Intangible Heritage

The Rise and Fall of the Groundnut Industry

A groundnut oil expeller in one of Pondicherry's defunct mills. This one operated from 1977 until 2012.

Ground­nuts. Pea­nuts. Goo­bers. All dif­fe­rent names for the same plant that has a deep his­to­ry in the sys­tem of colo­nial mari­ti­me tra­de.

Nati­ve to the soils of Sou­th Ame­ri­ca, ground­nut was first encoun­te­red by Euro­peans in the ear­ly 16th cen­tu­ry when they began their explo­ra­tion and conquest of that region. Tra­de rou­tes soon took the hum­ble ground­nut to Euro­pe, Afri­ca, East Asia, and the Paci­fic, but it was not until the end of the 16th cen­tu­ry that ground­nut was intro­du­ced to the Indian Sub­con­ti­nent. Most like­ly, the varie­ties that rea­ched the Mala­bar coast came from Mozam­bi­que, whi­le the varie­ties that rea­ched the Coro­man­del coast came from the Phi­lip­pi­nes. Ground­nut, in Tamil, used to be cal­led mar­nilla kot­tai, whi­ch is thought to refer to the nut’s ori­gin in Manilla. Some tra­ders invol­ved in the indus­try would even pre­fix their name with the word manilla.

The Rise of Culti­va­tion and Pro­duc­tion

Befo­re colo­nial admi­nis­tra­tion effec­ti­ve­ly trans­for­med the local sys­tems of agri­cul­tu­re from sub­sis­ten­ce far­ming to cash crop­ping, the Mus­lim rulers of the Dec­can were encou­ra­ging the com­mer­cial culti­va­tion of ground­nut. The first lar­ge-sca­le culti­va­tion in Tamil Nadu was recor­ded in 1800 by Bri­ti­sh bota­nist Fran­cis Bucha­nan, who noted that in Myso­re, ground­nut was being inter­crop­ped with tur­me­ric. By 1851, the crop was being grown com­mer­cial­ly and pro­fi­ta­bly in the Sou­th Arcot dis­trict (whi­ch encom­pas­sed Pon­di­cher­ry and sur­roun­ding Tamil Nadu from Marak­ka­nam to Thi­ru­van­na­ma­lai to Chin­na Salem to Chi­dam­ba­ram). By 1889, this region was home to more than half of the total acrea­ge of ground­nut far­ming from across Tamil Nadu, Andh­ra Pra­de­sh, and Kar­na­ta­ka.

In Pon­di­cher­ry, the explo­sion of ground­nut was ini­tial­ly met with inade­qua­te sto­ra­ge faci­li­ties. The crop had to be sto­red and dried in pri­va­te homes and gar­dens, cau­sing resi­dents and neigh­bors to com­plain about the smell. In 1889, twel­ve sto­ra­ge ware­hou­ses were construc­ted along the Sou­th Bou­le­vard of the town spe­ci­fi­cal­ly to accom­mo­da­te the gro­wing ground­nut indus­try. Tra­de was ope­ra­ted from within the­se ware­hou­ses, pro­pel­ling Pon­di­cher­ry as the chief expor­ter of ground­nut in Sou­th India.

Fran­ce was the chief Euro­pean reci­pient of Indian ground­nut, and becau­se they hea­vi­ly taxed pro­duct that was grown out­si­de of the Fren­ch colo­nial empi­re, most of their Indian ground­nut came from Pon­di­cher­ry. In 1857, the expor­ted ground­nuts from Pon­di­cher­ry to Fran­ce were valued at 2.2 mil­lion francs. By 1883, this num­ber had jum­ped to 8.4 mil­lion, and by 1891, the export value of ground­nuts to Fran­ce was as high as 12.9 mil­lion francs. In Fran­ce, raw ground­nuts were both used for food consump­tion and mil­led for oil, whi­ch was famous­ly used in the com­po­si­tion of Mar­seilles soap.

Bet­ween 1896 and 1900, howe­ver, the­re was a mas­si­ve dear­th of ground­nuts in Pon­di­cher­ry becau­se of crop disea­se, soil exploi­ta­tion, and land exhaus­tion. One of the chief expor­ting com­pa­nies was hired to deve­lop a new seed varie­ty that would resist the­se effects of degra­da­tion, and a seed from Mozam­bi­que was suc­cess­ful­ly culti­va­ted to reple­ni­sh grow­th. This new crop was named the Coro­man­del pea­nut, whi­ch sub­se­quent­ly domi­na­ted culti­va­tion across India, and the Pon­di­cher­ry region again rose as a pri­ma­ry pro­du­cer of ground­nut. At the height of pro­duc­tion near the end of the 20th cen­tu­ry, ground­nut accoun­ted for 10% of Pondicherry’s total cro­pland, third only to rice pad­dy (60%) and sugar­ca­ne (12%).

Pro­ces­ses of Pro­duc­tion

Ground­nut in Pon­di­cher­ry was grown in two cycles: rain­fed crop, whi­ch was culti­va­ted bet­ween July and Decem­ber, and irri­ga­ted crop, bet­ween Janua­ry and June. All parts of the plant were used pro­duc­ti­ve­ly: the vines were used as fod­der; the shells for ani­mal feed, fire fuel, or packing mate­rial; and the nuts them­sel­ves, of cour­se, for consump­tion and oil pro­duc­tion. Ground­nut oil was the prin­ci­ple bypro­duct of culti­va­tion, and it was tou­ted for its heal­th bene­fits and affor­da­bi­li­ty for the wor­king fami­ly. Befo­re the nuts could be cru­shed for oil, howe­ver, they would be dried in the sun for at least two days, with lon­ger expo­su­re lea­ding to higher oil yields.

