Friday, January 17, 2014

Pongal 'O Pongal

I believe festivals are important because symbolism is part of how we express ourselves. Sometimes, its a conduit, sometimes an outlet. Pongal is a festival steeped in respectful symbolism. It is rooted in the land, which is why it has truer and deeper meaning in the villages where people still mostly live off the land. Spread out over four days, the festival is an expression of blessing and gratitude- a day to pay homage to the sun which nourishes life, a day to thank the creator of animals and plants, and the most sacred animal of them all, the cow. A day to burn old things, a metaphorical act of hope to bring in the new, and a day set aside to visit and revel in people- to enjoy the bonds that tie us together.

There are very few festivals that still retain their original intent and have not been totally swamped in the religious rituals which have overtaken and even blurred the very reason for celebration. Pongal is one of them. Since it is a celebration of nature, it is also my favorite.

We headed to our village, laden with gifts of clothing for the workers. I had a few extra things. Isn't my shiny fan toy beautiful? But alas, it wasn't mine for long...

"Listen, you people. I bought these shiny fan toys for myself. I love 'em. I want 'em. I don't care if you're a little human or a big one, just KEEP YOUR GRUBBY HANDS OF 'EM, I SAY!" - that's the gist of what I said and I was happy.

A few seconds later...

This is why I fear for the world- where's the honor in this act, hmm? I'll keep an interested yet suspicious eye on the child's future career especially, for sure... Moving on,...

Maatu Pongal, the one for cows is the most important of all the four days in the villages here. We celebrate  it with passion, I'd say. So, here's an account of how that day went down. First, here are the stars of the show getting their make up on-
Next, the stage is set up. On an open flame, pots of rice and grains are cooked.
Meanwhile an archway is constructed using the branches and leaves of trees that are auspicious- neem, banana, sugarcane...Under the archway a miniature cow dung temple is put together. It's a square partitioned into four smaller squares and filled with water, tender coconut water, milk etc. Flowers adorn it and the smaller lump of dung placed in front of it stands for the God Ganesha- it holds his favorite grass- arugam.

The stone leaning against one of the posts making up the arch represent the God Shiva. It is believed in the village that on the days of pongal, the Gods do spot inspections of the households and farms and see that we aren't mucking up things down here. I'd like to have a word with them about the other 361 days.

Once all the preparations are done, the feast is laid out and camphor and incense are lit. The entire family stands around in a few moments of silent prayer. I was thanking everything I could think of. Then people walk around the arch banging plates with sticks shouting 'pongal o pongal'. The din is simply awful, but people enjoy it anyway.

Then one of the cows is led under the archway. As she crosses it, she must step on the cow dung temple with her right foot- which signifies a good year ahead. That's something about our culture- a reverence for the right limbs while the left are shunned; poor poor side! Anyway, the production is quite riveting. And  funny. The guy leading the cow will be perspiring as he tries to maneuver the creature so that it literally puts the right foot forward. People around him shouting instructions, all tense. He backs it up, encourages it forward, this way and that, and finally, it's done right. There's a chorus of 'aaaaahs' and everyone smiles at their assured good fortune in the coming year.

The after party- once the praying is done, the cows get to feed on the cooked rice, mixed with ripe bananas and jaggery.

Then the humans get to eat. After that, we just laze around, talking and laughing, enjoying the rarity of having diverse members of the family together.

This villager stopped by for a brief visit. The reason I mention him and took pictures is because his conversation was amusing. He was talking about jalli kattu, the Tamil 'sport' that is called 'bull taming'. The amusing part was how animated he got as he recounted one year in particular. As you can see from the before and after shots, his hands started flying and ofcourse, the wastee (lower garment) had to be folded in half. So for the story.

He was a lad when the headman of the village, an extremely affluent and therefore revered, powerful man, brought in a bull renowned for his viciousness. It was taller than a man and horns so sharp they could cut cloth. It was so intimidating that when it turned its head to on side, the people gathered to gawk at it would take a few steps back in fright, even though it was secured with ropes. To this bull, as is the custom, many threads bearing gold and silver coins were tied on its horns before the jalli kattu. Men were prepared to try their hand even though no one had tamed this bull for years. But one man was more than prepared; he oozed confidence. It was said that before he left his village, he went to the police station there and told them that he would return victorious, so he wanted the Government to keep his prize money ready. He approached the affluent headman and told him he would tame the bull. The headman told him, "If you do so, half the gold and silver coins tied to its horns are yours."

So the jalli kattu started and the bull was let loose. It trampled and maimed men as it ran. But our hero was a strong man. He ran alongside the bull, out of its reach, then suddenly he leaped onto its back, his hand found its horns and he managed to wrap his legs around it and lock them in place. In this way, they ran till the bull tired and he was able to tame it. He led the bull to its pen and triumphantly went to the headman. He told him, "I cannot find anyone who will approach the bull to retrieve the coins now. You take them and give me my share." So the hero did so and was praised all around. And that's the story of the toughest bull ever seen in these parts and how it was tamed.
 (*I despise any sport in which animals are forced to participate, this is just a recounting of a story that caught a villager's fascination)

Signing off with...
The newest arrival on our farm-
Cleaning up weed plans in the groundnut field- a worker and Mom

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