Pongal Paraphernalia

by K. Thirukumaran

“Dawn of the Month of Thai, Paves for the Birth of Way” the renowned Tamil proverb has been in the centerpiece of Tamil heritage eternally. Tamil month of ‘Thai’, falling on January 15th, 2015 is Pongal day, the Tamil Thanksgiving Day celebrating sun, rain, farm cattle and ushering in pureness and prosperity.

cartoon by "Sirithiran Sunthar"

cartoon by “Sirithiran Sunthar”

Even a livelihood as traditional farmer declined over a generation or two ago, the time of the year Thai Pongal falls and the traditions associated with its celebration still makes it an ideal time to take stock of sentiments.

One key aspect of it is that how important “Pongal Santhai” (Pongal market) became when markets in the Jaffna peninsula, used to convene on alternate days etc. When the market convened for the final time before Thai Pongal, the jubilant crowds and their spending habits would be the gauges on how well other sectors and the general spirit of the people would be too for the upcoming year.

Everything, they all depended on a bountiful harvest. This aspect of gauging our sentiments at this time of the year still exists in our tradition.

In the olden days, the main traditional Thai Pongal is an outdoor festival of cooking the sweet rice. It involves all members, both female and male and of tender to ripe ages of the household in the preparation of Pongal. It was also to thank the woman head of household and/or female members of household as male cooking used to be a seldom affair.

The paraphernalia related to Pongal is now making novelty globally across Tamils such as the observance of month long related festivities. However the ground that is holding all this is the hallmark sweet rice – known as the Pongal.

It is said that Pongal is perhaps the only festival to be named after a dish.

The celebration of Pongal has taken root due to our ancestors’ steadfast adherence to traditions even during periods of vast changes.

Pongal Poem by Azha Valliyappa

Pongal Poem by Azha Valliyappa

Here are two recent generational depictions of Pongal:

One is a poem for children, by Azha Valliyappa (1922-1989) instilling early on the intense joy of the festival that is bound with nature. The first edition of the book containing this poem, “Malrum Ullam” – “Blossoming Minds” was published in 1954. The poem brings out the charm in preparing and celebrating Pongal festivities, and can be translated as follows:

Walls newly painted
floors neatly polished

Shower at crack of dawn
Light up divine lamp then

Decorate crock for Pongal
Dazzle it with turmeric potpourri

Onto then placing this crock
on stove and pour therein milk

Foaming milk froth spillover
Greeting of “Pongal ‘o Pongal” galore

Coconut sugarcane and rice
Debut offering to almighty divine

Together then we eat
Singing dancing in joyous feast

Greeting on Pongal day saying “Pongal ‘o Pongal” signifies the abundance of milk-froth spillover, from the crock or clay pot and other vessels that are used to make the sweet rice – Pongal, as a sign of prosperity and happiness.

Pongal preparation not taught at the tuition-cartoon by “Sirithiran Sunthar”

Pongal preparation not taught at the tuition-cartoon by “Sirithiran Sunthar”

The other is a cartoon by Sittampalam Sivagnasuntharam (1923-1996), also known as Sunthar. The cartoon appeared in the satirical magazine, with a novel Tamil Name “Sirithiran” that was pioneered by him.

As farming trend declined among the populace and migration to urban areas increased in Sri Lanka – North and East, cooking the traditional Pongal moved inside the homes. During this period began the trend of young people increasingly attending tuition enrichment classes outside of their schools. This practice grew since the mid-seventies amidst a highly competitive higher education environment. It was also a time of male members of households started going abroad. With that came about a situation in the cartoon, a mother calls on her daughter to cook the Pongal in the absence of father and sons whom are now overseas. As the entire education is now delegated to be taught in the tuition class, and cartoonist S. Sivagnasuntharam depicts sarcasm at the situation of its impact on even on the know how to make Pongal!

The cartoon sketches Thai Pongal journeying through rather a newer phase of Tamil lives back then.

Thai Pongal is a now a tradition much looked forward to by Tamils all over the globe, even in the milieu of winter and deep freeze and making no outdoor cooking possible.

Pongao ‘O Pongal – Happy Thai Pongal to all