Philosophy of Pongal

TODAY the Tamil Hindu diaspora in Malaysia and across the world celebrates the Pongal festival. It is regarded as a sacred occasion as it pays homage to the harvest season in the 10th month of the Tamil calendar. The festival is a remembrance of the importance of agriculture for the nourishment of communities everywhere, a period of thanksgiving for the Tamil people to meditate in gratitude for   farmers. The term “pongal” is derived from the word ‘pongu’ in Tamil, which literally means to “boil over.” This “boiling over” refers to the process in which a concoction of sweet rice is prepared, along with a string of other cultural dishes, in the form of offerings for communal prayer and worship.  The ceremonious consumption of the pongal dish represents a spiritual and symbolic connection between the devotee and the agricultural lands which bore crop and God. 

This veneration of the harvest is a practice that is deeply ingrained in South Indian culture, dating back to the Sangam Period in 200BC-300AD.  Agricultural production was among the primary catalysts of the transformation of South Indian society in ancient times. The construction of complex agricultural agroecosystems—irrigation facilities, viable cropping cultivation, soil fertility measures etc—ensured greater access to essential resources, allowing hunter gatherer societies to enjoy agrarian expansion. This progressively brought immense civilisational development to the region as it meant that a reliable food supply was both available and accessible. Agriculture and harvest held great cultural significance for this very reason, it was perceived to be the very lifeblood and essence of civilisation. Udhaya Nandini, of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, writes that “(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 had left an immense cultural impression on South Indian society, so much so that many sacred customs revolved around the veneration and honouring of the harvest in a way that saw agricultural efforts being spoken of in more spiritual and religious terms.

Ancient Tamil texts, such as the collection of poems penned by poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar in the post-Sangam period, emphasised the wisdom in expressing gratitude for the cultivation of crop.  TM Srinivasan in his seminal thesis “Agricultural Practices as Gleaned from the Tamil Literature of the Sangam Age” writes that “to Thiruvalluvar, the yoke and the plough were the emblems of freedom, honour and virtue.” The poetic attribution of spiritual significance to the many aspects of agriculture signified that a life that was lived virtuously was one which showed gratitude to the very soil treaded on. The equating of agricultural elements with abstract philosophical concepts also demonstrates the extent to which the harvest meant more than just having food on the table, it meant also that one had pursued virtue. The Tamil saints of this era would also come to craft entire hymns, sung in temples in praise of soil, crop and land.  It is by understanding this history that the importance of the Pongal festival may be better understood. The Pongal festival continues to hold such importance as its commemoration serves as an avenue by which one lives out the spiritual endeavour towards moral purification. The preparation of the pongal dish is itself a form of religious reverence, as it is believed that when it is made, its contents transform into nourishment for the divine and it is through the gratitude shown for the harvest that this relationship with the divine is deepened. I wish those celebrating a very happy Pongal festival. – January 15, 2024.

* Pravin Periasamy reads The Malaysian Insight.

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