Ping Pongal
carrying the Pongal pot

Ping Pongal

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I remember a few years ago I was driving down a main highway (at home in the US) the week after Thanksgiving and it seemed that every other car had a pine tree strapped to the roof.  Of course if you’re accustomed to the American holiday season this annual pilgrimage to find the perfect Christmas tree is quite normal.  But I wondered what it would look like to foreigners who didn’t know what was going on.  They’d certainly think we’d gone mad.

 I got a little of that medicine the other day here in Madurai in the heartland of Tamil Nadu.  It is Pongal here, the state’s big harvest festival.  To celebrate, the decor that is de rigueur is sugar cane.  Therefore every corner in the city has a heap of cane for sale.  Leaves and bits of purplish stalks litter the road.  Nearly every doorway has a leafy arch over it and crisscrossed canes adorn nearly every vehicle, making the small yellow rickshaws look like weird (but adorable) war chargers.  Just arriving this week you’d think the whole populace survived on nothing but the sweet stalk; starchy white jetsam flies from bus windows and collects in the gutters.

 The dish du jour is called Pongal Rice or just Pongal for short.  It’s sweet rice cooked slowly in sugar and the traditional preparation which I saw today is quite a show in itself with stalks of turmeric tied around the pot which is allowed to bubble over.  It’s quite tasty — and this is coming from someone who will always choose chocolate cake over anything vaguely pudding-esque.  “Pudding-esque”?  Is that the proper way to say that?  And eating it with your hands might add to the taste.  Not that anyone here will give you a choice in the matter.

 Yesterday I basically had free run of the city as it was a weekend holiday and things were a bit slower — which is to say that there wasn’t a ton of traffic.  I took a long cycle-rickshaw ride around the city as it’s an easy yet efficient way to see what’s going on (and shoot pictures) as the scenery seems to zoom by in an auto.  The streets were filled with garland-makers (truth be told, India’s streets are always filled with garland makers; flower necklaces must be a billion-dollar industry here) turning out strands of orange, fuchsia and yellow.  I browsed through a big rice retail place (all rice, all the time); I’m trying to imagine a storefront at home that sold nothing but dozens of different kinds of rice — the most expensive appeared to be Rs29 (a bit more than $.65) which is special for biryani dishes while the cheaper stock (Rs8-9) is used for rice flour (the mill is around the block).  On the other side of town I saw guys weaving long silk strands into a 6m sari on the street in front of a giant temple tank (or man-made lake).  Today the cows were painted in celebration making the country’s most popular beast look like it had been made over by Dr. Seuss; a rainbow of spots on the body and red and green horns with fresh, bright blooms on the head. 

 No matter where you go in Madurai you pass temples and shrines and even the bus driver will stop for a fraction-of-a-second meditation when he passes one.  The city bills itself as “Temple City” and for good reason but apparently the government decided last year that having a temple on every corner wasn’t the best use of space and knocked down a bunch.  Still, there’s no ignoring the sheer number of shrines and, of course, the riotous color and architecture of Sri Meenakshi.  The locals are pushing for it to become the 8th Wonder of the World.  It’s got the credentials but I’m not sure who exactly receives that petition: the UN, National Geographic, Santa?  Still, it’s probably got a more realistic chance than Oprah winning the Nobel Peace Prize (will they just give the darn thing to Bono already?!?!).  And some Madurai-folk have by-passed the pesky step of waiting for the “Wonder of the World” certificate to come through and freely tell you that Meenakshi is already on the list.  It is one of those world landmarks that is hard to comprehend because of its size and scope.  Suffice it to say that it took a lot of work to make it and kudos to Madurai for keeping it in good repair (although it is in the middle of the city and part of the complex has become a hive of 300 tailor shops).  It feels like a great injustice to only spend a few hours trying to see something where every few feet represents years of work.

 Perhaps it’s unfair to other locales to form an opinion of a city when it’s festival time there but Madurai has been great.  Tune in next time to see the less tranquil side of cow-based celebration, Tamil style …