Of Pongul, as he spelled it, Abbe J.A. Dubois said it was an occasion of great rejoicing

The city and its environs are now in the thick of Pongal celebrations. How was this Tamil festival celebrated 200 years ago?

Not very differently, if we are to go by Abbe J.A. Dubois’ Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. A French missionary ordained in 1792 when 27, he left home immediately for Pondicherry. He later kept moving between Madras and Mysore. The Abbe returned to France in 1823, where he translated Indian classics such as the Panchatantra into French. He died in 1848.

During much of his time in southern India, Dubois kept recording the local customs and practices, chiefly with a view to strengthen his efforts at evangelisation. In 1806, Major Mark Wilks, the Mysore historian, persuaded the East India Company to acquire the work. Lord William Bentinck, then Governor of Madras, purchased it on behalf of the Company for 2000 star pagodas. This, at the Abbe’s request, was invested in government bonds with the interest being remitted to him annually. In the words of the Abbe it was “a recompense sufficient to shield his future life from those miseries of extreme want which he had once already encountered.”

The work, considered by the Company to be of great public importance, was translated and printed in 1815. As long as he was in India, the Abbe kept adding to it, thereby ensuring repeated editions. In 1897, the final version of the book was printed, annotated and edited by HK Beauchamp, Fellow of the University of Madras, with a foreword by Max Mueller.

Though the Abbe viewed Indian festivals with a jaundiced eye, he faithfully noted down what he saw. Of Pongul, as he spells it, he states that it was the occasion of great rejoicing and lasted three days. Bhogi, he writes, was marked by visits and “diversions and amusements of all sorts”. The second day, he says, is Surya Pongul, the feast specially dedicated to the sun.

“The married women first of all bathe with their clothes on, and while still dripping wet put rice in milk on a fire in the open air. As soon as it begins to simmer they all cry out together ‘Pongul! Pongul!’ On meeting each other the first words they say are: ‘Has the rice boiled?’ to which the answer is ‘It has boiled.’ It is for this reason that the feast is called Pongul, the word being derived from pongedi in Telugu and pongaradu in Tamil, both signifying to boil.”

Dubois notes that the third day is called the Pongul of cows. He records the ritual washing and worship of cows and writes that on this day, cattle could graze anywhere they pleased. Towards the evening, temple idols were brought out in procession, complete with dancing girls who “delight the spectators with their lascivious dance and obscene songs.” Obviously, the practices of burning toxic wastes on Bhogi, the jallikattu on Mattupongal and thronging the beach on Kanum Pongal came later.

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