Categories: Culture, Festival, Heritage
by Manjeet Dhillon
Categories: Culture, Festival, Heritage




Pongal (பொங்கல்)

The air crackles with anticipation as January dawns in Malaysia. For the Tamil and Chetti Malacca communities, it’s not just the start of a new year, it’s the arrival of Pongal (either January 14th or 15th). The term “Pongal” originates from Tamil literature, signifying “to boil.” Additionally, it refers to a rice-based dish prepared during this festival – rice boiled in milk and sweetened with raw sugar (jaggery).

Pongal is also observed as Makar Sankranti in various regions of India, marking one of the most significant festivals in the Hindu calendar. This celebration commemorates the sun’s transition into the northern hemisphere, a highly auspicious period.

In Punjab, it’s known as Lohri, a festival of bonfires and sweets. In Gujarat and Maharashtra, kites paint the sky.

This four-day festival is celebrated by giving thanks to the sun and echoes tales of gratitude renewal and community.

Day One: Bhogi Pongal

This day entails cleaning homes, donning new attire, and embellishing houses. An offering of rice boiled with milk is presented to the Rain God.

A day of spring cleaning for the soul, homes are swept clean and new clothes worn. And what better way to celebrate than with a delicious pot of rice boiling with milk, an offering to the Rain God for a bountiful harvest.

Traditionally, the Chetti Malacca community, descendants of Indian traders from Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast, engages in the “Naik Bukit” ceremony on the weekend before Bhogi Pongal. During this ritual, community members visit the graves of their ancestors to pay homage. The ceremony involves offering prayers, cleaning the graves, and lighting joss sticks and incense (kemenyan). Additionally, traditional dishes, cakes, fruits, and drinks are presented as food offerings. This tradition shares similarities with customs observed in Chinese communities during events such as All Souls Day (Cheng Beng / QingMing).

Additionally, during Bhogi Pongal, the Chetti Malacca community conducts Parchu prayers. These prayers involve presenting food offerings to their ancestors, symbolising gratitude for the inheritance of properties, land, or farms left by them.

The feast for this occasion includes a nasi lemak accompanied by 21 side dishes such as kuih kanda kasturi, sambal belacan, long beans, cucumber with coconut sambal, herring roe with starfruit sambal, cucumber with chili and vinegar, spiced cabbage, and fried mutton.

As part of the prayer offerings for ancestors, a selection of items is arranged, typically comprising five or seven leaves, along with candles, black coffee, cigarettes, tea, pineapples, sweets, and betel leaves. These offerings are presented in prayer to the ancestors, and following the ritual, the ancestors are symbolically invited to participate in the offering. To determine when the ancestors have concluded their symbolic meal, a coin is flipped before the family sits down to enjoy the food together.

Day Two: Surya Pongal

The central celebration, Surya Pongal, venerates the Sun God. Colourful floor patterns, known as kolam, adorn entrances, and each household prepares a pot of fresh rice with milk. Following the offering to the Sun God, families indulge in special dishes.

As the milk boils over the pot (an auspicious sign of abundance and prosperity), family members joyfully exclaim, “Pongalo Pongal!” Following the offering of Pongal to the Sun God, they indulge in a feast featuring various specially prepared Pongal dishes for the day.

Day Three: Maatu Pongal

Dedicated to honouring cattle (maalu) for their role in ploughing, this day involves bathing cows, adorning them with colourful decorations, and offering prayers.

Day Four: Kaanum Pongal

Community bonding takes precedence on this day. Families come together for a shared meal, and traditional Indian folk dances, such as mayilattam (peacock dance) and kolattam (stick dance),  take center stage. Younger members seek blessings from their elders.

During Pongal, you can witness various symbolic elements that evoke the essence of this festival:

  • Pulli Kolam
    A type of kolam most commonly drawn during Pongal, at the entrance of one’s home. Dot’s of rice flour are placed in a grid-like framework, which are then joined to form symmetrical patterns. These patterns may look simple but are actually made with geometric precision.
  • Pongal Pots
    These clay pots have their necks tied with fresh turmeric leaves or tender green leaves of ginger, to symbolise prosperity.
  • Pongal Dish
    Made specially during this festival, there are two types that are usually made – sweet and savoury. Sakkarai pongal is a sweet Pongal generally prepared in temples as offerings, while Venn Pongal is a savoury dish served for breakfast.
  • Sugarcane
    Pongal decoration is incomplete without sticks of sugarcane which signify prosperity and wellbeing. Across cultures, in the Hokkien community, sugarcane is also symbolic for “Phai Thien Kong” which literally means “praying the Heaven God”, the 9th day of the first month of Lunar calendar.

In addition to Pongal, Malaysia celebrates several other thanksgiving festivals. These include the harvest festival, Gawai, observed by rice-farming communities in Sarawak, and Tadau Kaamatan in Sabah. The Chinese communities also celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, commonly known as the mooncake festival.