(The following column originally appeared January, 2008.)Today is PONGAL, and I am not in Tamil Nadu! Not even close, not even in South India! Where can I possibly eat sweet pongal or ghee pongal? Guess I will have to experiment with recipes at home.
'Thai Pongal', as it is popularly called in Tamil Nadu, is a thanksgiving ceremony celebrated by Tamil farmers to thank the spirits of nature, the sun and farm animals for their assistance in providing a successful harvest all through the year.
The festival is spread over four days, from the last day of 'Margazhi' to the third day of following month 'Thai' as 'Bhogi', 'Thai Pongal', 'Mattu Pongal' and 'Kannum Pongal'.
"We may have settled here, but we haven't forgotten our traditions. Almost all Tamils in Delhi celebrate Pongal the same way it is celebrated in Tamil Nadu," Natesan, secretary of Tamil Youth Cultural Association, told.It's also Makar Sankranti, which involves the movement of the sun through the Jyotish (Vedic) zodiac, and the approach of spring. I believe the sun is entering the sign of Capricorn (the Jyotish or Indian zodiac calculates differently from the Western one).
The best Makar Sankranti ever was at the Kalachakra initiation in 2006. The whole town of Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh was alive with Tibetan and Buddhist festivity anyway, and then added to that was the Makar Sankranti observance (dressed-up cows and bullocks, street musicians, and special, extra- elaborate kollam designs in front of doorways). Here's the best picture I got that day...it's one of my best "India" photos ever.
Pongal is not just one day, but several, including my favourite, Mattu Pongal or the day to honour cows and bullocks. In the Madurai area of Tamil Nadu, this has traditionally included a kind of bullfight or bull-run called Jallikettu. In 2008 the whole area was up in arms (declaring a "black Pongal") because the Supreme Court has banned the practice, declaring it inhumane and cruel.
I have a suggestion - they should do what Nepalis do at Gai Jatra, and instead of using real cows, dress up humans as cows. Then they could see how much fun it is to be chased, poked , stabbed and have their tails pulled. It's quite amusing to see all the Madurai Hindus defend their "400 year old tradition" - what about the much older Hindu tradition (about 4000 years old) of honouring the cows?