Ponggal in Penang

 |Jan 18, 2017
Eight year old M. Sakti squats by the stove stirring the milk in her clay pot watched by her family members at their home in Bukit Gedung, Bayan Baru, Penang.
Eight year old M. Sakti squats by the stove stirring the milk in her clay pot watched by her family members at their home in Bukit Gedung, Bayan Baru, Penang.

Every year in mid-January, Hindus celebrate a three-day festival of thanksgiving, Ponggal also known as Makara Sankranti.

This is the most important popular Hindu festivals of the year to give thanks to the Hindu sun god, Surya, for a bountiful harvest.

The name Ponggal is derived from the Tamil word pongu, meaning “flourish” or “boil over”.

This is also the advent of the Tamil month Thai that begins on Ponggal day which is traditionally a favourable month for weddings.

Hindus all over Penang decorate their homes with colourful kolams made out of rice paste.

They will don new clothes for this special occasion as an air of festivity fills the home during Ponggal.

In Little India, George Town, business owners cook rice in earthen pots outdoors at the shop fronts as a symbol of prosperity.

In Penang, many traditionalists still practise the old way of using natural fire from firewood to cook the rice outdoors.

S. Muniswary lighting the lanterns before ponggal at her home in Bukit Gedung, Bayan Baru, Penang.
S. Muniswary lighting the lanterns before ponggal at her home in Bukit Gedung, Bayan Baru, Penang.

A tri-sugarcane structure is erected over the little brick stove, where the ponggal panaai (earthen pots) is placed over it.

A turmeric plant is tied around the earthen pot in which the rice will be boiled.

The pot is filled with fresh cow’s milk, newly harvested rice grains, ginger and turmeric stalks.

Prayers are offered as the devotees fan the fire to boil the rice.

The devotees anxiously tend the fire under the earthen pots while stirring the milk. As the rice mixture boils furiously, brown sugar or jaggery is added.

The sweet mixture is topped with raisins, cashew nuts and ghee.

The moment shouts of “ponggolo ponggal” are heard, there will be loud cheers from the others.

This signifies that their milk pot has boiled and spill over the pot, signifying overflowing fortunes and prosperity for the year ahead for the family.

Visitors will greet each other with “paal pongutha?”

This means, “Has the milk boiled over in your house?”

Tamil Hindu devotees gather to celebrate Ponggal festival at Sri Vishwanather Sri Visalatchi Koyil, Bayan Lepas, Penang.
Tamil Hindu devotees gather to celebrate Ponggal festival at Sri Vishwanather Sri Visalatchi Koyil, Bayan Lepas, Penang.

The second day of of Ponggal is ‘Maaddu Ponggal’ (cow ponggal).

The last day harvest festival is called ‘Kanni Ponggal’ (maiden ponggal).

This event is a platform for unmarried girls to take part to find a good match as “Kanni” means maiden in Tamil.

The Hindu community’s desire to celebrate and uphold their traditions, customs and values is what makes Ponggal festival a calender event.

It even attracts even tourists to join in the colourful festivities in Little India, George Town.

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Doris Lim is a Malaysia Outlook contributor with a keen eye for details developed form her background in architecture and design. Her affable personality and passion to celebrate life is captured in her stories of the community. Doris’ love for all things beautiful and quirky is tempered by her love for writing, photography, food, art and travel.