The Right Way to Honor Pongal

Hindu monk Simheswara Dasa, like many of his co-religionists, looks forward every year to the four-day Thai Pongal, the Tamil celebration of the rice harvest as a mark of gratitude to Surya, the mythical Sun God.

The main Pongal celebrations begin today.

Hindu scriptures say that on Pongal, the day when the sun enters Capricorn, the charioted Surya begins his journey north to bring heat to the northern hemisphere after heating the south for six months.

The main ritual of Pongal is the boiling of the first rice of the season in milk. Added to the rice are cane sugar, raisins, lentils and cashews and other nuts.

Pongal is also the name of the dish. The word means “boiling over” or “overflow” and it signifies the gradual heating of the earth. The dish is cooked in clay pots on the first day of the festival in the open air after sunrise. It is offered to Surya and devotees partake in the feasting.

Because Pongal is a festival that celebrates organic nature, the sweetened rice is cooked in clay pots and served on banana leaves.

One of the highlights of the celebration is watching the milk flow over the pot to the chant of “Ponggalo ponggal.” Nowadays, many non-Hindus like to join in the fun.

He took his name after joining his religious movement and becoming a monk in his twenties.

He says Pongal, as celebrated today, is more cultural than religious and he is not too happy about it.

Speaking to FMT at his temple, the Sri Jagannath Mandir in Kuala Lumpur, he said that during the prehistoric Vedic days in India, farmers held fast to their belief in the law of karma and therefore took extreme care to avoid killing creatures like worms and even micro-organisms when they ploughed the land.

He said they had a system in place to wash away sins committed inadvertently. “As is done during Pongal, every food has to first be offered to God, who takes away sins.”

The offering is also a way of giving thanks for rain, sunshine, moonshine and the growth of crops.

Simheswara said the ancient Hindus were very much in touch with nature. But nowadays, he added, many seemed to have forgotten how nature serves them, and this includes the benefits that can be derived from the cow, such as its milk.

He also lamented that many have snubbed the ritual use of cow dung and urine as purifiers of contaminated places.

According to him, other Hindu festivals, such as Thaipusam, have also lost some of their religious character.

“The scriptures say there is no need to inflict excessive torture on the body on Thaipusam,” he said. “But we see people do this. They should instead be praying, singing and dancing for God, using their emotions in his pleasure.”

He urged Hindus to read more on their religion. “It’s important to do things properly,” he said. “Don’t, for instance, simply create days for animal rights but then eat the animals.”

He spoke of Pongal as a way to renew man’s relationship with the earth.

“Pongal is a beautiful festival,” he said. “Nowadays, we don’t know how to enjoy food. We’ve forgotten the real taste of food. We just grab sandwiches.”

Citing verses from the Bhagavad Gita, he said farming and all types of work should be rendered as a service to God. Otherwise, he added, people would be in bondage to the material realm.

On the day before Pongal, Hindus discard old belongings and celebrate new possessions. They light a bonfire to burn the discards as they anticipate what some in India refer to as the Tamil New Year.

On Pongal day itself, houses are decorated with mango leaves and pongal is served with savouries and sweets.

There is a ritual in which the year’s harvest is symbolically offered back to God.

On the third day, cattle are given items of worship as gratitude for their work in the fields. Their horns are painted and their bodies decorated with turmeric-infused water and a red dye.

On the last day, families hold reunions and brothers pay tribute to their married sisters by giving gifts, clothes or money, signifying their love for one another.

Simheswara’s temple is open to the public today for the Pongal celebration. “I hope this year’s festival will be an eye-opener for all,” he said.

Credit : Vinodh Pillai