As we begin February 2016, I reflect on the significance of Pongal which is celebrated in the middle of January every year. What is Pongal? ‘Pongal' is the only Hindu festival that follows a solar calendar. All important events are scheduled during this period. Also known as Makara Sankranthi, a reference to the event of the Sun entering the zodiac sign of Makara or Capricorn.’
In India, the festival is celebrated for three days. On the first day, Bhogi, old clothes and materials are thrown away and burnt, marking the beginning of a new life. The second day, the Pongal day, is observed by boiling fresh milk early in the morning and allowing it to boil over the vessel - a tradition that is the literal translation for Pongal – ‘may your pot flow over with abundance!’ This is when the whole family comes together around to cheer, ‘Pongaley Pongal!’
In the North of India, it is known as Lohri. Pongal is feted especially wherever the Tamil population have settled, whether in the Far-East, or America, Australia, Britain and Mauritius or the Reunion Islands.
In Hindu temples bells, drums, clarinets and conch shells herald the joyous occasion of Pongal. Some of the rituals performed in the temple include the preparation of rice, the chanting of prayers and the offering of vegetables, sugar cane and spices.
To the child in me, the importance was somewhat lost as I was trying to integrate in a commercial society in Singapore with different people, where harvesting and astronomy was not relevant. When I was growing up, my Amma would have cleaned our home and drawn 'kolam' patterns at dawn. Appa used to inform us that Pongal has astronomical significance, which marks the beginning of Uttarayana, the Sun's movement northward for a six month period and that Uttarayana is considered auspicious. I confess, I could not relate and ‘it all went over my head!’
We live in Wales now, where the very first word I learnt was ‘bwrw glaw’ meaning rain! The Sun is rarely seen here especially in mid-January, which usually means a bleak misty winter morning. So it was on the fifteenth of January, except as if on cue, at the time when we were preparing the customary pot, the Sun came out from behind the clouds and shone in all its bright silvery-gold glory lighting-up silhouette branches of the trees outside, and beamed through the kitchen window directly at the milk boiling over on to my clean stove, as we cheered, ‘Pongaley-Pongal!’ The Adhitya Hridayam and salutations to Lord Surya-Narayana were playing in the background. I added some rice and jaggery-sugar and some aromatics to the rice-pudding, repeating the Gayatri mantra. Later in the afternoon an Irish-Catholic and an Italian-Welsh friend dropped-in to join in our chanting of the thousand-names of the Divine and we enjoyed the Pongal rice-pudding-prashad for dessert.
Now the circle has come a full round, where my grandchildren, especially the teenager looks askance, as to what it is all about. I find myself in my parents’ role informing them of the Sun’s journey northwards in Uttarayana, and recognise their non-comprehending glazed looks.
Having researched on Pongal for my novella, ‘The Neem Tree,’ which is now going through the second draft, I find myself relating about the festival called Jalli kattu held on the third day in Madurai, Tiruchirapalli and Tanjavur, all in Tamil Nadu. The children are fascinated to hear how bundles of money are customarily tied to the colourful-decorated horns of Pongal pet-bulls which the villagers try to retrieve. Sadly, I hear that this practise which has been unique for millennia in these parts is now being banned, which could well lead to the extinction of an age-old sport, if not to these special type of bulls themselves. However, I am pleased to hear that there is also a movement to educate and encourage Jalli kattu, as being a unique cultural part of Bull/Cow-Mattu Pongal festivities.
With the passing of the month of Margazhi/December, when it becomes cooler and heralds the rainy season, astrologers speak of this Indian solstice when the Sun enters the tenth house of the Indian zodiac as Makaram (Capricorn). Traditionally, not only is the festival an occasion for the whole of the community to come together, regardless of caste or class, landlord and peasant, rich and poor, old and young, but it is also an occasion when food is shared with animals and birds.
The harvest festival of Pongal symbolizes the veneration of the first fruit. The crop is harvested only after a certain time of the year, and cutting the crop before that time is strictly prohibited. Even though Pongal was originally a festival for the farming community, today it is celebrated by all.
In a time when there are huge discussions of ‘Climate Change’ and its impact on the world, I feel we could learn so much from the way people celebrated their harvest- Pongal in thanking , respecting the elements especially the Earth and the Sun, the plough and instruments they used, and the cows and bulls which all helped in their yield.