British Tamils celebrate Pongal, their traditional harvest festival

Rupanjana Dutta Wednesday 09th January 2019 06:10 EST
A pongal meal offered to the family deity

The Asian community in the UK is now an integral part of the decision making policies. Among Indian communities, Gujaratis and Punjabis have engaged in a reciprocal political behaviour, especially at the Parliamentary level. The Tamil Indian community and Sri Lankan Tamils are a recent migrant community in the UK. They are politically salient in UK's Labour party especially at the local level, but have also been able to change the way the Tory party has looked at them as voters. They were even successful in persuading the then Prime Minister David Cameron to participate in the 2013 Commonwealth Heads meeting at Sri Lanka.

In fact the current Prime Minister Theresa May in her first ever message for Pongal celebration in 2018 said, “As Thai Pongal begins, Tamil families here in the UK and around the world are coming together to celebrate. It’s a time to cast out the old and embrace opportunities to come. A time to give thanks not just for the harvest, but also for friends, family and neighbours.

“And it’s also a great opportunity for all of us to reflect on the contribution made by Britain’s Tamils. Your community punches well above its weight, making a real difference to countless lives right across the country.
“I want this to be a country where everyone, regardless of their background, can play their part and achieve their ambitions. Our Tamil community is a fantastic example of what that looks like, helping make Britain the diverse, successful country we are all so proud of.

“So to everyone celebrating today and in the days to come, let me wish you all a happy Thai Pongal, and an auspicious year ahead.”

Traditionally when different communities arrive in a new country for the first time, they set up organisations for cultural propagation. It is evidentially the first step of integration by establishing separate cultural identities. The Tamils as a diaspora have also done the same in the UK- and very successfully have set up influential organisations, that work in different areas- from international politics to art and culture to business.

Mathew Godwin, an author with special interest in ethnic and migration studies wrote about the diaspora as a force in foreign affairs. In his article published by the London School of Economics, Godwin said, “Engaging diaspora organisations constructively can enhance the UK’s role as a peacemaker in conflicts abroad and encourage the inclusion of diverse communities in British public life – making politics more reflective of the country’s growing diversity.”

Though both branch of the community viz. Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils are politically active, there is a vast difference in how they express themselves or identify with the term 'diaspora'. The Sri Lankan Tamils have mostly migrated to the UK as refugees, after prolonged civil war. Indian Tamils have migrated to the UK as highly-skilled workers such as doctors, engineers or for higher education. Aston university in a research said that though cultural similarities connect these two historic Tamil homelands, such as through films and religion, but due to different political situations at home, their ethnic assertion in the UK have been extremely different.

However when it comes to an event as festive as Pongal, both come forward to welcome the four day celebrations in the UK with equal pomp and gaiety.

Origin and practice

The origins of the Pongal festival may date to more than 1000 years ago as evidence suggests the celebration of the Puthiyeedu during the medieval Chola empire days. Puthiyeedu is believed to represent the first harvest of the year. Tamil people refer to Pongal as "Tamizhar Thirunaal," the festival of Tamizhs.

The day preceding Pongal is called Bhogi. On this day people discard old belongings and celebrate new possessions. The main event, also known as Thai Pongal, takes place on the second of the four days. This day coincides with Makara Sankranti, a winter harvest festival celebrated throughout India.

In the Tamil language the word Pongal means 'overflowing,' signifying abundance and prosperity. During the festival, milk is cooked in a vessel. When it starts to bubble and overflows out of the vessel, freshly harvested rice grains are added to the pot.

Maatu Pongal is celebrated on the third day. Tamils regard cattle as sources of wealth for providing dairy products, fertilizer, and labour for plowing and transportation. On Maatu Pongal, cattle are recognised and afforded affectionately. Features of the day include games such as the Jallikkattu and taming bull. Kaanum Pongal, the fourth day of the festival, marks the end of Pongal festivities for the year. The word 'kaanum' in this context means "to visit." Many families hold reunions on this day.

Honouring Thiruvalluvar statue

Celebrating the contributions of the great Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar, on Thiruvalluvar day, as well as to celebrate Pongal, FeTAUK (Federation of Tamil Associations in UK) will be gathering outside SOAS on 18th January 2019, 3:30-4:30pm.

Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar's well-loved statue has been part of SOAS for the last 23 years. Thiruvalluvar also known as Valluvar is best known for authoring Tirukkural, a collection of couplets on ethics, political and economical matters, and love. The text is considered as one of the finest works of the Tamil literature.

The statue was unveiled by His Excellency Dr L M. Singhvi, High Commissioner for India to UK on 13th May 1996. In the Presence of Sir Robert Wade-Gery, Chairman, Governing Body, Mr Michael McWilliam, Director, School of Oriental and African Studies. The sitting statue of the poet was presented to the university by the then government of Tamil Nadu.

This will be followed by an elaborate celebration at India House, the High Commission of India, which will be joined by Her Excellency Mrs Ruchi Ghanashyam, the current High Commissioner of India to UK. A registration only event will be open to only Indian passport or Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card holders.

Newham, a home for London's Tamil community as a borough, celebrates Pongal in a grand scale. They have even had their first street party to observe the formal festivities in 2017. The London Tamil Sangam in Newham, one of the oldest ethnic community organisations, which is also funded by the borough, also celebrates Pongal every year with cultural programmes.

Today’s UK households celebrating Pongal

S Kavya is a software professional at a large firm in the UK. She lives in the UK suburb with children and husband, who is of German-origin. Born in Rameshwaram, Kavya every year celebrates Pongal traditionally at her residence, with simple food, especially 'sweet pongal'.
“My husband is not Indian or Tamil. But he is very keen to celebrate the festivities with the children. It is important that the children also learn about my culture,” said Kavya. “They are British, German, as well as Indian-Tamil. My daughter who is now 10, is learning how to dance Bharatnatyam. My son who is 5, loves to eat 'sakkara pongal' (sweet pongal- a dish made of rice, milk and sugar). We start the day with usual chores, but it is a day of traditional Tamil food, and my family loves it.”

Ashanti Omkar, presenter of the South Indian and Sri Lankan show at the BBC Asian Network told Asian Voice, “It is a day of traditional clothes and celebration. Like every year I will go to watch this year's Tamil releases (Petta and Viswasam) as well as celebrate the music on my show.

“I also make Pongal at home with coconut milk. And the key is boiling water over the pan- to denote abundance.”

Vinaya Ganesan, a lawyer by profession is originally from Vellore. Married to a Tamil from Maharashtra, she said, We always celebrate Pongal at home. I cook sweet pongal in morning or after work. The pongal is cooked in a traditional pot that is decorated with sandalwood paste and kumkum (vermillion). A turmeric pod with leaves is tied around the pot.”

Nandni Nagarajan is a mumpreneur, whose interest lies in importing coconut products from their farms in South India. She is now busy with her 8 month-old son and told Asian Voice, “This year Pongal will be a bit more special because Ram's grandparents are here. Back in India we'll probably go to our farm to celebrate - because Pongal itself is about celebrating the current years harvest & praying for a better bounty for the coming year. In the UK, we'll do a small puja and celebrate with a good breakfast/lunch that includes Sakkara (sweet) pongal, vada, payasam.”

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