot chain of stores) in bright orange, lemon yellow and strawberry pink. The chooda mittais were the peppermints- resembling the camphor in colour and shape. Today, you get the authentic chooda mittais in packets of Rs.5. These mittais were bought from the roadside potti kadais. And then Nutrine chocolates arrived to rewrite things!

The jaggery-coconut cousin of the kadalaimittai- the kamarkattu has also somehow lived strong over the ages, and this iron-rich sweet is available in small and big stores in packets.
If there is one thing that still is sold in its nice-old way, it would be the soan papdi! We still see the soan papdi-wallah pushing his petromax lamp with a huge glass jar filled with the wispy soan padi- enticing in smell, melt-in-your-mouth taste and oh-so-sweet! In little newspaper cones, he still gives out soan from Rs.5 onwards. And in case these slightly-smoky tasting soan papdi are beneath your hygiene standards, there always is the modern packed version available in sweetmeat shops and stores.

From 5ps to today's costlier versions, all these roadside sweet items are getting newer clothing in factories and fancy marketing garbs. Pollution and hygiene were both not of any concern in the past and the mittais used to sell like hot property, being every kid's after- school snack!
Modern days have lesser cleanliness, more buzz and money to afford a better version of these delectables. Whether watch-mittai gets a new snazzy avatar, the kamarkattu replaces M&M's or the Panju mittai remains in its jataks pink colours, one sure does hope that these lip-smacking delicacies don't disappear from the face of the country!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tirukkadaiyur: A story to die for...

By Vaishna Roy

I was in Tranquebar a few weeks ago. Incidentally, Tranquebar, the site of an old Danish fort, is a story in itself. And deserves its own post. But let me first tell you this quaint story.

A few kilometres from Tranquebar, I noticed great big hotels in the middle of what seemed like nothing more than a village. Curious, I checked with the cab driver, who told me that the place was called Tirukkadaiyur and that it had a temple where couples celebrated their shashtiapthapoorthi (a spouse's 60th birthday) or sadabhishekam (80th birthday). That's all he seemed to know.

So, I poked around a bit and found the sweetest story ever.

Once upon a time, many many eons ago, when the gods roamed between heaven and earth freely, making occasional forays into hell as well, there was a holy sage who did not have any children. He prayed to Shiva long and hard, and Shiva obligingly appeared before him. (As he markedly does not these days). He agreed to grant the sage an offspring but, as was the wont of gods those days, he made things a tad difficult. He asked the sage to choose between a son who would live a long and healthy life but would be a bit of an ass. Or a smart, intelligent boy who would live only till the age of 16.

The sage, having little patience for fools, chose the latter and accordingly Markandeya was born to him. The boy was perfect in all ways. He grew up an ardent devotee of Shiva, and worshipped the lingam devotedly.

The day Markandaya turned 16, Yama, the god of death, duly came calling but the boy ran away. He ran hard and fast to the Shiva lingam and threw himself around it. Hugging it hard, he refused to go away quietly with Yama. The disgusted Yama threw his noose around the boy, but it obviously landed around the lingam as well. Now, it was Shiva's turn to be furious. He emerged out of the lingam and kicked Yama with his left foot, trapping him under and refused to let go.

The defeat of death itself caused utter chaos in the cosmos. There cannot be life without death! Ultimately, after much worship and placation, Shiva agreed to let Yama go, provided he allowed Markandeya eternal life. The deal was duly signed.

The temple at Tirukkadaiyur celebrates this myth, and has a lingam that reportedly has the marks of a noose around it. And because it is the place where Death was temporarily defeated, it is the temple where people go to celebrate their 60th and 80th birthdays. As a thanksgiving for their longevity.

If I had known the story then, I would have made the detour to visit the temple. Unfortunately, I drove past in a hurry. Well, no matter. Tranquebar is always worth another visit, especially now that Neemrana has this gorgeous heritage resort there. And next time, I have the added attraction of this 11th century Chola temple at Tirukkadaiyur to draw me there.

Note: Tranquebar is 279 km south of Chennai, about a six-hour drive down a very pleasant NH45A. You reach this temple town just about 10 minutes short of Tranquebar.

