Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sivarathri 2009

One more Sivarathri. Our elders used to say, "After Sivarathri, the winter chill goes away chanting Siva Siva." True to the saying, it suddenly turned quite warm on Sivarathri day. This will now continue until we get our pre-monsoon showers, again at different times in different parts of the country. In Hyderabad, where I am right now, it won't be until June where as in Bangalore, which is my adopted home, we are lucky to have pre-Ugadi showers, one month from today.

Sivarathri has never been as exciting since my Puthucode days, when it was a big day especially because we got permission to observe partial fast, and keep awake the whole night and make merry. The excitement would begin one week in advance and we would plan what to do for the whole night of Sivarathri and whose house would be our headquarters, whom all we would enroll in our group, etc. Requests would come from many for enrollment in specific groups and there would be a lot of canvassing, approvals and disapprovals, and pleadings and condescending. On the big day or to be exact the big night, we all would assemble in the appointed place and start our program. After Puthucode, I have never observed jagaran for Sivarathri. When I look back I cannot believe how we were able to keep awake the whole night and the following day. These days, one late night results in my feeling drained out for the following few days.

Among the various activities on Sivarathri night, I remember the making of Vibhuthi for the whole year as an important ritual. On the days preceding Sivarathri, our maid would make small balls out of cow dung, called muttan, along with the flattened dung cakes to be used as fuel for the stove, and sun dry them. On the evening of Sivarathri, after her bath she would clean a small area and we would make a small kolam there. She would then stack all the dried cow dung balls there and throw on some umi (chaff from paddy). My echiyamma would then light the chaff and the cowdung balls would gradually smoulder and burn out completely over the next couple of days.The beauty of it is that once the fire is burnt out, the balls of dung could be extracted in its original shape, though as balls of ash. This ash was then collected and stored to be used as Vibhuthi for the next year.

Vibhuthi is the sacred ash smeared on the foreheads of Saivites. In those days, everyone smeared it on their foreheads after their bath in the mornings and evenings, before their prayers. Different people applied Vibhuthi in different fashions. Saivites smeared it in three lines (the Vibhuthi was made into a paste adding some water in the left palm, and with the three middle fingers of the right hand dipping into this mixture it was smeared on the forehead, chest, abdomen, forehands and arms) especially for religious occasions like special pujas, vrathas etc. On the regular days though many people just dipped their hands into Vibhuthi and drew one long line or short line across their forehead. Women and girls, just had a small line above their tilak (pottu). Smearing of Vibhuthi reminds us of the all encompassing truth that ash is what remains after everything is burnt away and ash is imperishable. That was the everyday philosophy of bringing every one down to earth in those days. Nobody needed any special spiritual retreats. The whole community was a large spiritual kendra where one learnt the simple truths on one's own or as advised to. Each time Vibhuthi was made the significance was reiterated to the children who would naturally gather around to see the ongoings which meant that the uncertainities of life was instilled in them from childhood. They were stronger and were able to withstand a lot more pains and disappointments that life inflicted on them with a lot more equanimity. What we lack in today's youngsters is just this. They dont get an opportunity to learn the simple truths of life in everyday rituals. The sayings like, "life is like a bubble which can burst anytime," "at the end we are all going to be ashes," do not find a place in every day talk these days, which were common then.

Many medicinal properties were also attributed to Vibhuthi. It absorbs excess moisture from the body and prevents colds and headaches. It was considered a great antihistamine. At the instance of any insect bite or pollen allergy, which were quite common in those days, because of the large open spaces and houses surrounded by all types of vegetation which were homes to varieties of teeming insects, Vibhuthi was rubbed on the body and this would give immediate relief.

While applying the Vibhuthi on the foreheads of little ones a pinch was also given to them to taste. Perhaps the carbon content of the Vibhuthi would act as an antacid.

It was also a big psychological booster to apply sacred Vibhuthi on one's forehead. Whenever a child was unwell the elders used to take a pinch of Vibhuthi, say some prayers and apply the Vibhuthi on the child's forehead. It was also a practice to exorcise any psychological fear by applying Vibhuthi after special prayers by a specialist chanter. Though many people used to laugh at this practice, especially after they went out to the big world, these days similar practices have come to the limelight in the name of pranic healing.

