Sunday, February 17, 2008


I have a theory: on any given day, somewhere in India, there is a festival. Whether it is to venerate a god, to commemorate a local hero, or simply to celebrate life, India is teeming with festivities.

Throughout South India in mid-January, Pongal, a four-day festival, is celebrated. (Pongal actually is celebrated throughout India, but my writing is only in reference to the Pongal of Tamil Nadu). Originating as an annual harvest festival, Pongal has become much more than a simple celebration of farmers’ crops. Like many Indian festivals, Pongal is a medley of music, dance, food, and parade after parade. Without a doubt, Pongal is a religious festival with specific rituals and actions that uphold the values and traditions of Hinduism.

In actuality, each of the four days of Pongal is dedicated to a different god within the Hindu pantheon. Bhogi Pongal, the first day, pays tribute to Indra, the rain god. It should be noted that labeling any Hindu god with one characteristic, like “rain god”, is rather misleading, as whatever each Hindu deity represents is dependent on what sect of Hinduism is observed. For example, Indra also can be recognized as the “war god” or “king of the gods.” Yet, in this instance, in Tamil Nadu, Indra is revered as the god of rain.

Unequivocally, Surya Pongal, the second day of the festival, is the most important day. Similar to pagan festivals around the world, Surya Pongal pays reverence to the Sun, for sustaining the growth of crops; and even more broadly, for nurturing all of existence. “Surya” literally means “Sun.” This day is the most exciting of all the days, as there are the many processions throughout the streets.

The third day of the festival, Mattu Pongal, honors cows by decorating them with all sorts of bells and whistles (literally). One has to wonder whether a cow truly appreciates being
painted; regardless, the bovine receive attention normally reserved for the divine. It is quite the sight indeed.

While the entire festival is an elaborate worshipping of the gods (or more specifically, the Sun), the final day, Kannum Pongal focuses on the family and the food. In a certain sense, Kannum Pongal is very similar to the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The word “pongal” literally translates as “boiling over.” Thus, the name of the festival is symbolic of being thankful for the abundance of food provided by the harvest.

During the four days, many families create small shrines outside their doorways, ranging from candle arrangements to decorative paintings, called kolam. The kolam designs are made from brightly colored powders. Many streets are lined with lights, as well.

The music of Pongal is folk music; I will write more on the specifics in the following post, on my Pongal experiences. So until then here are a handful of pictures. Needless to say, any writings, photographs or video footage fails to capture the true essence of Pongal…And yes, the prashad (food) was more delicious than it looked...

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