The Pongal festival has never been a reason for a big celebration at home. It usually starts with us waking up at around 730 AM and start the day as usual. Amma (mom) is always the busy one making Sweet Pongal, regular Pongal, Sambhar, Rasam and Payasam in her kitchen. The rest of us watch TV, help Amma here and there and wait to eat all her yummy preparations after a small pooja performed by Appa (dad). Simply put, this was more of a holiday with yummy food than a celebration.
When Tamil Nadu Tourism reached out to me for a blogger experience meet in Madurai, my joy knew no bounds. This was going to be my first ever rural and traditional Pongal celebration. While the COVID-19 did make me think more than twice, I so badly wanted to do this and took all the necessary precautions.
In January, four days are celebrated as Pongal every year. According to the Tamil Solar calendar, this marks the beginning of a new month named Tai or Thai. This festival’s significance is thanksgiving to Mother Nature for helping the farmers reap a good harvest after all the months of sowing and farming. Rice, sugarcane, other cereals and turmeric are harvested during this time.
Day One: Bhogi Pongal is the first day of the festival where wood and cow dung are burnt (like a bonfire), signifying the season’s last cold day.
Day Two: Thai Pongal: is the most important day when rice is boiled in milk outdoors and offered to Sun God.
Day Three: Maatu Pongal: is the day when cows are decked, and Jallikattu is played.
Day Four: Kaanum Pongal: is the last of all celebrations. The leftover pongal and other edibles are offered to the gods on a turmeric leaf seeking blessings for a great year.
Pongal Festival in Madurai
On January 14th, we were all decked up and ready to head to this small village near Madurai called Arittapetti. This place has a small Rock Cut Shivan temple and also Jain caves around it. This rural village is blessed with a lovely lake which helps in farming and everyday water usage. People live in and around the hillocks, a perfect setting that any city-bred will dream of being in, at least for a few hours if not days.
In Arittapetti, the locals were dressed in new clothes and gathered in their common area to enjoy the performances lined up for the day. Musicians and dancers from the village were all decked up for the day’s performance. We spent some time in the common area, where the villagers greeted us in the traditional way. They offered us kum-kum, flowers and wished us Happy Pongal with the warmest smiles.
We walked towards the Rock Cut Sivan temple, which is where the main Pongal festival celebrations happened. We had to cross a lake on foot to reach the temple. My day couldn’t have started better as all these small adventures on a regular day get my spirit high. We crossed knee-deep water in our sarees to reach the temple. The views from the other side were even better with nature all around.
The womenfolk were ready with their earthen pots and all the necessary ingredients in place. They began to ululate with bowed hands and, ignoring all the smoke around them, to indicate the overflowing of milk. This was definitely an experience for me as I saw two women dance uncontrollably (Saami aaduthal) due to the happy high they experience then. We watched the whole process, right from lighting the fire to adding the ingredients (milk, rice, jaggery, ghee), taking selfies with them and distributing the sweet pongal to everyone around.
In and around the villages, there were many cultural activities planned for the whole day. We also got to experience a sports competition that was being conducted in every small village. The whole place, all the villages that we passed through, was festive and joyous. People were all smiles and wore new clothes, invited us to come home and eat the delicacies that they had prepared.
The two days that we got to spend in Madurai is truly a memory I will cherish. I’m glad I got to celebrate a different Pongal festival than usual, and hopefully experience this again.