The Other Pondicherry: Exploring the Tamil Quarter to the Beat of Drums

Music, flowers, and piping-hot vadais at theMasi Magam festival. | By Abhinav Singh  
Masi Magam Pondicherry
An atmosphere of revelry prevails as the devout flock to see the procession of Lord Perumal during the annual celebration of Masi Magam. Photo: IP-Black/Indiapicture

Lost in Puducherry’s peaceful French Quarter, I was distracted by some commotion a few streets away. I followed the strains of religious music, coming from a fete-like atmosphere in a narrow lane. It was colourful mayhem, quite unlike the quiet charm of the pastel-coloured colonial homes and chic cafés and stores I had just left.

Until the hullabaloo drew me in, Puducherry’s Tamil Quarter was not on my sightseeing agenda. But once I found myself amidst crowds celebrating Masi Magam, an annual Tamil festival, I couldn’t tear myself away.

The festival, which falls on a full moon day in the Tamil month of Masi (usually in February-March) is seen as an opportunity for spiritual cleansing. At the centre of the celebration in the Tamil Quarter’s Vaithikuppam area was the Ranganatha Perumal Temple; the air around it filled with the fragrance of flowers and incense. Mingling with this was the smell of freshly-fried medu vada and aloo bonda, coming from makeshift food stalls with cauliflowers and chillies hanging from them. Enterprising local ladies with gajras in their hair set these up outside their homes. I learnt that processions carrying idols of Lord Perumal usually end at the sea, where the idols are bathed. The devotees too take a dip to cleanse their sins.

I watched middle-aged men enjoying rides with their kids on a kitschy, peeling carousel. TeenagThe Other Pondicherry: Exploring the City’s Tamil Quarter to the Beat of Drumsers lined up to buy posters of South Indian actors while older people bought posters of gods and stencils to make rangolis. Nearby, a sign painter wrote inflammatory political slogans in Tamil and English.

I bought a papier mâché mask, and ate my fill of vadas of all sorts. As the sound of religious music grew louder, I extracted myself from the stalls and made my way to a throng of devotees gathered around a chariot that carried the idol of Perumal. An unsmiling elderly priest stood atop the chariot, wearing a neatly tied lungi, a tilak on his forehead. He distributed boiled chickpeas as prasadam to those gathered around. Meanwhile, his assistants broke open coconuts offered by the crowd on the street, blessed them, and passed them back down.

The musicians accompanying the procession were dressed in white shirts and lungis. Some played thavil, drums that hung from their shoulders. Their fingers were covered with thimble-like caps made of flour. Others played the nadaswaram, a pipe which flares up at the bottom like a bell. Both instruments are commonly used to mark celebrations in temples or weddings.

I accompanied the procession through the streets. People emerged from their homes, joining in for a short while. Little girls wearing the traditional pattu pavadai peeped from their balconies. Later, making my way back to the French Quarter, I thought about how the two parts of Puducherry though so different, coexist and blend into each other effortlessly.

This year, Masi Magam falls on 10-11 March.

Appeared in the March 2017 issue as “Drum Roll”.