Posted in Food

Spicy Tales

GrandspiceCinnamon, cardamom, saffron, coriander, chilli, cloves and pepper –common names in an Indian kitchen today, and internationally known too, as flavouring for food. Every chef, and housewife as well, knows that a pinch of this and a small fistful of that, in the right proportions, can raise food from the mundane to the sublime. Listen to their stories, and you will know that spices can not only tickle your taste buds, but also provoke your grey cells!

The nutty tale of nutmeg goes way back in History, when the Europeans were coming in droves, eager to colonize new places and find new things to take back home. One among them, the Dutch, hit upon a bonus in the East Indies. When they were busy, looking for precious stones, land and gold, they found — the nutmeg. It became a popular spice in Europe, and that was it. They turned the whole place into one large nutmeg plantation and set a new rule in place. “No native is allowed to grow nutmeg.” And they gave terrible punishments to those who flouted the rule.

Time went by and the Dutch made their millions, monopolizing nutmeg trade. But, maintaining that monopoly meant that they had to police the little islands of the Indian Ocean, making sure that the natives did not grow the spice and sell it off to other Europeans who also scouted the area regularly. This is the story of one such a group, entrusted with the job of making sure that nutmeg grew only in the White Man’s plantations. One day, when they were sailing by an island, they saw something that made them furious. They saw nutmeg trees! They went to the next island, and saw more nutmeg trees! One island after another, all of them had the banned tree growing on it. Enraged by the disobedience of the natives, the Dutch inflicted cruel punishments on all of them.

At their next stop, they saw more nutmeg trees, and by now, the Dutch men were tired of handing out punishments. So, they asked an old native, “Why did you disobey us and plant these trees here?” And the venerable old man replied, “We did not plant them, sir. Birds eat the nutmeg fruit and fly over these islands. And where their droppings fall, new plants grow.” So much confusion and pain, all because of bird droppings!

This peppery tale has an international take. It was a spice over which countries fought and killed, kingdoms tottered and empires were built. And many made their millions with it too!

In the pre-refrigeration days, the Europeans had to preserve meat and the only way to do so was to dredge it in salt. But when this meat was cooked, it was way too salty to eat. Something had to be added to it to improve its flavour, and pepper was the best thing they could use. Chilli was not really an alternative, for it was too fiery for the European palate. So pepper became a necessity to the Europeans.

It was the Portuguese who first came to India for pepper. And they did take a lot of it! At one point, they became a little greedy and hiked the price of pepper by a very small amount, something like three pence a pound. You see, pepper was so expensive and precious those days that it was sold by the corn. Not everyone could afford it; it was reserved only for those with heavy wallets.

The price rise did nothing to make the British happy. They decided to come to India and take pepper by themselves, and so the East India Company was formed, and the rest is history. Of course, this is only one angle to the colonization story, but doubtless, a spicy angle. After independence, India is the biggest player in the world pepper market. The finest Indian pepper is grown in the monsoon forests of the Malabar Coast in Kerala. Each house in Kerala grows pepper creepers, trailing up their coconut palms and jackfruit trees. All extras are sold to pepper cooperatives which play the world market.

Our tangy tale involves – no, not tomato ketchup, but our very own tamarind, without which no South Indian meal is complete. What is South India without sambar and rasam, both of which are tamarind based? Drive down any highway and you will invariably see that it is bordered by tamarind trees. Stories abound of tamarind trees harbouring ghosts and most villages have one or two of these trees to give it the necessary shade, and the necessary goose bumps!! At the end of all this, one could be forgiven for thinking that the tamarind was a local tree. Far from it actually. The tree itself is of African origin, and the name came from the Arabic “Tamar Hindi”, which means Indian date, from the date-like appearance of the dried pulp. Born in Africa, named in Arabia and eaten in India —- globalization indeed.

Our smelly tale involves — asafetida. An essential ingredient in Indian food, a spice with medicinal properties – asafetida is all this and more. It literally means ‘stinking gum’, but a pinch of it can work wonders for the food. No rasam is a rasam without asafetida. Much as the Indians liked it, the British had the last word. They called it ‘Devils Dung’, perhaps because of its obnoxious smell. One man’s flavouring, another man’s olfactory assault?