Ori­gi­nal­ly, oil cru­shing was done with woo­den rota­ries known as sek­ku, whi­ch were dri­ven by cat­tle. In a lar­ge mor­tar-and-pest­le fashion, the bull would dri­ve a rota­ting club on the insi­de of a ser­ra­ted drum, cru­shing the ker­nels to extract the oil. Later, mil­ls were run with mecha­ni­zed rota­ries, and even­tual­ly steam-powe­red oil expel­lers, whi­ch pro­du­ced up to 50% more oil than tra­di­tio­nal methods.

The Fall of the Ground­nut Indus­try 

Prior to Pon­di­cher­ry inde­pen­den­ce and the mer­ger with India, far­mers would bring their crop direct­ly to the oil mil­ls in town with whi­ch they had esta­bli­shed contracts. By 1965, howe­ver, the Pudu­cher­ry govern­ment had cen­tra­li­zed the tra­de of ground­nut. Far­mers and mil­lers now wor­ked less direct­ly with each other, and ins­tead most sel­lers took their crop to a cen­tra­li­zed dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter, whe­re mil­lers would make pur­cha­ses at who­le­sa­le pri­ces. This was not an eco­no­mi­cal pro­cess for many small-sca­le far­mers, who even­tual­ly had to give up their ground­nut busi­ness. Addi­tio­nal­ly, increa­sing urba­ni­za­tion, whi­ch drew more wor­kers away from the fields and into the city, as well as a lack of concur­rent moder­ni­za­tion of agri­cul­tu­ral tech­no­lo­gy, contri­bu­ted to the gra­dual decli­ne of ground­nut pro­duc­tion in the region.

Moreo­ver, in the 1990s, forei­gn imports took over India’s oil indus­try. Palm oil and sun­flo­wer oil were mar­ke­ted as heal­thier than ground­nut oil, whi­ch is high in cho­les­te­rol, and sold for half the cost. Within the deca­de, ground­nut ope­ra­tions had near­ly com­ple­te­ly cea­sed. At the height of pro­duc­tion in Pon­di­cher­ry, oil mil­ls had lined the streets in the nor­th­west part of the town, par­ti­cu­lar­ly on what is now Anna Salai and Neh­ru Street. Now, most of the­se mil­ls lay deser­ted, or other­wi­se demo­li­shed and recons­truc­ted for dif­fe­rent com­mer­cial pur­po­ses. The ware­hou­ses whi­ch had been built on the Sou­th Bou­le­vard at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, like­wi­se, are now occu­pied by a fire sta­tion, a sports faci­li­ty, a res­tau­rant, offi­ces, and shops.

Conclu­sion

The­re is hope, howe­ver, among mil­lers that the ground­nut indus­try may see a rebir­th in the coming years. New know­led­ge, in par­ti­cu­lar, ack­now­led­ges the heal­th bene­fits of ground­nut oil and asserts that it is espe­cial­ly good for peo­ple living in humid, tro­pi­cal cli­ma­tes such as Pondicherry’s. Demand for ground­nut oil seems to be increa­sing and some new small mil­ls have even ope­ned up as the ground­nut tra­de slow­ly begins to resur­fa­ce.

The grea­test iro­ny is that this blog is writ­ten by someo­ne with a pea­nut aller­gy. I only hope to bring remem­bran­ce to the Great Ground­nut His­to­ry that was once an inte­gral part of local natu­ral and indus­trial heri­ta­ge. Though many far­mers and mil­lers have moved on to such crops as sesa­me, the ground­nut roots grow deep into soil of Pon­di­cher­ry.

Intangible Heritage

A Walk Through the French Quarter: “This looks just like New Orleans!”

fleur de lis_compressed

Fren­ch colo­ni­zers began their expe­di­tions later than most of the other Impe­rial powers of Euro­pe, but they first made claims to both Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans around the same time (1673 and 1684, res­pec­ti­ve­ly). And whi­le the Fren­ch empi­re isn’t as well-known as having been so vast, domi­nee­ring, and indus­tria­li­zing as tho­se of the Bri­ti­sh, Spa­ni­sh, and Por­tu­gue­se, they cer­tain­ly left their mark on the pla­ces in whi­ch they did set­tle.

The his­to­ric dis­tricts of Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans still today have dis­tinct auras of Fren­ch influen­ce in the buil­dings, the peo­ple, the cultu­re, the food. More than one visi­tor to Pon­di­cher­ry, in fact, has com­pa­red it to New Orleans, des­pi­te the cities being on oppo­si­te sides of the glo­be. The Fren­ch have crea­ted a connec­tion bet­ween them, howe­ver, and whi­le the for­mer colo­nies deve­lo­ped with dis­tinct his­to­ries, cer­tain fac­tors of the times per­iod, the envi­ron­ment, and the peo­ple pro­du­ced stri­king simi­la­ri­ties bet­ween the­se dis­tant cities.

 fleur de lis_compressed

Consi­de­ring Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans from a wider his­to­ri­cal pers­pec­ti­ve, we see a few inter­es­ting connec­tions. Nota­bly, the Fren­ch lost and regai­ned control of both ter­ri­to­ries repea­ted­ly over time. But, although New Orleans was under Spa­ni­sh rule for almost fif­ty years, and Pon­di­cher­ry was ruled by the Bri­ti­sh for a com­bi­ned 27 years, the Dut­ch for 13 years, the Danes for 50 years, and the Por­tu­gue­se for near­ly a cen­tu­ry (!), it has been the Fren­ch who have had the most las­ting cultu­ral impact in both pla­ces. Ano­ther inter­es­ting obser­va­tion is that with the Trea­ty of Paris in 1763, whi­ch joint­ly ended the Fren­ch and Indian War in Nor­th Ame­ri­ca, the Seven Years War in Euro­pe, and the Car­na­tic Wars in India, the Fren­ch offi­cial­ly relin­qui­shed New Orleans to Spain, and in return gai­ned Pon­di­cher­ry back from the Bri­ti­sh.

