Deepavali, for me, is the festival of sound!

“Unity in Diversity” Nehru knew India! “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain knew humans! I had written a blog on Deepavali earlier pointing out that it is celebrated in India on different days and different ways (1). Some of my friends were surprised to find that our family had idli and mutton on Deepavali days. Recently, The Hindu has an article about this tradition (2) and now it’s mainstream! Again, this year Tamil Nadu is celebrating Deepavali (naragachathurthasi) on 6th November and our Institute has a holiday on 7th November. Bangaloreans celebrate beween 6-8th November! Deepavali is most commonly known as the festival of light and for us, it was indeed a festival of sound.

At the cost of repetition, let me state a few things again. When I was young, a typical celebration of Deepavali started a month earlier. We buy new clothes and give it for stitching and visit the Taylor shop several times to ensure that the new dress was ready. We start saving money to buy more crackers. At home, parents would buy some crackers. Typically, women at home start preparing sweets and savories several days before Deepavali and stack up all vessels. One or two days before Deepavali, we go for buying crackers. Northeast monsoon may be bringing rain and the weather would be moist. It was important to keep the crackers in sun light when possible.

While most of the crackers were bought from the major suppliers ‘Anil’ and ‘Singam’ pattaasu (cracker in Tamil) , our savings would be used to buy what was called ‘Out’. This particular cracker was made in Madurai by Saurastrian families settled for centuries in the city. They migrated from Gujarat in stages and eventually settled in Madurai during Thirumalai Nayakkar’s period, according to one history note I read. They are called in Tamil as ‘pattu nool karar’, which means people who used silk thread to make sarees/clothes. I am not sure if Out is still made and sold. Out combines an ‘atom bomb’ and ‘a flower pot’ in one. It is cylindrical with an yellow paper cover about 4-6 cm tall and 1-2 cm diameter. There is no thread that is visible to light the cracker and run away. One needs to open the paper cover on top and the gun powder would be visible. It should be lighted. It would start the ‘flower part’ action soon and you run away. Within a few seconds, the ‘atom bomb’ will blast off.

Other crackers had interesting names. ‘Seeni vedi’ is the mildest cracker and it is small with a red cover. Vedi is the name for the crackers that make sound, in Tamil. ‘Kuruvi vedi’ (Kuruvi = sparrow) was slightly bigger and louder. Then we had Lakshmi vedi/Meenakshi vedi and they were much louder. All these crackers would have a black thread with white paper cover. This cover should be removed to light the dark thread and it spreads slowly giving one a little more time to run. ‘Seeni vedis’ are used in making multiple threaded crackers. When I was young, I used to see 50, 100 or 200 combined having a common thread running in the centre, with the crackers lined up on both sides. As I was growing and our economy grew, I started seeing 5000 and 10000walas! I suppose the ‘walas’ come from Hindi. These crackers come as a role and when you unwind them they could cover 10s of meter length and it could cover a significant part of a street one lives in. The bursting continues for several minutes and most have their hands covering the ears!

We also had other crackers that give out only light such as flower pots, chakras and colorful match sticks (mathaapu in Tamil), rockets that fly off and produce colorful lights and/or sounds. I would not be surprised if we have hundreds of such crackers that produce sound and light of varying magnitude. Deepavali was indeed a festival of sound in Tamil Nadu. As I had mentioned, the festival of light comes in the next Tamil Month, Karthigai. All house holds keep lamps at the doors throughout this month. On the full moon day of this month, Karthigai Deepam is a major festival. Lamps will be lit throughout the house and surrounding. Thiruvannamalai celebrates this as a city festival and it is worth a visit. The whole city, temple and the hills have lamps lit synchronously at 6 PM and it is an incredible sight.

