at Heart: My Roots
BY SHABNAM LILLY D’SOUZA
When I was a child, I was introduced to my mother tongue, Konkani. This charming language is spoken mainly by the people living on India’s central and southwestern coasts. It has secured its place as the official language of the Indian state of Goa. Konkani is also widely spoken in Mangalore (Mangaluru), a city on the southwestern coast of the state of Karnataka, along with people from the west coast of the state of Maharashtra and parts of the state of Kerala. Konkani is an Indo-Aryan language derived from the Indo-European language family. About 2.5 million people speak this language in India and around 7.4 million worldwide. As per the 8th schedule of the Indian Constitution, it is included as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India.
Konkani is a language dating back to 1187 CE when it was first inscribed. Since you have the language spoken in different parts of the country, I would be discussing the usage in my home state, Karnataka. The script used by Konkani speakers to read and write in the state of Karnataka is called Kannada Lipi. To create awareness amongst students of their mother tongue, the government of Karnataka approved Konkani for study by 6th-10th standard students as an optional third language. This could be taught in either Kannada or Devanagari scripts. Since a minority section of the people in India speaks Konkani, awareness programs and grants have been requested from the government to encourage the usage of our mother tongue for various educational as well as recreational activities and events.
We do have literary, musical, and theatrical associations in Karnataka that uplift the language, Konkani, and help sustain its existence. Due to a majority of Konkans migrating to other countries as immigrants, naturalized citizens, and permanent residents, there is a decline in native-language speakers. The central Konkani-speaking communities in Goa and northern Karnataka have been heavily influenced by the Portuguese language and culture during the Pre-Partition British rule. Whereas the southern Konkani-speaking community in Mangalore and Udupi have been known to be similar to Marathi, with a few loanwords from Tulu and Kannada and variations in pronunciation. Hence, the dialects followed by the respective communities are due to the ancestral conveyance of traditions and customs across generations.
Organizations such as the All India Konkani Parishad, Vishwa Konkani Parishad, and Mandd Sobhann all aim to boost, safeguard, and propagate Konkani as a language. When you belong to a certain culture, you experience a sense of belonging. It feels good to be a part of an ethnicity that celebrates and transmits traditions and customs to future generations. You witness your culture flourishing and thriving when practiced and upheld. My childhood was a mixture of growing up in different countries. The times when I was exposed to my culture was when we would attend festivals and functions. Since I belong to the Christian community that speaks Konkani, we follow festivals such as Easter and Christmas influenced by the western culture entwined with our Mangalorean culture.
Marriage is celebrated distinctly by various cultures. Usually, after a period of six months of engagement, a Mangalorean Catholic wedding takes place. Many people, especially in the villages, follow the “Vojem” ceremony. During this ceremony, as part of the tradition, relatives and neighbors bring items to the bride and groom’s houses that are needed to prepare the wedding meal. A music band accompanies the people as part of the celebration. Normally, a day or two before the wedding, “Roce” is conducted at the bride and groom’s houses, respectively. This is a purification ritual conducted to mark a beginning of a new chapter in their lives. The traditional meaning of “Roce” is coconut juice, and hence, the ritual derives its name from it. The liquid is poured onto the bride and groom’s heads as part of the purification process and to mark the end of their spinsterhood and bachelorhood. “Vovios,” a traditional folk song, is chanted during the function. A ceremonial bath takes place after the rituals, followed by food for the guests and family. Music and dance enrich the celebrations. In Hindu traditions, this is the equivalent of the “Haldi” ceremony. Mangaloreans and Goans use coconuts as part of the tradition to signify “abundance.” Coconuts are majorly utilized in cuisines and serve as a mark of our tradition. During holy offerings, coconuts are also presented at the altar.
On the wedding day, blessings from the elders are given to the bride and groom in their respective homes before the exchange of vows at the church. This is an intimate moment for the family and bride/groom before they become man and woman before God. At the church, nuptials are conducted in the form of a special mass, followed by a celebration with family and friends. You have a traditional cake cutting, a wedding march, and a live band as part of the festivities. After the first dance, the bride is whisked away by the women in the family for a change from the wedding gown into the “Sado,” which is a traditional wedding saree. It is worn mostly in shades of red and maroon. She adorns her hair in white jasmine and orange marigold flowers as part of the tradition. Her husband then ties the “Karyamani” around the bride’s neck, which symbolizes a married woman in the Indian and Mangalorean traditions. The necklace is made of gold and black beads with a pendant in between that can vary as per the bride’s choice.
As part of the ritual of giving the bride away to the groom’s family, we sing a hymn in Latin called “Laudate Dominu.” Lunch or dinner is then served to the guests. After this, a group dance called “Baila” is performed by family and friends as a way of merriment. On the day following the wedding, lunch is prepared at the bride’s place, which is termed “Porthapon” to welcome the groom into the family. The next day, the same is replicated on the groom’s side. This is a way of getting familiar with the families and strengthening the bond. Weddings are considered a time of family, laughter, food, and music. A lot of Konkani, Bollywood, and western songs are played to mark this joyous celebration. It is a time for all family members to get together and create beautiful, cherished memories.
