Pongal O Pongal – With Thai Commences Celebration

Pongal in Thamizh means ‘to overflow’. Pongal is a festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu on the first day of the Thamizh month of Thai. During this period of the year the earth is positioned in its orbit around the Sun in such a manner that the South Pole is leaning towards the Sun and the places north of the equator have long days. In a more non scientific parlance, on the first day of Thai the Sun proceeds from the south of equator to the northern hemisphere, from the Dakshinaayanam (the southern direction) to the Uttaraayanam (the northern direction), over the land of the Bharathas located in the Jambu dweepam.

Indian belief system is built on the paradigm of the good and the bad. Light/darkness, day/ night, waxing/waning around which the day-to-day life is marked, are all metaphors of the good and the bad. The monthly and yearly calendars too follow this prototype. Every month is divided into 2 fifteen-day periods of 30 days, each of the fifteen days go by the waxing and the waning of the moon called the Valar pirai and the Thei pirai. Valar pirai is the waxing time of the moon from Ammavaasai (the new moon) to Paurnami (the full moon); the Thei pirai is the waning period of the moon from the Paurnami to Ammavaasai. The Valar pirai, the waxing period is also called the Shukla patcham (‘shuklam’ means bright) and is deemed as auspicious, while the Thei pirai, the fifteen day waning period of the moon called the Krishna patcham ( ‘Krishna’ means dark), is not highly favoured.

Like the monthly calendar, the yearly calendar too is divided into two periods — the Uttaraayanam and the Dakshinaayanam. During the six months beginning from Thai (mid January to mid February ) to Aani ( mid June to mid July ) the Sun proceeds north of equator, while from the months Aadi to Marghazhi the Sun proceeds to the Southern hemisphere. The first six months after the winter solstice form the Uttarayanam, during this period the days get longer; this period of bright sunshine and long days is considered as auspicious, and is sanctioned for temporal preoccupations; it is the period of celebration. Thai indicates the commencement of this period. The first day of the Thai month is celebrated as Pongal.

Pongal is celebrated to offer thanks to the Sun, the energy that bestows life and vibrancy to all the organisms on the earth. It is a festival that is significant to the farmers, whose life and livelihood depends on the benevolence of the Sun God. Pongal is celebrated as the harvest festival. Though it is a festival central to the farming and pastoral communities, it is celebrated with great zeal by all the people in Tamil Nadu – for, who would not want to be blessed with prosperity and bounty!

True to its name, the Pongal is replete with simple earthly rituals that symbolize happiness and prosperity. Before sunrise, Kolam is drawn with rice flour and decorated with red earth. Mango leaves and toranam made of tender coconut leaves are tied on the doorways. Pongal (Chakkarai/ sweet Pongal), a sweet dish prepared with rice, lentil, milk, and jagerry is offered to the Sun God. The dish is prepared at the time the month of Thai is born, the preparation of the dish is significant and a ritual by itself.

The ponga panai (‘panai’ means pot, earthen or brass pot; ‘ponga panai’ literally means the pot that overflows) is decorated with turmeric and ginger saplings, sandal wood paste and kumkum. The milk is boiled first, and as it boils over the children and the adults in the family chant ‘Pongal – O – Pongal’. Then rice, lentils and jaggery are added to prepare the sweet dish Chakkarai Pongal, this is offered to the Sun God along with sugarcane – all the offerings carry the hope that life overflows with sweetness and happiness. After the offering is made to the Sun God people have a festive lunch that includes rice, Chakkarai Pongal, Vadai, Kootu (a special mixed vegetable dish prepared with the fresh vegetables of the season like pumpkin, different varieties of beans, brinjal, raw bananas and sweet potatoes).

Pongal is celebrated in different ways among the different communities in Tamil Nadu. In the villages Pongal is celebrated with great pomp as the families gather outside their houses and offer Pongal to the Sun God. The day after Pongal is celebrated as Mattu Pongal (‘madu’ is cow). On the Mattu Pongal, the cows are lead to the lake or river, scrubbed and given a good bath. Scented water is sprinkled on the cows and then the cows are decorated with garlands, bells and their horns are polished. The cows are lead home to be fed a nutritive meal, after which they are worshipped.

Pongal is one of the few festivals that is indigenous to the Thamizh culture, it is totally Dravidian with no influence of Aryan/ Vedic practices. There are references to the festival of Pongal in the Sangam literature. It was not very different from the way it is celebrated today in the villages. This goes to prove that culture is a continuum; by celebrating Pongal we keep alive the continuum.

Footnote – Months In Thamizh Calendar 

Chithirai falls mid April to mid May

Vaikaasi falls mid May to mid June

Aani falls mid June to mid July

Aadi falls mid July to mid August

Aavani falls mid August to mid September

Purattasi falls mid September to mid October

Aipasi falls mid October to mid November

Karthigai falls mid November to mid December

Margazhi falls mid December to mid January

Thai falls mid January to mid February

Maasi falls mid February to mid March

Panguni falls mid March to mid April

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The Day My Grandmother Visited Me

The parijatham that is popularly known in Tamil as pavazha malli (literally, jasmine that is hued like a coral) are the milky white flowers with stem the colour of coral. These flowers blossom in profusion in the months of November, December and January. They blossom in the evenings and the night air is rife with the fragrance of these flowers. They fall down in the night and form a lovely carpet in the morning. Dew drops that cling to the milky white petals appear like pearls set off by corals.