Over the last few years, there have been serious concerns expressed about pollution during Deepavali. Both noise and smoke pollution peak on this day in most parts of India. It has attracted world wide attention and there have been several scientific papers published based on pollution levels following Deepavali. I remember, Science had published a paper too. It may be a good way to get into Science, as we know pollution would be high and international press would be keen to cover it. The title of a recent paper perhaps summarizes the issue succinctly: “Short term introduction of pollutants into the atmosphere at a location in the Brahmaputra Basin: A case study” (3). This does not sound dramatic enough for Science or Nature and so is published in a lower impact Journal. We really need to worry about many other things that we do which cause more permanent damage to our earth and environment. A responsible individual or society or nation should not do anything that could cause serious problems to the only planet we have for life. However, I find the oppositions to crackers during Deepavali as an extreme reaction, perhaps motivated by a hidden agenda.

Don’t we have problems with fire crackers? Yes we do. Some of them are too loud. Many of them need safety precautions that we have not bothered to learn or practice. Several accidents happen on the day of Deepavali and some children lose their eye sight. Crackers were being stored and sold from many places without any concern for safety. This is a universal problem in India and is not limited to Deepavali. The train accident that happened on the day of Vijaya Dasami cannot lead to a ban on the celebration. Every citizen, administrator, organizer, municipality, town corporations, State and Central Governments have to take safety with all seriousness.

There have been accusations of child labor involved in making fire crackers. We really need to regulate the production, distribution and use of fire crackers. However, I do not think some elites can decide that crackers should be banned and convince the Supreme Court to do so. The recent news about banning crackers traditionally made, even while allowing ‘green crackers’, does indeed raise suspicions about the real agenda (4). There are no green crackers. As I had written earlier about the ban on Jallikattu, a few elites who think they know what is good for everyone, should not be allowed to make decisions for everyone. We do need regulations and not a ban on crackers. Have a great Deepavali, wherever and whenever you celebrate. Ensure that crackers, if used, are used with adequate precautions. Let me wish you all again with a beautiful picture taken from my OnePlus6 camera. IISc students light lamps in front of our Main Building just after the Deepavali Mela celebrated by the IISc Family and Friends!

  1. https://earunan.org/2015/11/05/hinduism-is-not-a-way-of-life-hindus-celebrate-deepavali-on-different-days-and-yes-some-hindus-eat-beef/
  2. https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/early-morning-conversations-with-idli/article25400846.ece.
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1309104215302300
  4. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/green-crackers-make-sivakasi-see-red/article25406861.ece?homepage=trueNEERI&fbclid=IwAR1rcLoclKFYJAKFuD1tA7R2mJ807yZyB3qVzJKrT7nDS2am0Fz15UWoQPQ

Hinduism is not A way of life: Hindus celebrate Deepavali on different days and yes some Hindus eat beef!

One Hindu festival that is celebrated all over India is called Deepavali in Tamil Nadu and Diwali in the North India and there may be more variations. Even when I was young, I knew that there was a difference of one day or perhaps morning/evening between Tamil Nadu and Delhi, for example. As kids, we have stayed awake the night before bursting crackers and chatting around. Around 4 am, we would take oil bath and start with an ‘atom bomb’ an apt name for one of the loudest cracker. We wear new dresses and have lots of food, snacks and sweets. We exchange sweets/snacks with all our neighbours friends and relatives.

One thing I fondly remember is having idli and mutton gravy, more like a stew. For some reason, only on Deepavali day, it was made like this and on other days, mutton ‘kulambu’ (gravy) was made differently, to be mixed with rice. On those evenings, I used to enjoy dosai with mutton kulambu. Other than Deepavali, we had mutton mostly on a Saturday. Deepavali used to be one day and the legend we had was that Narakasura was conquered and the day was called Narakachaturthasi (14th day of the declining moon). Some parts of India celebrate it on the new moon day, perhaps.

In North India, Diwali is a festival of light, as widely known in the world. Most families lit lamps all over the house but not in Tamil Nadu. Our light festival usually comes during the next or following full moon day known as Karthikai. Karthikai Deepam is a big festival in Thiruvannamalai and all over Tamil Nadu Hindu families celebrate it. Lighting lamps in front of the house for the whole month and all over the house on the full moon day is a common practice. I am not sure it is celebrated in other states. Some save a few crackers, especially the ones producing more light than sound for Karthikai. For us, Deepavali is a festival of sound! What is common everywhere is new clothes and lots of food, snacks and sweets.

