There’s an old belief in Hindu tradition—at least in Tamilnadu—that many, many years ago the god Shiva sent a sacred bull called Nandi down to earth with a message for humanity: that people, in order to purify themselves, must have an oil massage and bath everyday, and must eat only once a month. Nandi, unfortunately, got muddled and gave the wrong message: that people must eat everyday, and have an oil massage and bath once a month. Shiva got annoyed at his bull’s blunder, and sent Nandi down to earth permanently, as a cow to help mankind earn his living.
Since Pondicherry is contiguous with Tamilnadu, the beliefs and traditions here are the same as in Tamilnadu. Among them—and drawing from that story about Nandi—is the harvest festival of Pongal. Pongal spreads over four days. The first day is known as Pohi. It’s celebrated by getting rid of old odds and ends that have been cluttering up the house over the year—all of these are thrown into a fire and burnt. Somewhat reminiscent of Lohri, I think, though it’s also a striking symbol of making a new start in the new year.
The second day of Pongal is devoted to the worship of the Sun God, but it’s the third day of Pongal—the ‘bullock Pongal’—which is, for us, the highlight of the festivities. By this time, we are a very mixed crowd at the writers’ residency in Adishakti: there’s a Dane, two Americans, a Brazilian, a German, a South Korean and me (who doesn’t know a thing about Pongal, so is as fascinated by the rest of the gang). We’ve been told that we’ll be able to see bullock Pongal celebrations in a nearby village. It’ll mean trudging there, and possibly getting pushed about a bit by excited revellers, but we don’t mind.
Fortunately for us, Adishakti has its own cow shed, and the workers there have decided to invite us for the festivities. This is one of the happiest surprises I’ve received in a long time!
Agriculture is an important source of livelihood in rural Tamilnadu, and cattle play an important part in it: tilling fields and providing milk, besides (of course) being the proverbial sacred cow. Bullock Pongal is all about showing gratitude to cattle for their role in the life of the village. The cows at the Adishakti cow shed are a pretty lot, a lovely caramel in colour, straight-backed and big-uddered, with large melting eyes. For the occasion, the workers have prettied them up even more. The cows’ horns have been painted, and little garlands of orange and white flowers have been looped around the horns. More garlands, mainly of curry leaves, have been hung around the cows’ necks along with balloons(!), and their foreheads have been decorated with a streak of vermilion.
Just after sundown—there’s still plenty of daylight—the workers perform the puja, the ritual worship, with a fist-sized lump of cow dung being given pride of place on a little altar marked out on the floor of the cowshed. They offer coconuts, flowers, incense, and a special rice dish called pongal (more on this later) to the gods, and then the cows are made much of. A plate with the ritual offerings and a small earthen lamp, its flame burning bright, is briefly held in front of each cow, the whiff of smoke from the lamp waved in the animal’s face to bless it. The cows seem to like it, too: they look on curiously, pushing their faces up and gazing at the lamp. What I like best is the very personal touch the workers add to all of this: they hug and kiss their animals, and it’s obvious they really do love these cows.
With the ceremonies over, it’s now time for animals and people to indulge themselves. The cows get given their fodder, and we get given portions of prasad (blessed food; any edible item that’s been ritually offered to a deity). Here, the prasad is the pongal, a sticky, semi-solid dish of rice cooked along with ghee, lentils, raisins, nuts, sugar and cardamom. It’s rich but very good, served on a ‘plate’ of a clean banana leaf. Fabulous! To end, each of us gets a six-inch section of sugarcane to peel with our teeth and chew on, savouring the refreshing juice. For the foreigners, the entire thing—the worshipping of the cows, the pongal and the sugarcane—is a novel experience. For me, it’s a bit more familiar: I haven’t seen it before, but I can understand it.
If you’re in Tamilnadu or Pondicherry around Pongal, do try and catch a glimpse the bullock Pongal festivities—it’s a charming and colourful festival. By asking around (maybe at your hotel?), you can easily find out the nearest place where bullocks will be taken in procession.