“Happy Pongal!” was the greeting of my first day in India. Pongal is a 4-day holiday, celebrating the harvest, family life, and cows—a holiday that may be similar to the American traditions of Thanksgiving. Each day has a special focus and today it was on family unity. Upon arrival to my apartment, I participated in a Pongal meal with my landlady and her family. The traditional Pongal meal on this day consists of seven vegetables served on a banana leaf. Each vegetable symbolizes unity or the connection within families. The vegetable could be connected by a vine (e.g. squash, pumpkin, zucchini). It could also be a root vegetable (e.g. sweet potato, beet), symbolizing family roots. I love celebrating holidays with food that is symbolic of cultural values. However, it makes me wonder why we eat turkey at Thanksgiving. What’s the symbolism there?
On previous trips to India, I have celebrated Pongal in rural villages where they cook large pots of rice over a fire (note the pot in the photo above). There is a competition over which pot is going to boil over first. The rice is sweetened with sugar cane and served on a banana leaf. On the Pongal day that celebrates cows, the villagers adorn their cows with garlands or flowers.
Elaborate Pongal kolams can be found at the entrances of houses. These are decorations made with rice flour–colored or white—and are meant to welcome guests into the house.