My Yellow birth
When I started thinking about how deep I am associated in my life with the Malayalam word for Turmeric, Manja, I felt like I am jumping into an yellow ocean of seemingly endless memories because the word Manja is also used for Yellow color in Malayalam. The earliest story I could remember about Manja was associated with my birth itself. The story, which was told in the house many times by my mother’s friend who was the mid-wife at the time of my birth. She proudly repeated how she healed my mother’s wounds that I created when I came out from her body. She said, she made a paste of turmeric and coconut oil and applied it to my mother’s vagina to heal the wounds. She used to show us the Ammi Kallu or Mother Stone where she grounded the turmeric roots into a fine paste. Ammi Kallu, or Mother Stone, is a flat stone bed with a stone roller was the traditional grinder people once used in Kerala Kitchen for grinding coconut and spices.
For long, this Turmeric and Mother stone have always been part of my child years as most of the dishes which were made in our kitchen had turmeric in one form or another and it was always grounded in the Mother stone bed.
Manjal or Yellow
The word Manja means yellow color in Malayalam and when we add the syllable l in the end it become Manjal or Turmeric , both had much significance in our daily existence. When we went to temples, we carried Manjal or turmeric powder or root or paste prepared in the most sacred way as an offering along with milk to divinities such as great Snake Spirit called Nagar or Mother Goddess Kali. In the temples, priests usually apply our offering on the image of the divinity and get it blessed and give a portion back to us as prasadam, holy offering.
Turmeric is usually put it on our forehead. The round sign made in the forehead with the blessedTurmeric or vermilion or Sandal wood paste or sacred ash or oil black from the sacred lamps are called Kuri or Thilakam.
On the mornings of our birthdays the first cloth that we used to get from the mother was a piece of white cloth dipped yellow turmeric dye to wrap around our waist. It was called Kodi Mundu or Manja ( Yellow) Mundu, which means a new cloth.
In our language our dawnswere Manja pulari or Yellow mornings, sun shines were Manja Velicham, and dusks were Manja Sandhya or yellow sun sets. During our festivals such asOnam and Vishu, our neighbourhood became yellow with all kinds of yellow flowers blossomed everywhere.
Our Turmeric Kitchen
We had big arguments in the kitchen about the usage of turmeric in my most favorite dish, Aviyal. It is prepared by cooking a mixture of uniformly chopped vegetables such as snake gourd, yam, drumstick, shallots, egg plant , okra ( ladies figure) and green paper in low fire. Once it three fourth cooked , add coconut, cumin and salt and cook till vegetables are soft and steady in appearance. When the mixture cools down add yogurt and seasoned with coconut oil and fresh curry leaves. This style Aviyal is white in color because of yogurt.
Though this style of cooking is incredible in its taste a few of us used to go for another style of Aviyal , yellow in color. One cooked with Yellow Turmeric.
Mother was against adding turmeric with other vegetables to make pickles . She said it alters the basictaste of other vegetables because it dominates the taste of the pickle. The two pickle recipe that is given as part of this book proved that Mother was correct. Raw turmeric root is very strong in its taste and flavor, sometimes a mild burning sensation. But when Turmeric mix with Ginger, turmeric gets mild and the mixture tastes very different. To this if we add salt and lemon juice to you can make a great Turmeric Ginger salt pickle. If it is bottled properly it can stay for years without any damage. The more it stay store Turmeric and other ingredients get matured and tastes great.
In the Malayalam poetry, the word Manja has many significances as it represents different moods of nature , human emotions, prosperity, love, divine spirits and most importantly sacred glow of our body and spirit. A Malayalam phrase, Manjal Prasadam is of my particular fascination.
It was lot of excitement when I witnessed the elaborate ceremonies of my sisters attained puberty . I was the youngest of all of them. When they got their first menstruation, they were housed separately , in a different room where we boys and men were not allowed to go. Every day some special foods made of turmeric, rice, ghee, lentils, spices like fenugreek and herbs were given to them. There was a ritual bath which my sisters had to go through. The women folks from our neighbourhood and some relatives from far came to participate in the ceremonies. During those bathes my sisters got massage of oil and turmeric paste. The women folk sung many songs with double meanings, many which I could not understand. I was fortunate to help them to prepare medicated hot water with turmeric paste and Neem leaves for bath and to make soap from green mung beans powder.
We boys were not allowed to see the girls during this time butwe were so impatient to know what was happening to them? On the fourth or fifth day when the final ceremony took place, the girls were brought to the ceremonial ground, a rectangular fire pit with sacred designs made of burned bricks surrounded by drawings on the floor using rice and turmeric powder.
It was the image of Great Mother Goddess. The ceremony ended when the girls were declared as grown up women by mother and my uncles. The ceremony was accompanied with a grand feast where rice cooked with ghee and turmeric was one of the main ingredient given to everyone.
