Happy Pongal!

Alex and I are suckers for local festivals and holidays. You can learn a lot about different cultures from their festivities on special days, weeks or months. We’ve enjoyed the anniversary of Arequipa’s founding in Peru, Easter in Spain, Loy Kathong in Thailand and now Pongal in India.

Pongal is celebrated in January in Tamil Nadu, the southeastern-most state of India. It is at its heart a harvest celebration, thanking the gods for the plants and animals that nourish the population. Like our Thanksgiving, it’s a time for families to come together and enjoy good food, especially the holiday’s namesake, pongal. 

Thanks to some online sleuthing, we learned that Pongal is especially colorful in a small city called Pollachi. The fact that our Lonely Planet guide had only a passing mention of this town as a gateway to a nearby Tiger Reserve didn’t phase us. We hopped a bus in the much larger city of Coimbatore for the one-hour ride south.

Pongal happens over the course of three or four days (depending on who you ask). Day 1 is when you clean your home, spiffying things up for arriving guests, setting fire (!) to worn out items and purchasing new clothes.

Neighbors behind our Air Bnb set fire to their worn out belongings

We arrived on this first day and thoroughly enjoyed the frenetic energy of the commercial district of the city where families dressed in their colorful best navigated the bustling streets seeking out fancy new duds. Lining the streets were local farmers selling sugar cane and bouquets of branches and herbaceous plants that are placed at the entrance to homes, on the grills of cars and on the fronts of auto rickshaws to ward off negative energy. 

Giant sugar cane

We also saw dozens of vendors selling vibrantly colored powder.

As we walked home that afternoon, we noticed that the driveways and concrete steps in front of many homes had been painted with a yellow wash and most homes and businesses had created beautiful mandalas with the powder on their front doorsteps and sidewalks. (We’re pretty sure that the yellow wash is a mixture of cow manure, which we saw a woman gathering by hand from the dirt road in front of her home that morning, and water that is painted on to create a “canvas” for the artwork.) 

The second day of Pongal is when you make the sweet version of the dish after which the holiday is named. This requires mixing water, milk and jaggery (essentially concentrated sugar cane juice and palm sap) in a pongal pot over an open fire. The liquid cooks until it boils over (at which point everyone cheers) and then each person adds rice to the pot and it is cooked to the consistency of risotto. 

On our second day in Pollachi, after an amazing morning of birding (list and photos coming soon), we were walking into town when a crowd of people caught Alex’s eye and we stopped to see what was going on. It happened to be a gathering of the employees at the local Krishnaa Bajaj motorcycle dealership who were cooking pongal on the patio at the entrance to the store. As soon as they saw us watching, they invited us to join them and encouraged us to stick around waiting for the moment when the pot would boil over. All were dressed in their holiday best, colorful bejeweled sarees on the women and matching shirts and dhotis for the men. Several of the employees spoke to us in halting English while others shyly smiled and giggled from across the patio (and clearly whispered about the strangers in their midst).  

We waited about a half hour for the mixture to boil over (at which point we all cheered) and were then invited to join the others in putting a small amount of rice into the pot. While we sat inside the store waiting for the creamy dish to finish cooking, we shared simple conversation (and Instagram handles) with a few of the employees and posed for copious photographs and selfies with almost everyone there, all while customers shopped for new motorcycles. (The setting for this celebration made it a pretty surreal experience.)

One stop shopping for Pulsars and pongal in Pollachi

The finished product was an amazingly rich and sweet surprise, with a savory nutty crunch to it, like a sweet and hearty cream of wheat.

The rest of the day was filled with more heart-warming encounters with the locals stopping us on the street to say hello, shake hands and ask for selfies (two guys passed on a dirt road and then turned around on their scooter and came back to take our photo). We felt like rock stars!

Later that evening, we headed to the International Balloon Festival, a few miles out of town, which promised hot air balloons from several different countries, food and music. Strangely, it took place on a huge dirt lot advertised for a future development called Right Kongu City, the “Largest [and I’m pretty sure only] Gated Community in Pollachi” with “Hifi Bungalows…Never Seen Ever.” (You could even put down a deposit on a home at the festival – we did not, despite the sales videos streaming on multiple jumbotron-esque screens.)

We were shocked when greeted by a 1/2-mile long traffic jam before reaching the festival and thousands of locals kicking up dust in the dirt covered festival grounds.

There were so many people, it was impossible to reach the balloons themselves, but we did enjoy a tasty dosa and parotta, South India specialties, before navigating the even bigger traffic jam on foot on the main road back to town.

Day 3 of Pongal is all about the cows. According to what we read online, farmers rise early to bathe their cows then decorate them in colorful paint and flower garlands before offering them the pongal dish to eat.

We got up early at our rural Air Bnb and walked down the road in hopes of seeing the bovine extravganza first hand. Although none of the local cows were getting the royal treatment, we did get a chance to see a few dressed up at the Rock Fort Temple in Trichy the next day.  

Our off the beaten path adventure celebrating Pongal in Pollachi was a highlight of our trip so far. Happy Pongal!

2 thoughts on “Happy Pongal!

  1. Pingback: Nepal E50 Bird List 1 | Lower the Bar for More Fun

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