Celebrating the harvest
By Shani Asokan
Ceylon Today Features
Vibrant Kolams, crisp new clothes, freshly painted houses and the smell of paniyarams hot off the oil wafting through the air. Thai Pongal is a harvest festival celebrated by the Tamil communities from around the world. While the festival has roots in both the state of Tamil Nadu, India and Sri Lanka, it is celebrated in all corners of the globe, including countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Singapore.
While in India, the holiday spans four days (14 – 17 January), in Sri Lanka it is only celebrated on two days at most (14 – 15 January).
Over 1,000 years old, the festival can be traced back to the Chola Empire where they celebrated 'puthiyeedu' which translates to first harvest of the year. Etymologically speaking, the term "Thai" refers to the tenth month in the Tamil Calendar, and "Pongal" generally means either festival or celebration but it also means to overflow. As the year's first harvest is generally carried out around this time, the festival is to honour the Sun God, Sooriya, and thank him for a bountiful harvest. It is also to seek his blessing for the next harvest, in hopes that it will be more bountiful than the previous year.
Prayer rituals called poojas are conducted in Kovils to commemorate the day. Here, similar to the boiling of milk during the New Year celebrations, the first of the harvest grains are cooked with milk in a clay pot, and left to boil and flow over; in this case indicating the abundant harvest in the near future. When the milk boils over, a conch shell called the 'sangu' is blown, and words translating to "The beginning of this month will give rise to new opportunities," are spoken by all present.
This concoction of milk and rice is then taken and made into paal soru. This is a sweet rice dish, and it is often dressed up with jaggery, spices, raisins, cashews and sometimes green gram. Once offered to Sooriya, the Sun God, the rice is then distributed among the Kovil-goers as part of their morning meal.
Today, this ritual is sometimes carried out at home instead of at the Kovil. If done at home, it must be done outside in the sunlight. It is often done on the porch, or garden and the finished product is served up on banana leaves. Even though paal soru is often a sweet dish, it can also be made into a savoury one similar to kiribath.
To find out a little more about the festival and how it is celebrated, we at Ceylon Today spoke to some people who are celebrating Pongal today.
"It is all about being thankful and appreciating what we have. On this day, we boil rice and offer it to the sun and pray that the coming year should be a good one." says Shagana, talking to Ceylon Today.
Houses are cleaned out, and are made free of clutter, the walls are given fresh coats of paint and then adorned with banana leaves and mango leaves. Intricate and colourful kolams are drawn out of coloured raw rice at doorsteps, brand new and colourful clothes are donned and gifts are exchanged.
"We wake up early in the morning, and clean the garage, put kolam and keep the pot on the traditional clay cooker," says Shivani when asked about how her family celebrates Thai Pongal.
There are a lot of traditions and rituals involved in the celebration of this holiday. Lakshmi says, "We put kolam and light a fire and when the sun is facing it, we boil the milk. We decorate the pot with mango leaves and ginger. We also clean the house with turmeric water."
Though it has roots in the farming communities, Pongal is of importance to all those celebrating the festival. "It started with farmers doing all this to thank the sun for providing light for the crops to grow, and then the custom was followed by everyone to thank sooriya bagawan ( the Sun God)," Lakshmi explains.
"Pongal is all about thanking the sun for giving us the harvest, which is food and basically maintaining life on earth," Shagana agrees. The harvest provides us all with food and thus sustains and aids all life forms, human and otherwise.
However, this is not the only reason. Most Tamil festivals are filled with traditions and rituals that are all about coming together in celebration. Be it families, friends, neighbours or even fellow Kovil-goers, they promote unity, harmony and love. "It brings our family together for something which is so traditional, something that is keeping a part of the culture that got lost somewhere in our parents generation going." Shivani says. "It brings good vibes when the pot overflows as the sunlight hits the pot."
The second day of the festival is dedicated to honouring the animals that do all the heavy lifting and help the farmers till the fields. This day is called Maattu Pongal and is dedicated to the oxen and cattle. Although' maattu' means bull, the day is to celebrate all cattle that play a major role in the farming process. On this day, the cattle are given a bath, adorned with flowers and flower garlands, and their horns and foreheads are adorned with colourful decorative dyes. They are then fed milk rice mixed with jaggery, honey and bananas, and the traditional ritual for getting rid of the evil eye is performed, in order to keep the cattle out of harm's way during the coming farming season. It's all about celebrating our animal friends who help us put food on the table. This day is often concluded with poojas and offerings to Lord Ganesh.
While being embedded deeply in culture and surrounded by a myriad of traditions, Pongal does have a few ties to Hinduism as well. The period during which Pongal is celebrated is called Uttayar Punyakalam and it is considered to be a very auspicious time. According to mythology, this is the period during which the Devas who have been slumbering for half a year wake up to bestow showers of wealth and prosperity upon the earth. The festival also has connections to some of the greatest pieces of Tamil literature like the Mahabaratham, in which it says that Bheeshma, one of the greatest warriors in the epic, waited until the Uttayar Punyakalam to give up his life, so that he would attain salvation. Hence through the ages, Pongal has always reflected the balance between prosperity and thankfulness and a period of good time on earth.
Have a blessed and bountiful Pongal!
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