Family Feast in Gondapatai Village, Tamil Nadu: By Richard Clarke
Yesterday, on Guru Purnima day, our rickshaw driver, Rajan, had invited us ‘to the temple.’ We, thinking nothing of it, and thinking we were going to some temple in Tiruvannamalai, said OK. Rajan said the he had to go early with his wife and children, and so would send someone to pick us up. We were a bit surprised when a car showed up, rather than a rickshaw, but again thought nothing of it. There were two other rickshaw drivers in the car as well. Again, I thought nothing of it other than thinking they must be going to the temple, too. But when the driver turned away from town, I knew that something was different.
I remembered that Rajan frequented a different temple than the main one nearby, Arunachaleswar Temple, and I thought that it must be out of town and we were driving to it. I just let it play out. Then we kept going further away, going through Chengam, about 30K to the west of Tiruvannamalai, on the road to Bangalore. I knew by then that something different was happening than I had thought, and I continued to just let it play out. We went about another 30 KM, then turned onto a poor quality dirt road, and drove into a village about 2 KM off the main road.
We stopped at a house that was set up for a special function. The awning and chairs are typical of such functions, we know now. We learned that this was the house of Rajan’s uncle.
Here is the taxi and driver who took us to the village:
I found out later this was Gondapatai Village, in the Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu. This is the village in which Rajan’s father was born. It turns out that we were invited to an annual function where the family does a puja at the nearby temple, makes an animal sacrifice, and prepares a special meal for friends and family. Rajan has a truncated relationship with his father, because he died when Rajan was in the Third Form, maybe eight years old. Rajan had to drop out of school then, being the oldest boy, and start working (for just a few rupees a day). Now he must preside at this annual family function, done on the same day each year.
We were the first westerners to ever come into the village. There was much interest in us from the villagers.
I asked their permission before I took the photo. It turns out this was the right thing to do. We were told by one of the rickshaw drivers that some village people believed that having their picture taken reduces the number of days that they will live.
Now more people started to arrive. There were two groups, family, and Rajan’s friends, mainly other rickshaw drivers. They drove their rickshaws 60 KM to get here.
Here is Rajan, to the left, with his uncle and his uncle’s wife, and the daughters from the two families. Rajan is in the blue shirt. Behind Rajan is a cousin, Ranjit. Ranjit used to have a good job in Chennai, but quit the job to return to Tiruvannamalai, where he always feels the peace of Arunachala. He feels that this inner peace is more important than a good job making lots of Rupees. So now he is a rickshaw driver, like Rajan.
Materials for the puja and feast are brought by various people, and set out for later use.
We then started to walk to the family temple, through the village.
Walking through the center of town we came to an ancient tree, with a raised area around it where people can sit. Village men (the village elders, I think) were sitting there and talking (while, I think, their wives were getting the mid day meal, the most important meal of the day, ready).
We walk some more through the village …
to the family temple …
…where beside it sat a group of women and a couple younger boys. The women are cleaning garlic. The woman in the yellow saree is Rajan’s aunt. As the senior woman who is here, she will also play a role in the ceremonies to come.
Now Rajan starts to prepare the goat for the puja and rites. He sprinkles water on its head and feet, and then applies yellow turmeric and red kum kum to its head and hooves. Then a flower mala is wrapped around the goat’s neck.
And the goat is ready.
The puja preparation starts in the temple.
The priest (?) decorates the gods with flower malas (like were on the goat).
Here are the temple gods, in all their finery, decorated with flowers, etc.
In the antechamber, two more gods are decorated, and ceremonial food offerings are laid out before them.
The gods outside the temple are decorated too. None can be left out.
Notice that it is Rajan’s aunt who has the ceremonial role of this decoration. The priest did it inside the temple, the auntie, outside.
Now these gods are decorated. I think this is a Snake God, a Naga.
The priest starts breaking coconuts. The broken coconuts are offered to the gods. The coconut milk is saved for other ritual use.
And the final offerings are made to the gods.
The goat is then prepared for sacrifice. This took quite some time. Rajan told us that they were getting permission from the goat for what was to come. My wife was not sure that the goat spoke the same language. During this part there was much discussion from the older men in the group. We think they were discussing just what was to happen. We have seen this group discussion and decision making in other village activities.
After the sacrifice, during which my wife and I (as well, it turned out, as Rajan) turned our eyes away, the priest came out and blessed each person by putting vibhuti and kum kum on each person’s forehead.
Then prasad was given to each person. Since we were westerners, they served it to us on banana leaves. Others just got it in their bare hands.
Now it’s back to the house and the cooking. Onions and tomatoes and green chilies are made ready in great profusion.
While the women worked, the men naturally did important man stuff. Here they are gambling, playing a form of rummy. Each put Rs 500 into a common pot, to be split among the winners.
Meanwhile the women are still working on preparation for the meal. Some of the girls help too. Many people are involved in the meal preparation, men and women, other villagers. These meals are really community efforts.
Now the fire is started under the pot.
First, bags of peanut oil are poured in the huge cooking vessel, then the garlic, onions and green chilies. They are cooked for a while. Notice that it is a man with the ladle. This is the only time, except at restaurants and food stalls, that we see a man cooking.
Then add the tomatoes …
And cook some more.
Herbs are added for flavoring. I think this is curry leaf.
Add a pinch of salt.
Then the ‘mutton’ is added and cooked.
While this is going on the men are still doing their important work. I am trying to figure out the rules so maybe I can play too.
While the biryani cooks, they prepare the ‘curd’ dish – yogurt and onions, and what else I don’t know. Hey, some of the men are actually helping with this!
Some of the younger woman sit and watch and talk. You can see that these are school-age women, since they wear salwar (or punjabi) suits instead of sarees, which is what “real women” wear here. Now my wife Carol does not feel properly dressed if she is not wearing one of her sarees.
One of the men:
One of the woman who help prepare the meal:
A village woman watching from in front to her house:
Now the final step, adding a bit of rice (and water).
Then the pot is covered while the rice cooks.
Here is a picture of the ‘hostess’, Rajan’s uncle’s wife, with Rajan’s son and daughter, Raam and Janini.
After the rice cooks for a while, a layer of coals is added to the top of the pot. Maybe to cook the top layer, or maybe to make a crust on the top, I am not sure.
Now the ‘mutton biryani’ is ready!
Banana leaf plates are set out.
First the guests eat.
This included even the women guests eating at the same ‘sitting.’ Before, when we’ve been at other social functions where there was a meal, the men eat first, then the women. When eating is done in ‘men first’ order, they let Carol eat with me, since we are Westerners, and apparently the rules are different for us.
Then finally the family members get to eat.
This day was not what we expected. In many ways. But to be involved with such village activities is, we think, a special privilege, and is not something shared by many Westerners.
We felt honored to be invited, and to be able to take these pictures to share with you.
Then we were driven the 60 km. home, to rest and to reflect upon the day. Just another day in India.
A note about caste and diet in South India
We know many people here that might object to a celebratory meal that includes meat eating and alcohol. Tamil Nadu has been very much vegetarian and against alcohol for the last 1000 years (at least for the higher castes). We have found that this is largely a caste issue, with the higher castes like the Brahmins often following pretty strict rules on diet, etc. I suspect that this never was the case in the villages (which are mainly lower caste people), and it certainly is not now. Even though, with the rise of India as a nation, caste discrimination was made against the law, such a change does not really affect the behavior of people in a culture with thousands of years of history, tradition, and social order.
I think even some of our friends might be offended that we participated in such activities. But, if this were some family function with our family at our home in California, we probably would serve BBQ meat and cold beer. And everyone would enjoy it.