by Kaveri Ponnapa
This year, I’ve been collecting images of putharis long past from some of my friends, trying to capture the essence of this festival that touches every Coorg heart. There is that perfect, jewel bright night when the harvest comes into our homes. The sheaf-cutter plays out a small ritual in sevens: he kneads seven grains of new rice and paddy, along with the same number of tiny pebbles, coins, slivers of ginger, sesame seeds and bananas into a pudding along with rice flour, adding honey and ghee. This is our offering of the best that the land has produced, small amounts placed on pipal leaves and tossed towards the ceiling, to our ancestors –also to the homes where we were born and members of the clan who are no longer with us. Then we eat our share and settle down to a community feast. Everything is music and brightness, noise and celebration, custom, ceremony, and gorgeous costumes. Our poets sing all night in praise of ancestors and the land. It’s a timeless night embedded deep in the history of the land, connecting us with uncounted generations of farmers who tilled the land and made it prosper. But there are other moments outside that big, illuminated night –quieter, smaller moments around puthari that people carry with them all their lives, wherever they travel, memories that swim to the surface every time the harvest comes around again, re-connecting us to our land.
So when I asked, for someone, puthari was all about many voices joined in song: songs that have been sung for centuries. As people worked to welcome the harvest, there was a song, he remembered, for every task, for every moment of the day: a song to accompany the cleaning of a lane leading to the ancestral home; one for clearing the village green where the men and women would dance; another for the yard where the harvest would be gathered and even one with which to collect the creepers that would tie the sheaves of grain together. Everywhere there was a coming together, a gathering of people singing and working together, refreshing their ties with each other, the land was soaked with their songs so that it would flourish.
And as the harvest draws closer, the land does flourish–Coorg becomes more and more generous: pumpkins and beans, tubers, yams and greens come flooding into our kitchens. It’s the season for sweet potatoes and other buried offerings, particularly the large, weighty puthari kalanji, (Dioscorea esculenta), known as the Lesser Yam. This is so deeply etched on our memories as part of the harvest celebrations that Naren Thimmaiah, now at the helm of a world-renowned restaurant, gets nostalgic about the most rustic, humble treats created from yams and tubers. As a young boy growing up in Murnad, sweet potatoes, he recalls, were steamed skin-on –so it was a minor, engrossing ritual for children, peeling off every bit of the pinkish skin before snacking on the flesh mixed with sugar and ghee. There’s another a vivid image he shares of his mother cooking peeled puthari kalanji, tossing on a little rock salt before shutting the lid of the sakala (copper steamer). Most of the salt melted, but small chunks remained, to be deliciously mashed into a thin syrup of jaggery and eaten. With heaps of the cooked yam lying around in kitchens from the harvest through the many days of celebrations, they were of course the targets of raids by roaming gangs of small boys caught up in the general excitement. Steamed puthari kalanji, Thimmaiah recalls, was not so exciting unsweetened –but it was so much a part of the season, that the raids on kitchens continued all the same!
Across in Nalnad, this was the time to string together offerings of tender green cardamom pods; a time of feasts at ancestral homes, possible because of the collective work of many hands; the carnival atmosphere of folk plays (joyi kali) that travelled across villages; the excitement of practicing 11 different turns for the harvest dance –and fish curry. Puthari was the time, an elderly friend narrates, when everyone had fish on their tables. It was the signature dish of the season: chirau (shark); or onak meen (dried, salted fish); roasted prawns and crab pounded into chutneys and crab from the freshwater streams and fields marked the days after the harvest.
There’s plenty of food to choose from those days of extended celebrations: pandi curry of course, or puthari curry, an earthy mixture of dried fish, bitter gourd and local beans; sweet puthari payasa, with grains from the new harvest or toasty thambuttu. My favourite is thambuttu, the heavy, sweet pudding made with Coorg mara bale, a local variety of banana, mixed with powdered, roasted rice that carries a whiff of cardamom and tug of roasted fenugreek seeds. Sprinkled over with browned sesame seeds, curls of fresh coconut, sugar and a generous spoonful of hot melted ghee it’s a substantial dish. No wonder the line of an old song instructs people to feed thambuttu to the young men, so that they grow strong and bring glory to their clans and villages! No battles of old to face now, but I save a bottle of thambuttu powder to last me a year, its warm scent taking me right back to harvest nights in Coorg and my grandparents’ home. The soul of our rice-growing community is so deeply embedded within, we unconsciously take it everywhere we go. Aslesha Madappa remembers how her family carried the harvest spirit out of Coorg to wherever they happened to be living –her parents would organize huge puthari picnics, complete with outdoor cooking and target shooting with guns, so typically Coorg, building strong bonds of friendship and reciprocity in a place a long way from home.
The puthari boté, the collective hunt is now a faded memory for most, but older people remember it as a very important part of our culture, when villagers and kinsmen hunted together according to sacred rules, sharing the wild game that came their way, celebrating together and forging close ties. It was at puthari, when coconuts were hung high on treetops and everyone showed off their marksmanship that an enthusiastic 10 year old Paruvangada Madappa coaxed and coerced his father into allowing him to fire a heavy, old-fashioned gun for the first time. His life as an ace marksman began at puthari. When he was a little older, he became such a good shot, that his sisters would send him out to hunt for the pot; as soon as a gunshot rang out, they would begin grinding spices for the meal, confident of their brother would return home with something for them to cook!
Madappa, his father and brother were unrivalled as marksmen, so at puthari, to give others a fighting chance, they were always offered the last shots at the coconuts, after the entire village had its turn. Children would cluster at the base of the tree when the brothers came forward, eyes fixed on the coconut, hands outstretched to catch the falling pieces –they knew it would be a bull’s eye!
There’s a thread that runs through all the ceremonies, food, the sport, the dances and the songs, and Paruvangada Madappa tells another story that captures perfectly the spirit of this celebration. Puthari was the season for new clothes and his father would make the journey from their village to the nearest town to buy fabric for the family. Nothing mattered except that the cloth was thick, sturdy and long lasting. Once the choice was made, bales and bales of cloth, along with a distant relative who was a tailor, accompanied by his sewing machine, were all delivered to the village in a rattling cart. Some general measurements and a week’s furious sewing later, the girls of the house were given the first choice of clothes; then it was the Yerava tribals and their children who served the house who took their pick. The family members themselves came last, choosing from an assortment of sizes left over, in a gesture of solidarity with the people who helped them farm the land. On the festival day there was an extraordinary display of shorts, shirts, girls’ dresses, and ladies’ jackets all made from the same fabric. The generosity of the land was passed around as everyone welcomed and shared a harvest for which hands had worked long, hard hours together, building a community.
Cook's Note : Adding salt water to the raw rice before roasting it serves two purposes-it flavours the thambuttu powder, so that chances are you won’t need to add salt for flavouring again. It also serves as a preservative, keeping the powder free of small pests, helping it last an entire year until the next harvest. The quantities of roasted sesame seeds and coconut sprinkled on the thambuttu is entirely according to taste. I personally love a generous helping of sesame seeds and ghee, and less coconut.
Photo Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
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