Thursday, 15 January 2015

Pongal Festival in Little India (My 1st Bumbling Encounter)


My body is more agreeable with me lately. So I decided to attend some Singapore ethnic festivals. In this case Indian Pongal Festival. This was my first experience.

Pongal Festival greeting
Pongal greeting in Tamil (I presume), and English (just an educated guess)

Don't feel bad if you have never heard of this festival before. I had never heard of it until I was 9 years old (I'm neither a Singaporean nor Indian. Not the past, or now or the future. But my past or next reincarnation was or will be is another matter). It's not a "high profiled" Indian festival like Deepavali or Thaipusam.

Little Indian Arcade, Singapore
Little Indian Arcade. Since this is Singapore, the cows are paper cutouts. Or is it?
Since this is Singapore, maybe the cows are waiting for the traffic lights to turn green before crossing.
Why do cows want to cross the road? No eye, dear...

The festival takes place conveniently on the streets on both sides (Campbell Lane and Hasting Road) of the Little Indian Arcade. The tourists who have been to Little India would know that this champagne coloured buildings is the one stop shop for Indian souvenir shopping. So tourists who visit  the arcade would probably won't miss this festival.

The Pongal Festival takes place over a few days. I was there on the 3rd day.

A stage was set up (in Hastings Road) on the day to educate the kids from various schools on the meaning of the festival (and some school activities). This is just the level of elementary education I needed, so I sat in with the school kids to get educated. Free public education, yay !

Pongal Festival, Singapore
Performers and students
It's not all (home)work, and no fun. Students were up on the stage to wobble some traditional Indian dances.

Pongal Festival, Singapore
Teachers dancing on the stage

What students wouldn't enjoy watching their authority figures wiggling on the stage? While the teachers let down their hairs, the students held up their phone cameras and tablets to record the Kodak (sorry iPad and Samsung) moments. May come in handy later when they get a F-.

Artist in Pongal Festival, Singapore
Ladies, have a photo with this handsome horseman.

What I learnt from the presenter was that in Pongal Festival, we give thanks to the sun, the rain, and the cows. This explains their presence in the mini farm.

Painted cows, Pongal Festival, Singapore
The painted cows

The cows were painted (and dropped off some nice methane-rich stuff), I believe, in the 1st day of the festival (the paint, not the natural fertiliser. That happens all the time).

The Pongal is basically a Hindu Thanksgiving . A thousand apologies for comparing everything with the Yanks' culture (and I'm not even a Yank in any sense of the word. I can't rule out any past or future reincarnations. I control only my own wheels, not the Karmic Wheel). As the festival is a celebration of rice harvest, it's not surprise that it can't consider complete without some type of rice cooking.

The sweet rice being cooked was in fact the pièce de résistance. After all, the word "Pongal" refers to both the name of the festival as well as the name of this sweet rice dish. The root word for Pongal means "boil or spill over". I guess this signifies abundance. ("Don't pick up those spillovers on the floor, we have plenty!"). The sweetness always has its positive association of a happy, contended life.

Stirring the pongal pot to keep it from burning. The pot in inside a pyramid structure formed by 3 sticks of sugar cane

ingredient and seasoning for the pongal
Ingredient and seasoning for the pongal dishes
(milk, and more milk,
sugar, ginger, rice?,
cashews, raisins, seeds)

Pongal
The pongal is literally boiling over, spilling from its rim

I waited in anticipation in trying out this namesake dish of this festival, watching the organiser setting it up, stirring the pot. My saliva spilling over.

I read from the brochure that this rice would be handed out to visitors at 6 pm. I saw her giving the pongal out to some people (I later found out they were the festival helpers). Most people weren't expected to receive it. Me, on the other hand, have been waiting all afternoon. I looked at the watch. It's 6:45 pm ("this is Singapore", my impatient one said).

So I decided to take a proactive approach; I asked the organiser if I can have a taste of it (I felt like Oliver Twist). I'm quite sure this is the 1st time in the history of this festival organised in Singapore when somebody so keenly asks to receive some pongal. Think of a church congregation member who couldn't wait to have a taste of the wine and the unleavened bread during a Communion Rite. Well, I haven't attended an eucharist yet. Just you wait, I'm coming to a church near you! By the way, what do they use in the eucharist? Merlot? Cab Sauv?

Why the rush? Am I a diabetic desperate for a quick sugar fix? Nah. The place may not be packed with crowd, but there were no less than 80 people (I did a head count while waiting). And now look at the size of the pongal pot above, it wouldn't be enough to go around. And I know I can't order this from a restaurant, and I don't want to have sleepless nights until next Pongal festival, so I asked.

Of course, the organiser was more than delighted when I asked for it. I just wanted a taste of it, but since I asked, she gave me a whole dish.

Pongal or sweet rice during the Pongal festival
My much anticipated lion share of Pongal

Most visitors only received a pinch of pongal from her, I had to eat it at a quiet and dark corner from public eyes. Using the Catholic analogy, this would be like given a whole bottle of red and a whole unleavened bread to eat.

So would all this waiting worth it? Well, sweet-tooths would probably find it delightful. There's a strong hint of ginger, which I liked. It reminds me of some Chinese sweet rice dish. When I finished, she asked if I wanted second. Uhmm...I hesitated. Nah...One Oliver Twist is quite enough.

Satisfied, having tasted the namesake rice, I thanked her and left Hastings Road. As I passed Campbell Lane (aka Festival Village during the Festival), I saw people lining up for some food.

Look at the size of that pot. I don't know what they were queuing up for. I was too afraid to ask. It didn't look like pongal; it looked more like curry. Oh, they were also given a stick of sugar cane (一碌蔗). Sweet !


People lining up for a bowl of curry and a stick of cane.

Sugar cane, no thanks. I'm sweetened out. Actually, I had a glass of sugar cane juice  in Tekka Centre across the road before my pongal rice. Any more sugar, I'll be blind.

This is an interesting example where food is being used in religio-cultural activity to convey the rich symbolic meaning and spiritual connections by both the East (Pongal) and West (Communion Rite).

The pongal dish is a perfectly integral symbol for this festival points to the wisdom of the ancient Indian.

Pongal pots decoration in Pongal Festival, Singapore
Pongal pots decoration in the Festival Village

Clay pots to cook rice in Pongal Festival, Singapore
Clay pongal pots in a stall in the Festival Village (Campbell Ln).
The designs on the pots are called kolem (take note, kids and Israelite, it's kolem, not Golem)

Would I go there next year? Try to stop me. But I may have to put on some disguise. Chances are, I won't be recognised. Finger crossed. I won't ask for Pongal again.

Actually, I'll be going there on the 18th to look at the water splashing event. Should be fun. If you're there too, you probably recognise me from my hand in the above photo. Don't hesitate to say hello! (To me or to my hand, it's up to you).

Pongalo Pongal!



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