Pongal Overflows in Chettinadu

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January 15th 2019
Published: January 16th 2019
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The Pongal pots were bubbling away today.

On this second day of the annual four-day harvest festival important in Tamil Nadu, women lined up near the water tank in Kothamangalam to prepare the special mixture known as pongal. The word “pongal” refers to boiling or “overflowing”—abundance, prosperity, fertility, the harvest.

The women tossed soaked rice and moong lentils into the pot bubbling with milk and water, then stirred and stirred as it thickened. Each woman had a basket of all the ingredients she would use, including the rice and lentils, milk, jaggery, cardamom, raisins, and cashews.

No matter that the mixture spilled over the side of the pot. That was the goal—to overflow as the sun Suriya was brightening the day. This was their thanks to Suriya for the harvest, for their food, for their lives. Such a happy, festive time—women chatting and laughing with one another, checking the other’s pots to see the progress and eye other recipes.

“Each one tastes different,” a man told me as he watched the activity.

And after the contents in the pots transformed into a thick white stew, three different women offered me scoops of their creations, their offering to the sun.

I burned my fingers as I plunged them into the sticky mixture, shoveling it into my mouth which had not yet had coffee or breakfast.

Dare I say they all tasted the same: sweet, sweet, and sweet.

But I sat in front of the small Ganesha temple, facing Suriya, burning my fingers and offering thanks to these women who included me in their Pongal making and feeling grateful to Suriya for shining light on me.

Later in the day I spotted an Ayyanar shrine and diverted my auto rickshaw driver to the place. There was a young couple—she was preparing two pots of pongal.

The tops of the pots were wrapped with turmeric—a traditional auspicious thing to do—and when the pots boiled over she and her husband uttered, “Pongalo pongal, pongalo pongal,” as they prayed with their hands together.

The messages were loud and clear—overflowing abundance, may the harvest continue and our lives overflow with goodness and health and food and rice and sweetness.

To top off the day, I visited Thirumayam where two 7th century temples are cut out of the solid rock. I had visited before both the Vishnu and Siva temples there, and knew they were extraordinary.

A large reclining Vishnu in the first was just a few feet away from where I stood. I joined a couple as the priest did a puja, offered holy water to slurp from my hand (I used to be squeamish about doing this, but it’s holy water blessed by the deity, after all), and gave a bunch of sacred tulasi, or holy basil.

In the nearby Siva temple, the young priest showed me the musical notes inscribed in the rock—notes from an ancient raga—and the polychrome designs on the ceiling, dark and faded from the centuries, and the wall of ancient writing which he says no scholars today can decipher, and the temple tank with the holy water, surrounded by medicinal plants. This is where archeologists pumped all the water out and found a carved stone lotus at the bottom, from which the natural spring emerges. On the steps are carvings of Siva, on one side with a crescent moon around his head, and on the other the full moon.

“On full moon nights the bees come and drop honey into the water. If I have stress I can relax in the water and it leaves me.”

A single powerful lingam is the deity in the inner sanctum. He explained that it represents the cosmic energy of the world, made visible so people can connect more easily.

A splendid Nandi sculpture, Siva’s vehicle, faces the lingam. And on the opposite wall is carved a large lingam in relief with Siva embedded inside.

That priest’s heart dwells in the place. He and his younger brother are the 225th generation to care for the temple, he said, and his two sons would continue the work there.

I offered a donation and this young man just said, “Money is not so important. But I can give it to the temple.” He was simply sharing his knowledge with me for the joy of sharing, expected nothing, but was grateful for my gesture.

Then the kids, outside the Vishnu temple. Good clean fun, where they competed with one another to see who could fill a bottle the fastest by carrying water in their cupped hands from a bucket to the bottle. I may be wrong, but the girls seemed far more adept at accomplishing this task than the boys, who seemed to spill 85% of every dipped hand of water.

I sure didn’t expect to hear the man ask me over the loudspeakers, “Madam, would you like to try?”That would have given everyone a good laugh, but I politely declined.

My day was already full and overflowing.

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