Memories of a Pongal past

CHENNAI: TAMIL NADU: 11/01/2017: Pots in different color for Sankranthi is on for sales at Kodambakkam High Road in Chennai on Wednesday. Photo: V. Ganesan.

CHENNAI: TAMIL NADU: 11/01/2017: Pots in different color for Sankranthi is on for sales at Kodambakkam High Road in Chennai on Wednesday. Photo: V. Ganesan.   | Photo Credit: V. Ganesan

Can you imagine kilns off Kodambakkam High Road? The author speaks to erstwhile potters in the area ahead of the harvest festival

An entire colony of potters. Men at the wheel, shaping pots out of gleaming, brown clay. Women seated at a distance, applying a layer of red ochre (kaavi) on the still-moist pots. Behind them, kilns that emit glorious puffs of white smoke. This was Udayar Veedhi, off Kodambakkam High Road, some 30 years ago. Today, the kilns have been swallowed up by buildings, and the only remnants from the past are the senior inhabitants of the colony and shops that sell pots and terracotta ware.

Now that Pongal is around the corner, this stretch of road has come alive with pots painted white with squiggly red lines, and deep-brown ones of various sizes. “There are around 15 shops in the area, including the small ones on the pavement,” says A. Vadivel, who runs K. Janaki Terracotta with his wife Usha. There’s hardly enough place to stand inside the shop — it bursts with terracotta ware and dolls. Outside, Pongal pots are stacked high, a hillock of white and brown.

People throng the shop and Vadivel spares a few minutes to chat with us. “We see a good turnover this month,” he says. “Everyone wants a pot for Pongal.” He is talking about families that set up mud stoves at home, and corporates, hotels, and colleges that buy the pots to decorate their premises on Pongal day.

Even as he speaks, a couple of women from an IT firm negotiate prices for a bulk order. “We stopped making our own pots some 25 years ago,” he says. “The kilns were closed down, citing pollution. My ancestors had 20 families camping in thatch-roofed houses to make pots for them, which were sold in the area,” he recalls. “These days, our pots are made by the same families. Only, they’ve relocated to villages in Kanchipuram, Cheyyar and Vellore. The clay is sourced locally.”

V. Ramamoorthy, Vadivel’s son who’s pursuing his Bachelor’s in architecture, helps out at the shop during the festive season. “I don’t want him to lose touch with our family’s craft,” he explains. Which is perhaps why K. Janaki, who started the business, refuses to remain indoors despite her age. She sits in the shade on a plastic chair all wrapped up, watching her grandson at work. “She’s unwell today. There was a time when she would paint a hundred pots herself. Her hands would speak,” says Vadivel.

He adds that there exists a Pongal tradition in which customers offer turmeric, kumkum, fruits and money in a bamboo basket in return for pots purchased. “This is usually handed over to the woman of the household.” On the other side of the road, A. Ranganatha Udayar is seated amidst a stack of pots on the pavement. “You’re standing right on it,” says the 67-year-old, when asked of the kilns of his time. “Now, there are only roads and buildings in their place,” he says.

Ranganathan has made thousands of pots on the potter’s wheel, but today, he’s merely a trader who purchases them in bulk from Mambakkam, Periyalayam and Mamallapuram. “The last pot I made was in 1965,” he says. Most of the erstwhile potters of Kodambakkam run terracotta shops in the area, like Ranganathan. “There’s nothing else I’d rather do,” says 65-year-old K. Valliamma, who has spread her ware on the pavement. “I’ve grown up doing pottery and cannot imagine doing anything else for a living.”

Valliamma’s father and father-in-law were potters. “Our kiln was just beyond the row of buildings,” she points out. Their family owned 10 cows, and during Pongal, it was the cows that were given the best of treats. They would celebrate maattu Pongal with pomp. Which is why even today, Valliamma makes Pongal on maattu Pongal day. “I’m used to that,” she smiles. “Back then, we would bathe the cows in the morning, make them line up, and offer them the dish.”

Even this year, Valliamma plans to celebrate maattu Pongal. She adds, “Never mind that we don’t have the cows.”

Valliamma’s Pongal recipe

(Made in a pot)


Raw rice: 1 kg

Jaggery: 1 kg (break into small portions)

Cashew nuts and raisins: a handful


Boil water (double the quantity of rice used) in a pot. Add the rice and keep stirring till it is cooked. Then, stir in the jaggery. Add more water if needed and cook till the jaggery and rice become a gooey mixture. In a separate pan, roast the cashews and raisins in ghee and tip the lot into the pot. Serve hot with a side of coconut slivers.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 3:42:50 PM |

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