Eco­lo­gi­cal­ly, both Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans are coas­tal cities, whi­ch were of cour­se attrac­ti­ve to mari­ne-based colo­ni­zers. Whi­le Pon­di­cher­ry abuts the Bay of Ben­gal, New Orleans sits at the mou­th of the Mis­sis­sip­pi on the Gulf of Mexi­co. Addi­tio­nal­ly, the Fren­ch laid claim to Karai­kal in 1739, whi­ch was situa­ted on the Kave­ri River del­ta, sou­th of Pon­di­cher­ry. Envi­ron­men­tal his­to­rian Chris­to­pher Mor­ris wri­tes that the Fren­ch trea­ted the Mis­sis­sip­pi and the Kave­ri essen­tial­ly the same way, and that the­se eco­lo­gies high­ly influen­ced the agri­cul­tu­ral and labor pat­terns of both regions. Plants whi­ch flou­ri­shed in Pon­di­cher­ry, for exam­ple, like cot­ton, indi­go, sugar, and rice, the Fren­ch attemp­ted to culti­va­te (with varying degrees of suc­cess) in New Orleans. And spe­cies that were being grown in Nor­th Ame­ri­ca – pota­toes, corn, pea­nuts – were trans­plan­ted to India. The depen­den­ce on the­se crops, whi­ch in gene­ral requi­red arduous culti­va­tion, contri­bu­ted to oppres­si­ve local sys­tems of bound labor (whi­ch his­to­ry too often igno­res).

Along­si­de the­se his­to­ri­cal and envi­ron­men­tal connec­tions, the­re is also the sha­red sym­bol of the Fren­ch Monar­chy: the fleur de lis. Fren­ch explo­rer Sieur de La Sal­le clai­med the land of New Orleans with a flag bea­ring the sty­li­zed lily in 1682. When the ter­ri­to­ry was offi­cial­ly made a colo­ny of Fran­ce in 1718 and named for the Duke of Orleans, the fleur de lis stu­ck as a las­ting sym­bol of city. Just as New Orleans was being colo­ni­zed, the Com­pa­gnie des Indes orien­ta­les was tee­te­ring on ban­krupt­cy. Eco­no­mist John Law had just foun­ded the Mis­sis­sip­pi Com­pa­ny to sup­port Fren­ch colo­ni­za­tion in Nor­th Ame­ri­ca, and in 1720 the Com­pa­gnie des Indes orien­ta­les was absor­bed under the Mis­sis­sip­pi Com­pa­ny for three years until its ope­ra­ting inde­pen­den­ce was res­to­red. Also in 1720, the Fren­ch in Pon­di­cher­ry began min­ting sil­ver and cop­per dou­dou coins, whi­ch fea­tu­red the name of Pudu­cher­ry writ­ten in Tamil on the back, and a fleur de lis on the front.

fleur de lis_compressed

For tho­se visi­ting either city today, both Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans still embo­dy a few per­va­ding cha­rac­te­ris­tics whi­ch seem to connect them across the glo­be. The­se broad­ly stem from their being loca­tions whe­re a par­ti­cu­lar confluen­ce of cultu­res has crea­ted a uni­que syn­cre­tism. In Pon­di­cher­ry, this is eve­ry­thing we call Fran­co-Tamil; and in New Orleans, this is all things Creo­le and Cajun.

The Fran­co-Tamil creo­le iden­ti­ty is a pro­duct of inter­mar­ria­ges and pro­ge­ny bet­ween Euro­pean colo­ni­zers and local Tami­lians, whi­ch was not uncom­mon from the very begin­ning of Fren­ch set­tle­ment. This fused cultu­re, howe­ver, came into its own in the late 19th cen­tu­ry when creo­les began to demand the same poli­ti­cal rights that were gran­ted to Fren­ch natio­nals. In 1880, the Fren­ch govern­ment pas­sed a decree whi­ch allo­wed Tami­lians in Fren­ch Pon­di­cher­ry to renoun­ce their legal sta­tus under Hin­du, Mus­lim, or cas­te autho­ri­ty, and beco­me sub­jects of Fren­ch law. Tho­se who signed their names and cho­se new Fren­ch sur­na­mes beca­me renon­çants and decla­red them­sel­ves as Fran­co-Tamil.

Like­wi­se in New Orleans, Creo­le typi­cal­ly refers to the gene­ral cultu­ral blend of Euro­peans (name­ly, Fren­ch and Spa­ni­sh), Afri­cans, and Nati­ve Ame­ri­cans, whi­ch was high­ly uni­que to the region. (The word creo­le – unca­pi­ta­li­zed – sim­ply means a for­ma­li­zed syn­the­sis of lan­gua­ge or cultu­re.) Cajun, on the other hand, refers to a very spe­ci­fic group of peo­ple and their des­cen­dants who migra­ted to New Orleans from the Aca­dia region of Nova Sco­tia. The­se Fren­ch set­tlers were at odds with the Bri­ti­sh in what is now Cana­da, and the Bri­ti­sh for­mal­ly exi­led them in 1713. When the Aca­dians joi­ned the Fren­ch in New Orleans, they beca­me known Cajuns and the mixed pot of local cultu­re thi­cke­ned.

