CHENNAI: Arisi paanai pongucha?” In some parts of Tamil Nadu, post-Pongal greetings eschew the usual pleasantries to adopt the festive marker of an overflowing pongal pot. “The ceremonial pongal, boiling and flowing out of the pot without any hitches itself is something we all look forward to as it is a good omen,” says Chokkalingam, reminiscing about the practice in his ancestral village of Pallathur in Sivagangai district. It is local conventions like these, as much as our prowess in jallikattu and manjuvirattu or propensity for sugarcane, that point to the significance the harvest festival holds in Tamizh culture. Going past the restrictions of religion and beyond the concept of God, the agrarian society’s way of thanksgiving still finds its place in the conglomeration we live in today; the ways of yore passed on from one generation to another.
The excavation at Adichanallur recovered remnants of an earthen pot that bears traces of the depiction of nel kathir and a goddess, dating the harvest festival (or some version of it) to circa 1500 BC, points out R Mathivanan, historical linguist and former director of Tamil Nadu Government’s Tamil Etymological Dictionary Project. “The first of the Tamizh month of Thai was considered the start of the new year and this was celebrated as a harvest festival. The first day — that is now Bhogi — is considered to be in honour of Lord Indra. Yet, that’s not how it started; we have no association with Indra. The first day was called Vendhan Naal (day of the king). People believed that they will get rain only if the king’s rule is prosperous. In some places in Tamil Nadu, this day is known as Kinatru Pongal because of the flowers and leaves hung by the well,” he explains, tracing the early ways of the festival. Going by this form, every day of Pongal was a different version of thanksgiving, he says. “Thamizhargal nanri udayavargal. There’s thanksgiving for the king’s good governance, one for the sun that brings in rain, and one for the animals that assisted in the agriculture work,” he lists, encapsulating the spirit of Vendhan Naal, Pongal and Maattu Pongal.
While Kaanum Pongal is now considered a day to be spent with the family, visiting relatives and such, it began as Kari Naal (kari means elephant) — the day when the king came riding on the elephant, honouring the subjects who had excelled in their line of work in the past year; it was also a day of trade, he says.
"What a beautiful practice this is," behind Thamarai Mathivanan. "Instead of making up a story or myth for a god and worshipping this god, this festival is about you and me coming together to rejoice in each other's presence in our lives and coexist in harmony. This has us looking at life with a renewed perspective. In that way, Pongal isn't a festival you mindlessly celebrate with noise and show and extravagance. Here, you reap the benefits of your work, give thanks for the same and work collectively to plan for the year ahead," she elaborates.
The spirit remains
Today, while the search for a livelihood has removed us from the ways of an agrarian society, the harvest festival still finds representation in its original form. Vasanth Kumar Pitchaimani moved to the city after the death of his father in 2001. Yet, Pongal in the village of Rajapalayam in Virudhunagar district more or less stayed true to the cause, he says. “Even now, Pongal is the most important festival for us. We buy new clothes only for this festival. Luckily, we have enough space in front of the house for us to make pongal the traditional way in man paanai and veragu aduppu. Now, with modern construction, we paint the house only once in five years. But, when I was a kid, Pongal time was when we had the vellai adikara velai. One week before the festival, my dad, brother and I would clean the house. We’d go to the nearest sunnambu kalvai to get sunnambu katti for the walls. The brush would be ready by then — made from thennai mattai soaked in water and Robin Blue liquid,” he recounts.
Chokkalingam describes what Pongal mornings are like. “Early in the morning, all the men in the house get together and ensure the vegetables (a mix of sakkaravalli kizhangu, karunai kizhangu, palakka, kathrikai) needed to make the savoury pongal are bought, cut, prepped and kept ready. We then head to the koil veedu (the temple of the family/community’s presiding deity) to flag off the day’s rituals and light the wooden stove to cook the pongal. But, before we do this, we usually pray and wait for a signal from the Nagarathar Sivan Koil in the area. After the Sivan temple’s members prepare the pongal, boil it and allow it to spill, they ring the temple bell. Only after we hear the sound, we start the rituals at our koil veedu. This includes the preparation of pongal with all the vegetables and the sweet vella (jaggery) pongal. Once it’s cooked, one of the men from the group walks to the house (now phones have come in handy) and tells the women: ‘Pongiduchu! (It has boiled over)’. Then, the women prepare another pot of pongal at home. We then give a pallayam (offering) to the deity and head home to pray together with our family,” he narrates, describing the rituals followed at his village.
The inside account
“Innum kozhantha maathiri pongalo pongal nu katharathuku wait pannuvom,” begins Archana Stalin, a software engineer-turned-farmer and founder of myHarvest Farms. “I saw how well Mattu Pongal is celebrated only after I got into farming. It was then that I got to know that the cow is important; not the cow dung and cow urine. It is not just about painting the animals. You hear it in cinema songs: maadu ration card la illatha family member. I saw this sentiment in person. Everyone pampers their cows, like the child of the house. Kalyana oorvalam maathiri koilkku kootittu ponanga. It is more eco-friendly than what you see in the cities. The decorations are done with palm fronds and the painting is with turmeric,” she describes. Archana, who took part in the 2017 jallikattu protests, says her opinions about the sport were inspired by this real-life co-existence of man and animal. “The manjuvirattu (bull-taming) sport in Siravayal village is something popular and what supplements the Kannum Pongal festivities. After Alanganalur and Mellur, Siravayal is most popular for the sport!” points out Chokkalingam.
