What vignettes come to your mind at the mention of the ‘Pongal festival’? A string of holidays? Sugarcane? Jostling crowds thronging public places and entertainment spots? And endless television shows on the Tamil channels through the day? If that is all, well, you need to brush up your knowledge of Pongal.
The long break from school for the Pongal season is because it is perhaps the only festival celebrated over four consecutive days. But what you need to know is that each day is marked with distinct rituals.
You should also know that the quintessentially Tamil festival evokes more jubilation in the pastoral hinterlands than in the metropolis, since people living in the cities rarely get a real taste of the festivities or even know their significance. Every culture and civilisation has its own harvest festival but none, perhaps, as elaborate as the colourful Pongal that celebrates not only nature’s bounty but also the integral role of animals in traditional farming in Tamil Nadu.
The celebrations start with ‘Bhogi’. Traditionally, it is the day for casting away the old and ushering in the new. Unwanted and worn out articles in the house are thrown out, walls are repainted and floors are washed.
In villages, every home makes a bonfire of the discarded things and people dance around it, revelling in the warmth of the flames. But with the passage of time, people in urban areas just set on fire anything they can lay their hands on, even old automobile tyres. Such bonfires release toxic fumes, and environmentalists have started raising a hue and cry over the burning of articles.
The second day is ‘Pongal’. At sunrise people make the delicious rice dish ‘pongal’ in decorated mud pots set on earthern ovens in the yard. As the pot boils over — the very process of something boiling over is called ‘pongal’ in Tamil — people cheerfully shout ‘pongalo pongal’.
Normally, two types of ‘pongal’ are prepared — one is white and salty and the other yellow (due to the added jaggery) and sweet. And the sugarcane is not just a part of the decoration in the yard but also a bite during the day.
The third day is ‘Mattu Pongal’, when the cattle get royal treatment. They are given a good wash, their horns are painted, they are fed well and even worshipped. That is the tribute the farmer pays to his enduring partner in the field.
The final day is ‘Kannum Pongal’ that enjoins every Tamilian to get out and see the world. Pastoral people normally set out for nearby towns and cities on tractors, bullock carts and other vehicles, carrying the food they have prepared. It is a day to meet people and check out entertainment spots. A well-deserved break after their hard work in the fields to produce food, a basic necessity for every living thing.
Alll of us — urban or rural — depend on the farmer for food. For those who are not part of the farming community, Pongal should be an occasion to salute the farmer and his family, share their happiness and remember the vital role role they play in ensuring that we have food on the table.