Pongal is the Dionysia of a Dravidian state

Though Chithirai festival is iconic of Madurai, it is Pongal, which draws the attention of the world to the Temple City. Can one find any other star-event which attracts the tourists as much as our ‘Jallikattu’ does?

Pongal is the Dionysia of a Dravidian state, and the Athens of the East is the most famous Dionysium of it. ‘Dinonysium’ is the name of the place, where ‘Dionysia’, the harvest festival was held to thank ‘Dionysius’ the Greek god of wine and fertility (his roman counterpart is Bacchus or Bacchee).

The pleasing oxymoron is that Madurai is still a city of villages. So, the sterling practices of a primitive civilization are still vibrantly alive. In this Alavoy Nagar (“The city marked by the snake” or “The city rescued from the snake venom”), Pongal is the only festival exempted from all forms of defiling events. Even in the event of demise, the moment the corpse is removed, the members of the family can mop the floor and celebrate Pongal.

On Pongal day, every house turns out to be a privileged one, with traditional musicians visiting every house, blessing our domestic space with celestial ragas played from nadaswaram and mridhangam. Can one otherwise even dream of having an exclusive ‘Kacheri’ at every door-step! You can, like a king in his royal court, ask the white – clad musicians to play the number, ‘Chinnanjiru Kiliye” or “Singaravelane Deva”! They would only be happy to oblige. You would not need a bag of gold coins to reward. An astoundingly small honorarium will be gratefully accepted.

Alanganallur and Palamedu are synonyms for Jallikattu. Unlike in the Spanish bull fight in which the bull is ultimately killed, in our jallikattu, it is the display of valour, of both man and bull.

S.S. Chellappa, in his Tamil short-fiction, ‘Vaadivaasal’, compares the entry of the bull to that of seasoned female-dancer. In Chellappa’s description, both (man and bull) make their entry with their attention completely focused on those who are staring at them. It is time for ultimate show-down between the two - the man himself an untamed bull (untamed by parental anxiety or even fear of death).

The one, who is married now, would have made promises to his bride that he would never participate in jallikattu. By now, he will be hatching secret-plans to give the slip to the watchful eyes of his beloved wife and in-laws. The secret plan may be as simple as the murmur, “How long I can just sit inside? Can’t a man even take a stroll and chat with his friends?” It always works out with the gullible wife. By now as she is planning and pre-visualising her grand ‘Kolam’, Alanganallur and Palamedu would have become a hub of activities. The police force, the district collector and the tourism department mustering themselves up for a long day; the small vendors and street-hawkers pooling in all their financial sources to open up as big as they can; the village is wearing the festival colours; and above all, the verbal as well as telepathic challenges such as “I’ll get you this time, buddy!” and “Catch me if you can!” are already in the air between the bulls and the men.

Other festivals may have changed their colours, over the years. For example, Deepavali, originally a Vaishnavite festival finds the rural folks today, serving meat as part of the feast. But it never happens in Pongal fest. The festival stands as a testimony for the Dravidian ‘faith of five gods’, the five elements.

Even today, the sweet rice is cooked in a pot with jaggery diluted in milk and water, on a clay-stove kept in open-space. As rice in full-boil brims, we, facing East, chant “Pongal-o-Pongal!” (“Brimming is our sweet-rice”).

We ask “Pongal vachaachaa?” (Is Pongal cooking over?”). Often, the family members share their joy with one another that Pongal came to full brim that year. It is symbolic of our joy over a good harvest and a prosperous Tamil new year.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of English, The American College, Madurai).