Celebrating Thai Pongal with Covid-19 clampdown

Tamils mark festival with restrained pomp

Eyetalk

January 18, 2022

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Despite the Omicron scare sweeping across India and large parts of the globe, Tamil Nadu marked Pongal, a multi-day harvest festival, with traditional rituals and gaiety, although with some restraint, due to limits imposed by the government.

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Around 250 km from Chennai, lies Pasar, a small village in Villupuram district. Home to about 6200 persons, Pasar was next to none in the manner in which it celebrated Pongal, one of the most important events in the Tamil calendar and which is celebrated around the world.

Houses all over the village were decorated and community kitchens organised for the entire village to have their Pongal meals together. Besides the prayers and other rituals, the village also organised several traditional rural games.

Though there was no mass Pongal in Pasar for the second year in a row due to Covid-19, the villagers did not let the limitations in gathering imposed by the government curtail their celebrations in any manner.

Pongal is celebrated around the same time as Lohri and Bihu and it often coincides with other harvest festivals such as Makar Sankranti across the sub-continent. The three days of the festival, that honours the Sun God and Nature, are distinct and each has its own characteristics. While the first day is called Bhogi Pongal, the second is Surya (Sun) Pongal and Mattu (Cow) Pongal is the third day.

In Pasar, the celebration began on the first day with Bhogi Pongal when homes were cleaned and old and waste clothes and other waste elements in a household are burnt along with cow dung. Burning domestic waste is a part of rituals as it marks a new beginning, with a spirit of positivity.

Everyone in the household is ready, after a bath, before sunrise and a fire is lit early in the morning at 5 am. Then a fresh harvest of rice and sugarcane is brought from the fields and kept in the Puja room for a day.

The second day of the Pongal is called Surya Pongal or Thai Pongal dedicated to Sun god. On this day the houses are decorated with garlands and with beautiful kolam (Rangoli) designs.

As the festival is a celebration of harvests, the freshly harvested rice is boiled in pots along with milk and jaggery till they overflow and spill. At the moment when the boiled rice begins to overflow, everyone exchanges greetings with others, saying “Pongalo Pongal” with full enthusiasm. A puja is performed by worshipping the Sun god and dessert Pongal, fruits, coconut and sugarcane are offered to the god on a banana leaves before it is served to the people.

On Surya Pongal day, different kinds of traditional games were held in Pasar. The competition started in the morning and continued till the evening. At first Kolam competition was held, then many competitions like race, sack race game, lemon spoon race, cycle competitions, dance competitions were held in the village for the children and youngsters.

After the children, it was time for the adults to have their dose of fun and other traditional games were held, starting with “Kozhi Sandai”, a cockfight competition where over 300 people gathered as various amateurs pitted their pets in the game to see who was the champion cock fighter of Pasar. Kozhi Sandai is one of the main games of Pongal.

The last day of Pongal is called Mattu Pongal, on which Lord Ganesh, Nandi and Parvati are worshipped, and Pongal is offered to them. Mattu means bull and on this day cattle are bathed, their horns are painted and covered with embellished metal caps. They are fully decorated with garlands and bells. A wholesome feast was prepared which includes, Sambar, rice, rasa, vadai, Payasam, appalam, Pongal, fruits and sugarcane is offered to God and Goddess.

In Pasar, the decorated bulls, cows were brought near the Mariyamman temple in the centre of the village and all were collectively worshipped by the devotees gathered there. Then, the cattle are taken back to their  homes where they are welcomed with much gaiety and they are offered a feast as part of the ritual.

This year, even though there was a weekend curfew on Mattu Pongal day, there was a huge crowd near the Mariyamman temple to watch the last few traditional games.

These include a fun event, the “Vazhuku Maram Erudhal” or climbing a greased pole that is held each year and watched by hundreds as participants desperately try to climb the slippery pole.

At the top of the pole, a pot containing various kinds of grains, sweets, money and gold coin is tied. The event started late in the afternoon and continued for three hours as over 500 people gathered there, watching the competition. To add to the fun, when a team tries to climb the pole without any external support, the rival team members try to stop the climbing men by continuously throwing water on them and use other tactics to prevent them from reaching the top.

Finally, around 7 pm, one of the participants managed to reach the top and touched the red cloth tied at the top, signalling his victory and an end to the competition. Not just the glory, the winner also took home a gold coin, sweets and the prize money.

“Uriyadi” (breaking the pot) is one of the traditional games held everywhere across the state during the Pongal festival. It is the last game of the event and many youngsters took part in this game. At last, one of the teenagers broke the pot and he too carried away the prize money, concluding the festival for this year.

Jallikattu is one of the star attractions of Pongal and this year too a number of villages organised Jallikattu competitions where participants try to hold on to a bull by its horns or hump for as long as possible. Large Jallikattu competitions were held this year in various parts of Tamil Nadu, notably Madurai and Pudukottai.

Though the Pongal may have ended, but its spirit lingers on for much longer. The day after the festivities end, people take an oil bath and prepare huge feasts with a variety of dishes to mark a good harvest and pray for the beginning of good and happy year.

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