A harvest festival is the time to celebrate that which the earth bestows upon us.It is of great significance in the South of India particularly because we are blessed with an abundance of sunshine throughout the year. Adding to that fact is that the people of Coimbatore largely stem from an agrarian community which lived off the land in a manner that sustained the environment.
It’s no wonder then that the Pongal festival is one that has come to be deeply revered not just for the food provided but as a celebration of the farming community that toils quietly all year round.It’s also the time to take note of the impact that the farm animals have on our lives and how different the earth would be without their existence.
As children , Pongal at our home was about waking up early and going through the cleansing oil bath ritual before heading outdoors to light the first fire of the day which signified the birth of the thai masam.The cold spell of marghazhi ends with the start of spring.
Rice being a staple in our diet,it is but natural for it to be the main ingredient as a means of offering.Any festive occasion demands something sweet because of the joy associated with sugary foods.The coming together of soft rice grains with raw cane sugar,unrefined and golden brown is a taste we all yearn for at this time of year. It is a sign of prosperity for the farmer and also carries on the hope for an auspicious start to the farming year.
Cooking outdoors ,gathering firewood,using earthen pots are some of the things that bind people to the land.It’s not easy to keep the flame burning while trying to ward off that gusty wind that is such a huge part of time spent cooking pongal on a firewood stove.The strands of fresh young turmeric wound around the neck of the pot are celebrated for the antiseptic properties that it carries. While the sun god is venerated with the largest offering , blessings of the family deity and Lord Ganesha ( destroyer of all ills) are also invoked by similar offerings.
In most homes the pongals are of different kinds with each member having his or her own favourite. The kalkandu saadham cooked with milk and coarse sugar crystals glistens with it’s anointment of ghee and aroma of saffron.The karputtai pongal is a rich contrast in a dark almost chocolate like colour and it’s treacly taste is hard to resist. The next is the pongal made with a lighter jaggery and the addition of lentils.This adds a different texture to the sakkarai pongal and is loved by all.
While most people use refined rice grains these days ,in the past it was mostly the hand pounded raw rice that was used.With efforts on to conserve our indigenous rice grains , it makes sense to use native varieties of organic rice which are not only delicious but go a long way in encouraging the farmer to practice sustainable agriculture.
Did you know that even the kolams drawn in front of homes, for decoration have a real purpose behind it ? The rice flour in the kolams is meant to feed ants and other little creatures so that they won’t feel the need to come indoors in search of food. So you see, the painted kolams are of purely cosmetic value and little else!
The hanging of mango leaves again is because of the fact that they contain anti-bacterial properties.The breeze that wafts through them, permeates the house and keeps it free from fungal infestations.
A lot of this wisdom may not have been passed on for several reasons but the fact that traditions, rituals and festivals have deeper meanings cannot be discounted.
As we would potter about awaiting the brimming over of the pongal paannai ,we never felt a gnawing hunger or restlessness.In fact being involved in the many chores made the feast that followed after ,so much more special.It just goes to show ,all that is taught with meaning not only lasts but gets passed on from one generation to the next. Pongalo pongal !