Jan 152018
 

Today is the second day of the Tamil Pongal festival, a harvest festival dedicated to the Sun. It is a four-day festival which is usually celebrated from the 14th to 17th of January. Today is known as Thai Pongal, one of the most important festivals celebrated by Tamil people in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry, and the country of Sri Lanka, as well as Tamils worldwide, including those in Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa, United States, Singapore, Canada, Myanmar, and the UK. Thai Pongal corresponds to Makara Sankranthi, the harvest festival celebrated throughout India. The day marks the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards (the Uttaraayanam). This also corresponds to the Indic solstice when the sun purportedly enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Makara or Capricorn.

Thai Pongal is mainly celebrated to convey appreciation to the Sun God for a successful harvest. Part of the celebration is the boiling of the first rice of the season consecrated to the Sun – the Surya Maangalyam. Many other special events take place in Chennai and the rest of Tamil Nadu during Pongal, such as Chennai Book Fair and Lit for Life. From 1916 to 1952, annual cricket matches between Indians and Europeans called Madras Presidency Matches were held during Pongal.

The Thai Pongal festival may date to more than 1000 years ago. Epigraphic evidence suggests there was a festival called Puthiyeedu during the Medieval Chola empire, which is believed to have been a celebration of the first harvest of the year. “Thai” refers to the name of the tenth month in the Tamil calendar, Thai (தை). “Pongal” generally means festivity or celebration, but literally means “boiling over” or “overflow.” Pongal is also the name of a sweetened dish of rice boiled with lentils that is eaten on this day as well as presented as an offering. Symbolically the dish supposedly signifies the gradual heating of the earth as the Sun travels northward toward the equinox.

The day preceding Thai Pongal is called Bhogi. On this day people discard old belongings and celebrate new possessions. The disposal of worn-out items is similar to the traditions of Holika in North India. The people assemble at dawn in Tamil Nadu to light a bonfire in order to burn the discards. Houses are cleaned, painted and decorated to give a festive look. The horns of oxen and buffaloes are painted in villages. In Tamil Nadu farmers keep medicinal herbs (neem, avram, sankranti) in the northeast corner of each of their fields, to protect crops from diseases and pests.

The main event, Thai Pongal, takes place on the second of the four days of Pongal. During the festival, milk is cooked in a vessel. When it starts to bubble and overflows out of the vessel, freshly harvested rice grains are added to the pot. At the same time other participants blow a conch called the sanggu and shout “Pongalo Pongal!” They also recite “Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum” (“the commencement of Thai paves the way for new opportunities”). This is repeated frequently during the Pongal festival. The Pongal dish is then served to everyone in the house along with savories and sweets such as vadai, murukku, paayasam.

Tamils decorate their homes with banana and mango leaves and embellish the floor with decorative patterns drawn using rice flour and kolams/rangolis are drawn on doorsteps. Family elders present gifts to the young. The Sun represents “Pratyaksha Brahman” — the manifest God, who symbolizes the one, non-dual, self-effulgent, glorious divinity blessing one and all tirelessly. The Sun is the one who transcends time and also the one who rotates the proverbial wheel of time.

There are many kinds of Pongal but the two commonest at the Thai Pongal festival are Chakkara (or Sakkarai) Pongal and Venn Pongal, with Chakkara Pongal predominating. Chakkara Pongal (literally, sweet pongal) is generally prepared in temples as a prasadam, (an offering made to a deity). Ingredients include rice, coconut, and mung beans. It is traditionally sweetened with jaggery, which gives the Pongal a brown color, though it can be sweetened with white sugar instead. Here’s a video:

Sep 222016
 

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Today is the September equinox this year (2016). The September equinox (or Southward equinox) is the moment when the Sun appears to cross the celestial equator, heading southward (it’s the earth that is moving – not the sun !!). Due to differences between the calendar year and the tropical year, the September equinox can occur at any time from the 21st to the 24th day of September, so this day counts as a movable feast (sort of). At the equinox, the Sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west. As the Southward equinox approaches, the Sun rises and sets less and less to the north, and afterwards, it rises and sets more and more to the south. Technically the equinox is the precise moment when the sun crosses the celestial equator, but for practical purposes we call the day when this occurs the equinox. It is the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere and the vernal equinox in the southern.

