Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Big Thambe and Little Thambe (Perya Thambe and Chinna Thambe)

These two farmers seem like they should be in a Grimm fairy tale; they do, after all, live around the hill, past the little church, and over the river that runs through the forest, and they farm small terraced plots that zigzag up and down the wooded hills. However, I’m pretty sure the farmers in those stories only had ogres coming out of the forest, not elephants, and none of them owned a beautiful John Deere tractor like Chinna Thambe’s. (I asked him why he chose a John Deere, and he said “Good mileage.” Paused. Looked at the hills. “Good brakes.”)

In a less poetic sense, these brothers embody a very Indian approach to agriculture: a willingness to experiment with new technologies, but a respect and thorough knowledge of some very old traditions. Farmers grow hybrid vegetable crops, but save their own finger millet seed to plant next year; use tractors to till the soil, but once the crops are up, weed their small plots by hand; buy insecticides from city shops, but border their fields with hedgerows and living fences where beneficial predator insects find refuge. This year, the Thambes want to try out drip irrigation: they’re going to be using our drip tape in one section of their tomato field. If we’re half as successful as cell phones or tractors have been in this rural community, we’ll have done well.

The Thambes’ future tomato field, Nellukunde village

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Cow Parade

I wasn’t sure I was understanding correctly when one of our participant-farmers, Mani, told me about the cow parade. From the bits and pieces of what he and Anand said, we knew that come Pongal, in the field below his house, there would be cows, potentially a lot of cows, and they would be beautiful. All other details (Fire? Beauty salon? 4 AM? No, 4 PM) were a lot fuzzier. With some luck and a lot of persistence (we kept showing up at Mani’s house throughout the three-day celebration, just in case), my friend Kim and I were in the right place at the right time for the cow parade.

A little bit of background: Pongal celebrates the rice and finger millet harvest, and the turning of the agricultural calendar (it marks the beginning of the traditional new year). A large part of the thanksgiving for the successful crop goes to the animals who helped produce it. For thousands of years, farmers have tilled their fields with ox power; the few shiny Massey Ferguson or Sonalika tractors in these hills are still greatly outnumbered by bullock teams. After the grain has been harvested and threshed, again with the help of the oxen, on Pongal, each family takes the first of their harvest and cooks it into a sweet porridge, called pongal. Each human and each cow gets a portion, a sweet taste of the year to come. Before the pongal is shared, though, everyone has to get ready, washing up and putting on their holiday finery. For an entire dairy herd like Ravi’s, this can take a while. The littlest calves got away with a quick scrub and a few dabs of colored paint.

The older dairy cows got more elaborate decorations (it took some supervision to keep them from eating each others’ flower garlands):

And the heroes of the day, the oxen, wore the most finery of them all:

Returning to the cow parade: Kim and I spent the morning with Ravi’s cows, so we suspected we’d missed the festivities in Namaleri. Still, we decided to take a walk through the villages to admire all the cows, and stop by Mani’s field just in case. In some households, the cows were already doing their best to eat each other’s garlands and rub their paint off by wallowing in the mud; however, when we got to Namaleri, we saw some families still putting the finishing touches on their cows’ decorations. We headed down to Mani’s house and admired his cows, sat and visited for a while, and as the sun started slipping behind the hills, we finally decided it was time to head home.

Just as we were planning our farewells, however, we heard bells jingling on the road… followed by the clatter of eight hooves, as a team of bullocks trotted down the hill and into the clearing. The cow parade had finally begun! Each family brought their cows down the road, some placidly bobbing their heads as the balloons on their heads waved in the wind, some bouncing along so that their giant tassels swung to and fro. As each family’s cows arrived, they took their place around the perimeter of the field, and Kim and I made the rounds, saying hello to everyone and admiring all the different styles of decoration.

Once everyone had arrived, (and the cows had settled down) the women brought the offerings to the center of the clearing and performed the puja to give thanks for this year’s harvest. Next, all the cows were blessed and all curses removed, as three young men ran around the perimeter of the crowd, encircling all the cows with fragrant incense from the huge burning bundles they carried. The most exciting part of the evening (according to the little boys) came next, as people set off firecrackers to try to get the cows running—each family led their amazingly placid cows out of the circle and back down the road home.

Mani’s mother and niece leading the family ox team back home after the festivities.

Happy Pongal!