We celebrated Ugadi on Monday. We refers to the Kannadigas, the Telugus, the Maharashtrians and the like. We at home of course celebrate every festival with everybody. As long as there is good food to be eaten, we Iyers are in! Ugadi is the new year’s day for all those observing the lunar calendar. People deck up the house and prepare a festive lunch and offer pujas in the temple. The important item of the festival lunch is Holige or Obattu and Ambode. I thought of preparing obattu, but then, my good friend Veena brought a few for us.
On Ugadi day, we also had a partial solar eclipse early in the morning. My mother was asking me, “did you observe the Grahanam(eclipse)?” I burst out laughing and asked her, “Amma, how do you observe Grahanam? After all you don’t have to prepare Parippu Kanji or payasam, right?” She said, “that’s true. You don’t have to prepare any thing.”
Having said so to my mother, my memories went back to the grahanams when we were growing up. Those days, grahanams were indeed days filled with lots of fun.
To start with, the whole village was in a relaxed mood during the time of eclipse as nobody was supposed to eat anything during the eclipse time. The last meal had to be had atleast 2 hours prior to the start of eclipse and the kitchens were closed till the end of eclipse. This meant that the womenfolk had no kitchen work and we could spend time with our mothers in relaxation. Otherwise, they would be always busy with preparing meals or other kitchen work. During the eclipse, nobody was supposed even to drink water. The stomach was to be free from work also, as digestive functions were also thought to be affected by the “rays emitted during eclipse.”
And then, there was a big congregation at the side of the stream to have a dip at the start of the eclipse along with some vedic chants to ward off the evil effects of the eclipse. (Most of the Kerala Iyer settlements were around a temple and there very often was a river, stream or pond on the banks of which there were some banyan trees. Many of these congregations took place under these trees. There was a platform built around the banyan tree which the men sat and discussed various matters from politics to everyday events). As it was rare to get the older women at the stream during the day time on the other days, we had swimming races with the daring seniors on such occasions. It was loads of fun to swim with Parvathi patti, Seshi patti and the likes, and observing them indulging in teasing each other and mock fighting. If the eclipse was for a short duration, the fun was much more, as we were all supposed to have another dip at the end of the eclipse. This meant all stayed back at the poolside until the eclipse ended and we never got out of the water. We were scolded when we reached home for being in water for so long “like buffaloes.” “What if you catch a cold,” we were asked. By then the mothers would get very busy anyway, as they had to prepare food for all from scratch, as they had emptied the kitchen for the eclipse. Not even dosa or idli batter would be kept aside for use after grahanam. The only item brought forward thru grahanam was curds in which a piece of dhurva grass was been placed to ward off evil effects.
During grahanam, various shanthi poojas were conducted in individual houses and also dhanams (alms) were given to brahmins, as it was believed that the people on whose birthstars the grahanam was falling, will have to suffer the ill effects of grahanam. They were also supposed to wear a pattam, a palm leaf on which some mantras were written to ward off evil effects. We would dance around the pattam wearers making fun of them. To my luck, I never had to wear a pattam when I was growing up, afterwards I never cared.
And how did we view the eclipse? We were sternly warned not to look at the sun directly. We did not have access to any special glasses/filters like the present day kids, we did not even have sunglasses, to view the eclipse. Our elders taught us to darken glass pieces with the soot from the oil lamp and view the sun thru this darkened glass. Another method was to look at the reflection of the eclispsed sun in a decanted solution of cowdung in water.
There was another important ritual to be observed by all pregnant women during the grahanam. They were advised to hide, literally, they were asked to stay inside a dark room, closing the doors and making sure that even a small hole or crack in a window or door was plugged. When I think of those days, I am surprised no one else kept conpany for these hiding ladies, atleast for small talk. They sat inside the room all alone during the period of grahanams. It was believed that pregnant women who did not hide during grahanam would deliver children with deformities. It is not clear to me whether this belief has any scientific backing, though we read often that many practices being observed blindly over generations on the advice of elders have sound scientific backing. I wonder what today’s young women do during grahanam and how many deformed children are born because of their not hiding. It is to be remembered here that today science has helped us to detect many deformities proir to the childbirth and corrective measures are taken immediately after the child is born and in some cases even in the foetus state itself. Such facilities were not available until toward the end of the 20th century. Today it is quite common to carry out many prenatal scans and tests.
There are people who advise the young generation to hide during grahanam today also, as was illustrated by our friend whose daughter had a child two days before this solar eclipse. He called us to give the good news and said, “see her luck, she does not have to hide during grahanam.”