Exploring Chennai By Foot

It is said that best way to get a taste of the kinks of a city, is to explore it by foot. And this is at most true for a city like Chennai, where you you receive more than you seek.

On these curated walks, you experience imprints of the city’s history, architecture, culture, and culinary heritage, with every step.

Of Sugarcane, Cows, and Kites

Pongal, more than just a Harvest Festival

Festivities at the time of the winter solstice are common in many cultures around the world. This journey of the sun northwards marks the beginning of the Tamil month of Thai, bearing great significance to agricultural communities in India. Pongal or Makara Sankaranti as it is celebrated in other parts of India, is the Tamil harvest festival, whose name literally translates to ‘spilling over’.

The origins of the custom go back over a 1000 years. Inscriptions point to a celebration of the Medieval Chola time, called Puthiyeedu . As the name suggests, it is believed to represent the first harvest of the year.

As is the case with most Indian festivals, one day is too short to pack all the novel traditions and joyous ceremonies. Pongal is a 4-day long cultural affair, celebrated by Tamilians worldwide.

Bhogi, 14 January 2019

Popular legend tells the story of little Lord Krishna, who lifted the collosal Govardhan Mountain on his little finger, on Bhogi, to protect cattle and herdsmen from an enraged Indra, King of the Heavens and Lord of the Rains.

Bhogi, the day preceding the main event of Pongal, is meant for cleansing – of the home, body and mind. On this day, people clean their homes, and dispose off old and unwanted items in a communal bonfire made of wood and dried cow dung. This activity is symbolic of parting with vices, unhealthy thoughts and emotions, welcoming spring on a fresh note. Bhogi is ‘spring cleaning’, at its truest.

Thai Pongal, 15 January 2019

Thai Pongal is observed to thank the Sun God for a successful and copious harvest – an Indian Thanksgiving, of sorts. This day marks the highlight of the festival, when the first rice of the season is made into a dish called Sakkarai Pongal and consecrated to the Sun, along with sugarcane, coconuts, and bananas.

As the rice cooks and spills over, it is quintessential to yell ‘Pongal O Pongal’ repeatedly, to honour the abundance endowed by nature

Sakkarai Pongal is a sweet dish made from rice, yellow lentils, milk, and jaggery. It’s cooked in a earthen clay pot, over a wood fire, and decorated with the fresh stem of a turmeric plant.

Maatu Pongal, 16 January 2019

Conventionally, cows were used to till farms, and continue to do so, in many parts of India. The day of Maatu Pongal is thus dedicated to the worship of cows. These gentle animals are bathed in turmeric water, and decorated with garlands around the neck, and paint on their horns.

In towns and villages across Tamil Nadu, you can witness Jallikattu, a traditional bull fight, similar to bull riding in rodeos. In cities, many look forward to the visit of the holy bull, fondly known as the ‘boom boom maadu’ , outside their homes, accompanied by nomadic tribesmen who entertain and tell fortune, based on the nodding of the bull’s head.

To err is…not just human

This is the story of Shiva and his mount, Nandi the bull. Shiva once asked Nandi to convey to the people of Earth to eat once a month, and bathe every day. Mistakenly, Nandi announced to eat every day, and bathe once a month. Enraged at Nandi’s blunder, and concerned of a food shortage, Shiva banished the holy animal to Earth, to help people cultivate crops.

Kanum Pongal, 17 January 2019

‘Kaanum’, in Tamil, means to see or visit. Family reunions are typical of this day; friends and relatives come together and finish the 4-day festival in a grand manner.

The sacredness of Earth and all life is acknowledged in an intriguing ritual called Kannu Pudi , that involves women calling out to birds with a quirky rhyme. A turmeric leaf is laid out on the courtyard, on which is served pongal, flavoured rice balls, sugarcane, betel nuts, and betel leaves, all for the birds to eat.

