So far, Pongal for me meant it was the season for sugarcane. Of course, I'm not too ignorant of the reasons behind the celebrations. It's a big harvest festival in rural Tamil Nadu. But I only cared about what concerned me, biting into those canes of sugar. This year, fortunately, I had the opportunity to watch what the fuss was really all about. For those of you who don't know, Pongal is a dish. There are different kinds, sweet, spicy and the kind that is made for the cows. The festival is celebrated by Tamilians at the end of the harvest season. It is a four day event which usually takes place from January 14 to 17 in accordance with the Gregorian calender, that is, the last day of the Tamil month Maargazhi to the third day on the Tamil month Thai. The first day actually coincides with Makara Sankranthi, which is a winter harvest festival across the rest of the country.Even though, since the big holiday, which extended into the weekend, in its honor, guaranteed me a visit home, I preferred to stay back as I was invited by my neighbors to their houses. They refer to the festival as 'Tamizhar Thirunaal', which means 'the festival of Tamilians'. There are various different traditions that are followed by people of different sects and sub-sects. The first day, that is 14th, is the day of tying 'kaapu', The first day, that is the 14th, is the day of tying 'kaapu' in their houses, their farms, cattle shed, vehicles etc, in the evening, which marks the beginning of the celebrations. Kaapu is different kinds of leaves and flowers tied together. It is tied in the hope of a prosperous year, financially. On 15th, people start the day by making beautiful kolams, or rangolis, outside their houses. They fill it with lovely, vibrant colors. Pongal is made at home and offered to their Gods. People visit their relatives and exchange gifts and sweets. Parents of newly married-off daughters visit her in-laws house to offer, what is called, pongal seer, which is basically items required for making pongal at her new home, a sack of rice, a big pot made of steel or mud, some lentils, dried fruits, ghee, etc. This is supposed to be offered for three years in a row, and also on the occasion of child-birth. I accompanied my cook, Chellamma, to her daughter's husband's house, following the ritual, since she gave birth to a baby boy last year.The main day of the festival, according to my neighbors, is 16th, which is called Maatu Pongal. Maatu means cow. Today, everyone who owns cattle, bathe their cows and goats and decorate them with colors. Painting their horns is a ceremony in itself. This is the main event of making pongal, since it is offered to the cows. People cook the feast in mud pots in the evening outside their houses. All the cattle of the village are gathered together and are decorated with garland, manjalthanni (tumeric water) only for cows, oil, kumkum is applied on the forehead and fed with a mixture of venn pongal, jaggery, honey, fruits etc and taken to the temples. By the time they are brought back, the pongal at home is ready. An important part of making pongal is to notice if or not the thing boils up and spills over. That is, again, in the hope of a prosperous year. The first serve of the feast is offered to the cows, only after which do the people of the house eat. Chellamma told me a little story about the reasons behind the celebration of maatu pongal. It seems the cows cry throughout the year, praying to their Gods, asking them to look at the way they are mistreated by the owners, that they aren't fed fresh fodder, and are whipped and made to work under the burning sun. The Gods, on the request of the cows, decide to descend to Earth, every year on the same day, to inspect how their beloved animals are being treated. Out of fear of being reprimanded, the owner offer their best services to their animals on that particular day. Even someone who is broke will buy fresh fodder for their cattle, and eat only after they've eaten first. I only felt sorry for the cows when I heard the story, since they are effectively proved to be liars to their Gods. Of course, it is all in good spirits. When the cows are fed, people traditionally scream "Pongal O Pongal", with joy and cheer.[caption id="attachment_6577" align="aligncenter" width="640"] My tiny friends and their cow[/caption][caption id="attachment_6586" align="aligncenter" width="640"] The baby goat, Ramukutty[/caption][caption id="attachment_6587" align="aligncenter" width="640"] The baby cow, Lakshmikutty[/caption][caption id="attachment_6589" align="aligncenter" width="640"] My friend, Shivakumari[/caption]The next day people make delicious met dishes, and laze around. They also organize and participated in games, such as the Jallikkattu or taming the wild bull, kabaddi, dance-off and other such events. I just retreated with Chellamma, to do what I do best in times like this, eat my sugarcane.