On the 18th day of the Tamil Month of Aadi, women and their families gather on the banks of a river to welcome its water to their lands. Aadi, which extends from mid-July to mid-August, marks the beginning of Dakshinayanam, where the god begin their sleep. That’s poet-speak – the more celestial connotation of Dakshinayanam is that it marks the time when the sun begins to ‘move’ south.
Come again? You see, because the Earth is tilted about its axis, we have seasons where different latitudes receive maximum sunshine in different parts of the year. In March, when the sun is ‘overhead’ the equator, the northern hemisphere enjoys its spring, while in December, when the sun is ‘overhead’ the Tropic of Capricorn, the northern hemisphere has its winter. Dakshinayanam marks the time when the sun’s rays begin to move southwards from their northernmost point.
What does this have to do with water? Whichever latitude the sun shines brightest on, the air over the surface heats up and rises (see figure below). Nature abhors a vacuum, and so air from the surrounding latitudes rush to fill the gap. These winds often carry moisture when they pass over the seas, and, as they converge and rise, they release the moisture as rain. That’s why it rains so much over the equator, where the band of maximum heating often lies. The band of clouds and rain follow the sun, but with a time lag – as handmaidens follow a queen.
By end-June, the sun has reached its northern-most point – on the day we know as the summer solstice, when the northern hemisphere has its longest day. The band of clouds and rain follow with a lag and so, by July, the band of rainfall we know as the monsoon has moved north to cover all of India. The monsoon rainfall thunders down on the slopes of Kerala in June/July/August. Kerala’s forests trap the rainfall, filter it and slowly release it into the streams that leave the forests. These streams coalesce and become the mighty rivers, some of whom water Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu does not get too much rain from the Southwest Monsoon. Its farmers rather depend on river water to plant their crops. That’s why Aadi Perukku is such a big deal to the farmers – it tells them the precious river waters have arrived, and they can get to work. This is a long-standing festival. Indeed, the opening scene of the Tamil classic, Ponniyin Selvan, sees the hero riding on the banks of the Veeranarayana Eri (also called the Veeranam Lake – a lake handcuffed to Chennai’s water supply today), where he sees the people celebrating Aadi Perukku festivities.
A sowing festival celebrates fertility – In Mulaipari, a festival that precedes Aadi Perukku, women typically plant nine (some say twenty one) varieties of seeds in a pot, and place it near a Amman (or Goddess) temple. Every evening, they sprinkle water on the pot, and dance the kummi – a type of dance popular in Tamil villages. For the next nine days they do this, praying and dancing that the seeds grow well as whosoever’s plant has grown most is said to have been blessed by the Goddess. On the 10th day, with drums and music, the women take their pots and offer them to the Goddess. The backstory is that in earlier days, when farmers saved their own seeds, the Mulaipari festival helped reveal whose seeds were the best quality, so that a village as a whole would have splendid seeds to use for their upcoming crop.
In Aadi Perukku, some women take the Mulaipari they have been tending to so carefully, and offer it to the river goddess, praying for a bountiful harvest. Young girls take kadholai (earrings made from palm leaves) and karumani (black beads) and offer it to the river goddess. Newly weds come to river praying for offspring. Women tie yellow threads smeared with manjal (or turmeric) praying for the long lives of their husbands. The festival is about praying for fertility, for prosperity by respecting the water that makes it all possible
In everyday life, we appear to have forgotten the significance of Aadi – there is a belief that Aadi is a month that leads to losses, and nothing should be begun then. We even have Aadi sales, because customers don’t buy new things then, and shops try to entice them with discounts. How we have forgotten our water and our seasons. Aadi is not a month of losses, it is a month to plan, do small pilots to select our best seeds, welcome your water, prepare our fields and refine the fronds of our plans, so when the water hits, they can bear fruit.
All photographs (C) Sundaram Climate Institute, unless otherwise mentioned.