Sunday, January 06, 2008

Tambram customs

This being my first post for 2008, let me begin with my New Year greetings to one and all of you. We had the coldest day in five years this New Year so it was statistically an important day. However it made me curl up in bed doing nothing at all so I am afraid that it was certainly not a great way to celebrate the beginning of the new year. But I kept finding excuses the most plausible one being that I was getting on in age and long before reaching my age my MIL had handed charge of household duties to my SIL and me. I could certainly afford to curl up in bed on the coldest day of the season.

I’ll begin this year with an account of certain uniquely Tambram practices.

1. We can drink hot coffee and tea by pouring it directly into our mouth without actually sipping it. And mind you, there will certainly be no slip between the cup and the lip. The coffee will be poured straight into the throat after being cooled to a suitable temperature which is based on individual preferences and the amount of risk one is willing to take.

2. We can swab the floor moving backwards bending our bodies but not our knees and as children we were taught not to remove our hand from the floor while cleaning up the dining space on the floor till the entire area is done. We would not sprinkle water and wipe the place directly with a swab cloth. We’d first pick up left over food that may have spilled on the floor, then sprinkle water and clean it with our palm and finally wipe it dry with a swab cloth specially marked out for the purpose and finally rinse the cloth and dry it out for future use.

3. There is a custom called ‘pathu’ that was religiously followed by us till about 25 years ago but has been eased out these days. Cooked rice, dal, sabzi and other rice based salted ‘high tea’ delicacies like dosai, idli etc. were declared ‘pathu’. One had to wash one’s hand after touching these items and could not directly touch pickle, milk, curd or other food stuff. Strangely wheat preparations like puri and chapathis were exempted. Uppuma was ‘pathu’ but suji halwa was not. Deep fried items were not ‘pathu’ even if they were rice based. Like the English language where the spelling of ‘put’ and ‘but’ are similar but their pronunciation is different one had to be born a tambram to understand when one needed to wash one’s hand and when it was not required. When I say washing hands after touching certain food items I mean merely touching water with the tip of one’s fingers. I now realize that those were days when refrigeration of left over food was unheard of so all items marked out as pathu tended to spoil fast and this was a precautionary measure to prevent mixing of food.

4. ‘Palaharam’ is what we tambrams consume on days that we are supposed to fast. The variety one consumed after a whole or half a day’s fast would make our digestive machinery work overtime. Deep fried items, sweets and savory dripping with oil/ghee and a whole lot of fruits both dry and fresh would all be served to those on a fast. I’ve often wondered about this contradiction when one actually feasted instead of fasting and actually consumed more food than on normal days. I found an answer when I tried to trace the root of the word ‘palaharam’. It can be split into pala + aaharam. Pala in tamil means several (variety?) so a wide variety of food is served to compensate for the period of fasting. However it could also have meant Phala + aaharam. This means a meal based on fresh fruit. The tamil script does not distinguish between ‘pa’ and ‘pha’. So Tambrams ended up consuming variety food instead of fresh fruits. It makes sense to have fruits since the roughage it provides would clean up the system.

5. Finally the custom of ladies isolating themselves during the time they had their periods. If as one explained, it was started with the aim of allowing them rest from work why were ladies shooed off as if they were outcasts by their elders who had reached their menopause as if it was sin to even see them? Why were they served left over food saying they could be served fresh food only after the men folk and other elderly ladies had finished eating? I personally feel that the reason for starting this practice has been twisted out of context and by giving it a religious overtone women were made to feel inadequate and inferior. One possible reason could be to indirectly keep track of an unmarried girl’s periods for whatever reason.
I hear that these customs were followed in other groups too. I welcome inputs from one and all of you.

42 comments:

lekhni said...

Interesting post. The hot coffee/ tea thing can surely not be exclusive to Tambrahms?

You are right about the "phala aaharam",it was originally meant to be fruits, but became twisted to mean "should not eat rice", so people would eat chapatis and upma and just about everything else :)

The isolation during periods is also not unique to Tambrahms or even Indians. It's true in Judaism as well - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_and_menstruation.
What can I say? One more example of patriarchy at its worst..