Each of the­se uni­que ver­sions of cultu­ral syn­cre­tism has had las­ting mani­fes­ta­tions in dif­fe­rent aspects of local living. In Pon­di­cher­ry, one of the most salient fea­tu­res of Fran­co-Tamil cultu­re is its archi­tec­tu­re. Often with tra­di­tio­nal Tamil ground floors, exten­ded Fren­ch-influen­ced first floors, and other inter­ac­ting hybrid ele­ments, the Fran­co-Tamil buil­dings in Pon­di­cher­ry are the phy­si­cal repre­sen­ta­tions of other intan­gi­ble ele­ments of this rich heri­ta­ge. Lin­guis­ti­cal­ly, for exam­ple, Pon­di­cher­ry conti­nues to be a nucleus of both Fren­ch and Tamil. Like­wi­se, reli­gious prac­ti­ces inclu­de Hin­duism, Chris­tia­ni­ty, devo­tees who wor­ship Gods from both faiths, and Chris­tian rituals influen­ced by local Hin­du tra­di­tions.

In New Orleans, Cajun cultu­re is pro­ba­bly most visi­ble in the local cui­si­ne. Across the Uni­ted Sta­tes, New Orleans is known for its Cajun gum­bo, craw­fi­sh étouf­fée, and jam­ba­laya. Zyde­co music is also a result of Fren­ch Catho­lic musi­cal tra­di­tions fusing with tho­se of local Nati­ve Ame­ri­cans, Afri­cans, and Creo­les. Cajun Fren­ch like­wi­se refers to the creo­le dia­lect whi­ch is spo­ken throu­ghout the region.

In both of the­se for­mer colo­nial cities, the­se dyna­mic cultu­ral iden­ti­ties contri­bu­te to a par­ti­cu­lar aura within the town. In Pon­di­cher­ry and New Orleans ali­ke, the­re seems to be a cer­tain roman­ti­ci­zing of per­am­bu­la­tion (or, as we’ve tal­ked about befo­re, le fla­neur.) The best way to expe­rien­ce each city, they say, is to wan­der through its streets. Lis­ten for the music, smell the food and the flo­wers, hear the water lap­ping at the sho­re, obser­ve the grand colo­nial archi­tec­tu­re, meet with locals and dis­co­ver their lan­gua­ge, pau­se to rest in a café with Fren­ch pas­tries and café au lait. Whe­re are we now? A small town on the Coro­man­del Coast of India, or a live­ly city on the mou­th of the Mis­sis­sip­pi?

fleur de lis_compressed

Refe­ren­ces:

Mor­ris, Chris­to­pher. “Wet­land Colo­nies: Loui­sia­na, Guangz­hou, Pon­di­cher­ry, and Sene­gal.” Culti­va­ting the Colo­nies: Colo­nial Sta­tes and Their Envi­ron­men­tal Lega­cies, edi­ted by Chris­ti­na Fol­ke Ax et al., 1st ed., Ohio Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Athens, 2011, pp. 135–163.

Intangible Heritage

Of Water And Dance

The bha­ra­ta­na­tyam dan­cer dan­ces with her enti­re body. Her eyes, her mou­th, her head, her neck, her shoul­ders, her arms, her hands, her fin­gers, her abdo­men, her legs, her feet. Her move­ments are deli­ca­te but inten­tio­nal, for­mu­la­ted but expres­si­ve. Her hands shift dex­te­rous­ly bet­ween mudras to express spi­ri­tual or nar­ra­ti­ve mea­ning to accom­pa­ny Car­na­tic lyrics of the song. The bel­led-bands around her ank­les keep time to the beat of the music. Her long brai­ded hair is kept secu­re­ly within the belt tied around her waist, but the tas­sel han­ging from the end of the braid and the pleats of fabric fal­ling in loo­se pants sway as she moves around the sta­ge. She is a beau­ti­ful ima­ge of Indian cultu­ral heri­ta­ge.

Bha­ra­ta­na­tyam is the clas­si­cal dan­ce of Tamil Nadu. The first evi­den­ces of its ori­gin have been dated to some­ti­me bet­ween 500 BC and 500 CE, but during this time the dan­ce was pro­ba­bly known as Sadir. The term bha­ra­ta­na­tyam was not coi­ned until the 20th cen­tu­ry, and this name is made of two parts: natyam, whi­ch means dan­ce in Sans­krit, and bha­ra­ta, whi­ch is short form for bha­ga, rava, and tala, mea­ning emo­tion, melo­dy, and rhythm. Bha­ra­ta­na­tyam is tra­di­tio­nal­ly set to Car­na­tic music played by cym­bals, a flu­te, a long pipe horn cal­led nagas­wa­ram, drums known as mri­dan­gam and vee­na, and lyrics sung in Tamil, Telu­gu, Kan­na­da, or Sans­krit.

The dan­ce was first per­for­med exclu­si­ve­ly by girls in Hin­du tem­ples, pri­ma­ri­ly for reli­gions and ritual occa­sions. It has sin­ce grown to inclu­de male dan­cers and to find a pla­ce on the per­for­man­ce sta­ge. But some­ti­mes that per­for­man­ce spa­ce har­kens back to the dance’s ori­gins in the tem­ple. The ope­ning event of the 2017 Pon­di­cher­ry Heri­ta­ge Fes­ti­val was one such per­for­man­ce: modern bha­ra­ta­na­tyam, inclu­ding both men and women in a dan­ce-thea­ter ver­sion of the art, dan­ced in one of the region’s oldest tem­ples, Mula­na­thas­wa­mi tem­ple of Bahour.

Bha­ra­ta­na­tyam can be divi­ded into three main types. Nrit­ta is the tra­di­tio­nal ritual dan­ce of “pure” bha­ra­ta­na­tyam, in whi­ch the dan­cer empha­si­zes speed, form, pat­tern, ran­ge, and rhythm without any inter­pre­ti­ve aspect. Nri­tya sty­le bha­ra­ta­na­tyam  com­mu­ni­ca­tes a nar­ra­ti­ve or spi­ri­tual the­me, whi­ch is expres­sed through ges­tu­res and slo­wer body move­ments. The final type is cal­led natyam, whi­ch is a form of dan­ce thea­ter usual­ly per­for­med in a group. The event in Bahour, The Legend of Ban­ga­ri-Sin­ga­ri, was of this natyam type. In six seg­ments, the dan­cers told the sto­ry of a local legend, in whi­ch two sis­ters ini­tia­te the dig­ging of a canal to form Bahour Lake and alle­via­te pro­blems of water scar­ci­ty in the region. The per­for­man­ce inclu­ded acts with both tra­di­tio­nal bha­ra­ta­na­tyam dan­ce and more thea­tri­cal miming and expres­sion.

