Pongal Vazhthukal everyone!
Tamilians all over Malaysia are at home today, dressed in colourful traditional costumes, preparing wonderful kolum designs and putting their claypots on a fire pit to begin their four-day celebration of the bountiful harvest and prosperous year they have had!
Among all of the Tamil or Hindu celebrations that we know of, very few of us actually know about Pongal. While we may have heard about it in passing, our curiosity is often put to rest with a simple explanation by our Tamil friends. They may simply say, ‘Oh, it’s just a harvest festival’ which is enough to make us give a non-committal ‘Oh’ and move on with our lives.
Not Just a Harvest Festival
In actual truth, Pongal is more than ‘just a harvest festival’. It is a day of giving thanks and appreciation to God and the sun for giving life to the harvest and food. Even though it is not applicable to most of the city-dwelling Tamils but hey, traditions like these should be upheld!
Oh, one more interesting fact. It is common belief that Pongal is the day when deities wake up after a 6-month long sleep. In addition, it is believed that those who have died during the last 6 months period get moksha (transcendence) during this time.
More reason to celebrate it, right?
History of Pongal
Before I get into the details of what happens during Pongal, let’s talk about the history behind this wonderful celebration.
Pongal can be traced back to almost 1,000 years ago. It is a day made for worshipping the sun god Surya and earth goddess Bhumi as a show of gratitude for the bountiful, healthy crops bestowed to the people. While it is observed all over India, it is in the south where Pongol is truly celebrated with great fervour and enthusiasm particularly in Tamil Nadu. This is due to it being an area where most Tamilians earn a living through agriculture.
Four Days of Shabang!
This year, the harvest festival starts on the 15th of January and ends on the 18th of January. For every day of the celebration period, specific traditions are observed and each day holds a particular importance.
The four days are named as Bhogi, Thai Pongal, Maatu Pongal and Kaanum Pongal.
Day 1 – Bhogi Pongal
Bhogi is actually the eve of Pongal. Usually it starts with a simple prayer to the god Indra with traditional rice or jaggery-based dishes as offerings. On this day, houses are also cleaned, old belongings thrown out and new items are brought into the house.
In India, cattle owners paint the horns of oxen and buffaloes with bright colours to give a more festive feel prior to the big day. Farmers also take time to plant medicinal herbs like neem and flaming trumpet flowers. They are believed to prevent diseases and pests from plaguing the crops. This can only happen if you plant them at the Northeast corner of your fields. So, get your compass and start planting!
Day 2 – Thai Pongal
Day two or Thai Pongal, is the main event. On this day, it is purported that the sun has entered the 10th house of the Indian zodiac, Makara or in English terms, Capricorn.
On this day, Tamilians decorate their front doors with a banner-like wreath made up of banana and mango leaves. Colourful kolams are drawn by the doorsteps. These signifies their welcoming of good tidings and prosperity.
Conches will be blown throughout the day, followed by wishes of “Pongalo Pongal!” and “Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum”. Gift-giving and grand feasts are the highlights of the second-day of celebration.
Day 3 – Mattu Pongal
Day three of the Tamil Harvest festival is called Mattu Pongal. It is a day solely revolving around cattle. This animal plays an important role in farming. Farmers use them to til the soil. So, it is right to show some love and appreciation to these hardworking animals.
The cattle are adorned with colourful floral garlands and bells. Then, a prayer session is conducted. Cattle owners will bring their prized ox, bull or cow for a round of ‘Jallikattu’ (cattle race). This sport is generally held in the evening.
In the past, Mattu Pongal was the day when fierce bulls were chased by youngsters of the village attempting to retrieve money that was tied to the horns of the bulls. In some villages, this activity was held on the final day of the four-day celebration.
Day 4 – Kaanum Pongal
All good things must come to an end. However, that does not mean you cannot end it on a high note. The last and fourth day of Pongal is known as ‘Kaanum Pongal’. This day is known as the reunion day. Many families hold get-togethers and lavish one another, with food, gifts and money.
A Bountiful Feast
In Malaysia, festival celebrations will not be completed without food. After all, we Malaysians live for food!
There are four dishes that are usually served during the harvest festival. These include the Chakkara, Venn, Melagu and Puli Pongal. All of these dishes are prepared in a claypot over a fire pit.
Chakkara is a sweet rice porridge made as an offering to deities worshipped. It is usually made using rice, coconut, mung beans and jaggery. If you prefer savoury over sweet, Venn is the dish for you. It is typically served as breakfast in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu accompanied with sambar and coconut chutney.
For spice nuts, Melagu is definitely your kind of dish. This spicy variant is made with pepper, rice and moong daal. Finally, no celebrations in a respectable Tamil house will be complete without including Tamarind rice in their food spread!
This delicious sourish dish is made with just two simple ingredients; tamarind and boiled rice. It is not specifically associated with the Pongal festival but is often eaten for dinner.
Prosperous Year Awaits
Pongal is a beautiful tradition that should be preserved and practiced for years to come. It celebrates togetherness and appreciation to the future generation.
Although it is a Hindu-Tamil festival, there’s no harm in supporting and engaging in it. After all, we are Malaysians first. Today is Mattu Pongal. I do not think we practice Jallikattu here but if you happen to see a herd of oxen, bulls or cows running towards you, run!