In the northern hemisphere the autumnal equinox is nowhere near as big of a deal as the vernal equinox is. The northern vernal equinox is associated with Passover, Easter, Spring and all of that. The autumnal equinox is loosely associated with harvest festivals in northern Europe, especially Britain, but these are tied more to the full moon in September (the Harvest Moon) than to the equinox per se. The equinox is merely a convenient way of dating the moon as being in September, and has no other significance.

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Like most British calendar customs, we know about harvest festivals mostly from the 19th century when they were on their last legs. A play by Thomas Nashe, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, (first published in London in 1600 but believed from internal evidence to have been first performed in October 1592 in Croydon) contains a scene which demonstrates features of a harvest festival that were known down to the 19th century. There is a character personifying harvest who comes on stage attended by men dressed as reapers. He refers to himself as their “master” and ends the scene by begging the audience for a “largesse”. The scene is probably inspired by contemporary harvest celebrations, with singing and drinking prominent. The stage instruction reads:

“Enter Haruest with a sythe on his neck, & all his reapers with siccles, and a great black bowle with a posset in it borne before him: they come in singing.”

Harvest celebrations in the 19th century followed pretty much the same course through rural England. Often the last load brought in from the fields was just a token load and the cart was decorated with ribbons and such, with all the reapers on board. They rode into town and then celebrated with a fair amount of beer. The traditional English song John Barleycorn is a common harvest song, here sung by Steeleye Span:

There are hundreds of versions. I know the song well, partly because my essay on its variants and an analysis of its history was what got me into a Ph.D. program in anthropology. The song is a simple allegory about the growing of barley is if it were a man who is buried (sown), resurrected (sprouts), killed (harvested), and then drowned (brewed into beer). I conjectured back when I was a young folklore student, and still believe, that the story was once a Medieval riddle that was made into a broadside ballad and then passed into oral tradition as a song.

The Southward equinox was New Year’s Day in the French Republican Calendar, which was in use from 1793 to 1805. The French First Republic was proclaimed and the French monarchy was abolished on September 21, 1792, making the following day (the equinox day that year) the first day of the Republican Era in France. The start of every year was to be determined by astronomical calculations following the real Sun and not the mean Sun as in the Gregorian Calendar. So if you are inclined towards old French Republicanism – Happy New Year.

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This is Keats’s season:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

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So you need to be thinking of grapes, apples, pumpkins, honey and so forth. You know the drill. I’ve just baked an apple crumble for starters. The crumble reminds me a little of shortbread which was a favorite in my family for many years. It was one of the few things my wife knew how to cook. It came to the Appalachians via the so-called Scotch-Irish (Irish Protestants) and she called it Scotch bread. To me it’s a good memory of autumns past. Here’s Mrs Beeton for a good, old-fashioned recipe that still works fine:

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SCOTCH SHORTBREAD.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—2 lbs. of flour, 1 lb. of butter, 1/4 lb. of pounded loaf sugar, 1/2 oz. of caraway seeds, 1 oz. of sweet almonds, a few strips of candied orange-peel.

Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream, gradually dredge in the flour, and add the sugar, caraway seeds, and sweet almonds, which should be blanched and cut into small pieces. Work the paste until it is quite smooth, and divide it into six pieces. Put each cake on a separate piece of paper, roll the paste out square to the thickness of about an inch, and pinch it upon all sides. Prick it well, and ornament with one or two strips of candied orange-peel. Put the cakes into a good oven, and bake them from 25 to 30 minutes.

Time.—25 to 30 minutes.

Average cost, for this quantity, 2s.

Sufficient to make 6 cakes.

Seasonable at any time.

Note.—Where the flavour of the caraway seeds is disliked, omit them, and add rather a larger proportion of candied peel.

You can divide the recipe by 4 and make one large shortbread or follow the proportions in general. You can also omit the peel, caraway, and almonds. Plain is just fine.