From the oldest to the youngest member of the family, this is the time everyone gets Pongal seer (gift), notes Thamarai. "Be it `11 or `21 or `50 -- whatever is appropriate for their age continues till today. They will get very upset if you don't get to visit them in person and hand this over," she recounts.
Kaanum Pongal only remains a day to sit back and relax with the family, with the focus being getting to eat meat and enjoy perhaps return to the place of work, says Archana. But, villages still hold the charm of the festival intact. “I spent last Pongal with my farmers in Thiruvallur district. Then, we had a lot of games like vazhukkumara potti, kabaddi and such. Uri adithal went on till late in the night and by the time I had my turn it was 2 am. And, I hit the pot!” she shares.
“We stay as close to the roots as possible. While some traditions have faded way, we hold on to a few of them. It’s hard to find a kudukuduppai karan or a boom boom maatukaran. As much as possible, we do not contribute to pollution in any way. Even on Bhogi, you don’t find people burning plastics. In case of an old rubber tire, half of it is buried in the ground and the rest that remains above the surface is used to tie the cow. It’s firm enough to prevent the cow from running away. People here are mindful and aware of the consequences. In fact, those that you burn in the city like an old cot or chairs are considered essentials by people here. You can instead donate those to help them,” elaborates K Nambi Arooran, who spends the Pongal days at his ancestral village located between Tirupathur and Uthangarai.
A celebration of land and life
But, there’s much to Pongal past these celebratory rituals, finds Archana. It has much to do with the resources of the land and life built around it. “All the vegetables used in the padayal and through the day are local vegetables. We tend to think of just capsicum and carrots and like when we say vegetables. But, here, it is the avaraikkai, motchai, peerkangai, kathirikai. I campagin for use of local vegetables throughout the year and it is only during Pongal that I see people scouting for these. Vellai poosanikai ku demand athigam. So, I find a lot of connect between the land and the festival. More than Tamizhar thiruvizha, I find this to be an iyarkai thiruvizha,” she says.
In many ways, harvest marks the start of the prosperous new year — one that has people from all ranks of life reaping the spoils of last year’s labour. “Thai piranthaal vazhi pirakkum nu solluvanga. Even when business is dull, Pongal is a time that traders look forward to for it always gets better with Thai. From farmers, to rice traders to turmeric traders, to clothes merchants — everybody makes money. So, this becomes a social festival, one not restricted to one community or one line of business people,” points out Vasanth.
The flip side
While the modern corporate structure at the workplace may have found ways to incentivise every festival, it was Pongal that held that place for the majorly agrarian community. Farm workers, past their kooli were given a part of the harvest as Pongal nerai. “This was given to agricultural labourers and those who do ooru pothu sevai,” explains Mathivanan. The Tamil Nadu government’s practice of a Pongal dole and a hamper of rice, sugar and cane, is a modern-day derivation of this practice, it would seem. Yet, little of this is now of benefit to people in the farming community. Nambi, like many other new-age farmers, is disappointed with the plight of the farmers.
“People who have a day job like me can invest some amount in agriculture and sustain. While most of the farmers do not have the capital investment so they eventually give up. Most farmers do not have any form of liquidity despite owning farms. We need a proper platform for farmers to network and keep themselves updated on the advancement in technologies. On the positive side, it’s motivating to see youngsters see this as a prospective occupation,” suggests Nambi who has built a small house near his farm that can house 20 people. He plans to rent it out to corporates. “They can plan for a day-out to experience village life. People can stay here, use vegetables from the farm to cook and enjoy. While people in the city may have money to buy many things, they can’t buy nature, fresh air or peace of mind. My parents celebrated Pongal grandly. My generation is inconsistent. But the younger generation is enthusiastic and highly aware, thanks to technology,” he says.
At the end of the day...
While landed farmers find some level of prosperity come harvest, farm labourers find few benefits in the world that has left them working for someone else’s harvest. “Eppothume maadu meikara vela dhan seyyarom,” begins 35-year-old Ezhumalai, who is the caretaker of a farm in Ranipet district’s Vellambi. When his father was alive, they were doing agriculture on a land of their own and then, Pongal held some interest. Now, between the farm work, he is having to find employment in the construction sector too to make ends meet. This Pongal, he is busy. He has prepared the field for the next set of crops. Come Maattu Pongal day, he has to bathe the cows and decorate them and walk them down to the village centre. Pongal begins and ends with more work. Ezhumalai too would be looking for the pongal to boil over, but for someone else’s pot.
With inputs from Roshne Balasubramanian and Vaishali Vijaykumar