Festivals celebrated by the Konkani-speaking community of Mangalore are just as dynamic and memorable. During Easter, we tend to observe fasting for 40 days before celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. In the course of this time, we abstain from activities and food that we are fond of as a sign of devotion and sacrifice to God. We attend the Way of the Cross gatherings and masses to commemorate the sacrifice of Jesus and to cleanse us of our sins and wrongdoings. On Maundy Thursday, we celebrate the last supper of Jesus, during which the priest washes the feet of 12 people resembling the washing of the feet of the 12 disciples. Many people fast from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Good Friday, and we have a mass in honor of the death of Jesus on the cross. The eve of Easter Sunday finds us celebrating the Easter mass in the evening to welcome the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, during which we light candles throughout the service and take a solemn march around the church.
We also have a harvest festival that is celebrated on Mother Mary’s birthday, which is on Sept. 8. The festival is known as Nativity Feast (Monti Fest). We felicitate her birth with great pomp and adoration. Grains of rice and sugarcane are blessed as part of the harvest of Novem (new crops). We have a procession of the statue of Mother Mary on a chariot into the church as part of the celebration. Children commemorate the birth of Mother Mary by throwing flowers at her statue nine days before the feast. In our homes, we prepare a drink of coconut milk with the exact number of rice grains representing the number of family members. We generally observe vegetarian food on this auspicious day and cook seven different dishes made out of vegetables.
Christmas is joyfully celebrated by the Mangalorean community with much gaiety and frolic. About a month before Christmas, every Christian decorates her or his house with Christmas decorations and prepares homemade sweets and snacks known as “Kuswar.” This is practiced as part of the tradition handed down from generation to generation. We indulge in Christmas carols and participate in carol singing by visiting houses in our community. In my home, especially, we play Christmas carols as part of our family tradition from Dec. 1 until the end of the season. We also prepare a crib in our homes depicting the birth of Jesus in a manger. Some do it elaborately, others in a simpler way. The churches also participate in creating cribs for the congregation at large. A decorated Christmas tree is placed in homes, under which gifts are neatly wrapped as surprises for the family. Christmas is my favorite festival of the year and I always look forward to it each year.
These are the major festivals and feasts celebrated by Mangalorean Christians. Being part of a coastal set-up, we love visiting beaches, and fish and boiled rice are considered staple food by the locals. Sanna-Dukra Maas (Idli fluffed with toddy or yeast with pork) is a popular dish prepared during functions and feasts. One cannot celebrate without this mouth-watering dish to commemorate a special occasion. It enhances the atmosphere with satisfied taste buds. It is during these times families try to catch up on life and vitalize ties between them. A celebration without family members is considered an incomplete affair. The beauty of traditions and customs is you get the full experience of living and loving them. The more you learn about your culture, the better you stand at preserving it.
I feel one is lost without understanding their roots and where one comes from. You get to learn so much about your culture and heritage, and it serves as a foundation for forthcoming generations. Culture and language bind people together and give a lot more meaning to one’s existence. We live with the purpose of carrying out traditions and customs that have been part of an immortal lineage. Living is amplified when we follow and sustain heritage that is precious and worth sharing and exploring. Culture and language are the biggest indicators of diverse people living in distinct communities. It is what makes people unique from each other and instills a sense of unity in diversity. Accepting each other’s culture and language is a sign of a healthy and thriving community. No matter where I travel in the world, I realize I will always be a part of a community that is rich in its traditions and customs. This is my identity and the origin of my roots.
Creating awareness about your culture and language keeps it alive and thriving. It is only when we uphold our heritage is when it gets to live on in the hearts of people. Everyone is introduced to a way of life different from theirs, yet significant and wholesome. I feel immense joy in reliving cultural traditions and customs that have been part of centuries together. It is like your ancestors live through you when you celebrate and conduct rituals pertinent to your culture. One must take out the time and research their origins. You get to delve into intricate details about your culture that many people might be unware of. This stands a chance at unearthing priceless traditions and customs that are beneficial to one’s way of life. Let us embrace the culture and language we are brought up in. Belonging to a different heritage is what makes us interesting humans to interact with. As we unveil our way of living to the world, we are putting up a piece of lineage on the map for people to remember. Making one’s culture and language known to the world enables an exchange of practices. We are living amongst a plethora of cultures and languages. Include people in your celebrations and spread awareness about the importance of your culture and its contribution to progress.
Shabnam Lilly D’Souza is a business management graduate, having worked in the banking industry for nine years. She works as a freelance content writer and has published two books in the fiction genre available exclusively on Amazon.