A FESTIVAL NAMED AFTER FOOD AND WORSHIPED AS FOOD--PONGAL OF TAMILS
(Discourse by N.R. Srinivasan, Nashville, TN, January 2014)
American Hindus are drawn from various Hindu Traditions prevailing in India. To them to watch the way Tamils do worship and celebrate Makara Sankranti calling the festival by the name of their favorite food stuff Pongal looks bizarre. Pongal festival is closely connected with agriculture and the harvest season. Symbolically it is presumed to be the first harvest offered to the Almighty and the Sun God, who has enabled cultivation of the crop. But in reality it is the worship of food as such while it is still boiling in the pot, along with the agricultural crop sugar cane. During Pongal, landlords distribute food, clothes, money to the laborers who work for them. The keynote of the Pongal festival is, to be charitable, to be generous and treat your employees as your bosom friends.
The day prior to Pongal is called Bhogi festival. Houses are cleaned and sometimes painted days before. On this day, old worn out and useless items are burnt in a bonfire. The main entrance of the house and doorways are washed, wiped clean, and Kolam (art design with rice paste and red mud paste called chemman) or Rangoli designs are applied all over the house floors and walls. Bhogi signifies the cleansing of the mind of its ill thoughts and feelings, while symbolically burning them up, with a firm resolve to tread the path of love with truth and purity from this holy day on-wards. Scholars have often compared Bhogi to the Indra Vizha celebrated by the Chola kings at Kaveripattinam, also known as Poompuhar. Indra Vizha was celebrated in honor of Lord Indra, also called Bhogi, the God of thunder and rain.
During Pongal, puddings, sweet rice and other delicacies are prepared in every home especially in Tamil Nadu. The pot in which the rice is cooked is beautifully adorned with turmeric leaves and roots, the symbols of auspiciousness. The doorways are decorated with mango leaves and plaited coconut leaves. The doorstep entrance is washed and when dry, decorated with Rangoli or kolam designs with dry rice flour or liquid rice paste. Huge stocks of sugar cane decorate the yard. All wear new clothes. The cooking is done by the women of the house after taking a holy bath with great fervor and devotion. The pot is placed on the stove, and when the milk in which the rice is being cooked boils over, the members of the family assemble around the pot and shout "Pongalo Pongal". Special prayers are offered in the temples and in homes. After the conclusion of prayers the household gathers and part-takes the offerings in an atmosphere of love and festivity. This is a time of family reunions.
On the next day of Pongal women visit their parent's house as a means of touching base with their roots. That is why this day is called Kaanum pongal meaning a pongal day for visiting or seeing others. Kaanum got corrupted to kanu in usage. Young girls and women prepare various colored rice and head to the river banks or water tanks. Rice balls are made and laid out on banana leaves with broken coconuts and bananas. Cooked rice is fed to the fish and other creatures. Birds appear and feed on the food that is set out in the open. Crows appear in large numbers and part-take the food. It is very interesting to note that before the crows eat, they call their mates to part-take the food that they are about to eat. Valuable lessons can be learnt here, to share what one has with his near and dear and friends. This bird spirit is reflected in celebrating Pongal.It is customary in Brahmin families for the women to offer these colored and prepared food (sweet, salty and spicy) rice balls to the elements of nature and pray for the welfare of all at their parent’s home, their husband's home and brothers (kannu pidi vaithen kaakkaiku pidi vaithen Pukkam pongi vaazha pirandaam tirandu vaazha udaipirandaan usandu vaazha pongalo pongal). Usually this worship takes place near the 'Brindavan' of Tulsi at home. These acts serve as 'Bhootayagna' an offering of food to the living creatures like ants, insects, birds, fish etc. Brothers give gifts to the sisters, who pray for their well being. This prayer is extended to all in the world who are considered as brothers. Generally Tamils address equals and bit older as anna (brother) and elders as maama (uncle) even though not related. Feasts are prepared and the whole family part-take in it. Vedas say whole world is one family and therefore these prayers are universal.
In Tamil Nadu, the same day, the cows are cleaned, bathed and decorated with clothes and flowers and worshiped. This is a day dedicated to the cattle which have helped them in the fields in furloughing and harvesting. The cattle are taken in procession from house to house and the cowherds are offered gifts. In some villages the youth demonstrate their valor by literally taking the bulls by the horns, and often win their brides. Some of these venues also support gambling at a very low level. This day is also called "Mattu Pongal" or Cow Pongal, a day dedicated to cows.
