By Roona Uthappa Ballachanda
Watching the Kodavas (Coorgs) celebrate River Kaveri on Sankramana Day during the British Raj, the then Chief Commissioner of Coorg, Hilton Brown wrote in his article ‘The Astonishing Land of Coorg’, “If anyone could be converted to a religion that is all pure faith and worship and no argument at all, I really think it would be here”.
This year, a lucky chance has brought me to Kodagu on time for Kaveri Sankramana and on a whim, I decide to dig into the ways in which it was celebrated in the past, when large numbers of the okka or clan lived in the Ainmane or ancestral houses. My father’s family lived in the ainmane until my grandparents built their own house and moved the family there. So, most of his childhood years were spent growing up with the other families of the clan.
During those days a few men from every clan went to Talacauvery to witness the “theerthodbava” – the gushing spring of water – wherein Kaveri makes her appearance once a year. They came back with theertha (holy water) for the entire clan living in and around the Ainmane.
At the ainmane, the family in charge of cleaning and lighting the lamp that month would get up at dawn, clean the whole place, sprinkle cow dung water to purify it and set up Goddess Kaveri’s image in the ‘nellakki nadubade’ (central hall). All the children of the clan would gather in front of Goddess Kaveri’s image and sing ‘bhajans’ or prayer songs. The lady of the house would then perform the ‘Kanni Puja’ and Kaveri Theertha would be distributed to all.
A tripod made of bamboo would be placed near the well with the ‘bothth balli’ wrapped around it. An offering of dosas and belath kumbala (sweet pumpkin) curry would be placed on it. Later on, the laborers belonging to the okka would take away these offerings.
That day was always a holiday and the rest of the day was spent in a leisurely manner. Lunch comprised of choice vegetarian dishes culminating in a dessert of ‘akki payasa’. The children spent the day playing games like ‘lagge kali’, ‘palli kali’, ‘buguri’ and ‘gunna kali’ etc. Those were the days when the family cowherds whittled toys from wood for the kids …tops for spinning, hockey sticks from strong, well-shaped tree roots etc. And fruit played its part too…for instance raw, hard chacotha or pomelos of the right size were used as hockey balls. Holidays spent like this are sure to create memories for a lifetime!
In stark contrast to all this cultural bonhomie was my first Kaveri Sankramana as a newly married adult. When I first moved out of home, it was to go to grad school in the US and celebrating festivals was not exactly a priority for me and my house mates. However, after getting married and setting up home, we made an effort to celebrate our festivals.
Kaveri Sankramana first involved hunting for coconuts which are not easily found in the US. I needed them for two reasons – as I didn’t have any ‘Kaveri theertha’ with me, I wanted coconut water and of course to decorate as the River Goddess. We finally found coconuts at an Indian store. It was a working day as usual, so we woke up early and finished our baths. As my husband was the dosa/chutney expert then, it fell to him to make the food while I set up everything for the pooja. As sweet pumpkins are not always available either, we had to make do with potatoes! After a quick pooja and an even quicker breakfast, it was time to don my American avtar and rush to work…sigh! No holiday!
As Hilton Brown said, it is ‘all pure faith and worship’ and whether we celebrate it in our Ancestral Homes or America, our faith travels with us and makes it all meaningful and celebratory!