A Tamil voi­ceo­ver nar­ra­ti­ve told the sto­ry bet­ween each dan­ce seg­ment. I tried to lis­ten for any of the few words I can sort of unders­tand, but the only one I could make out was tan­nir: water. I wat­ched each seg­ment clo­se­ly, trying to fol­low the sto­ry. My Ger­man friend next to me did the same, and we che­cked our unders­tan­ding bet­ween songs.

The girls are going to be mar­ried,” she hypo­the­si­zed after the first dan­ce, an ado­ring pre­sen­ta­tion of the pro­ta­go­nist sis­ters by their parents.

The­re is some pro­blem that needs to be sol­ved,” I gathe­red, after a dis­cus­sion with elders and an exchan­ge of ideas.

Oh, now they are dig­ging the canal,” we saw the clear rhyth­mic pan­to­mi­me of per­for­mers in labo­rers’ cos­tu­me.

Ah, here comes the water,” when we saw young girls in flo­wing blue cos­tu­mes pre­pa­ring to enter the sta­ge.

And now a cele­bra­ti­ve fina­le with the enti­re vil­la­ge,” we pre­dic­ted.

The Bahour tem­ple cour­tyard was filled with over 1,000 peo­ple; some of them asso­cia­ted with the spon­so­ring orga­ni­za­tions – Peo­ple for Pondicherry’s Heri­ta­ge, Pon­dy Citi­zens Action Net­work, and Indian Natio­nal Trust for Art and Cultu­re Heri­ta­ge; some of them unaf­fi­lia­ted but still coming spe­ci­fi­cal­ly to see the per­for­man­ce out of inter­est in Pondicherry’s Heri­ta­ge or bha­ra­ta­na­tyam; and still others, locals, who atten­ded spon­ta­neous­ly after invi­ta­tions from orga­ni­zers drew crowds from the streets, or out of curio­si­ty about the music coming from the town’s prin­ci­pal tem­ple. Some atten­dees knew Tamil, some did not. Some were fami­liar with bha­ra­ta­na­tyam, others pro­ba­bly were not. But sill the dan­cers told their sto­ry, through music and song and nar­ra­tion and dan­ce.

This per­for­med legend of Bahour falls into the cur­rent the­me of social acti­vism in the region, joi­ning other recent events addres­sing the impor­tan­ce of water and water conser­va­tion: the Pon­dy Pho­to exhi­bi­tion, Water; the Madras Players Auro­vil­le per­for­man­ce of Water; and the Bahour Water Fes­ti­val. It is per­haps a remin­der that our cultu­ral heri­ta­ge – that is, our arts, our know­led­ge, our cus­toms, our beliefs – is inex­tri­ca­bly lin­ked to our natu­ral heri­ta­ge – the resour­ces, ener­gy, and food­stuffs that we bor­row from the ear­th. After a long dry mon­soon sea­son whe­re the rains were sup­po­sed to come in Octo­ber, then Novem­ber, then Decem­ber, after whi­ch a drought was offi­cial­ly decla­red, the bha­ra­ta­na­tyam per­for­man­ce of The Legend of Ban­ga­ri-Sin­ga­ri reminds us not only of the rich cultu­ral heri­ta­ge of the Tami­lian peo­ple, but also of the vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty and sanc­ti­ty of the region’s natu­ral heri­ta­ge.

Intangible Heritage

The Blitz of the Bahour Bulls

Bahour bull-cart pull

Eve­ry Janua­ry, Sou­th India cele­bra­tes Pon­gal, whi­ch marks the start of the har­vest sea­son. The four-day fes­ti­val begins with “Bho­gi,” the bur­ning of the bad and the old – a tra­di­tion whi­ch ori­gi­nal­ly was meant to burn the old that­ch roof and repla­ce it with a new one, but whi­ch has now trans­for­med to bur­ning old clo­thes and other unwan­ted mate­rial goods, and some­ti­mes rem­nants of bad habits like emp­ty ciga­ret­te packets and alco­hol bot­tles. The next three days of the fes­ti­val are enjoyed with feasts on the first har­vests of rice (eaten in its sweet boi­led form, a dish also known as pon­gal) and sugar cane. But the most exci­ting events of Pon­gal hap­pen on the third and four­th days – the cele­bra­tions of cows and bulls, the beasts of bur­den who play such an impor­tant role in har­ves­ting live­li­hood.

One of the oldest tra­di­tions of Maat­tu Pon­gal (lite­ral­ly mea­ning “Cow Pon­gal,” whi­ch is cele­bra­ted on the third or four­th day, varying by vil­la­ge) is the bul­lo­ck cart pull. Varia­tions of this can still be seen in some vil­la­ges, like that of Bahour, just sou­th of Pon­di­cher­ry. A pro­ces­sion of bul­lo­ck carts begins by eve­ning, but pre­pa­ra­tions take pla­ce throu­ghout the day. Bulls’ horns are pain­ted and ador­ned with flo­wers or bal­loons, and bells are hung from their brid­les. The carts are also deco­ra­ted with palm lea­ves and bal­loons. As the carts assem­ble along the road, locals begin clim­bing in them, squee­zing small chil­dren onto the laps of their siblings, parents, or cou­sins, to fit more peo­ple than the bull seems capa­ble of pul­ling. At near­by tem­ples, musi­cians bang rhythms on drums and per­for­mers dan­ce and spin bam­boo sticks.

