Today is the 1st day of Karkadakam, the last month according to the traditional Malayalam calendar. The Malayalam calendar is called Kollavarsham (Kollam Era) and accordingly we are in year 1188. Though Medom is the first month according to the astronomical calendar, the 1st of Chingam (the next month after Karkadakam) is considered as the beginning of the New Year after Kollavarsham was adopted as the regional calendar.
My childhood memories of Karkadakam are that of non-stop rains. It rained, and rained and rained. I remember, while travelling by public transport to school, the roads used to be covered with water along with the paddy fields on both sides. There would only be sheets of water and it was hard to distinguish what what was road and what was not! By the time we reached school, we would be dripping wet. And we remained so for the whole day. School timings were from 10.00 am – 4.00 pm and a change into real dry clothes would be possible only after reaching home by about 5.00 pm! Probably it is those tough experiences that has made us take life head on.
Karakadakom is known as Kalla Karkadakom, meaning a black month – an inauspicious one. No auspicious event would be held – the weather was never conducive for that. The month also brought in its trail copious rains, troubles and travails to the peasants who just depended on farming and agricultural produce. The incessant rains rendered them with no work. And that meant no money. The damp weather forced people to be indoors. This was also the time when people fell ill. So, Karkadakom brought in its wake poverty, illness, and hardships. It is to beat this negativity in the air that temples and homes reverberated with the chant of Ramayana. Prayers were recited to clear the cobwebs in the mind and bring clarity and serenity to the soul. Karkadakom thus also got the name, Ramayana month. It is also believed that Maharshi Valmiki completed penning that immortal epic in this month.
Another memory is that of a massive operation clean at home. This happens on the eve prior to the first day of Karkadakam. All families were into agriculture in our small village of Pallavur in Palakkad. We were no different. The cleaning operation was a tradition. Our home, including the granary, would be cleaned meticulously. This was symbolic of removing Chetta, (Jheshta Bhagavathy) who was considered to be the presiding deity of all that is dirty and decadent. We would then put it all in bamboo winnowers called Murams. There was no trace of plastic those days! Everything from grocers came covered in newspaper. Throwing away these biodegradable materials to the uninhabited parts of the huge compounds or outside it was accompanied by chants, “Chetta go, Shibothi come” (Chetta po, Shibothi vaa). Shibothi seems to be the the truncated version for Sree Bhagavathy, a semantic change that was necessitated by the excessive length of the word. And Sree Bhagavathy was worshipped as the harbinger of everything that is good and prosperous - especially in the wake of the new year being round the corner – in Chingam, which also brings the wonderful egalitarian festival of Onam. The entire month of Karkadakam sees the worshipping of Sree Bhagavthy, the Goddess of Prosperity. Lamps are lit in the morning and evening in the Machu (household shrine).
Then gradually rains became scant. This year of course has been an exception. Paddy fields are all being filled in and converted into house plots. We have sold our paddy field too as it has become very difficult to manage – with practically no labour available to do farming chores. And today as I sit here in the date-palm fringed land, I cannot but long for these renewing practices we had in the past, in my home town which is fringed with palms of a different kind – the Borassus flabellifer, the Asian Palmyra palm.
Today, things are very different. I really don’t know if all homes in Palakkad engage in removing Chetta and inviting Shibothi. My mom meticulously does it. I am so grateful she does it – at least our children are familiar with all the traditions we have had and she has never let it slide into a mere ritual. And it is my resolve to continue to engage in them in years to come too so that these nurturing practices don’t die a gradual death.