It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to celebrate two new years in a row, but last month I found myself in a small village outside of Chennai, India, during Pongal. An ancient harvest festival in Tamil Nadu, Pongal exalts the sun god for making the land fertile, and honors cattle, especially oxen, for their part in serving man. Traditionally the holiday marked the beginning of Thai, the tenth month of the Tamil year that ushers in spring. But in 2008 the Tamil Nadu government proclaimed Pongal not just a harvest festival but also the New Year.
To celebrate the holiday our village hosts had swept the dirt in front of their house clean of debris and decorated it with beautiful kolams, elaborate designs drawn in brightly colored rice flour. A tripod fashioned of eight-foot lengths of freshly cut sugar cane—symbolizing a sweet new year—contributed to the festive air, as did geometrically folded palm leaves dangling down from a clothesline. The extended family was grateful for our presence and the opportunity to bestow hospitality. Dressed in their finest saris and dhotis, they ushered my friend and me into their midst, eager to share their new year’s bounty.
I hadn’t celebrated a double new year or experienced such spontaneous inclusiveness since spending time in Russia, where I had always loved the oxymoronic sound of staryi novyi god—Old New Year. Even after the Soviet government finally switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1918, the Russians kept celebrating the new year on the Julian calendar, thirteen days later. The Old New Year always felt more momentous than the State-decreed January 1. It was a time of festivity, of excess and exuberance, when my presence as a foreigner was considered auspicious. During the food-poor Soviet era, preparations for the Old New Year were as significant as the holiday itself, with days spent in elaborate scheming to obtain food for the holiday feast.
Food preparation lay at the heart of the Pongal celebrations, too. Freshly harvested rice forms the centerpiece of the holiday’s ritual dish, also called pongal, which means to spill over. The rice is allowed to boil over in its pot—an actualization of an overflowing of thanksgiving. The preparation of this dish is all-important. Early in the morning a wood fire is laid outside on the ground. A new earthenware pot, itself decorated with bright designs and wrapped with the long leaves and root of fresh turmeric, is filled partway with milk and set on the fire to boil. While the milk heats, newly harvested rice is left to soak, then the soaking water is added to the pot. After about ten minutes comes the moment everyone has been waiting for, when the liquid comes to a boil and overflows, symbolizing abundance. Everyone begins to clap, and greetings of “Happy Pongal!” ring out. The rice is quickly stirred in, along with mung dal, golden raisins, fresh cashews, cardamom, ginger, coconut, jaggery, salt, ghee, and sunflower oil. The result is glorious—golden, sticky, and sweet.
No sooner had I scraped the last delectable grains of rice from my bowl than the family hustled us to the village temple, where a pongal competition was underway. A long line of women fanned the flames of their fires, each hoping to have her rice pot boil over first. A guru making offerings at a small shrine marked our foreheads with ashes and blessed us as two elders wrapped colorful new shawls around our shoulders. I felt honored to be included in this ancient celebration, among people whose giving of thanks is heartfelt and ecstatic.
Alas, I won’t be back in India next January; nor do I expect to celebrate the Old New Year in Russia. Still, I want to mark these holidays that go back hundreds, even thousands, of years. With rice for thanks and abundance, Russian cakes for sweetness, and my own black-eyed peas for good luck. With each celebration, we express our hope for a better new year.
Cultivated chicory at the open air market in Presicce. photograph by adam federman © 2010