Down the lanes of the past - Thinnais

By Sandhya Ramachandran

A long sweltering summer afternoon; blue skies brilliantly reflecting the sun’s blinding light and longer distances yet to be traversed for destination to come! What better way to rest the tired limbs of a tired body, than to sit and take a breather on the thinnai?!

Traditional South Indian houses made it mandatory to have a thinnai in front. A thinnai is a long narrow platform attached to the front of the house, overlooking the road and shaded by the roof that extends beyond the house. These platforms were leveled smooth and sometimes had stone slabs laid over them, for comfort.

As our culture declares ‘Athithee Deivo Bhava’-the guest is equivalent to the Lord above- this thinnai proved to be an older version of the modern-day’s porch, and was used to receive guests. Close relatives and friends paused at the thinnais to wash their feet and remove their sandals before entering within, while mere acquaintances would be seated there during the entire conversation; the thinnais thus masquerading as ante-chambers of sorts.

Business dealings and talks were often carried out in these spaces, where one could overhear market prices and intensive economics being worked out. Sometimes these thinnais were mini-office spaces in themselves, with a small table set there permanently- taking the role of an office desk.

Thinnais transformed into tuition rooms for kids with the addition of a blackboard propped against one end. Images of a tutor with a cane and a row of kids mechanically repeating verses and numbers are conjured at the very mention of it!

Travelers who needed a moment’s respite from the heat could make use of the thinnai’s cool shade. More often, the inmates left a paanai1 of water that would quench some passer-by’s parched throat. In the nights, one could frequently see these wayfarers who have long distances to go, sleeping in these free ‘guest spaces’. South Indian culture made sure that even strangers-who could not be let into the house due to fear, but still did not deserve to sleep on the roads-could find a comfortable shady spot to spend the night.

And in the mornings, with a cup of freshly brewed kaapi or chaaya in hand, the men folk used to sit in the cozy confines of their thinnais, sometimes with a newspaper, discussing politics, life and what not! In the evenings, the thinnai solely belonged to the womenfolk- their rhythmic chatter and spicy talk infusing life into the place. Kids reigned supreme in the lazy afternoons- playing around the pillars that held the roof over it- sitting and playing with their choppu2, chozhi3 or pallanguzhi4 while the older people snoozed away inside.

When there was a function in the family-be it happy or sad- these thinnais transformed into extra sitting spaces where excessive crowds could spill over.

During festivals, the thinnais are a beauty to behold! Strings of malligai5 and kanakambaram6 are hung from the eaves, oil lamps are lit in rows and intricate kolams7 are drawn at the entrance. They are decorated so beautifully that the whole house gets the splendour and air of a palace; with the otherwise modest thinnais being the majestic and luminous entrance to the fortress.

It is really sad to note that the modern day’s concrete jungle has depleted us of this very beautiful thing called ‘thinnais’. Our ancestors found this a way to respect people and treat them with care; but our own fear for strangers, rising crime rates and land value deems it impossible to build individual houses with thinnais anymore. Tot-lots, internet and telephone may have paved new avenues for our daily dose of social interaction, but this self-drawn security blanket has left us bereft of one simple joy- that personal touch of kindness to fellow humans in the journey of life!

1 pot
2 tiny vessels
3 shells
4 a traditional game of Tamil Nadu
5 jasmine flowers
6 bright orange flowers found in South India
7 designs using flour made on the floor near the entrances

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Kolam: Story of the Painted Prayers

By Dhivya Subramanian

Each day before the break of dawn, millions of women in south India say silent prayers, as they sprinkle their hearth with rice flour to make kolams. These designs or rather kolams announce the arrival of each new day and are a symbol of welcome to Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of weath) to dwell in the home they represent. These painted prayers are formed using a pattern of dots that are connected with lines or are looped to form intricate patterns and designs. This ritual is repeated every morning, Indian women wash their threshold with water and wax it with cow dung, then with deft and nimble fingers they craft out designs to adorn their doorsteps. Each mornings new patterns replaces the fading pattern of yesterday.

Kolam is as old as civilization is. It dates back to the Indus valley civilization. In the Mahabharata, the gopis (milkmaids) drew kolams to forget the pain that they experienced when their beloved Krishna is away. At a much later date, Kolam-drawing is listed as one of the 64 forms of art in Vatsyayana's Kamasutra.