Spices, as you can see, have gone places indeed. The poem may say “Sugar and spice, and all things nice……..” but spices do have a long history behind them and not all of it is nice. There is no denying their need in the culinary field, and indeed, food would be so bland and colourless without them. What is gravy without the rich yellow glow of turmeric, or a pullav without the red strands of saffron? Viva spices.

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Posted in Traditions

Chennai’s Wonder-wear -The Saree

“While in Rome, do what the Romans do.” And when in Chennai, you cannot go wrong with a saree. Look around you and the ubiquitous saree is everywhere, carried with elan by women of all ages and hues. If you were to look for a place that would be a testimony to the resilience of this garment, Chennai would be at the forefront.

The young and the old sport it, each in their own style. The older women wear it with the nonchalance of long practice and the younger mince along in this attire they are experimenting with, giving it new twists and avataars that their fertile minds conjure up. But neither gives up on the saree. From boardrooms to treadmills to operation theatres, most Indian women wear it with Panache and find no discomfort in the process.

Ranging in length from six yards on to as much as ten yards, the fabric goes on a woman’s body, and stays in place without a stitch to hold things together. Perhaps this was why a top designer, when asked how the saree stayed in place, replied with a mischievous grin: “Meditation and sheer will power.” It does seem a mystery to the uninitiated, but to those in the know, a saree is comfortable attire, and one that whispers elegance and ethnicity.

And if you thought a garment couldn’t get any simpler, think again. There are over 20 commonly practiced ways of draping the saree. Depending on which region or community you belong to, you will drape your saree differently. And walk into a saree shop and you will first be hit by the sheer variety, that is even before you get down to the colours and the motifs.

Perhaps the best place to see all about sarees is in a wedding hall. Kanchipurams rule the roost, of course, and there can be no missing the quick assessing glances that go around the hall. Truly, a saree is a symbol, and each has many stories to tell. For instance, walk down the roads of Chennai, and the saree cognoscenti will tell you which nine yard clad lady is an Iyengar and which is an Iyer. Identifying Mangalagiris, Narayanpets and Pochampallis can be done with one hand tied behind the back, and the style of wearing is a dead give-away of your caste. Borders speak volumes. Large gold borders indicate rich upper class wearers, and a mango or peacock motif on the border is meant for a younger wearer. White has a lot of negative connotations in the South, and dark colours, specifically rich reds and maroons are considered auspicious. Black to some is inauspicious, and to some is very auspicious.

The origins of a saree go back far into the past, but this length of material seemed to have a way of adapting to changing circumstances and to every kind of material that was in fashion – cotton, silk, jute and a variety of synthetics. Innovations in weaving and printing techniques have given the saree a whole new vocabulary, but there are still dozens of places where the saree creating technique is the same as was done a couple of hundred years ago.

There is this fascinating story of the Kodali Karuppur saree. There is only one of its kind in India now. Apparently, it was woven for the Mahratta royalty in Tanjore and used techniques of weaving, painting and printing – all in one saree. So special were these sarees to the Mahratta kings of Tanjore that they stored it in the palaces and gave it as gifts to those who pleased them, and nobody else got to wear them.

And then there are the glorious Paithani sarees of Maharashtra. Woven of lustrous silk with rich jari borders, there is a romantic story attached to these sarees. Since the saree was so opulent, only kings and royalty could afford to wear it. The story goes that there were special families who alone had the right to grow their nails long and slit it lengthwise into thin sections, rather like a comb with very fine teeth. Gold from the royal treasure would be beaten into fine sheets, and these special people would run their nails through it, cutting the gold into thin wires, which would then be woven into the silks. Such families do not exist now, but the sarees are still available, and many of them are heirlooms, so sumptuous are they.

The Gharchola of Gujarati wedding fame is a red silken saree, with a checked pattern on it and each box has traditional motifs woven into it –mango, elephant, swastika, kalash or parrots. A person in the know would only need to look at the pallu of a traditional Kancheepuram to authenticate it – the pallu is woven separately and attached and the line is visible. So too would a Bengali be able to identify a handwoven Tangail – the interlocking design at the pallu being a dead give-away. There are Lucknavi sarees in cotton and silk, exquisitely embroidered, and all done by hand. There is the Gadhwal, a cotton saree with a silk border, woven separately and attached together. And there is the Bandhani, dotted to glory, each dot a work of intense labour. A simple bandhani can stop at a meager 2000 to 5000 knots, while a truly inspired bandhani can go up to three lakhs of dots. And if you remember that each dot is the result of the cloth being hand tied into a small packet, tightly, and then dyed, the saree transcends into the level of art. At the other end of the spectrum is the Kerala Kasavu, an off white and gold affair, exquisite in its simplicity.