Now I work in Bangalore. Mysore is the major tourist attraction in Karnataka, which is about 140 km from Bangalore. Both cities are closer to the southern border with Tamil Nadu. During my first Deepavali in Bangalore, I was surprised to find that it is celebrated for 2-3 days. Crackers would go on for three days unlike in Tamil Nadu when I was young. The day after Deepavali is called Bali padyami in Karnatka, named after the demon king Bali. I had not heard of this until moving to Bangalore. The nearest town in Tamil Nadu, which is just 40 km from Bangalore is called Hosur. I realized a few years ago that Hosur is basically the word in Kannada for ‘New Town’ and the Tamil word for the same is Pudur, which is found in many parts of Tamil Nadu. Hosur is part of Tamil Nadu though. Kannada is the language spoken in Karnataka.

Hindus in India have a large number of ‘local’ festivals many of them coinciding with the full moon day. To repeat myself Deepavali is celebrated in most parts of India. It was indeed surprising to see such a big difference in Deepavali days between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This year, IISc has a holiday on 11th November for Deepavali. Tamil Nadu has a holiday on 10th November for Deepavali,. This difference of one day has happened most of the years. What surprised me more is Mysore Medical College has holidays on 10th and 12th for Deepavali and Balipadyami but 11th is a working day!

If you have been reading newspapers or watching Television in/from India, you could not have missed ‘Hindutva’. Those who are fond of this ideology are eager to make India a ‘Hindustan’ as they seem convinced that is the right thing to do as Muslims got Pakistan. What they forget is the fact that the number of muslims who chose to stay in India was more than the population of Pakistan at the time of partition and independence. Our founding fathers decided that India will be a secular country and religion would be a personal choice. I am very happy and proud of that.

I would indeed be happy if some body in India could announce that Deepavali is on a particular day for all of India. Having lived in the USA for some time, I have seen how families got together for Christmas. Christians around the world have evolved and 25th December is celebrated as Christmas in most parts of the world now. I thought Australia was celebrating it on a different day as December is summer there.  I was there a few months ago and found out that Australia does celebrate it in December summer. No white Christmas but the same day. In India, some one working in Bangalore having parents in Madurai, finds it difficult to plan a family get together for the most celebrated of ‘Hindu’ festivals. We have different ways and different days to celebrate the most common festival, Deepavali/Diwali.

It is a pity that India today has to depend on words given by observers from outside to describe itself. I am not a historian or a social scientist. As a scientist by training, I read, observe, question, think and analyze. The word ‘Hindu’ apparently appears first as a Persian geographical term for referring to the people who lived beyond the river Indus (Sindhu). ‘Hinduism’ has become a religion today in the world. I was declared a Hindu in my school certificates and that is what I write when I choose to fill ‘religion’ in forms. Apparently, the Indian Supreme Court has declared that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’.

I wonder how a Supreme Court can answer this question! Are the Judges experts on religion? They are expected to be experts on our Constitution. I have not read the Constitution in full and so I wonder if our Constitution declares that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’. If that were to be the case, the Supreme Court could be well within its purview to make this statement. But then, as an evolving democratic nation, we go to Court with all kinds of questions. Judges in their own wisdom accept many such cases and declare a verdict.

If my memory serves me right, a High Court was approached to decide what kind of a ‘naamam’ (symbol on it’s forehead) should an elephant in Tirupati Temple have. But then, in India, we do not have one authority who can decide. If the Supreme Court had said Hinduism represents all ways of lives followed by Indians who are not Christians, Muslims, ….? Sikhism and Jainism are not Hinduism, are they? Budhism cannot be Hinduism as Buddha revolted against Hindu religious rituals.  However, Buddha has been accepted as a Hindu God. In some versions, Buddha replaces Balarama as one of the 10 Avatars of Vishnu. India had Shaivam and Vaishnavam as religions with the Supreme God being Shiva or Vishnu. I come from a Shaivite family and perhaps that is my religion.

