Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Belated Pongal

Hi everyone!

You may remember that in my last post, I said that Pongal fell on January 15 this year. That is true, and unfortunately, I was not able to celebrate the festival on its actual date. Still, fortunately for me, I was able to attend a Pongal festival near Gopeng, as there was a celebration organized for that day. It was even planned to be the largest Pongal festival in the history of the festival of Malaysia (though it unfortunately fell short of the record due to many absences). This festival is meant to celebrate the harvest and thank God for giving people the ability to grow an abundant amount of crops.

Flag of Perak!

I arrived at the festival in the morning and waited for the activities and others to arrive. The area was quite empty early in the day, but as the day went on, both devotees and many AFS students came to the place for the festival. The area was a huge lot with a few shrines, a temple, and a few halls for speeches and meals. The temple was very colorful and pretty, and the designs on the temple walls and ceiling were very meaningful and beautiful. The temple even had an entrance to a cave, where there were shrines and statues for people to pray at and admire! Moreover, the temple area was right next to a Chinese Buddhist temple and pagoda. I could tell we were in a very religious area! As these two places of worship were in Gopeng, a city known for its mountains, caves, and related tourist sites, there was an immense limestone hill right behind the temples.

The gate to the temple area

The main hall of the temple

The gopuram of the temple, along with a statue of Surya, the sun god in Hindu mythology

Small unripe bananas!

The beautiful pagoda next to the Hindu temple

The outside of the temple and the limestone hill right behind it; the temple had a cave leading into the limestone hill.

In the temple, there was a huge cage containing several peacocks within it. There were also a few monkeys surrounding the cage, and it was cool to see the peacocks show off and ruffle their colorfully designed feathers while the monkeys ran all over the temple area and interacted with some of the devotees in the temple.

During the festival of pongal, many games and competitions are held as a form of enjoyment and celebration. One of these fun-spirited competitions was a contest in which teams of five tried to make vivid designs using different colors of rice and chalk. These designs are called kolams and are typically used to decorate the entrances to different buildings and areas, including temples, houses, and stores. Kolams can be drawn either in only white or with multiple colors. The captivating part of kolam drawing and painting is that creators of the kolam have no sources of reference while they are making the design. Rather, all of the design's shape, color, and texture comes from the participant's creativity and past knowledge of and experience with kolams. The competition, as you may guess, turned out to be an amazingly vibrant one in which many exchange students participated.

Beautiful kolams drawn in the kolam drawing contest

After the kolam drawing came a game in which teams of five attempt to break a pot hanging from a certain height over the participants' heads. Teams of five men face off against each other while teams of five women face off against each other. In the game, a player from one team goes first by holding a wooden stick above his head and trying to find the pot that contains water and that is hanging a few feet away by poking at it with the stick. Of course, the intense part of the game comes from the fact that the players are blindfolded while they are attempting to find and break the pot. This game is very similar to the game of hitting the pinata but is more difficult because the player is very far away from the pot. The participant has to gauge his or her distance from the pot and the direction he or she must take based on the noise from the audience and his or her own sense of location and direction. Each player is given three chances to strike the pot and break it, but if he or she takes longer than 45 seconds to a minute to break the pot, his or her chance is over. The game can go very well, as players can many times find their way to the pot very easily and break it with ease like in this case:

However, the game is not always easy. Players are spun around several times before they are allowed to start searching for the pot and can easily lose their orientation or balance during the spinning. It can be quite frustrating and difficult when a player loses his or her sense of direction and cannot reach the pot in the time allotted, such as in this case:

After all the games came the religious part of the festival: making pongal, which also refers to a type of sweet Indian rice with some beans and raisins in it (the official name of the festival is "Thai Pongal"). During the festival, many devotees do not use stoves or modern appliances to boil the milk and rice that becomes the pongal. Instead, they use a makeshift stand on which they place the pot of milk and rice and boil the two by using firewood and matches. In order to try to boil the pongal in the way that these devotees would, all of the exchange students gathered the necessary materials and attempted to make some delicious pongal. Although the smoke from the fires got in my eyes and nose and caused a lot of pain, I was able to get through the stinging discomfort and finish my pot of pongal. Although my parents often participate in cooking pongal at home, I have never experienced making pongal myself, and this experience was definitely a very fun and interactive way to celebrate Thai Pongal.

The rows of bricks to be used later on in the day to make pongal

There were a lot of people making pongal!

The makeshift stand and the fire burning from the firewood

The milk boiling

Me mixing the pongal while it was burning (the sunglasses were meant to protect my eyes from the smoke!)

The festivities were very grand and definitely enhanced my understanding of Thai Pongal. I've always been aware of and participated indirectly in the festival, but getting to actually make the pongal and watch the traditional games that go along with the festival was extremely fun and valuable. Additionally, it was good to meet up with my friends again and introduce them to an important Hindu festival. I am very happy that I was able to see the Malaysian version of this festival, as it differs in certain ways from the versions of people from other countries. Furthermore, seeing so many devotees present in the area despite the fact that the actual date of Thai Pongal was a month ago was truly very inspiring. Overall, I truly learned so much about Malaysian Thai Pongal and had an enjoyable experience celebrating the festival with all the people at the celebration!

The AFS group along with some important individuals, including the Malaysian Minister of Tourism!

Jumpa lagi!


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