The Pongal’s Over

pongalcowBefore there were blogs, I spent a quarter studying sustainable development in southern India. I maintained an email distribution list of friends who wanted updates on my travels. Many nights involved entertainments of the herbal or alcoholic kind; there were roof-top full-moon parties and midnight swims in the ocean (the garbage floating there was harder to see in the moonlight); some evenings were spent on planting plans and composting toilet design. But occasionally, I sat down at a computer and wrote about my adventures. This is the continuation of one of those stories, in which I celebrated the Tamil holiday, Pongal.

The next morning, the third of Pongal, the music was especially loud.  Our professors had bowed to community pressure, and given us the day off to go into Kuiyallapallayam and watch the running of the bulls. In Kuiyallapallayam, the music was almost deafening. A street fair was set up in the shade, and vendors were selling sweets and fried stuffs off of blankets on the ground. Others were selling cheap plastic toys and metal bracelets. Scroungy little children immediately swarmed any white person who arrived in the market. With a big smile they would extend a hand and shout “Happy Pongal!”  Then they would grab your arm, make eating motions with their hands, grin at you winningly and say, “Please madam, no eating” or “Pongal money, ten rupees!” or simply point to the sweet that they wanted you to buy them.

The atmosphere was incredibly festive but the children were overwhelming, so I left the carnival and went to the regular market, where I bought a 3 rupee string of flowers for my hair. Eventually, the entire crowd started heading down the main street and congregated around the temple.

I’m sure that some sort of puja took place, but I couldn’t see it at all.  Occasionally, fire crackers exploded near the temple. Then the cattle came.  There were cows, calves and bullocks, and they were all decorated.  Some had handprints or color smears along their bodies.  Most had their horns painted and wreathes around their necks. A few couldn’t see for the bananas covering their eyes and some of the bullocks even had pictures of movie stars hanging between their horns.

Everyone cheered for the parade of cows, for this day of Pongal is to thank the animals for their help in the past year.  Each cow was accompanied by as many as three men, some of whom were decorated themselves. The firecrackers became more intense, and suddenly everyone swept back from the road.  It sounded like a war zone.  Firecrackers were everywhere, the street was filled with smoke, and then cows went barreling down the street.

The cheering blended with the firecrackers and the shouts of the cowherds prodding their animals to move. The braver young boys tried to touch the cows as they passed, which was not difficult, as it is hard to keep cows going very fast for very long.  But occasionally an especially loud firecracker would startle the cows and then the trick was to touch the cow and then get back out of the way before the next one came on. Then, only a few cows were left, slowly ambling down the road as their embarrassed owners struggled to get them going.

I turned to go, and wham!  I was hit squarely in the forehead with a banana. I looked up and the sky was filled with the outlines of crescent shaped birds, spinning and wheeling through the air before falling into outstretched hands. It was graduation day at the monkey academy and the bananas were airborne.  For ten minutes they continued to fly up from somewhere near the temple while people squealed and crowded each other to catch them. Bananas exploded on the ground, on people’s heads, in people’s hands.  And then the banana rain stopped, and everyone turned to leave, headed back toward the carnival.

I heard a shout and turned around.  A bullock cart was rampaging down the road.  Everyone jumped back against a wall.  We laughed at one of our construction experts, a big guy in a cowboy hat, for pushing past the women to get out of the way faster. I walked my bike out of the crowd, dodging wild bullock carts and waving at the crowds hanging over their sides shouting “Happy Pongal”.  When it was clear, I got on my bike and rode to the restaurant at New Creation Corner  for lunch.  There I met a bunch of the guys eating lunch with some of the ammas (maids) from our guesthouse.

After lunch we all got back on our bikes, some to go to the beach, some to go do research for our project. One of the ammas called to me before I left, “Tonight you are coming to dinner? I am cooking.  You come?”

“I thought you had holiday today.”

“Half day.  Half day working.  Pongal is over.  No Pongal till next year.”



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