Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Navarathri Bommai Golu



It’s time for Navarathri or Dusshera, one of our country’s most versatile festivals. It means different things to different people and is celebrated in various ways across the nation. Navarathri poses an assortment of attractions in different states: Dhandiya Raas, Durga Puja, Ram Leela, Bommai Golu, the list is endless.

In Tamilnadu and other South Indian states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, golu is one of the main aspects of Navarathri. Golu is a display of dolls of Gods and Goddesses, celestial beings, martyrs, saints, mortals, animals, reptiles, and other such dolls arranged on steps that are set up using wooden or metal planks.

There are a lot of theories behind this customary practice, some legendary and some homespun. Some say it is an invocation of the Gods into our homes, some say it is a way of reminding us of the hierarchy in life from the teeny-weeny insects to the omnipresent Gods, others say it is merely a social event that encourages the artisans who make those beautiful clay dolls.

It’s also a great way to socialise because a lot of people visit your golu and you visit others’ golus. We get to meet a lot of our relatives and friends and to catch up on events. An important ritual in Navarathri is the exchanging of thamboolam (betel leaves and nuts, turmeric, bananas and coconuts and optionally gifts). Everyday ladies and young girls are invited to see the golu and to sing, and then they are honoured with kumkum and sandal paste and given thamboolam. Till the previous generation, it was common for young children to dress up as mythological and legendary characters while visiting the golus.

On each day of the Navarathri festival, ‘sundal’ or spiced pulses, lentils and legumes (a different variety on each day) are offered to the Gods and Goddesses as neividhyam and then to the guests as prasadam. These sundals are as much a part of Navarathri as the golu itself. In fact, when we were children we used to guess and bet about which sundal would be served at each house we visited!

Again, it is difficult to arrive at a consensus about the reason or significance of offering sundal during Navarathri. One theory believes it’s purely for the nutritional value, that during the dull days of September-October, when the weather’s really not too peppy, people get easily tired and that the wise saints therefore prescribed that protein- and vitamin- rich sundals be served during Navarathri to rejuvenate people.

Another theory states that sundal is offered to appease the nava-grahaas or nine planets (some attribute the practice to the nava-shakthis). According to this theory, traditionally they cooked and offered only the nava-dhaanyas or lentils associated with the nine planets, namely wheat, rice, tuvar dal, moong (green gram) dal, chana dal, white field beans, sesame seeds, horse gram and urad dal.

The moong (green gram) dal, chana dal, white field beans and horse gram dal were made into sundals, the wheat was either made into appams or sprouted and made into sundal, the urad dal was made into vadas, tuvar dal was used in kheer or payasam, rice was made into a dish called puttu and the sesame seeds were made into chikki or seasoned and mixed with rice.

As people became busier they lost the patience to make sprouts from wheat. They also lost the taste for substances like horse gram etc. Keeping up with tradition, people still make puttu (usually on the Friday that falls during Navarathri), sesame chikki (on Saturday), kheer, vada, appam etc, but the sundal repertoire is no longer restricted to the pulses/ lentils/ legumes in the nava-dhaanyas. To cater to the tastes of the current generation, sundals are now made with channa, peas, rajma and such a variety of ingredients.

One practice that everybody still follows is the making of black channa sundal on Saraswathi Puja day (9th day of Navarathri), as it is known to be very special for the Goddess. (The practice of offering Puri, halwa and black channa to the Goddess is followed in North India too.)

What matters ultimately is that of all the dishes that are made from the nava-dhaanyas during Navarathri, it’s the sundal that has become so popular and inseparably associated with the festival. Good for us, because sundal is extremely healthy, being so rich in proteins and vitamins. Now, we don’t need to wait for Navarathri to make sundal, but it somehow just gels with the occasion.

To me, Navarathri combines all these eclectic features and presents a four-fold joy: puja, golu, social gatherings and sundal!

(Excerpted from an article I wrote for Tarla Dalal's Cooking & More's Sept-Oct 2005 issue.)