Sarees are constantly reinventing themselves and quirks in them come and go, while classics stay on for ever. If one saree shop in Chennai came up with a saree that had over fifty thousand colours on it in a mass of psychedelic checks. another came up with a built in cell phone pouch, in matching or toning shades. And recently, one shop has come up with a saree which has a quotation woven into it! Despite predictions of dying an unsung death, the saree continues to flourish in Chennai,

Did we say you cannot go wrong with a saree in Chennai? Well that is oversimplifying things a bit. To get it perfectly right, takes years of persistent effort. No, we are referring to the art of weaving sarees, we are only talking about picking the right saree for the right occasion. But we say once again, when in Chennai, go for the saree. Just pick a colour that pleases your eye, a material that feels comfortable, and a budget that suits your pocket, and you are ready to go!

Posted in Festivals, Food, Traditions

Sundal and suchlike

We’ve just seen the end of one festival. Kolu padis are being dismantled, dolls are getting packed away, fancy lights disconnected and friends and relatives will again be relegated to the background of busy daily life. The city is limping back to reality after a surfeit of sundal and holidays. Good food, renewed ties among the family and friends, and a time to thank a higher power – such is the spirit of Navaratri.

But ever asked yourself, why Navaratri and why a kolu?

Some believe that this festival commemorates the battle between Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. Mahishasura had somehow managed to get himself a boon; that he would be killed by no one. Not man, not God, not demon. And with that, he marched straight into heaven and threatened the Gods. The canny Gods did some quick thinking and found a loophole. The boon didn’t say any thing about not being killed by a woman!

So they created Goddess Durga, gave her their most powerful weapons and sent her off to kill the ruthless Demon. A terrible combat broke out and continued for nine long days. Finally, on the tenth day, Durga pinned Mahishasura down with her foot and cut off his head with her sword.

And today, this is celebrated all over the country in one way or another. Here in South India, this battle is recalled every year during the Navaratri. The Goddess comes down to fight and the Gods too come to Earth to cheer her on. And almost every house sets up an elaborate kolu, arranging colourful idols of Gods on each step, making sure they get a nice ringside seat in the battle.

Kolus have come a long way. They still tell stories, but not just of Gods and goddesses. They unabashedly show off the family’s travels, hint at their political affiliations, and end up being a commentary on everything from their financial status to their child’s latest class project. So sitting quietly in the midst of all the Gods, you may very well spot Thomas the train or the Incredible Hulk.

You will invariably spot a pair of crudely finished but beautifully decked up wooden dolls in a corner of the kolu. They are called the Marapachis. These were said to be gifts given by a girl’s father to his daughter, who, at the time of her marriage would typically have been a child herself. Today, many households take pride in the Marapachi as an heirloom.

And what about Sundal? Why should this simple delicacy be so closely associated with Navaratri? Most customs begin with a very simple story. And one such story swears that sundal was offered to appease the Navagrahas or the nine planets, each of whom has a taste for a particular variety of grain. And it is these grains that were used in preparing the offering. One could prepare any dish using the grains -vada, payasam, puttu, chikki, murukku… However, ten days is a long time to sustain elaborate cooking. Perhaps that’s how the humble sundal came to stay? Easy to make, easy on the pocket and easy to pack as a give away?

Come Ayudha Pooja, and it is difficult to miss the sandal paste adorning office equipment and machinery. Cars, autos and trucks are ‘dressed’ in their finest and do the rounds of the city, horns blaring. It’s a moot point if it started this way. One story says that the Pandavas retrieved their weapons, so long hidden on a treetop, and worshipped them before moving on. Another says that Goddess Durga fervently prayed to the weapons which came in so handy in her battle against the demon. In today’s context, weapons have given way to the tools that help people in their daily lives. So everything, from the dosa grinder to the gaming console gets smeared with a dollop of sandal paste.

