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Once upon a Tamil Deepavali

Shriya Mohan | Updated on October 25, 2019 Published on October 25, 2019

The festival of lights, earlier about crowded family reunions, traditional deepavali bakshanam and firecrackers that determined one’s status symbol, is changing hues in small town Tamil Nadu

Sleep was always light on the night before Deepavali. And just when we’d drifted off, the pre-dawn burst of fireworks, like a meteor shower hitting our sleepy ancestral home in Thanjavur, would shake us awake. Back in the 1990s, before crackers were demonised, the one to set them off first and wake up the entire neighborhood before 4am was the hero of the day.

We, half a dozen kids, would jump up from our grass mats and run to the porch in excitement. The cows looked at the commotion from the shed as we shut our ears and watched our older cousins setting off walas (a string of crackers) and bombs under a giant neem tree, with their white veshtis folded up so they could leap back at the nick of time.

Deepavali at Chokkanathapuram, a beachy part of Thanjavur, was the festival we looked forward to the most. It was the only other time, apart from Pongal, the harvest festival, when the entire extended family came together from different parts of the country. The night before we arrived in a gumbal (crowd) the large wooden plank of the swing would be brought out, dusted and hung between two tall neem trees. It was rarely ever unoccupied while we were there. The front yard would be sprinkled with water, smeared with cow dung and elaborate white kolams (rice flour patterns) beamed on the wet earth. The house and the family were all ready for Deepavali.

The day began with Ganga snanam. The women of the household heated sesame oil in the kitchen, dropping in dry ginger and black pepper. It would be kept for the puja along with stacks of new clothes bought for family members, domestic workers and temple gods, all blessed with vermilion. Goddess Mahalakshmi was said to reside in the aromatic oil which was eventually applied to our heads, arms and legs. After a mandatory bath before sunrise in water sprinkled with ganga jal, we, the little girls, ran around with wet hair dripping on our stiff new pattu pavadai (long skirts), always a size too large to make them last longer.

No matter how much we tried to stay clear of the adults, they always tracked us down and fed us from the pot of deepavali lehyam — a traditional herbal jam containing ayurvedic roots and leaves soaked overnight and stone crushed with cumin seeds, ginger, ghee, black pepper, honey and jaggery. It was an acquired taste — peppery and mildly sweet — and we were reluctant to sample it each year. One had to have it on an empty stomach, just after a bath. The logic was that it would help one’s digestive powers cope with the Deepavali sweets and fried food we would indiscriminately enjoy over the day.

The morning agenda included more fireworks which the village folk would come to watch. This was followed by the distribution of sweets, a visit to the temple and several trips to the kitchen to grab handfuls of Deepavali bakshanam such as crumbly laddus, different types of murukku (some thorny, some buttery), crusty athhirasam (fried rice flour cakes), fat syrupy orange coloured jaangiri (a sweet prepared with urad dal) and other treats from large steel drums. Finally there was the most awaited lunch when we made sure each part of our banana leaf — on which the food was served — was covered with dishes that ranged from potato fry, avial, sambar and rasam to vada, payasam and paal poli (lentil stuffed pancakes with milk). And then we called it a day.

Over the last two decades much has changed in Chokkanathapuram. Instead of the 20-m-long wala that would earlier be unfolded like a red carpet for all the villagers to see, just a few crackers are burst in the morning, with people focusing more on eating out, shopping and catching a first day first show at a cinema hall. Families have scattered across the world, too, and don’t gather in large numbers any more. Deepavali lehyam is no longer made at home and comes from an ayurvedic shop in Chennai. And sweets are mostly all bought.

The truth is that Deepavali was never a Tamil festival to begin with. According to Chenthil Nathan, a curator of classical Tamil poetry, it is being celebrated in Tamil Nadu only over the last 100 years or so. The Tamil people are primarily Vishnu and Shiva worshippers, so festivals honouring the avatars are minor events. That explains why Rama Navami or Deepavali are smaller celebrations compared to Karthikai Deepam, which marks the unity of Shiva and Parvati on a full moon. It was only with the expansion of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1500 AD that the Telugu people brought Deepavali to the Tamils.

Then, in 1923, two brothers from Sivakasi, P Ayyan and Shanmuga Nadar, went to Kolkata to learn the art of making matchsticks. They returned home and set up a matchstick-making unit in Sivakasi and eventually diversified into making firecrackers. Today Sivakasi is a firecracker hub supplying fireworks to most of south India.

“Now your status symbol is determined by how much garbage piles up in front of your house the following morning,” says Nathan, referring to the remnants of crackers and empty sweet boxes.

Even in Chokkanathapuram, Deepavali is all about shopping or buying new household items, says Sriram Subramaniam, a farmer leader and resident. “It is no longer a traditional affair,” he says.

But there is something exciting around the corner for the young boys and girls of the village. On Sunday they can catch super star Vijay’s eagerly anticipated Deepavali release — Bigil, a promising Tamil sports action film. Now, that’s a happy Deepavali!

Shriya Mohan

Published on October 25, 2019
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