If traditional Pongal is a three or four day tribute to the Sun from a grateful farming community for a good harvest, there is another kind of Pongal observed by a tribal group seeking good rains. ‘Mazhaippongal’, which is observed in April or May, is an integral part of the lives of the Paliyan tribe in the hilly regions and rain forests of Tamil Nadu’s southern districts.
The Anthropological Survey of India says it is observed in Dindigul, Madurai, Theni, Tirunelveli and Virudhunagar districts in southwestern areas.
“This is a rain-invoking ritual beseeching the deity Palichiyamma to bestow showers. The members make pongal from grains and rice and pour it over the stone, which, they believe, is their chief deity. The deity then blesses them with rains,” Deputy Director of Anthropological Survey of India’s Southern Regional Office in Mysuru, C.R. Sathyanarayanan says.
Mazhaippongal is generally observed during the months that rains are sparse. “We collect millets and rice from our community and go into the forest to make Mazhaippongal. It is a long ceremony where all our members are present,” says Latha Rajan, a community member and resident of Paliyankudi.
An earthen pot is decorated and placed in front of the holy rock that symbolises Palichiyamma. Wild twigs are used to heat it and when the pongal boils over, the priest whips himself with marulikkai, a wild creeper, to appease the Gods. The boiling hot porridge is then poured on the holy stone to invoke rains.
Tribal rights activist S. Thanaraj contends that although Paliyans are among the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST), the community should be included in the list of Primitive Tribal Groups (PTG) given their long legacy.
Most members of the nomadic tribe, earlier associated with hunting and food-gathering, have been relocated from interior forest areas to foothills and now work as agricultural workers.