Celebrating Surya Pongal

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Hastings Road was bubbling with an unusually expectant anticipation. The buffalo cart at the mouth of the road was festooned with coloured streamers. Visitors had come in their finest festive garb to the mini animal farm, bearing special gifts of bananas for the cattle, while a keeper indulged the animals with handfuls of boiled rice and turmeric. I had not just visited on an ordinary Sunday; I had arrived on one of the most important days in the Tamil calendar: Surya Pongal. The second day of the harvest festival Pongal, it was an occassion dedicated to the ritual cooking of the eponymous pongal rice pudding out in the sunlight as a thanks offering to the Hindu solar god Surya. It would also kick off the beginning of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar in spectacular fashion.

Three sugarcane stems stood tied together at one end, over what appeared to be an innocuous clay brazier. It wasn’t directly under the glare of the sun as it is traditionally meant to be, but their leaves seemed to stretch for the sky beyond the white tent roofing sheltering the road. Sugarcane, as a signature harvest crop, symbolised prosperity and was thus an auspicious sign under which the all-important cooking of milk for the pudding would begin. Milk, as a life-giving substance and a product of the cow which is so sacred to Hinduism, took pride of place. The moment when it was cooked until it overflowed would usher in abundance and be a cause of riotous celebration.

Mr Manoj, a balding middle-aged man in a light blue kurta, set to work. Spreading out a variety of metal plates, he began arranging the ingredients – jaggery, ghee, raisins, cashews and the crucial dish of milk. A handful of turmeric leaves had been tied around the steel vessel that would be used for cooking . Onlookers slowly gathered, drawn by the lively charcoal fire that had been busily, but reverently, kindled. Pieces of hard orange candy were burned in a clay lamp, adding their own connotations of a sweet year to a growing stew of spiritual symbolism. Against the backdrop of a lively hubbub of Tamil commentary by an emcee, the man was quietly joined by more assistants. They anointed the corners of the objects with oil, stirred the fire with sticks and carried forth the banana leaf that would be the centrepiece for the food offerings.

More and more visitors began to gather. A Tamil woman wearing a cross around her neck stood with another wearing a hijab, eyeing the festivities as eagerly as their Hindu counterparts. There were curious Australian backpackers who had arrived next to Chinese onlookers toting cameras. The air was punctuated by waves of applause and shouts of ‘Pongal-o-pongal!’; cries of abundance in Tamil. The offerings were set out on the banana leaf: a pleasing mosiac from the colours of the ripe bananas, hibiscus flowers, and coconut shells that were quickly arranged at its corners.

Explosive festive music burst out from the sound system. The pot was uncovered and brought before the makeshift altar. Guests decked with flower garlands stepped up, to be passed a beaker of milk which they would take turns to add to the pot. A group of elderly men and women were brought toward the altar to do the honours, craning their necks to see what was happening. The crowd had grown so large I had to jostle to view even a slice of the festivities. The tempo of the music grew faster and faster.

Everyone was clapping in time, faster and faster. “We have to motivate the milk to boil over,” someone explained to me. Mr Manoj and an assistant in white crouched on either side of the pot, anxious, waiting.

The moment came in a split second. A huge fountainhead of white froth bubbled over, throwing the cover off its lid. The crowd roared. People cheered and laughed and cried out, “Pongal-o-pongal!” A woman in a red saree took the microphone from the emcee and made a high-pitched screeching call. The milk had overflowed – pongal, abundance, was ushered in for the new year.

Heady aromas of incense and the smoky scent of charcoal clung heavily to my clothes long after I left Hastings Road. All over the island, Tamils would be enjoying the pongal pudding, and its promise of sweetness for the year ahead.

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Mr Manoj kindling the fire.

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A ripened banana folded with a sugarcane leaf in a coconut shell, one of the two halves placed against the corners of the sugarcane structure representing the fruits of farm labour.

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The charred remains of the orange hard candy that had been burnt as an offering.

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Arranging the food offerings on a banana leaf.

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Raucous clapping to the Pongal music.

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Musicians on the nadaswaram flute and dholak drum.

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A girl carrying a beaker from which guests would pour milk into the steel pot.

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The milk being put to boil.

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