Pongal celebration draws 250 to Memorial Union

Monday, January 21, 2008 | 8:11 p.m. CST; updated 8:20 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 9, 2008

COLUMBIA — A celebration of a regional Indian harvest festival drew about 250 people to Memorial Union on Sunday night.

Celebrated by descendents of the Tamil Nadu state in southern India, the solar-based harvest festival, called Pongal, is usually held on Jan. 14 in accordance with the lunar calendar.

But the Columbia Tamil community has chosen for the past 13 years to align its celebration with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The change was made to accommodate its members and to honor the message of non-violent protest, called ahimsa in Hindi, inspired by Mahatma Ghandi, said MU professor Nandhu Radhakrishnan.

About 30 Columbia-area Tamil families and volunteers hosted the celebration of Pongal with a program that featured traditional Hindu dances and songs, a dinner and a food drive to benefit the Columbia Food Bank.

“Basically, it’s a harvest festival similar to our Thanksgiving,” said Kalai Kumar, a volunteer Tamil instructor at the Shanthi Mandir Hindu Temple and Community Center who participated in the celebration.

Traditionally, the festival marks a time for those who benefited the most from the harvest to share with the community, particularly farm workers and those less fortunate, said Anantha Gopalaratnam, a volunteer at the temple. “Since it is a harvest festival, it is a time of sharing. We thought it made sense to donate food,” she said.

While the program was not formally sponsored by the temple, Radhakrishnan, entertainment coordinator for the event, said that the food drive is part of a yearlong effort by the temple to donate to the Columbia Food Bank.

The rural nature of the festival’s traditional rituals make it difficult to practice Pongal in Columbia the way it is practiced in India.

During Pongal, which means “boiling over” in Tamil, a traditional dish of rice, lentil and milk is prepared and allowed to boil over to symbolize the plentiful nature of the year’s crop.

“In an urban setting, we obviously don’t follow it to the letter, so we use it as a time to celebrate and get together and as an opportunity to pass on our traditions to our children,” Gopalaratnam said.

The four-day festival of Pongal corresponds with the larger Indian festival of Makar Sankranti, which celebrates the coming of the Indian spring marked by the onset of the sun’s annual trek from alignment with the Tropic of Capricorn back to the northern hemisphere, Gopalaratnam said.

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