Trac­tors, the modern ver­sion of the tra­di­tio­nal bul­lo­ck cart, are deco­ra­ted in lights, lea­ves, and flo­wers. They pull their own carts of Maat­tu Pon­gal enthu­siasts and speed down the oppo­si­te side of the street in a para­de of their own. Some men wear sequin­sed cos­tu­mes over exag­ge­ra­ted bel­lies and whi­te plas­tic masks, see­min­gly in imi­ta­tion of sumo wrest­lers. They join crowds of young men dan­cing to drum beats and bugle calls in the streets.

Anti­ci­pa­tion grows wai­ting for the bull cart pro­ces­sion to begin. Then sud­den­ly, they’re off! The bulls pull their carts in starts and stops accor­ding to traf­fic flow, trot­ting along to the bea­ting of drums, the jan­gle of the bells around their own necks, and the chee­ring of the crowds along the side­li­nes and of the pas­sen­gers in their carts. “Pon­ga­lo Pon­gal!” “Maat­tu Pon­gal!” “Hap­py Pon­gal!” Eve­ryo­ne cheers and waves as the cele­bra­ted bulls para­de through the streets of town and around the tem­ple.

Peo­ple riding motor­cy­cles wiz by through the nar­row lanes on either side of the carts, hon­king their horns and chee­ring along with the rest of the par­ti­ci­pants. The bulls, bred for cart pul­ling and accus­to­med to the sounds of the Indian streets, keep trot­ting along unper­tur­bed. Their pain­ted horns bob along to the beat of their trot as if joi­ning their humans in cele­bra­ti­ve dan­ce.

The sky grows dark but the Pon­gal spi­rit is loud and bright. The dan­cing conti­nues even after the pro­ces­sion comes to its end and the bull carts have emp­tied. The vil­la­ge of Bahour rings in the har­vest with the most fes­ti­ve of Maat­tu Pon­gals.

Intangible Heritage

Lighting up the Night

watercolor by Sushmita Maity

Diwa­li or Dee­pa­va­li, is the Fes­ti­val of Lights. Or, more noti­cea­bly, the Fes­ti­val of Cra­ckers. Fire cra­ckers. Offi­cial­ly, the Hin­du holi­day cele­bra­tes the trium­ph of good over evil, and the des­truc­tion of a 10-hea­ded demon, Rava­na, by Lord Rama. In the U.S., my home coun­try, if we learn about Diwa­li at all, it is often equa­ted to Christ­mas, most pro­ba­bly becau­se it usual­ly falls clo­se to or during the Anglo-Ame­ri­can “Holi­day Sea­son.” The cele­bra­tions didn’t seem too much like Christ­mas to me, as the fire cra­ckers tend to over­po­wer most other aspects of the holi­day, giving it more of a fee­ling like Four­th of July.

I was told by some locals, howe­ver, that the­re see­med to be less cra­ckers this year. It didn’t seem qui­te as noi­sy. Per­haps this is becau­se of the fair­ly strong envi­ron­men­tal move­ment to limit the use of cra­ckers whi­ch add smo­ke pol­lu­tion to the air, was­te pol­lu­tion to the ground and sound pol­lu­tion to the city. Peo­ple light cra­ckers without safe­ty pre­cau­tions, bur­ning their hands and feet, whi­le pets and unsus­pec­ting birds often get caught in the cross­fi­re. At the school that I work at, the­re was a dra­wing com­pe­ti­tion to crea­te a pos­ter with the the­me “Color­ful Diwa­li Without Cra­ckers.” Here, stu­dents depic­ted other ele­ments of the fes­ti­val. A few drew the sto­ry of Rama and the Rava­na, but many focu­sed on the tra­di­tio­nal oil lamp, the diya – ligh­ting the lamps and cand­les to spread the light of the fes­ti­val, spen­ding time with fami­ly and loved ones and giving to tho­se in need. (Here we can see the simi­la­ri­ties to Christ­mas, and also of cour­se to Hanuk­kah, ano­ther Fes­ti­val of Light whi­ch also gets grou­ped in the “Christ­mas of other reli­gions” cur­ri­cu­lum.) Some real­ly love­ly stu­dent-drawn pos­ters sho­wed the fla­me of the oil lamp bloo­ming into a tree, empha­si­zing the envi­ron­men­tal the­mes of the move­ment. Indeed, I did hear from seve­ral peo­ple that they cho­se not to burst cra­ckers this year.

Diwa­li also marks the start of a new per­iod in one’s life. It is consi­de­red an aus­pi­cious time to take up new things, like a new job or new school. This is also mar­ked by the pur­cha­se of a new out­fit, the “Diwa­li dress.” Most eve­ryo­ne who cele­bra­tes Diwa­li will wear new clo­thes pur­cha­sed for the occa­sion. Many shops have fla­sh sales and in the days lea­ding up to Diwa­li, and in Pon­di­cher­ry, the main com­mer­cial streets were packed with peo­ple going by foot, cycle or motor­bi­ke to do their Diwa­li shop­ping.

Ano­ther impor­tant part of the cele­bra­tions are, of cour­se, the sweets. Ladoo, milk cake, gulab jamun, muruk­ku and sco­res of other sweets who­se names I don’t know. We might equa­te this to the “Sea­son of Giving,” as sweets are exchan­ged with neigh­bors, fami­ly and friends. This year Diwa­li fell on the same wee­kend as Hal­lo­ween, whi­ch I also cele­bra­ted with gus­to, so it was essen­tial­ly a sugar-rushed too­th-decaying cou­ple of days.