It seems like the world has accepted that Hinduism is a way of life. I have been thinking about it and it did not make sense. I see that the way of life that most of us live have some things in common and many things that are not common. It appears to me that ‘caste’ defined a way of life in the India I was born and raised. I don’t know the origin of Caste. May be it gave one way of grouping people. Caste in the past defined a profession for the male. As a friend pointed out recently, it makes sense as much of the teaching and learning were happening at home. Father teaches the son the life skills he had learned. Today it should have no place in our society but it seems well grounded.

As many have pointed out, ‘caste’ has been a bane on Indian society and it has a hierarchy. It seems like some are trying to blame the west and moguls for the caste divisions in India. I know old poems in Tamil which mention ‘saathi’ a word used in Tamil for caste. One starts by proclaiming that there are only two castes: Those who give/share what they have and others. People who give are superior to those who don’t! In recent times, the revolutionary poet Bharathiyaar had thundered ‘there are no castes and claiming superiority by caste is a sin’.

A vocal and influential minority has managed to convince the world that ‘Indians are vegetarians and they don’t eat beef’. Every day some one is shouting now ‘Hindu feelings are affected’ when some one eats beef. I am astonished at their arrogance. A lot of Hindus do eat beef and when a chief minister mentions this fact, he is accused as being a traitor to the Nation! The Prime Minsiter condemns him of insulting Hindus. Is the Prime Minister not aware of Hindus who eat beef or he, his party and the Hindutva groups do not consider Hindus who eat beef as Hindus? This is a significant number and in 2015, nearly seven decades after Independence, they have no voice in our democracy?

All those who make such loud statements do not seem to consider the feelings of a significant number of Hindus who do eat beef. While beef eating Hindus can be from any caste, among the poor, beef is perhaps more commonly consumed as a cheap source of nutrition.  When I was young, there was always a suspicion when we order mutton in the Hotels. Are they selling beef in the name of mutton, which was more costly?

Recently, I was intrigued to read a poem by Digumarthi Suresh Kumar in Telugu which I first found in the movie made by the students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences titled ‘Caste on the Menu card’. Our Finance Minster who accuses others of being ‘intolerant to the views of Hindus’ appears to have banned this movie. (http://roundtableindia.co.in/lit-blogs/?tag=digumarthi-suresh-kumar). A large number of Hindus don’t seem to matter for a few Hindus who speak louder. They just don’t care about the feelings of other Hindus. No wonder Ambedkar converted to Buddhism and some others converted to Christianity. If the Hindu organizations do not consider the feelings of all Hindus, we can’t blame the British and Moguls! I hope all Hindus realize this.

Some say our constitution bans cow slaughter. It appears that it is not true. It has been suggested and States are supposed to act as they feel. Many states have banned cow slaughter but buffalo meet has not been banned anywhere in India. India became the second largest exporter of beef this year. Kerala allows slaughter of cows beyond 10 or 12 years. We are living in a time, elderly parents are not taken care off by and left to mend for themselves. A small minority is violently emotional about protecting cows. They won’t raise a finger to protect cows and take care of them either. They beat the poor who own cow below their belt.

The two poems I have mentioned above are given below in Tamil for those who can read:

Avvayyaar (?), many centuries old

சாதி இரண்டொழிய வேறில்லை சாற்றுங்கால்
நீதி வழுவா நெறிமுறையில் இட்டார் பெரியோர்
இடாதோர் இழிகுலத்தோர் பட்டாங்கில் உள்ளபடி

Bharathiyaar in 20th century
சாதிகள் இல்லையடி பாப்பா
குலத்தாழ்ச்சிஉயர்ச்சி  சொல்லல் பாவம் பாப்பா
நீதி உயர்ந்த மதி கல்வி
அன்பு நிறைய உடையவர்கள்  மேலோர் பாப்பா

The movie star turned former chief minister of Tamil Nadu MGR in one of his film says. There are only two ‘saathis’, one is male saathi and another is female saathi.

I wish this meaningless debate about food habits and religion are suspended by the Supreme Court. Let all parties give their plans for development of India and let the people choose the party whose plan appeals to them most.