Exploring The Morning Rituals Of A Traditional Tamil Deepavali
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As children who grew up with grandparents that embodied the true spirit of a Tamil-Brahmin household, Deepavali mornings were exciting and exhausting at the same time. The matriarch would wake up children and adults alike as members of a household made a beeline for the backyard where a giant cauldron of bath water bubbled away. “A mixture of sesame oil and coconut oil would be patted on the heads of the children and the men, while the women resigned to their rooms for a full body oil massage before bathing,” Anupama Seshadri reminisces about her earliest memories as a newlywed living in her husband’s ancestral home in Kunnavakam – a small town located on the outskirts of Chennai.

“This oil bath called the Ganga Snanam, was equated with taking a dip in the holy river as this purifying ritual performed on Deepavali morning was considered to be one that washed away all kinds of negativity,” adds Anupama. She elaborates further while talking about using a thrifty homemade mixture of gram flour, turmeric powder and just a touch of milk whisked into a paste and used in place of soap on this festive morning, “so that the women could glow like lamps,” she smiles. Anupama points out that nearly all of the bath elements were things that one could commonly find in a kitchen or in the backyard of their home garden, where shikakai – or the Indian soap nut grew in abundance.

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Anupama’s grand daughter-in-law, Vidya S. remembers her Deepavali mornings as a child to be of slightly different beginnings – in the sense that her mother would prepare a saucepan of sesame oil infused with crushed turmeric root, curry leaves and gooseberries the night before. “Not only does the essence of all these ingredients seep into the oil, making it food for the hair, but it also made my locks look super shiny and silky, once shampooed. To this day, I continue to make this concoction for my daughters, in case they happen to be home during the time of the festival; where the three of us give each other a head massage in the morning before we’re ready to wear our brand new clothes!”

Another aspect of the Diwali morning ritual that used to be an everyday activity during the time when Anupama was much younger, was the act of drawing pulli kolams or dot rangoli in the courtyard space outside the house. She recalls how the mother of her husband would get her and her sisters-in-law to dry rice on the roof of their home, in the sunlight at least 2-3 days prior to when these dehydrated raw grains had to be stone-ground into a fine mixture, which was then sifted and mixed with water into a runny paste that was used to create patterns all around the house. “My older sister-in-law would be in-charge of the main courtyard, while I would take care of the smaller ones around the house. The youngest daughter-in-law would fine tune the details of both, if necessary and draw patterns on the pillars and corners that needed to be decorated,” she quips.

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When introspected as a way to understand why these rituals mattered to this extent in Tamilian homes, Vidya mentions that oil baths were a way of feeling cleansed off all negativity and heavy emotions that might be weighing one down, throughout the year. “It’s the equivalent of oiling an old but well-maintained machine; imagine this – it works just fine, but needs to be checked-into from time to time. Humans are the same way, we need to be reminded that we need cleansing for the body and soul and Deepavali presents that opportunity beautifully through our traditions.”

Once the baths have been had and kolams have been drawn, crackers would be set off before the sun peeked its head from the clouds and daylight stole the magic of the firecracker sparks. Heads of flower pots and sparklers were ignited as the children squealed with nervous delight and ran in every direction. New sets of pattu-pavadai for the girls and veshti-sattai for the boys felt as crisp as the ribbon pakodas that were enjoyed once the excitement settled. Bakshanam – or the wide array of snacks that were set out on the table replaced the usual breakfast of idli-chutney and dosais. Stomachs were filled with bites of thenkuzhal, jangiri, adhirasam, Mysore pak and uppu cheedai before everyone could get on with their day of meeting relatives and friends.

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Anupama shares that while a fast-paced life and demanding jobs don’t leave families with enough time to enjoy the making process, preparations to make steel dabbas full of snacks would begin at least a couple of weeks ahead of time. “Dry savoury snacks would be the first to get done and dusted before we got working on the sweets. While specific sweets like the Mysore pak and adhirasam could be made ahead of time, others like the jangiri and badusha had to wait until the day before they needed to be ready for devouring,” she chuckles.

Vidya’s core memory as a child who celebrated with her great-grandmother in Palakkad was of jumping into a trench that was dug out in the central courtyard of her home that was padded with cloth scraps, in which nestled a giant brass kadhai-like utensil. “It was so big that me and three more kids could fit in snugly and dig out the snacks we wanted to attack first. My grandmother would guard this brass vessel leading up to the day of Deepavali and keep a watchful eye all the time. Come Deepavali morning and all we needed was the go-ahead from her to feast on the most amazing, homemade snacks fried or prepared with freshly pressed coconut oil. You could almost feel the ladoos melting when you took a bite and the chips having a satisfactory crunch to them as you took a bite.”

When quizzed about why traditional rituals used edible materials as the crux of purification and wellness, Anupama shares that since the responsibility to nurture and nourish a family was always a woman’s, they simply made the most of resources that were within reach and in fact, really beneficial for external use as well as internal consumption. On the other hand, Vidya believes that most festivals have always had food as the epicentre in one or more ways, making its presence felt even in the smallest details, making it an unsurprising facet to the traditions that have been passed down through the ages.