In different parts of India, the harvest festival goes by different names, and is celebrated in unique ways. But, the one sentiment they all hinge on, is the feeling of gratitude for nature and all it’s living beings.

Uttarayan is a kite festival that takes place throughout Gujarat, and also in parts of Telangana and Rajasthan, on the occasion of Makara Sankaranti . The Sabarmati Riverfront in Gujarat, known as the Kite Capital of India, is one of the best places to witness this colourful and energetic fiesta.

In different parts of India, the harvest festival goes by different names, and is celebrated in unique ways. But, the one sentiment they all hinge on, is the feeling of gratitude for nature and all it’s living beings.

 

When you hear drums, think weddings, not bands.

As the new year begins, and people set their sights on new goals, there’s a different type of new beginning brewing for many. In the South of India, the wedding season picks up just after the harvest festival (Pongal). And there’s something for everyone, whether they’re in the inner circle or not.

While you might be used to the sight of the bride and groom finalising a marriage with vows, or tying of a sacred thread, there’s so much more to a South Indian wedding (a term which honestly doesn’t do justice to the diversity between communities). Some weddings such as the Kerala Christian ceremony follow a traditional, one day itinerary, whereas a Tamil Chettiar wedding could go on for six days! Throw into the mix a keen interest to mimic North Indian customs such as the Sangeeth and Mehendi, and there’s really no telling what you’re signing up for!

No matter the customs, the wedding party usually has their hands full for a couple of months leading up to the event. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and distant relatives pour their hearts and souls into the festivities, to make sure there’s not a flower out of place on the big day(s). Though the list is long and endless, here are some idiosyncrasies that make each wedding a unique affair:

  • Kashi Yatra – common across a number of weddings, this roleplay closely connects to Vedic literature, according to which, a man of marriageable age would have to visit holy places in search of spirituality. As tradition goes, the groom, in a last ditch effort to save himself from the shackles of marriage, departs on a journey to Kashi to lead life as an ascetic. But his father-in-law-to-be stops him dead in his tracks and convinces him that a life of solitude isn’t for him. It’s quite a scene to watch with most of the groom’s friends egging him on to protect his interests!
  • A Coorgi wedding affair – the simplest of all weddings, the Coorgis don’t stand on ceremony. The entire celebration is an intimate affair with song and dance signalling the start. A simple exchange of garlands is all it takes to call another one’s own. Ending with a famous delicacy ( Pandhi or Pork curry) in the parts is likely the only tradition that will last for eons to come!
  • Sadhya and Biryani – continuing the tryst with food, Nair and Muslim weddings have their love for feasts down to a T. Sadhya served at Nair weddings comes with 25 items served on a plantain leaf, and is every foodie’s heaven. On the other hand, the exotic biryani served at a Muslim wedding will likely invade your dreams for months after the fact!
  • All that glitters, is most definitely gold – if Karnataka and Kerala take the cake with food, then Tamil weddings are a feast for the eyes. The wedding industry in this South Indian state may very well be keeping the jewellery industry afloat! The extensive Chettiar and Gounder weddings are characterised by grand shows of wealth, intertwined with their strong ties to tradition.
  • The Andal kondai and oonjal – a typical Brahmin wedding in Tamil Nadu has all the hallmarks of a great Bollywood film, and none of the Hindi. The festivities begin early in the morning, with bouts of song, and a show of feeding sweetmeats to the bride and groom, as they are seated on a swing, in anticipation of a happily ever after.
  • Celebrating childlike innocence – what has sad beginnings in the practice of child marriage from the yesteryears, is now a fun, family-friendly celebration after the wedding. Many different customs include some variation of playing with coloured rice, rolling coconuts, and fishing for rings, to keep the bride and groom entertained after the long rituals they navigate to become husband and wife.

Every wedding is unique in its own way, and there’s really no way to capture it on paper. All that’s left to say is, if you have the chance to attend a South Indian wedding, you might not want to miss it!