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.