We just celebrated Sivarathri, a religious occasion that is almost synonymous with Parippu Kanji for us. Parippu Kanji (where “parippu” is lentils and “kanji” is gruel or porridge) is a much lighter version of the more festive and richer lentil and jaggery pudding (or kheer) that we call Parippu Pradhaman/ Payasam.
Shivarathri (also Maha Shivarathri) or “the night of the Lord Shiva” as it literally translates as, is celebrated every year in reverence of Lord Shiva. It is always celebrated through the evening and night on a moonless night sometime in late Feb/ March. According to the traditional solar-lunar calendar, Shivarathri this year was on the 10th of March (the night of Chathurdasi during the new moon/ dark half phase in the month of Kumbham, and the day before “Amavasya” which is the day of the “new moon”).
The celebration of Sivarathri is connected to many legends and I’m not sure which one is more authentic than the other. One is the story in the Puranas when Lord Shiva saved the world. This was during the mythical churning of the ocean by the Gods and Demons to obtain Amrith (nectar of immortality). During the process of churning the ocean, what came out first was halahal, a pot of deadly poison.
The Gods and the Demons, terrified as the poison could destroy the entire world, ran to Lord Shiva for help. He drank the deadly poison and his wife, Parvathi, held it in his throat so he wouldn’t swallow it. It is said that the poison stayed in this throat turning it blue, and giving him the name Neelakanta (meaning “the one with the blue throat”) by which He is also known.
Another legend attributes Sivarathri to being the night when the Lord Shiva and Shakti got married. Another attributes it to a celebration of the Godess Parvathi”s prayers and penance to ward off any evil that might befall her husband, the Lord Shiva.
Yet another one attributes the celebrations, especially the observance of staying awake throughout the night of Sivarathri, to Lubdhaka who was a very devout followerof the Lord Shiva
The tradition of performing the “abhishekam (ritual washing of the Shivalingam)” on Sivarathri is connected to the legend of the Godess Ganga’s (personification of the river Ganges) descent from the heavens into the earth, and Lord Shiva’s locks of hair.
Many believe that Sivarathri is celebrated in keeping with the Lord Shiva’s wishes, when his wife the Godess Parvathi asked him how he would prefer to be worshipped by his devotees.
There is also another legend attributed to this celebration, that of Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma (the other two Gods in the trinity) searching for the origin of the Shivalinga (the symbol of worship of Lord Shiva). Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma got into an argument about which one of them was superior. Lord Shiva intervened saying whichever of the two could find out the origin or end of the Shivalinga would be declared superior. The Lord Shiva appeared before both of them as a huge pillar of fire. Lord Vishnu decided to go searching upwards while Lord Brahma went downwards but neither could find an origin nor an end! Both gave up their futile search and this appearance of the Lord Shiva is celebrated as Sivarathri.
Whichever is the story behind it, Sivarathri is traditionally celebrated all across by Hindus, by observing a day long fast during which only fruit and sometimes milk is partaken of. At dusk the fast is broken by eating light food, often with something sweet. Depending on which part of India is celebrating, the prescribed dishes will differ. The night of Sivarathri is usually spent by staying awake, with religious and cultural activities.
As I mentioned earlier, in my community, Sivarathri is synonymous with Parippu Kanji. Parippu Kanji is made of split moong lentils/ moong dal (a rich source of protein) and jaggery (unrefined sugar) and milk which make it light but nutritious enough to break a day long fast.
Traditonally, the Parippu Kanji is made with just 4 ingredients – lightly toasted lentils, water, jaggery and milk. It is essentially a light but energy giving drink that can be tolerated after a day-long fast. We don’t fast so I like to add a little cardamom to it, because I firmly believe that cardamom can make a lot of sweets and desserts better. I also like to toast the lentils in a little bit of ghee (clarified butter) because this lends more flavour to the nutty taste of roasted lentils.
The key is to let the nuttiness of the lentils come through without overpowering it with the flavour of the ghee. Adding a bit of powdered dried ginger (sonth) lends an interesting twist, to my mind, but not absolutely necessary.
The Kanji should be look creamy ans smooth but with very small soft bits of lentil, and a bit thinner than a regular porridge, and of a consistency that can be drunk out of a glass. Traditionally it is served warm, but try serving chilled on a warm summer day.