REAP the harvest

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar   | Photo Credit: sreejith r.kumar

The festival goes by many names, but the joy it brings is the same. Pongal is here and it’s time to enjoy the benefits of a good yield of crops.

A new year has dawned and the cold winter gives way to the warm embrace of the golden sun. The skies are blue and the chirping of birds becomes more pronounced, as if in celebration of new life — one that is welcomed with ploughs working the soil, eating sugarcane and rejoicing with nature.

As Pongal arrives, the country gears up for the harvest festival. Irrespective of the numerous names it has— pongal, makar sankaranti, lohri — everyone gets together to thank nature for its bountiful resources.

As the festivities approach, pause awhile to think of the legends that surround it.

Taming the bull

Lord Shiva asked his bull, Nandi, to go to the Earth and ask the mortals to have an oil massage and bath every day and to eat once a month. By a slip of the tongue, Nandi announced that everyone should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. This infuriated Shiva. He cursed Nandi and banished him from Mount Kailash, asking him to live on earth forever where he would have to plough the fields and help people produce food required by them to eat every day.

This is the association the festival has with cattle. On Mattu pongal, cows and bulls are adorned with bells and worshipped. They are bathed and their horns are painted and decorated with shining metal caps. Multi-coloured beads, tinkling bells and garlands are tied around their necks while their foreheads sport turmeric and kumkum.

Indra humbled

According to another legend, Indra, the lord of the devas had grown arrogant of his courage and decided to vent his anger on the residents of Vrindavan. This was because, on the advice of Lord Krishna, then a child, the people had decided to worship the forests, cattle and mountains as opposed to their annual worship of Indra. A furious Indra sent his thunderclouds and rain in an attempt to flood Vrindavan. Seeing that the people and cattle were on the verge of drowning, Krishna uprooted the Govardhan Mountain on his little finger and granted refuge for the village for three days. His arrogance quelled, a humbled Indra begged for forgiveness. Since then, Krishna allowed a day to be celebrated in honour of Indra. Legend has it that this day is Bhogi.

Did you know?

An important village sport, Jallikattu or Manji Virattu is an integral part of Mattu Pongal and is enthusiastically celebrated in the villages of Tamil Nadu. This sport generally takes place in the evening of Mattu Pongal. In the past, it was a day when fierce bulls were chased by young youths of the village to retrieve the money that was tied to the horns of the bulls.

Variants include vaṭi viraṭṭu where a bull that is released from an enclosure needs to be held on to for a specific distance or time to win the prize, vēli viraṭṭu where a bull is released in an open ground with participants trying to subdue it. Then there’s vaṭam manjuviraṭṭu where a bull is tied to a 50-foot-long rope and a team attempts to subdue the bull within a specific time.

In May 2014, the Supreme Court of India banned jallikattu, citing animal welfare issues. On January 8, 2016, the Government of India passed an order exempting Jallikattu from all performances where bulls cannot be used, effectively reversing the ban. However, on January 14, 2016, the Supreme Court of India upheld its ban on the event, leading to protests all over Tamil Nadu.

By different names

India’s harvest festival is celebrated in different ways in different states. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, cries of “pongalo pongal” rent the air as people stand around a pot of sweet pongal as it boils over. In Andhra and parts of Karnataka, people exchange trays of fried gram mixed with coconut pieces. What’s more, in Karnataka, Makar Sankaranti is a chance for people to make and devour delicious well-crafted dolls from sugar candy. In Andhra, just like Tamil Nadu, old things are burnt, gifts are exchanged and cows are worshipped on these days.

In parts of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, the harvest festival, Lohri, is celebrated in January to mark the end of the harvest of rabi crops. People light bonfires and dance around them while they throw sesame seeds, sweets and puffed rice into it as a prayer to the god of fire to bless the land with abundance. People also dance to beats of the Bhangra and sing folk songs.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 12:18:25 AM |

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