The ‘Pongal festival’ is just not about cooking the ‘pongal dish’. A number of rural rituals and beliefs are associated with the occasion. Starting with the day of Bhogi, the four-day festival is meant to discard all that is old and embrace the new. The proverb “Thai Piranthal Vazhi Pirakum” denotes the month of Thai as the harbinger of hope and fresh opportunities. It reiterates the existence and importance of nature worship.
Spot your pot
The most important element of Pongal festival is the pot called the ‘Pongapaanai’, which is a round-bottomed mud pot painted and decorated. The Arapalayam area is flooded with shops selling various sizes and designs of Pongal pots. Karthikeyan, a young potter, says, “It is believed that pot symbolises the mythical amrut surabhi told in Mahabharata. I paint the pots with motifs like betel leaves and mango fruits.” Earlier, the pots were painted by the women with rice flours and now oil paint and poster colours are used. “Once, there were around 300 families in Arapalayam who made Pongal pots. Now, there are hardly a dozen who still do the job. People’s sensibilities have changed and now they prefer urulis (brass and bronze pots),” says Karthikeyan. A mud pot of medium size costs Rs. 80 and a painted one comes for Rs. 120
As Pongal is closely related to agriculture, the farmer’s friend on the fields is revered during the occasion. Bulls and cows are bathed, decorated with sandal paste and vermillion and worshipped. “Every year, this is the time when we give cattle a field day. They are let out to roam free in the streets,” says T. Vasu who owns a 3-year-old bull. The horns of the cows and bulls are shaped, sharpened, cleaned and painted in bright colours. “It’s like a hair cut that we do – a matter of beautification,” says Vasu. Some also adorn their cows with anklets and bells. On the evening of Pongal, all the cattle in the village are coloured with rangoli colours and paraded through the streets.
Decorations for Pongal are never complete without the intricate kolams. During Pongal, the elaborate pretty drawings are drawn all over the house -- on the doorstep, in the living or pooja room. “Pongal Kolams are unique in motifs. Flowers, fruits and trees and foliage form the popular designs. This notifies the Thai month when the nature is bountiful,” says M. Chinthamani, a home-maker. Traditionally, red ochre and rice flour are used to paint and draw kolams. Contemporary Rangolis show an overflowing Pongal pot and sugarcanes.
In full bloom
Since the festival falls in mid-winter, native winter flowers are used for the purpose of decorations and worship. Flowers like Koorapoo (mountain grass) and avarampoo (Senna flower) are tied at the entrance of houses and strands of these flowers are tied to the neck of the Pongal pot. “All kinds of yellow flowers are used in Pongal, to denote auspiciousness. It’s believed that tying these at the door will prevent bad luck and will usher good omen,” says Vasanthi, a flower seller. Another yellow flower widely used during Pongal is the Poosani poo (pumpkin flower), is placed in the centre of the Kolams.