Celebrating the Pongal festival is a highlight for the people of Tamil Nadu. Our volunteers recently joined in the excitement of this tradition, learning how to draw Kolam and cook Pongal. Ariane Lecuyer shares her experience of an action packed day
When you live 6,450 kilometres away from India, in a traditionally Christian country, you never hear about Hindu celebrations. Like an excited child, I have enjoyed discovering some of the most popular Hindu festivities since my arrival in Madurai in October 2011. Three months ago, for example, I celebrated the fantastic festival called Diwali. It was an amazing experience and perhaps one of my best memories so far of this trip. And recently, again thanks to Projects Abroad and my host family, I experienced the fascinating Pongal tradition.
The Pongal festival was originally a harvest festival celebrated by farmers over four days. With a rich agricultural heritage, this festival is one of the most popular in Tamil Nadu. Held at the end of January, which is the beginning of the first month in the Tamil Calendar, people start Pongal with the Bhogi day by burning old and unwanted material.
The second day is the Thai Pongal, which is dedicated to the sun and deemed the most important day of the festival (Thai is the name of the first month in the Tamil calendar). During this day, the main task is to cook a sweet pudding called Pongal, and decorate the streets with special Kolam, a handmade drawing made with rice flour. The third day is called Maattu Pongal, and is dedicated to cows as a thanksgiving for their daily work. The cows are decorated with paint and flowers. Finally, the Pongal celebration ends with the Kaanun Pongal, an entire day spent with family and friends.
To give volunteers an understanding about how the festival is traditionally celebrated, Projects Abroad organised a one-day programme on the 13th of January at Hayagreeva Matriculation School in a village called Kadamalaigundu. My fellow volunteers and I had a wonderful time celebrating Thai Pongal for an entire day dressed in traditional Indian clothes.
The day started early for us. To get to this school, which is 18 km from Madurai we met at 6 am at the bus station. Women were asked to wear saris and men; dhotis. At first, we were all enthusiastic about the dress code, but then we realized that it meant waking up even earlier. (Indeed, for foreigners it takes more than twenty minutes to dress in traditional clothes!) Thankfully, most of our women volunteers were helped by their host mother, and some of the men volunteers were helped by passers-by who saw their lost gaze as they tried again and again to wear their dhotis in the correct way.
After quite an exhaustive journey in a small van, we arrived at a beautiful school in the middle of a fantastic landscape. What was surprising was the number of children who were studying there. We were told there were more than 1,000 students! We received a warm welcome from the director and a delicious breakfast before being split into groups of six, made up of two volunteers, five students and one teacher. The students and the teacher in each group explained everything about Pongal and introduced us to the Kolam and Pongal preparation.
The first activity was to draw a Kolam. For centuries women have been waking up every morning before sunrise to draw Kolam in front of their house. Originally every Kolam was dedicated to mother Earth, but nowadays there are different Kolams each with a special meaning. Some are drawn to welcome friends and family, others celebrate a newborn, thank a god or protect the house from thieves.
Kolam drawings are made daily with white rice powder. On special occasions such as this, they use colorful powder and also fresh flowers. For this activity, every team had a designated place and all the necessary materials (which actually just means coloured powder), and to add some fun, Projects Abroad turned it into a competition. I was quite impressed to see how it works. Kolams are hand made. Even in the absence of tools the Kolam is always symmetrical.
Yuka, from Japan, and I were in the same team and wanted to make a very colourful Kolam. Luckily we had help. We tried to create an outline with the white powder but it was rather difficult for us to make a thin line so we decided to leave it to the “professional” and instead began to fill the Kolam with colored powder. To our delight, we won the competition, but I don’t think that it was due to our efforts! We were just having fun.
We then went on a short tour to see the decorated cows, before it was time to cook Pongal. First we arranged a space in the park on which to cook and made a fire with wooden sticks. We found it difficult but it seemed to be easy for the students. Just five minutes after we began cooking, the area became hot and it was quite hard to stay near the fire. It was around midday and we were standing under the sun, and surrounded by eight fires! Of course the celebration had to continue and we wanted to try the Pongal, so under the gaze of all the children from the school, we sat in the shade to cool down and rest. A couple of hours later, we got to eat our own Pongal. It was the first time I had tried it and I hopefully not the last!
The last part of the Pongal celebration was dedicated to traditional folk dances performed by the students. From Kummi Attam to Karagattam or even the Devaraatam, we discovered many Indian cultural dances. Some professionals even showed us the Silambattam, which is a traditional martial art, practiced with wood sticks. To make it more impressive, they finished by igniting their sticks and started a kind of dancing fight.
We also watched a yoga presentation made by seven young children who showed us the most important positions. I really enjoyed this part of the day. It was so nice to see children dancing with big smiles. We could feel their pride to dance in front of us, as well as a beautiful complicity between them. Not only was there a magical atmosphere as we felt the joy coming from the children, it was also remarkable to see these seven-year-old girls dance with poise and grace as though they were professionals.
Before lunch, Jagadish Kumar, Country Director, Projects Abroad India, announced the winners of the competition and gave us a present to congratulate the team. Some volunteers and staff members from Projects Abroad took the opportunity to give a speech in order to thank the school, the organiser and the children for this fantastic day.
On the way home, we spoke about our day and concluded that it was a meaningful experience. We were all surprised by the children’s patience, particularly those who were very young. But of course it was their dancing, cooking and drawing skills that impressed us the most.
Overall, it was a great experience but for some volunteers, it was also exhausting. Wearing a sari for twelve hours was quite a challenge! We all left this lovely school with a big smile on our faces, lots of memories and the joy of knowing that this celebration was due to begin the next day, which meant we could continue to celebrate again and again for another four days!