One of the many attractions in India are the festivals. One cannot come to India and not be a spectator or involved in some type of festivity. About 80% of the Indian population regard themselves as Hindu and there are many festivals and celebrations dedicated to one of the many gods. Within Hinduism there is no single founder, most Hindus do believe in a Supreme God whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him, four of these main deities are Brahama, Shiva, Lakshmi and Vishnu.
The abundance of religious festivals, temples and celebrations cannot be missed when travelling around this country. Colour, light, offerings and sacrifice are seen in every town and on every street corner. The spiritual essence is something that immediately draws you to India and its people.
I was fortunate enough to be included in one town’s festivities. Travelling to the small village of Salvarpatti, about one hours journey from Madurai we celebrated the Pongal Festival. This is a harvest festival celebrated by the Tamil people at the end of the harvest season. Upon arrival we were welcomed and blessed by the elders of the village. The festivities began immediately with a competition between the women of who can cook the tastiest Pongal dish. Pongal is a popular Tamil sweet rice dish mainly consumed at breakfast. Australians are competitive, but the word ‘competition’ took on a completely new meaning here. Women baited and taunted each other as they pushed their heavy Saris aside to light the wooden fires. One could hardly see or hear amongst the smoke and cries of the village women. It was to the untrained eye, a chaotic mess. But beneath this chaos of smoke, saris and screams, was an ordered and harmonious process. Suddenly there was a loud piecing cry, and I thought someone’s sari had caught alight, but alas, no, it was the cry of the head woman whose Pongal dish had cooked first. She suddenly went into a sort of trance as she screamed and cried with her hands in the air. The honour of having won this competition was too much to bear.
Next competition: drawing. There is a pattern I am starting to notice, Indian women do all the work, men stand and watch. The notion of gender equality and feminism is not something that Indians adopt. Nor are they ashamed of this gender divide, it is an accepted custom that men and women adopt different roles. Men can drink and smoke, women strictly cannot. Women are expected to be very conservative in dress, men can take more liberties. Men and women cannot sit next to each other on the bus, nor can they hold hands or embrace in public. A man can hold hands (and often do) with another man, but women and men cannot. You often see women carrying bags of rice, spices or other produce on their heads coming back from the markets. I have never encountered a man doing this.
This astounding gender divide which is so blatantly patriarchal is accepted and encouraged amongst society. But here, in the small town of Salvarpatti, The Pongal Festival is clearly a woman’s domain. During the festival women draw colourful patterns on their doorsteps every morning with coloured powder. This practice is called Kolam, and so we begin the Kolam competition. Women and children stand around each competitor screaming for more colour, more decoration. Polite formalities are disregarded here and I am pushed and shoved out of the way as it is clear to the women of the village that my drawing abilities are not up to standards. The winner is announced and a rupture of cries and screams are sounded from a small bunch of local women. The drums erupt and we are all suddenly dancing to a mixture of Bollywood style village music.
Throughout the entire day of festivities I am draped in a Saree. I have always longed to wear a Saree, it seemed such an exotic garment rich in vibrant colour and made of luxurious soft silk. But the saree is not an easy garment to master. My saree has been pined, tucked and tied and now all I have to master is the art of walking without it falling down. Difficult at first but by the end of the day I am a pro and I stride along the streets of Madurai in my blue saree revelling every moment.
The bouquet of rich saree hues here paint a striking contrast against the smoke and misty haze of the city’s sky. At dusk the colours all merge together as the Indian orange sun casts a blush effervescence over the city. This is my favourite time in the afternoon, where the harsh realities of poverty and pollution are removed and the exotic India we know from stories and books immerse.