31 July 2009

Varamahalakshmi's blessings

Today is Varamahalakshmi’s day. On this day, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity grants boons (vara) to anyone who worships her. Everyone wants wealth, prosperity and a few boons, so this is a popular puja day in South India.

The market was busier than usual this morning. People were busy buying things they need for the puja like betel leaves, fruits, coconuts, and flower garlands.

The puja is performed by married women who pray for the welfare of their families. Traditionally, women fast on this day until the puja is over. I was invited to an acquaintance’s house for the puja. It was more of a social than religious affair, with ladies sitting around chatting and eating snacks. There was a beautiful colourful kolam in front of the front door. An image of Lakshmi was in the kitchen decorated with flowers garlands.

I also went to see what my landlady was up to because I know she celebrates every puja day without fail. She showed me her puja room where Lakshmi was garlanded with flowers. There was a little tray with a pot filled with water and rice, some sandalwood paste, vermilion powder and a small mirror. It also happens to be her birthday – she’s happy to share this special day with Lakshmi.

For more information on how this puja is performed, look here.

24 July 2009

On the rooftops

Raji’s balcony looks out over the roof of the building next door. This building is a simple South Indian restaurant where I often go for breakfast or an evening meal. In the early mornings and late afternoons, I see people sleeping on this roof. I recognise them. They work in the restaurant. They’re the waiters and young boys who clear the tables. I can’t help but be fascinated by this. Why do they sleep on the roof? It is cooler to sleep outside but the sheets of corrugated iron that make up the roof can’t be a comfortable bed. Also, there is a lot of traffic noise and pollution, with a flyover running just metres away. But I am often surprised at some people’s capacity in India to sleep just anywhere. I often come across people fast asleep by the side of the road. Sometimes I pause to see if they’re breathing but I seem to be the only person who notices these destitute people.

I imagine these young boys sleep on the roof because they have no other place to sleep. Maybe they have come from other towns and villages in Tamil Nadu to Chennai to look for work. Maybe they had a friend from the same village working in the restaurant who helped them get a job there.

They start work early, once the restaurant opens at 6am. Maybe some of them work in the kitchen, helping to prepare the idli batter or coconut chutney. Some work as waiters. They serve me a stainless steel tumbler of water and bring me the menu. They switch on the ceiling fan over my table. They often don’t understand me when I order a dish because my accent is unfamiliar to them, even though I’m only saying ‘rava idli’ or ‘masala dosa’. When I’m finished eating, one of the younger boys in shorts and bare feet will come along with a plastic basin and collect the dirty metal dishes, dropping them in the basin with a clang. They observe me with as much curiosity as I observe them.

They must make very little money. Not enough to rent a room or even a bed. Maybe they send home the little money they make. They have their meals once the customers are gone. In the afternoons when the restaurant is quiet, they have some time off. They go back up to the roof and have a nap, have a smoke or just watch the world go by. Until it’s time to go back to work.

22 July 2009

Smashing pumpkins

I didn’t know that I had arrived in Chennai on an auspicious day: the first Friday of the Tamil month of Adi.

When I arrived at Raji’s apartment, the kolam drawn on the floor in front of her door was bigger and more intricate than usual. This was a sign that it was a special day.

I had arrived just in time for lunch. She told me we would have a special meal because it was the first Friday of Adi. She had made some coconut milk payasam (like a sweet pudding) which is prepared on each Friday of Adi.

Raji explained that Aadi is an important time, but it’s considered an inauspicious month for weddings and other ceremonies like housewarming pujas.

The newspaper had a special shopping supplement. I’m not sure what the significance of shopping is during the month of Adi, but I guess any excuse for shopping is a good one.

When I stepped out yesterday morning, I saw shopkeepers breaking huge green pumpkins in front of their shops. The tops were cut open and filled with red kumkum powder. A candle was then stuck in the opening and lit, before the pumpkin was smashed on the ground. For the rest of the day, I came across the red-coloured fleshy remains of these pumpkins on the sidewalks. Later when I quizzed Raji she told me that it was a new moon day, Adi Amavasi. On this day, ancestors are remembered. The broken pumpkins are to ward off the evil eye.

Today happened to be the solar eclipse. It took place early in the morning and I slept right through it, waking up to a sunny and very hot day.

Adi is also a month when the goddess Amman is worshipped. I read that she cures heat-related diseases like pox and rashes. If I pray to her, will she cure my heat rash? I left my prickly-heat powder in Bangalore!

08 July 2009

Sacred snakes

Above: A stone statue of the snake goddess at the base of a tree in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens

At the local fruit and vegetable market I often see a woman walking around with a small basket in her hands. She once approached me and opened the lid of her basket. There was a snake inside! I don’t know if she was expecting me to give her some money for her snake, but after she saw my look of horror, she quickly realized there was little chance of that. The fruit vendors had a good laugh watching my reaction.

Many animals are worshipped as gods in Hinduism. There’s Ganesh the elephant and Hanuman the monkey. The snake is also worshipped as Nagaraja: the king of snakes. Killing a snake is considered inauspicious and it’s believed that this can bring bad luck which will follow you in all your successive lives.

Above: A shrine to the snake god on a Chennai street.

I sometimes come across small shrines and stone images of snakes, often at the base of a tree. This is considered to be the entry to the underworld and a resting place for snakes, believed to be the guardians of the underworld. Trees and snakes are also symbols of fertility.

Above: A roadside shrine on a Bangalore street I pass often

Many temples in South India have a shrine to the snake goddess Nakamal, the snake virgin. There are also temples dedicated to snake worship. Snakes are offered milk to appease them and to cure infertility. Snakes even have their own festival day, called Nagapanchami.

For more about snake gods and temples, see this link.