Celebration Pongal is the time for auspicious new beginnings, finds Maithri Srikant
Imagine Pongal without the delectable pongal. Perhaps Pongal is the only Indian festival that owes its name to a dish. As the concoction of rice, milk and jaggery bubbles out of decorated earthern pots called pongal paanai, the air reverberates with the joyous shouts of ‘pongalo pongal.' “It is symbolic of the abundance from agricultural harvest and thanksgiving to Mother Nature,” explains Mathangi Sreenivasan, a school teacher.
The festival is mostly a community affair extending to four days namely Bhogi, Soorya pongal, Mattu pongal and Kannum pongal. “After the houses are cleaned and white-washed, they are adorned with elaborate kolams,” says Nimmi R.
Prema Murugan, an engineer-turned-housewife, prefers adhering to the age-old tradition of decorating the entrance of the house with sugarcane sticks and large kolams.
After a ceremonial bath, the pongal is prepared (in the open courtyard facing the east) in earthen pots that are decorated with leaves of the turmeric plant, rice flour, kumkum and sandalwood. A tiny idol of Ganesha made of turmeric paste is also placed near the pot. However, the winds of change have hit Pongal too. Today, instead of pots, rice and pressure cookers are decorated with turmeric and kitchens have replaced courtyards.
Revati Mahesh, a housewife, recalls her childhood memories of bhogi pongal when old household articles were thrown into a bonfire around which children would sing and dance.
“For children, it's also the time to relish varieties of pongal such as the chakkara pongal, pal pongal (with milk), venpongal and puli pongal.There is also a sumptuous pongal feast with treats like vada and payasam,” she recalls.
According to the Hindu calender, pongal marks the beginning of ‘uttarayana'– the sun's movement northward for a six-month period, which is considered to be auspicious.
For the same reason, the second day is the Surya pongal. In agrarian communities, especially in the olden days, landlords would gift workers with new clothes, utensils, rice, vegetables and other essential commodities.
Mattu pongal, meanwhile, is dedicated to cattle. “The cattle are decked up in garlands and bells; turmeric and kumkum are smeared on them. They are then honoured and worshipped as Kamadhenu,” says Kalyani S., a 65-year-old grandmother,recalling memories of her childhood in Kumbakonam.
On this day, the turmeric from the pots is applied on the foreheads of family members by the elders and after offering different types of rice balls to the birds, special prayers are offered by women for the well-being of their brothers, praying for unity and wellness of their families. This is called kanu.
Like harvest festivals across India, Pongal is also a time for traditional games and festivities. This coincides with the last day, the kannum pongal.
It is believed that ‘Thai pirandhal vazhi pirakkum,' meaning ‘the birth of the month of Thai will pave the way for new opportunities and fortunes.'
Chief Secretary Neela Gangadharan has fond memories of Pongal festivities: “Pongal is a time for togetherness, worshipping of the sun God in the open courtyard and praying for the well-being of our brothers. Of course, eating the shakkara pongal and sugar cane eating is the best part. It is also a nice way of expressing our gratitude to everything responsible for food production and food security,” she says.