Vibhuthi abhishekam is a very popular pooja in Siva, Ayyappa and Subramania temples. The devotees of Sri Subramania smear the whole body with Vibhuthi while doing Kavadi dance. This also is the antidote for the sore caused by piercing of the lance across their cheeks as a penance by devotees of Sri Subramania. Pazhani Vibhuthi with its sweet fragrance is very famous. Vibhuthi danam is also one of the danams during special vrathas.

Vibhuthi also gives that sparkle to silver articles. We used Vibhuthi to sparkle the glasses of the kerosene lanterns which were common when we were children.

There was always a container made of wood hanging in the central hall or corner of the main veranda of all the houses in which Vibhuthi was kept so that any visitor to the house need not ask where Vibhuthi was. Vibhuthi in those days was such an important part of everyday life.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thai Poosam; Recipe: Panakam

Hope everyone celebrated Thai Poosam in the traditional manner. Worshipping Lord Muruga is said to be good for the welfare of the children.We celebrated Thai Poosaam by offering Panakam and Sweet Payar to Lord Muruga. (Recipes are sure to follow).

Sometime back I had raised a question about the significance of offering coconut as neyvedyam at the bathing ghat. After musing over it for a long time, I think I have an acceptable answer. It may perhaps be due to the fact that since Lord Muruga or Saravana was born in Saravana Poikai or the Lake of Saravana, people offer neyvedyam at the bathing ghat. And also the practice of carrying the coconut in a uri (uri is a pot hanger in which pots of curds, milk etc. were stored) to the bathing ghat could signify the kavadis that devotees carry on their shoulders to the Muruga temples. Carrying the kavadis to the temples and depositing them there signifies carrying all your burdens and unburdening them at the feet of the Lord.

Essentially, Sweet Payar is a dish prepared during the "cradle ceremony" of a new born baby. That would be the first time that people outside the family circle see the new born baby for the first time. When Karthikeya killed the demon Taraka, He was but a very young boy.

Panakam is a great thirst quencher. Since Thai Poosam falls at the beginning of the summer season, Panakam is the right choice for neyvedyam. During the Vela/Pooram festivals (temple festivals in Kerala), which take place starting from the month of February, there is a custom known as Parayeduppu. People offer grain (usually paddy) in a Para (a measure of roughly 10kg) to the deity who is either taken around the village atop a caparisoned elephant or is represented by a Velichapadu (oracle). There are people who offer panaka para, i.e., a great quantity of panakam is prepared and distributed to all people who come to witness the festival. It is believed that when the thirst of so many people is quenched, they in turn bless the person who offered them the sweet panakam on a hot afternoon.

Panakam has jaggery, which is an instant energy booster, and dry ginger, which will alleviate any gastric problems due to the heat and untimely eating during such festivals.

We will have the recipe for panakam today.

Though in Kerala, panakam had only jaggery, chukku (dry ginger) and cardamom powder, in Karnataka they add some lemon juice also to the panakam, which gives it a special tang.


Serves 4

Jaggery: 200gms
Dry ginger powder: 2 tsp.
Fresh ginger : 2" piece
cardomom powder: ½ tsp.
Juice of 1 lemon.


Melt the jaggery in ½ cup of water. Strain to remove sand particles. Boil it until the raw smell disappears. Cool. Add 4 cups of water, lemon juice, ginger powder and cardamom powder and mix well. If using fresh ginger, cut the ginger into small pieces and blend it in the blender with little water to extract the juice. Strain and add to the panakam.

Cool and serve.

Lunar Eclipse?

