Pongal: Traditional Dish as an Offer to Gods

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An important event to the Sri Lankan Tamil culture is a two-day, harvest festival called “Pongal”. In Tamil, “Pongal” means “to boil” and it is also the name of the signature dish eaten during the festival that is made out of rice and lentils. When this festival is conducted on the homeland in Sri Lanka, it is about being thankful for what nature has provided, particularly the Sun, the farmers and animals, such as the bull, used for aiding them in their vegetation. Based on the solar calendar, “Pongal” is celebrated yearly on the fourteenth of January as it marks a significance in the Sun’s movement towards the north (“Pongal Festival”, n.d.). Thus, it is important for Hindu Tamils to follow this cultural event as it helps to explain meanings given to understand their experiences which are passed on to the next generation (Robbins et al., 2016, 9). There are varied rituals conducted within the two days, which starts with an offering done for the Sun, followed by an offering to honour the bulls. When critically analyzing the rituals, there are gender-specific customs observed in unison with the worldview they have to dignify and respect the land they farm on.

“Thai Pongal” is the first day of “Pongal”, where Tamils offer our thankfulness to the Sun. Women, typically the mothers, are expected to wake up very early in the morning before sunrise. Initially, they must take a shower and are expected to clean the house followed by drawing an art design on the ground called “kolam” outside the home’s entrance. “Kolam”, which also means beauty, is made out of various bright-coloured rice that is patterned in a specific way. The “kolam” is seen to take a symmetrical form as it portrays a “universal balance” between the spiritual and physical world (M., 2002). Women are required to squat down and stretch their arms and hands in order to draw the design. They must take their time and concentrate on creating the patterned design.

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Soon after, the other members of the family wake up and take a shower as well. We tend to wear new, traditional clothes on this day. The women drape themselves using a long, coloured, silk or cotton fabric known as a “saree”. They wrap the fabric around their waist a few times and after it is pleated and placed on their left shoulder. Men and the younger boys typically wear a white, cotton dress shirt with a white cloth called “vetti” which is wrapped around their waist. The girls in the family tend to wear a silk blouse and skirt.

Once, the women finish the “kolam”, they must prepare the “Pongal” dish. The women bring a clay or brass pot outside which is placed in an easterly direction which is the side the Sun rises from. The women may also decorate the pot by placing ginger leaves around the neck of the pot. They acquire three stones which they use as the base where they make the fire to cook. First, they boil the milk until they see the foam rising at the top of the pot. We believe that when the foam falls on the side of the pot, it is a sign from God, thus if the foam falls onto the east side of the pot, it is believed that God appreciates and is sending a good sign to our family. Next, as a ritual, the dominant, male figure, in the household typically the father takes a handful of uncooked rice and in a clock-wise direction is expected to sprinkle the rice three times around the neck of the pot and after, this is done by the rest of the family. Then, the women add rice into the pot and allow it to boil. After, other ingredients are added, such as shredded coconut, raisins, cashews, ghee, honey, and to make the rice sweet, jaggery, which is all mixed using a wooden stirrer.

Once the “Pongal” dish is prepared, the cooked dish is placed on a large banana leaf with various fruits which is first offered to the Sun and the Gods in order to show appreciation for what they have given to the people. After my family offers the food, we begin to pray and convey our thanks to the Sun. For men, they do this by laying on the ground with their forehead and hands touching the soil and for the women, they do the same thing but instead are kneeling on the ground. Only after offering the food to the Sun and Gods we are able to enjoy and eat the “Pongal”.

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