Pongal Again

So a couple of things –  my thanks for everyones patience – I did write shortly after arriving in Tirumangalam but neglected to post it properly – thank goodness for Drafts! You should have it by now?

I have also been struggling with this whole Blog writing thing. Partly because most of my travels these past couple of years have been to India and Italy – I don’t want to bore with well travelled ground. But also and perhaps more relevant – I have been thinking of some intensely personal things which are floating around and begging to be sent out into the world. Do I want to expose myself that much? Do I release my “babies” into the world to sink or swim on their own? Lastly, I started writing as a way of keeping in touch with family and friends so just nattered on about what ever came into my head with out too much consideration of how “good” the writing was. A little writing knowledge now is a dangerous thing….. I’m constantly second guessing myself – is it interesting, is it coherent, is it funny or is it just worth reading? All of which contributed to me saying very little, for quite some time now. Fortunately numerous friends have given me the figurative kick in the butt and I finally realized that I needn’t take all this too seriously – I am not Margaret Atwood after all!


I do get out from behind my camera once in a while….

So – Pongal. Its celebrated all over India under various names – Thai Pongal (which refers to the month in the Tamil calendar not the country) and Makara Sankranthi throughout the rest of the country. Basically its a harvest festival which stretches over four days. The first day is called Bhogi and is preparation; people discard old and worn-out items, buy new clothes; houses are cleaned, painted and decorated; and the horns of oxen and buffaloes are brightly painted.

The second day Thai Pongal is the main and more religious event – sweet pongal rice is prepared and served to everyone; people adorn their homes with elaborate decorative drawing on the floors made from rice flour and blessings are called down upon all.


Pongal Offerings


Waiting for the Sweet Pongal Rice

The third day, Mattu Pongal, is generally all about the cattle – traditionally a source of wealth for Tamils providing dairy, fertilizer, fuel and labour. The cattle are bathed, decorated with garlands, anointed with turmeric water and oils and fed treats of pongal rice, jaggery, honey, bananas and other fruits.

It is also the day of “Jallikattu” or the taming of the bulls – basically involves young men (who else would think this is a good idea?) grabbing hold of the hump on some massive bull and hanging on for dear life. As bulls are usually left to their own devices, getting bigger and more short-tempered  over the course of the year, this one day of mayhem must come as a bit of an unpleasant shock. Apparently there is seldom any damage done to the bulls but every year a couple of young men are trampled, gored, generally well and truly damaged – I don’t think anyone died this year….?!

The women rather sensibly (with considerably less harm to body and soul) set out a veritable feast for the local crows to share and enjoy – pongal rice, vegetables and bananas laid out on ginger or turmeric leaves. They also offer prayers to ensure their brother/sister ties stay as strong as those of the crows (who knew crows had strong filial ties?).

The fourth and last day, called Kaanam Pongal is all about visiting family, friends and gifts from brothers to sisters. Originally, thanks were given for everyones assistance in bringing in the harvests. Today when many people have migrated  to live in cities like Chennai, everyone goes to the beach to celebrate/party with family if fortunate to have them with you or simply with the friends you have made in the city.

“Our” Pongal which is for the children at the charity is either an opportunity to return home to visit family if they have any or the chance to participate in all the organized activities which have been planned and prepared for – usually for months. All the children are brought it from the outlying areas and shoehorned into the three local residences. Everything is spruced up and decorated. The science fair is a serious undertaking with some highly ingenious inventions. Judicious and lengthy deliberations from the conscripted judges are anxiously  watched and prizes are highly coveted. Then there is a full day of parades, costume displays, flag raising, and the sports events with subsequent and most important awards ceremonies.


All the very littlest one getting their prizes.


Science Fair.


“Judge” Simon Howard

In the evening each of the residences presents a cultural dance. Again, an enormous amount of thought, design and practice goes into each group’s effort and the quality is often  astonishingly good. It is an opportunity too for parents who have often travelled long distances to attend, to see their children shine and show off their new skills and confidence.


Some inventive and talented dancers.


Dancing gracefully while balancing tall, heavy pots on your head – now thats talent!

Personally one of the more endearing events is watching the “Old Boys”. There are always a group of young men who return to – well basically show off! Catch up with the other young men they’ve often spent years living with in residence but don’t often see once they have graduated from colleges. They goof around dressed in their finest or rather coolest clothes, show off new motorcycles perhaps and talk about their prospects  – careers, possible marriages and such.


The young “old boys”.

It is perhaps the real “Old Boys”, the men in their 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s who most affect me. They bring gifts – of money or things or their time to acknowledge the debt they feel and the gratitude they have for the lives they have been able to enjoy as a result of their time in the charity. One very dignified gentleman, when asked what his life might have been like without Joe Homan bringing him into the charity , simply told me he would be dead! Now he owns a business, married well, has children and grand-children and has a good life.

So Pongal is a blast really but completely exhausting. The kids are all pretty hyped up, everybody is talking, doing, running, playing and bouncing around. There are a million demands for photos. I brought a small printer last year and this, to make postcard sized prints – the kids all know about it so of course I’m kept pretty busy fulfilling their requests – it is quite awe inspiring to realize that most of these kids have never had a picture of themselves! If I give them a copy for themselves and another for family, the joy on their faces is a sight to behold – I am humbled.

7 thoughts on “Pongal Again

  1. Dear Kim. You may be repeating yourself but for me, this blog was alive with the feeling, colour, and joy of the celebration. I loved reading it and seeing the children. A beautiful story.

  2. Feeling rather emotional reading this blog Kim. First- its a treasure and a pleasure to have you share your observations. Apart from educational as I have never been to India, your writing reflects that we are not so different no matter where we come from, traditions, family( whatever that consists of), sharing are what unit us all… I love that reflection through your words. I know why you keep going back. Please never worry about your writing it is what it is meant to be in exactly the moment yo write it…. HUGS with gratitude Grace

  3. Dear Kim, This is the best description of Pongal and the celebrations at BTS I have read! You have really brought it to life and a tear to my eye. One of the highlights of January is when our Pongal card drops onto the doormat. Thank you! Can’t wait to hear more about your stint at BTS. Deborah

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