On Sankranthi you must forget all the pungent stuff that’s happened to you – The quarrels, the losses, the unfortunate incidents. Start a new life.
It’s eight in the morning and I am in Vijayanagar, a suburb of tidy parks and elegant boulevards in Bangalore. Only a few people are about and I know why.
The women are busy preparing festival snacks at home. The men are stringing mango leaves over the front door or strapping young banana plants to the verandah. The girls are crouched outside the gates, streaming coloured powders through their fingers to draw intricate rangoli patterns on cow dung washed earth. And the boys, well…they are trying on new clothes, or itching, as I am even at 50 years of age, to gorge on all the festival sweets and savouries. Because today, January 15th, is Sankranthi, one of the most significant Hindu festivals in southern India. It marks the beginning of the ascension of the sun towards the northern hemisphere and heralds the onset of summer. The festival also celebrates the first harvest of the year. More than half the country’s billion plus population is engaged in agriculture.
On the sidewalk that encircles a ribbon of a park, vendors are stacking the one conspicuous item that’s eaten with much merriment during this festival—the sugarcane. It’s a vibrant symbol of the first harvest. Long and a deep purple, or a chocolatey brown with yellow striations, the crowns of elongated green leaves are like primordial hairdos. Ah…the challenge of stripping away the tough bark with bare teeth, the joy of grinding away at the fibrous flesh, the thrill of allowing some of the sweet juice trickle down the chin…
But 42-year-old Mohan, who operates a cable TV business and has come with his son, says that there are other things one has to do before gorging on sugarcane. “After your morning bath, you perform bhogi, the ritual of burning a few logs of wood in the front yard. Throw some old clothes in the fire. It shows that you are finished with the old, the past. Then spend some time praying to your family deities. Offer them all the foods you have prepared for this festival. At the same time, remember with gratitude your forefathers. Because they have contributed much to make you what you are. Finally, dress up in new clothes. Only then you may start eating sugarcane and pongal.”
Pongal is the central dish of this festival. A glutinous mass of rice boiled with black gram (skinned and split), there are two varieties of the pongal. One is seasoned with peppercorns, fenugreek seeds and green chili, garnished with coconut, and served with tamarind sauce or diced onion in curds. The other is prepared with jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) and coconut. Both pongals are devoured hot with a spoonful or two of ghee (clarified butter). The pongals have a similar significance as the bhogi ritual. “On Sankranthi you must forget all the pungent stuff that’s happened to you”, says Mohan. “The quarrels, the losses, the unfortunate incidents. Start a new life. And hope for a lot of sweetness!”
Ramesh Avadhani lives in Bangalore and writes for a few magazines in Australia, USA, and Europe. He loves wild life and long walks
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