Now that we have been in Chennai for a month, time seems to be speeding up. The weeks go by more quickly and the longer we are here, the more we learn about South India. Over the past week, we’ve been fortunate enough to see two cultural traditions firsthand: we went to a wedding reception on Saturday, September 12, and we were invited to join several families for their celebration of the Navarathri festival.
Last week, when I dropped James off at school on Friday, one of his classmates, Balasubramanian (Bala), came up to me, grinning broadly, and gave me an envelope. “For you, aunty,” he said. (“Aunty” is a common term kids use to address women here). Inside the envelope was a beautiful, handmade invitation to Bala’s older sister’s wedding reception, which was being held on the following day. So, on Saturday, we made a quick trip to a nearby handicrafts store to buy a gift, then dressed in our finest and went to the Lakshmi Mahal mandapam (wedding hall) to attend the festivities. Although no start time was specified on the invitation, we were told by the Vidya Mandir teachers that 7:00 p.m. would be a good time to show up.
Upon arrival, we were led upstairs to the upper floor of the wedding hall, where the bride and groom stood on a stage, wearing flower garlands. Groups of friends and family took turns going up on stage, giving them wedding presents (wrapped in very shiny paper!), and posing for pictures with the couple. Videographers were on hand to capture the moment, and the photos were immediately displayed on monitors prominently placed around the hall. There was music provided by a live band, and most of the guests sat on plastic chairs, watching the bride and groom. Once we sat down, we were greeted warmly by Bala, who was thrilled to see all of us. He was dressed in a traditional outfit and looked like a little prince! He soon corrupted James into running around in the back of the hall with him and a few other classmates from Vidya Mandir. Meanwhile, Taz and I gaped at all the gorgeous outfits – beautiful saris and lots of gold jewelry!
We eventually went up on stage to present our gift, and then were told to go downstairs, where food was being served, buffet-style. The food was delicious – South Indian vegetarian fare – although there were no tables to sit at, or even chairs. No decorations either – I guess these were reserved for the upper floor of the hall. Most people ate fairly quickly, mingling and chatting all the while, and then went back upstairs to watch the bride and groom again. When it was time to leave, we were given a parting gift of a flowered metal storage bowl!
The week after the wedding (our fourth week of school here) was exam week for the upper classes (Grades 6 – 12). However, even the threat of exams could not dampen the excitement of the upcoming Navarathri festival, which started this Friday. Navarathri is a nine-day Hindu festival, dedicated to the Mother Goddess in the form of the goddesses Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. It is celebrated differently in the various regions of India. In Tamil Nadu (the state we are living in), families set up steps in their house (either in their living room area or in their puja [prayer] room) and place idols on them, known as golu or kolu. The kolu include wooden or clay figures of the gods and goddesses, and even bowls of miniature food. During the nine days, friends and families gather at each other’s homes to see their displays and receive gifts.
Today, our family joined some of the teachers from Vidya Mandir School and went on the rounds, visiting three houses. Families take turns serving as hosts, entertaining guests and giving presents. Each house we went to had a beautiful display of the kolu dolls, arranged on a set of steps. Most of the clay dolls are handmade and they vary in size from fairly large Ganesh idols to small bowls of miniature food. We visited each house for about 45 minutes, talking and enjoying refreshment. As we prepared to leave each house, we were each given a thamboolam (gift) bag with traditional presents - a coconut, a lime, betel leaves, and mini containers of yellow and red turmeric powder (which is put on the forehead). The kids were also lavished with other gifts as well; Taz received a beautiful, handmade silver necklace, bangles, and a pair of earrings. My kids were just grinning like it was Christmas, unable to believe their good luck.
This is just the beginning of the festival, so there are more houses yet to visit. We all feel very privileged, gaining entrance to this slice of traditional life in South India!