Prats said...

Great one this time. Yes! there are a whole lot more like these. And it runs in our very kannada families too...maybe its just a south indie thingy :)

The palahaaram would always outclass the regular simple meal of rice and rasam...but we can't argue about these....
Funny how some customs had scientific, hygenic or pure relaxation reasons...but our ancestors sure made religion a high point all the time.

Anonymous said...

HHG..That was a real interesting post. I think these customs are common to most Brahmin communities from South India.
I am of Kannada-Tamil parentage and this practice of pathu translated to 'musure' in Kannada.
However what qualified as 'pathu' was slightly different. Anything cooked alongwith rice was 'pathu' and the whole gas stove was washed to the point of actually bathing it to erase 'pathu'. We had separate gas stoves at home for 'pathu' and 'non-pathu' preparations and dal-suzi would be cooked on non-pathu stove.
in households where 2 gas stove arrangement was not possible, there was a portable iron frame which would be placed over the gas stove. This height of this frame was such that it was just about 0.25 inches higher than the burner and the rice items were placed on this frame for cooking. When the cooking was completed, the frame would be washed so that the gas stove remained 'non-pathu'.
We had this practice of 'sesham' in our household where the oil used for frying was not re-used. This makes a lot of sense when analysed from trans-fatty-acids perspective.
Also was the practice of putting a small kolam in front of the gas-stove and using a little bit of cow-dung to clean up the dining space.
I fully agree with you about the isolation during periods. The original purpose has been lost completely and yes, keeping track of others periods seem to high of the agenda of some people. I've had my neighbor ask my MIL about me 'yenna maami, indha maasam ava innu kulikillaya. visheshama ?'
Please keep more coming.
-Nikhila

Thinking aloud said...

i come from te south kanara (we speak tulu)distict...and everything waht u've written is familiar...
2) the wiping of the floors- i remember being mesmerized by how well they used to do it...luckily i never was called to display my talents here...

teh pathu was what grandma used to confuse me asking me to wash my hands after touching rice and shooing me off if an orthiodox guest appeared!!!

the period isolation is humiliating..its like telling the world about something that is personal!!

this was nice reading...do keep more coming :)

The Kid said...

"One possible reason could be to indirectly keep track of an unmarried girl’s periods for whatever reason. "

I doubt that. When this practice was in vogue, mostly girls were married before puberty.

B o o said...

Pathu is "any food item to which salt is added while cooking". My mom used to make "pathu less upma" by adding the salt after switching off the stove. Same logic for pickles, I guess. And I so remember the "echal idardhu" process after a meal. I still do it when Im in moms or mils especially during functions and occasions like Dhavasam, etc... Strange, strange ways of TamBrahms... :)

The Artist said...

Isolation during periods was there in all communities I suppose..My mom used to say in her grand mother's house a separate room was alloted in the ground floor and they should stay in that room only for 3 days.

Hip Grandma said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hip Grandma said...

the artist:welcome here.

Hip Grandma said...

b o o:I've read about your blog and your comments elsewhere.first time here?welcome and thanks

Hip Grandma said...

lekhni:I think the habit of pouring liquids directly into one's mouth is greatly a tambram practice.No other community is as rigid.I had heard about isolation of women during their periods among muslim women.I did not know abt Jews following the practise.

prats:Put in the fear of the almighty and man would agree to the most ridiculous of customs.But I suppose it was easier to obtain mass obedience that way.

nikhila:that was an interesting account.I remember an old lady in our neighborhood who would remember our 'dates' better than us.She'd be extra careful on days when she expected one of us to start our periods.Some work for the mind I must say!I remember sesham being practised in our home too.welcome here.

thinking aloud:I think we south Indians are fervent followers of tradition.I think the weather had somethingto do with it.imagine bathing each time a child touched one accidentally in cold winter mornings!No wonder there is so much water scarcity down south.Rinsing washed vessels and clothes all over again!Those ladies had some stamina.

the kid:the practise was very much in vogue when I was a teenager and given a chance my mom would have imposed it on my daughters too.It is however dying a natural death now.

b o o:I too followed pathu and echal when my mom visited us. My mom in law was more liberal.

the artist:May be you are right.But the degree of isolation differed.When we were young elderly ladies woul not even see our faces on those days till they had their palharam.We'd feel scared to sleep alone so our mother would sleep with us in the same room and bathe before entering the main sections of the house even if she had not touched us.

