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Malnad Times

My memory goes back seven decades when I talk about a typical Malnad wedding. Every caste in Malnad has its own variety of wedding celebrations. My description here is of a Brahmin wedding. The preparation would begin many months in advance; everyone in the village—on the bride’s side—takes part in making papadam and sendige. A Brahmin village is usually called an "agrahara." I mean all delicious, friable foods that can be preserved for the wedding. Then you begin collecting banana leaves and drying them so they are available to all. The rich get fresh banana leaves for their valued guests from the bridegroom's side.

A typical metaphor for a wedding for me is that it is a theatre of love and war. The content is love, and the ritualistic form is war. The day the wedding takes place, one waits for the (invading army-like) Dibbana, where the groom’s side comes with all the relatives, at least a hundred people in several bullock-driven carts, and the most important cart where the groom arrives has a curved top on it and lots of decorations on the cart as well as on the horns of the bullocks driving it. When the Dibbana begins its journey, it’s almost like an invasion of the other house—beegaru is the word. The bride’s side waits for the Dibbana; every few miles, people watch that the Dibbana is arriving; from the top of the hill, one can see the Dibbana. As a result, the whole terrain of Malnad becomes very active during the spectacle. A wedding is talked about for several years until the bride and the bridegroom become very old. Then they narrate to their children their wedding story. Since the purpose of the wedding is to bring the very young bride and the older groom together, it also has several games. I used to wonder why the wedding went on and on for four days. It is virtually an elaborate theatre with so many rituals—vedic rituals sanctifying the wedding, rituals particular to the family, and rituals to the kshetra devata, the presiding deity of the place where the wedding happens. So it takes four days, and on all four days, the groom and his relatives need to be fed and looked after.

I will now narrate my own boyhood memory: as a youngster, I was given the responsibility of keeping a huge pot of pleasantly warm water and a mug of brass or copper filled. (There was no plastic in those days.) My job was to fill a mug of water and pour it gently and respectfully on the feet of the invitees who came to be served in a row. And if I failed to do this respectfully, it would become an issue; that’s why I said there is also an element of war in this well-rehearsed theatre of love and war. Then they are fed. Giving a good cup of jiggery-sweetened coffee was a great honour back then. Sugar-sweetened was a greater honour preserved for the few. Coffee was served in brass cups, and for the really important, in silver cups. I always thought how silly it was because in a silver cup, the coffee would become cold while the cup remained hot. But to drink from a silver cup was important, and in some rich people’s homes, it was considered an honour to give the most important of the wedding party a silver leaf. People would comment, "Oh, that house! They eat on silver leaves", "there are hundred silver leaves" or "there are thousand silver leaves".

The house where the wedding takes place would also be measured, not in square feet or so many rooms as we do now. The size of the house would be measured in terms of how many people could be fed in the house. Hundred? Thousand? There was not only ample space in the house, but ample space for exaggeration.

The word for good time or prosperity was not what we use now in terms of Sensex. The word was subhiksha; it is the time when alms for the needy and the holy are graciously available. Prosperity is measured when any guest can go to anybody’s house and is sure to have a good meal. And if that is not possible, then it is durbhiksha. The learned ascetics would go from place to place, and the whole village would feed them, taking their turns. These bearded byragis (mendicants) would bring the villagers medicines, news, and charms to cure ailments and ward off evil.

One more detail on weddings:

Since the bride and the groom were adolescents and strangers to each other, quite a few rituals were meant to make them come closer by touching. The elders stop the bride and the groom when they enter the house, and they will be allowed in only if the girl utters her husband’s name. Addressing the husband by his name was taboo, but she is forced to, and the boy is made to name his wife. They would put a ring in a small cup, and whoever could pick it up first would own it. It was a way of making the hands touch, and with such cleverly designed touch games, every part of the body would become familiar to the other. The four days were full of fun for the adolescent couple and all the women.

The wedding was also a virtual theatre of war, as the two sides would vie with each other, finding shortcomings in hospitality. As they sit for a meal, there is something called Beegara haadu (the tit-for-tat songs of the beegas—the bride and bridegroom sides). In such a beegara haadu, the clever and the mischievous would make up songs. For instance, the boy’s side that has come for the wedding would say the rice was no good and the side sweet dishes were very poor. Then on the girl’s side, there would be someone who would be equally wicked and would make fun of the greed of the new relatives on the boy’s side. Sometimes this would lead to a quarrel. After the wedding, one of the questions would be, "Was it peaceful?" A peaceful wedding was a rare event, which is why I called it a theatre of love and war. Everything would be settled later on; it’s a kind of comedy of errors. So this would be remembered for years to come.

