The philosophy of the Pongal festival

It is through the gratitude shown for the harvest that the relationship with the divine is deepened

Pongal dish made from rice in milk with cane or white sugar - Photograph: Wikipedia

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By Pravin Periasamy

The Tamil Hindu diaspora in Malaysia and across the world celebrated the Pongal festival in mid-January.

Pongal is regarded as a sacred occasion as it pays homage to the harvest season and is celebrated in the 10th month of the Tamil calendar.

The festival is a call to remember the importance of agriculture for the nourishment of communities everywhere. It is a period of thanksgiving for the ethnic Tamils to meditate and reflect, in gratitude, on the arduous journey farmers must embark on to yield crops for harvest.

The term pongal is derived from the word pongu in Tamil, which means to boil over. Boiling over refers to the process of preparing boiled sweet rice and other cultural dishes for communal prayer and worship.

The ceremonious consumption of the Pongal sweet rice dish is one way that the Tamil community celebrates the harvest season. It denotes a spiritual and symbolic connection between the devotee, the agricultural land which bore crops and God.

This veneration of the harvest is a practice that has been deeply ingrained in South Indian culture, dating back to the Sangam Period from 200BC to 300AD.

Agriculture played a major role in transforming ancient South Indian society.

Building advanced agricultural systems with irrigation, successful crop cultivation and soil fertility measures helped people gain more access to key resources. This allowed hunter-gatherer societies to enjoy agrarian expansion.

This brought immense civilisational development to the region, as it made available a reliable food supply.

No wonder agriculture and harvest held great cultural significance. They were the lifeblood and essence of civilisation.

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Udhaya Nandini, of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, wrote: “(Tamil) kings considered agricultural development as their primary duty and that increased agricultural production was considered a yardstick of the prosperity of the country.”

The history of agricultural cultivation left an immense cultural impression on South Indian society. Many sacred customs revolved around the veneration and honouring of the harvest. This led to agricultural efforts being spoken of in more spiritual and religious terms.

Ancient Tamil texts emphasised the wisdom in expressing gratitude for the cultivation of crop. One such text was the Thirukkural, a collection of poems penned by the poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar in the post-Sangam period

TM Srinivasan’s seminal thesis “Agricultural practices as gleaned from the Tamil literature of the Sangam age” talks about this: “to Thiruvalluvar, the yoke and the plough were the emblems of freedom, honour and virtue”.

The poetic attribution of spiritual significance to agriculture indicated that a virtuous life was one that showed gratitude even for the very soil one treads on.

The equating of agricultural elements with abstract philosophical concepts demonstrates the extent to which the harvest means more than just having food on the table. It meant also that one had pursued virtue.

The Tamil saints of this era crafted entire hymns, sung in temples in praise of soil, crop and land.

It is by learning this history that the importance of the Pongal festival may be better understood. The festival serves as an avenue through which one lives out the spiritual endeavour towards moral purification.

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The preparation of the Pongal dish is itself a form of religious reverence: the belief is that its contents transform into nourishment for the divine.

It is through the gratitude shown for the harvest that this relationship with the divine is deepened.

Pravin Periasamy is the networking and partnership director of the Malaysian Philosophy Society

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Angeline Loh
Angeline Loh
29 Jan 2024 2.43pm

This is a great article. We in Malaysia have much to be thankful for, especially the gift of our basic needs – food, shelter, clothes, peace and so much more. We often take things for granted and forget to be thankful, but instead want more than what is necessary for living. We also often forget that there are millions in the world, even among our own population who struggle to survive.
The Ponggal Festival is an excellent time to be thankful to all those who have make life possible and easier for us, not forgetting the One who fulfills us spiritually. Ponggal was also celebrated in our Catholic church last Sunday.
Thank you, thank you…