This year, we asked the pujari — the priest — to buy all the prayer articles. Each year for the last ten years he has put on a prima donna act, shouting for sari, for agarbathi, making a scene for the odd elusive flower in the heap hauled in for him, for banana, for milk, and sweet-lime and honey — the things that go into making a prasada. It took all these years for the simple idea to occur to us, and have him bring everything he needs for the Chowdy Pooja.
The stuff lay about the pooja area, under the shade trees in a clearing on a coffee patch. That’s where the shrine to Chowdy is. The priest was specially proud of the marigold, though it seemed to me like the heat had taken their mojo out of them: their yellow was no more bright, the orange had browned on the edges. Still, the marigolds were the loudest in the pile, waiting to serve as decoration for Chowdy, the goddess Chowdeshwari.
“See. Maari Gold,” the priest said in Kannada: “Too much price for them.”
Sujaya giggled, and once the priest left us to attend to other tasks on hand, she started to laugh. Watching her, I shed my always-on grouch and joined in, and we laughed together, taking care to not make a sound, glancing about to see if we were being watched.
Only the foolish laugh before Chowdy.
There’s Chowdy, the Shakti goddess, who is loved and feared very much, but there’s also Maari, the goddess who is worshipped in every village in large swathes of Karnataka. Folks pray with loving devotion to Maari, pleading for protection from all ills, taking care to not miss a single ritual to her — so terrified are they of her wrath, and of all it takes to placate her, once her anger is set off.
Had our priest imagined marigold was maari gold, named so for Maari?
After we were finished laughing, I felt the cold touch of fear in my heart and belly. I withered a wee bit, much like the marigold around us.
For decades they'd been killing a pure-black goat for Chowdy on the day of Chowdy Pooje. We’d been paying for the goat. The villagers from near our plantation had been bringing a chicken each for slaughter, wishing to wash off their misfortunes with the blood of fowl. They’d slit throats on a small block of granite some fifteen feet from Chowdy. A few years after we bought the plantation we said we’d do no more of this. “We’re vegetarian,” we said. (We’re vegan these days.)
“Don’t worry sir,” the plantation manager said, which the foreman echoed after him. Those words, used in these parts, aren’t as good as they sound. What they did was to keep the rituals vegetarian in the morning, and do the killing after we’d gone. The bill for the goat came afterward. Our bungalow is a good distance from the Chowdy shrine, but in the afternoon the smells of meat cooking in pepper and Malnad-masala came wafting, thick and strong.
Three years ago, the government banned animal sacrifice, which we enforced with gusto. Everything turned vegetarian.
But I’m writing to tell you about a change within this change. Until last year, the poojari used to keep an egg on top of a hollowed block of vibhuti, the vibhuti on top of a coconut, at the base of the coconut a copper foil, beneath the copper powders of turmeric and red bhindi. Once he had his little minar ready, the poojari raised a foot-long machete, meditated a few seconds, sending the crowd round him into awe and silence, and then he brought down the sharp tool, slicing and chopping the entire arrangement down the middle. A mistake in that process was unthinkable — it would send home every single soul terrified of the travails to come through the rest of the year. But that machete has always been in safe hands. The poojari — dark and big-bellied and choleric — has always made sure no trouble visits anyone on his account.
Today, the poojari introduced a small, welcome innovation. In place of the egg he planted a four-inch-long peeled banana. When he brought his machete smashing down, slicing the banana and the vibhuti, and cracking the coconut, there wasn't in this year’s pooja the yellow of the yolk or the runny gooey white. In a moment the debris was swept up and there was only Chowdy, resplendent in bright sari and colorful flowers, the foreground clean and dry before her.
If you count out the honey, and the silk in Chowdy’d sari, we had a vegan pooja this year. We’d not even asked for it. But the thing is, was it to Chowdy’s liking?