The tra­di­tio­nal Tamil cele­bra­tion of Diwa­li begins ear­ly in the mor­ning as Hin­dus go to tem­ple to pray, give thanks and wor­ship Lord Rama and other patron dei­ties. The food for the mor­ning meal is pla­ced befo­re an altar of cand­les and idols of the gods to be bles­sed in the ritual known as puja, whi­ch is care­ful­ly plan­ned to take pla­ce during aus­pi­cious hours of the mor­ning. The head of the hou­se­hold rings a small tink­ling bell to mark the start of puja and moves an oil lamp in cir­cles at the altar befo­re offe­ring the fla­me to each fami­ly mem­ber. They wave their hands over the fla­me and wash the heat and light over their heads. Tamil prayers are reci­ted and tho­se of us non-Hin­dus in atten­dan­ce were encou­ra­ged to make any wish we hoped would come true. After puja, the fami­ly eats the mor­ning meal, a feast consis­ting of tra­di­tio­nal break­fast foods like dosai, vada and idly, as well as some rice with rasam or sam­bar and non-vege­ta­rian gra­vies with chi­cken, mut­ton or fish. All is ser­ved on the tra­di­tio­nal bana­na leaf and is fol­lo­wed by Diwa­li sweets.

After the meal, peo­ple take to the streets to burst the mor­ning round of cra­ckers. Most of the­se are just noi­se­ma­kers as the glo­wing spark­ling ones are reser­ved for night­ti­me. Constant pop­ping and explo­sions are heard throu­ghout the day. The one sure pre­cau­tion for safe­ty is the long char­coal sti­ck that is used to light the cra­ckers. This allows you an extra meter or so of a head start as you scam­per to the other side of the street to bra­ce your­self for the small but loud explo­sion. In the mean­ti­me and throu­ghout the day, friends, fami­ly and neigh­bors will visit each other and exchan­ge bags, boxes or trays lined with bana­na lea­ves bea­ring tra­di­tio­nal Diwa­li sweets. One beau­ti­ful thing about Pon­di­cher­ry is that local Tamil tra­di­tions often col­li­de and com­bi­ne with Fren­ch or other Wes­tern expat influen­ces. The boxes of Ame­ri­can Junior Mints that I took to my Diwa­li hosts were bles­sed during puja and then found their way onto the tray of tra­di­tio­nal sweets that was dis­tri­bu­ted among the neigh­bors.

But even the cele­bra­tions of Diwa­li could not break the dai­ly rhythm of Pon­di­cher­ry. The mid-after­noon lull that nor­mal­ly occurs as peo­ple slink to their cou­ches and beds to take naps after lun­ch still brought a quiet break during the day of cra­ckers. And whi­le the cele­bra­tions picked up again in the eve­ning, this time with full form fire­works or “outs” being shot from the midd­le of busy streets and from roof­tops, the skies and the streets of this small town were pret­ty much quiet by 11pm. Unless of cour­se, you mana­ged to find a group of forei­gners or Nor­thern Indians (who typi­cal­ly cele­bra­te Diwa­li with much more enthu­siasm than sou­ther­ners) – nei­ther of whi­ch are at all uncom­mon in this cos­mo­po­li­tan oasis – who took full advan­ta­ge of the fes­ti­val (and Pondicherry’s famous­ly low alco­hol pri­ces) until the ear­ly hours of the mor­ning. After all, this is a pla­ce whe­re Tamil cultu­re and expat cultu­re meet, a pla­ce whe­re peo­ple can expe­rien­ce both and choo­se aspects from either and make them their own. So whe­ther cele­bra­ted with cand­les, cra­ckers, lan­terns or strin­ged-lights, Diwa­li lit up the town.

Built Heritage

Murugan: Son of Shiva

The name Muru­gan is only one of over 100 names by whi­ch this God is known. In the Nor­th, he is cal­led Kar­thik, the war­rior. In the Sou­th, he is Mur­ga, the wild man of the hil­ls. With so many dis­tinct mani­fes­ta­tion, he is not well known and is often confu­sed across dif­fe­rent parts of the coun­try. But even if Hin­dus do not know the name of Muru­gan, his cha­rac­ter is an impor­tant one to the mytho­lo­gy. The­re are few tem­ples devo­ted to him exclu­si­ve­ly, but in Pon­di­cher­ry the­re is one small tem­ple of whi­ch he is the prin­ci­ple dei­ty, and about 30km out­si­de of Pon­di­cher­ry pro­per, the rol­ling hil­l­si­de of the vil­la­ge of Mayi­lam is home to a lar­ge Muru­gan tem­ple.

The small Pon­di­cher­ry tem­ple, just near the cen­tral train sta­tion, was built by a Mus­lim man. In his ado­les­cen­ce, he had attemp­ted sui­ci­de but was saved by a Hin­du devo­tee of Muru­gan. Sin­ce deci­ding to build a tem­ple to honor the God, the man has been shun­ned and threa­te­ned by other Mus­lims and Hin­dus ali­ke, but Muru­gan has kept the man in his gra­ce. At the time of our visit, the tem­ple was under construc­tion, and the tower was obs­cu­red by woo­den scaf­fol­ding and tarps. Insi­de, new cement sculp­tu­res were being craf­ted, at that time sim­ply figu­res with blank faces and wire arma­tu­res pro­tru­ding from their shoul­ders. Murugan’s vehi­cle, a pea­co­ck known as Para­va­ni, sat stoi­cal­ly in bla­ck sto­ne facing the prin­ci­ple shri­ne; a prayer to Muru­gan was ins­cri­bed in sto­ne panels on the wes­tern wall; and out­si­de the tem­ple, along the eas­tern wall, a sto­ne car­ving depic­ted the inter­t­wi­ning life for­ces of the spi­nal cord, for­ming links around lotus sha­ped cha­kras.

