By Jyoti Nair
The heavy rains came late this year, transforming much of South India into a lush green landscape. But just a few months ago South India was in the throes of drought. Rainfall deficit of more than 60% last year had severely affected several districts including my home town in Kilimanoor in Thiruvanthapuram district of Kerala. Open welIs in many houses were dry and most houses were dependent on tanker supply. There was serious shortage of water for domestic needs and water tankers quenched the thirst. The late-monsoon rainfall in the region has brought back life to the dull surroundings. The miseries associated with water crises have long-gone but the memories associated with the water stress remain.
A particularly intriguing aspect of the drought was the way in which local beliefs and cultural practices sparked hope among the people. A few months ago as Malayalis were preparing to celebrate Vishu (New Year in Kerala), water stress was still prevalent. As per the local belief, it is supposed to rain on the day of pathaam udayam, ten days after Vishu. Faced with acute water stress this year, the locals were eagerly waiting these divine showers. Yet, pathaam udayam came and went but the God of rains skipped Kilimanoor (we heard from people that surrounding places received light showers on the day). The disappointment on the faces of people in Kilimanoor was palpable. When it did rain three days after pathaam udayam it was a thunderous gathering of clouds, as though a rebel cloud returned to fulfill its missed duty. The rains brought slight relief from the heat.
Over the last year, several news reports claimed that Kerala was facing the worst drought in the last 115 years. The major rivers in the state had shrunk as the tributaries feeding them lay dry. One such stream in Kilimanoor, which feeds the Vamanapuram river was reported to be dry for above six months. I have many childhood memories of the small water fall on this stream. A source of delight during our vacation visits as the noise of the water flowing filled the silent nights. In fact, the very name of the neighbourhood is errapinkara,( errapu means noise and kara means banks of the river) . This last summer, the nights were silent.
Located on right bank of this stream, at a higher elevation on the rocky outcrop, is a hundred years old temple. This temple was renovated a few years ago and has since then hosted ulsavam (festival) each year. As part of the temple renovation, an open well was dug within the temple premises. Although locals were skeptical about the availability of groundwater underneath the hard rock surface, its presence in the temple well strengthened their faith. The priest who headed the punar pratishtha (consecration of idol or image) rituals had proclaimed that the auspiciousness of the temple was enhanced by the eastward flowing stream. The drying of the stream in the past few years concerned the locals.
The temple hosted the annual ulsavam in April this year. Despite the heat and grimness that accompanied water stress, ulsavam was celebrated in high spirits. Generous contributions from the locals supported the whole event. People hoped and prayed to please the Gods to bless them with rain. As part of the event, women perform pongala (meaning to boil over). It is an offering of sweet dish cooked in earthern pots made of rice, jaggery, coconut gratings, raisins and nuts. Although this ritual is usually performed for the Goddesses, few legends also state that the God of thunder and rain – Indra – can also be evoked by this offering. In fact, a few years ago some women came together to offer pongala in this temple to pray for rain, and they were not disappointed. Since it is the women of the household who bear the responsibility to fetch water, when the wells in their homesteads are dry, they are particularly motivated to follow such rituals. This year pongala was clearly done with the intention of pleasing Lord Indra.
I was informed by the program committee members that arranging water was an important component in the planning this year. A tank carrying thousand liters of water costs 500 rupees. Two tanks were ordered for the day. The temple provided annadanam (food offering) to the devotees on the first day of the ulsavam. We saw a huge crowd lined up on the day of the annadanam. A rough estimate could be attempted based on the amount of rice consumed. Around three bags of rice was cooked that day (and one bag contained 60 kgs of rice). This annadanam offered relief to all families who were in a constant search for water for cooking.
One finds many illustrations of the relationship between nature and culture in local cultural beliefs throughout Kerala. The story of any place begins with its name. This place erappinkara gets its name from the sound of the stream. If the stream dries up altogether in the future, where do we look for alternative names?
About the Author:
Jyoti joined the ATREE PhD programme in 2015. She is a Delhi bred Malayali who flaunts Malayalam in front of non-Malayalis and is quiet as a cat when Malayalam speakers appear. Like most south Indian children she also attended music and dance classes as a child. Her music teacher gave up in six months and she has changed 3 dance teachers. Currently, at ATREE she is working towards her doctoral research on understanding the impact of environmental factors on agrarian livelihoods.