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"Pongal" also refers to the traditional dish served during the festival - learn how to make it at the Indian Heritage Centre. Photo: Indian Heritage Centre

Celebrating Pongal In Singapore: An Intro To The Tamil Harvest Festival

Little India comes alive in January with the celebration of Pongal, as the streets are adorned with colourful decorations, the aroma of delicious traditional foods fills the air, and the community comes together to celebrate the harvest season and pray for a prosperous year ahead.

But what is this Tamil festival and why is it celebrated? Here's a brief intro:

What is Pongal?

Pongal is a Tamil harvest and thanksgiving festival, and is traditionally observed over four days. The festival is celebrated as a way of giving thanks to the Sun God Surya and to the farm animals for a bountiful harvest. This year, Pongal falls on 14 January.

What does “Pongal” mean?

"Pongal" in Tamil means "to boil over or spill over". It refers to the signature dish served at the festival in tribute to Lord Surya. Pongal is made with rice boiled with milk and brown sugar in new clay pots until it overflows. When the pot of rice froths and boils over, you will hear cheers of “Pongalo Pongal!” (hail Pongal!) to signify wishes for overflowing prosperity and good fortune for the new year.

There are two kinds of cooked pongal: the sweet Sakkarai Pongal and savoury Venn Pongal. The savoury kind is usually made for breakfast.

What significance do cattle hold in Pongal?

Cattle are honoured during Pongal for their hard work at the farm, doing their part in contributing to a good harvest. That’s why you see many road names in Little India related to cows: Buffalo Road, Kerbau Road ("kerbau" is Malay for buffalo), and Belilios Lane (named after a well-known cattle trader).

What happens on each day of Pongal?

Day 1, Bhogi Pongal: Out with the old, in with the new. Families tidy up the home, discard unwanted belongings, and wear new clothes as a symbol of new beginnings. Prayers are offered to Lord Indra, who is associated with the sky, lightning, thunder, and rains.

Day 2, Surya Pongal: The pongal dish is made (Pongalo Pongal!) in dedication to Lord Surya. Families will also decorate the entrance of their homes with colourful decorative floor patterns called kolam or rangoli.

Day 3, Mattu Pongal: Cattle are the VIP on this day. They are decorated with paint, flowers and bells. They are also allowed to roam free, fed with sweet rice and sugar cane - not really a common sight in our city-state, but don't be surprised to find one in Little India.

Day 4, Kaanum Pongal: The final day is when people visit relatives and friends. Families gather for a sumptuous meal, and younger members seek the blessings of their elders.

While Pongal started out as a farmers' festival, it has become a festival for all Tamils today.

Celebrate Pongal with the Indian Heritage Centre

Curious about Pongal and want to celebrate it irl? The Indian Heritage Centre (IHC) is hosting an open house, themed “Farm-tastic” with plenty of Pongal-related programmes this coming 14 and 15 January.

Rediscover this colourful district by following the “Little India Heritage Trail – Pongal Edition”, and learn about the early days of the precinct that used to bustle with bullock carts and cattle.

For a more hands-on activity, join the Kranji Farm Tour and learn how to make jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) and weave thoranam (hanging decorations), then witness the iconic pongal act of milk boiling over in a claypot. Or learn how to make your own pongal the traditional way at the Pongal Cooking Workshop.

If you want to try pongal, IHC will be serving the dish FOC at 12pm on 14 and 15 January.

Other Pongal-themed programmes happening at IHC include storytelling sessions for the kids, live pottery demonstrations, and street performances. You can also find local mural artist Yip Yew Chong's farm art on display at IHC.

Register for any of the Farm-tastic Pongal programmes here.

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