Preethi said...

Came here thru Preethi's blog. It has been one of the most interesting posts i've read in a while i shud say... made me feel all... nostalgic...
I see a few of Kannada Brahmins in ur cmnt box. I'm one too. Brought up in chennai. 'Pathu' ..'musure'. I remember all of it. The periods tho' ...i refused to sit anywhere away when i was at my grannie's place. Used to hide it he heeee it was thrilling... being rebellious. The hot tea .... yeah they still do it. Eating has the same rule.. kind of slightly throwing the food inside the mouth taking care to not let the fingers touch the lips. Ridiculous!!( i say this with a lot of respect to them ;))
I sure will be a regular visitor to ur blog Ma'am...
and a Very Happy New Year to you...

Preethi said...

Great Post.. loved the one about the pathu... and the coffee... oh well I loved them all.... brought back memories of my grand mom.. I have heard so much about Pathu.. my friend's families practice it even now!!! and the echal idaradhu... i have done it too... thank god for dining tables though.. its a lot easier!! and somehow still i feel that if I haven't picked up the morsels before wiping it with a cloth/ paper towel... its not clean!!

dipali said...

Another brilliant post- you can do an entire ethnographic study of TamBrams then and now:)
Though many customs have changed many are probably still followed in a modified manner.

B o o said...

I cant believe I have nt left a comment before. I feel so connected because of our comments in other common blogs! :) In my case, my mil is the orthodox one. But my moms mil, my granny, lives with my parents. So the old way is the only way for my mom! ;)

Archana Bahuguna said...

Great blog. This and "Going back in time"- please start compiling these into the book you are going to publish soon. No jokes here. :-) Very interesting tidbits from life. Almost felt like turning ages through an R K Narayan one.

IBH said...

HHG, awesome post...can connet to each and everyone that you have listed..i also wanted to list some things that has been gravely forgotten :)

1. the margazhi season when people sing bhajans on street and collect rice and dal ....i remember the poosani poo clad kolams on the street of our agraharam and we all awaiting the men to come and collect the rice and dal...:)

2. about the pathu, my paati used to keep water sprinkled on the floor so that before we touch other pathu items we used to touch that water so that curd and the rest is all pathu-maintained :)


3.usage of komiyam at our household where ever possible :)

oh lots to list....actually on a deeper note, some of them are scientifically still viable customs :)

Sango said...

Very interesting post! I can relate to almost everything written here..
I can recollect waiting for the male menbers to finish their 'parisheshanam' so that i could gobble up food on my elai during functions.. and the amount of scoldings i've got for not knowing which food item to serve first.. :-)

Sango said...

You are tagged.. Do take it up when you find time.. :-)

http://reachsango.blogspot.com/2008/01/new-year-tag.html

Joy said...

Nice post. I am sure all these customs and traditions started with a good cause but when it is being followed without knowing why, it becomes ridiculous. I am aware of all these but practise none. As you said, with time, lifestyle has changed.

kurrodu said...

I could relate to everything except 'pathu'.
Is it pronuonced like the number 10 in tamil? Anyway, sounds like a smart measure to preserve food.
Great post HHGMA!

