January 2017

Celebration of the Harvest Feast: Thai Pongal
January 2017

Thai Pongal, a celebration of bountiful harvests and prosperity

It's the burst of spring. The celebration of the Hindu solstice. That time of the year when the sun enters the constellation of Capricorn and begins its northern journey. The time of season when farmers have reaped their fields and gathered their crops. It's the time of thanksgiving for them to bring with them to the temples of their Gods, the first bags of harvested rice and offer it as tokens of their gratitude to the guardian deities, for blessing them with the bounty of the land.

Words: Manu Gunasena | Photography: Varnan Sivanesan

It's the time of day when kovil bells ring, conches' boom and the joyous cry ‘Pongal, Pongal', resounds in every household. It's the time of Thai Pongal. The harvest feast celebrated by millions of Hindu Tamils all over the world on January 14, each year. A time to thank, a time to pray, a time to rejoice; and a time to reflect.

In Sri Lanka the festival is celebrated on Perum Pongal, the main day of Thai Pongal. For it is the season of the Sun. Thai Pongal is the tenth month in the Hindu calendar. Pongal simply means to boil over, to spill prosperity. And the sun is at the epicentre of the feast. It has been so for centuries, ever since the time of the Cholas who, introduced this ancient festival and made the propitiation of the Sun God a national thanksgiving celebration.

The day before, is called the Bhogi and it is the time for spring cleaning. A time to throw away the old and herald the new. The home is spruced up; the floor is washed with turmeric mixed in water. Mango and plantain leaves are hung at the entrance. And within the house, preparations are made to welcome the Perum Pongal.

On the day, even before the break of dawn, the whole household's astir. All attend to their assigned tasks. The women, having given the home a thorough spring cleaning in the run up to the feast, are now agog painting murals on the floor - the distinctive decorative art called kolam.

Within this colourful motif, the pride of place will be reserved for the firewood hearth that will soon be lit for the family pot of milk to brim and spill. The farmers, having filled their bags of thanksgiving with rice offerings to the Gods, gather the firewood for the pot of prosperity and give a helping hand in other household chores. Children, smelling the waft of Pongal in the air, impatiently wait to get their hands on the jaggery enriched milk rice, which they know will be theirs to savour soon after the rituals are done.

Then with the rising sun the auspicious hour arrives and all gather around the makeshift hearth to witness the matriarch of the household light the family fire. The fire is lit, the fire is kindled, and as the flames rise to bring the milk to a boil, silent prayers from anxious hearts issue forthwith. The family relief is visible and audible when the fire crackles cheerily; the pot stays steady, and the milk, in its rise to a crescendo, dances, bubbles and finally leaps to spill prosperity on the family fortunes. With hearts brimming with joy, all rejoice ‘Pongal, Pongal' and raise their hands in worship to the Sun God in the sky.

The family relief is visible and audible when the fire crackles cheerily; the pot stays steady, and the milk, in its rise to a crescendo, dances, bubbles and finally leaps to spill prosperity on the family fortunes. With hearts brimming with joy, all rejoice ‘Pongal, Pongal’...

Moments after the milk spills over and joyous cries of 'Pongal, Pongal' rend the air, the household lamp is lit and a tray containing choice offerings of the family feast is made to the Sun God. Thereafter the celebrations start. And the family share the traditional Pongal meal. Presents are exchanged and religious songs of praise to the Gods, are sung, after which they proceed to the kovil. The rest of the day is spent visiting friends and relations and receiving visits from them. This scene will be enacted in thousands of Hindu homes throughout the land, though it will differ in degrees in certain areas.

The day following Perum Pongal, is called Mattu Pongal, the third day of the feast. It's the day of the cattle. In Sri Lanka, this is celebrated mainly in the villagers where there are cattle. The animals are bathed and groomed, their horns brightly painted, their necks garlanded and their stomachs sated with a rich offering of the Pongal feast. It is a day for revelry and races as men race their cattle. Jallikattu, as the sport is called, hails from the ancient courts of Tamil kings.

The fourth and final day is Kannum Pongal. The women of the household collect the leftover of the sweetmeats, the red and yellow rice, the betel leaves and nuts, the plantains and sugar cane and place it on a large banana leaf and gather around it to invoke the blessings of the Gods upon their families and their brothers. It is also the day of reunion; and visits are made to relatives' homes and gifts are exchanged.

The Thai Pongal festival is a time when the entire family rejoices in unison and jointly wish the new season of the sun would dawn prosperity on their lives.

The Pongal Kolam

Coloured rice mixed with clay is used to draw the designer Pongal motif of the household. A square on the floor at the main entrance to the home is first chosen. A theme relevant to the festival is chosen and expert artistic hands draw the rice design. Within this artwork, all the offerings the family makes to the Sun God will be kept. Careful note is made to draw the Kolam and keep the offerings so that the rays of the early morning sun fall directly on it.

The Pongal Legend

Once the pot of milk has boiled and spilled over, it is time to feast. The traditional Pongal breakfast is white, yellow, or red coloured rice and it is accompanied with a sambal. This spicy curry consists of dhal, brinjals, drumsticks and pumpkin cooked with herbs and condiments. It is served with savouries which are vadais and murrukku. And for dessert, milk rice cooked with jaggery, raisins and cashew nuts.

The Pongal Feast

A popular Pongal legend runs as follows. Lord Shiva sent his bull Nandi to earth with a message to mankind. Have a gingerly oil massage and bathe daily and eat once a month. Nandi, however, got his horns in a twist and told the people to eat every day and bathe once a month. Shiva fumed when he discovered Nandi's mistake and Nandi and his ilk were made to live on earth and work on the fields and help the people to grow the extra food necessary to eat every day.