Pongal is the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu, celebrated over four days in mid-January. It marks the beginning of the Tamil month Thai, and is to thank the Sun God for a successful harvest. The atmosphere everywhere is joyful, happy and relaxed. People greet each other in the street with cries of ‘Happy Pongal!’
The first day is devoted to spring cleaning and bringing in the new harvest of rice, sugar cane and turmeric for the main celebration. The following day the women rise early and decorate the ground at the entrance to the house with a kolam, an exquisite, traditional design, made by hand using coloured rice flour. The celebration of the sun, this is reflected in the kolams. Streets are lined with these colourful decorations; palm leaves and mango leaves are hung outside the house to add to the festivities.
Then everyone puts on their finery and the pongal is prepared and consecrated to the Sun. It is a sweet dish of milk, jaggery and the first rice of the season, boiled outdoors in an earthenware pot. A tall tripod of sugar cane is erected over the fire and pot, and the top of the pot may be wound around with fresh turmeric. Pongal comes from the Tamil word ‘to boil’, and the milk must boil over before the rice is added to the pot.
A cheer goes up as it boils over, and there may be a friendly competition along the street to see whose pot boils over first. Later in the day people go to the temple to be blessed.
The next day is dedicated to cows for their milk, and to oxen for ploughing the land. Their horns are painted and they adorned with garlands of flowers. New kolams are made featuring the animals.
The last day is a day for visiting family and friends, for having fun. No cooking is done after early morning and the day is given over to relaxation and entertainment, which where we were, meant bull-running, Pamplona style, on a vast plain, attended by thousands.
Wash the rice and soak in clean water for 5-10 minutes. Dry roast the moong dal lightly. Bring the milk to boil and tip in the rice, with about 180ml of the soaking water, and the dal. Let it come back to the boil, then simmer until soft. Stir in the jaggery and ghee. Simmer a few minutes longer before mixing in the cashews, raisins and spices. Serve hot.