But like every other Indian festival, this one too means different things to people living in different parts of the country. In the North, Dusshera is a festival celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Ravana is the villain in this story and paid the price for abducting Rama’s wife. Elsewhere, in the Bastar district, it is Ravana who is the hero. He is, they claim, every bit as wise, versatile and capable as Rama. Moreover, he was a great devotee of Shiva and was loved by the people he ruled. So in Bastar, they celebrate Ravana. In Bengal, people celebrate the Goddess’ victory over Mahishasura. Many look upon her as the daughter who has returned to her father’s house for some rest and relaxation. When it is time for her to go back, on the day of the visarjan, everyone turns out to bid farewell to her, and there is a palpable air of sorrow and loss over the place. On the other hand, in Gujarat, they dance their way through the Navratri. It’s the time when you can spot men and women wearing their finest and boogying away to pulsating music.

Different names, different styles, different stories, even different Gods! Only the holidays coincide. Whichever story you subscribe to, and however you celebrate it, this festival marks the victory of good over evil. So …Viva Navaratri!

Posted in Festivals

Tales of Diwali and Deepavali

The last of the crackers have been burst. The haze is beginning to lift, and the noise levels are considerably lower compared to the previous week. And as you pack those decorative lights and the fancy ‘diyas’ away for re-use next year, you might just wonder why these elements have come to be so closely associated with this festival. Why do you burst crackers during Diwali at all?

Diwali, like many other Indian festivals, also has a pan-India following. But Diwali to some and Deepawali to others, the festival is celebrated for very different reasons in different parts of the country, and on different dates too.

In Northern India, it is believed that it was on this new moon day of the Kartika month, that Lord Ram returned to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. The citizens of Ayodhya decorated the entire city with the earthen lamps and illuminated it like never before. This symbolic practice continues in houses all over India. And noisy firecrackers are just the best way of letting the world know that you are celebrating.

One view says that since Lord Ram traveled from South India to his kingdom in the North, the festival is celebrated a day earlier in the South.

Other legends ascribe an entirely different reason for the celebration of the festival in the south. Celebrated as ‘Naraka Chaturdasi’ one day before the Diwali in the North, the festival commemorates the killing of the demon Narakasura, by Sathyabhama, Lord krishna’s wife. So while the Diwali celebrations for North Indians essentially start in the evening, people of Tamil Nadu celebrate the festival early in the morning. Small lamps are lit all around the house and after a special puja for Lord Krishna or Lord Vishnu, children burst firecrackers, celebrating the defeat of the demon.

But why the early hour, you might ask. Some believe that the demon was killed in the morning, while others believe it falls in line with the practice of that period of the day before sunrise (called the Brahma Muhurtham) as being considered the most auspicious.

The concept of Good and bad, is always relative and contextual, especially so when it comes to myths and legends. As you move from one end of the country to another, the roles of the hero, villain, and the anti-hero in these legends often get seen in different lights.

Take the interesting Diwali legend of King Bali.Though known to be an extremely just and righteous ruler, he was of a demonic lineage and therefore, had to be slayed. Lord Vishnu did the deed in his incarnation as the dwarf, ‘Vamana’, the day after Diwali, now celebrated as ‘Balipadyami’

However, Bali was a popular king, and according to legend, he visits his beloved people at least once a year, during the Onam festival. People in his kingdom of Kerala celebrate this festival by decorating their homes to welcome him. So while one part of the country celebrates the slaying of the demon Mahabali during this period, another celebrates his return.

Gambling is another custom that most North Indian homes enthusiastically take part in, during Diwali. It is believed that goddess Parvati played dice with her husband, Lord Shiva on this day and it is hence believed that whosoever gambles on Diwali night would prosper throughout the year. So invite your friends home, and engage in some flush and rummy, and you could give it some legitimacy by claiming to be partaking in Diwali rituals!

Many North Indian business communities start their financial year on the day after Diwali. It is believed that Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth emerged from the ocean of milk on this day and merchants symbolically open new account books on Diwali. Tamil New year falls on a different day that is in no way linked to Diwali. Solar, Lunar, Luni-solar calendars – all have a following in different parts of India, making the same day auspicious or extremely inauspicious depending on which state you are in. But then that is another story…

Diwali may actually be many different festivals being celebrated under the same banner. Contradicting stories, different customs and different days –  the strength of our society’s fabric must surely have something to do with our comfort levels with such diversity. As long as they all celebrate the victory of good over evil, and bring in some festive cheer, each to his own, and we seem happy to leave it at that…

Posted in Great Places, Religion

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.