Beau­ti­ful in its own right, this small tem­ple would have been over­sha­do­wed had it been anyw­he­re clo­se to the Mayi­lam tem­ple. The lat­ter is actual­ly qui­te an impor­tant Tamil attrac­tion, with a long win­ding entran­ce dri­ve, a toll fare, and an admis­sion fee to enter the cen­tral shri­ne. The attrac­tion is unders­tan­da­ble: the sur­roun­ding hil­ls, rol­ling across the hori­zon like the fea­thers of Murugan’s pea­co­ck, are a beau­ti­ful sight, and the tem­ple itself shi­nes in bright­ly colo­red paint.

The prin­ci­ple tower is ador­ned, though not over­ly crow­ded, with car­ved depic­tions of Muru­gan, Shi­va, and Murugan’s two consorts Val­li and Deviya­nai. Cen­tral over the tower entran­ce is an ico­nic ima­ge of a six-faced Muru­gan riding his pea­co­ck. The tem­ple has a lar­ge por­ti­co with bright oran­ge columns and cei­lings pain­ted with man­da­las and lotu­ses. Near the main entran­ce, the­re are four fres­cos: one sho­wing Muru­gan, Val­li, and Deviya­nai; one sho­wing Murugan’s pea­co­ck; and two sho­wing dif­fe­rent sea­ted sages. At the far end of the por­ti­co, old sto­ne pillars remain, show­ca­sing bas relief car­vings of the war­rior God and his deva­da­sis, or tem­ple dan­cers. Though tem­ple dan­cing – the ancient form of fema­le devo­tion whi­ch aus­pi­cious­ly lin­ked the cos­mic, the reli­gious, and the sexual – has been out­la­wed in modern India, the­se tem­ple car­vings ser­ve as las­ting rem­nants of a once res­pec­ted art form.

Insi­de the tem­ple, the expo­sed bla­ck sto­ne crea­tes a less vibrant and more som­ber set­ting. A queue leads the way to the prin­ci­pal sanc­tua­ry, whi­ch is set far back from visi­tors, hid­den in sha­dow but illu­mi­na­ted by the light of small cand­les around the out­si­de of the shri­ne. Many visi­tors stand in line to pray in front of the shri­ne and recei­ve a bles­sing from the priest, who offers flo­wer gar­lands, coco­nut milk, and the tra­di­tio­nal red and whi­te pow­ders to mark the fore­head. Some devo­tees come with sha­ved heads, cove­red in tur­me­ric pow­der to keep their scalps cool in the sun. As is tra­di­tio­nal in most Hin­du tem­ples, the prin­ci­pal shri­ne stands in the midd­le of the struc­tu­re, and is sur­roun­ded by an open walk­way. Smal­ler shri­nes stand in the cor­ners, and sto­ne car­vings adorn the exter­nal walls. Along one of the walls is the gra­ted alco­ve whi­ch hou­ses the sta­tues made of pre­cious metals. Shi­ning in golds, sil­vers, and bron­zes, the sta­tues are often wrap­ped in small swaths of ele­gant fabric, and one in this tem­ple even wore a coat of armor.

Murugan’s pri­ma­ry sym­bo­lism is most fre­quent­ly exhi­bi­ted by his six faces, his spear, and his pea­co­ck.

Each of the six faces are said to ser­ve a dif­fe­rent pur­po­se:

One face sheds rays of light and remo­ves the den­se dark­ness shrou­ding the world; ano­ther lovin­gly sho­wers boons on his devo­tees who prai­se Him with Love and Joy; the third wat­ches over the sacri­fi­ces of the Brah­mans who per­form them without devia­ting from the strict Vedic tra­di­tions; the four­th face, like the full moon whi­ch brigh­tens all the quar­ters of the world, lights the sages’ minds to enable them to sear­ch for hid­den Tru­th; the fif­th, with raging heart, bat­tles and des­troys His ene­mies; and the six­th smi­les lovin­gly on His young consort, the pret­ty daugh­ter of the hun­ting tri­be.

His spear, the Holy Vel, is the most impor­tant wea­pon for hun­ters and war­riors. The Vel is the object of dan­ce rituals per­for­med by devo­tees see­king reme­dies for mis­for­tu­ne and afflic­tion.

The pea­co­ck sym­bo­li­zes Murugan’s des­truc­tion of Ego, whi­ch came in the form of the demon Tara­ka­sur, who was des­ti­ned to be killed by a son of Shi­va. It is belie­ved that Muru­gan was born, as a ball of fire to the great medi­ta­ti­ve ener­gy of Shi­va and Par­va­ti, for this sole pur­po­se of des­troying Tara­ka­sur. Some­ti­mes Muru­gan is depic­ted with an ima­ge of a roos­ter, whi­ch is the form Tara­ka­sur took after being defea­ted.

Addi­tio­nal­ly, Murugan’s wives, Val­li and Deviya­nai, are daugh­ters of Vish­nu. And as Muru­gan is the son of Shi­va, the mar­ria­ge the­re­fo­re ser­ves as a link bet­ween Vai­sh­na­vism (wor­ship of Vish­nu) and Shai­vism (wor­ship of Shi­va). In Tamil lite­ra­tu­re and song, Muru­gan was actual­ly prai­sed as a Supre­me for­ce behind the tri­ni­ty of Brah­ma, Vish­nu, and Siva. Thus Muru­gan is not a God to be over­loo­ked in Hin­du mytho­lo­gy. It is only a mat­ter of kno­wing him when one sees him and not being mis­led by his many other names.

O Lord who is the begin­ning of all things… who is the Lord of all things, who is beyond eve­ry­thing, who is the essen­ce of all things, who is Brah­ma, who is Vish­nu, who is Siva, who is beyond this tri­ni­ty; who is all things here, who is what eve­ry­thing anyw­he­re is, and who comes as the sweet­ness of all things.

- Thi­rup­pu­gal poem No. 433: “Aga­ra­mu­maa­gi”