Though the panchangams and temples insisted otherwise, the newspapers and scientists predicted a partial (80%) lunar eclipse today and we sat out to enjoy it. Only it turned out to be a no show!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Recipe: Sugiyan

As I was preparing lunch on Kanu day, my brother came visiting and asked me as usual, "so what is for lunch?" I just pointed to the dishes I had already prepared. I was then frying sugiyans. He asked me, "What is this, bonda?" I said, "no," trying to concentrate on the frying (I was already feeling feverish and just wanted to finish the cooking), "then what is it," he asked. I said, "Sugiyan." "Sugiyan," he was surprised, "why you are making sugiyan on Kanu day," he asked. Well, Sugiyan is not a common sweet prepared on any festival days in Kerala Iyer homes, though I have seen Komala mami (Iyengar) preparing Sugiyan for neyvedyam on Gokulashtami day. The Telugu people also prepare a sweet snack by name Boorlu which could be considered a direct sibling of Sugiyan on important days. In Kerala Iyer homes, this sweet is mostly prepared only on the Shradham days. So I had to explain to him why I was preparing Sugiyan on Kanu day. "Well, it happened like this," I said. "After thatha's (my father-in-law) anniversary, there was too much poornam left over. As I was leaving for Hyderabad the next day, I did not have time to use it all up. I had put the left over poornam in the freezer. I wanted to make poli (obattu) the next time I came to Bangalore and I could not find time. So I am using up the poornam now."

Sugiyan is a fried sweet, like bonda, with a sweet filling coated with a batter made of rice and urad dal.

Now to the recipe.


for the filling:
green gram dal: ¼ cup
grated coconut: ½ cup
grated jaggery: 3/4 cup
cardamom powder: a pinch (Optional)
for shradham, no cardamom powder is used.

for the coating:
¼ cup rice
¼ cup urad dal
1 tsp. pepper
a pinch of salt

Oil to fry


Dry roast the green gram dal to a light pink color (until a nice aroma arises). Pressure cook the dal in just enough water. It should not get mashed up and soggy. Drain any excess water. Mash with a spoon and keep aside. Boil the jaggery in ¼ cup of water and strain to remove sand particles. Reheat the jaggery in a wide pan. When the jaggery syrup starts thickening, add the mashed dal and grated coconut. Keep stirring until all the water is evaporated and the mixture leaves the sides of the pan. Remove from stove, add the cardamom powder and allow to cool. Make small balls.

Meanwhile, soak the rice and dal for 1 hour. Grind to a smooth batter, adding just enough water (the batter should grind to dosa consistency). Add salt. Crush the pepper corns and add to the batter.

Heat the oil. When the oil starts smoking, dip the balls (filling) in the prepared batter and fry on medium heat, until the balls turn golden in color. Remove from the oil and serve.


On Shradham day, the poornam prepared in the above fashion is used in making both poli and sugiyan.

Important festivals in February 2009

Before continuing with my Kanu descriptions, I need to take a time out to list the festivals we observe in the month of February. Well this is half Thai and half Maasi ( the Tamil months) or half Makaram and half Kumbham (Malayalam months). Not many festivals during this period although Kerala comes alive with the temple festivals of Poorams and Velais. The Poorams start after the harvesting seasons, one of the main reasons being that the Ezhunnellippu (procession of caparisoned elephants) is done mostly in the fields after the harvest.

8th February 2009 - Thai Poosam
A festival celebrated in the Muruga temples all over the world. As with other festivals, there are various legends associated with this festival too. According to popular legend, it is the day Lord Muruga destroyed the demon King Tharakasura. We used to observe the festival at home by offering some neyvedyam like Vella payar or Panakam to Lord Muruga. The more important ritual is to take a coconut to the tank or stream where one takes bath and breaking the coconut at the side of the stream after the bath and offering it to Lord Muruga there itself. I am not able to find a convincing reason for this ritual. Usually neyvedyams are offered at the temples or at homes; what is the significance of offering the neyvedyam at the bathing ghat? If any of the readers knows the answer, please enlighten me.

23rd February 2009 - Mahashivarathri
One cannot call Mahashivarathri a festival in the real sense of the word. I would rather call it day of meditation and fasting and getting rejuvenated mentally as well as physically. Most people observe a fast on this day with a jagaran (keeping awake) for 36 hours. That is starting from daybreak on Mahashivarathri day until night falls the next day. Different people observe the fast differently. The full fast is observed by not taking any food till sunset. After offering Pooja and Argya to Lord Shiva after sunset, light saltless refreshments (Vella dosa, Parippukanji, fruits, etc.) are partaken. People who cannot fast the whole day, take some light refreshments once during the day and once in the night.