Pongal is essentially a food and cattle worship festival focusing on food charity. What could have prompted this ancient Tamil Tradition to name the festival after a food item and also worship? The keynote of the Pongal festival is to be charitable, to be generous and treat your employees as your bosom friends. What made Vivekananda lament “in India religion has entered into the cooking pot”. Probably he was remarking about the Pongal festival of Tamils only. Other traditions in the South celebrate this day as Sankranti as North Indians.
To a Tamil Vedic scholar this does not come as a surprise though the renowned Vedic scholar Swami Vivekananda from Bengal got agitated. In several mantras Upanishads worship Food as an entity equated with Brahman (Vyaahriti) and praise food as the root cause of creation. You will soon hear an elaborate discourse titled “Food varieties for Celebration and Food Entity for worship; Do not abuse food” based on mantras of several Upanishads and Hindu scriptures. Upanishad says: “prithivyaa osahadhayah /oshadheebhyoe-aannam / annaat purushah // from earth herbs were produced; from herbs food was produced and finally that food produced this human body. Out of the gross earth rose up the entire world of vegetation, the source of food. The food that is taken in large quantities by the father crystallizes into its essence as the seeds in him and a seed fertilizing an ovum in the womb of the mother grows into its full maturity, to be born as an individual called Purusha. “Annam vai prajaapatis-tato ha vai tadretah tasmaasdimaah prajaah prajaayante iti --Prasnopanishad- 14)” Food is verily the Lord of all creatures. That human seed is from that Prajaapati. From that all these people are born.
Mantras from several Upanishads focus on the theme: One should not abuse food; one should not discard food on the plate; one should earn so much food that will be adequate for the guests, visitors and one’s own people in the family. One should have regard for food. One should not refuse food to any person who comes to his house during night time for food (offer food and shelter to the needy). As it is incumbent on the individual not to refuse food to any one that comes to the individual’s house for food, the individual should earn adequate food by what so ever means it may be, even by un-fare means. One should earn plenty of food by all means. These mantras echo the modern slogans, “Grow more food” and “Food for the Million” and “Food and Shelter for the poor as an act of Charity”.
“Achieving food security for all is at the heart of FAO's efforts – to make sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. Their mandate is to improve nutrition, increase agricultural productivity, raise the standard of living in rural populations and contribute to global economic growth”. These are the objectives of FAO of United Nations. Don’t you feel it very much echoes Pongal Spirit expressing Wisdom of Vedas that was directed to human society at the very beginning of the present civilization!
It is customary for Tamils to greet people wishing them happy Pongal thereby meaning wishing them with plenty of food, community happiness and prosperity everything overflowing for Pongal means that which over flows.
This festival needs more explanation as a universal worship addressing all people on earth as brothers and sisters and praying for their prosperity. The prayer of this festival is:
“Kaakkaaiku pidi vaithen kanukku pidi vairthen Pukkaam pongi vaazha pirandaam tirandu vaazha udanpirandhavaal usarndu vaazha, pongalo pongal!”
This means I am praying to the crow with this food ball, I am praying to the one I am visiting with this food ball, I am praying for my parents-in–laws’ family to be overflowing in their living, my parents’ home always kept open and welcome for me, and my brothers and sisters to reach great heights of prosperity in life”
This festival is similar to “Bhai dhuj” celebrated in North India during Diwali season praying for brothers and in turn sister’s being honored with gifts on a magnified scale, and all family members and others who are on visit or visited, as the couplet explains. It is also extended to all beings through the medium of crow. But why particularly crow? In fact the girl or lady who performs this worship eagerly waits on the crows to consume the food she offered before braking the fast. Crows appear in large numbers and part-take the food. It is very interesting to note that before the crows eat, they call their mates to part-take the food that they are about to eat. Valuable lessons are conveyed here, to share what one has with his near and dear and friends. This bird spirit is reflected in celebrating Pongal.
What does this mean to-day to an American Hindu Tamil ? There are no crows seen in America in daily life. But they carry the crow-spirit with them by sharing their food and caring for others in this great celebration. In fact Kanu is the corrupted form of Kaanum in Tamil. Kaanum means visit, the day of visiting all those they are acquainted with and exchange greetings. It is also customary to call affectionately a young one as tambi or tangachi, the older one as anna or akka (brother and sister), the elderly aged ones as Maama (uncle) and Maami (aunt) irrespective of their caste or creed.
So the prayer above is universal in nature and belongs to the entire humanity. It is much more appropriate for an American Hindu Tamils because they celebrate this festival amid people drawn from different cultures. Here pukkaam means immigrant country and pirandaam means India his home of origin in the above prayer. The prayer is thus directed to all as universal brothers and sisters.