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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!

What’s that music coming from the canteen?

Canteens at Chennai’s Margazhi music festivals – Where to go and what to try

While carnatic music artists dish out sindhu bharavi and naatai kurunji (melodic modes in Indian classical music) in the auditorium, there’s a different kind of music coming from the canteens – the crunch of crispy spinach vadai, the gurgling of filter coffee as it froths in the steel tumbler, and the violent sizzle of dosai batter when it hits the hot pan, smoothening into a soft murmur. Dosai is the South Indian equivalent of rice crepes, and is typically eaten with a lentil soup (Sambar) and spicy sauces (Chutney). That’s right, Chennai’s December music festival is not just for music aficionados, but for lovers of traditional South Indian food, as well. It’s a time when artists of repute and unassuming fans share tables, and consume food and city gossip, alike. Margazhi is the ninth month of the Tamil calendar that starts mid December and ends mid January, and is considered especially holy in the Tamil culture. Chennai’s classical music and dance festival takes place during this month. It’s an exciting time for the caterers as well. As Margazhi is a lean period when it comes to weddings, caterers use the occasion to renew old friendships and reinvent old dishes, with no compromise to the traditional classics, of course. Much like Chennai itself, it’s the simultaneous existence of the old and the new that people come for. Where else would you find sambar rice and chocolate dosai, side-by-side, on your elai (banana leaf)? Introducing to you the Jamie Olivers of the city, who come alive in Chennai during this musical month. These one, you wouldn’t want to miss.

Mint Padmanaban

At The Music Academy, Royapettah At the bastion of the carnatic arts, The Music Academy, you come for the music, but stay for the food. Go for a full-course elai sapadu (meal) during lunch, for you can expect nothing short of the best authentic South Indian cooking here. Our pick for lunch? Mysore vadai (mixed lentil fritters), coriander rice, vegetable kootu (thick stew), potato roast, kadhamba sambar (vegetable and lentil curry), manathakkali vethakuzhambu (dried black nightshade in tamarind gravy), banana chips, and special mysore pak (traditional sweet made from gram flour and ghee). All time best: Podi idli (steamed rice cakes tossed in mixed spices), pumpkin halwa (pudding), filter coffee Experimental hit: Pineapple rasam (spicy tamarind soup, served with rice)

Mountbatten Mani Catering

At Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Triplicane The dish that put this catering house on the map is their experimental watermelon rasam, introduced in 2014. A delicate balance of sweet and tart, this canteen is not shy to experiment! Lunch at this age-old establishment is a right of passage among the music circle in Chennai. Make sure to complete your meal with a tumbler of sweet warm Horlicks, that is sure to take you back to your childhood. All time best: Vazhathandu uthapam (thick rice pancakes topped with plantain stem), akkara vadisil (sweet rice pudding made from milk and jaggery), pepper kozhambu (spicy gravy made from a base of pepper and tamarind) Experimental hit: Chocolate dosai, apple pachidi (jam), vazhaipoo (banana flower) vadai made from green gram and lentils

Gnanambika Caterers

At Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha, Vani Mahal, T Nagar Evening tiffin is what is best at this canteen, that is situated close to T.Nagar’s bustling shopping district, Pondy Bazaar. Start with the all time favourite spinach vadai, and move on to idiyappam (rice-flour string hoppers) with avial (coconut milk based vegetable stew), for mains. Finish with the halwa-of-the-day, and make sure to down it all with some piping hot filter coffee. All time best: Crispy ghee roast (crispy rice pancakes), poori-masala (fluffy deep fried bread with mildly spiced potato gravy), rava pongal (savory breakfast dish made from semolina) Experimental hit: Beetroot idiyappam sprinkled with grated coconut

The canteens are open to everyone, for breakfast, lunch and evening tiffin. You need not attend a kutcheri (music concert) to enjoy a meal. Get a token, sit down at the pandal (communal dining), and enjoy as the drama unfolds on your banana leaf.

The menu in every one of these canteens is refreshed everyday, and the owners are constantly experimenting with the dishes. The only way to know what’s best is to visit.

If you’re in Chennai this Margazhi season, ditch the bar hopping, and go canteen hopping, instead!

Music. Dance. Devotion.

Andal is a revered saint amongst the worshippers of the Lord Vishnu. It is believed she was an incarnation of the Goddess Lakshmi herself. Her story goes thus: Her adoptive father was a devotee of the Lord, and found her as a baby as he was about his morning routine of plucking fresh flowers to string a garland for the Lord. As Andal grew up hearing the tales of the Lord, she was completely besotted with Him. And one fine day, she tried on the garland her father had set aside, admired herself in the mirror and returned it to whence it came. While considered a form of blasphemy to enjoy what was made for the Lord, it is believed that the Lord loved Andal so, and in fact, favoured garlands worn by her. In time, she became one with the Lord, but not before she bestowed upon us a glorious collection of hymns that are sung to this day.

When the ringing sounds of Suprabatham are replaced by the lilting tunes of the Thiruppavai atop the Seven Hills, you’ll know that Margazhi is upon us.

The story of Kodhai, or Andal as she is better known, is a tale of love, respect and romance. And that we rejoice her union with God and play out her life for one month of every year, is a testament to the power of prayer. The Thiruppavai, written by her, is a set of 30 lyrical songs that talk about the cardinal principles of dharma - the path to salvation. The unique nature of these songs stem from the fact that they are not all about the Lord, but the playful yet significant tidings of everyday life.

By expounding the nature of something as simple as making a kolam, or taking a bath in the wee hours, she tells us that you can find salvation even in the small things. (A gentle reminder that life is made of micro-moments.) For the more spiritual among us, there are markers that indicate this is a time for balance and stability. Just as a planted seed grows slower in this season, our life force is also believed to come to an idling halt, a state of high inertia. Essentially, science and nature come together to re-energize us, just in time for the new year.

As the festivities begin, celebration and pomp through the fine arts are considered the ultimate show of faith and devotion. Music and dance are the highlights of this month, but theatre aficionados also have more to enjoy this season! So, if you find yourself with some time to spare on a cool Thursday evening, it might just be time to step out of your home, and jump into the world of Krishna, that Kodhai so lovingly built for us all to enjoy.

Some of the shows you won’t want to miss this season are:
3/12/18 - Narada Gana Sabha - Sridevi Nrithyalaya presents Srinivasa Kalyanam Dance Drama
9/12/18 - Narada Gana Sabha - Ranjani Gayathri, H.N. Bhaskar, K.V. Gopalakrishnan - Vocal Concert
16/12/18 - RK Convention Centre - Sudha Raghuraman followed by TV Sankaranarayan - Vocal Concert
22/12/18 - Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium - Malavika Sarukkai - Bharathanatyam
24/12/18 - Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium - Chitra Visweswaran & Chidambaram Dance Company present 'Skandam' - Bharathanatyam.