Monday, January 26, 2015

Chennai Holidays: Republic Day

Today is Republic Day! I think it's pretty standard for every country to celebrate some day related to their founding. This year, President Obama was invited by Prime Minister Modi to be the "Chief Guest" at the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi. This has caused quite a stir in Mission India, but more on that in another post. Suffice to say, despite the "extra holidays" tag, many of the Americans in India are working today. Either way, Happy Republic Day!

PS: When I asked two of the local staff "How do you celebrate Republic Day?" They simultaneously answered with:
"Sleep in."
"Do nothing."

PPS: I love Modi's hat.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Chennai Holidays: Thiruvalluvar Day

Day two of our five day weekend (the fifth day being Martin Luther King day). Today is Thiruvalluvar Day. A holiday unique to Tamil Nadu, it is lumped in with the Pongal celebrations, but is actually in honor of the same-named Tamil poet. Thiruvalluvar lived sometime before the 2nd century BCE and has been called the greatest Tamil Scholar. His most famous work is the Tirukkuṛaḷ a work on ethics.

In the Pongal tradition, the day is dedicated to Surya, the sun god. Being a primarily agrarian celebration, the sun god naturally plays a central role. Sugar canes and coconuts are the gifts of choice for this day... which explains why I've seen autos all over town with sugar cane stalks strapped to them!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Chennai Holidays: Thai Pongal

Pongal! Although technically beginning yesterday, the State Government of Tamil Nadu recognizes the holiday on Thursday to allow for a 4 day weekend (spoiler alert, there's another holiday tomorrow!)

Pongal is a Tamil celebration dedicated to the harvest and abundance, not unlike American Thanksgiving. It is symbolized by a ritual of heating milk until it boils over and spills out of the pot. The word Pongal is actually Tamil for "overflowing."  On a colorful note, the normally white rice flour kolams were replaced with more colorful rangoli (a subset of Kolam) today! Pongal is also dish consisting mainly of rice sweetened with a dense cane sugar named "Jaggery." We had Pongal for breakfast earlier this week and it was delicious... though about as "breakfasty" as eating the Thai dessert "Sticky Rice with Mango."

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dhoti Friday... on Tuesday

Just a quick note for today. One of the things I'd noticed when bidding on Chennai was that they celebrated(?) "Dhoti* Fridays." I was somewhat disappointed when I arrived at post to learn that the practice had lapsed. Fortunately, this week we had the first revitalization of Dhoti Fridays, and to make it pop, we're having it on Tuesday! Unfortunately, not knowing the difference, I purchased a lungi**... not a dhoti, but oh well! I'm thinking I might have to start wearing a dhoti (or lungi) every Friday. Maybe I can single-handedly resurrect the weekly event. The local staff generally chuckled, shook my hand, and/or informed me that I was indeed not wearing a dhoti, but a lungi (often all three).

* "The dhoti, also known as mundu, pancha, mardani or veshti, is a traditional men's garment worn in India." -Wikipedia

** "The lungi, also known as a sarong, is a traditional garment worn around the waist in Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Brunei, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, the Horn of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula." - Wikipedia

PS: I cheated by having my housekeeper teach me how to properly wearing my lungi... and I cheated even more by wearing a belt (hidden by the rolled up part of the lungi and by my shirt).

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Around Chennai: Mylapore Festival

This weekend marked the start of the four day Mylapore Festival. Since arriving in Chennai, we've been told this is the "can't miss" event in the city. In the middle of the winter, the temperatures are mostly pleasant (lows in the 70s and highs in the 80s), so it's generally a nice time to be outside. We took a trip with CLO to check it out. We started by watching the hard working Kolam competition contestants. There were almost as many techniques as people and the submissions ranged from simple clean patterns to very complex.
A Kolam is a line drawing with geometric repetition made of rice flour (or occasionally other white powders). Kolams are thought to bring good fortune to the house and are an invitation and welcome to all living creatures. We've even heard (jokingly) that they're made of rice flour so the ants won't have to walk too far to get food... and will find no need to actually enter your house. I can't speak to that, since we have both Kolams outside our house and ants inside, but they are still pleasant additions to the street sides. 

I bet that guy has a great view!
After checking out the Kolam competition, we took a stroll down a couple alleys with vendors. We also saw a large number of people selling colored powder, likely in preparation for Pongal.

The CLO trip ended (as many of them do) with a stop for some delicious vadai and filter coffee. Since we had walked, we started our trip home and stumbled on the street food alley.

Miniature fair rides
We were debating if we wanted food, but were practically dragged (verbally) by a local telling us to "see some traditional Madras culture!" I don't know about all that, but the food was good.

On our way out, we saw the most plantain chips I've ever seen in my life. Unfortunately my picture doesn't really show off the fact that the guy is frying them right there, on the other side of the chip mountain.

On the rest of our walk home, we noticed that there were a huge number of produce vendors around. There were many more than we normally see, but figured it was due to the upcoming Pongal festival. It is also possibly because we're rarely walking around temples on Sunday evenings.

That's some good looking produce.