India is a land of festivals, with at least one a month, plus an auspicious occasion every other week. Despite regional culture differences and rapid lifestyle changes, festivals are times when the ancient traditions of India come to life. This year, I visited Hindu friends at Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, during their celebration of a harvest festival similar to American Thanksgiving.
Every state has its own way of celebrating this event, commonly known as Pongal or Sankranti. It goes on for 3 or 4 days, most prominently in southern India where the harvest comes in at this time. The mid-winter Hindu celebration also coincides with a kite-flying festival in much of the country.
Though the family I visited with is modern in their dress and standard of living, it was fascinating to see them transform during this time into wearing traditional clothes for the festival. They decorated their house with mango leaf and marigold flower garlands. The aroma of sandalwood incense was everywhere. Plus, the front porch of the house sported a variety of brightly-colored designs.
This was my first experience seeing the festival celebrated in a traditional way. I didn't witness the actual harvest. Yet, the singing and dancing around a bonfire combined with a bullock cart race made the celebration quite grand.
Everyone got up early in the morning to bathe and greet the sunrise with water and flowers. These gifts were offered to the rising sun along with chants and prayers for the blessing to live a dynamic, inspired and righteous life.
Each day, there was a unique design in the front yard to match the different themes of the festival. In fact, such designs or rangoli muggu are drawn on the porch every day for a month before the celebration.
On the first morning, they draw a pot overflowing with rice, flowers, sugarcane and seasonal fruit, which they offer to the rain god. Also, rice and milk are cooked into porridge as an offering to be accompanied with other delicacies. For lunch, a mixed veggie curry is traditional.
The second morning includes worshipping the goddess Lakshmi who blesses finances. This time the design is in the form of a table as an invitation for dieties to be enthroned on it and then come into the house. Some believe if the designs are drawn improperly, this may annoy the gods. The main meal for that day, rice and legumes called pulses cooked together with ghee and milk, is offered to the family deity after ritual worship.
On the third morning, devotion is offered to ancestors with requests for their blessing. Incense and food are placed before their photos. The roots of the trees of their lives are considered to remain intact. If nourished well, they will continue to bloom and flourish in the midst of the family today.
In villages, even animals such as cows and bullocks are bathed and adored as a thanksgiving for the hard work they have done. Chariots drawn with bright colors signify divine chariots to carry their weary, worthy spirits to their destiny. This third day is also one of compassion and charity. No one is supposed to go empty handed with alms from rice to clothes being distributed.
During the Pongal festival, neighbours exchange special recipe dishes and varieties of sweets. They get together in the evenings to fly kites. As I watched the kites soar upward and cover the sky, I reflected on how good it is to see people joining together in harmony and reverence. May their tribe increase.
Evelyn Hills is a spicy Indian girl who loves to sing or dance and play guitar or piano. Unlike the famous British Spice Girls, she's not a ho and speaks comprehendible English. She's the author of the book Ivana and the Secret Lake Adventures: Magic vs. Love.