When the earth yields a bounty: Pongal 2020 was a sweet one for Tamil Nadu’s agrarian community


After three years of drought, Tamil Nadu has seen a good monsoon. This is a sweet Pongal for the agrarian community

The emerald paddy fields of Poolankulam village near Madurai have turned golden yellow, rice plants stand hunched due to the weight of grains dangling like strung beads from them, the scent of freshly-thrashed husk laces the air and the morning light is shrouded in mist. It is Thai, the harvest month in the Tamil agrarian calendar and there is much happiness all around.

Farm hand S Palaniyammal stands in a lone patch of shade, beneath a large neem tree, holding a metal basin. She is winnowing the day’s harvest. At her feet is a mound of treasure — pearly grains of new-born paddy — longish, with grooves on them, in the colour of the earth, bearing the scent of the countryside.


“Now, this will go into the ural (stone mortar) to be pounded with an ulakkai (wooden pestle) and the new rice will be boiled with milk, ghee and jaggery in a brass pot atop a firewood stove, to make chakkarai pongal — first for the sun god and then for us to feast on,” she flashes a toothless smile as sparrows take tiny pecks at the grains.

“The rains have been kind this year and so has been our muthalali (farm owner),” she says. “We were able to reap 40 sacks of paddy per acre. Water was released on time from the dam and we had prepared the earth well in advance.” The final quantum of purling waters, all the way from the Mullaperiyar and Vaigai dams, gush through a channel nearby, even as tractors criss-cross farms all around, harvesting the yield, leaving behind only stumps, remnant of a bumper crop.

“After three years of drought, it’s a relief to see our efforts bear fruit. Lack of rain and insufficient storage in the dams cost us dearly last time,” says farmer S Bhuvaneswari. She has been cultivating organic native paddy for the past six years. “This time around, the grains are fleshy and fat and the number of grains per plant is also more. Our fields were flush with water and we cannot be more thankful to the rains.”


Bhuvaneswari is from Thanjavur, the rice bowl of the State. She explains how Pongal is a grand celebration in the Cauvery delta. “Typically, pongal is cooked under the sky, on a platform built with mud and decorated with kolam. The dish is usually cooked in an uruli. In fact, I have fished out a round-bottomed bronze one from my grandmother’s time to make pongal this time,” she says.

Further away, the jingle of bells tied to the horns of bulls rent the idyllic village air and half-a-dozen young men are busy cleaning and painting the cattle shed. Standing an impressive five feet from the ground, with rippling muscles and an enviable sheen on his skin is 12-year-old Kaari. The colour of rain clouds, he is a star bull in the village, an ace player in jallikattu matches and occupies the centre of the shed, his massive form tethered by two ropes to stone pillars on either side.

“Last year, he won us a car, steel utensils, an iron cot and a bicycle,” says S Prabhu, the care-taker, applying a coat of turmeric and sandal paste on its horns. Every Pongal, a new collar is made for the bull; it consists of a thick leather strap onto which bells and colourful woollen balls are stitched. “Bells are also tied to his horns and hoofs to add to his looks,” he explains.

Elsewhere in another farm, a row of women with sickles in hand reap grassy shoots. They sing as they bend over and go about the harvest and their faint kulavai (ululation) wafts across. Palaniyammal sends a silent prayer under the neem tree, thanking the earth for a good year, hoping the year to come is even better.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 5:30:19 AM |

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