In Honour of the Sun God
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
Perhaps the most important festival in Hindu events calendar, Pongal or Thai Pongal is essentially a harvest festival celebrated to honour the sun god for blessing the farmers with a bountiful yield. Although our regular calendars marked last Thursday (14 January) as the day of Thai Pongal, the celebrations of the festival actually extends over four days, however this four-day celebrations is widely practiced in India while celebrations in Sri Lanka are mostly limited to one or two days.
Pongal falls on the first day of the month, Thai – the 10th month in traditional Hindu calendar. This usually falls somewhere between 13 and 16 of the Gregorian calendar which is now in use worldwide. The most cherished Hindu celebration which has been celebrated for over a 1000 years, include engaging in religious activities to venerate gods, feasting, giving out gifts, and visiting relatives.
Festive Pongal rice
The festival is named after the ceremonial Pongal which literally means ‘to boil’ or ‘to overflow’ and this aspect is well-depicted through the traditional Pongal rice made on the festival day as part of the celebration. The first share of the latest paddy harvest is used to make the Pongal rice where the rice is boiled in a large pot along with fresh milk and fresh jaggery. Devotees take turns in putting rice in the pot and when the mixture begins to boil, a special horn called sanggu is blown while the devotees chant, “Pongal, Pongal,” to indicate the pot is overflowing. The first share of the traditional sweet dish is offered to gods and goddesses of Pongal followed by an offering to cattle who are an integral part of traditional South Asian agriculture. This part of the celebration is widely practised in India where animal veneration is highly regarded, in Sri Lanka however, it is somewhat less-practised.
After satisfying the gods, the rest of the sweet dish is shared among family or people gathered to celebrate. Banana leaves are usually used in eating the dish which is prepared outside the house in sunlight or in a porch or a courtyard. Milk, jaggery, and rice are the usual suspects of the dish in terms of the ingredients but there is always room for some modification by adding spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves as well as other ingredients such as plums and cashew, giving it a tinge of savouriness as well.
Another important aspect of Pongal celebrations is the unique decorations in Hindu households. Banana and mango leaves adorn the entrances of the houses while the floors and doorsteps will be decked with colourful patterns made with coloured rice flour called Kolam. These geometric patterns are thought to bring prosperity to households and therefore, are drawn on the floor almost every morning in many parts of India. In Sri Lanka, the daily practice of making Kolams is not that common but it is an integral part in Pongal celebrations.
Apart from being a sight to sore eyes kolams serve other purposes as well. The rice flour used attracts ants and other animals to the household which allows Hindus to welcome other living beings to their households to practice coexistence. It is also believed the rice flour contains antiseptic properties and thus, a Kolam acts as a literal threshold of protection to the home. As of late, Kolams have evolved into a unique form of art, playing an important part in contemporary Tamil art scene.
Pongal is a festival that is widely celebrated among Hindu devotees that attracts a lot of people. However due to the ongoing pandemic, the usual glamour of Pongal celebrations is somewhat diluted with healthcare guidelines restricting gatherings and social events. Amidst these difficulties, Pongal was celebrated and Ceylon Today managed to capture some of the Pongal action that went down at the Sri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil or the Sivan Kovil in Kochchikade on the morning of Pongal day. The gathering looked considerably less in comparison with previous years and everyone seemed to be wearing face masks to ensure safety for all.
(Pix by Udesh Ranasinha)