Malaysian family celebrates harvest festival despite limitations


  • Focus
  • Thursday, 15 Jan 2015

Praying together: (From left) Umesh, Manish, Kunasekaran and Geetha praying for an auspicious year.

FOR the busy urbanite in Malaysia, celebrating an important event like the Ponggal harvest festival tends to be a low-key affair amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Ponggal, which literally means boiling over, is a festival to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.

While it is celebrated grandly over four days in South India where it originated, in Malaysia only the second day is celebrated by majority of Indians in the country.

The first day is known as Boghi where old items are discarded or burnt while the second day is Surya Ponggal where ponggal rice is made during sunrise.

Boiling over: Geetha showing how ponggal is prepared. The name of the special dish literally means boiling over, signifying the festival to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.
Boiling over: Geetha showing how ponggal is prepared. The name of the special dish literally means boiling over, signifying the festival to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.

Mattu Ponggal on the third day marks the day where money and new clothes are presented to farmers and cattle are fed sweetened rice as a show of gratitude.

The last day, Kaanum Ponggal, is when relatives and friends visit each other and when sisters conduct prayers for their brothers.

For Kunasekaran Sevanthi’s family, the traditions and spirit of Ponggal is kept alive while making do with the limitations of city living as only the first two days of Ponggal are observed.

His wife Geetha Kuna who hails from Tiruchirappalli (also known as Trichy), Tamil Nadu in South India said her family in India would observe all four days.

The 42-year-old teacher and mother of two boys, Manish, 12, and Umesh, 9, described Ponggal as a festival for farmers or “Uzhavar Thirunaal” as Tamilians from Tamil Nadu, India would call it.

She and her family traditionally kickstart the Ponggal festivities by thoroughly cleaning their condo unit in Kuala Lumpur 10 days prior to the Surya Ponggal, which is traditionally the second day of the Ponggal festivities.

Time with family: Kunasekaran (right) and his eldest son Manish decorating the altar at their home with garlands for the celebration.
Time with family: Kunasekaran (right) and his eldest son Manish decorating the altar at their home with garlands for the celebration.

“The two days before Ponggal are our busiest as we will go shopping to gather all the materials needed for the celebration such as sugar cane, mango leaves, fruits, flowers and new clothes,” Geetha explained.

She added that the family would also draw kolam using rice flour at the entrance of their home and on the kitchen stove where the ponggal rice is cooked. Sugar cane stalks are also tied at the entrance of the house.

When the sun rises on Ponggal day, Geetha sets about to make her sweet and savoury ponggal rice.

Although it is uncommon among Malaysian Tamils to serve savoury ponggal, Geetha said she always prepared the two variations as it was a common practice in her family in India.

The savoury ponggal rice is made the same way but without the palm sugar and is served with stir-fried chickpeas and sambar (dhall curry).

An offering to God: Geetha placing some sweet ponggal on a banana leaf.
An offering to God: Geetha placing some sweet ponggal on a banana leaf.

After prayers and breaking of the coconut at the decorated altar, the family sits down to have their meal.

Besides sending Ponggal wishes to relatives and friends, Geetha and her family always go to the temple in the evening.

“Ponggal day is all about family time. All appointments for the day will be cancelled to spend time with each other,” she said.

Geetha said her family in India would visit her grandmother living in a village called Perumalpalayam.

“My grandmother had about 50 cattles at the farmhouse. So every year, the farmers would feed the cattles ponggal rice and the whole family would decorate the horns and body of the cattle with coloured paint.

“Although I miss the traditional way of celebrating Ponggal, I try to keep the spirit of the festival alive here,” she said.

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