TIRUNELVELI : For youngsters today, Deepavali is a celebration associated with bursting of crackers and eating a variety of sweets. But many may not be aware of a practice in Tamil Nadu where our ancestors ate idlis, dosas, or even rice only during festivals such as Deepavali. Eating meat was also an integral part of Deepavali festivities for all subaltern communities, right from those in rural Tamil Nadu to those in cosmopolitan Chennai.
About three decades ago, eating of rice was a rare occurrence and associated with higher social status. Millets like Kambu, Keppai (ragi) and kuthiraivali were the items consumed commonly at that point in time. Besides, in that social milieu, in many families rice was prepared only for consumption by men, and not for women. As such, it was festivals like Deepavali that offered an opportunity for all in the family to eat rice, Idli, and dosa.
Moreover, those were the days when grinders were non-existent. It was the women who used to physically grind for the idli-dosa batter in the traditional Ural. In the case of shepherds staying outside the villages, women would have to walk for long distances to grind the batter. On Deepavali day, the shepherd children sit around their mother watching her make idlies early in the morning and eat them without chutney or sambar.
Shanmugavel, a shepherd from Ramanathapuram district, recalls, “Once we had a 13-year old boy looking after our flock. On Deepavali day, he came to have food and my wife started serving. He did not stop eating even after consuming more than 40 idlies. Initially, we did not want to stop him because this was the only occasion when he could eat the stuff. But after a point we advised him to stop.”
Not only simpletons, even affluent people would get to eat idlies and dosas only during festivals or had to visit a hotel to indulge. “Eating rice was uncommon those days. Poor mothers would place small utensils at the entrance of houses of rich people for rice in evenings to feed their young ones ,” Vela Ramamoorthy told Express.
Apart from rice, idli and dosa, eating of meat is also inherently associated with Deepavali both in rural parts of the State and also in cities like Chennai. In almost every village, elders would take orders for meat from every home, buy sheep/goat accordingly, and distribute meat early in the morning on Deepavali.
“Having idli with attukkal paya was considered prestigious. Neighbours used to serve Attukkal paya to other families who did not prepare it,” observed prof MSS Pandian, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.