Pongal with the tribe

The din. That is the only way I could best describe the city I live in. My friends think I head to the jungles every time I come here; and I let them think so and be suitably envious! It’s not quite the jungle, but Sittilingi does have a lot of the flora and fauna, some of which decide to come peep into the room I stay in when I am here. And it also does awfully quiet, in relative terms to the din in the city. This time was much, much quieter though because most of the staff was on leave for Pongal, the harvest festival. I was here because I wanted to see how the festival was being celebrated.

Pongal is the first festival in the new year (as per the Jan-Dec calculation, of course) and also marks the beginning of a new year for the Tamilians. With most people depending on the land for the meals they eat, the harvest festival is the most important day in the year. I was told that Pongal was especially a big deal for the tribals.

The facts: The three day festival starts with the vassal-pongal, when pongal (also a dish made of rice, dal and either jaggery or pepper and cumin) is made outside the front door. The next day is the maatt-pongal, where the cattle are worshipped. The third day is when meat is cooked and there are games and fun fare and drinking. The games also include the jalli-katt, where there are bull races and the like, egged on by the entire village dressed often in their best.

I was on a quiet day. Work was quieter than usual too and I could, horrors!, hear myself think. That hasn’t happened much lately. Anyway, preparations were in full swing, both at the village and the hospital. The health worker Ambi had drawn extremely beautiful kollams (those are the rangolis, the decorative designs usually drawn with rice powder or with chalk) all over the place, helped on by the other girls. Unlike in other places, Tha told me this, the tribals celebrate vassal-pongal in the evenings.

So yesterday, I am duly escorted by Vijaya to her house on the edge of the Sittilingi village where I meet her relatives, her in-laws and her two young sons. Her father in law was drawing designs on the mud pots and there were already stones outside that are painted the colour of brick and embellished with big white polka dots. These stones were going to be used to cook the pongal outside the house. There was busy cooking going on on one side and the puja items being assembled in another corner.

Before the puja begins, Vijaya takes me around the village. Every house has two pots sitting on the fire, brimming with rice for the pongal. The family sits outside chatting, the kids burst crackers and run around the feet of the busy elders. For some reason, the temple is playing M S Subbulakshmi’s ‘Venkatesha Suprabhatam’ at 7 pm! It is a lovely sight, a soft blue and pink sky left over after the sun retired for the day and beneath that, little huts, prettied up for the festival, aglow with the burning fires and the faiths of the praying tribals. And I will stop being wax poetic now! 

I have a lovely dinner at Vijaya’s house, with pongal and coconut and several vegetables. Next morning the sun is raging down. I first head to Rajamma’s mother’s house past the village. Now I must describe this:

Maatt-pongal is when the people offer prayers to the cows and the goats. The prayers are held in the fields or in front of the house. Kids happily run about splaying their cattle with different colours. The horns are painted a bright red or green or blue. In a clearing, two long stalks of bamboo and sugarcane are installed, a few feet apart and are decorated. Then comes my favourite part: the making of the god! You read that right.

I know that creating an idol and offering prayers is not restricted to animism. There are tales of long distance devout travellers who would create an idol, offer prayer and then immerse it in water. But this was the first time I was actually seeing it. A senior man in the family (I didn’t see the women doing this) takes a fistful of cow dung, pats it down and shapes a few idols out of them on a platform. Little stems of the harvested crop go into it, along with several incense sticks at each end. Kum-kum is put on each of these tiny figures and the whole thing is decorated with small, wild flowers. It was fascinating to watch them make this ‘pulleyaar’, as they call it. A lamp is lit next o it. Then plantain leaves are laid out in front. Balls of the pongal, which is made in pots nearby, are kept along with halved coconuts, bananas and vegetables. The tribals join their hands in prayer, for a new year with better harvest and more prosperity. At Revathi’s house where I go next, the men of the house also go around the cattle three times chanting ‘Pongal oh Pongal!’

A lovely lunch and I was back. While harvest festivals are not new to me, we celebrate them back home too, what struck me was how much the tribals are connected to the land. It is not just that they earn their living from the crops they cultivate. They pray to that which gives them prosperity, the land, and what they reap from it. There is a simplicity to their faith that leaves me with something akin to awe and plain admiration. As always, I fall in love with them just a little more.

Hope you all had a wonderful festival as well.

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