Gokulashtami or Janmashtami is such a favourite around the country because children identify with Krishna and his naughty escapades. Today’s story ‘The Spicy Vella Cheedai’ shows how the festival is celebrated in Tamil Nadu. Vella cheedai are small, hard, sweet balls made with jaggery. Uppu seedai is a smaller and salty version. You can buy these throughout the year from sweet shops now, but earlier, they were made at home only for Gokulashtami. Unlike other festivals, the puja for Gokulashtami is held at midnight to commemorate Krishna’s birth. But if the family has children, the puja is done around dusk, so kids can participate and eat the goodies. Uriyadi is the same as Dahi Handi. The pot usually has fruits, flowers, some change, and curd. The other significant aspect of Gokulashtami celebrations in Tamil Nadu is the drawing of baby feet from the entrance to the puja room, signifying that Krishna has arrived in the house. People grind rice to make a wet paste, dip a piece of cloth in it, and draw the feet. If there are babies in the house, they dip the baby’s foot in the rice paste and stamp the footprints.
The Spicy Vella Cheedai
“Dey! Time to come in and help roll the seedai!” Anand waved to the other kids playing cricket on the road. Bhuvana picked up her skirt and ran inside. “Hey, don’t go in yet!” Vijay whispered to Jyoti. “Listen, do you remember how Shekar and Meena tricked us last week? I have an idea to get even. Pretend you are helping me and slow down. I’ll tell you more after Anand goes in.” Jyoti’s eyes shone as she nodded. The two cousins stayed back, taking a long time to collect the wickets and the ball. “Okay, he’s gone.”
Vijay said, “So, this is what I think we should do! This is the best time for this gag…” The two kids stood outside the gate and talked for a while. Then, they made their way into the house.
The four of them sat around two trays of yummy dough, one sweet and the other salty. “I wish I could eat some dough. It smells so good!” Jyoti sighed. “Don’t you dare! We must wait until the puja this evening. You know that!” Bhuava patted her sister’s hand away. “I know, I know! Don’t get so excited. If only Krishna was born in the morning!!! Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long before eating the seedai. Or, why can’t we make seedai at other times? Why only on Janmashtami?” Jyoti complained. She loved seedai, but it was so difficult to wait until the evening. It wasn’t easy with the delicious smell of jaggery and cardamom making her stomach rumble.
“Ay, Jyoti, do you want to make vella cheedai with me?” Vijay asked his cousin. Jyoti jumped at the chance. “Oh, yes, we’ll do the vella cheedai. Akka, you and Anand make the uppu seedai.” There was much chatter and laughter for the next half hour as the kids rolled the dough balls. Before they knew it, the trays were full. Jyoti took their tray to the kitchen and set it on the counter. “Here you go, maami.” Then she pretended to look around and opened the masala dabba. “Maami, the jeera in the seedai smells so good that it makes me hungry. What is that?” She pointed to a container on the other side. “Oh, that…” maami turned to look at it and Jyoti quickly grabbed something from the masala dabba and hid it in the folds of her skirt. Then, she went to the other room and sat beside Vijay. He did not look at her when she slid something into his hand.
Jyoti made two more trips to the kitchen before Bhuavana looked at the clock. “Oh! I must draw the kolam at athai’s house. Can you finish the rest of it?” She stood up. “And I told my friends I’ll help prepare the uriyadi. I must go, too.” Anand cleaned his hands and joined her.
“Oh, don’t worry. We’ll finish your share,” Vijay waved them away.
“Uh? Should I be worried? He’s never been this helpful before!” Anand raised his eyebrows. Vijay rolled his eyes as Bhuvana laughed.
The accomplices eyed each other with glee, sitting alone with the dough. “I couldn’t have planned a better way to work on our plan peacefully,” said Vijay slapping Jyoti’s back.He pulled out the little containers he’d been sitting on. “Let’s put the black pepper and methi seeds in the vellacheedai. It turns red anyway, and no one will know what’s inside,” Jyoti muttered. “Take the special seedai to amma at the very end so it doesn’t get mixed up with the others,” Vijay added.
“Ummm. I can’t wait to see their faces when they bite into the Vellacheedai,” Jyoti giggled some more as she filled the dough balls with pepper seeds.
Vijay carried the tray with the spiced seedai to the kitchen when the entire dough had been rolled into balls. “Amma, we made the last set of seedais a little bigger. Can we keep these for my friends, please?
“Sure! I’ll put all these in….” Vijay’s amma looked around and grabbed a bowl. “I’ll put your seedais in this. Will that be helpful?” she asked. Vijay hugged her quickly, and she danced away from the stove. “Dey, dey, dey…there’s hot oil on the stove. Careful, daaa!”
When Vijay and Jyoti carried the dishes to the sink, Maami said, “Now, don’t you two go out to play. You can start decorating Krishna; the others will join you after they return.” Vijay opened his mouth to protest, but then his face brightened at the thought of decorating Krishna.
