In South India, particularly Tamil Nadu, Pongal is the festival. It doesn’t get any more colorful and energetic than this particular week. In the north there is Diwali, the festival of lights, but for Tamils, they consider this festival to be unique to the region. If there is a particular essence to India, it shows through brightly in the smiles and greetings that are extra abundant during this particular event.
The name Pongal derives from a sweet rice and lentil dish that is slow cooked in terracotta pots with sugar and often cashews and raisins. It’s pretty damn good if I may say so.
The first day of Boghi Pongal is typified by new beginnings, and people start fresh by burning their old clothes and donning new ones. People also do an early spring cleaning and make their homes spick in span.
On Boghi, we woke up at dawn to to the sounds of Tamil music blasting from temple loud speakers. My friend David and I groggily packed bags to hit the streets of the tiny village of Baburajapunam near Swamimalai. “We’ve gotta go check out the kolams before they’re gone,” David said. We were out the door without breakfast by 6:15.
Women wake up at sunrise to create magnificent street art called kolams. They really are a sight to behold. As with the terracotta of Tamil Nadu (see Deep South….), kolams, similar to sand mandalas but made with white and colored rice powder, are completely ephemeral. However, unlike the terracottas, these beautiful patterns and drawings exist for just a day and then are walked over, biked on, driven over and then vanish into the street. They are in complete abundance and variety during the week of Pongal.
The second day of Pongal, known as Surya Pongal is more auspicious, and as we noticed, the much more celebrated day of the festival. My experience of Pongal was one of the most profound encounters with not only Hindu culture as a whole, but with individuals on a particularly cherished and important day.
Starting early again, we set out this time through Baburajapunam for Kumbakonam, only at the time we didn’t know it to be our destination. Following the streets in search of even more elaborate and beautiful kolams, many bidding wishes of “Happy Pongal!” in English, we cruised around by the dawn light until we came across a family actually making pongal. This is the tradition for the morning of Surya Pongal, and everyone waits until the pot boils over. Priyah, the matron of the particular house we had Surya Pongal at was all smiles and the entire village piled around outside her front stoop as we waited.
Pongal literally means boiling over, but it is symbolic of turning over a new leaf, sweet and logical advice for the new year.
We returned to Kumbakonam later in the afternoon to thank Priyah for her hospitality and for sharing her family’s special day with us and gave her some soaps and chocolate, lugged for such occasions from the U.S. of A.
In the spirit of the day, I set out with my friend David in the afternoon with some pens and pencils, this time back in the tiny village of Baburajapunam. In India, the most pleasant village experiences are the ones when you don’t get surrounded by kids asking for rupees, pens and candy. We decided to avoid contributing to this kind of behavior by seeking out someone who worked for the village’s little primary school, though were willing to toss the gifts over the fence since everyone was out for Pongal.
We were ultimately directed to Balu, the manager of the school, who invited us into his home. “My father started the school,” he explained. “Tea, coffee?” he quickly asked us before we could say anything. “No, no thank you (nandry in Tamil) very much, we have a bus to catch.” Though we had such a brief visit, he was so happy and kept assuring us that he would catch us in the next life and that the world is good. It was a pretty radical experience.
Jogging away from Balu’s at 2:58, David chipped the wall with his knee as we jumped over it, barely making it to our bus on time.
Day three of Pongal is known as Matu Pongal, when cows are painted and adorned. This day was spent at Brihadishwara, a UNESCO World Heritage site further into Tamil Nadu in Thanjavur.
The moon was overhead as we walked into the temple at 9:30am. It was already about 80 degrees and loud Tamil religious music was blaring from inside. In awe of the massive edifice commissioned by Raja Rajan at the peak of the Cholan empire in South India just after the start of the 11th century AD, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
We walked in facing a smaller part of the temple that was cloaked in curtains. Shortly after getting our bearings in the front portion of the temple, they dropped. A 12 by 20 foot rendition of Nandi the bull, the cosmic vehicle of Shiva, was adorned in garlands of fruit and vegetables in honor of the particular day of the festival. It was incomprehensible, literally, with all the commotion in Tamil and the amount of worship activity going around this decorated bull. One row was all cabbages, the next bananas, and after that oranges, apples, etc. etc.
After circumambulating the temple complex, we were able to go inside to the sanctum sanctorum, where non-Hindus are almost ever allowed, and photos from anyone are strictly prohibited. Standing beneath the Shiva lingam, usually a basalt stone that represents Shiva, I couldn’t help but feel the power of this stone that millions of people have gone to see over thousands of years. We received the proper ash and vermillion on our foreheads, hands together in pranam, feeling slightly goofy but totally lucky.
While there is a fourth day to Pongal, Kanya Pongal, the public aspect of the festival has passed and this day is relegated to the private activity of visiting with the family. However, for thousands of Hindus, this festival and month are popular for pilgrimages. So, after much travel, we arrived in Madurai at the Minakshi temple. This is hailed as “the largest temple to the Divine Feminine in the World and it is a true sight. Heaps of pilgrims, thousands of painted statues of gods, lots of noise made this for a pretty overwhelming experience. That aside, it stands as one of the most holy sites in all of India and it was truly moving seeing it.
Not only is January a great time temperature wise to visit South India, timing it with Pongal makes it easy for the traveler. Its dry, the mosquitoes aren’t too bad. Homes are open, people are extra friendly and it really is the most excellent time of year. If you’re thinking of visiting Tamil Nadu, time it around Pongal and be prepared for a time of plenty for the belly and the soul.