Posted in Great Places


By Vaishna Roy

Once upon a time, a few kilometers away from modern Chennai, was a prosperous weavers’ settlement called Rajanarayanan Pattinam, named after a Sambuvarayar chieftain who ruled the area. The Vijayanagara empire called it Sadiravasagan Pattinam (a reference to the local deity). People began to refer to it as Sadurangapattinam, and then Sadirai. And then the English came, with their penchant and need for anglicizing Indian names and lives, called it Sadras. For the past 200 years the name has remained unchanged, but few Indians know of Sadras or it’s fort.

The Sadras fort is not a tourist attraction. It is not mentioned in the ‘Must-See-in-Tamil Nadu’ lists. Families don’t go there to picnic. College students don’t go there to discuss the meaning of life. Lovers don’t go there to be alone. Poets don’t go there for inspiration. And I can’t imagine why. In my experience, it’s an excellent place to spend a vacant afternoon. I shall elucidate why.

One can’t call reaching this fort an adventure (like the forts of Sivaji that almost always demand an uphill trek) but getting inside it isn’t as simple as it could be. This ASI-protected monument has no watchman. Or rather he was missing in action the weekend my friends and I decided to visit the fort. He’d been gone for a few days now as the nearby shop-owners revealed (someone attributed his absence to an extended drinking session in near-by Pondicherry), and when the oblivious police next door to the fort was consulted, they said he must have gone home for lunch, and that it wasn’t locked anyway (it was a Saturday, and the fort is supposed to be shut on Mondays only) and that we could enter. But it was locked.

But we were young… Strong of body and agile of limb, light of heart and sharp of mind… so bravely, we went forth – to break into the fort.

We soon found out we didn’t need to be young or strong or agile or light to enter. But being ‘sharp’, one of us noticed that the barbed wire had been cut a few feet left of the first big gate. So we had now entered the restricted area of cow excreta and weeds. There was another gate now (flanked by two not-so-splendid cannons), much easier to scale (even for a 5 footer like me), but being ‘agile of limb’ (and over-zealous in our exploits) we decided to find a way to get in, the proper ‘intruder’ way.
And immediately failed miserably. Not even the tallest and most athletic amongst us could scale the lowest aberration (holes) we found in the moss-ridden fort wall. But do the young and restless ever give up?! No sir, they do not, sir! So with an “AAOOGAA” (war cry) onwards we marched.

We went round the fort, braving the warm sea breeze, resisting the incredible temptation of the inviting waves (within splashing distance), and skipping over more excreta, and we found another ‘aberration’. Nature must have been on our side in this battle because although this one was high as well, there were also sorts of wide-apart and irregular rock-steps that we managed to stretch and use as foothold. The ambush had begun and one-by-one, we trooped silently into enemy territory (albeit abandoned).

And what a territory it is. My first thought was that it would be an excellent place to throw a party! Nobody else seems to like it anyway; it would be an incredible spot for a theme party – you could have a Spook Fest at night or a Battleground Bash by day! Seriously though, it’s massive and can truly feed your imagination, but as a fort, it’s not really spectacular. But there’s something impressive about the huge empty granary and eerie chambers with shafts of light boldly gate-crashing the slightly damp atmosphere; the stables with ghosts of their former occupants mingling with the salty breeze; the corridors leading to secret underground passages where many a plot has probably been hatched; the cemetery and the stone inscriptions leaving you to imagine the valiant lives of those that died protecting the fort… Well, it’s history may not actually be that romantic. The fort was a weavers’ settlement, inherited from the Carnatic rulers by Dutch traders who manufactured and exported muslin from here around 400 years ago. In 1818, the British pooped the party and took over the fort, and razed it. What remains is in ruins, but there’s such a quality about ruins that makes them so irresistible to story-hunters. Especially since the Archaeological Survey of India has recently found some ‘treasure’ underneath the rubble.

The ASI’s excavations have uncovered some exciting stuff like some bluish-green bottles… intact! They also found smoking pipes made in Holland, Chinese porcelain, some stone tiles and coins belonging to the East India Company. Who knows what a visit to the Sadras fort can lead to? Especially for children.
There’s a lovely tamarind tree and nobody to stop you from feasting on it. There are some stone benches around the same area, near the entrance, incase you want to rest your feet while the more ‘agile of limb’ discover the many delights of the medieval elephant mount (my personal favourite part of the complex) If only the ASI could see the magic like we could!

