The month of Panguni heralds the hottest time of the year in the northern peninsula so the main focus of these four auspicious Mondays is to placate the Amman by offering her cooling foods such as arisi kanji (rice congee) or paal kanji (milk congee), pongal and various sweetmeats. Several women congregate at the Kannaki Amman Kovil at Kalaiyodai at dawn to start cooking pongal in front of the kovil, in direct line with the deity.
The Tamil word pongal means ‘boiling over’ or ‘overflowing’ and thus augurs prosperity and fecundity to those who perform this ritual.
Pongal is also the name of the sweetened rice dish that is ritually cooked and consumed during Panguni Thingal. Besides rice and coconut milk, the ingredients in pongal include, mung dhal, jaggery, cardamoms, cloves, raisins and cashew nuts.
The first three spoonfuls of red rice are ceremonially ladled into the boiling water by the husband.
The wife does the hard work of constantly stirring the pot over the open fire.
Once the rice is almost cooked, a mound of katkundu (rock sugar) is added.
It is blended into the rice with vigorous swirls of the coconut-shelled spoon.
Then, chunks of jaggery usually made from either coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) or palmyrah palm (Borassus flabellifer) flower sap or sugar cane is added.
The jaggery is stirred into the steaming rice until it melts.
Pongal was previously cooked in large, clay pots but most women have now shifted to using aluminum pots though they continue to serve it out onto fresh banana leaves. Part of the pongal is offered to Kannaki Amman and the rest is taken home and shared with the family and neighbours.
Panguni Thingal is celebrated on a grand scale at the renowned Panrithalachchi Kannaki Amman Kovil in Mattuvil (for a myth about how this kovil got its name, see our photo essay Kovils and Devales).
The kovil premises is abuzz with groups of women grating, sifting, chopping, stirring, steaming and frying while catching up with each other’s news.
A popular sweetmeat that is made in the kovil premises during Panguni Thingal is Modhaham. Modhaham is God Ganesh’s (also known as Pillaiyar and Vinayakar) favourite food and many images of him show him clutching this delicacy in one of his palms. This sweetmeat is also made in western and southern India primarily to celebrate God Ganesh’s birth and rebirth – Vinayagar Chathurthi (festival of Ganesh) – in August/September. The ingredients that are used and the shapes that are made differ slightly from those in Sri Lanka as you will see here: http://www.sharmispassions.com/2010/09/mothagam-pooranam-kozhukattai-for.html
First, the irai or filling for the modhaham is made. Green gram or mung is boiled, coconut is grated and the jaggery (sakkarai) is chopped.
It is the jaggery that gives the irai its distinctive, rich colouring.
Equal portions of rice and wheat flour are mixed with water and made into balls of dough. Shallow cups are then shaped out of the dough balls.
Now, it is time to place the filling in the dough cups.
Each cup is packed to the brim with the irai.
Then, the dough cup is gently folded in on itself.
It is shaped into the distinctive madulam or pomegranate fruit (Punica granatum) design we encountered at Panama (see Horn Play photo essay) as well. They are then steamed or fried and ready for eating!
Some savoury snacks are also cooked and consumed on this day. The crispy ulundu vadai straight off the frying pan were particularly delicious. These doughnut-shaped delicacies are made with a batter of ulundu (de-husked black lentil) flour mixed with sautéed onions, green chillies and curry leaves. The steam that builds up within the vadai is supposed to expel excess oil out of the vadai thus leaving it crispy but not too oily.
Many vendors set up temporary stalls to entice the taste buds of devotees.
This wise woman improvises with an umbrella.
Peanuts and popcorn are popular with kids and adults alike.
The Panrithalachchi Kannaki Amman Kovil is an agamic (following Sanskritic strictures on temple architecture and the performance of rituals) shrine that only has Brahmin priests (aiyar) officiating within the kovil so we were not allowed to take any photographs inside the kovil. Fortunately, once the noon pooja (ritual) ended, the Kannaki Amman statue in the Vasantha Mandapam (the shrine where all the statues that can be taken outside the kovil are displayed) was conveyed in a procession that circumambulated the kovil.
Kannaki Amman’s vahanam or vehicle is the lion. It is a vahanam she shares with many other goddesses such as Durga, Kali and Mariamman. All males have to remove their shirts to enter this kovil and this practice is adhered to when following the procession around the kovil as well. Men remove their shirts to show respect to the deity. Some believe that all stitched clothing is polluting and thus leave their upper torsos uncovered and only wear a vesti –an unstitched cloth that is wrapped around the waist and covers the lower portion of the torso.
The procession is led by two nadaswaram players. The nadaswaram is a member of the mangalam vadyam (auspicious instrument) family and is played during various Hindu rituals, in Sri Lanka and South India. It is made out of hardwood and has a double reed and a large flaring, metallic bell at the end. It is usually played in pairs and is believed to be the world’s loudest, non-brass, wind instrument.
The nadaswaram was accompanied by the thavil, a barrel-shaped drum that is hollowed out of jak (Artocarpus heterophyllus) wood and covered with goat skin. The larger drum face is rapped with the wrist and fingers while the smaller drum face is beaten with a short, thick stick made out of pooarasu (Thespesia populnea) wood. The players usually wear finger caps made of hardened glue from either rice or wheat flour.
The nadaswaram and thavil are essential components of most processions and rituals to Kannaki Amman as well as other deities in Sri Lanka.
As the procession slowly wends its way around the kovil, many women offer karpuram chatty – flaming camphor in clay pots placed on a bed of vembu (Azadirachta indica) leaves.
Some of the women who follow the procession perform bhajanai (chanting religious verses) to Kannaki Amman, to the accompaniment of a pair of clash cymbals (thalam). The leader of the group recites a stanza that is then repeated by the others.
This man was a particularly devout devotee. After applying ash from the flaming charcoal braziers, all over his body, he rolled on the floor, somersaulted before the deity and beat himself with a curved steel rod all the while loudly hollering the exaltation, aro hara (Oh God Almighty).
During the final Thingal in Panguni, devotees perform even greater penances generically referred to as thukku kavadi see for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pteF2_PZuw and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhH3pXBuh3I Thukku means ‘to hang’ and there are many variations of hanging – from a wooden scaffold erected on a tractor – that is practiced today. Two such forms are shown in these YouTube videos (suspended vertically with one or two hooks attached to the back – thulla or thukku and spread-eagled horizontally like a bird or paravei). This form of devotion will be discussed further in the Vattrappalai and Amman to All! photo essays.