Pongal is a harvest and thanksgiving festival that takes place during the Tamil month of Thai which typically falls in January. “Pongal” in Tamil means "boiling over or spill over". Pongal festival marks the celebration and prosperity associated with harvest by thanking the rain, sun and the farm animals that have helped in the harvest.
The first day, Bhogi, is celebrated by throwing away old clothes and materials, marking the end of the old and the emergence of the new. The second day, Surya Pongal, is the main day, falling on the first day of the Tamil month Thai (around 14th January on the Gregorian calendar). The third day, Mattu Pongal, is a day for honouring cattle for the crucial role they play in the harvest season. On this day the cattle are decorated with paint, flowers and bells. They are allowed to roam free and are fed with sweet rice and sugar cane.
During the final day, Kaanum Pongal (the word kaanum means "to view") people visit their relatives, friends to enjoy the festive season. This day is a day to thank relatives and friends for their support in the harvest. Although it started as a farmers' festival, Pongal has become a festival for all Tamils regardless of their origins, caste or religion.
Pongal is observed by Tamils in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India and by the Tamil diasporic community around the world, including those in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa, United States of America and Singapore.
In Singapore, the celebrations usually take place within homes as well as at the temples.
In Singapore, Pongal is mainly celebrated by Tamils. In recent years, various Tamil and Indian cultural organisations like the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association (LISHA) and the Indian Heritage Centre have organised events like street light-ups, cooking demonstrations and a mini farm featuring cows, which are traditionally honoured during the festival, for non-Tamils to enjoy as well. These wider celebrations last all through the month of January.
Associated Social and Cultural Practices
In Singapore, celebrations focus on the ritual of cooking pongal in an earthenware pot, prayers at the temple and visiting relatives. A pongal dish consists of rice, milk, cane sugar and cardamom. In traditional contexts, the dish would be prepared using the new grains that had just been harvested. Some households would also add in other ingredients such as include cardamom, raisins and cashew nuts.
The pongal pot is allowed to boil over in order to symbolise hopes for abundance in the new year. When it overflows, people cry, “Pongalo! Pongal”, to signify the overflowing of prosperity and good fortune.
After the pot has boiled over, families place sweets, flowers, offerings, fruits and the pongal pot in the altar of the family’s prayer room. Family members also seek blessings from the elderly.
Pongal bazaars selling prayer items, traditional clothes, festive decorations, Indian sugar cane and other ingredients are also popular during the celebrations.
Experience of Practitioner
As President of Thiruvalluvar Tamil Valarchik Kazhakam (an association promoting the teachings of Tamil philosopher Thiruvalluvar), Mr Sivanason Sivabalan has been one of the organisers of Pongal celebrations in Singapore. Since he was young, the celebration of Pongal - both as a harvest festival and the Tamil New Year - has always been a grand affair in his family. While Pongal celebrations in Tamil Nadu span over four days, Mr Sivanason pointed out that celebrations in Singapore are condensed and simplified into just one day.
The Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association (LISHA) and the Indian Heritage Centre have been involved in organising activities at Campbell Lane at Little India to celebrate Pongal. During the festive season, stalls are set up to display and sell various festive goods related to the festival. Live cows are also featured in the festive celebrations at Campbell Lane for visitors to learn about the significance of cattle in this harvest festival.
As Pongal continues to be celebrated by the Tamil community in Singapore, there has also been increased participation by non-Tamils as many Indian and Tamil cultural organisations have opened the celebrations to non-Tamils. This has the effect of raising awareness about the festival and increase in its visibility. The awareness about Pongal continues to grow in Singapore.
Reference No.: ICH-033
Date of Inclusion: April 2018; Updated March 2019
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Seow Bei Yi. “Pongal festival spiced up to draw in the young”, 7 Jan 2016, AsiaOne, www.asiaone.com/singapore/pongal-festival-spiced-draw-young. Accessed on 2 January 2019.
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