Nevertheless, the Sadras fort and it’s varied charms give tourists, as well as locals of Tamil Nadu, a place to truly get away – into a place and time left to your imagination; where only you can see, with your mind’s eye, the lives of people that once dwelt the ground you walk on; and who are eternally bound to this foreign land, 6 feet under the tempting tamarinds.

PS: After Sadras:
Once you’re done with exploring the fort, you should hop across the road on to the beach for a quick hello in response to the ocean’s inviting waves. I insist. It’s a great way to cool off and it’s quality time with nature’s incredible power to lighten your shoulders. I highly recommend getting completely drenched; and also holding any children, that may accompany you, really tight!

If you have some more time, do make a quick trip to nearby Mahabalipuram and it’s famous (and much better preserved) Pallavan architecture. I recommend Moonrakers or any of the other restaurants in Mahabalipuram for lunch because there isn’t much cooked food to eat near Sadras, although you can buy packaged snacks near the fort.

PPS: How to get to Sadras
Sadras is inside the town of Kalpakkam, on East Coast Road, 16 kms from Mahabalipuram, 70 kms south of Chennai.
Nearest Airport: Chennai
Nearest Rail Hub: Chennai


Posted in Festivals

Sundal and sundry matters

Photo: Jayanth Visweswaran (
Photo: Jayanth Visweswaran (

Cool mornings, balmy evenings and the fragrance of parijaatham in the air – This last month was a festive time in namma Chennai. The dolls were out, golu padis (steps)were fixed up, silk sarees were aired out and recipe books consulted for sundal. The city wore an air of expectancy and there was a feel of unrestrained joy- such is the spirit of Navaratri.

But have you ever asked yourself, why a golu?  Why all this for this particular festival?

Well, every family seems to have their own reasons for keeping a golu. Many say it is to celebrate the fight of the Goddess Durga against the demon Mahishasura. But again, the question arises, why keep a golu? Apparently, this fight was very important because Mahishasura was a great warrior and there was a feeling that Goddess Durga may have met her match. So the Gods united to give the goddess their most potent weapons and she is said to have carried them with her to battle. All of them came down to Earth to witness this great battle. This is symbolically represented by the people of Tamil Nadu by keeping a golu wherein all Gods are present. Again, this agrees with the way a golu is organised, with the gods on the on the topmost padi (step), followed by the ten avatars of Vishnu, the spiritual heads, then the temporal heads and finally common people.

Have you paid attention to the wooden, distinctly ugly Marapacchi dolls in a corner? Earlier made of Red Sanders, these wooden dolls come from Tirupati, and always in a pair. It was a gift given by a girl’s father to their daughter, who, at the time of marriage would have been a child herself. Perhaps in those days, when there were no cameras to click the occasion, a doll dressed in all finery would have been a good memory of the most important day in the bride’s life. Further, the wood was said to have medical properties, and was ground into a paste and used. Today, it stands as a keepsake and many households take pride in the Marapacchi as an heirloom.

And what about Sundal? Why should this simple delicacy be so closely associated with this period of the year? Most customs stem from a simple story and grow over the years into some pretty heavy stuff. One theory postulates that sundal was offered to appease the Navagrahas ( celestial star spirits), who are associated with nine varieties of grains. These grains were used in preparing the offering, and one could prepare any dish using the grains –vadas, kheer, puttu, chikki, murukku… However, ten days is a long time to sustain exotic food and so the humble sundal came to stay. Easy to make, easy on the pocket, fairly light on the stomach and easy to pack as a giveaway – all of these could have contributed to ensure that the humble sundal came to stay.

The Ayudha Pooja, now means sandal paste in new designs adorning all appliances and cars, autos and trucks “dressed” in their best and making the rounds of the city, horns blaring. It’s a moot point if it had started this way. One legend says that it was the time when the Pandavas retrieved their weapons, so long hidden on a treetop, and worshipped them before moving on. Another says that Goddess Durga prayed to the weapons she had gotten from the Gods after she had killed the demon, and so the practice began.