Hip Grandma said...

preethi-2:well,this is getting interesting.As for hiding information abt one's periods I think many of us are guilty of having done so at one time or the other.Since 3 nights were taken into count many would isolate themselves just before going to bed on the first day.I remember my mother wondering aloud of the possibility of my cousins/SILS always skipping a whole day.she must have guessed but dared not go into details.

preethi:We all feel so connected don't we?The young needy girls from the neighborhood would actually take up the chore of 'echal idaradu' (cleaning up the dining area after a meal)and get to eat left over food in joint families where at least 20 people sat together for a meal.

dipali:I think you are right.We need to do a comparitive study not only of TamBrams but other communities as well to have a glimpse into different life styles.

b o o:yes,managing two generations at the same time-one orthodox and the other modern can be quite trying.A big handshake to your mom.

archana:Are you serious.I thought I was being silly and repetitive when I wrote this post.

ibh:oh yes i forgot about the margazhi season.Thanks for your input.and there was some logic in each of these customs but since it was overdone it became a pain to most people. Well, it is best to
be moderate in implementing rules or else one tends to rebel.

sango:Me too.There was a particular sequence in which food was served and a place allotted for each item on the plantain leaf.One could not start eating till ghee was served.and no biting papad with the left hand and one had to break plantains to eat them.Could bot bite them straight away.OMG the list seems endless1

joy:Rinsing plates after a meal is just about the only practise I insist on and even that seems too much for my family members.-((

kurrodu:yes it is pronounced that way.and it was practised by Bihari families too in the mid 50's and 60's

Phoenix said...

Happy new yr. Nice post!

Hip Grandma said...

phoenix:Happy new year to you too.and thanks.

Tys on Ice said...

wow! loved this post...we too have these lil quaint customs and traditions , some of which served some purpose , some which has lost its meaning like chinese whisper and some plain stupid...

give us more of these pearls of wisdom...

Random Vignettes said...

awesome post HG..echal idharudhu we cousins wud be made to do it after certain festivals like a heavy diwali meal and i used to resent it..still do :)
My MIL is pretty orthodox and still follows the practise of 'pathu' and the periods thing..wud have enorced it on me but I get away with my vociferous arguments and a sweet smile :)

rajk said...

I second Archana's suggestion that you should really compile these memories and maybe write a book. Imagine what a great gift it would be for the coming generations! I've been asking my parents to write whatever they remember about their childhood days so that my son can grow up to read and understand them...
Your post made me go back to my "paatti's" house in Chennai..we used to live in the North and only visited Chennai occasionally so all these customs were very strange and interesting to me...

Sumana said...

Hello HHG,
It is nice to know that many others were the victims of such customs. LOL we had to follow that when we visited our native place a village in karnataka.
Nice post. Keep it coming..

hillgrandmom said...

Very interesting post HHG. Have heard about many of these customs from Tambram friends in college, but never heard of the 'pathu' before ever. heisolation during periods thing is not at all common among Syrian Christians as far as I know. The only thing is in the old days one wasn't supposed to go to church I believe.

Hip Grandma said...

tys on ice:most of these practices were meant to ensure hygine.They've been twisted out of context and the rigid version caused people to rebel.

random vignettes:You were lucky to have a MIL who could be charmed to submission with a smile.My mother had poor eyesight but with her sharp ears she could easily catch us if we resorted to any foul play!

rajk:my daughter spent two years in chennai doing her plus two and got exposed to her heart's content to tambram ways.she was surprised that many in her school did not practise these customs.Depends on individual families i suppose.

sumana:Yes in villages these customs were followed very sincerely and my mom used to be perpetually worried that we'd do something wrong.

hillg'mom:pathu was perhaps started with the intention of avoiding the mixing of food that tended to spoil and the use of the same ladels for different items.with young girls taking charge of the kitchen there had to be some rule to ensure that edible items were cooked and served with care.However it is not strictly followed these days.isolation during periods has no scientific base at all and was probably adviced to ensure some privacy to women in joint families.

vEENs said...

