PUDUCHERRY, India—As a child in her home village in Tamil Nadu State, India, Gomathi would eagerly await the harvest festival of Pongal close to the new year. Two decades later, living in the state’s capital, Chennai, she misses the festivity and finds her life cut off from the culture and tradition she so much cherishes.
“We were lucky that our landlord in Chennai has a mango tree. We could pluck some leaves and hang on our door,” said Gomathi. Traditionally, south Indians celebrate Pongal by decorating the doors with mango leaves and drawing kolams (motifs and designs made on the entrance path to homes with powder colors).
“In my childhood, my mother and all women in the neighborhood used to get up very early morning to draw kolam. [My mother] used to say, ‘Sun should rise to see our kolam.’ Today when I got up and went out of our home in Chennai, there was no one in the street. Nobody joined me and I was alone drawing. Later, people saw my kolam as if it was an exhibit!”
The celebration of Pongal—getting up early to thank the sun, nature, and cattle for four consecutive days—does not match the urban lifestyle in the metropolises of Tamil Nadu, particularly Chennai where many people live in apartments.
According to Gomathi, celebrating Pongal for many people in the city means watching a lot of movies.
In the less urban, residential areas of Puducherry State, however, traditional festivities were much more visible. On the first day of the festival, people burned their old belongings, including old grass mats, calendars, and old clothes. This first day is about cleaning out the old and replacing it with the new.
The second day of the festival is celebrated by boiling rice with fresh milk and jaggery (an unrefined sugar) in new earthen pots. This dish is called Pongal, and the festival is named for it. The cooking is done outside, in the street or courtyard over the kolam.
Many women also paint the earthen pots in vibrant colors. Before cooking, they tie mango leaves and palm leaves around the neck of the pot. The newly cooked rice is offered to the sun at sunrise to express gratitude for the harvest. While women in Puducherry were seen drawing kolams in the street, none were sighted in the city cooking out in the open.
Gomathi said, “In villages people still cook [Pongal] over an earthen stove, but in Chennai I had to cook it over my induction stove. In cities we feel embarrassed to do it out in the open where [the] street is the only open place.”
According to Gomathi, while earlier the cooking was done for everyone in the neighborhood, today in cities people cook only for themselves. “The culture of exchange is over.”
The third day of the festival, called Muttu Pongal, was traditionally celebrated to thank cattle, which play a very important role in the farmer’s life. While the urbanites in Chennai have no reason to thank cattle, in Puducherry, people showed their gratitude by drawing cows as kolams.
In many areas of Puducherry, the kolams on the streets were marked by numbers in order and some were marked as prizewinners. Deepalakshmi, a young girl was excited that her kolam won the first prize among hundreds of houses in her locality.
While some cooking utensils lay out in the sun drying, her brother sat on a computer in their tiny, single-window home. Deepalakshmi came out and stood near her kolam and said, “I got up at 4 a.m. in the morning to draw this. It took me and my sisters two and a half hours to finish.”
Traditionally, kolams were done with rice powder and natural powder colors; however, these days people draw them with chalk/lime powder, synthetic colors, and colored salt crystals, which are cheaply and easily available in coastal areas. Deepalakshmi’s kolam was made with colored salt crystals.
On the first day, before sunrise, about 200 women participated in a kolam competition on Promenade Beach organized by the Puducherry government’s Tourism Department. Competitions are one way in which people are encouraged to maintain their traditions amid urban life.
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 21 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.