Navratri is celebrated very differently across India and for different reasons too. For a Tamilian, more than anything else, it symbolizes the victory of good over evil or new beginnings on Saraswati Pooja day, including education and fine arts. In the north India, Dussehra is a festival celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Ravana is the villain of this version and paid the price for abducting Rama’s wife. Elsewhere, in places like the Bastar district, it is Ravana who is the hero. He is, they claim, every bit as learned, versatile and capable as Rama. Moreover, he was a great devotee of Shiva and was loved by the people he ruled. So in Bastar, they celebrate Ravana. In Bengal, during Dussehra, people celebrate the Goddess killing Mahishasura. Many also look upon her as the daughter who has returned to her father’s house for some rest and relaxation. When she leaves to go back to her husband, Shiva’s home, the whole city turns out to bid farewell and after her departure, there is a palpable air of sorrow and loss over the place.

Photo: Hamsini Hariharan
Photo: Hamsini Hariharan

Most of these stories do converge, but the emphasis on particular stories varies across the country. Different styles, different reasons, whatever, let’s celebrate the differences and celebrate the festival. Viva Navaratri!

Posted in Great Places

What’s in a name?

What'sin a name?Shakespeare had it right when he asked, “What’s in a name?”. He could have had Chennai in mind then. As people, we are not easily perturbed by inconsistencies in our names. Chennai, Madras…what’s in a name? We use the one that comes off our tongues at that moment without a second thought. As to how the city came to get these names, there is no dearth of stories. From Chennappa Naik,  Chennakeshava Perumal, Mada Raja, Madre de dios, the Madeiros family, a madrassa… the list is endless. So which of these really contributed to the city’s name? Your guess is as good as mine. Amidst all the brouhaha about reclaiming the original pre-colonial names, we sometimes confuse which came first, or which was less colonial in origin. In this case, it does seem very plausible that it was the name Madraspatnam.

Chennai is a city that has been home to many peoples from many lands. And several roads and locality names are reminiscent of its colonial roots. Elliot’s Beach, Georgetown, Mowbray’s Road, Montieth Roa- Today many of these are called by different names, and some of them are so long that even fitting them into one signboard is a challenge. Henry Chamier came to India as a civil servant and rose to the position of a member of the Madras Council, and he had a road named in his honour. The road is now called Pasumpon Muthuramalingathevar Salai. Thevar, the leader of the Forward Bloc party in Tamil Nadu,  was a passionate follower of Subash Chandra Bose, and would be quite surprised to find his name gracing a road here.

Another interesting story is that of Cenotaph Road. With a name like that you would expect to find a cenotaph – a memorial for a dead person whose remains are elsewhere. You can walk up and down that busy road and not find a trace of any cenotaph simply because there isn’t one. However, there was one, a beautiful structure with a domed top, dedicated to Lord Cornwallis. Both cupola and statue were dismantled and shifted – the cupola to the Fort area, where it can be still found close to the entrance, and the statue to stand in solitary splendour under the staircase in the Fort Museum. Before being brought to this place, the statue was moved around from pillar to post, and one can only hope that this gentleman has finally found peace, even if it is in a stairwell.

The ‘Old names for new’ is an exercise happening everywhere, often prone to political influences. A more recent exercise was the ‘remove caste names’ fad. All long names suddenly got shortened. Kutty  Pillai street became Kutti street (no reflection on the length of the road), Linga  Street and Thambu street lost their “chetty” suffix, and so on. West Mambalam now has two Balakrishnan Streets and a lot of confusion. Earlier, it had a Balakrishna Naicken Street and a Balakrishna Mudali Street, and no confusion about both.

Ah well, you gain some and you lose some. And then there is the sonorous Thadandar Nagar in Saidapet, reminding one of a noisy thunder storm. How chagrined was I when I came to know that the original name was Tod Hunter Nagar!

Then again, not all street names revolve around names of people. There is Avadi, an acronym for Armoured Vehicles and Ammunition Depot of India. Mylapore owes its origins to the story of Goddess Parvathi being cursed by Lord Shiva to be born in these parts as a peacock (Myil in Tamil). The beautiful Poovirundhavalli (translated as: the place where flowers bloomed) mutated to Poonamallee, and remains so till date. An essentially English name which was shorn of its beauty and cut real short is Hamilton Bridge which some how became Ambattan Vaaravadhi, and got translated (literally) again as Barber’s Bridge.

Well, at least no one has started applying numerology to street names (yet). Imagine an Annnna Salai or a  Raajaajii Road ! Till then, let’s hold on to the old and use the new judiciously, and hope that too much of Chennai history will not be erased with this desire to change names.

And Shakespeare is still right for he went on to say that a rose by any name would smell as sweet, and Chennai will always be Chennai, whatever be the nomenclature.