Around this time of the year, yes right at the start, I usually hear friends in towns and cities around the world complain that New Year's day passed them by too soon. I commiserate but never let on that I am far from any such quandary. For if the flaming New Year brigades passed me in a dash, I would not worry because in just a week’s time there is the next celebration of the New Year according to the traditional calendar. It’s Pongal. And while it is celebrated under different names in different parts of the country – it is celebrated as Lohri in the Northern states, Bihu in Assam and as Sankranthi in a number of other states – the feast in all these locations celebrates the winter rabi harvest. It dates back to a time of fundamental pleasures when the harvest was a reason to rejoice and share and even in celebrations at homes today, you’ll find plenty of evidence of its origin in agriculture.
I never miss a chance to attend any celebration I’m invited to where I make it a point to actively engage in preparations. From decking up the home to cooking rice pudding along with the rest of the family to sitting down to the Pongal meal and tucking into the Pongal treats plied on us by neighbours and friends. The gustatory highlight of the celebrations is the Pongal meal that is made from rice, milk, green pulses, sugar candy, cane sugar, raisins, nuts and spices. But if you thought it was only a celebration for the human kind, in the farms of Tamil Nadu on this day, tribute is paid to cattle – and rightly so for the role they play in priming the fields. The cattle are bathed, painted, prayed to and fed in plenty. There are also the delightful floor decorations, kolam, that are usually drawn with rice flour which secondarily serve up a thoughtful treat to birds as well as ants and other insects.
As I get ready for a good stretch of New Year celebrations with Pongal, I invite you to share in the festival’s trademark cuisine in your city – drop in to Kolkata’s ITC Sonar on January 14th for a festive taste of South India.