Celebrating Pongal in Sarawak

By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
@danitbpseeds

 

WHEN IT COMES TO harvest festivals, Sarawakians automatically think of the Gawai Dayak festival, but did you know that the Indian community also celebrates thanksgiving for the harvest season?

Known as Pongal festival, its origins hail from South India and is usually celebrated for three days from January 13th to 15th.

For the first time ever on January 18th, the Pongal festival was celebrated in a big way here along the Kuching Waterfront in a special event organised by the Malaysia Hindu Sangam Sarawak State Council Kuching.

The Pongal festival is celebrated annually in the month of ‘Thai’ in the Indian calendar which falls in mid-January. The word ‘Pongal’ itself means ‘overflowing’ and signifies abundance and prosperity. It also refers to the sweet rice dish prepared during the occasion. On that special day, the Indian communities would gather to prepare the Pongal dish in new clay pot.

 

A women preparing her pot for the demonstration of the Pongal dish

A woman preparing her pot for the demonstration of the Pongal dish

 

For the colourful and festive event, a total of 108 newly made clay pots were prepared and beautifully painted for the demonstration of the Pongal rice dish.

Among the participants present for the Pongal Festival was Manja Saba, a Bidayuh from Bau who has been married to an Indian for almost 30 years.

“We celebrate the first day with family and friends at home where we cook the Pongal rice,” said Manja.

 

Manja Saba (right), her daughter Subhatra Peritambi (left) and her nieces and nephew.

Manja Saba (right), her daughter Subhatra Peritambi (left) and her nieces and nephew.

A beautifully painted clay pot to make the sweet rice dish in which the ingredients are rice, milk, brown sugar, nuts and raisins

A beautifully painted clay pot to make the sweet rice dish in which the ingredients are rice, milk, brown sugar, nuts and raisins

 

According to Manja, among the ingredients needed to prepare the dish were rice, milk, brown sugar, cashew nuts and raisins. Before preparing the dish, three sugarcane stems are tied into tripod and positioned over the cooking pot to symbolise the sweetness of the dish and signify prosperity in life.

Then the milk is poured into the pot and left to boil over. “Once the milk has boiled over and foam starts overflow from the pot, you’re supposed to shout ‘Pongalo Pongal!’ while introducing freshly harvested rice into the pot.”

It is believed that watching the milk boil over and foam forming out of the pot is a good omen signifying prosperity and blessings.

 

The fire needs to keep burning to allow the milk to ‘overflow’ from the pot before rice is added to the pot

The fire needs to be kept high to allow the milk to ‘overflow’ from the pot before rice is added to the pot

An overflowing pot of milk which signifies a good year ahead.

An overflowing pot of milk which signifies a good year ahead.

 

As to why we may have heard more about Deepavali compared to Pongal, since the latter is mostly in celebration of a good paddy crop harvest, it follows that it’s predominantly celebrated by the farming community. Although the Indian community in Malaysia are not generally farmers, the Pongal festival is still celebrated to express their gratitude to God for good health and prosperity.

Celebrated for three days, the first day of the Pongal festival is called the Pongal Podigai or Bhogi Pongal. On this day, a ritual called Bhogi Mantalu is performed where people would discard their old household items to signify the start of a new beginning.

The second day known as Surya Pongal is celebrated by praying to the Son God, Surya. On that day, devotees would go to the temple and pray to Surya for a good harvest and it is also the day where they prepare a special Pongal dish in a new clay pot.

And finally the third day, referred to as Mattu Pongal, is dedicated to the cows which have helped in harvesting the crops.

Aside from the preparation of the Pongal dish, the rangoli designs – also known as ‘kolam’ which are intricate designs using coloured rice powder – is prepared to ward off evil and bring prosperity to homes.

 

Kolam drawn in the image of the Pongal pot signifies auspicious meaning and indicates prosperity.

Kolam drawn in the image of the Pongal pot signifies auspiciousness and prosperity.

 

Usually drawn at the entrance of the house, the ‘kolam’ made out of rice powder is also an act of giving and compassion for other living beings where birds and insects can sometimes feed on the rice flour.

The ‘kolam’ design during the Pongal festival is usually a drawing of the Pongal pot to indicate auspiciousness, prosperity and abundance.

 

Beautifully prepared ‘kolam’ made out of coloured rice flour

Beautifully prepared ‘kolam’ made out of coloured rice flour

 

Also present to launch the festive celebration was Minister of Welfare, Women and Family Development Datuk Fatimah Abdullah witnessed by Malaysian Hindu Sangam president Datuk Mohan Shan and the Sarawak State Council of Malaysian Hindu Sangam president Krishnarao Subramaniam.

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