Hi Granma!
Happy New Yr to yu first!!
I am a keralite.. but i lived there a lot less and lot more in North so her egoe swhat i feel..

point 1 looks general to me ;)
2. No.. i don't think we had that as kids. Nor I have seen point 3. in our communities.

point 4 is exactly same to same.. In our place.. during fasting we eat 1 meal of rice with any curry. And we tend to eat more on that day...
though their are some families in north don't eat salt/rice items/rotis ..they eat all fried stuff.. pakodas..kuttu ka atta( black coloured atta...used to make pakodas), sabu dana, kheer etcc..but it tends to become more heavy.

during periods, my granma, won't allow us to enter the kitchen, we have diffr plate n glass.. we wash it and keep it aside. we don't sleep on beds.. we have to sleep on the floor using a chattai. and we keep it aside. wash your own clothes.. not touch us also for 4 days!! it is not there now .. but I remember this all happened.. But we donot enter puja ghar at that time, and not touch neone who is going to temple today! my mom and I feel thats needed..though I can't justify it also.


lov,
Veens

Hip Grandma said...

veens:welcome here. with a few modifications most customs are followed all over India.We should try to analyze the logic behind these customs and follow them if it has a logical and hygenic reason.

Usha said...

I clearly remember leaving a comment on this post _ where has it gone? beware! this blog has a mind of its own!
Thooki kudikaradu _ yes; i think it is a special skill we have in the south.
The pala aharam was so interesting that we would beg our mother to let us have palaharam too.
All others are equally familiar as a member of the same tribe.
Heard an interesting explanation for the origin of the isolation during mensturation:
when hunting was the main occupation women were left behind as animals could smell blood and it was dangerous. if that is so I qm not sure why Brahmins decided to retain the custom zhen all other co,,unities had given it up.

Chakli said...

Nice observations on Tambrams. I was an expert in Point #2. In fact, I was so good at it that my dad said I should put it on my resume! :)

Thankfully, #3 and 5 were not followed in our house. I remember going to a friend's house and unwittingly entering the puja room during my menstrual cycle. My friend's mom was very upset with me. I do think though that the custom started as a way to give women some rest during that time but it was distorted later, like many other indian customs.

Hip Grandma said...

usha:It has happened to me too.I felt that I commented on a post and it has just vanished.Well, just remniscence of old times refeshes me and reminds me of those who contributed in making me what I am.

chakli:my cousin some 8 yrs. my junior would refuse dinner 'cos she'd have to 'echal ittufy'(point no.2 for those who do not follow Tamil) the place after the meal and she hated it.It was a chore readily imposed on us so we too became experts with time.However I am not able to do it now and I did not believe for a minute that I would find this a problem area.

eve's lungs said...

HHG -A little late in the day but never mind. What you term"pathu" relating to rice based food - is known as "ayntow" in Bengali - after any food containing rice or even touching the container , hand shad to be washed before touching anything else - my MIL still follows this. I still cant get the logic as to why it should not appl to wheat based food or vegetables . The container n which rice used to be cooked had to be placed apart . As if it would contaminate the other stuff . I suppose it has something to do with rice being a messy food - the grains being sticky and easily scattered ?
Phalaar or phal aahar is also something Bengalis enjoy - espeially in summer. Fruits , chirey or poha , muri or puffed rice with milk or dahi. Oh yes and during fasts , at least in my in laws' family , muri is taboo because it is equivalent to eating rice but poha or khoee ( I dont know the english for this ) can be eaten .

Hip Grandma said...

eve's lung:I did not know that pathu was observed in Bengali homes too.As for prohibiting muri and permitting poha and khoei I too can't explain.is muri slightly salted?Could that be a reason?

rp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rp said...

u missed to comment about d circumstances after a boy takes a hair cut....its even more funny

Pratiba Bhat said...

I so much loved your content in this post. Was looking for meanings for these practices as it is followed by my in laws. Nobody in my house knows the actual meaning behind all these madi and musure. They blindly follow it thinking that its some religious practice. Thanks for posting this. It really helped me understand stuff. I have one question.

Do cooked vegetables fall under the category of rice and dal items.? Are they to be treated separately.?

Rajs said...

Enjoyed .good one..any topic on sesham of women in periods..I mean after they eat , the rest can someone eat ? Any mentions of papam of that etc..?

Hip Grandma said...

Rajs: so glad that even after more than 8.5 years people read this post of mine. It is because of the encouragement that you readers give that we writers feel inclined to write. Thank you.