Just like with many of our traditions this one too has a story to tell. Art Historians believe Kolams originated from people who lived on the seashore, who invariably found a design in the arrangements of stars, which remained a guiding factor when they ventured into the sea. The prime stars noted by the shore dwellers were Orion, Acula and Leo representing Lord Shiva, Mayan and Goddess Sakthi. The celestial designs of stars were brought to terrestrial thresholds of homes in the form of magical diagrams called `kolam,'

Some say the dots in the kolam represent the men and lines women. It depicts the lives of women who weave their life around their menfolk. Kolams are drawn in such a way no dots are left unconnected or hanging and folklore says this closed patterns prevents evil from entering the homes.

The kolam or their more contemporary counterpart the rangoli as it is known in the north, has come to mean many thinks in more recent times. It is a link between the private realm and vast challenging world outside. A few lines and dots or the lack of them speaks in abundance about a particular household or village to a passer by.

A kolam also represents the symbiotic relation a man shares with other species, small birds and insects don’t have to go far hunting for food, the rice flour feeds them well. Kolams can be seen in all its grandeur during festivities, ceremonies and auspicious occasions. Most of them can be divided into families, one such being the Brahma’s knot that has a distinctive pattern of looping.

Today kolam is an ornamental motif that adorns the threshold and the rice flour is being replaced by ugly vinyl stickers. This hand-me down art from mother to daughter is loosing its relevance in the more cosmopolitan context. However, efforts are being made to keep this tradition from becoming a thing of the past, the Mylapore temple festival is one such attempt. A walk down old temple streets of Tanjavur, Chidambaram or Mylapore will give you a whiff of this ancient art that tells you the story of the stars.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Filter Kaapi Trails: A Pilgrimage

By Dhivya Subramanian

Ask any South Indian he’ll swear by this frothy delight. Filter Coffee in most part of Tamil nadu is a social institution, and a force to reckon with. The day here almost does not start without one steaming hot glass of freshly brewed filter coffee. It is the epitome of the famous Tamil hospitality and hence it is only sacrosanct to treat our guest to this a filter kaapi. I discovered the strong decoction brewing in the filter has a story just as tantalizing as its aroma.

What tam brams consider theirs was originally introduced by Baba Buden, a revered muslim holy man from India, in the 16th century. During his pilgrimage to Mecca he chanced upon the wonders of coffee and smuggled a few beans wrapped around his belly to Mysore.

The coffee was popluarised during the British raj and there were many stories around it. Some argued it was European origin, it must necessarily be unclean; others said it might be alcoholic. In any case coffee was expensive and a privilege of the rich, a tumbler full cost as much as half an anna, while butter-milk was served free in many places. Only the most daring tried it but the conversation the new drink brewed got everyone in its clutches and one has never really recovered from it.

It is always a wonder to know how the coffee made it to the filter of the tam bram household. Around 1860 coffee cultivation gained momentum for it held the promise of export but a few bags managed to pave its path into the local market and received extensive support from the railways and the local stall vendors. Coffee slowly transitioned from road side stalls to households where it found aficionados who roasted their own beans - peaberry preferably - and devised their own unique gadgets and utensils for roasting, grinding, brewing and serving that came to be known as the filter. In the process, they elevated filter coffee into an art form and created a coffee culture that practically defines a community.

The filter coffee wave brought with it a teaming economy - the Leo coffee was set up in 1910, followed by Narasu’s coffee in 1919. MTR set up shop at Lalbagh Fort Road, Bangalore, and out-of-home coffee got a new dimension, the magical kaapi, along with idli, vada, dosa and sambhar, found yet another entourage of devotees.

A fresh aroma wafted in the 1990’s, with a whole new trend in coffee retailing. Café Coffee Days, Baritas and Qwikys mushroomed all over the country catering to young adult brewing out exotic coffee variants and dishing out mouth watering snacks to go along.

However, our very own filter kaapi hasn’t lost it sheen. Traditional coffee drinkers still regard instant coffee with an unmasked contempt for there can be nothing to replace this sheer ambrosia. And even as we speak the new tam bram yuppie somewhere between all his globe trotting would happily trade their starbucks for the good old filter coffee, just the way grandma would have brewed it for him back home in madras.