The two children tied the bright blue cloth around the Krishna idol. “Put the jasmine garland first. The tulsi can go over it.” Jyoti straightened the two garlands. She stood back, looked at the idol, and fixed the peacock feather at an angle. Vijay put the Kumkum right between the eyebrows. “Dey, you forgot the Chandan,” Jyoti drew a dot with the sandalwood paste and then put Kumkum over it. The girls had brought down their necklaces, too. Soon, Krishna smiled at them through all the jewellery, flowers, and pastes. The cradle, too, was ready with flowers strung all around and baby Krishna sitting up playfully.
So, when Bhuvana walked in, trays and trays of special offerings surrounded the Krishna idol. There were flowers, vella cheedai, uppu seedai, fruits, aval, jaggery, jamun fruits, thattai, murukku, milk, curd and more.
Amma came to check if everything was ready. As if she could read their minds, she warned the kids, “Hey, I know it is tempting, but wait until the puja is over. You can enjoy it even more if you are patient.” “I know,” Jyoti said, pressing her lips together. “How come Krishna gets all the things he likes on his birthday, and I get to pick only two things?” she looked at her mother from the corner of her eye. Her mother smiled but didn’t answer her.
“If you hang around here, you’ll keep thinking about the sweets. Go! Go help Bhuvana. She is drawing the Krishnarpaadam, Krishna’s feet. Keep yourself busy, and time will pass quickly,” Amma told Jyoti. Jyoti looked out. Bhuvana was bent over, drawing a baby foot with the kolamaavu. The younger girl grabbed a chalk and drew ‘X’s from the gate to the door. Then she took some wet paste and drew over those with tiny feet. Soon, the feet went all the way to the puja room, welcoming Krishna home.
The four kids stood on the street and looked at their house when all the work was complete. Appa had tied the mango leaf toran above the door, streamers of flowers hung from the sides, and Krishna’s feet entered the house. It was the same at every home on their street. Everyone was ready and waiting for Krishna.
“Some homes do the aarti at midnight. Thank goodness Amma and appa do the puja in the evening,” Jyoti exclaimed.
“Yes, Jyoti. We know you can’t wait for the seedai! You’ve told us only, what, about a thousand times since this morning!” Bhuvana snorted.
And then, it was time for the puja. The grownups started the prayers. The kids put butter on Krishna’s mouth and sang Bhajans. The aarti signalled the mad dash for the seedai. But even in all that commotion, Vijay dragged the bowl of spiced seedai out of the way.
Amma and maami made small batches of the goodies to share with their neighbours. The doorbell rang and Jyoti ran to open the door. It was Veena teacher, the kids’ Math teacher! She had come to the temple and wanted to wish them for Gokulashtami!
Amma invited her in. “Bhuvana, get some seedai for your teacher.”
Bhuvana brought out a plate with vella cheedai, uppu seedai, and jhangiri. Jyoti ran to get some water. That’s when she noticed Vijay signalling with his eyes. Their teacher picked up a vella cheedai and popped it into her mouth. Oh no! It was the big one! The two kids stared at the guest, hoping that they were wrong. Crack, they heard the seedai break. Veena’s teacher’s eyes widened in shock, then she coughed and sputtered. Her eyes filled up with tears, and she patted her head.
“Oooh! She’s choking. Pat her back,” someone yelled, and Anand stepped closer.
Veena teacher waved no and pointed to her mouth. Vijay showed her to the bathroom and waited outside. His face was white as a ghost. Jyoti looked down at her feet, not knowing what to say.
“Whatever happened? Did the seedai not come out right?” Amma picked one vellacheedai from the plate and took a bite. Then she burst out coughing. The black peppers looked like eyeballs in the broken half.
“Vijay! Jyoti!” Maami called the two plotters.
But before she could say anything, they heard a chuckle. Veena teacher stood there, her eyes red. But she was laughing!
“What did you two do?”
Vijay knew he had to come clean. “Amma, I think Bhuvana got the vella cheedai from the bowl you set aside.” Bhuvana nodded, “Yes, they looked so nice and big! I thought it was for our guests.” Vijay carried on. “That was for my friends, Meena and Shekar. They played a gag on us last week, and I was going to get even with them today. It wasn’t meant for anyone else.”
Veena teacher laughed some more. “Oh, please! I haven’t enjoyed myself this much in a long time. What is Gokulashtami if kids don’t get up to mischief?”
The grownups smiled in relief.
“Ummm, can we go see our friends now? I want to give their share of the vella cheedai,” Vijay smiled back at them. “Oh no! It’s too soon to ask them that question!” Jyoti thought.
Amma’s piercing stare pinned Vijay to the spot. Slowly, her lips curved up. “After the uriyadi!”
Jyoti felt her breath escape.
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