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Thai Festival

January is always a month of promise, of hopes rekindled, with the feeling of joyful anticipation of good things to come and new boundaries to cross. Mid-January is the Tamil month of Thai the month very auspicious for marriages. As the saying goes, “When Thai is born, it paves the way for hope.” The month prior to Thai is Margazhi- most inappropriate for weddings. Margazhi is considered inauspicious as it symbolizes the death of the sun as it journeys to the winter solstice. It is however, a month when daily prayers are done before dawn specially by young unmarried women to propitiate the Gods to ordain a suitable groom for the worshipper.

If you are a habituated walker you will notice beautiful Kolams (ground patterns made out of rice flour) gracing the front portion of some houses. Dead center is a clump of dung which holds a five petalled pumpkin flower- a symbol of fertility and an offering of love to the presiding deity. What is offending is the earsplitting cacophony by way of film music blaring on the microphones, a rather rude way of persuading all and sundry that they had better get on with the Margazhi puja for, at any rate, they would not be able to have their sonorous slumber past the early hours of the morn.

Kolams are generally drawn, traditionally speaking, with rice flour, the idea being that the insects would feed on it and bless the household. The kolam also bore sociological significance and is even today religiously performed as a threshold ceremony before dawn in traditional households. Today since it is the thing to be ethnic, the kolam serves decorative arty purposes, moreover the laboriousness of skillfully drawing these complicated patterns has been removed by water thin plastic substitutes which need to be just slapped on the walls or floor, just as you would prepare instant rasam or instant sambhar! If you want to seem a little more authentic, you can go in for those cute metal containers with perforated holes which “drop” the pattern when you place the flour in the contained and give it a smart rap. And gone are the days when you use rice flour. Vendors sell “kolam moavu” which is just lime powder who can tell the difference, except the insects?

Pongal, the harvest festival in mid-January is a very important one in Tamil Nadu. Thought more popular in villages, it is celebrated with the same gusto and fervour by urbanites. The preparations are quite elaborate. The place where the pongal puja is to be done usually in the courtyard or open terrace is washed a day prior to the festival and smeared with dung and allowed to dry. Pretty kolams are drawn which are special to the occasion. Sweet rice is cooked in a new earthenware pot in the same place where the puja is to be performed. Fresh ginger is tied round the pot. A delicious concoction of rice, moong dal, jaggery and milk is boiled in the pot on an open fire. As the pongal is being cooked it boils over and spills out of the pot. Children who wait for this clap their hands and cry “Pongalo Pongal!” and go round the pot. Once the pongal is ready it is tempered with cashew nuts and raisins fried in ghee.

The pongal is offered on a new banana leaf along with other traditional delicacies like Vadas, payasam, etc. Sugarcane, grain, sweet potatoes etc. are also offered to the Sun God in gratitude for ministering his blessings. New clothes are bought for the entire family. The festival runs into five days. One day cows are worshipped as vehicles of labour, one day is spent in visiting relatives and close friends. A day to look forward to is bhoghi when all the rubbish in the house is disposed of and burnt.

The sankranti ratha (chariot) is a typical Pongal kolam. The ropes of the ratha were kept open till the day after Pongal, when all were “joined” from house to house symbolizing a collective desire to realize an uninterrupted cosmic cycle. Today no one has the time or inclination to be quite so ritualistic and patterns are confined to houses and the immediate area outside it.

Major festivals in the south are irrevocable linked to the buying of new clothes and the preparing of sweets and other delicacies. The shops are flooded with glitzy new creations beginning to be bought. The ubiquitous cosmetic jewellery with its moderate price tag is an important buy for the women who wish to dress well without spending a fortune.

January fortunes, however, are impaled on the success of the monsoon. It is also a month of speculation as one wonders as to how the year will stretch-will there be water shortage? How about power cuts? Will political turmoil sabotage the safety of the city? Will traffic congestion worsen causing most of us to throw up our hands in despair? Or will Madras city be cleaned up in degrees, a process hastened by militant groups who wish to belong to a beautiful Madras, and by environmentalists who, like Maneka Gandhi, wish to protect their greenery and fight pollution? One prefers to cling on to a positive not and help earn the city of Madras a beautiful name-that of a sprawling city with the facilities of a town and the innocence of the rural areas.

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