I grow a parijatham plant in a large pot in my terrace garden. The plant was small when I bought it from a nursery, my gardener was skeptical about having it planted in a pot. I do not have a choice, I live in a flat that has a large private terrace, and I have created a garden with over 100 plants growing in pots.

All my plants are very special because my garden is an attempt to recreate my parental home that I have lost since my parents passed away. In my garden I grow the variety of plants that I grew up with, the variety of plants that my grandmother tended with great passion and care. One such variety is the parijatham plant that occupied an important space in my parent’s garden, one of the very few plants that survived my grandmother, my mother and last of all my father.

The parijatham plant in my terrace garden about a year and a half old, blossomed this month. My mother – in – law suggested that I light a lamp in the morning (lighting lamps in the morning during the month of Margazhi is considered auspicious) and lay the first flowers as an offering to the Krishna Tulasi. By this act I invited my grandmother, my father and my mother, the three people I love and whose death has orphaned me,  to my garden and to my home. 

My grandmother was the spirit behind the garden at my parent’s house. A glimpse of my grandmother’s garden – – she grew a variety of plants in the yard at the front and back of my parent’s flat. She first had a crude fence with bamboo put up all around to keep away the goats and cows from straying in. She employed an old man who came before sunrise and worked in the yard till late noon. He became like a family, he ate lunch that my grandmother made, and slowly worked in the garden. He spent a month digging and turning the soil to loosen it. He removed stones, the rubbles that were buried when the flat was constructed – cement chunks, rotting pieces of wood and glass shards. Then the yard was resoiled, a cart of clay, sand and manure were emptied. She then slowly planted the yard with lime, coconut, kariveppalai and banana saplings. These perennials held the prime space; she dug furrows and routed water from the kitchen to flow to these plants. She then planted flowering varieties like parijatham, nandiya vattai, mandarai, oleanders and jasmines, she had these planted away from the perennials which she knew might take years to yield fruits, except probably the banana tree that grew as though possessed and gave a steady yield of banana flowers, fruits, banana leaves for all important occasions during our first year in our new home.

All plants were like her children, each were whimsical with a mind of their own. The lime tree grew a stout trunk and spread itself close to the ground, it never gained height. It brandished long and shapely thorns, giving us nasty scars every time we retrieved a ball from under the tree. The leaves were a luscious green and spread a dense crop close to the ground. My grandmother carefully dug furrow around the tree and shored up the scooped up earth to form a depression around the stem. She briskly walked everyday between the tap and the tree and pored buckets and buckets of water till the water stood in the depression like a pool. She worriedly glanced at the tree that was reluctant to behave like a grown up and yield lime fruits. The old gardener suggested that she cut the tree; she did not forgive him long for this ill advice. She put the tree to an innovative use, she plucked the leaves that bore the rich aroma of a lime fruit, washed and dried it, and made a spiced podi, that when added with hot rice and a dab of ghee made an excellent dish. She fed the old gardener with this hot rice which he sheepishly praised, this vindicated him at last.

The parijatham tree was kept near the lime tree and water from the lime tree overflowed to the parijatham.  She got the parijatham sapling from her cousin’s house, she boasted to the neighbours of her cousin’s sprawling garden that had about half a dozen coconut trees, a couple of high breed mango trees, creepers and flowering plants of all sorts. The parijatham from such a garden held promises. The plant grew well, and within a couple of years put out buds. At about the same time my neighbour had planted a parijatham sapling and her plant too started blossoming the same year. The flowers in our garden were small and beautiful, whereas the flowers in my neighbour’s garden were large and blossomed in profusion. My grandmother was surprised; there were only a handful of flowers everyday. They smelled like heaven though. She collected these flowers in a poo kudai and offered it in the morning to the gods. I held these flowers on my palm, closed it with the other palm, and my hands carried the smell of the flowers for hours.

She worked harder on her plant, spent more time every morning pruning the leaves and throwing away the dry twigs, the plant responded well. It put out healthy and fresh leaves, but remained delicate and not robust or hardy like my neighbour’s. It put up a better show the next year, there were more flowers during the margazhi month that year – nuggets of coral and pearl studded my garden.

My grandmother woke me early in the mornings and before the maid came to sweep the front yard, asked me to collect the flowers. Groggily I collected these flowers in the poo kudai, and then I collected the oleanders, nandiya vattai and the mandarais. She then sent me on an errand to the street corner pillaiyar koil. I took some of these flowers to the temple and gave it to the priest for poojai.

When I look at the parijatham flowers in my garden, just a couple of them blossom every day, memories of my parental home get pleasantly raked up. I am thankful to the plant in my garden; I feel it has overstretched its natural rhythm and offered me these beautiful flowers. My gardener is surprised that the young plant, that too the one in a pot has put out flowers so soon. He does not know that I have a date with dead people, and the plant has understood my yearnings that I have communed since the day I planted it and watched it grow month after month.