When the girls dressed up in new attires and make ups finally comes out from their hide out after long hibernation, their entire body particularly face is filled with a kind of glory which was truly fascinating and I felt divine. The girl who achieved puberty was considered as the representative of Divine Mother and the shining glory around her face and body was expressed in a Malayalam phrase called Manjal Prasadam.
Turmeric Water Festival
During the festival season at the Mother Goddesses Kali temple in our neighbourhood, Turmeric water was used for bathing the deity everyday three times. The water comes out from the image of the deity was considered sacred as it could cure many mental and physical illness. On the last day of the festival, the representative of the Mother Goddess , called Velichapadu in Malayalam , dressed lavishly with a shining sword on right hand would paraded around our neighborhood to bless every homes in the jurisdiction of our temple.
Every house in our Tamil neighbourhood decorated their houses with paintings by turmeric, vermilion and lime. There will be Kolam drawings in front of every house to welcome everyone. The houses were decorated with lighted lamps , flowers. The most important part of the ceremony is to prepare Turmeric Water in a Pot made of Bronze or Brass. The mouth of the pot must be filled with Neem leaves .
Upon his arrival at a house, the divine representative would take the Neem leaves from the pot and dip it in the turmeric water and spray it on the house and people, as an act of showering the blessings of Great Mother. He would then bath himself with the turmeric water in the pot. The water left in the pot was considered sacred and bathed with it.
This ritual is one our most ancient Tamil tradition, called Manja Thanni or Turmeric water ceremony.
Tree Turmeric Healer
Another incident from my child hood I still remember vividly about turmeric is its magical curing properties. I was a little boy when the incident occurred butI heard the story was many times from my mother during many occasions where we were asked to remember the power of the mysterious people or saints who can help us to learn many hidden truth.
My elder sister was once affected by some mysterious diseases when she stopped eat and drink. Her body started swelling and several sores appeared and the local allopathic doctors in our neighbourhood could not only find any cure but even failed to diagnose. When we almost lost our hope of saving her life, one day a traditional medicinal man appeared in front of our house almost mysteriously. He like many other such medicine men and women who live in the forest and visit us in the cities on rare occasions.
They were called, Kodangi , who visit the cities and villages with a bundle of medicinal herbs , shrubs and other medicines on their shoulder They were also known as Sidhans or Great Masters who don’t ask for anything in return but help everyone around and disappear mysteriously. We knew very little about them but as children we loved them because they always had some sweet things for us .
When the Kodangi appeared in front of our house, motherimmediately recognized the man and extended him our only precious thing, asitting mat made of medicinal grass. The first thing he enquired with my mother was about the state of health of the sister. It still surprise me that he came on his own invitation and nobody ever told him about my sister’s illness or nobody ever called him to cure her.
As soon he saw the little girl he started playing his string instrument and sung a song in praise of the God of Medicine, Murugan son of Shiva and his consort Parvaty. Then he prepared a medicinal mixture from the herbs and shrubs which he was carrying in his bag . The most important among them according to my mother was a kind of turmeric called Mara Manjal ( Tree Turmeric ).
According to the story, the medicine worked like a magic. Almost immediately my sister opened her eyes and started showing visible signs of improvement. Soon she started drinking and eating food. The Medicinal man advised mother to administer the same medicine for a week. My sister is 60 years now, still passionately remember the story with more greater details.
The healer disappeared without ever asking anything but Mother did give a handful rice and salt. I am sure there are countless such stories still out there from my generation of people who were fortunate to witness these great magical cures of traditional medicines.
For long I believed that his act was a kind of magic and there was no real science in it but later I learned that what he practiced was part of a traditional system of medicine called Siddha which is still being actively practiced in many parts of South India. Like in Ayurveda, Turmeric has many important roles in the Siddha system of medicine.
This system of medicine traces its origin to the great saint Agasthya whose abode is a mountain on the southernmost tip of India, known as Maruthwa Mala or mountain of medicine. I have recently visited this mountain which is very difficult to climb. It is impossible for meto speak in words about the great view from the mountain top of the meeting of three oceans, Indian Ocean and its branches Arabian Sea and Bengal Ocean. The water currents and waves dance with wind moon and sun. It is particularly fascinating to watch the sun rise and sunset at Kanyakumari , the tip of India. The mountain has some beautiful variety of Mara Manja (Tree Manjal).
In Indian marriages, Turmeric materially and spiritually make the bride and brined groom ready for a new life , a healthy long life in tune with the nature. Turmeric represents food as medicine, the best preventive idea from sickness. Haldi ceremony usually the first or second day of the Indian marriages, turmeric paste is applied on bride and grooms separately by their friends in their own homes. The Groom visits the bride’s family to apply Turmeric on her face. Women sing a lot of sings when the ceremony takes place.
The bridal make would start only after the Haldi ceremony when the girl’s hands and feet are elaborately tattooed using Henna.