Chennai Women Remember Age-Old Customs of Diwali

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“As a child, I used to get up at 4 a.m., stand in a queue along with my siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts waiting for my grandma to anoint my hair with warmed gingelly oil. I would eagerly stretch out my palm for a dollop of the delicious lagium (a paste made with herbal ingredients and flavoured with ghee, jaggery and spices given to keep the digestion in order, what with all the heavy duty feasting through the day), collect my new ‘pattu pavadai’ (a long silk skirt worn by young Tamil girls), hurry with my bath and race out into the streets to burst crackers with my neighbours.” Dr Gayathri Sreekanth, a busy ophthalmologist in Chennai, reminisces about how a typical Tamil Diwali celebration used to kick off in homes across the city before all the trappings of modern city life managed to hijacked most of the customary south Indian festivities.

While Dr Sreekanth, a Tamil Brahmin, used to eagerly look forward to being a part all the little rituals that are associated with traditional festivities, today, she just can’t find the time to do the same in her home. Even her young twins, Roshan and Samyuktha, aged 11, show no interest in following the age-old conventions. “They just can’t wake up early because it’s impossible to tear them away from the television on the eve of Diwali. There’s always some new Tamil blockbuster being aired and that takes precedence over everything else. As for the lagium, they don’t like its taste; the oil bath, they detest; and they don’t really care about the new clothes because they anyway buy stuff throughout the year. The only thing they do enjoy is bursting crackers,” she says.

In Chennai, Deepavali is all about crackers, so much so that it’s often called, crakervali. But that, too, is now on a decline, owing to the heightened environmental consciousness. In fact, many older children are especially concerned about the child labour associated with the cracker industry – the hub of which is the dry and dusty city of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu. Says Vyas Kannan, a Class 8 student of Sankara Vidyalaya in Chennai, “None of my classmates bought a single cracker last year and even this year we are not going to buy any.”

While this is a good thing, there’s not much else that attracts the children to this festival and so they end up spending much of their time in front of the TV. Lakshmi, who comes from an Iyengar background, has a tough time motivating her children to enjoy the festival in all its traditional glory. “My kids dislike the gingelly oil-shikakai powder bathing routine. I used to compel them to do it earlier, but as they are growing up, I can hardly browbeat them into following it now,” she sighs.

The gingelly oil bath is a crucial element of the Diwali festivities for Brahmins in Tamil Nadu. So much so that the older generation used to greet each other on Diwali day with the one-liner: ‘Had the Ganga bath?’ Lakhsmi’s mother, Shrimathi, shares the story behind this custom: “The belief is that on Deepavali chathurdashi day, Goddess Mahalakshmi resides in gingelly, or sesame oil, while the water represents the holy river Ganges. So by taking a gingelly oil bath early in the morning, we get the blessings of Mahalakshmi and mother Ganga.” Of course, Shrimathi has not been able to convey the significance this to her grandchildren. The only concession they make is to take their bath early.

However, not all beliefs have lost out to the fast pace of modern life. Lakshmi continues to traces a maakkolam – a rangoli pattern made with wet rice flour mixture which once-dry dazzles in bright white streaks – in her puja room on Diwali eve. She also makes it a point to dab a dash of turmeric powder on one corner of all the new clothes that are bought for each family member. These clothes are piled up on a wooden ‘manai’, or platform, the same one she had sat on during her wedding ceremony. The sweets and savories, which are diligently prepared a day before, are also piled together with the clothes. And completing this ceremonial offering is the ‘nalangu’, a red pigment made by mixing lime with turmeric. Early morning on Diwali, the feet of each member of Lakmi’s home are dabbed with the ‘nalangu’.

Doing all this was once a way of life, today though it sounds like some exotic ritual. And Lakmi is unsure if her children would be able to carry this on when they grow up. “I wonder how traditions are going to pan out for the next generation. I just about manage to trace a ‘maakolam’ while my mom used to draw huge, fabulous patterns. My daughter shows no interest. What would she do when she grows up?”

Diwali celebrations in Tamil Nadu also take on a whole new meaning if there has been a wedding in the family. The parental home of bride becomes the centre of all activity – there’s a constant stream of visitors who drop in to greet the couple, burst hordes of crackers and enjoy the lavish spread of sweets and savouries made especially for the occasion. But even though Champa would have liked her daughter to be with her on ‘Thalai deepavali’, she will not be so fortunate. For her new son-in-law, Kesavan, works in the US and that’s where her daughter, Mayura, is now. Even though they want to, the couple can’t afford to fly down to Chennai, having taken a couple of weeks off for their wedding just three months ago. “For me, Diwali has lost its sheen because Mayura won’t be here with us,” says Champa with a twinge of sadness.

Besides the vast Tamil Brahmin population, Chennai is also home to many Andhrites and Kannadigas, who have left their native villages and towns in the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Karanataka. These communities too sorely miss their traditions. The fondest memories that Premila and her husband Ekambaram, a stock broker and NSE member, have of their village diwali celebrations is making the crackers at home. “Back home in the Ogirala village, about 30 kilometres from Vijayawada, all of us in our huge extended family used to get together to make crackers. We used to buy the cracker powder, make small terra cotta containers in which we stuffed the powder and then watched over it carefully as it dried in the sun. I miss that the most. Now, here in Chennai, we buy crackers,” says Premila.

As per the Telugu tradition, Premila and her family celebrate Diwali over two days – Narak Chaturdashi and the Amavashya – unlike Tamils who just observe the Amavashya, commemorating the victory of Lord Krishna and Satyabama over the demon Narakasura. She also misses the Hari Katha, the local stage story telling tradition that happens during Diwali in Andhra Pradesh.

Janardhanan, a Kannadiga, who has made Chennai his home for the last two decades and runs the very popular Bangalore Iyengar’s bakery at Velachery in the city, has also left behind his traditions and adopted a more realistic approach. He says, “We used to go back to our native village in Karnataka earlier but now, with kids having school around that time, we can’t afford to do that. So we celebrate the festival right here with our Tamil friends.”

Even as cosmopolitanism takes the place of age-old customs, city women like Gayathri, Laksmi and Premila try and hold on to every bit of tradition – not only for the sake of their children but to relive their childhood memories as well.

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