Celebrate the season of hope and abundance

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Speaking Tree

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By Renuka Narayanan

The festival of Pongal affirms the enduring charm of religious culture. Even rationalist Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy, called Periyar, knew that. One year he reportedly won the Tamil Nadu government prize for best temple maintenance. This was for his services to Lord Vishnu, the presiding deity of his hometown, Erode, at the 10th century Chola temple of Kasturi Ranganatha Perumal.

A temple inscription attests to the paving of the parikrama with Cudappa stone by Chinnathayammal, wife of Mandi E Venkata Naicker. They were Periyar’s parents. Not only did his mother pay for paving the temple parikrama, but also, his father adorned the image of Vishnu in the sanctum with a silver crown and outsized silver feet. Whatever else he said, Periyar kept the family link with God.

In that spirit, the common people of Tamil Nadu have kept their gods, like how Soviet Russia, while doing away with the Tsar, kept the ballet, the art and the palaces as expressions of the Russian soul.

Pongal, dedicated to Surya, corresponds to the harvest festival of Makara Sankaranti observed across India. Pongal literally means ‘boiling over’ in Tamil, from the ritual of letting milk boil over in a new pot as an augur of abundance. The milk ritual gives the festival its name and the festival gives the prasad its name while the prasad has two versions, sweet and salted. In sum there are four things called Pongal. (The festival itself is four days long, each day with its own Pongal name, but we’ll leave it there.)

All five ecological zones of Tamil Nadu observe Pongal. These zones, celebrated in Tamil poetry as far back as 2,000 years ago, are Kurinji, the mountainous region; Mullai, the pastoral region; Marutham, the river valleys; Neydhal, the coast, and Paalai, the scrubland. Together they form the Ai-Vagai or five zones of the Tamil land.

While the food of these regions may vary from fish curry on the coast to goat curry inland, and the flowers vary from pink water lilies in the Neydhal to the kurinji flower that mists the Nilgiris in soft blue every 12 years, an insouciant cultural unity boils over in Pongal pots across regions.

This year, as ever, a drive around the state will yield common Pongal sightings since 87.5% of Tamil Nadu is Hindu per the 2011 Census. For one, most homes will display elaborate kolam, mandala-style patterns of rice flour outside the door. This is as true for rural huts and urban slums as for the palatial bungalows of Chennai.

Second, cattle in Tamil Nadu have their horns brightly painted and brass bells tied on as party dress for Pongal, in which they and the crops are thanked along with the Sun. Third, if lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of jallikattu or bull-hugging – think of the Minoans of ancient Crete – in which the likely lads of the countryside hurl themselves at charging bulls weighing close to half a ton each. Many pampered prize bulls are like godlings to their owners and to society in general. The contenders who manage to hang on to a bull between 30 to 60 seconds are feted as the season’s heroes.

To crown matters, the sweet prasad of coconut and jaggery-flavoured pongal, and the salted pongal – a khichri of moong dal and rice drizzled with ghee, speckled with cashews and peppercorns – make Pongal a festival of glad promise to start the new cycle with.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.



via TOI Blog

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