The monsoon is a very rare experience, for the whole colour of the malnad changes. During the monsoon, when I went to school, most of the boys and girls would wear kamblikoppe. It is a raincoat made of raw wool. You would wear it on top of your head and could also hug it to keep warm. And that was useful for women working in the field; they could wear the kamblikoppe, bend down, and work. So the monsoon would be black against the rarely visible green fields. And the other respectable wear was valekode. Before the modern umbrella came, these more sensible umbrellas were made of leaves stitched together and a wooden stick. This could be kept close to the head, and it looked like a large hat. An umbrella could not be used in the monsoon because, if one opened it, it would turn topsy-turvy as the wind was so intense. An umbrella would be all right in moderate rain.

Preparation for the monsoon would begin much earlier. One of the most difficult things for women during the monsoon was to make the firewood burn. A large number of women suffered in the attempt to make the firewood burn. They would have a long, thin pipe to blow air through. The luckier ones stored the firewood much earlier. The house with dry wood was considered very lucky; not all poor families could do that. They would start gathering fuel much sooner. The monsoon was an event that needed much preparation. Also, the main edible items that would go bad would be collected and stored. During the monsoon, the eyes would blur; one could see nothing but the incessantly pouring rain. The monsoon rain in Malnad was an experience of both terror and glory. It was such a pleasure then to sit before the ever-burning bathroom fire, keep warm, and eat roasted jackfruit seeds.

In our time, we do not know the quality of different kinds of light. It is all high-intensity electric light now. In the monsoon, we craved several kinds of light: the light from a safe lantern (lateen was the word for it), the light from an open chimney with glass around it, or a pumped gaslight if somebody was rich. The eye would get used to every kind of light. My father could read a book under the lantern light, for a well-clean lantern provided a lot of light, and of course the gaslight, which was brighter, was lit for special occasions. The city-bred now know only tungsten or fluorescent light.

We also had many rituals to celebrate many kinds of light. At twilight, we were not supposed to do any work; the children were asked to sit and do nothing or repeat what we had learned by heart. Early mornings were celebrated because of the coming of new light.

What would people talk about during the monsoon? "Is your house able to stand the monsoon?" As many of the houses were thatched, it was a test of survival during the monsoon. Those who were a little better off had tiles made of clay; the rich ones would have Mangalore tiles on their roofs. And the Mangalore tiled house was another description of the identification of the wealthy, along with the number of people it could feed. Sometimes one house would be a whole village by itself, with the poor workforce for the landowner living on the periphery.

One visitor we always remembered in Malnad was the postman, who came almost running, holding a stick with bells attached to it. The sound of the bells identified him. He was almost a magical figure. Another way of connecting was through barrys, very friendly Muslims who rarely dealt with money but exchanged goods on a barter system. Women had their own way of getting what they wanted by bartering areca nuts, which they kept exchanging privately for what they wanted. Sometimes somebody would bring a karadi (bear), which would come to houses and dance. It was considered very auspicious for a boy to sit on a karadi. I remember having hugged a karadi in my childhood. One of the most colourful events was the Hulivesha (tiger dance); it was common in Malnad for some young men to dress as tigers and wander about the neighbourhoods. They would be paid for the roadside entertainment that they provided for the children and the adults as well. One more ritual in Malnad is singing along to songs during the night in Karthika Maasa. This is called Antige Pantige, a group in the village that would carry a light and sing, getting more oil for their lights and money too. These are like Christian carols, but very different. They would come at night, sing the song, after which we had to honour them, and they would go to another house, which may mean even another village. These are the little connections that Malnad had with the rest of the world. We learned to repeat every day in the moon cycle with a festival happening on that day. For instance, Ekadasi is Prathamaekadasi, Dwadash is Utranadwadashi, and Chaturdashi is Ananthanachaturdashi. On almost every one of these days in a year, there would be some festival or another. With some God attached to it. All these festivals would take place in the houses of the rich or poor. and the newlyweds would be invited. Strangely, although we had a rigid caste system, in Malnad most of the work had to be done cooperatively, and the co-operative spirit was stronger than the caste spirit. Hence, a certain event could not take place without the help of other castes.

We lived in an atmosphere where nature itself compelled that kind of cooperation. Nature was used fully. For instance, in my house, we got fresh, clean water from the hills in a direct line. They would take the bark of the areca nut tree, split it, and put one on top of the other like a pipe from the mountain spring to the kitchen. Every day, my grandfather or someone else would go and check if it was aligned. People spoke about their well water with pride. Whose well water was sweeter was a matter for discussion and debate. Water had its own identity. Tunga Snana is like Ganga Snana. Drinking from the Tunga River is like bathing in Ganga water.

(Alas, no longer is it true.)

- Dr U R Ananthamurthy

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