Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ashtalakshmis and Ashtabhojanam!

The Varamahalakshmi Pooja is celebrated with aplomb in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Worshipping the powerful Ashta Lakshmis on the last Friday of ashada is said to invoke the blessings of the goddesses.

The festival is in the air almost a week before. Aromas of the offerings for the goddess linger around, as my mother and my three aunts toil in the kitchen with my grandma supervising from her sofa just outside. Eight different sweets and eight savories comprise the offerings to the deity. Obattu, Coconut Burfi, Rava Laddoo, Besan Laddoo, Chimli, Challbindi, Mysore Pak, and Kadubu hit the sweet plate while chakli, muchoru, kodbale, and nipattu adorn the snack plate. These are made in fresh oil or ghee and stacked up in steel or aluminum containers which then go sit on the top-most shelf of the kitchen. A white powder that wards off ants is sprinkled around the containers and they rest there till the morning of the pooja.

I recall my mind wandering into my home kitchen as I sat in school, completely missing my Civics and Geography lessons. By the time we cousins got back home, the kitchen was completely normal, showing no signs of the hectic, frenzy cooking that took place a couple of hours ago. The only proof was the extra containers perched on top, and my grandma sensing the greed on our minds would promptly shoo us away with a smirk on her face. We could not touch or even think about it, until the goddess had her share.

On the festival day, you wake up to see the ladies in colorful silks, with jasmine in their hair and glass and gold bangles clinking against each other on their hands. The previous evening is spent decorating the entrance with fragrant mango leaves and bright marigold flowers, and a nice rangoli to welcome the goddess. The lack of rangoli-drawing skills at home is made up for by Saroja, our domestic help, who gladly does the needful.

I am angrily stared at by grandma- I get the point, “Go bathe and dress up before the priest comes in”, I comply. The priest arrives and after hemming and hawing about traffic and expressing unhappiness about the youngsters today, he begins…..The coconut in a silver kalasha is smeared with kumkum and turmeric and painted with eyes, nose, mouth like a woman’s face. This face is adorned with gold, and the kalasha represents the goddess.

Flowers, milk, honey, curd, fragrant leaves are all offered to the goddess amidst holy chanting. By the end of the pooja, the ladies tie yellow threads on each other’s wrists signifying that the rituals are done. The offering is now made to the goddess. On a fresh banana leaf, all the sixteen dishes are presented along with rice, ghee and payasam. Grandma says, simple rice and sweet milk work just as well as offering. The men come in to take blessings and go back to debate politics, or read the newspaper-whichever.

Pooja done, we swoop down on the goodies. It’s a tough one deciding what to eat now and what later, just so every delicacy is given a fair chance to be savored and appreciated. Obattu, which is surprisingly warm just melts in the mouth, crunchy coconut burfi with plump raisins and snappy cashews entice you, huge kadubus with the jaggery and coconut mixture is divine, and the muchoru is just the same as last year and the year before-perfect!

Festivals are beyond connecting with the divine, it is a time to renew and discover family ties, pause from the mad rush and cacophony, and a time to eat delicious food fit for the gods!

But alas, not any more… Family ties now seem cumbersome and food fit for the gods are calorific and unfit for consumption. God save us, really!

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